Friday, 14 August 2015

Relationship between linguistics and classroom teaching

The linguist and the teacher

It would not probably be untrue to say there was never a moment in the formal teaching of language when linguistics has not had a say in deciding the language content. Decisions about words and structures were always taken, and fluctuation has always been there in deciding the language mode through which language needed to be introduced. The teacher had always taken decisions for the absentee or non-existent linguist. Non-teachers like Erasmus, Marcel, Prendengast, Sweet certainly there were. But teachers like Quintilian, Palsgrave, Hoole, Hamilton, Ollendroff, Gouin, Pestalozzi, Palmer were the ones who provided principles of language teaching. While West was wedded to reforms on practical concerns, Vietor, Passy, Jesperson were teacher-turned-phoneticians. However, like in the 18th century when teachers in general used only existing form language study in spite of increasing interest in historical and comparative studies of languages, language teaching theorists except Palmer at the turn of the century hardly revealed any distinct awareness of the need to use linguistics in its new formal shape. (As though reciprocally!) neither did the theoretical linguists concern themselves with issues in language teaching, say the question of vocabulary control.

But with the arrival of Bloomfield and his Language, everything changed. Both were to have tremendous influence on linguists and language teaching. Bloomfield was critical of conventional language teaching. Linguists became more interested in his concepts and began to refine and use them for more rigorous descriptions of languages. Linguistics had come of age and had become a discipline in its own right. Fries and his colleagues rejected approaches like the Direct Method and, applying structural linguistics, showed how the sound system, the structures and the most useful lexical material could be derived from available linguistic knowledge and organised for language teaching purposes. and with them the linguist had arrived in the language teaching, and the teacher had to follow him. The applied linguist began to tell the teacher what to teach and how to teach. The teacher was supposed to remember constantly the most compelling commandment: Teach the language, not about the language.

A sudden transformation had come about. The teacher without a grounding in linguistics would not be considered knowledgeable, let alone be permitted to contribute to language teaching. The arrival of transformational generative grammar did not help though questions began to be raised about the role of linguistics in language teaching. Now the teacher had to know about deep structure, too. He had to make sure learning took place through problem-solving tasks.

This was not the end of the story. Hymes questioned Chomsky’s linguistic competence and introduced communicative competence. Newer concepts and practices for the benefit of the teacher of course have emerged in the garb of communicative language teaching. And since about 1970 linguistics has begun the study of language beyond the sentence through discourse analysis. And in between these developments, English for Specific Purposes with its language variations, registers, discourse is another thing the teacher has to contend with. And he has to comprehend creative construction hypothesis as a counter claim to interference hypothesis of contrastive linguistics. And for the teacher of literature, stylistics has changed the colours of critical appreciation by introducing and emphasising the linguistic aspects of a literary piece.

Curriculum, syllabus, materials writing have become sophisticated and are supposed to reflect in their objectives, language content, texts and techniques, of course for the benefit of the teacher, a given theory and its realisation in pedagogical terms. Teacher trainers are also expected to introduce the teacher to all new, ever-growing innovations, classroom techniques geared to successful teaching: motivate, draw and retain attention through presentation, arouse the learner through thinking exercises, consolidate, revise, remediate. A variety of drills for pattern practice has become central to classroom techniques. Language teaching also reflects the theoretical concepts that have formed the base for the edifice of language teaching. And the teacher is supposed not only to know how to write test items in conformity with the underlying concepts but to be able to evaluate objectively learner performance, achievement, proficiency.

Now the question is whether or not linguistics is behind the teacher, whether or not linguistics has a place in the classroom, whether or not a knowledge of linguistics is useful to the (classroom) teacher who teaches mechanically might not need a knowledge of linguistics to perform for he is likely to follow the text and the syllabus blindly, and his failure would be that of the writers of materials, syllabus and curriculum. And technically he might not be wrong. However, as no curriculum, no syllabus, no text can bring to classroom a theory in its fullness, in its richness, as none of them can minimise the inherent weaknesses, the teacher becomes responsible.