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Language play, language

learning
Guy Cook

This article challenges the widespread belief in contemporary ELT that


students should be exposed to authentic or natural language, and that
such language is primarily focused on making meaning and achieving
practical purposes. Firstly, it is argued that the terms authentic and
natural are vaguely defined, but that if they refer to language used
between native speakers and by children acquiring a first language, this is
not necessarily the best type of language use for foreign learners.
Secondly, it is argued that a good deal of authentic or natural language is
playful, in the sense of being focused upon form and fiction rather than on
meaning and reality.

Two Throughout this century language teaching, and especially English


contemporary language teaching, has been notoriously prone to rapid and very
premises disconcerting changes of fashion. For teachers and learners, the results
of such rapid changes have been disturbing, and often damaging. In
particular, as we approach the end of the twentieth century, English
language teaching is still suffering the disruptive effects of two beliefs
which, gaining currency from the 1970s onwards, have effected a major
change. One is that language is best acquired when a student is exposed
to authentic or natural language. The second is that the use of such
language, both in production and reception, entails a focus upon
meaning and purpose rather than on form. In these beliefs, two different
theoretical pedigrees converge: the sociolinguistic theory of commu-
nicative competence (Hymes 1972) and the psycholinguistic theory of
natural second language acquisition (Krashen 1982).

I shall call these two beliefs the first premise and the second premise,
and summarize them as follows:

First premise: Authentic/natural language is best.


Second premise: Authentic/natural language is primarily practical and
purposeful, focused upon meaning rather than form.

These two premises are still the basis of many current approaches;
including for example interactional, task-based, process, procedural, and
learner-centred approaches (see Long and Crookes 1992).

Challenging the There are many ways in which the first premise might be challenged.
first premise One line of attack might be to question the meaning of the terms
natural and authentic. The two terms are fairly synonymous, and
though rarely defined by their advocates, appear to refer to language

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used in communication by native-speaker adults, and/or to language
used to and by native-speaker children in the process and as the means
of acquiring their first language. Yet in practice the terms are as vague in
language teaching theory as they are in the discourse of advertising from
which they derive: modifiers which indicate approval rather than any
intrinsic quality. References to natural language and authentic
language in language teaching seem no more precise than the authentic
cooking and authentic landscapes of travel brochures, or the natural
goodness and natural sweetness of food advertising. If natural and
authentic define a type of language, then they must presumably have
opposites. There must be such a thing as unauthentic, unnatural
language. But what is that? If it is language produced to aid learning, it is
not clear why. Simplified grammar, slow clear speech, and the selection
of basic vocabulary, are natural features of adult speech to children, and
for that matter natural features of speech to a foreign speaker of our
language who does not understand. Indeed, in all circumstances an
effective communicator adjusts to the level of his or her interlocutors.
But this is overlooked in the literature. Richards and Lockhart (1994:
184), for example, are critical of the way in which teachers may
sometimes develop a style of speaking that does not reflect natural
speech. Yet what could be more unnatural and unauthentic than
teachers trying to force themselves - against their better instincts - to
talk to language learners as they talk to their compatriots?

Another challenge to the first premise might be to question whether it is


desirable to reproduce in adults the language acquisition of children.
Almost all twentieth century methodologies have assumed that it is, and
differences between methodologies reflect changes in theories of first
language acquisition rather than any departure from this basic principle.
Behaviourist, cognitivist, functionalist, and interactionist theories of first
language acquisition have been followed predictably by behaviourist,
cognitivist, functionalist. and interactionist approaches to second
language teaching. Yet no approach has substantially questioned
whether children learning a first language are the best models for
adults learning a foreign language, despite the fact that there is a case
for saying (as many writers have) that childrens first language
acquisition is neither fast nor efficient. It takes, after all, five years of
daily intensive exposure to achieve the proficiency of a five-year-old.
Five years, calculated at 10 hours a day, is 18,250 hours of exposure: the
equivalent of 5 hours a day 5 days a week for 14 years in a natural task-
based environment. Yet at the end of this period, the vocabulary of five-
year-old children is relatively small, their sense of appropriateness and
range of styles severely limited, and they are only just beginning to read
and write. Small children, moreover, lack the adult capacity to organize
and conceptualize consciously, to think metalinguistically about what
they are doing, and to master rules deliberately. It is precisely these
adult skills, it might be argued, which should be exploited in the (less
natural but perhaps more efficient) business of learning a foreign
language.

