New Directions in FL Education

Dr. Leon James
University of Hawaii
(c) 1974

There are two widespread views in the academic literature about the teaching-learning process.  We shall refer to these as the communication hypothesis and the natural growth hypothesis.

The argument for the communication hypothesis can be developed as follows.  At the outset, a distinction is created between internal to the individual and external to the individual.  The external which has been separated from the individual, is now relinked to it by a channel.  This channel is a mechanism that allows the transmission of messages.  Messages are formal representations of the external.  Representations that are free of error are true to fact, valid, real.  This set of assumptive statements in the communication hypothesis is then used to account for such processes as learning an socialization.  For instance, culture is defined as a large set of messages that exists outside the individual.  The process of socialization is interpreted as involving the transmission of this set of messages to new human beings through the channels of communication. One special subset of messages is classed under the rubric of education.  Society entrusts the transmission of this subset to institutions called "educational," sucha s the school.  The school employs people who have been duly designated as teachers.  What teachers do in the school is called teaching.  Thus, according to the communication hypothesis, teaching is the transmission of messages from the teacher to the pupil via the instructional language.   These messages are formally reposited in the curriculum.

Students are individual, usually young, who have been designeated by society as educationally ignorant, sometimes referred to as uneducated in the case of older idividuals, and who therefore spend a number of years inschools learning the curriculum.

It is common practice in schools to employ a number of different methods to accomplish the transmission work.  The effectiveness of a method is commonly viewed as a measure reflecting the number of messages successfully transmitted.  Successful transmission is tested by feedback, viz.  the number of sent messages the student is able to send right back.  Tests are held at various times, and when a predefined number in a predefined set is received back from the student, he is immediately graduated from school and designated "henceforth educated".

One more thing.  From time to time changes are made tot he curriculum which has the consequence that when henceforth educated people meet one another it often happens that their curriculum has very little overlap. In those situations they can be seen to engage each other in conflict.

That, then, is the argument for the communication hypothesis of the teaching-learning process.  Presently, we find the communication hypothesis a funny argument, though we say this with respect and humility for its believers, having been outselves proponents of it in our teachings for years, and remembering the sacred infallibility with which the hypothesis mesmerized us.  Perhaps, too, it may be that the communication hypothesis is wrong only in the sense that Newtonian Physics is considered wrong by today's relativists, which is to say that it is right for a restricted set of conditions, but wrong for the subsequent reality they have uncovered.

The historical origins of the natural growth hypothesis reflect its philosophy and content.  It was used throughout recorded history of soceity as the chief instructional strategy for training monks, priests, sorcerers, athletes, soldiers, performers, and political and religious leaders.  Though this method of teaching lost visibility with the advent of mass educational institutions, it retained a pivotal role in the teaching activities of society and is still prospering throughout many small layers of the social heirarchy, though on the North American continent it is excluded fromschool age people.

The natural growth hypothesis is essentially a biological theory.  It is empirical and objective, rather than inferential and speculative.  It takes the experiential here and now as the locus of the teaching focus, rather than the external and fixed curriculum.  There is no predefined curriculum to be transmitted.  There is no premise to graduate at a particular location.  Each learner is handled separetely and personally.  There are no dropouts or failures.  Success is defined as the point of quitting the apprenticeship.  There are however individual variations in quality of performance.  Quality of performance is defined by the elaborate opinions of other performers.  A mutual judging society.

To the tru believers of the communication hypothesis, which is to say to those to whom it is the model for all learning and teaching, the natural growth hypothesis makes no sense.  How can one have the notion of quality of performance as a result of a teaching learning transation without having a curriculum?  The paradox is insurmountable.

To the objective observer, however, the conceptual paradox does not present itself.  What does he see?  He sees an apprentice's performance improve over time.  He sees the conditions of that  improvement as the presence of the apprentice in the enviroment of the teacher.  He sees that, as a rule, when the apprentice quits the relationship his performance is not as good as that of the teacher, but that with practice he approaches in quality his teachers' performance and sometimes surpasses it.  All of this is clear, simple, experientially valid and direct.  Pretty soon, he is either in a fantasy world discussing communication and reinforcement theory or, in the midst of jolting paradoxes whereby the concepts deny the senses.

Experiential and Cognitive Learning

The distinction we have drawn between the communication hypothesis and the natural growth hypothesis recalls a comparable distinction more familiarly discussed in the literature as cognitive versus experiential learning.

