Imagination in Language Teaching and Learning

Andrew Lian
Professor of Languages and Second Language Education
Head of the School of Languages and International Education

University of Canberra, ACT 2601


This paper is offered as a way of generating discussion around an issue which is not often addressed in Applied Linguistics or language pedagogy circles, that of imagination and its value to the language-teaching and learning enterprise. The paper is also offered as a means of providing insights into the kinds of intellectual projects which are currently underway at the University of Canberra.

The topic of imagination in language-teaching and learning could easily become the focus of a book so all that will be able to be achieved in this very short paper is to begin a conversation on the question of imagination and sketch out possible directions which might be fruitfully followed.

The Problem
It is an integral part of the human condition that we live in a world of constraints. These constraints are necessary in order to enable us to understand others and the world around us and in order to enable others to understand us.

Examples from the field of language are obvious. We cannot produce series of random sounds when speaking: no one would understand us. Nor, for the same reason, are we free to produce random strings of morphemes and lexemes.

These sorts of constraints enable us to categorise or otherwise organise all the stimuli which surround us, thus enabling us, at a personal level, to make sense of the world.

Developing this a little more, constraints establish the limits of acceptable behaviour. They tell us what is good and what is bad. They tell us what matters in life and what does not by virtue of excluding what does not matter from the class of things that do matter. Essentially, they set the boundaries of our expectations in the various contexts in which we operate and empower us to make sense of the world and, therefore, to think and function. Constraints are activated automatically as we go about our daily lives. They operate beyond our conscious control and we do not even notice them. This is both good and bad. It is good because this enables us to function quickly and efficiently, but it is bad because it limits our understandings to the ways in which the constraints allow us to see the world. As an important consequence, imagination, which can be described as a form of thought which steps beyond the limits established by the constraints, can suffer significantly. Another way of looking at the problem is to say that the automatically-operating constraints can prevent us, also in an automatic and invisible way, from looking "outside the square we live in". Or, again, the constraints which are so critical to our ability to function disable laterality of thought because, in fact, they also imprison us.

Importantly, the vast majority of constraints are not generated by us but are imposed on us by the society in which we live and function. It is society which dictates the forms of acceptable language, society which tells us what is good or bad, what is acceptable or not acceptable. In short, it is society which tells us what matters and what does not. This is because the constraints I am referring to find their roots in the social practices of groups of people. Breaking away from those constraints, which is what imagination is all about, is hugely problematic in a world where conformity is valued and rewarded both functionally and institutionally. For instance, how do you argue that the world is round when everyone else believes it is flat or, more problematically, how are you even able to THINK that the world might NOT be flat? This is especially difficult if the evidence of the day clearly indicates that the world is flat and almost everyone supports this and will punish those who do not believe this. Importantly, this last statement introduces a political dimension to our problem, a political dimension which is of critical importance to the ability to be imaginative and propagate new or different ideas.

A paradox therefore exists. Constraints, which are generated by a society, empower us to function within that society and to be imaginative and creative by virtue of the power they give us to make and manage meanings. At the same time, these very same, extremely positive, constraints which also happen to enable imagination also disempower us by creating limits to the meanings we can generate and therefore limits to the extent to which we can be imaginative and creative or the extent to which we are allowed to be imaginative and creative.

To summarise even further, constraints both enable and disable imagination. This is an integral part of being a social being and no one is immune from it.

So, given the inevitable limitations just described how does the world change, how does progress occur and how does a discipline renew itself? In our case, how can we move forward the field of language pedagogy?

Perhaps we can begin working toward a solution by valuing the act of thinking "outside the square", by rewarding or, at least, not punishing those who think "outside the square" and by using the constraints to which we are all inevitably subjected to go beyond those constraints. And yet the act of valuing, which is an act of judgment, and therefore a political act, is still limited by the ruling constraints and will not allow the existence of ideas which are somehow beyond the currently acceptable limits of thinking "outside the square". In other words, constraints enable us to be imaginative, but not too much!