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One might also question whether the linguistic behaviour of native-
speaker adults is a good model for learners to imitate. Very few foreign
learners will ever attain such proficiency, and many do not need it,
having more limited specific-purpose objectives in their language
learning. In international communication, it could be argued, having
the linguistic characteristics of a native speaker of English may hamper
rather than help communication.

Lastly, there is the rather obvious point that in language teaching as in


life in general, even if a clear distinction between the natural and the
unnatural can be established, there is no necessary correlation between
what is natural and what is desirable. Many bad aspects of human
behaviour are natural ones; many good ones are unnatural. We do not
have to accept the Romantic notion that the wild and the childlike are
best.

Challenging the The second premise, like the first, has been used to justify a primary
second premise focus upon meaning and communication rather than upon form. To give
one of countless available examples, Nunan (1989: 10), defining a task,
writes that:

a task is a piece of classroom work which involves learners in


comprehending, manipulating, producing or interacting in the target
language while their attention is principally focused on meaning
rather than form.

At any point in language teaching history there are always items of faith
which nobody questions. The belief in a focus on meaning is the dogma
of our time. It derives from an uncritical acceptance of theories of
language and language acquisition developed without reference to what
learners want or need. As such it is the antithesis of reflective practice,
an instance of what Schn (1983) refers to critically as technical
rationality, the view that:
professional practice consists in instrumental problem-solving made
rigorous by the application of scientific theory and technique
(ibid.: 21)
Perhaps the scientific theories which have been applied too insensitively
in language teaching are those of communicative competence (Hymes
1972) and natural acquisition (Krashen 1982).
Leaving doubts about the first premise aside, and accepting for the
moment and for the sake of argument that authentic language is best, I
should like to challenge the second premise by asking two questions:
To what extent is a focus on meaning and function authentic and
natural?
Is focusing on language form as unnatural and unauthentic as we are
told?
For the reigning methodologies, the implications of negative answers to
these questions would be very serious.

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Play One reason to doubt whether authentic language is as meaning-focused
as supposed is the predominance of play in all areas of human life-and
in language in particular. Play is a difficult term to define, and harder
still to explain. A definition would have to embrace such diverse
activities as a toddler throwing stones into a puddle and chess
grandmasters pitting their wits against each other with sombre faces
and iron nerves. Both in a sense are play. The most one could hope of a
definition - as Wittgenstein (1953: 66-71) recognized in his attempts to
define the word game - would be a series of family resemblances
linking one game to another but allowing the possibility that two
instances of the same category, like stone throwing and chess, have very
little in common with each other. Nevertheless, a definition of play for
my purposes here might be: behaviour not primarily motivated by
human need to manipulate the environment (and to share information
for this purpose) and to form and maintain social relationships - though
it may indirectly serve both of these functions.

Despite these problems of precise definition, most of us would recognize


that play very often has something to do with enjoyment and
relaxation: that its meanings and relationships are different from those
in the society around it; and that the consequences of what happens in
the play world are not directly relevant to the real world. We may be
opponents in the game and strive mercilessly to defeat each other, but
be the best of friends in real life - or vice versa. A child may shoot
another child dead in play and then have an ice-cream with him
afterwards. Two adults do battle on the squash court and then drink
beer in the bar as the best of friends. Indeed, the relationships of play
are often the opposite of those in real life: friends are enemies, bosses
take orders, losers become winners, and so on. Like fiction, play is a kind
of carnival reality (of the kind described by Bakhtin 1981), parallel to
the real world but having its own meanings. It is also of necessity
concerned with form. The players have to know the rules. Whether they
are children playing doctors and nurses, or sports commentators
dissecting a football match after the event, they talk a good deal
about these rules: what is allowed or not allowed, when things may be
done, by whom, and in what circumstances. Play is also intelligent. In the
animal world, the more intelligent the animal, the more it will play. Play
is an exuberance of the mind, something which occurs naturally and
authentically when there is a space to be filled. It is also a sign of health
and well-being (Locke 1993: 209). When humans have nothing to do
they do not just switch off, as a robot would do, or fall asleep as animals
often do. They play. Play is a major component of human life, and needs
explanation by anyone who seeks to understand it.

The widespread treatment of play as predominantly a preparatory


childhood phenomenon tends to distract us from the extent of adult
play-perhaps because we take our grown-up games so seriously.
Business executives in the same firm entering into mock negotiations as
part of their management training are surely playing, just as much as lion
cubs who hunt each other, or children who play mummies and daddies.

