Research Paper: Teaching Language at the Discourse Level
Teaching language is a complex phenomenon that consists of several integral parts. This process is performed on several different levels. Students who learn English as a second language can have a perfect knowledge of grammar, phonetics and syntax but still not possess enough knowledge in order to speak the language freely. This happens because language is realized through a discourse, which shows the dynamics of language. Progress in the language learning is impossible without the knowledge of this part of language. Famous linguist James Gee defined discourse as “as a socially accepted association among ways of using language, of thinking, feeling, believing, valuing, and of acting that can be used to identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful group… or to signal (that one is playing) a socially meaningful ‘role’” (Gee, 1990, p. 143). This means that each time we use language we use it in a discourse, we utter sentences connected with other sentences, we count on the linguistic context during the act of speech or writing and the purpose of the language use. We must also take into account that “each Discourse incorporates a usually taken-for-granted and tacit ‘theory’ of what counts as a ‘normal’ person and the ‘right’ ways to think, feel and behave,… Being ‘trained’ as a linguist meant that I learned to speak, think, and act like a linguist, and to recognize others when they do so (not just that I learned lots of facts about language and linguistics)” (Gee, 1990). So, getting acquainted with new language and new discourse, a person gets new social identity and starts seeing the world and events, through this identity. This is very important for the ESL learners, as they have to adopt a new social and cultural knowledge while learning English. It’s impossible to become a good language learner without the knowledge of origin and history of the language. Very often some utterances of a separate discourse differ or even contradict to the common beliefs and sound strange to people who stay outside discourse.
Spoken and Written Discourse of English Language
Spoken and written discourse of every language has peculiarities, which make it unique and different from other languages. It’s very important to take into account these differences while teaching English as a second language. Native speakers, who learn English as a first language don’t meet this kind of difficulties as they stay in the discourse from the very birth and thus possess the natural ability to recognize and create the right English discourse. During the recent time ESL teachers and methodologists pay more and more attention to such aspect of ESL teaching as discourse teaching. New methods and techniques of discourse study have been developed and adopted during the last years. It’s necessary to distinguish the main principles of discourse analyses in order to find the way to create teaching techniques and methods. Usually discourse analyses is concerned with the way language users produce and understand language in context. Discourse analyses studies the linguistic structure of speech acts, speech activities, oral, literature registers and conversational sequences. It also looks for connection between these linguistic categories and social and cultural norms of the language studied. Discourse analyses studies the ways discourse changes in different social and cultural situations. This gives the opportunity to define the measure and intensity sociocultural context influences discourse. “Discourse analysis may be carried out as an end in itself or a tool contributing to research in language acquisition or language assessment” (Brooks, 1993).
More and more attention is paid to the learning discourse in the classroom. Prominent methodologists call to apply discourse analyses, sociolinguistics and pragmatics in language teaching. Communicative language teaching is an approach, which corresponds to the requirements mentioned above.
Objectives mentioned above can be achieved by shifting towards “direct teaching” (Celce-Murcia, 1997). Direct teaching is a new approach, which possess three main characteristics: “first, adding specific formulaic language input to communicative tasks; second, raising learners’ awareness of the organizational principles of language use within and beyond the sentence level; and third, sequencing communicative tasks more systematically in accordance with a theory of discourse grammar.” (Celce-Murcia, 1997). Bill VanPatten introduced new term “input” while talking about ESL teaching. He described input as a language, heard or read by a learner, which has some communicative intent. Then he traced a close connection between input and second language acquisition. “Input is related to comprehension in that whenever a learner of a language is engaged in actively trying to comprehend something in the L2, that learner is getting input and that input serves as the basis for acquisition.” So, placing focus on meaning the teacher creates good condition for phonology, grammar and discourse acquisition. It’s impossible to make the process of acquisition effective without placing the focus on meaning. Moreover, acquisition becomes an additional product of successful comprehension. So, the main teachers’ goal should be to create a motivation to comprehend the discourse.
There are several methods to provide teaching the language for ESL learners. The first method is called Language Immersion (LI). According to this method foreign students are put in situation where they must use English. It goes without saying that in the foreign surrounding the student, whether he knows the language or not, will get acquainted with the discourse. This method develops the fluency of the foreign language use. Unfortunately this methods not always provides good accuracy. The second method is called Code Switching (CS) and this method supposes switching between native and foreign languages in the middle of the sentence. This method is called communicative strategy and is often used by language teachers. The student has to translate not separate words or phrases, but has to use the foreign language in a discourse. Learning foreign language in comparison with the native language is very effective because in such a way the student memorizes all the peculiarities of foreign language much better. English syntactical and grammatical structures are much easier than in most other languages, so this method can be used at the initial stages of English learning.
