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Widdowson - Against Dogma - Reply to Swan

Widdowson - Against Dogma - Reply to Swan

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Published by Charles Cornelius
Henry Widdowson's response to Michael Swan's critique of CLT (in the ELT Journal)
Henry Widdowson's response to Michael Swan's critique of CLT (in the ELT Journal)

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Published by: Charles Cornelius on Aug 27, 2013
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Against dogma:A reply to Michael Swan
H. G. Widdowson
This article is a reply to the two articles entitled ‘A critical look at theCommunicative Approach’ by Michael Swan, which appeared in the twoissues that preceded this one (39/1 and 39/2). It is argued that Swan mis-represents the ideas which have gone to make up what is now known as the‘communicative approach; and that Swan’s arguments are in themselvescontradictory. In the author’s belief, Swan fails to offer evidence or supportfor his own position on the theory or practice of ELT, and is thus guilty of thesame charge that he lays, undeservedly, at the door of those whose viewshe attacks.
Michael Swan’s two articles are admirably provocative pieces, eloquentlywritten and stimulating to read. This much should be acknowledged. Itshould be noted, however, that they are not to be read as dispassionatecriticism of a careful analytic kind. They are, rather, an indictment,charged with feeling, almost as if Swan felt that the ideas he opposes were apersonal affront. And the desire to have a dig at theorists and to pander toanti-intellectual prejudice at times reduces the discussion to farce. So withreference to their title, these papers are ‘critical’ only in the sense of beingcaptious: they are not evaluative. Nevertheless, they do indicate areas ofmisunderstanding and misconception, and as such warrant a reply.Dogma
enquiryThe first point I should like to make is a very general one about the purposeof intellectual enquiry. The ideas that have been put forward concerning acommunicative approach to language teaching do not, as Swan himselfacknowledges, constitute a ‘coherent and monolithic body of doctrine’, norwere they intended as a manifesto for revolutionary change. They cannotby definition therefore be a dogma. Swan represents them as such in orderto make a better target for attack. This is, to say the least, regrettable,because these ideas were proposed (for the most part) in the spirit ofpositive enquiry and were intended to encourage teachers not to rejectcustomary practices out of hand and embrace a new creed, but on thecontrary to subject these practices and proposals to critical (i.e. evaluative,not captious) assessment. So the intention behind the enquiry was to actagainst the dogmatism of doctrine whether new or old, revolutionary orreactionary. Its purpose was to provoke, not to persuade; to liberatethought, not to confine it by the imposition of fixed ideas. Perhaps I mightbe permitted to give two quotations from my own work to correct the quitefalse impression of doctrinaire assertion that Swan, for some reason, wishesto convey:
ELT Journal Volume 39/3 July 1985
This book is not in any way intended as propaganda for a new ‘commu-nicative’ orthodoxy in language teaching. It is, on the contrary, anappeal for critical investigation into the basis of a belief and its practicalimplications. I am not trying to present a conclusive case but to start anenquiry. (Widdowson 1978:x)Above all we must deny ourselves the comfort of dogma which deals inthe delusion of simple answers. (Widdowson 1979:262)My reason for drawing attention to this misrepresentation is not (prin-cipally) to express my resentment at unfair treatment, but to point to aconsequence which nullifies much of Swan’s own argument. For the effectof creating a dogma on which to practise his polemic is that he is led intocontradiction by committing precisely the same error that he unjustlyattributes to the approach he is criticizing. What he does is to dismiss oneset of ideas as if they constituted a single dogmatic creed, but then replacethem with a dogma of his own. Again, as Swan might himselfput it, we heara strangled cry as the communicative baby this time disappears down theplughole.Ouestions
What the Swan dogma amounts to essentially, it would seem, is a reasser-tion of the traditional view that what learners need to be taught is grammar,lexis, and a collection of idiomatic phrases: their effective use for commu-nicative purposes can be left for them to work out for themselves byreference to common sense and the experience they have of using their ownlanguage. Ideas about use and usage, the realization of appropriate mean-ing, communicative strategies, negotiation, and so on that all these theor-ists prattle about in their impenetrable jargon are so much moonshine andnothing more. One can almost see the groundlings rolling in the aisles withglee. This dogma is then itself directly contradicted by other remarks in thetwo articles. Swan talks approvingly, for example, about the teaching ofnotions and functions: ‘We must make sure our students are taught tooperate key functions such as, for instance, greeting, agreeing or warning’.But why should this be