Awareage Languness

This is a post to recount my recent attempts or (more pretentiously) my ongoing journey to understand how linguistics can help language teaching. The post was initiated by a video teaser (on linguistics and teacher education) to a talk by Bridget R. Schvarcz in the upcoming TESOL France 2018 colloquium.

I will include various prompts which led me to my current language (or communicative) awareness location as a way to illustrate my route.

My first prompt would have to be my CELTA training of 4 weeks of which a few days I vaguely remember being devoted to orthodox segregational linguistics that language can be compartmentalised into things such as parts of speech, subject verb object sentences and various other related grammar. I did not re-evaluate this basis for some time after my initial TEFL training.

Fast forward a few years to a point after many classroom incidents that kept showing me the inadequacies of my knowledge about the English language and its usefulness in helping my students. I had a vague idea of communicative language teaching or CLT (ignoring for now its basis in the segregational linguistics of speech act theory) – but marrying CLT up with my grammar knowledge was tortuous to say the least (hands up who has not tried to and/or is mandated to shoehorn grammar points into a lesson?!).

Integrational linguistics can be summed in three words – language presupposes communication.  My route to it was from the notion of meaning invariance. As teachers of language one form one meaning is obviously appealing – e.g. adding an -s to cat means there is more than one cat.

My next prompt was being aware of Columbia School Linguistics and its focus on analysing invariant meanings. For example some/any. One of the scholars associated with Columbia School Linguistics is Ricardo Otheguy whose talk here led me to discover that there exists another line of thought (held by people such as Roy Harris, Sinfree Makoni, Alastair Pennycook) which questions the validity of invariance in language.

Integrational linguistics holds signs (meaning makers) are radically indeterminate – that is both form and meaning are not fixed codes which can be plucked and used – signs do not pre-exist acts of communication but are made in the act of communication. Hence they are not determined before the act of communication itself.

Now to a language teacher this seems most unhelpful. If form-meaning pairs do not pre-exist acts of communication then how do we teach them?

Fear not, we don’t need such codes to start thinking about planning lessons. We can focus on the acts of communication themselves. Here we see echoes of approaches such as task based language teaching, comprehensible input and total physical response.

This whiggish history of my language awareness, my awareage linguness, if you will, pardon my poor joke, hopes to have piqued you into maybe asking yourself some questions posed by Bridget R. Schvarcz in her teaser video:

What influenced who you are as a teacher today?

What comes to your mind when you hear the word linguistics?

Have you ever used any of the theoretical knowledge about language structure in your teaching?

Do you think you are a better teacher because you have studied linguistics?

If you are headed to TESOL France 2018 hope to bump into you, thanks for reading.

13 thoughts on “Awareage Languness

  1. I have long been fascinated by the work of Roy Harris and others who either are or can generally be considered integrationists – Michael Toolan, Christopher Hutton, Nigel Love, Talbot Taylor, Peter Jones, and (in a different sense) Peter Mühlhäusler to name a few – so I was quite pleasantly surprised to see this reference to some of their ideas and work in relation to ELT.

    Obviously, you are writing an extremely brief summary here and so necessarily you have to omit certain key details – but a crucial one is that while it is true that in integrationism “signs do not pre-exist acts of communication but are made in the act of communication” it is also true that those same signs are said to be subject to an ongoing process of signification and contextualistion in real time (so to speak) and these in turn rely on the communicating participants previous experience (this is “the principle of cotemporality” which is an important feature in an integrationist outlook).

    So what happens if the previous experience of understanding how a language lesson ‘works’ is that grammar is expected to be taught and learnt and that there is a direct and invariant form-meaning match not only between word and concept (as in a dictionary) but between L1 and L2 cognates?

    In effect, if the previous language learning experience of a particular student means learning its grammar in the orthodox sense of parts of speech and so on, then this is the experience that will contribute to that person’s understanding of what is going on in a classroom irrespective of what the teacher believes they are doing. In other words, each participant – teacher and student – may be free to contextualist the significance of what is happening under their own terms without necessarily being aware of what the other is doing. Potentially, this means that the teacher may think they taking a TBLT approach, whereas the learner may perceive the purpose to make use of certain key items of vocabulary or make use of certain tenses, etc.

    Moreover, if the learner asks “Do I use present perfect or past here?” in part of a task, the teacher can choose one option or the other (thus reinforcing the learner’s belief that languages operate as fixed codes) or they can perhaps suggest that in this particular case either present perfect or past will do to be effective in that specific case (thus either frustrating the learner who may feel their question has not been answered or prompting the learner to ask if there is no distinction in this particular case, what are the cases where the distinctions apply?).

