Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Relevance of discourses in Language Pedagogy

Dr. K.N. Anandan

Consultant, SSA, Kerala

Those who teach English as a second or foreign language have always devoted much of their teaching to sentences. They expect their students to know how to make a correct sentence; where it begins and ends. Perhaps teaching the learners what makes a correct sentence is a worthwhile endeavour. This is probably one of the strongest reasons for teaching formal grammar to learners, a reason strong enough to usher English teachers across the world to take up this painstaking activity. Besides, there is a strong belief among teachers namely, without teaching grammar children will never learn what is correct and what is incorrect. Hence it is not surprising that English Textbooks will invariably contain exercises related to some aspects of grammar. Moreover, a few questions chosen from the realm of English grammar will always find a place in question papers set for competency examinations. Whether students are benefited from the grammar exercises given in the textbooks and those used in examinations has never been put to an acid test.

1. Coherence

What exactly do we mean by the ability to communicate successfully with other people? Does it merely mean the ability to produce correct sentences? Can we just parade a sequence of sentences putting any sentence after another and believe that what we produce will make sense? Haven’t we noticed that people succeed in communicating though they do not always speak or write in complete sentences? How can we help our children develop communication skills in English? Is there any point in teaching and learning a language if the learner is unable to produce language spontaneously in an interpersonal communicative situation? And above all, what is the minimal unit of communication?

The questions raised here drive us to seek their answers. Most importantly, it is necessary to critically examine instances of our encounter with language in day-to-day life so that we will be able to identify what exactly is the pre-requisite for any successful communication.

Consider the following tasks:

Task – 1

Read the following:

i t i s a k n o w n f a c t t h a t r e a d i n g d o e s n o t m e a n j u s t r e a d i n g t h e l e t t e r s i n a g i v e n p a s s a g e

• Are you able to read fluently what has been given above? If not, why?

• Do you get any message from what you have read?

• Do similar things happen in classrooms where English is taught for the beginners? What message can the teacher communicate by teaching the alphabet and asking children to repeat the letters several times?

Task -2

We have a set of English words here:

book chair home work habit umbrella metamorphosis catalyst

1. What message will we get from reading these words?

2. If someone says these words in a situation of interpersonal communication how will the listener rate the speaker?

Of course can attach some meaning to all of the words in the given set and perhaps associate them with our previous experience. Nevertheless, we fail to get at the overall communication intended by the words taken as a set. Obviously, sounds / letters or words in isolation do not communicate anything unless we embed them in a proper context. Therefore these units of language per se cannot be considered units of communication. Perhaps we are tempted to argue that the minimal unit that can serve communication function is the sentence because the words combine together to represent a specific idea represented by the sentence. We have to check whether this argument can stand.

Task – 3

Read the following pieces of language:

1. Who is that? Harry Porter is an interesting read. Two plus two makes four. Doctors have declared a strike. This year we didn’t get sufficient rain. Phoneticians are trouble makers. My child can read Shakespeare. Who will find a solution to this problem? Please wait for a moment.

2. Thank God! I’ve been waiting for this. Oh, no! Trust me. Of course, not. I’ll meet you. Yes. Next Monday? Fine. Why? Why not the other one? Well... Do you think so? No, no! It’s just your imagination. Why not. I can understand your problem. Bye! And take care of yourself.

We have two stretches of language here.

Which one makes a part of a unified whole?

How do we distinguish between the two?

The second stretch of language can be easily identified as a telephonic conversation whereas the first one cannot be related to a single context; probably each sentence in it has emerged in a different context. But what about the grammaticality of the sentences in the two stretches? There are ten sentences in the first piece and all of them are correct. Yet collectively they do not make any sense. The first stretch of language doesn’t give us any feeling of unity. The second piece of language contains several fragmentary expressions. Nevertheless, unlike the first one the second one makes sense. It has an organic unity. The reader can guess a large amount of information about it though not explicitly expressed in the text.

From the comparison we have made between the two units of language we can derive the distinctive quality of the second one. It is the quality of being meaningful and unified, which is known as coherence. Communication does not take place without coherence. It is fairly easy to discern that coherence is not a feature related to the internal grammar of sentences. It operates in a domain beyond the boundary of a sentence. But what exactly is this domain?