Are there any solutions?
Perhaps we can start to sketch out a solution by accepting the validity of the above arguments and realizing that we, as individuals and as a society, are neither free to think in totally creative ways nor free to think in ways which fully recognise the value of the imagination and creativity of others (mysteriously, we always seem to recognise our own!). I would suggest that we can strive for a solution, at least in part, by creating intellectual structures and activities which encourage the breaking of constraints. These are the kinds of structures and activities which, though inevitably limited, we have tried to develop in the University of Canberra's School of Languages and International Education. The rest of this paper will attempt to describe briefly some of these structures and activities.

An intellectual atmosphere to enable imaginative theoretical frameworks
Because, as academic faculty, we are acutely aware of the nature of the problem, and because there are no simple solutions, we have tried to attack the problem of imagination at a relatively generic level through the postgraduate courses that we teach. Many of our subjects, rather than producing discourses which teach "facts" or pass on information and otherwise make people feel comfortable, are designed to develop the critical faculties of students. These subjects are research-based in the real sense that those who teach them bring to light and to discussion their own constant and persistent attempts to "break out of the square" and also to analyse the current trends in our discipline. These subjects are constructed around the notion of critical thinking and bring into the field concepts drawn from critical theory and socio-cultural theory. I am thinking here in particular of the works of Bourdieu, Derrida and Lyotard. These subjects, two of which are titled Critical Thinking in Language Pedagogy A and Critical Thinking in Language Pedagogy B, are designed to empower students to evaluate the field critically not just in a technical sense but in an intellectual sense, in relation to such concepts as scientific theory and power relationships. This has resulted in some interesting critiques of the current epistemology of Applied Linguistics. You may think that this is an obvious activity for universities but it is not. The fact is that there is always great resistance to anything which challenges the established and apparently respected rules of the majority.

If one persists, however, then ultimately, and importantly, an intellectual atmosphere is produced where well-argued and well-thought out discourses on language-teaching can be generated, even though we know that, from time to time, the constraints which inevitably limit us to some extent, may oblige us to discard potentially good ideas. It is hoped, however, that it is this positive intellectual atmosphere that people will carry with them during their professional and personal lives and that they will continue to nurture it for the rest of their lives. It should also be pointed out that while these subjects are resolutely "intellectual" in content and approach they are also highly practical, often resulting in the development of interesting learning and teaching systems.

We believe that the success of our approach can be gauged by the fact that in the three and a half years since the introduction of our new subjects, the number of doctoral students in the school has grown from 0 in 1998 to 14 in 2001. That number is certain to grow in 2002.

In my own work, the existence of a positive intellectual atmosphere and the need to contribute to that atmosphere has resulted in an attempt to re-define language-learning systems from first principles rather than relying on what I perceive as insufficient models based on the current pre-dominant linguistics-based paradigm for teaching and learning languages and for language-teacher education (details in Lian, 2000).

Now that the general intellectual scene is set, let me run through a few examples of imagination at work in language-teaching and learning which we have developed over the years.

The principles which motivate language course development are based on what I have called the meaning-making approach. This is in opposition to approaches based on the linguistics paradigm and can be summarised as follows (quoted from Lian, 2000):

  1. The Linguistics-based approach seeks to provide an object for people to study. It seeks ultimate truth and asserts that such truth is attainable. It focuses strongly on strings of words and grammar to the detriment of other forms of symbolic signification. Individual meaning-making takes a back seat and the teacher/expert is, essentially, an information-giver.
  2. The meaning-making approach does not postulate the existence of any object outside the heads of human beings. It is based on the notion that students incorporate, through interaction with communicative phenomena, their conscious and unconscious understandings of these phenomena into their own personal systems of logic rather than having logical systems imposed upon them. They develop an understanding of how to manipulate communicative activities to achieve their personal stakes. The teacher must relinquish control.
Implications from these two different approaches are summarised in the table below.
Linguistic Paradigm
Meaning-Generation Paradigm
Content-centred (content arbitrary) Practices-centred
Normative/prescriptive Needs-based
Meanings found Meanings constantly (re-)generated
Static (because synchronic) Dynamic
Object-centred Learner-centred

