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Foreign Language Teaching 101: The Communicative Approach


Foreign language teaching has changed throughout the years. In the previous era, teachers would enter the classroom and begin the transfer of information, while the role of the language students was also clearly defined: to listen, take notes, study, and eventually learn. However, through observation, studies, and experimentation, we discovered that language teaching is more complex in practice. It requires the educator attending the methods of presentation of the new information, while also providing the right circumstances for developing the competencies, skills, and abilities of the students. The following series will explore some of the methodology and aspects of language teaching while also looking at the different mediums used by educators and learners.

The Foreign Language Teaching 101 series is divided into six chapters:

The Communicative Approach

In the years between the two World Wars and around the mid-20th century, schools of foreign languages employed audiolingual and situational methods. Though these two methods differed from one another, both utilized repetitions of language chunks, as well as a structural approach to the language. The structural approach meant that pundits of the time saw language as a system of structurally related elements that carried meaning. Thus, language education was regarded as the mastery of the elements of this system which were described in terms of phonological units (e.g., phonemes), grammatical units (e.g., clauses, phrases, sentences), grammatical operations (e.g., adding, shifting, joining, or transforming elements), and lexical items (e.g., function words and structure words) (Richards & Rodgers, 2014, p. 23).

Image 1. Brandt. (2018). "English Lesson Home Work".

As soon as the countries opened to one another after the Second World War, it soon became clear that following audiolingual and situational methods did not yield hugely successful speakers of the target language. Above all, learners' need to communicate in a foreign language had not been properly addressed while there was a growing need for teaching language for specific purposes, such as academic, engineering, business, etc.; this shows the functionality of the language was an essential aspect that had not been taken into account during education. Therefore, the call for a new paradigm for language teaching was identified and the communicative approach was developed as an answer to the inadequacy of the structural methods (Hedge, 2000).

In 1972, the term communicative competence was coined by Hymes as resistance towards Noam Chomsky's linguistic competence. Chomsky defined the term ‘competence’ as merely the speaker-hearer’s knowledge of the language and Hymes described communicative’ as encompassing not only the knowledge of the language rules but also the ability to use that knowledge in the process of communication (Hedge, 2000).

Thereafter, the communicative approach became popular in the 1980s, and the British applied linguists, Christopher Brumfit, Candlin, Keith Johnson, Wilkins, and Widdowson contributed to its theoretical development. The Council of Europe, a regional organization that focuses on cultural and educational cooperation, also participated in the process by describing the terminology of the functional language categories, such as requests, offers, complaints, and concepts such as time, frequency, quantity, in a syllabus for communicative language specifications. This Council of Europe’s syllabus influenced the design of communicative language programs and textbooks to enable learners to successfully interact with other users of the language in a wide range of different situations and for various purposes throughout Europe (Richards & Rodgers, 2014, p. 85). The components to be addressed in the communicative approach are: linguistic competence, pragmatic competence, discourse competence, strategic competence, and fluency.

Image 2. Antenna. (2018). "Taller Bloc".

Linguistic competence is related to the knowledge of the language, its rules, and its practical application. It involves the mastery of spelling, pronunciation, word formation, grammatical structures, sentence structure, and semantics. The ability to correctly name or write the objects in a place and accurately use verbs, adjectives and adverbs in sentences show that the learner is gaining competence in the target language. Linguistic competence is usually incrementally acquired, described as levels of language abilities - elementary, intermediate, and proficient, to name a few.

In general, the proponents of the communicative approach agree that linguistic competence is an essential part of communicative competence. However, there are a variety of trends or opinions about the amount of time that should be dedicated to the development of linguistic skills. Additionally, experts are not unanimous about what the most effective classroom activities are or what the ratio between exposure to new information and practice of that new information should be.

Pragmatic competence is sometimes referred to as functional competence and is concerned with the ability to use language to accomplish a certain communication goal. It divides the language into different functions, such as describing an event, predicting the future, and expressing regret about the past. It examines the structure, sentence order, and common phraseology typically employed by speakers when performing any of those. For example, ‘It was a beautiful summer day’ or ‘Heavy rains are expected later this week.’ Moreover, there is another component in the functionality or the pragmatic competence, which is the register or the social context to use a given utterance. Teachers must build awareness in different registers – polite, formal, written, causal, informal, and colloquial – also the context of the language used.

