Currents of Thought Influencing English Language Teaching: I-Linguistics

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1. If we consider the objectives of the syllabi for secondary and higher secondary level courses in English in India, such as of the CBSE, a question that arises in our minds is, what is required from the teacher to meet the objectives? One of the things required of the English language teacher is that s/he have a full understanding of the rationale of the topics of the syllabus. Besides, the teacher should have a skills and knowledge base that transcends the syllabus.
In order for the language teacher to meet with the requirements s/he should be familiar with the current critical thinking on the topics and the research findings in the cutting edge areas. These areas include, in my view, linguistics, education, cognitive science, and communication, in the main. Linguistics makes us aware of the aspects of linguistic knowledge that need to be addressed in learning a language. Education familiarizes us with the teaching and learning methods and technologies in use. Cognitive Science, a relatively new discipline, informs us about the relation between language and general cognitive abilities of learners and communities. Communication studies offer useful ideas about effective strategies in dealing with different communicative situations in the learning environment. In the present article, I wish to take up a crucial  concept in linguistics that has a bearing on English language teaching and learning.
2. An important distinction that holds in linguistics and that is at the basis of linguistic theorizing today is  the distinction between form and function in language (see e.g. Darnell et al. 1998, Newmeyer 1998).
The terms formal and functional are used in more than one sense in current literature in linguistics. Essentially, the term ‘formal’ refers to the formal structure of language, while the term ‘functional’ refers to the uses to which the form is put. Formal is also referred to as ‘structural’ and ‘functional’ as ‘communicative’, ‘notional’, etc. in the literature. Linguistic theories and grammars based on them are often found to adhere to the principled practices of these two approaches.
Structural linguistic theories and grammars based on them have undergone considerable change since the beginning of linguistics, following the seminal work of de Saussure, American Structuralism (Bloomfield 1933, Hockett 1958), European Structuralism (e.g. Hjelmslev 1943) and Generative Linguistics (e.g. Chomsky 2001) being the two most important among these. Functional linguistic theories have also grown side by side with the structural theories, Prague School linguistics (e.g. Jakobson 1968, Firbas 1992) and Systemic Functional Grammar (Halliday 1985) being the prominent ones among them.
The term ‘structural’, which is widely  used in linguistics and language studies, denotes various senses dependent on the ways in which the  term ‘language’ is understood.  Thus, the notion of language is associated with the community in the American Structuralism approach and with the individual mind/brain in the generative linguistic approach. In the former, it is the structure on the surface, as reflected in spoken and written language, which is the subject matter of study. In the latter, it is the abstract level of knowledge that underlies the surface structure that is the focus of inquiry. Thus, it is necessary to clarify which sense of the term ‘structure’ is meant when it is used.
Analogous to the use of the term ‘structure’, the term ‘function’ too is used in many senses. Thus, in sociolinguists, it is meant in the sense of the use to which language is put in society, for example, as a marker of prestige, social class, regional identity, etc. On the other hand, in the approaches of the Prague School (e.g. Firbas 1992 ) and Discourse Analysis (e.g. Toolan 2002), it is meant in the sense of the use for which language is need, such as to apologize, to express gratitude or to narrate an event, etc.
A comparative understanding of the two approaches is of interest not only to linguistics but also to epistemology in general, as they represent two different conceptions of linguistic knowledge. They have analogues in other areas (see e.g. Gellner 1998), such as rationalism and empiricism in philosophy and cognitive psychology, capitalism and communism in economic thought, and individualism and socialism in social action. The basic premises and methods of the formalist and functionalist approaches in linguistics are often stated, largely assumed, although not always agreed upon. For a long time, on account of the principled distinction between them, the two approaches to linguistic analysis were assumed to be irreconcilable, with consequences on related disciplines such as language teaching. However, it has increasingly come to be realized (see Haspelmath 2000, Pandey 2004) that the two approaches are complementary rather than contending in their goals of accounting for linguistic knowledge. While one, a formal account, aims at explicating the computational faculty underlying language, the other, a functional account, aims at investigating the adaptive faculty of linguistic knowledge.
What are the implications of this situation in linguistic theorizing to language teaching? Applied linguists and language teachers have to have the objective of helping the learner to acquire both the structures and the functions to which they have to be put. The two must be seen as integrated rather that separate. This can be illustrated with the help of an example. Let us take the Present Perfect form of verbs in English.
Form of the Pres. Perf.: ‘have’ +V+’en’, e.g., ‘have eaten’, ‘has arrived’, ‘had wanted’, etc.
Functions of the Pres. Perf.:
1. “All uses of the Present Perfect Tense emphasize the connection between present and past; “a sort of mixture of present and past” (Thomson & Martinet) “past with present relevance” or “past involving the present” (Leech).
2. “The contexts in which the Pres. Perf. is used include “1. STATE-UP-TO-THEPRESENT The state extends over a period lasting up to the present moment. It may extend into the future. Normally used with an adverbial of duration.
2., 3., & 4: EVENT VERBS i.e. verbs used to refer to events. There are three main uses of the Present Perfect with event verbs, as follows:
2a. INDEFINITE PAST At least once before now. The indefinite meaning is commonly reinforced by EVER, NEVER, BEFORE (NOW), ALWAYS and other adverbials. The number of events is commonly unspecified. The time is unspecified.
At least once in a period leading up to the present. Associated with adverbs such as JUST, ALREADY, RECENTLY and YET.
Used with an adverbial of duration (+ an optional adverb of frequency) FOR FIVE YEARS / ALWAYS / EVERY MONTH / FOR AS LONG AS I CAN REMEMBER / SINCE.
For more discussion on the topic, the reader is advised to visit the URL
