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Modern language theory and its consequences for TEFL methodology.

Wittgenstein once said “If a lion could speak to us, we would not understand him.” This gnomic statement bears some elucidation. How, if the lion spoke a human language, could we not understand him? Wittgenstein means to say that we have nothing in common with the passions and appetites of the lion. There is nothing in his life experience that we can relate to, and there is presumably nothing in our daily experience that he can relate to, either, so even though we might use the same sounds to signify, we could only talk past each other. The further ramifications of what Wittgenstein has to say about words leads us to the social locus of meaning: “The meaning of a word is its use in the language.” Again, some elucidation is in order: there is a basic misconception about ‘meaning’ that needs to be corrected. There is no filing system in the brain where meanings are stored, so that a French speaker can simply go to his mental file marked “la pluie’ and match it up against an English language file marked “the rain”. What he can do on the other hand is compare the use of the word in an English phrase like “it’s raining!” with another phrase he is acquainted with in his own language, such as “la pluie tombe!” The sound is different, the literal word-for-word significance is different, but the usage is equivalent. This is what is meant by learning another language: learning the way that words are used in common situations. To quote Wittgenstein again, ‘a language is a form of life”. The immediate consequence of this for our TEFL methodology is that words can’t be learned in lists isolated from their contexts. If vocabulary is selected for attention, it has to be presented in its usual context, in its family relations and with its collocations. As far as possible this attention should be extensive but naturalistic, insofar as the limitations of the classroom situation allow. Role-playing with the target vocabulary would be one way of getting this target language into use by the students. Language is a social event Wittgenstein insisted that the idea of a ‘private’ language was nonsensical. There is no point of reference by which you could confirm your private labeling of a sensation, so from one time to another the referent experience could shift. Language is a social event, and we share words in common. But if we regard the communicative process as merely the decoding of symbols, in which we “receive and translate” we miss the larger part of it, which is inference from context and our shared social knowledge of the ‘meaning’ of the speaker. Words come packed with associations and unstated relations which need to be unpacked for the learner. The practical outcome of this for our language-teaching methods is the need to place greater importance on context and inference than we currently do. Simple exercises can be used to make the student aware that what is meant is not only in the words that are uttered. For example, if a teacher is asked “Is Ahmed a good student?” and he answers ‘Well, he’s punctual and has neat handwriting,” the lesson to be taught is how the teacher ‘damns with faint praise’…he avoids comment on the real quality of Ahmed’s work, on his understanding or his expression, and instead praises other qualities that are of lesser importance. Similarly, metaphorical expression is always used to ‘mean more than you are saying’, and the metaphorical expression of a specific group of language speakers is in fact their linguistic identity. This strategy, with Allusion, Insinuation, Implication and Suggestion are all speech acts that allow the speaker to communicate more than he actually says. Similar strategies exist in the learner’s own mother-tongue, so once the model of ‘meaning more than you say’ is demonstrated, students can have fun making up their own examples and practicing on each other. Some literal-minded students need more explanation and demonstration than others, but various exercises can be worked up around functions like giving praise, criticizing, encouraging, dissuading and so on. A further exercise might explore cultural differences in the concept of time, using the metaphorical expressions that embody it, like “Time is Money” or “Procrastination is the thief of Time”, both of which are concepts representative of a materialist culture. It is the culture-specific assumptions that accompany words that need to be unpacked and explored for any real fluency to develop.

National Standards in Foreign Language Education “Incorporating subject content in early language programs puts language into a larger, more meaningful context and provides situations that require real language use. The National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project (USA 1996) proposed five goal areas that reflect a rationale for foreign language teaching, known as the 5 C’s: • • • • • Communication — oral and written Cultures — practices, products, and perspectives Connections — transfer knowledge across cultures, different viewpoints Comparisons — nature of languages, concepts of culture Communities — build lifelong contacts among lifelong learners

A summary of these standards is to be found at the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages; / under ‘Publications.’ “ This statement of standards is useful in putting an emphasis on culture, for as we have seen to learn a language is really to learn a “form of life”. For example, could we really imagine a course in Arabic that did not refer in any way to the fact of Islam and the daily round of activities in Arab culture? How could a language be presented apart from the actual forms in which it occurs in day to day life? For this reason, I endorse the ‘North Star’ approach to content, as it broaches current issues and controversies in AngloAmerican life with a multi-pronged approach; readings and audio files are backed up with videos and web research. Discussion is encouraged and writing centers on the target issues which are all defining aspects of life in modern Western society. All in all it does seem to satisfy our objectives as teachers of a “form of life.” The Student-Centered Classroom. It is current orthodoxy to say that the student is the focus of the learning process, in reaction against an older more traditional relationship of teacher as repository of knowledge and student as willing, or unwilling, receptacle. This might be a case of letting the lunatics run the asylum, so to speak, if we are not careful to delineate the role of the instructor as facilitator, ‘wise guide’ or ‘team leader’ who through experience knows the pitfalls ahead and can avoid them, but who also knows the hidden beauty-spots on the journey through the undergrowth. Turning the focus of the learning process onto the consumers themselves should not ignore the fact that the first-language speaker remains the role-model for the secondlanguage learner. As such she leads the class and formulates activities, but much of the verbal interaction will be between students exploring and exercising the themes and target language of the lesson. To help towards our understanding of this, let’s read Mr. Jay Marino in a discussion on an education site at where he says:
“Student centered classrooms focus on the needs and abilities of students (rather than the adults) and on topics that are relevant to the students’ lives, needs, and interests. Students are perceived as customers and stakeholders. In this type of classroom, students themselves are actively engaged in creating, understanding, and connecting to knowledge and learning. In student-centered environments, there is a higher motivation to learn as students feel they have a real stake in their own learning. Instead of the teacher being the sole, infallible source of information (the sage on the stage…), the teacher shares control of the classroom and students are allowed to explore, experiment, and discover on their own. Their diverse thoughts and perspectives are a necessary input to every class. In a student centered environment, students are given choices and are included in the decision-making processes of the classroom. The focus in these classrooms is on options, rather than uniformity. Essentially, "learners are treated as co-creators in the learning process, as individuals with ideas and issues that deserve attention and consideration.” Student centered classrooms are focused on quality and continuous improvement. Students participate in creating ground rules, mission statements, SMART goals, student data folders and student-led conferences.”