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Two major areas of adult play are sport and fiction, although the
boundaries between the play and the real world may be blurred by the
financial, political, and social consequences of professional sport and
storytelling. In all the major media - film, radio, television, and
increasingly on computer - it is sport and fiction rather than depictions
of reality which occupy pride of place (Dunbar 1996: 5, 102).

Language play In keeping with the definitions I have advanced of play in general,
language play may be defined along similar lines. It can be divided into
two types, corresponding to the formal and semantic levels of language.
At the formal level there is play with sounds (or with letter shapes,
though this is less common) to create patterns of rhyme, rhythm,
assonance, consonance, alliteration, etc., and play with grammatical
structures to create parallelisms and patterns (Jakobson 1960). At the
semantic level there is play with units of meaning, combining them in
ways which create worlds which do not exist: fictions.

Language play by Far from being fixated on meaningful language to effect social action (as
and for children Krashen and others would have had us believe), young children
acquiring their first language spend a great deal of their time producing
or receiving playful language. They have, after all, only limited reasons
to use language for practical purposes in a world in which their every
move - what they wear, what they eat, where they go - is decided by
somebody else. If we imagine that, for the prelinguistic baby, speech
sounds are like music - pleasurable, socially bonding, and affective -
whereas for the adult language is conceived more as a way of doing
things and making meaning, then the small child may be envisaged as
making a transition from one of these poles to the other. Thus, for young
children a good deal of language remains primarily driven by sound
rather than meaning, chosen to produce chance patterns which are
pretty to the ear, but whose meaning may be absurd or unclear, as in this
childrens rhyme:

Diddle diddle dumpling my son John


Went to bed with his trousers on
One shoe off and the other shoe on
Diddle diddle dumpling my son John.

Even where childrens rhymes have an origin in adult meaning, this is


not always known to the child. The order of churches in Oranges and
Lemons may follow the route by which condemned criminals were
paraded around London before being hanged (Opie and Opie 1985: 56)
but this is not usually known to the modern small children who use this
rhyme, nor would it be comprehensible if they did know it.

Young children are famous for asking why?: the word which enables
them to uncover the meaning of events and of the words they encounter.
Yet adults might well ask why children do not use this word more often,
considering how much of what they encounter must either be
meaningless and mysterious, or assigned idiosyncratic and, from an

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adult point of view, incorrect meanings. In childrens stories, even when
texts are meaningful to the adult who is reading them aloud, a good deal
must be impenetrable to the child. Consider, for example, the opening of
The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne, and how difficult it must be in
terms of meaning to a small child:

By the time it came to the edge of the forest the stream had grown up,
so that it was almost a river, and, being grown up, it did not run and
jump and sparkle along as it used to do when it was younger, but
moved more slowly. For it knew now where it was going, and it said to
itself There is no hurry. We shall get there some day.

Young children tolerate imprecise meanings because language hangs in


a friendly frame of sound-rhymed rhythmic verse, or the continuing
sound of the adult storytelling voice reading to them. In subsequent
conversation, they often by chance reveal amusing mishearings: thinking
that the Lords Prayer (Lead us not into temptation) asks God to Lead
us not into Penn Station (Peters 1983: 64), or that the hymn Gladly the
cross Id bear is about Gladly, the cross-eyed bear. They tolerate
imprecision in production too. All the comic mispronunciations and
malapropisms that children come out with - I am /-/ (when asked to
behave) (Peters 1983: 43), chicken pots (for chicken-pox), ape-
recorders (for apricots), naughty story car park (for multi-storey car
park) - would not be tolerated by an adult learner who, being held
more socially responsible, especially in real communication, wants to
have a word just right (both in pronunciation and in meaning) before
even daring to think of saying it.

In contrast to this cavalier attitude to meaning, a good deal of child


language is carefully focused on linguistic form. While tolerating unclear
or absurd meanings, small children are often outraged by a change in the
wording of a favourite story. Many childrens rhymes and stories
emphasize grammatical patterns, and are in appearance substitution
tables:

This little piggy went to market


This little piggy stayed at home
This little piggy had roast beef, etc.

or

What big eyes youve got grandma!


All the better to see you with.
What big ears youve got grandma!
All the better to hear you with., etc.

Moreover small children like the same stories again and again, and they
like to know rhymes and songs by heart. Supposedly the best and most
natural language acquirers, they do all the things that contemporary
approaches would have us avoid: repetition, rote learning, substitution
tables, saying things without understanding them, producing and
receiving language which communicates little.