It is fairly easy to recognize that linguistic units such as sounds, words, and sentences are not entities in isolation. This point can be easily driven home if we consider how we use language. We know that we use language for thought, for problem solving, for play, for dreaming, for display of group solidarity, for deception, for introspection, for communication of emotions and to share information. There is language everywhere around us; it is there in the print media (in newspapers, magazines, etc.), in visual media (TV, Movies, etc.) and in day-to-day life. How does language exist in these? The ocean of language that we live in is not formed from disconnected linguistic units. Sounds, words and sentences become meaningful only when they appear as part of interconnected units of language called discourses that have coherence. This implies that all the linguistic expressions in a discourse will fit together well.

Task 4:

1. What language material do we find in the print media (i.e., newspapers, magazines, journals, etc.)?

2. What are the items that appear on TV channels?

3. What are the forms in which language appears in day-to-day life?

If we list down these items we will get something like the following:

Print Media:

News reports, editorials, advertisements, notices, obituaries, articles, cartoons, jokes, stories, poems, interviews, review reports, letters, screen plays, skits, etc.

Visual Media:

News telecasts, TV phone-in, TV serials, interviews, songs, movies, comedy shows, debates, conversations, lectures, skits, etc.

Daily life:

Chats, dialogues, debates, songs, stories, descriptions, announcements, enquiries, etc.

2. Discourse and Sentence

Despite the fact that language exists only in the form of discourses teachers do concentrate on sentence internal grammar. This observation holds well for all language teachers whether they teach mother tongue or a second language. Probably, we can put forward several arguments in defence of concentrating on sentences while teaching a language:

• In the case of mother tongue, students will have acquired oral skills much before they start coming to school. Hence there is no scope for teaching them how to communicate orally. What they are yet to learn is where to put full stops and how to write grammatical sentences.

• In the case of second languages students need formal skills and knowledge in terms of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. These will set a strong base for them using language for communication and interaction.

• Formal skills are the signs of a person’s acceptable language behaviour and therefore these are to be taught focusing on sentence internal grammar.

• Examinations by and large demand formal language skills. In order to perform well in examinations the learners must have a mastery over sentence grammar.

• Exercises are of prime importance in formal teaching because they help the students know where they are going and how far they have developed formal skills. Exercises can be neatly presented in sentences, with a tick or a mark for each one.

• If the learners are given exposure to correct sentences through rigorous practice everything regarding their language study will follow in a natural way.

• The treatment of language in terms of sentences helps the learners distinguish between licit and illicit sentence constructions with the help of the rules of grammar that they have learnt.

• Though the sentences analyzed in linguistics are abstractions and may appear very odd they are useful for language study.

Since the focus is on sentences language textbooks often get loaded with examples alienated from our experience of communication in real life situations. As a result they might come out with even ludicrous examples. We have an illustrative example quoted in Cook, G (2001):

‘The philosopher pulled the lower jaw of the hen.’

‘The merchant is swimming with the gardener’s son, but the Dutchman has the fine gun.’

(Sweet 1899 [1964:73] Quoted in Cook, G (2001) in Discourse, Oxford University Press)

Once we admit the point that language exists only in the form of discourses we have to examine what its implications are in the language class. It follows that there is hardly any point in concentrating exclusively upon the production of correct sentences because these alone will not suffice to communicate.

2.1. More about discourses

Any connected series of utterance can be called a discourse. A lexicographer might tell us that one of the meanings of the word discourse is related to the use of language in speech and writing in order to produce meaning. These statements might help us to define what a discourse is but a mere definition will not suffice. We have already identified coherence as its most important property. Let us see what the other properties are.

1. When we think about the input that is available for the learner in terms of discourses two different kinds of language serve as potential source.

i. A language of abstraction that can be used for teaching a language or literacy, or to teach how rules of language work.

ii. Another kind of language that is used to communicate something and has coherence.

Consider the following units of language:


This is a boy

That is a girl

There is a pen on the table.

These are pencils


`It's--it's a very fine day!' said a timid voice at her side.

She was walking by the White Rabbit, who was peeping anxiously into her face. `Very,' said Alice: `--where's the Duchess?'

`Hush! Hush!' said the Rabbit in a low, hurried tone. He looked anxiously over his shoulder as he spoke, and then raised himself upon tiptoe, put his mouth close to her ear, and whispered `She's under sentence of execution.'

`What for?' said Alice.

`Did you say "What a pity!"?' the Rabbit asked.

