Thu, Apr 23, 2009 - Page 8 News List

The goal of applied language study

By Herbert Hanreich

Recently I attended a conference on English-teaching and learning in Taiwan. One would expect high school teachers, bushiban language instructors and experts on language pedagogy as speakers and participants at such conferences, for it is this group of professionals which, one would assume, is most directly involved in the English-teaching business.

Both guesses are wrong. Speakers at such conferences are nearly exclusively English department doctoral candidates, lecturers and professors. This is surprising because one would assume that English-learning and teaching do not represent academic subjects and need not take place at university departments. Teaching languages is simply not a professor’s cup of tea; it is not an academic enterprise. But this is another wrong guess.

It appears that the opposite view prevails; it seems to be taken for granted that this is exactly what they should do at their departments. Many of those expert professors of English teach at applied or practical English departments, where the vast majority of students, according to their own perceptions, sit in classes to learn English. The curriculums there support these expectations. They are designed accordingly, with an emphasis on basic language skills such as listening, writing, reading and speaking.

The idea behind applied language departments is to offer an education that is supposedly better suited to the labor market than, say, that offered by literature departments. Consequently, communicating in English within specific professional contexts has become a key academic objective.

But what expertise are students to acquire at applied language departments? Is speaking good English the goal, as many would say? This would make for a rather poor academic harvest and is usually not accomplished anyway.

There must be something else, and this is often considered to be English for specific purposes (ESP). But what expertise is offered, say, in the case of business English? Such courses do not prepare you for the business world unless you understand business first; business departments do a better job in this aspect.

What about teachers? Most of them are professors and, apart from language teaching, they also research strategies and techniques related to improvements in the learning and teaching of foreign languages.

So why do students at applied English departments have to learn teaching techniques, considering that conducting linguistic research is not part of the job profiles for the positions that they usually seek after graduating?

They usually go into business, and even if they become teachers, they teach languages rather than conduct research.

But applying teaching skills is not enough. Students don’t learn a language just by being exposed to the “right” technique. This approach ignores the individual dimension of learning and teaching. Essay writing, for instance, can only be taught meaningfully if students are exposed to examples of good practice, along with explanations of why they constitute good practice.

Language teachers don’t need to know how to generate research on language teaching; they need to understand how language works and when to apply which teaching skills in accordance with their personal teaching style.

Their teaching strengths must be the interpretation, contextualization and application/rejection of teaching skills from a pool of options to meet ever-changing classrooms conditions.

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