And look at another typical statement of principle by ‘student-centered’ practitioners: [An example of student-centered approach:]
“ We start any unit by asking the students what they want to learn about in that unit. If they want to learn about golf, for example, we would create a foreign language unit based on the various aspects of golf. We would take their suggestions about the different vocabulary they think they would need to know, and we would also let them do a lot of the work in planning how they want to learn in the unit (if they want to be responsible for presenting information, for example, or if they want to take a field trip to a golf course). Within the unit, we will also be sure to incorporate all of the material that we must cover according to state and district standards (we can include "-er" verb conjugations in a French class, for example, when we study the verbs that we need to use when playing golf). The kids, in this unit, will be learning the material they need to know in a way that is relevant to their own interests. Even more, they are motivated to learn because they have a stake in designing and planning their own learning.”

What this means for our curriculum and syllabus depends on the nature of our institution. A European language school with a mixed student population can afford to offer options in their activities, and indeed the students may have valid ideas about what language skills will serve them in their day-to-day activities in an English-speaking environment. However, in an academic environment, where the stated objectives are to prepare students for life in the university and enable them to function efficiently at credit-course level, the sort of options we can offer our students must be rather more limited, and we cannot assume that they do in fact have valid ideas about what will help them in their future academic life. Shall we start by asking our students what they want to learn in the unit? If we take any unit at random from our course books, out of the available topics we could choose: addiction, social networking, Fang Shui, or child labour. Some students may have rudimentary ideas about any one of these topics, but their personal experience will not in most cases be great, and for many of them, these topics will be ‘foreign’ if not indeed taboo. So a great deal of explaining has to be done over and above the material that can be elicited from a few students and tabulated on the whiteboard for the benefit of those more passive members of the class. It is a commonplace of syllabus design that the student should be ‘stretched’ to the next level beyond her present attainment. The teacher per se re-enters the picture at this point under the conceptual cover of Vygotsky’s ‘Zone of Proximal Development’. This admits of guidance by an ‘expert’ who can give appropriate assistance. Shrum and Glisan say “With the guidance of an adult the student may be able to move on to the next stage of learning. Through interaction the model allows the student to be successfully at a skill or task that may be too complex for them to handle alone and expands his/her cognitive abilities.” This may at first glance resemble the old–fashioned teacher-student model, but is nowadays dubbed ‘Cognitive Apprenticeship’. Similarly, student interaction can be described as ‘cognitive apprenticeship’ if one shares knowledge with another: “Some students may even be able to conjugate the irregular verb without the support of the teacher. In a collaborative learning situation those students could share their strategy, through cognitive apprenticeship, with other students.” The concept is a useful one. “Cognitive Apprenticeship is structured much like traditional apprenticeships. In traditional apprenticeships the goal or task is often to make something tangible; in cognitive apprenticeship, the task is to form a process of thinking, something that is intangible. In the beginning, the teacher, through socialization, models the skill or task at hand for the student. Most times the role of the teacher is to simplify tasks so that they are manageable for the student.” In our academic context we have to see the teacher as a professional in the field of education with firsthand knowledge of the progression of courses and their content, aware of the sort of skills a student needs in lectures, in research and in academic writing. If choices are offered, they could be of how to research; by Internet or library text or survey. If a text book in a skills-oriented course contains ten chapters and not all of them need be covered, students could vote on which ones to exclude. If assignments are set, a certain leeway can be allowed in how they can be fulfilled; singly or in partnership, and in what timeframe. Choices of this order may go a long way towards encouraging participation by students and a sense of involvement and responsibility.

New Media in the Academy A report at ArsTechnica on developments in educational media has this to say: “While most of us as college students had to do our research in the library with card indexes and the lecture hall; college students of tomorrow may do theirs in Second Life, an online simulation or ‘virtual world’ game. That's one of the conclusions of a new study of educational technology from EDUCAUSE and the New Media Consortium. Their 2007 "Horizon Report" describes six key technologies that will make an impact on education in the next one to five years: user-created content, social networking, mobile phones, virtual worlds, new forms of scholarly publication online, and massively multiplayer educational gaming. The report suggests that having students compare user-created content, for instance, "can give students a valuable perspective on their own abilities and inspire them to try new ideas or techniques." This is true, but in order to join the conversation, one needs something to say. If you've ever assigned groups of freshmen to give in-class presentations on course topics, you know that peer learning has its limits.” This is the challenge that faces us as educators in the 21st century: to remain relevant in the eyes of our students and to stimulate learning through whatever means available to us. If this means upgrading our own knowledge and skills in using new media like social networking sites and virtual worlds, meanwhile loosing the reins of the didactic relationship to allow greater autonomy to the learner, then this is what it will take.

References: Shrum,J.,Glisan,E. Teachers Handbook: Contextualized Language Instruction. Heinle 2000. Cognitive Apprenticeship. American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages.