Communicative theory rocks the late 20th century

Thomas Leverett, Feb. 2008

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When I entered my graduate school with the intention of being an esl/efl teacher, the communicative revolution was in full swing. Having studied the Russian revolution only a couple of year earlier, I winced at the term "revolution," picturing Bakhunin, Trotsky and other victims of the tyranny of a revolution's dogma and fanaticism, all while dutifully taking in the theory that graduate school had to offer. The teaching world that I jumped into, after graduating, was indeed even more dogmatic than graduate school itself, where questioning of the prevailing theory was at least accepted, if not encouraged.

Communicative theory had arrived in around 1970 and had overthrown the prevailing focus on grammar and translation methods. It focused on the strategies and skills involved in oral interaction, and was introduced with the following explanation: fourteen years of grammar training meant nothing, if a learner was unable to produce a reasonable answer to the question, "How's it going?", which was in fact quite common in those days as a greeting. Communicative theory taught us that teachers had to be aware of the nuances of oral interaction, so that we could prepare our students for the day-to-day scenarios that they were likely to find themselves in; they had to be able to order food in a restaurant, tell a taxi driver where they were going, etc. And in fact we learned how to teach these things in the classroom, and were even expected to do so.

At the time, though I was still mulling over the theoretical underpinnings of the theory, I had to admit that at its core it clearly had some merit. Asia, where a huge number of English language learners were actively involved in the process of learning, had fallen into regarding language as a science, much like mathematics, to be taught by intellectual professors who understood complex rules and arcane facts; in fact, English classes in most parts of Asia were still taught in the native language, and involved very little actual use of the language; therefore, such learners as the one above, unable to answer the simplest questions of oral interaction, but quite versed in arcane grammar and vocabulary, were quite common.

The problem was brought home to me early in my first year of teaching, when a Korean learner approached me and tried to tell me that he really wanted to be fluent, and he would like to know how. Unfortunately the word "fluent" contained all of the difficult sounds for Korean learners, and his sentence came out more like "I want to be 'pruhnt', which he of course repeated several times unsuccessfully. Our frustration bubbled over, but the incident pointed out that all of his years of training had failed to give him several crucial aspects of fluency: the ability to say it in more than one way; the ability to go back, and reproduce the more difficult sounds, more slowly and carefully; even the ability to spell it out quickly, avoiding the difficult discomfort of communicating nothing but frustration.

At one time while I was teaching I heard that the majority of communicative teachers had survived and even thrived in the earlier methods; had in fact learned a language, gone to a country, found themselves lacking, and decided that the methods of learning had been at fault. This was in fact true of me; I had learned Spanish in high school, gone to Mexico, and found that I had to start at the beginning with the basics of oral interaction. I think that was assumed about learning language; people often said that they'd learned some language for a few years, and then found it very difficult to actually use it; almost as if they had no choice but to go to the place, be frustrated for a while, and just make their way in the darkness until they could begin to use some of the grammar and vocabulary that they had picked up in their lessons. Communicative theory said that this face-to-face spadework was an integral part of the language learning process, and therefore had to be taught right away, preferably in the first classroom lessons.

Krashen provided some, though not all, of the theoretical underpinnings of communicative theory, and his name was used often in those days, both in my graduate classrooms and in my first years of teaching. A number of things that he had written clearly resonated with teachers in the field, to the point that it was very difficult to question anything he said. For example, the distinction between acquisition and learning was something that classroom teachers had noticed for years, and that was immediately apparent to me, as a teacher, after just months of serious full-time teaching. Another concept that resonated strongly was that of I + 1; teachers knew almost instinctively, after a while, when speaking went over a student's head; it was also clearly obvious that speech right at their level, and a little harder, was best for their acquisition. Without getting into the difficulty of proving these, or the mechanics of his other hypotheses, I'll only say here that he was considered in high regard, and his insights into language learning were almost universally accepted and enthusiastically followed.

In instilling the need to teach basic strategic competence in oral interactions to students, the communicative revolution actually added to the teacher's load, because, basically, students could not be convinced that grammatical accuracy was not important. Communicative theorists were more than willing to take that time away from arcane grammatical explanation, pointing out that teacher's time spent this way was pointless, given the circumstances. Still, teachers would set up conversational situations, get students practicing using English, only to have students stop them to ask for explanations of grammatical points that came up. My bosses at the time directed me NOT to spend my time explaining grammar, and in fact expected me to explain to students that this was not the point, that rather they should just get to the business of speaking, and not worry so much about it. It was not so much that grammar was not important, it was more that if excessive concern about right/wrong was to impede basic communication, then it really was in the way (the concern, not the bad grammar), and the student's approach had to be corrected. These students, it was felt, must be able to carry on basic conversations, and if they were too hung up on being "right," then they would never be able to produce anything. And in fact we teachers saw this a lot.

I had one colleague who explained that when he was asked for grammatical explanation, he simply refused to give it. He would tell his students, "Nobody ever gave me grammatical explanation when I was a child, and I still became fluent, by listening and speaking at every opportunity; you should do the same." His comment reflected what I felt was a common misperception: that second language learning was the same as first language learning. A better restatement of communicative theory was that it was natural, as was first language learning, and would follow its own natural process, given the right input and right attention given to it by the learner. I don't think Krashen, or other communicative theorists, ever maintained that the two were the same. Nevertheless, many teachers took their teaching to at least imply that.

