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Understanding in the Communicative Classroom

 

By Reza Arab

 

“Understanding is a response to a sign with signs”

                                              — Valentin Volosinov

 

“Language lives only in the dialogic interaction of those who make use of it

                                              — Mikhail Bakhtin

 

There are two huge and old misunderstandings about language teachers. It was (and may still be) believed that a language teacher is supposed to, first, have all Oxford Dictionary entries in her/his mind, and second be able to give long and tedious lectures on structural norms. Nonetheless, a person who knows an enormous bunch of vocabularies is called a “walking-dictionary”, not a teacher! Neither is a person who knows all technical terms of grammatical rules and syntactic patterns called teacher; s/he is a linguist! A teacher, I presume, is a person who knows how to facilitate learning processes, and to enable and motivate students to construct their own representation of reality (the un/noticeable content of the course) with their internal abilities through quasi-real social communications. The later is the distinction between a “teacher” and a “good teacher” – or to make another more adequate binary; an “old teacher” and a “modern teacher”.

Communication is originated and oriented by an interactive interpretation. To narrow down our paradigm and to prevent from falling down in the philosophical unrelated “language-games”, I want to replace “understanding” with “interpretation”. Therefore, I should restate my argument as communication is originated and oriented by interactive understanding. Deductively, communicative language classroom is a complex and sort of combination of interaction and understanding. I prefer this replacement since we can interpret or make an interpretation of a thing that we cannot understand but, on the other hand, we cannot learn a thing without understanding it.

This is an ideal point for me to pose the main claim of the article: the significance of understanding in communicative classrooms. As I have seen many classes in which teacher annihilates the crucial process of understanding just to show the importance of using L2 or have students accustomed to using L2! Not only is it admirable but it is a disaster! Moreover and more common, I have seen other classes in which teacher is totally indifferent to the process of understanding and the matter that how the “message” (in Jacobson term) may be transferred to addressees’ (students’) mind, how they might make interpretation/understanding, and how they can make their own representation of the content through those commutations in the context of classroom. According to what I have experienced, I assume, it is necessary to discuss on the process of understanding and meaning-making in the context of language classroom.  

Meaning & Communicative Situations

By having put “application” instead of “meaning”, Wittgenstein constituted a drastic change (turn) in linguistics. It was (still is) a controversial question in philosophy of language to seek what “the meaning” was (is). With a pragmatic perspective, we know it is not “equivalent words” or any traditional or Augustinian definitions of meaning. Language is a system of different and arbitrary signs (as Pierce & Saussure believe) we use primarily to communicate1. These signs are meaningful and, then, they are understandable. For instance the sign consists of C, A, and T is meaningful for a person who lives in the U.S. but it is not so for a Japanese. There are pre-defined applications for the sign in English language in contrast with Japanese. George H. Mead elaborates pre-defined application: “Meaning can be described, accounted for, or stated in terms of symbols or language at its highest and most complex stage of development (the stage it reaches in human experience), but language simply lifts out of the social process a situation which is logically or implicitly there already. The language symbol is simply a significant or conscious gesture.”

According to W. I. Thomas and as it is more desirable to me, I would rather put situation in place of there already in Mead’s quotation. We live in pre-defined situations as he writes “… the child is always born into a group of people among whom all the general types of situation which may arise have already been defined and corresponding rules of conduct developed”. If you drag this kind of socio-psychological outlooks to the context of applied linguistics and (especially) second language teaching, you will be definitely led to one conclusion: This is the major difference between L1 acquisition and L2 learning.2 When a child grows up and is exposed by a language system, he is defined in different and infinite language situations that would happen in future. S/he knows how to react (lingually) in a certain situation. Through dialogues and communication s/he has understood signs and symbols appropriate for different situations.3

L1 speaker has a quality rather than L2 (even fluent) speaker: immediacy. As s/he has been grown in all different language situations dialogically, s/he is able to react immediate and abrupt. In pragmatics, J. L. Austin posed some words such as speech-act, and illocutionary act. To define these words, I should say, there are some “utterances” that when we express them, more than saying something we are acting something. For instance, in the utterances “I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth” and “I take this man as my lawfully wedded husband”, more than saying something, an act is being done. The act and performance of first example is “naming” and the later is “espousing”. These utterances have been produced and expressed to convey a purpose and a reason. In applied linguistics we call these “purpose of utterances” functions. Functions are the reasons of why we communicate. They may be “apologizing”, “suggesting”, “proposing”, “inviting”, and … .4 Thus, to return to Thomas’ attitude toward situations, L1 speakers have been and lived in as many situations as they are possible. Moreover, on the other hand, acting and reacting in these situations is not anything but expressing “language functions”.