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Adult language play But it is not only children who indulge in language play. (If it were my
argument would be self-defeating, for I have already made the point that
children are not necessarily the best models.) Adults are fonder of
language play than is usually acknowledged. One might argue that it is
only reluctantly and under pressure that adults use language purpose-
fully to solve practical problems. When the pressure is off, we use
language for play.

One instance of adult language play is literature. In fiction, reading


silently to ourselves, removed from immediate social interaction, we
have the opportunity to try out - to play with - new and unreal worlds in
a way which would be quite impossible were we using this language to
do real things with real people. In poetry, linguistic choices are driven by
formal patterning as well as meaning, yet from the chance coincidences
of linguistic form - rhymes and parallelisms and rhythm - arise new and
unexpected meanings which help to break us out of the routines of
everyday life and the narrow assumptions of the social moralities in
which we live (Cook 1994). In literature, more than any other discourse,
we see the fallacy of positing attention to form and to meaning as
alternatives.

Language play is not only a feature of literary discourse, however. Sadly,


and despite some recent signs of a revival, poetry is, after all, a minority
discourse. Yet advertisements, comedy acts, tabloid newspapers, graffiti,
and songs are all very far from being minority discourses, and all focus
very much upon play with form - puns, parallelisms, substitution, and
deliberate ambiguities (Cook 1996). Many conversations between
friends and intimates contain little information, and may be regarded
as instances of play and banter. These discourses are not used to solve a
practical problem. They are not task based. They are language for
enjoyment, for the self, for its own sake. And they are often
fantasies - not about the real world, but about a fictional one in which
there are no practical outcomes.

So even if (and its a very big if) the first premise is true, we are wrong
to suppose that this should entail using language only for task solving,
for social action, or for talking about the real world. Authentic, natural
language both for children and for adults can also be preparatory,
repetitive, artificial, removed from reality, and focused upon the rules of
the game, including the rules of grammar and phonology.

Implications for What implications should this have for language teaching? Certainly it
language could be used to justify the reinstatement of many discarded activities:
teaching explicit attention to form, manipulation of form, repetition, rote
learning, recognition that the language classroom is not a real world
where behaviour has serious consequences but-like much of the
discourse of native-speaker children and adults - a play world in which
people can practise and prepare.

But it would be wrong to replace focus on communication and meaning


with attention to form and preparatory practice alone. To do that would

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be to fall into the trap of alternating methodologies which have
tormented English language teaching this century. It would sow the
seeds with absolute certainty for a subsequent counter reaction. It would
make a change of fashion which is no change, because such foolish
extremisms have characterized language teaching throughout this
century. Changing fashion has become a fashion in itself, until
paradoxically the real change of fashion would be to stop changing
fashion altogether.

What is needed for the beginning of the twenty-first century is a


recognition of the complexity of language learning: that it is sometimes
play and sometimes for real, sometimes form-focused and sometimes
meaning-focused, sometimes fiction and sometimes fact. This would be a
real change of fashion: one which could provide the richer and more
complex environment for learning, which after a century of being
pushed and pulled in all directions, both learners and teachers deserve.

Received June 1996

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in J.B. Pride and J. Holmes (eds.). Socio- The author
linguistics. Harmondsworth: Penguin. (Original Guy Cook is a Reader in Education and Head of
paper presented at the Research Planning Languages in Education (formerly ESOL and
Conference on Language Development in Dis- Modern Languages) at the University of London
advantaged Children, New York City, June Institute of Education. He has worked as an
1966.) English language teacher in Egypt, Italy, Russia,
Jakobson, R. 1960. Closing statement: linguistics and the UK, and as a lecturer at the University of
and poetics in T.A. Sebeok, (ed.). Style in
Leeds. His research interests include applied
Language. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
linguistics and language teaching; discourse ana-
Krashen, S.D. 1982. Principles and Practice in
lysis; literature theory and teaching; translation;
Second Language Acquisition Oxford: Perga-
and language and biology. His publications
mon.
Locke, J.L. 1993. The Childs Path to Spoken include Discourse (Oxford University Press
Language. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univer- 1989), The Discourse of Advertising (Routledge
sity Press. 1992) Discourse and Literature (Oxford Univer-
Long, M. and G. Crookes. 1992. Three sity Press 1994) and (with B. Seidlhofer) Principle
approaches to task-based syllabus design. and Practice in Applied Linguistics (Oxford
TESOL Quarterly 26/1:27-57. University Press 1995).

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