The next method is known as the Audio-Lingual method (ALM). It’s based on the use of audio-visual facilities during lessons. These facilities give a possibility to listen native speakers’ voice recorded on the tapes. Of course, this method is worse as the previous one and doesn’t have so many advantages but at the same time it’s much cheaper. This method was used during World War II to give instructions in foreign languages. Audio-lingual method is not very popular nowadays.
The next method is called Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). This method supposes learning English during the communicative act. It’s one of the best approaches to the teaching of foreign languages. This method is especially popular in Europe, where in most cases academic discourse dominates. The Blended Learning Method (BLM) is based on combination of practice activity, which includes dialogues, oral topics, creative tasks, discussion of different situations, and face-to-face teaching. This method can be useful, as in the process of communication students improve their skills to use the foreign language in a discourse.
The role of teacher in the learning process as extremely important as in many case of ESL learning teacher is the only carrier of the language for students. This is the reason specialists pay more and more attention to the teachers’ discourse as very often students consciously or unconsciously follow the discourse they hear in the classroom. If in the case with other subjects students have a lot of patterns to follow in language learning they have one teacher and that is why the way the discourse is used by this teacher is extremely important. At the same time the notion “professional discourse” that was proposed by the famous linguist and teacher, Donald Freeman appeared recently. This notion refers to the discourse used by teachers during teacher training. Professional discourse fulfills two functions: social and cognitive. Social function means that the teacher is the part of discourse community, while cognitive function consists in identification peculiarities of the teacher’s experience and so development of his teaching conceptions. “The discourse creates a set of facts [and] perceptions which are accepted as given by members of the discourse community. …These become the socially constructed facts on which the shared professional discourse is based” (Freeman, 1992, p.7). Professional discourse is one of the most important components of successful learning process.
Discourse is being studied on both linguistic and psycholinguistic levels. All the researches made in this field are very new because they had been initiated only in the late 80s (Schiffrin, 1987). Beginning from this time big attention is paid to this side of learning process because it’s obvious that discourse is of current importance and the perfect understanding and, what is more important, knowledge of language is impossible without this important aspect. Nowadays this aspect is full expansion (Nuttall, 1996).
Peculiarities of the Discourse
Gumperz stresses that errors at the discourse level are very important, as they can lead to incoherent text understanding and interpretation. As we can see, errors on the coherent level have far consequences and often don’t let to achieve a high degree of proficiency (Gumperz, 1982). “Thus discourse analysis takes different theoretical perspectives and analytic approaches: speech act theory, interactional sociolinguistics, ethnography of communication, pragmatics, conversation analysis, and variation analysis” (Gabrielatos, 1998). The discourse aspect is analyzed in various disciplines and there are many approaches in treating this problem. Each approach is specified on different aspects but the main general aspect of the study of discourse is interpretation of language as social interaction. Only understanding of discourse markers, for example, connectives can help to achieve this level. Discourse Markets (DM) are the separate learning subjects, which are the part of discourse learning: “Finally, how do DMs compare across languages? Some preliminary data […] suggest that there is a general correspondence between the markers, but certainly not an exact mapping. If so, to what extent are they similar, to what extent different […]? In the acquisition of a second language, which DMs are learned first, and is this influenced by the native language?” (Nuttall, 1996).
