Note that I wrote this post while trying to design a syllabus for an entire course, an enterprise that was so daunting it made me feel like a total idiot who knows nothing about teaching at all. Or an egotistical madman. In the process of some research, I found this quote that hits exactly why I sometimes find teaching a language to be such an arrogant profession:
And what, then, is communication and what are its preconditions? This is what Dakin says:
“Communication is essentially personal, the expression of personal needs, feelings, experiences and knowledge, in situations that are never quite the same. And though we may often repeat ourselves, much of our conversation about even the most mundane matters is to some degree novel. We hear or produce utterances that we have never heard or produced before in quite the same form, and which, in consequence, cannot be practised [sic] by the teacher or previously learnt by the learner. ‘My guinea pig died with its legs crossed’ said one eight-year old girl in a tape-recorded interview. No teacher is going to present such an utterance as serious material for drilling in the classroom or laboratory.” (pages 6-7)*
Whether more than one child will ever want to talk about its guinea pig dying with its legs crossed, uncrossed, or with little boots on, is not important. Very little of what we may want to say will be this striking. But almost all of it will be equally novel. Ask a language class of six adults “What did you do last night?”. If you are seriously interested in the answer, and actually wait for it, you will find perhaps that one watched TV, the other went to a brothel, the third had a strange religious experience, the fourth had a disgusting and overpriced meal, the fifth witnessed an accident and the sixth spent the evening playing whist. It would clearly be impossible for you as the teacher to have predicted what each learner will want to say or to have given them before the language necessary in that form. So either you should never have asked the question at all, or have included in your teaching a strong element of something else.
From: The limits of functional / notional approaches
I think we’ve all had guinea pig moments where a student is trying to really communicate with us but hasn’t learned the language to go beyond “in the classroom” or “home, sweet home”. We assume we know what needs our students have. Or we say to ourselves, “OK, maybe the students want to talk about a movie, but it’s more important to teach them how to take the bus to work first,” when we ourselves live for the time we get to chat about TV with our co-workers.
To be fair, the alternative is to teach everything, which is impossible. And you could go quite mad trying to teach six adults how to talk about a TV show, a brothel, a religious experience, a bad meal, an accident and a game of whist (who plays whist anymore?) Not to mention that while you’re dealing with the one adult, the other five are going to be bored. And who is this lucky teacher with only SIX students in class?
On the other hand, I do think we have to admit that CLT has its limits and we often are not really teaching students how to communicate very profoundly. We are not THAT far away from audio-lingualism in some respects. We’ve made memorizing language chunks and scripts a lot more fun, but we haven’t necessarily always evolved beyond it.
* ‘My guinea pig died with its legs crossed’ [Julian Dakin 1973 & Robert O’Neill 1977 – Editor