As a product of communicative theory education I dutifully set out to correct this problem. I put my students in pairs and groups; I got them speaking at every opportunity; I became a "facilitator" instead of a fount of grammatical wisdom or an encyclopedia of arcane vocabulary usage. In the back of my mind I worried that, if I were only a facilitator, then I could be replaced by a person who was much more adept at social coordinating and, in fact, who would not have to even be fluent in English. In fact I was much more interested in the process of grammatical acquisition, and noticed that students' persistent questions and badgering on the subject seemed to be a natural part of the process, even when they accepted the philosophical underpinnings of the oral interaction activities that we were doing, and focused on their oral production abilities.

In fact there was resistance to the communicative model, and to the oral interviews that our program had set up as progress evaluations, totally scrapping grammar exams such as the TOEFL which would more accurately get at their sophistication in understanding the interaction of grammatical rules. Students were not happy to find out that the years, in many cases twelve, fourteen, or more, of studying grammar were next to worthless in this situation, and that they were assigned to the bottom level on the basis of being unable to respond fluidly to a stream of native-speaker inquiries into their general well-being. This resistance became organized and generated its own research, in time, but while I was teaching, it was little more than grumbling on the part of those who placed at the bottom; not only my native-speaking bosses, but also the university and the company who employed it, all considered communicative theory to be the prevailing theory of the day, and set up the curriculum accordingly.

One problem that I noticed immediately was that there was a shortage of materials that really catered to what we were teaching. How exactly do you teach someone to become more comfortable in personal conversations with other English speakers? We watched a lot of videos; we spoke often in small groups (and students watched carefully how native speakers interacted, both with them and with each other); but, when they were in pairs with each other, they were often unable to pick up skills that made them appear to be more fluent in oral interaction skills. Rules of intonation, word stress, and discourse were rarely written in ways that made it possible to teach them; there were very few textbooks that took communicative theory and systematically led students through a process of becoming more comfortable in personal conversations. This has certainly changed by now, but, nevertheless, the skills involved in mastering intonation, word stress and discourse have proven very slippery and difficult to pin down in textbook form.

My experience in the heart of the communicative revolution raised more questions for me than provided answers; I never, even for a moment, bought communicative theory hook line and sinker, yet was fascinated by the conflicts that arose as a part of the process of incorporating it into daily teaching regimen. The first question had to do with the role of grammatical explanation in teaching adults. As I stated earlier, the questions were persistent, sincere and natural, even for learners who understood and agreed with the communicative methodology. How were we to handle these? I myself just answered them the best I could, and moved on; I tried to discern whether that was a point of learning for the student, or whether there was any noticeable progress with that grammatical structure, after the question had been asked.

A second question involved the rest of Krashen's theories, and their relation to Chomskian linguistics. I had been much less impressed with Chomsky than with Krashen in graduate school, and, upon becoming a teacher, had found Krashen's ideas much more practical on a daily basis. But, and this is the central question of this series of writings: where had Chomsky gone wrong? Where was Krashen mistaken? In the ensuing years, Krashen was scorned by acquisitionists; his theories vague and unprovable; Chomsky, however, still sits on a lofty perch, with few detractors. I respect each for changing their fields dramatically and permanently, but have yet to pin down what aspects of their theories are most misguided, and to what degree, if at all.

A third question involved the tricky relationship between culture and language, and the role of cultural imperialism in the teaching of language. When moving away from grammar and vocabulary and toward the skills involved in oral interaction, the line between culture and language becomes less distinct. Intonation- that's language, but rules of discourse? My colleagues made no apology, and just said (for the most part): language and culture are indistinguishable, if you want one, you have to accept the other, and learn them together. This was not so much a problem abroad, where both language and culture were in short supply, and were considered exotic, but upon return to the US, where many international students wanted and needed the language, but were very wary of the culture, seeing some of what they considered moral depravity that went along with it. The question remains: is there a line? Can language be learned without culture? Does a set of cultural assumptions underlie a language such that one cannot have and use one, without at least adapting the other, temporarily?

A fourth question involved the primacy of oral interaction in mastery of a language, and in a language in general. It was standard theory, at the time, that face-to-face fluency was a necessary first step of language learning; that one had to get some basic listening, basic fluency on a sentence level and basic response ability before one could expect to be a good writer, for example, or move to complex readings. Along with this philosophy was acceptance of the "Silent Period" theory, which said that second language learners, like young children, should not be expected to produce anything at the beginning of their language training, since their first task was basic understanding, and in particular listening. Needless to say this further enforced the general misperception that first and second language learning were the same. When I got back to the US, it also proved impractical, as adult rank beginners who were actually in the US to study English rarely had the luxury of going even a week without actually having to say anything, let alone read basic signs like exit, no smoking, etc. The question has in my mind been muddied by several developments and observations. The first is that detailed research on languages of the deaf have revealed that oral interaction is not a necessary foundation of language development. Second, some learners are so profoundly visually-oriented that they cannot understand words unless they can see them, or at least relate what they hear to what they can see in their minds. And finally, all of the culture is changing toward use of writing-based, online chat, almost as if the roles of oral and written languages are being exchanged. Written language is used more often between strangers; is more likely to develop dialectically, is more likely to be used in isolated environments where it can change and develop; is more likely to show shortened forms that change their character due to extensive use in particular environments. Is it possible that languages can start with written forms? Is it possible that, regardless of the history of mankind and its languages, language can start its development in the writing realm, and then become oral?

(Feb. 2008)

Note: The following was posted at in 2008, and was restored here in 2011.