`No, I didn't,' said Alice: `I don't think it's at all a pity. I said "What for?"'

The first kind of language is an artificially constructed language. In a way it is idealized language. This is exemplified by the discrete sentences in (1) that usually appear in English textbooks. The first stretch of language given in Task 3 is also an example of this kind of language. The second kind of language is exemplified by (2). It is communicating and is seen in discourses. This is not idealized language but language in use.

Task 5

Here follows a set of sentences. Some of them are invented ones, for teaching grammar and some are taken from discourses. Is there any way to know which is which? Shall we work out the situations where these pieces of language might actually have been used?

i. I love you, dad.

ii. Who is that?

iii. There’s nothing that we can do about it.

iv. The little boy pinched an elephant.

v. This is the boy who saw the dog that chased the cat that killed the rat that dug a hole into the pumpkin.

vi. No sooner did the bell ring children started running out from the classrooms.

2. We can take the discrete sentences given in a language textbook and say them to someone in a suitable occasion. In such situations they are bound to communicate as they get embedded in a discourse suitable for the context. Similarly, we can take sentences from a discourse and subject them to grammatical analysis detached from the context. Therefore both these approaches are not mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, in natural situations people acquire language not by practicing discrete sentences but through experiencing discourses.

3. We cannot expect that a discourse emerging in communicative situations will consist of all and only grammatically well-formed sentences. There may be one or more of these but there can be ungrammatical sentences as well. Consider for example the dialogue embedded in (2) given above. As G. Cook has observed, discourse makes use of grammar rules as a resource; it conforms to them when it needs to, but departs from them when it does not.

Task 6

Here is a piece of dialogue that took place at a restaurant. What are the points where the discourse departs from rules of grammar?

Waiter: At your service, Sir.

Customer: Well, some starter, please!

Waiter: How about chicken soup?

Customer: Oh, no! I’m vegetarian

Waiter: Like to go for tomato?

Customer: Fine!

Waiter: Anything else, Sir?

Customer: Well, chapatti ... dry ones ... and vegetable stew

Waiter: How about fired rice?

Customer: No, thanks.

4. Sometimes even a grunt or a single expletive (i.e. swear-word or an expression used in exclamations) can be a discourse provided that it is uttered in a proper context. Or it can be a sequence of utterances as seen in short conversations, scribbled notes, narratives or even a novel. The only point that matters is that it communicates and is considered coherent by its receivers.

Task 7

Read the following exchanges between two men.

Man 1: So?

Man 2: Oh, nothing.

Man 1: Are you sure?

Man 2: Yes.

Man 1: But why?

Man 2: Just like that.

Man 1: Just like that?

Man 2: Hmm!

1. What are these men talking about?

2. Does interpersonal communication take place here? Justify your answer.

The above exchange is meaningful to the two men but not to anyone else. As exemplified in this discourse, what matters is not its conformity to rules, but it communicates to the persons involved in it.

5. There is a degree of subjectivity in identifying a piece of language as discourse; a certain discourse may be meaningful and communicates to one person in a way which another person does not have the knowledge to make sense of.

Task 8

Consider the following telephonic conversation between husband and wife.

Wife: Did you take medicines?

Husband: No.

Wife: Good. Did you consult the doctor?

Husband: No, but I will.

Wife: Good.

There are two instances of the expression “good” in this conversation. Do both of them imply a positive sense or a negative one?

As is evident from the above conversation, certain pieces of language can be classified as discourse only by invoking subjectivity. Only the couple who are involved in the conversation knows how to interpret the word ‘good’ in the conversation given above. Every utterance in it makes sense to the two persons involved in it but not to a third person. Nevertheless, in practice a certain unit of language is usually perceived as a discourse by groups, rather than individuals.

6. Apart from the language that is actually used there are several factors that influence us when we receive a spoken message. These include a set of paralinguistic features:

• Facial expressions of the speaker

• Movement of eyes and hands

• Body language

• Voice modulations

The other factors that influence us in communication are:

• The situation in which we receive the message

• Our cultural and social relationships with the sender of the message;

• Things that w know;

• Things we assume that the sender knows;

• Our knowledge about the physical world;

• Our knowledge about human beings and the society;

7. The question what gives discourse its unity cannot be answered detaching the discourse from the world at large. And the world at large is precisely what makes the context. Implicitly, there cannot be discourses without a context.

