Why Communication is Critical in Language Learning
By: Joseph Liang
One of the five goals of National Standards for Learning Languages is communication. Communication can mean one-way communication, such as announcements, presentations, or missives. It can also mean two-way conversation or dialogue.
As a Mandarin Chinese teacher, I take this goal as mainly focusing on oral proficiency speaking the target language. As pointed out by Noam Chomsky, one of the features of human speech is its generative use of learned words. We humans don’t just parrot back what is heard, we actively use the learned vocabulary to generate never before said sentences to express ourselves.
In Mandarin Chinese classes for novice learners, this can take many steps before students will be able to generate sentences uniquely expressing what they want to communicate. Usually after introducing a sentence pattern I will ask students to formulate what they want to say using the sentence structure. This practice usually takes several tries for my students to get used to the syntaxes and tones right.
Immersion is the preferred method of foreign language teaching and learning. However, when we teachers use the immersive method, it’s usually one teacher immerses the whole class of students. It’s a very different process from which a language learner who travels to China, being totally immersed in a mandarin milieu. I find this reverse immersion is an arduous process.
Due to the variety of dialects within China proper, throughout centuries the Chinese authorities prefer to use printed materials to communicate to the mass. Thus, Chinese communication is often heavily relied on printed materials, such as newspapers, public bulletins, and official announcement of policies. Most local news are broadcast along with closed captions to communicate with a variety of viewers within China.
I think interpersonal communication is the most basic goal of my teaching to learner’s competence. Interpretive mode of communication takes a different kind of training than basic oral proficiency. In presentational mode students usually have more control and time to polish their presentations.
I believe, in live classes, the interpersonal mode of communication should be the emphasis. And homework or assignments will be emphasized on interpretive and presentational mode of communication.
An ideal foreign language classroom will be 90% target language use, and students speak 75% of the time. In the new year I will set my personal teaching goal to approach those figures.
Language instruction is essentially communication using all three modes to communicate the target language. I find notional words, such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives, are easy to teach, students grasp them relatively quickly. The real challenge is those more abstract syncategorematic words, their usages are heavily dependent on context and colloquial pragmatics. These words and their usages take more time to get used to and to get a sense of their linguistic pragmatics will take practicing in a variety of settings where the specific word is used.
Teacher’s Corner is a PLI Blog contribution section dedicated to articles and posts written by Proximity Learning Teachers and Educators.