Image 3. Thian. (2018). (n.d).

Discourse competence involves the skills to comprehend and participate in a conversation between two or more people. Demonstrating an ability to participate in a dialogue involves knowing what information to put first when answering a question. This includes not only knowing what cohesive devices are typically used, for ex, pronouns, linking words, and transitional phrases but also being aware of what is appropriate for interrupting a speaker, checking what to mean, and confirming information. For example,

Paul Did you hear about the accident?

Fransisco No, what happened?

Paul Well, a long truck skidded and fell on its’ side on the highway, and two other cars ran into it.

Fransisco Wow, was anyone hurt?

Paul Yes, probably. The driver of the truck and two other passengers were taken to hospital, they said.

Jackie It must have been the frosty weather last night.

All of the above needs to be examined in relation to written language as well.

Strategic competence is used when learners encounter a difficult situation trying to convey a thought or opinion due to a lack of vocabulary or grammar knowledge. Students must be able to compensate for that by rephrasing or describing what they meant to say. For example:

'Where is the…, you know, that thing we use when it rains, like a tent.

Oh, you mean the umbrella?

Yes, the umbrella. I can’t find it anywhere.'

Even though specialists are not convinced that strategic competence can be learned, they agree that teachers can help learners develop these skills through the education process by asking appropriate questions such as ‘What does this mean?,’ or 'How do you say…?,' or 'What is …. called?'

The last component of the communicative approach is fluency or the ability to link phrases in one’s speech without excessive interruptions, slowness of speech, or hesitation. In order to achieve fluency, learners need to have developed a certain level of knowledge of the previous four aspects – linguistic, functional, strategic, and discourse.

Image 4. Akson. (2018). "The 44th teaching building of Tianjin University".

Since the communicative approach focuses on the development of the ability to communicate in the target language, practicing this communication process should take a central part during lessons. This is achieved through various classroom tasks such as ‘gap activities’ where students need to exchange information with one another in order to complete the task. The goal of these classroom activities is to simulate authentic communication as closely as possible.

Together with these activities, the communicative classroom must provide opportunities for learners to experiment with the language, make mistakes, and test language patterns without focusing too sternly on the accuracy of expression. Additionally, students should study in parallel the receptive (reading and listening) and the productive (speaking and writing) skills needed to develop the above-listed five competencies.

Image 5. Ebrahim. (2019). (n.d).

There are some issues with this approach to foreign language teaching that have been pointed out since it gained popularity around the globe. Those include:

  • The fact that it is not always clear what learners do during the communicative tasks, whether they are using them as directed, and do they produce inaccurate language that could eventually be falsely learned;

  • Teacher’s confidence in their proficiency in the language which when lacking may result in focusing on the structural elements of the language instead of on communication;

  • The cultural appropriateness of classroom materials and tasks – their aptness in diverse local and international contexts and cultures.

Despite the downsides, the principles of the communicative approach have become a common practice in language education nowadays, as it provided a solid and comprehensible base for further development and adjustment of practices in foreign language teaching. This will therefore support the teacher to be the students' facilitator which can create a pleasant environment needed for language exchange and the learning process. Not only that, but it will also help the learners become more engaged in their studies, as well as more autonomous and in charge of their learning.

Bibliographical References

Dornyei, Z. (2009). "10 Communicative Language Teaching in the twenty-first century: 'the Principled Communicative Approach'". Perspectives, 36 (2).

Hedge, T. (2000). Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom. Oxford University Press.

Molina, GT, Cañado, ML, & Agulló, GL. (2005). "Chapter 4, Current approaches and teaching methods. Bilingual programmes". TEFL in Secondary Education, University of Granada Editorial, 155-209.

Richards, J. C., & Rodgers, T. S. (2014). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (3rd ed.). Cambridge Language Teaching Library. Cambridge University Press.

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Gery Ciftcioglu

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