necessary if the function of an utterance (use) canalways be inferred by a common-sense association of sentence meaning(usage) and situation, as has previously been claimed, and, in the case ofwarning, so amusingly (if tendentiously) demonstrated by the anecdote ofWilberforce and his accomplices? And if Swan accepts that functions needto be taught as aspects of language other than structure and lexis, how doeshe propose that this should be done in a principled way without invokingthe ideas about use and usage he has so summarily dismissed? Again, Swantells us that we need ‘to make sure that our students are trained to becomefluent in whatever aspects of speaking, understanding, reading and writingrelate to their purposes’. But, according to the dogma, students alreadyknow how to do these things: all they need is a knowledge of Englishstructures and lexis and these abilities will come of their own accord. Sowhy do they need any training? Why indeed do we need to bother withteaching these abilities at all?Again we are told that one of the reasons for poor performance atclassroom comprehension tasks may be that ‘the learner’s command of thelanguage is just fluent enough for him to decode the words, but thisoccupies all his faculties and he has no processing capacity to spare for“interpreting” what he hears’. But how is this possible if the ability tounderstand, that is to say to provide language items with appropriatecommunicative value in context, follows automatically from a knowledge of
Against dogma: A reply to Michael Swan159
language combined with the skills the learner has already acquired fromthe experience of using his own mother tongue? According to the dogmawhich denies any relevance to the use/usage distinction, decoding andinterpreting should not be different processes at all. Fluency (whateverSwan might mean by this) in the one ought not to be distinct from fluency inthe other. This problem of poor performance may also, we are told, becaused by the fact that the learners ‘have been trained to read classroomtexts in such a different way from “real-life” texts that they are unable toregard them as pieces of communication’. But how can this be? If they knowthe language, why can’t they automatically apply this knowledge?And what, anyway, does it mean to say that learners treat texts in a‘different way’? How then is this distinct from regarding them as ‘pieces ofcommunication’? These questions can be clarified by reference to theconcepts of cohesion and coherence and strategies of prediction and nego-tiation, but this kind of ‘jargon’ is inadmissible, so all we are left with is abefuddled vagueness which, to use Swan’s own expression, ‘contributesnothing to our understanding of how to teach foreign languages’. We aretold that the inability of learners to regard texts as pieces of communicationis the result of poor methodology and that ‘the solution involves changingwhat happens in the classroom, not what happens in the student’. Whatexactly is it that might lead us to assess one methodology as poor, anothergood? What
of change in the classroom is called for? And anyway whatis the point, we might ask, of changing what happens in the classroomunless it brings about changes in the student?Questions of this kind (in so far as they make sense) need careful and
consideration. They cannot be resolved by bland statement.Repeatedly we find in these articles assertions about teaching and learn-ing which can be justified, or indeed understood, only by reference to thekind of idea that Swan ridicules with such relish. And not infrequently, aswe have seen, such assertions actually presuppose the validity of these ideaseven when they are intended to undermine them.
Approve with care
Elsewhere, what Swan conceives of as ‘the communicative approach’ isfavoured with approving comment. It has, we are told, ‘many virtues’.What are they then? It has ‘new information and insights to contribute (forinstance about the language of social interaction)‘. What new informationand what new insights? At times, Swan seems to suppose that the languageof social interaction simply means the ‘stereotyped, idiomatic side of lan-guage’ to be learned as a collection of ‘conventional and idiomatic expres-sions’ of the kind provided by a notional/functional inventory. Even acursory glance at the literature on the pragmatics of language use woulddisabuse him of such a simplistic notion. But then pragmatics, dependingas it does on recognizing a distinction between usage and use, ‘has littlerelevance to foreign language teaching’ and is anyway ‘grossly over-valuedat the moment’. The communicative approach is, again, given credit for‘enormous improvements in our methodology’. ‘Methodology is perhapsthe area where the Communicative Approach has done most to improveour teaching’. What exactly are these improvements? On what principlesare they based? And how have they come about, if they are based on ideasthat are apparently so defective in theory and irrelevant in practice?Unreasoned approval of the ‘communicative approach’ is no better thanunreasoned condemnation. What we need is clear thinking and explicit,well-informed argument of the kind which Swan conspicuously fails to
H. C. Widdowson

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