It is easy to find examples for almost any aspect of language to be presentable in terms of its formal and functional traits. Grammars such as Leech et al. (1994) provide a fair combination of both formal and functional aspects of the grammatical knowledge of English, and are a good resource book for integrated formal and functional syllabi.
Against the backdrop of the distinction between formal and functional approaches to language study, it is easy to see the rationale behind distinct (i) types of syllabi (see e.g. Krahnke 1987, Nunan 1988) such as Structural Syllabus (e.g. Hornby , Siddhu ), Notional Syllabus (Wilkins1976, Jones 1979), and Communicative Syllabus (Munby 1978, Yalden 1987), Communicational Syllabus (Prabhu 1987) and (ii) methods of second/foreign language teaching (see e.g. , for a general survey). The swing that the second language teacher has been subjected to from the audio-lingual drill based teaching, which made critical use of the language laboratory for learning languages to the Task-Based- Language-Teaching (TBLT, Ellis 2003) has to do with the swing from the formal to the communicative approach to linguistic descriptions, accompanied by shift from the behaviorist to the cognitive approaches to language learning. Such a swing is also noticeable in the shift from the Structural to the Communicative Syllabus. In deciding about what the best method of teaching/learning a second/foreign language is, one must take cognizance of the fact that an integrated approach is what has been felt to be capable of yielding satisfactory results. After all, language is a biological endowment, thus a ‘natural’ faculty, but at the same time, it is also socially acquired within a community. For such an object as language, which is both a Natural and a Social kind, it is necessary that we adopt an approach that helps the learner acquire both aspects of the linguistic object, namely, the second/ foreign language. This is what must be kept in mind while considering the use of a syllabus or method of learning/ teaching a second/ foreign language.
3. I propose to take up for discussion in a series of articles in the future the main critical ideas in related disciplines that have influenced English language teaching in the recent years.
Bloomfield, Leonard. 1933. Language. Revised from 1914 edition. New York: Holt.
Chomsky, N. (2001). New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind. Cambridge University Press.
Darnell, M., Moravcsik, E., Newmeyer, F. J., Noonan, M. and Wheatley, K. (eds). (1998). Functionalism and Formalism in Linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Dummet, M. (1993). Language and communication. In A. George (ed.), Reflections on Chomsky. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based Language Learning and Teaching. Oxford: OUP.
Firbas, J. (1992). Functional sentence perspective in written and spoken communication. Cambridge: University Press.
Gellner, E. (1998). Language and Identity: Essays on Wittgenstein. Oxford University Press.
Halliday, M. A. K. (1985). An Introduction to Functional Grammar. London: Edwin Arnold. [1st edn, 2nd edn 1994].
Haspelmath, M. (2000). Why can’t we talk to each other? Lingua 110, 235-255. [A review article on Newmeyer 1998].
Hjelmslev, Louis. (1943 [1961]). Prolegomena to a Theory of Language. [Tr. By Francis J. Whitfield]. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.
Hockett, Charles F. 1958.A course in modern linguistics. New York: Macmillan.
Jakobson, R. (1968). Selected Writings I: Phonological Studies. The Hague Mouton.
Krahnke, K. (1987) Approaches to Syllabus Design for Foreign Language Teaching. New Jersey: Prantice Hall.
Jones, L. (1979) Notions in English, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Leech, G.& J. Svartik (1994, 2nd ed.) A Communicative Grammar of English. Essex: Longman.
Munby, J. (1978) Communicative Syllabus Design. London : Cambridge University Press.
Newmeyer, F. J. (1998). Language Form and Language Function. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Nichols, J. (1984). Functional Theories of Grammar. Annual Review of Anthropology 13, 97-117.
Nunan, D. (1988) Syllabus Design. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pandey, P. K. (2004). ‘Formal’ and ‘functional’ approaches in linguistics. Paper presented at the International Seminar on “Construction of Knowledge”, April 15-16, Vidya Bhavan, Udaipur. [To appear in Festschrifft for R. K. Agnihotri]
Prabhu, N. S. (1987). Second Language Pedagogy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Toolan M.N. (ed.) (2002). Critical Discourse Analysis. London: Routledge
Wilkins, D. A. (1976) Notional Syllabus. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Yalden, J. (1987). The Communicative Syllabus: Evolution, Design and Implementation. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
If we consider the objectives of the syllabi for secondary and higher secondary level courses in English in India, such as of the CBSE, a question that arises in our minds is, what is required from the teacher to meet the objectives? One of the things required of the English language teacher is that s/he have a full understanding of the rationale of the topics of the syllabus. Besides, the teacher should have a skills and knowledge base that transcends the syllabus.

Read More »Currents of Thought Influencing English Language Teaching: I-Linguistics


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Language is universally acquired by humans. Most children learn to spell and read and require very little help to do so, but some children have to work harder and longer than others at learning a language.

Dyslexia is a disorder of language. There can be a number of different manifestations and this difficulty is usually noticed by teachers by the time children start formal reading and writing. Students with Dyslexia, often need explicit instruction in phonemic awareness because they have difficulties in associating sounds with letters and sequencing the sound in words. Sometimes they may also have difficulty in auditory discrimination or in hearing the small differences between them.


Grammar in context: Exploring Listening Activities

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The statement “You don’t teach grammar to very young learners but you can help them discover meanings.” (Slattery and Willis, 2001) makes a case for the distinction between “teaching” grammar and encouraging students to “acquire” it. The central premise of this pedagogical approach lies in the fact the grammar is inbuilt in the text. Also, meaningful contexts have components of grammar in them which help better recall and assimilation as opposed to teaching grammar in isolation. Just as children pick up the grammar of their respective mother tongues by being exposed to the whole language, similarly, when exposed to the second language as a whole and its repeated usage, they pick up the grammatical structures and language patterns of the second language. Read More »Grammar in context: Exploring Listening Activities