Quasi-real Communications

I have been bringing you along through all these definitions and words to confirm and contextualize my very beginning definition of a modern language teacher: “… a person who knows how to facilitate learning processes, and to enable and motivate students to construct their own representation of reality with their internal abilities through quasi-real social communications”. At the moment, it is obvious what I mean by the “quasi-real communications”. Communication occurs in reality where as one is growing and exposing to a system of signs, simultaneously, s/he identifies probable situations in which s/he needs to respond. This is the mystery of immediacy of L1 speakers: They have the opportunity to be put in a variety of communications and therefore they can initiate, respond, and end conversations properly. In language teaching classroom we, as teachers (and source of authority5), have to provide a quasi-real stream of communications. These should be in teacher-students, students-teacher, students-students, and student-oneself6 forms of interactions. Language can be acquired by no means, except by means of communicating and interaction: It is learnt dialogical. Volosinov puts the dialogical position very clearly when he writes “meaning is like an electric spark that occurs only when two different terminals are hooked together”. Further to this, Vygotsky turns this on its head: “thinking is situated in action; speaking is situated in interaction; and gradually the resources available in the symbols of interactive communication become fused with  thinking-in-activity, first as so-called ‘ego-centric  speech’, which  acts  as  a guide  to planning  and  completing  actions-in-progress, and eventually (though not inevitably) as a tool that enhances planning and action by providing it with a way of logically considering possible courses of actions in a coherent framework.”

Communication in classroom should be quasi-real but it has to be meaningful at first. I have talked about meaning of “meaning” for Wittgenstein before and I would like to quote Volosinov-Bakhtin concept of meaning here. They believe “in essence, meaning belongs to a word in its position between speakers; that is, meaning is realized only in the process of active, responsive understanding”. This is the most important point of this article: Although language teachers have to provide communications in the classroom, they have to provide situations in which learners take in suitable responses for coming real situation (process of intake), and these are not attainable when “processes of understanding” is neglected in the classroom by teacher.

I put one of the most famous Volosinov’s statements as the epigraph of the article to emphasize on the importance of the processes of understanding in the language classroom. We have to make the dialogues and interactions meaningful for the students. In order to do so, we have to design and apply a system of understanding-checking in the classroom. As Volosinov says “understanding is a response to a sign with signs”. Language consists of signs7 and any message which is transferred to addressee is a meaningful sign for both communicators in case an understanding happens. We should test learners’ understanding with different methods. We have to know that understanding is not a nodding by students or a “yes, I see” statement. We must design a system of signs to check students’ understanding in our classrooms.8

Communicative Classroom

In order to make a conclusion and sum up whatever I have stated so far, I need to talk more concrete and objective about two main claims of this article: first a tangible recommended form of dialogue-based classroom and second some techniques to check the processes of understanding and make the quasi-real communicative situations meaningful.   

By mentioning three “types of talk” in communicative\collaborative learning classrooms, Rupert Wegerif says the most educationally desirable intersubjective orientation by teachers is exploratory talk. It is oriented to share knowledge and understand each other with the addition of critical challenges and explicit reasoning. He puts forward seven ground rules for such classrooms:

  1. All relevant information is shared
  2. The group seeks to reach agreement
  3. The group takes responsibility for decisions
  4. Reasons are expected 
  5. Challenges are acceptable
  6. Alternatives are discussed before a decision is taken
  7. All in the group are encouraged to speak by other group members

As a matter of fact, he is talking about “a classroom” in general, not a language teaching classroom. However, on our own ground, Wilkins says in a language teaching classroom “students [should] perform certain functions …, such as promising, inviting, and declining invitations within a social context.” We are sure now that to be able to improve our students’ immediacy in communicative situations, we have to help them amplify their communicative competence – knowing when and how to say what to whom (according to Freeman). Whatever methods and approaches you are applying at your classes, give great heed to quasi-real communications. Initiate as many communicative activities as it is possible and you are able to do and let your students initiate such activities and situations. Use supplementary materials and resources, and aids such as realia, games, puppets, class library of readers and subsequent discussions, diagrams, and …. Put them within a variety of situations and prior to this provide the best context which is possible.