The content of cognitive knowledge is specified in terms of messages or verbal statements, spoken and written.  The content of experiential knowledge is specified in terms of performances, physical or transactional.  For example, cognitive knowledge about the structure of language is specified in terms of statements and formulas produced by linguists.  Experiential knowledge about the structure of language is specified in terms of the successful performance in the production of sentences and discourse material.  For the amateur, cognitive and experiential skills occur independently.  For the professional, the may cooccur as when an ex football player becomes a coach, or when a language teacher teaches facts about a language to others.

Two Approaches to Foreign Language Teaching

We begin by considering various possible intentions for setting up a foreign language curriculum in the school.  One may be motivated by the intention to expose students to the study of a second language and culture.  A second motivation may be the intention to teach students a set of facts about a language, like what is a sentence in that language, what kind of patterns sentences have, what meanings a dictionary would list for some of its words, etc., as well as a set of fats about the language users, like what they eat for breakfast, or what they say when they greet one another, and so on.  A third intention in setting up a foreign language curriculum is to train students to perform as co participants in transactional interactions with speakers of that second language.  This third intention coincides grosso modo with what foreign language educators have discussed under the rubric of the ability to use the language, free or liberated expression, advanced foreign language training, and so one.

The instrumental motivation of studying a foreign language because it is a necessary part of the curriculum was created by the curriculum makers, in the first place, but in addition one can appreciate the fact that there is a vicious circularity to it whereby the content of the foreign language curriculum has been allowed to change in response to this motivation.  Thus, the universal audiolingualization of the curriculum in the school over the past twenty years has gradually been specialized in the service of this purely educational motivation.  Nowadays, given the wide use of standardized discrete point paper and pencil achievement tests, the foreign language class has been very efficiently geared to maximizing the number of students who can graduate with a foreign language study background that enables them to pass these standardized tests.

New Options Now

We now turn to a discussion of the instructional possibilities open to a well entrenched foreign language educational establishment.  An issue that has been on people's mind for a number of years relates to the possible diversification of the foreign language curriculum.  One aspect of this problem has to do with student options concerning the choice of the language to be studied, when to start, and for how many years.  Clearly it is the case that these sorts of opitons have been and continue to be rapidly expanding.  Another aspect has to do with choice of method to be used, and this has had a long and turbulent history, as we're all aware, sometimes painfully so.  A third aspect tot he diversification issue relates to the specification of a package of behavioral objectives, and it is here that we wish to linger for a while in our discussion.

In the United States, the entire public educational establishement is gearing itself towards this conception, long in the making.  Like standardized testing, accountability through behavioral objectives is an inevitable step in the historical evolution of the practice of mass education.  It seems important, therefore, to examine the kinds of problems that this development is raising for the foreign language teacher.

We see two sorts of problems involved.  The first is the choice of meaningful behavioral objectives for the foreign language course.  The second is their effective instruction.  Let us look at both of these.

First, the choice of meaningful behavioral objectives.  No doubt it can be appreciated that this problem is another version of one raised earlier in connection with the diversification of the foreign language curriculum.  If the goal is defined in terms of a predefined level of achievement on a standardized discrete point test, the problem of selecting behavioral objectives becomes a routine problem of transforming the items or subtests of standard language tests into smaller steps defined in operational terms relative to them.  But, now, if the goal is defined in terms of transactional performances, then it is clear the choice of appropriate behavioral objectives will depend on a suitable operational taxonomy of transactional performances.

Where does the teacher find such a taxonomic table?  The answer is quite simple:  he makes one up.  Does this answer startle you?  How does he make one up?  Let's talk about that.

One thing is quite clear.  Both the teacher and the pupil are expert transactional performers long before they walk into the language class on the first day.  But now the problem becomes the transference of transactional skill displayed with participants in one's first language to a new context, that of the second language.  Now it makes a big diffeence whether the language teacher coeives of his objectives in terms of the teaching of facts about a second language as opposed to the teaching of transactional displays in the context of a second language.  It is like the differenece between teaching facts about driving in a classroom and teaching driving performances in traffic.  The way you would measure achievement in the two cases will be quite different.  If you teach facts about driving, a discrete point paper and pencil test at the end of the ocurse may be an adequate basis for specifying behavioral objeftives.  But, if you teach driving performances, you would need a field test in which you observe the student's quality of performance in various traffic conditions.

Simple as this distinction may sound in the case of a driving ocurse, it has been greatly neglected and unrealized in the case of a foreign language course.  One of the reasons has been undoubtedly the failure of language test makers to prepare tests of transactional performances, and until they catch on to this, the language teacher will labor under the oppression of present day discrete point achievement tests that measure the student's knowledge of fats about the language.

