Saturday 24 September 2011

Teaching languages vs. teaching learners

In the very first post of this blog, I stated my persuasion that many misconceptions about multilingualism stem from our habit of assigning centre stage to languages and their properties, in matters of language learning, use and assessment. My persuasion is also that the main players in language matters are people and their abilities.

What I mean is this: teaching properties of languages, that is, the “grammar” of languages, is a fine, time-honoured educational goal. Just like we need to understand what angles, friction and sepals are, we need to understand what phonemes, metaphor or subjunctives are. I even do this for a living. But this kind of knowledge is a different kind of knowledge from the one that enables us to use angles, metaphors or subjunctives. Likewise, you don’t attempt to teach someone to cook by describing recipes to them. It’s the cooking and the languaging that make a proficient cook and a proficient language user, respectively.

Saying that we’re teaching languages when we’re in fact teaching their grammar, the grammar of their sounds included, has one side effect: we end up persuaded that languages possess some kind of “integrity” which keeps being threatened by monolingual and multilingual users alike. For language learners, this results in learner uses being labelled with learning-unfriendly terms like “second” and “foreign”, which refer to differences instead of similarities, and thus highlight stumbling blocks instead of know-how.

I can give a few examples, from my experience as both a language learner and a language teacher. If English, say, is your only language so far, and you wish to learn Mandarin, you may become persuaded that Mandarin tones are not for you because English “has” no tones, forgetting that tones draw on pitch and that we all use pitch in our languages in one way or another; or if Portuguese is your choice of new language, you may come to think that you can’t say psicose with [ps] because you say ‘sychosis with [s], and not think that you can and do say [ps] in English in a word like caps. English “does not have” nasalised vowels either, so you may well be told that you can get away with pronouncing French words like tant, ton, teint as ‘taunt’, ‘tonne’, ‘taint’, more or less as they are spelt, because spelling pronunciations, those following the spelling conventions of the languages that you are used to read, are generally expected from language learners. If no French-speaking person understands you, no problem: just produce paper and pen, or a mobile device where you can type things, and write the words that you can spell but cannot say. Everyone will appreciate your efforts, because literacy skills in a new language are also generally expected to beat spoken skills.

Cartoon © Dinusha Uthpala Upasena
In Cruz-Ferreira, M. Multilinguals are ...?

Focus on the languages is also what, to my mind, spawned the view of accent training as addition and/or reduction. The rationale seems to be that some accents “have” bits and pieces which can be missing or superfluous in other accents, respectively. But languages, and accents, cannot “have” things. Stating, as we do informally, that a language “does not have” a particular voiced fricative, say, does not entail that speakers of that language cannot pronounce that voiced fricative. All of us can produce voiced sounds and all of us can produce fricative sounds, so producing a particular voiced fricative is a matter of making it clear to learners that they’ve already got the voiced bit and the fricative bit, and what they need to do is to work from there to put both bits together.

Daniel Silverman, in his 2006 book A critical introduction to phonology. Of sound, mind, and body, points out that, when we speak, we are not targeting ideal “phonemes” that live in our minds, but targeting articulations which make our speech intelligible to other users of the same language. That is, we target vocal tract gestures, and all human beings come equipped with vocal tracts. It is the coordinated effect of these gestures which makes up what we call, informally, “the sounds of a language”.

Focusing away from the language in “language learning” to focus instead on the learning means focusing on the learner: we learn by drawing on what we already can do, so that we know what we need to do. Learner accents are not the problem, they are part of the solution of acquiring an intelligible use of a new language. But there is a snag: unless you, as a language learner, enrol in a dedicated pronunciation course, part of the self-fulfilling prophecy that new accents are beyond learners is the common practice of tucking away pronunciation instruction at the very end of language textbooks – if, that is, pronunciation is part of a textbook at all. As if to make sure that, in case there is no time to finish the syllabus (which is another interesting issue), pronunciation will be the thing you are bound to skip. I’ll leave this for next time.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Vocal gestures. Saturday 1st October 2011.


  1. I love your blog. Thank you! I found you in the comment section of RG when you were talking about "learning a language" vs "learning about the language".
    PS: I'm bad grammarian hehe

  2. Idelia: The RG discussion where I talk about “bad grammarians” (*smiles!!*) is here – for the benefit of other blog readers:
    Can a L2 learner with no formal learning in L1, learn a L2 in a formalized classroom setting? This classroom setting being in her native country

    Many thanks for mentioning it and for your kind words about my work!



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