Understanding

Having initiated and provided a communicative classroom in which students are put into various situations and needed functions are defined for them, you have to design a system of understanding-evaluation. This stage is prior to putting the exponents of a function in use and posterior to defining the “language situations”. I would like to put forth two basic ways to check the process of understanding and close my text.

Bakhtin and Volosinov provided guidelines for understanding language-in-use as a contextually grounded process. They believe language is understood and meaningful in its concrete living totality. In our profession, as language teachers, we have to be aware of the importance of “understanding” in communicative (language-based) aspect of life.9 It is by constituting suitable process of understanding that students’ improvement becomes vivid.10 First procedure to check understanding is what we know as “concept-checking questions”11: A kind of questions which are not aimed at equivalency but at the application (or situation of the use of a concept12) of a part of speech in a real context. It is done before the discussed language being put in use.

To talk about the second procedure, I have a kind of obligation or -as I call- commitment to what has been applied at SEI so far. To ditch the obligation, I quote a paragraph by Jeremy Harmer here and close the article. However, in order to soften the tone of the out-of-context paragraph and prevent from any misunderstandings, I also have to bring the previous paragraph before:

“The first thing to remember is that, especially at beginner levels, students are going to translate what is happening into their L1 whether teachers want them to or not. It is a natural process of learning a foreign language. On the other hand, an English-language classroom should have English in it, as far as possible; there should be an English environment in the room, where English is heard and used as much of the time as possible. For that reason, it is advisable for teachers to use English as often as possible, and not to spend a long time talking in the students’ L1.

However, where teacher and students share the same L1 it would be foolish to deny its existence and potential value. Once we have given instructions for an activity, for example, we can ask students to repeat the instruction back to us in the L1- and this will tell us whether they have understood what they have to do. When we have complicated instructions to explain, we may want to do this in the L1, and where students need individual help or encouragement, the use of L1 may have very beneficial effects.”

 

Notes:  

  1. Later it constructs our identity and thoughts.
  2. Many may believe age and exposure are two major factors. While it is kind of true, but it is not subtle and it lacks a precise look.
  3. Since all probable subsequent situations have been defined formerly, it is hard to say something in a novel situation where has not been experienced by you before; there you are so shocked that you cannot “say even a word”.
  4. If you take a look at (almost) any general English teaching book, you can see units have been divided into “functions” and according to those functions sequence of lessons have been planned.
  5. The position of teacher in the ontology of classroom and his/her concluded authority could be the matter of discussion.
  6. On this kind of communicative relation I posed here, I just want to bring Riebe’s note here and postpone more discussion on it to other articles. He writes: “Consider for a moment the possibility that, in the communicative act, I’m not really sure exactly what I think until I’ve heard myself say it. In other words, my thinking or my interactive dialogue with myself, which is not yet expression-ripe, obtains meaning from the feedback I get as I am listening to myself.”   
  7. To have the differentiation of Saussure on the system of language in mind, any signs consist of signifier (the lexical form) and signified (the concept).
  8. One of the great methods I was just taught by Mr. Varzeshi is concept-checking. You can have some note on this technique from his office or read TKT coursebook and glossary.
  9. If there were any other aspects!
  10.  Vygotsky proposed “ZPD”: The ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ is often shortened to the acronym ‘zoped’ or ‘ZPD’. The zone of proximal development is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.
  11. As far as I know all my colleagues at SEI are familiar with concept-checking questions due to Mr. Varzeshi’s efforts to have it regulated at all classes.
  12. Alike to what Saussure calls signified.

 

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