(taken from Lian, 2000)

Further, any language-learning system must enable the development of each individual's Meaning-Making Mechanisms (the 3Ms) by enabling learners to confront, contrast and contest (the 3Cs) their personal understandings, beliefs and personal logics against what they are observing. To achieve this, learners will rely on the processes of awareness, autonomy and achievement (the 3As). For those who like such formulations, we can think of the process just described as developing the 3Ms by enabling the 3Cs thanks to the 3As (based on Lian, 2000). A detailed description and explanation of the principles involved may be found in 'From First Principles: Constructing Language-Learning and Teaching Environments' (Lian 2000).

In the language-learning system described, you will have noticed the importance given to the learner as an individual, the impossibility of knowing, let alone controlling, all factors affecting learning, and the importance of language-learning and meaning-making as phenomena internal to the learner rather than external.

Imagination in teaching and learning frameworks
In 1982 and 1983, my colleague Christine Mestre and I introduced the concept of Macrosimulation at the University of Queensland in Australia. A Macrosimulation is a long-term simulation where roles are selected by participants and kept by them for the duration of the simulation. This could take up to 3 months (at 1 or 2 hours per week). Learners interact with one another in collectively-constructed social settings with links to the so-called "real world" of the language being learnt. The important feature of this program is that it is a self-regulating communicative environment which enables participants to establish their own levels of performance while learning to "mean" in another language by developing amongst other things, a sense of their own personal histories within the simulation together with personal communicative stakes. In other words, the environment created is not unlike that which exists in real life, with genuine personal stakes involved, and is very different from the standard notion of a simulation or role play where people are told to pretend they are in a coffee shop.

The system included phases of critical reflection on performance during the simulation and the development of specialised workshops to meet the needs of students as these emerged during the macrosimulation (Lian & Mestre, 1985)

Systems such as these are potentially interesting as they attempt to cater, in as automatic a way as possible, for the needs of all learners, all of whom carry different backgrounds, different internal systems of logic, different symbolic representation and different needs and ambitions (to mention only a few unpredicted and unpredictable features of each human being).

A more recent system developed in 2001 at the University of Canberra consisted of getting prospective teachers of English to produce a radio broadcast for a local community radio station. Given that most students were international students from Asian countries, the activity provided

    1. An opportunity for personal language-learning and confrontation with language-learning difficulties in a long-term context where each learner had a personal stake in the success of the enterprise. Not only did students speak in English for the radio broadcast but they also communicated intensively with each other in English as English was the only language which they all shared.
    2. An opportunity to engage in a highly creative or imaginative activity which drew on each individual's personal resources thus empowering them to contribute in ways which gave illocutionary force to their utterances, both in the preparation phase and in the program delivery. Thus imagination works in a positive way not only from the course designer's perspective but equally from the learner's perspective, whether that learner be a student of language, a student of language-teaching methodology or both.
    3. An opportunity for the prospective teachers to develop an understanding of the difficulties involved in implementing a learning structure which in many ways was self-regulating and where the ambitions of all learners needed to be met. These difficulties were solved in part through the development of help systems and, in particular, prototype computer-enhanced language-learning support systems able to be used for self-managed language-learning. Such a system will now be described.

Imagination in technology-based support systems
The final example which I offer is related in part to the needs identified in the radio broadcast and, in part, to work previously carried out by Andrew Lian and Ania Lian (e.g. Lian & Lian, 1997).

As our students struggled with the tasks associated with the radio broadcast they became aware that they needed not only support but individualised support, especially in the identification and analysis of relevant authentic texts together with self-analysis systems.

It was therefore decided to develop a model for a database-driven system where large numbers of authentic audiovisual texts consisting of such things as news broadcasts, game shows, comedy shows, current affairs advertisements, were made available on-line on computer servers. Linguistic and other relevant items (e.g. gestural information) would then be stored in a database management system which could be accessed both across the Internet and on local computers. A number of systems would be developed to support learning, including listening comprehension development systems, corrective phonetics systems making use of optimal digital filtering for both individual sounds and intonation patterns, dialogue generation systems, dialogue practice systems, visual pitch displays and other awareness and self-awareness systems (many of these systems are described or referenced in Lian & Lian 1997 or Lian 2000).