Inferencing, as the part of language discourse, is very important for ESL learners during the communicative act because in English the words aren’t always used in the accepted meaning of the word and very often you must guess the meaning from the context. There is also a great amount of words with both literal and figurative meaning and the difficulty is that these meanings very rarely coincide with the meanings in native language. To fill in the missing information the student must master the language in a discourse. Good teachers always try to help their students with this difficult task and try to take into account procedures and clues, which are involved in language interpretation. To indicate the necessary meaning of the word, first of all the student should understand that speech isn’t an abstract notion and the language is used in specific situations with the definite purpose. This background where the language is used is called “context”. Context implies information about the participants of conversation, their purposes, relation between them, place, time and topic of conversation. It’s very important to know the difference between context and co-text in the process of learning language at the discourse level: co-text is the process of following the necessary part of the language text that student try to interpret (Brown & Yule, 1983: 46-50). The teacher’s main goal is to help the ESL students to understand the word in the context. If the student tries to understand the meaning of the word without the context, he uses “a set of background assumptions about the contexts in which [the particular stretch of language] could be appropriately uttered” (Salkie, 1995). To understand the contextual meaning the student doesn’t always need to get the full knowledge about the context. The student must concentrate on the definite part that will help him to interpret the meaning. This principle is called “principle of local interpretation” (Brown & Yule, 1983). If the student knows the context he can use this knowledge to interpret the unknown/unintelligible word. If the student can’t get the whole picture of the text, he must pay his attention to its contextual part and interpret it and then get the whole picture. The previous experience and stereotypes in our mind about the place, participants, feelings, smell, sounds, activities, event sequences etc. influence on the understanding of the context (Singer, 1990, pp. 98-110). From the other side it’s necessary to remember that students interpret the context according to their experience.
Cohesion is interpreted as an element that helps to link the parts of the text. To help to understand the text the writer can refer to something outside the text, refer to something in the text, give the sequence of events explicit, show the relation between the contextual parts and so on. There are several ways of creating cohesion that writers use: repetition, lexical relations (synonyms/antonyms, hyperonyms/hyponyms), related Lexis, Co-Reference (exophoric, endophoric, substitution, ellipsis), connectives (addition, amplification, corroboration, contrast, contradiction, cause, inference,) change of topic, clarification, hypothesis, enumeration) and others. The teacher’s main aim is to acknowledge the students with these methods and so to simplify their understanding of the context and language in a discourse. Understanding of cohesive devices doesn’t guarantee the successful interpretation of the text. It’s also necessary to have background information and necessary context for the correct understanding of the text.
The notion of implicature was applied for the first time by Grice in order to show the distinction between the given information and information understood by the students: “what the speaker can imply, suggest, or mean, as distinct from what the speaker literally says” (Grice, 1975).
Every language is realized through the discourse. Language is a social phenomenon that is influenced by the events that take place in the society. Students who learn English as the first language don’t meet the problems ESL learners do. ESL students can have great vocabulary of language, know all general and particular grammar and punctuation rules but make mistakes and misunderstand the meaning of some words, especially in works of art. Native speakers don’t pay attention to connection between the sentences and understand the meaning of the words without any difficulties. For ESL learners it’s a real problem. You must be a real professional to understand the foreign language in a discourse.
Learning language at the discourse level supposes oral and written practice. Written practice is based on coherence across the sentences and the study of topics. Oral practice is focused on permanent communicative practice and turn-taking practice.
One of the most important issues that must be taken into account in the process of teaching at the discourse level is cultural aspect. Different countries have specific communication traditions and the teacher must acquaint his students with these peculiarities of the English language use. ESL teachers must encourage theirs students to study English from all sides and to understand that interpretation of texts is impossible without taking into account social factor. Learning language at the discourse level makes the language cohesive and coherent and give great opportunities for ESL students.
1. Brooks, F. B. (1993). Some problems and caveats in ‘communicative’ discourse: Toward a conceptualization of the foreign language classroom. Foreign Language Annals, 26, 233-242.
2. Brown, G. & G. Yule. (1983). Discourse Analysis. Cambridge University Press.
3. Freeman, Donald. (1992). Language teacher education, emerging discourse, and change in classroom practice. In Flowerdew et al. (eds.) Perspectives on Second Language Teacher Education. Hong Kong: City Polytechnic of Hong Kong.
4. Gabrielatos, C. (1998). Receptive Skills with Young Learners. In A.S. Gika & D. Berwick (eds.) Working with Young Learners: A Way Ahead. IATEFL Publications.
5. Gee, James Paul. (1990). Social Linguistics and Literacies. London: The Falmer Press.
6. Grice, H.P. (1975). Logic and Conversation. In Cole & Morgan (eds.) Syntax and Semantics Vol.3: Speech Acts. Academic Press.
7. Gumperz, J. J. (1982). Discourse Strategies. Cambridge University Press.
8. Nuttall, C. (1996). Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language. Heinemann.
9. Salkie, R. (1995). Text and Discourse Analysis. Routledge.
10. Singer, M. (1990). Psychology of Language: An introduction to Sentence and Discourse Processes. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
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