We shall discuss this problem more fully in a moment, but now let us mention the second problem that confronts the language teacher after the selection of meaningful behavioral objectives:  how to teach them effectively.  It will be appreciated that a solution to this problem must be considered jointly with the nature of the behavioral objectives selected.  Let us look at an example.

Testing for Transactional Competence

Suppose that you have decided to draw up a graded series of exercises for the purpose of teaching a section of a foreign language course dealing with the use of conversation for transactional performances.  Your first step might be to draw up a taxonomic table of commonly occurring transactions.  You might come up with something like this:
1. Exchanging greetings
2. Making an apology
3. Expressing thanks
4. Taking leave

These are your four major instructional units.  Each of these will now be subdivided into subunits, possibly as follows:

1. Exchanging greetings
    1.a displaying visual acknowledgement
       b approaching
       c extending hands
       d saying "Bonjour"
       e smiling
       f squeezing hand firmly
       g releasing handshake

You notice that the style of this example is given in terms analogous to the stage directions one might give to a beginner actor.
To continue wwith subunit 2.  Making an apology:

2. a while shaking hands, bending forward and gently bumping coprticipants head
    b immediately assuming concerned face look
    c raising arms up in a gesture of alarm and holding for two seconds
    d saying "Oh, je suis desole!" with a sorrowful or constrained or concerned or dejected or casual or hysterical, etc., intonation
    e waiitng solicitously, etc.. for the co participants next response

Note that the format of this program unit leaves personality style pretty much up tot he pupil-performer.  One can express an apology in many different individual ways, with many different overtones and undertones.  If the teacher wishes to program seperately for these various sorts of eventualities, she amy write a subroutine for a subunit.  For instance, some alternatives to submit 2b.

    (i) immediately assuming I've just made a heel of myself look
    (ii) maintaining poker face
    (iii) slowly and deliberately glaring at co participant for two seconds

Needless to say, the stage instructions and directions will be given in the second language only.  One of us has attempted this instructional technique on the first lesson of the first day to level 1 students in French with amazing success.  You can imagine that this type of language class looks and feels more like rehearsing for a staged production than a course in French 100. The teacher must be a director and a performer, continually enacting the content of his verbalized instructions in French, most of which is of course incomprehensible to the beginner pupil.  The latter will understand the target performance not so much from the teachers' verbalizations in French, but because he will come to recognize what the performance stands for.  So, while the pupils are busy having fun making transactional fun, the teacher bombards them with a perpetual steram of relevant verbalizations in the target language which the pupils soon begin to mimick.

4B.  Postponing Taking Leave
    4.B.(a) watching out for the proper beginning  of the strategy
    4.B.(a) i. noticing when other participant makes an announcement to propose closing the conversation
    4.B.(b)immediately finding a pretext for inserting into the conversation one last topic before the end
    4.B.(b)i. using a transactiona idiom to preface the delaying statement
    4.B.(c)waiting till new topic is exhausted and other participant renews his proposal to close the conversation, then, repeating step 4.B.

Techniques of this kind can be used quite readily in large classes, even up to 60 to 80 pupils per teacher.  At first, the teacher goes around the classroom enacting several different versions of the transactional performance under study, whilke the other pupils look on.  Then the class is broken up into groups of two or three pupils, each subgroup going through several enactments.  It is advisable to practice subgrouping and unsubgrouping as in a fire drill so as to minimize the waste of time and general noise.

Now, what about the French?  What will their French sound like to your supervisor?  If he takes a reasonable position, he will come to your class and listen to the fluent prattle of your students after a mere semester's work and, in all justice, promise you a raise for distinguised accomplishment.  If he takes an unreasonable position, he will hand you 60 copies of the French Cooperative Test, one version or another, and ask you to prove that you have not been wasting school time on creative experimentalism.  At that point, you're in deep trouble.  Because, your French prattling students will surely do badly where their silent couterparts next door will shine with high percentiles.  What can you do to save your career while also saving your soul?

It's at this point that you dig up your arsenal of behavioral objectivds and hand your supervisor, with or without the results of the Cooperative Test, a set of results on a transactional competence test, which you have devised and succeeded in persuading the next door teacher to administer to her students.  The shining superiority of your students will undoubtedly sufficiently counterbalance their low showing on the syntax and vocabulary test-unless your supervisor is extraordinary unreasonable, in which case we will all send you a birthday cake to cheer you up.

