Ideologies of Language and the Beginning Language Class: Part 1

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Photo by Celia Ortega on Unsplash

Last week, I talked about how the language of social relationships is often overlooked in beginning language classes, and I think this is one reason students use English.   As language teachers, I think we tend to view beginning language classes as the start of a language learning journey, or a step to more advanced classes or study abroad (despite the fact that it’s actually also the end for many students, especially with the way language requirements and offerings are being eliminated these days in the U.S.).  Yet choices about what is taught in beginning language classes are also excellent insights into ideologies of language, that again we rarely think about as teachers.  Here are some examples:

1) Vocabulary sets: colors, numbers, days of the week, etc.  In my experience, this is more popular in elementary and secondary setting than in higher ed, but you never know.  This fits in well with folklinguistic theories where vocabulary is seen as a discrete building block for learning further language.  The issue with this approach, for me, is that we rarely use things in sets.  It’s true that I could tell you what I do every day of the week (although this requires more than just the days of the week), but normally I’d talk about meeting on a particular day, or the cost or color of a particular object, that probably doesn’t require all the numbers or colors to describe.  Yet if you expand to describing multiple things, then you need more vocabulary beyond these sets, so they become insufficient.  

2) A grammar sequence: noun-adjective agreement, present tense, past tense, etc.  This approach basically sequences the curriculum according to grammatical elements, usually with the sense of starting with basic ones and increasing the complexity.  This also matches folklinguistic theories, where learned vocabulary is slotted into the grammar focus, and students are expected to be able to use the grammar in spontaneous activities, such as speaking, after understanding it conceptually.  The issue with this approach is that this expectation is based on an ideology of language that isn’t supported by any actual research on language learning—being able to describe grammar is the field of linguistics, not using language.  Certainly people can do both, but this is not a sequential process.  

3) Transactions abroad: this approach includes things like the dialogue in the airport, at the hotel, at the store, at the museum, etc., basically imagining students as tourists in a country where the target language is spoken.  If the focus is on the function, this corresponds well to functional theories of linguistics, although I do find that many times these dialogues are just broken down into vocabulary and grammar in a way that corresponds more to formal or folklinguistic theories of linguistics.  What bothers me about this approach is that it completely ignores the realities of Global English and tourism—a touristic space that doesn’t cater to English speakers is probably not going to last that long! Sure, it might be nice to order coffee in Arabic, but it’s rarely necessary.  This isn’t to say that I don’t think knowing the local language is useful when you’re traveling (it is!) but I think it is useful for establishing closer relationships, not for basic tourist transactions, so why focus on this? A second issue is that it assumes students will only use the language abroad, which ignores all the potential opportunities for interacting with speakers of that language within the borders of the United States.  It also assumes that students have the financial means and life flexibility to travel abroad, which may also not be the case.  

4) Communicative activities: this is classic communicative teaching, where students complete tasks that require them to share information and negotiate meaning, such as planning what they will need on a deserted island, or figuring out what items to take to a birthday party, or telling a story, or any other such activity.  This fits well with formal theories of language, in the sense that acquisition is seen as something that happens after processing a lot of language in context.  Oftentimes, linguistic elements are broken out to lead up to this task as well, such as learning particular vocabulary items or grammatical elements.  This could also fit with functional theories, depending on the task.  The issue I have with this approach is that while these activities are usually fun and engaging, the classroom is still the primary context—where will students plan for a deserted island trip outside of the classroom? They might plan a birthday party or tell a story, but there will need to be some sort of context leading up to this task, like making friends to throw a birthday party for, or getting into a situation where they want to tell a story to other people.  So while these tasks are certainly more contextualized than something like filling in the blanks on a verb conjugation worksheet, there is still a larger context missing, unless the classroom itself is seen as a complete context.  

5) Can-Do Statements: Can-Do statements are popular in the U.S. these days, and you can find examples from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages here (this approach has also existed in Europe for years).  Can-do statements tend to focus on a particular social function, which connects them to functional theories of language.  Focusing on a particular social function also tends to give a broader context than some of the communicative activities referenced above.  At the same time, these connections may not necessarily be clear—a Can-Do statement like “I can describe my family” assumes that you are in some sort of situation where you need to describe your family, and when is this, exactly? Can-Do statements can also run the risk of limiting themselves to transactions abroad, if only ones like “I can order food in a restaurant” are chosen for the curriculum.  In terms of the ones supplied by ACTFL, which I draw on for my own language classes, I again feel as though there is a focus on transactions and learning or sharing information, but little on developing the social relationships in which you would engage in these activities.  I suppose it’s partly true that you develop the relationships through the activities, but I feel that a lot of the social language tied up in pragmatics and sociolinguistics isn’t captured in this particular set of Can-Do Statements.  To a large degree, this may be because of the strong influence of formal linguistics on the fields of second language acquisition and language teaching in the United States, which as I mentioned in my post on this topic, ignores this type of language in its focus on acquisition.  This influence is seen in Can-Do statements that such as “I can deliver presentations on some concrete academic, social and professional topics of interest, using paragraphs across major time frames”, a sort of thinly veiled reference to different verb tenses.  

Now that I’ve critiqued several common ways of setting up beginning language classes, you might wonder what I do that is so much better . . . The short answer is that I’m currently using the Can-Do Statements approach, but looking to improve it, or at least address my own critiques, especially concerning social relationships.  Look out for what I think would be ideal (at least at this moment in time . . . ) next week!