Wednesday 10 October 2012

Teaching *about* languages

What does it mean to say that you “know” a language? The English verb know can refer to different kinds of knowledge, two of which are especially relevant to matters of language and language learning.

One kind of knowledge, sometimes called procedural knowledge, involves know-how: you know how to tie your shoelaces, for example, because you’ve practised doing it over and over again, without necessarily being able to explain what is involved in shoelace-tying. The other, declarative knowledge, involves know-that: you may talk about what people do when they tie their shoelaces, without necessarily being able to do it yourself.

All of us have know-how knowledge of the languages that we need to use regularly, simply by using them regularly. In contrast, know-that knowledge about our languages, that is, awareness of the machinery which makes them work and of the technical terminology that describes it, comes through deliberate study. Knowing the latter kinds of things about languages is the job of linguists – or grammarians, which often amounts to pretty much the same. Linguists and grammarians may know, declaratively, that Portuguese has personal infinitives and double negatives, say, without knowing, procedurally, how to use them.

The issue is then what do learners mean, when they enrol in language courses because they want to “know” a new language. Some of them will be happy to acquire both kinds of knowledge of that language, which is fine: it’s a matter of choice and of learning preferences. But most, I suspect, will just want to be able to use the language. To me, choice and learning preferences are precisely the issue: I think it odd that imparting declarative knowledge of languages to learners has virtually become synonymous with language teaching across the board. You can read an account of the resilient confusion between linguistic know-how and linguistic know-that, among specialists and laypeople alike, in my paper ‘First language acquisition and teaching’, included in a collection titled Applied Folk Linguistics.

Assuming that language learners must learn the components and workings of their new languages is like assuming that in order to be able to use a mobile phone device you must learn what microprocessors, amplifiers and bandpass filters are, and what they do to make your phone work.

Teaching the grammar of a phone in order to teach how to use a phone?

Image © Techie111 (Wikimedia Commons)

Maybe this assumption explains why so many of us have come to see language learning as boring, difficult, useless, technical and “not for me”?

The belief that what language learners really want is to become linguists could have its roots in the perception that know-that knowledge is (more) easily testable: the learner ticks boxes for questions like “Is this an example of active or passive voice?” or “How many short rounded close front vowels do you hear in Example 26?”, or underlines the object complements in a couple of example sentences, to match the set answers in a marking key. Or it could be that knowledge of grammar has long enjoyed the reputation of enhancing intellectual abilities and thus promoting civilised (linguistic) behaviour. Deborah Cameron, in a piece titled ‘Fantasy Grammar’, adds to this the “collective cultural fantasy” which has conceptualised the teaching of grammar “as a way of inculcating the values grammar stands for – discipline, order and respect for the rules.” (Thank you for pointing me to this article, Sunita!)

Someone, in the classroom, must of course know about the language you’re being taught – and, if you’re lucky, also about your other languages. That will be your language teacher, who is trained to use this knowledge in order to help you make sense of your new language for your purposes. I nevertheless find it also odd that the specialist knowledge about language “properties” which is routinely taught to language teachers and, through them, to language learners, turns out to be a rather selective kind of knowledge. We do have to learn about plural umlauts, the passé composé and noun phrase concord affixes, but seldom, if at all, about what makes a spoken language a spoken language: its prosody, which remains a source of breakdowns in spoken communication, by all (specialist) accounts known to me ever since I first set out, many years ago, to investigate how and why this is so.

The next post will have something to say about how and why prosody is crucial for hassle-free language use.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Friendly speakers and friendly listeners. Saturday 20th October 2012.


  1. Hi Madalena

    Do you think procedural and declarative knowledge (about languages and otherwise) are always at odds with one another, as in the more one knows about something declaratively, the less one is able to use it procedurally?


  2. Not at all, Deborah. My point is just that declarative and procedural knowledge are two quite different kinds of knowledge. Linguists who are also multilinguals, for example, may have both kinds of knowledge about their languages, but there is no “zero-sum” effect such as the one you suggest on these knowledges as a result.

    The traditional take is that declarative linguistic knowledge will have the opposite effect to what you suggest on procedural linguistic knowledge: if you know the grammar of a language, you’ll speak/use it “better”. Linguists are again a good counterexample to this claim: many of us know the grammar of languages that we neither speak nor use in any other way.
    Thanks for asking!



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