Now, what does your transactional competence teste look like?  It must have two important features.  First, it must have a clear face validity, which means that the items on the test must visibly reflect intuitively important uses of language.  Such things, for instance, as:

Subtest 1: The ability to describe ongoing events
    For example. you have a cooperative assistant enact a series of predetermined behaviors, and the pupil gives a running commentary of what he sees.
Subtest 2: The ability to interview someone
    For example, you can pretend to be a famous movie actress and the pupil is covering your visit in town for the local radio station.
Subtest 3: The ability to be funny in French
    For example, you can ask the pupil to talk about his family life in such a way as to be humorous and funny, though truthfully informative.
Subtest 4: The ability to relate a conversation
    For example, you may play a tape recording of a spontaneous conversation in french between two speakers and ask the student to relate the conversation.

All right.  So much for the nature of the behavioral objectives to be covered by the transactional performance test.  We are not trying to be exhaustive in our examples.

Let us present an example.  Suppose you have a class of 30 students, and wish to provide 8 scales for subtest 4, The Ability to Relate a Conversation.  You might pick a 10-point bipolar scale for each of the following 8 judgements:

1.  Accuracy of Information
        very poor 0 _____________________10 fully accurate

2.  Amount of Information Related
        very little 0 _____________________10 all of it

3.  Fluency of Speech
        very hesitant 0 __________________10 ordinary fluency

4.  Naturalness of Discourse Organization
        abnormal 0 _____________________10 normal

5. Style of Expression
        foreign 0 _______________________10 native

6. Clarity of Expression
        unclear 0 ______________________ 10 clear

7.  Gestural Fluency of Conversational Naturalness
        odd 0 ________________________10 normal

8.  Complexity of Transactional Performance
    (Student contributed commentary on reported conversation in his reporting of it)
        Straight 0 ____________________10 skillfully intriciate

An Action Plan

Now let us give you a few tricks of the trade which we are certain will alleviate the worst of your fears when contemplating the magnitude of this enterprise to be fitted in on your daily schedule.
1. You can begin on a small scale in an experimental fashion until you know what you're doing.
2. Perhaps your first step might be to reserve a few minutes of each class for the Game of Transactional Performances, along the lines we have suggested for Exchanging greets, chanigng topics, and postponing leave taking.
3. After doing this for a while, and gaining confidence in yourself as one who enacts transactional performances in the classroom, and perhaps even beginning to like it and enjoy it.
4.  Now invite a colleague to join you in your project.  If you get along together, she'll see and understand your goals and methods.
5. Now, armed with knowledge, confidence, and a reliable test, you are ready to confront your supervisor.  You make him inspect your test of transactional performance and you say to him: "Now, look, I have a very reasonable proposal to make.  I want you to look at the title and descriptions of my subtests.  Do they seem to you the sort of skills you would want our students to be able to have?"
6. In some cases it might be advisable and/or necessary to undertake your project for the new program in cooperation with several collegaues having responsibility for various aspects and levels of the exisitng program.

We wish you courage and good luck.


We would now like to summarize the position we have outlined.  We began by arguing that the current prevalent conception of foreign language teaching as a school subject is a necessary outgrowth of the great effort exerted in the past twenty years to place foreign language study on the record in the regular curriculum of the mass educational system.  We have argued that the contination of this conception is being maintained by the wide use of standardized paper and pencil achieveemtn tests which force teachers to continue spending a major portion of the available instructional time in teaching facts about a language and its people rather than teaching transcational performances using the foreign language as a medium of display.  Some examples of these might be as follows: French 109: How to Read Newspapers and Magazines; French 115: Conversations in Public Places; French 122: Writing Letters and Other correspondence; French 149: Conversations Among Friends; French 161: Telephone Conversations. And so on.  If judicious use is made of individualized programmed packages, a large number of such mini course can be offered even by a small language department.  These program units would be prepared by the teacher on principles analogous to what she now calls "lesson plans."

We have also made some suggestions concerning the need for evaluating such a new program in reasonable rather than unreasonable terms.  A reasonable approach is one in which the supervisor assesses the program by cooperating with the teacher in the preparation adn administration of local tests of transactional performances the pupil succeeds in accomplishing under test conditions, these being reliable and having face validity.

We have also talked about the attitude and goals of the teacher in teaching a foreign language.  If her orientation is in terms of the significance foreign language study has for the pupil, and she conceives of the learning teaching process as a meaningful transactional exchange in the natural growth of both parties, then her teaching in the classroom becomes a staged transactional performance of a personal nature, learning while she teaches, continually improving the efficientcy with which she engineers the instructional transactions, thus actualizing her creative needs.

Continued with Study Questions here

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