In this new installment of our mini-articles on second language acquisition, I would like to address a concern common both in teachers and in students. Almost everyone has heard about the need for authentic communication in the classroom and almost every single course on the market and even classrooms say they are communicative in nature. Nevertheless, upon completion of those courses, students fail to engage in even basic conversations. How is this possible?
For obvious reasons, even though in theory living abroad could be the best alternative to learn a language, not always is it practical or feasible to engage in this kind of fascinating adventure. Our everyday lives and responsibilities, our job, family, and many other factors may prevent us from doing this, so we may wonder if the only two choices we have are either to spend several years in the classroom doing grammar, hoping to communicate one day or being abroad.
The classroom is not a bad choice IF the teacher who is in front of us has a communicative approach in mind, and emphasizes the cultural and communicative nature of it. How can you tell if this is the case? Simply put, when you are given materials and activities to deal with in class, just ask yourself this question:
“Could I use this in Real life?”
If the answer is “YES,” then you are more likely than not in a communicative classroom.
If the answer is “NO,” and every time or most of the time you do an activity with your teacher you keep answering the same, it would be advisable to consider other learning options.
Mind you, I am not saying here that every single activity done in class must be communicative. I feel that teachers need to be eclectic enough to choose what is best for their students at any given moment and stage of their learning. Even in communicative classrooms you may need to do some drilling, grammar must be presented, you study vocabulary of course and you may not be able to answer “YES” to the previous question on each and every single occasion.
We are now going to analize two different situations in which two different teachers use two different approaches. Let’s imagine that at their stage, their students need to learn the past tense.
In most language courses nowadays, the teacher comes to class and says or writes on the board: “Topic: The Past.” A long list of grammar patterns and rules follow. Later on, after talking about those rules and going into details about exceptions and every possible situation that ever appeared on earth, the never-missing drilling and practice come into play. Students are then given many exercises to master that tense and in a relatively short period of time they seem to be quite proficient in the use of the new structures.
The teacher is happy, the students are happy. It looks like the job has been done, and it is perfect from every point of view, that is… until the student has to use those structures in a real situation, in real communication outside the class. S/he dries up, remembers nothing, says very little_if anything_ and frustration takes over. This scenario takes place every single day in these kinds of classrooms where language is atomized or presented as patterns and structures without a real communicative purpose.
Now let’s analize the same situation from a communicative perspective. The teacher knows their students need to learn the past at this stage. Instead of entering the classroom and saying “today we’ll study the past tense,” he or she can create situations for the students to deal with past events in many different ways. They could start by watching a video segment taken from the news, which is usually in the past (audio-visual comprehension listening to REAL language), or the students may be invited to read about an event that took place in the past (reading comprehension / real language again). Later on they may be encouraged to make conversations about what they have seen or read, or maybe asked to explain what they did on some special event. All these activities are communicative in nature. How do you know? Well, simply ask:
“Could I use or do this in real life?”
Obviously you can. You could watch a video or read a report in real life, you always talk to people about these things and about events that happened to you and the main aim, both in the classroom and in your life is to express your ideas through language. In short, we are being communicative; we are using the language with a communicative purpose in mind, not just to learn the rules to form the past.
However, while trying to express themselves, the students will make LOTS of mistakes or they will find themselves at a loss for words, structures, etc. When that happens, it is the right moment to introduce the grammar and vocabulary they need to learn, but only at that time. They need to express their ideas and lack the means to do so. So that is the right time to present, teach and systematize those items. So you teach in a real communicative setting. After the explanations that could use many of the students’ mistakes as a springboard for comments, the students are made aware of those underlying rules needed in order to get their message across. After that, some drilling must take place for them to gain good control of the structures they have just seen.
Although the drilling and the explanations about those structures may not be communicative in nature, they arose out of a real communicative need. It goes without saying that after that, on many different occasions, they should be given new and lots of opportunities to put their ideas into practice and make lots of mistakes! This is perfectly right! It would be utopic to expect our students to produce perfectly correct phrases after being presented with new patterns; it will take them some time to incorporate them and that is great. Next time they speak and make mistakes in these items, you may refer to what they have studied as a reminder to them.
In conclusion, we have seen that we can teach or learn the same from two different angles, one structural in nature and the other communicative. A combination of both is the ideal, as we discussed earlier. Up to this point you may have been at a loss while trying to tell whether your work was communicative or not. Now you know that there is a simple question to answer when you want to know if what you or your teacher is doing is appropriate to help you communicate in the long run. “Could I use this in real life?”
If you could use the language you are learning in a real setting, you know you are definitely in a communicative classroom. If you can’t, it would not be unwise to try a different teaching or learning approach.