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