While this modular approach is relatively powerful in terms of the range of support structures that it offers, its strength is magnified significantly in that all programs are linked back to a central database which, in turn, enables learners to generate appropriate personal meanings from linguistic and other structures by examining these structures in various communicative contexts. Furthermore, the design of the system enables learners to generate for themselves appropriate pedagogic or lesson materials. In this way, learners not only obtain relevant information but are also able to produce tailor-made lessons able which can respond to their perceived needs.

The brief example which follows will serve to illustrate and provide an understanding of the ways in which the system can be used.

Imagine that learners wish to discover how to greet someone. They interrogate the database which points to several examples of greetings. By clicking on appropriate links, they are able to view and hear each greeting and to examine how it functions in context. This is achieved in part through raw observation and in part through the provision by the materials designer of helpful information which is available on-demand. Because of the structure of the database, the learners are then able to contrast quickly and effectively the various examples of greetings in action.

Intrigued by the video that they have been watching, the learners then decide to investigate in more detail the text in which the greeting was found. However, the text is difficult to understand. The learners then request a listening comprehension lesson or listening comprehension support for that particular video segment. A link is created from the database to the collection of available listening comprehension materials and learners are guided through the material in ways which enable them to improve their comprehension skills. On completion of the listening comprehension module, they then decide that they wish to practise uttering the greeting in a specific context. They are directed to a linked dialogue practice system which enables them to practise the dialogue and develop some self-awareness in terms of their ability to produce native-like language in context (including the rhythms of conversational interaction).

Finally, noticing that they are experiencing difficulties with declarative intonation patterns the learners request the database system to offer them examples of declarative intonations in various contexts. They are provided with a number of examples of declarative patterns taken from authentic audiovisual texts from which they select those which they perceive to be most useful for their needs. The patterns are then fed into a set of exercise templates which are presented to them for intensive practice in awareness-raising followed by intensive practice in pronunciation. In these exercises, special support is provided through digital filtering of sentences, or synthesized audio intonation contours. Appropriate pitch display and pitch annotation systems complete the support structure. Further imaginative work will be required to develop fully the feedback mechanisms required.

And so it goes on. Learners may have totally different starting points and ambitions but the very open yet connected nature of the computer system enables multiple entry points and multiple exit points. In the fully-developed system, database links will be available to the level of at least each word in all program modules. To my knowledge a system like the one just described does not yet exist anywhere but will be developed in our university in 2002 first as a proof of concept model but ultimately as a fully functional system with nodes distributed across the world.

A schematic representation of the computer-based system may be found below. Please note the existence of the phrase "imagination needed" at various points. Please note too that many of the components of this system have been described in a number of earlier published papers (particularly Lian & Lian 1997 and Lian 2000) but that the system described above significantly improves the functionality of the previous systems by virtue of the connectivity provided by the database management program at the heart of the system.

(from Lian & Lian 1997)

This paper has attempted to demonstrate the value of imagination in the development of language-learning systems. It has done so by examining some potential impacts of imagination on theoretical views and models as well as on teacher education courses, language-teaching and learning frameworks and individualised computer-based support systems.


Lian, A. B. and Lian, A-P., 1997, 'The Secret of the Shao-Lin Monk: Contribution to an intellectual framework for language-learning, in On-CALL, vol. 11, no. 2, May 1997 pp. 2-18, available at

Lian, A-P., 2000, 'From First Principles: Constructing Language-Learning and Teaching Environments' in Selected Papers from the Ninth International Symposium on English Teaching, Taipei, Crane Publishing Co., Ltd., November 2000, pp. 49-62, available in a slightly modified version at

Lian, A-P. and Mestre, M-C., 1985, 'Goal-directed Communicative Interaction and Macrosimulation', in Revue de Phonétique Appliquée, 73-74-75, 1985, pp. 185-210, available at