2.2. Looking for Grammar beyond the Sentence

Anyone who knows English knows intuitively that any word cannot follow ‘this’ or ‘the’. The rules of grammar allow only certain words after these elements. These rules operate within the boundary of a sentence. If we violate rules of grammar within the sentence, we will get incorrect sentences of different kinds in addition to those with writing errors of spelling and punctuation. We can broadly categorize these errors as follows:

i. Errors where the word endings or other word parts are wrong.

ii. Errors where the sentence structure is wrong.

iii. Errors where the meaning is wrong.

There are rules that operate beyond the sentence. In other words, there are rules within discourses which decide what kind of sentence can follow another. Violation of these rules leads to sequences of sentences that lack coherence. This will affect communication. For example, consider the two sequences of sentences given below:

A. The boy ate a whole chicken. His stomach became upset.

B. The boy ate a whole chicken. The duck swam in the pond.

The sequence of sentences in A will be accepted as an appropriate one for discourse whereas that in B will be rejected as it fails the test of coherence.

But we cannot come to a ready conclusion like this in the case of B. There is nothing “wrong” about it because we can cook up a story which will contain this sequence. All what we need is stretch out our imagination by virtue of which we can create a context for the appearance of sequence B.

At this point we have two possible answers to the problem of how we identify a piece of language as unified and meaningful.

i. Invoke rules of grammar that operate within the sentence as well as within the discourse.

ii. Make use of our knowledge - of the world, of the speaker, of social convention, of what is going on around us as we read or listen

It follows that factors outside language also are important for making a stretch of language coherent. In order to account for discourse we have to look at the situation, the people involved in it, what they know and what they are doing. These factors help us construct a piece of language as discourse, which has a meaning and unity for us. We account for correct or incorrect sentences in a different way, by virtue of our knowledge about grammar. For doing this, facts outside language are not required.

Already we have seen that all sentences in a discourse may not be full-fledged ones. Sometimes there may be even linguistic fragments within a discourse. These fragments are taken for granted as appropriate provided their occurrence is justifiable by the context. For instance, consider the piece of conversation given below:

Wife: Where are you going?

Husband: I am going to Bangalore.

Wife: Why are you going to Bangalore?

Husband: I am going to Bangalore because I have to meet my friend.

Wife: Who is the friend you have to meet at Bangalore?

Husband: The friend who I have to meet at Bangalore is Mr. Jose Abraham

Wife: Is Mr. Jose Abraham a native of Bangalore?

Husband: Mr. Jose Abraham is not a native of Bangalore.

Wife: Is it very important to meet Mr. Jose Abraham?

Husband: Yes. It is very important to meet Jose Abraham.

As a reader you are likely to get amused (or even bored) by the above piece of conversation because of its artificiality. Though every sentence included in the dialogue is grammatical, it lacks authenticity; it will be easily identified as a hypothetical one. In real life situations it is quite unlikely that any husband or wife will have involved in a conversation like this. Of course they may speak like this if they want to be funny and for doing so they will have to articulate each sentence intentionally. Nevertheless, that is not the way people talk in natural situations. People do not move around talking to one another by sequencing well-formed and full-fledged sentences one after the other. The above stretch of language satisfies the requirements of sentence grammar but it will be rejected by discourse grammar.

3. Summing up

Gone are the days when the teaching of English began with A-B-C-D and ended with reading books written in a formal literary style. Today, almost a sea-change has swept over the ELT world. The changes that have taken place calls for taking up new pedagogic challenges. Students and teachers, by and large, seem prepared to meet this challenge; this is a welcome sign. However, in the fast shrinking world of today where English language reigns supreme, we have go to revise our attitudes to be able to keep pace with the rest of the world. Since language cannot survive in the form of isolated sounds, words or sentences we cannot go forward with a pedagogy that works out a fragmentary approach to language focusing on teaching language facts such as letters of the alphabet, words, phrases, sentences structures and so on. Instead, we will have to go for a pedagogy that ensures holistic treatment of language, whatever may be the level of teaching we have to give authentic linguistic experience to the learners where the input as well as output will be in the form of meaningful discourses. Development of language skills will have to be taken up by embedding skills in meaningful contexts provided through discourse level experience. The linguistic output of the learners will have to be refined not only in terms of sentence grammar but also in terms of discourse features and discourse grammar.

No comments:

Post a Comment