    I think it’s also worth noting that Harris in particular is not raising an objection to pedagogic grammars – he accepts that they can be useful. His issue is how those pedagogic grammars reinforce the belief in the language myth (that languages are fixed codes for transferring precisely the thoughts of A into the mind of B – “telementation” as integrationists call it).

    This kind of challenge is not all that dissimilar in kind to the one faced by advocates of ELF – i.e. in their case, the question is: how do you argue against the notion of native-speakerism which is so ingrained in educated people from literate cultures in so many countries around the world? (Actually, I would argue that ironically the ELF movement probably does as much to support native-speakerism as it does to challenge it – maybe more so).

    Did you know about the 2009 book “Language teaching: Integrational linguistic approaches” edited by Michael Toolan?

    I think that would be well worth looking at if you haven’t yet seen it – not least because the book is careful to acknowledge potential objections and arguable limitations of adopting an integrationist perspective as well as (more obviously) the potential benefits.

    Have a good conference in Paris!

    1. Hi nmwhiteport

      great to chat to someone about this! yes I have been hoovering up things Integrational recently including the edited book by Toolan.

      i think the most relevant to teaching is the work Harris has done on writing and even then a lot needs to be done to apply that!

      otherwise the critique by Harris and chums of orthodox linguistics is more relevant to theory than pedagogy

      i think because teaching languages can’t avoid talking about language then orthodox linguistics can still be of value when students ask questions like you give of “Do I use present perfect or past here?”

      yet the charge of deep running issues integrationalists have looked at is a very nice meta-theory to have in mind if you see what i mean?

      any other texts you are aware of that you recommend in this area?


      1. Hi Mura,

        Yes, I think the way in which literacy – and in many ways the advent of the dictionary – impacts on how users conceive of language in the way that Harris (and others) have argued quite forcefully could well be helpful in some aspects of learner training – at least potentially.

        In any event, I think there are a lot of useful takeaways for ELT from what Harris and others have argued – one concerns cognates and ‘synonymy’ and another (for teachers) is in language assessment and giving feedback. I’d say the way I give feedback has changed significantly for me since reading Harris, although to some extent he helped push me in a direction I’d already been heading where that’s concerned.

        Something else I find useful is the perspective it gives you on the role and function of language learning materials – it doesn’t necessarily make activities such as gap fills or key word transformations redundant, but it does frame them in a way that (I think) is more helpful overall.

        As far as any other texts I’d recommend … God! All of them?!? To be honest, a lot of people recommend “Introduction to Integrational Linguistics” and “Signs, Language and Communication” as the best ways to get into Harris’s thinking – and they’re not wrong of course as it certainly helps understand what he’s talking about in “The Language Makers”, “The Language Myth” and “The Language Machine”, the trilogy from the early 1980s that really set out the integrationist position.

        But for my money, I’d highly recommend “Landmarks in Linguistic Thought: The Western Tradition from Socrates to Saussure” that he wrote with Talbot Taylor – while ostensibly an overview of key ideas that have shaped linguistics (which of course, it is), at the same time it probably presents the most accessible way to understand why Harris and others arrived at the conclusions they did. It’s well worth reading, as is its sister volume (by Taylor with Nigel Love and John Joseph).

      2. that’s interesting what you say about area of learning materials (as well as other areas you mention) do you think you might write about that?

        thx for the recommends (would love to get copies of his famous trilogy but pricey!) i do have a copy of the book with Taylor but not yet looked at it will do now!

      3. Cheers – in a way, pretty much everything I write is a way of trying to think through what I think are the implications (including the problems) that an integrationist perspective brings to bear on ELT and other issues in linguistics more generally.

        The Harris and Taylor book (Vol. I) is great imo

      1. Peter Mühlhäusler’s a German linguist (I think) who’s been in Australia for many years and who promoted the idea of ecolinguistics. He’s not an integrationist as such, but he’s had papers published in Language and Communication and his outlook is very sympathetic to and shares common ground with Harris, etc.

  2. Not watched the video yet. SLF was a bit of an eye opener just before my MA. I had already looked at Saussure via Barthes for my BA. Just having the guts to say ‘There are loads of ways to express yourself in this case. Try it and see first’ led me to see TBLT as the most likely way to help students develop language and be less afraid to communicate and negotiate meaning. When I have a bit more time I want to dive into this more!

Penny for your thoughts

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