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The Instrumental Paradigm

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    Aims and Practice

    At the other end of the spectrum to the traditional liberal language degrees are language courses which are informed by instrumental values. As with language provision in general, there is a rich variety in the practices in business and pragmatically oriented language classrooms, so any attempt to describe these is by nature doomed to be a gross generalization. Yet, there are certain characteristics which can be recognized as being fairly representative of language classes influenced by instrumental considerations. Because the aim of language classes of this kind is to provide students with the ‘real-world’ skills which are valuable to employers, language classes are aimed at developing communicative competence. This would include an emphasis on speaking and interpersonal skills over writing because employers do not necessarily expect graduates to have written competence in the foreign language: “…they want people who can have everyday conversations and state of the art conversations - in other words, they know the French for computer or keyboard” (quoted in Scott et. al., 1992: 18). These instrumental approaches, which at the time of starting this study may have been haphazard, have become systematically part of language teaching at universities since the Common European Framework (CEF, 2001) has been published.

    The CEF is a guideline document and does not suggest particular teaching methodologies, but instead provides an extremely detailed taxonomy of the competences, skills and knowledge that learners should possess at certain levels of study. The general aims and principles which are formulated emphasize both the functional aspect of language learning (learning to communicate in order to encourage collaboration, mobility, and trade) as well as the moral aspect (respect and understanding for other cultures). However, certainly, when judged by course books in Dutch which are taking account of the CEF guidelines, the practice has developed on very instrumental lines, concentrating on transactional tasks such as buying train tickets, filling in a form, writing letters, or covering conversational interests on an easy interpersonal level such as talking about leisure pursuits and interests or cultural customs.

    Clearly the purely instrumental view of language teaching does not fit in well with the liberal ideal of critical thinking; language as an expression of individual thought and emotion. Inglis (1992: 221), for instance, takes a traditional liberal view when he bemoans the loss of a critical and aesthetic and value-based view towards language. He feels that ‘to withdraw from the question of value making at the heart of language is [….] to hand language over to technicism and the skills-mongers whose very function is to demoralise education in the name of its orderly management.’

    Within this light, it is understandable that with the advent of communicative language teaching (CLT), the discipline came even more to be seen as a nonintellectual subject at the traditional departments. One can legitimately question whether the needs of employers should inform curricula in such a narrow way. Employers are not pedagogues and cannot be expected to know what the best educational route to a final aim of communicative competence is. As well as a reductive skill and information-based approach to language learning at the expense of a critical approach to knowledge production, there is another problem with the instrumental approach.

    It is absolutely the case that communication skills are of paramount importance to our graduates. They will need to be able to function communicatively in a complex world with many different people, in many different situations, the vast majority of which will be defined by unpredictability, fluidity, and changeability. Teaching standard rules and guidelines for these situations, as instrumentalist language teaching does, encourages a labeling of communicative partners into essentialized entities devoid or complex personal histories. But there is also a political point to make. As Fairclough said, in many professional domains, power and manipulation are exercised through language in increasingly subtle and implicit ways (Fairclough, 1992: 3). Teaching set rules for communicative situations could, whether unwittingly or not, contribute to developing skills in students, which perpetuates this exercise in manipulation. I discuss this further in chapter 2, but it is worthwhile to note here that when offering texts from a commercial professional domain to students, the discourses of the legitimacy of self-enrichment and capitalism become naturalized to such an extent that students might employ these uncritically themselves. Furthermore, the uncritical submitting to employers’ needs when drawing up syllabi may train future graduates to fit in with the economic needs of society, but it denies them the development of capabilities aimed at effecting changes in society themselves. As Hoggart (1995: 22) points to the political aspect of instrumentalism; it trains people like robots to serve the needs of the industry which is ‘one way of avoiding […] ‘looking seriously at the injustice which runs through the educational system’ and ‘indicates mistrust […] of mind and imagination’. Moreover, the focus on market forces is a safe political position: it ‘provides a piece of firm dry land for many of today’s politicians, barren though that land may be intellectually and imaginatively’ (ibid.: 25).

    Underlying Theories

    Because of the instrumental aims, the immediate concerns in language classes within this paradigm are practical; developing skills and presenting learners with ready-made phrases or expressions for use in particular situations. The theoretical premises which underlie communicative language teaching (which generally informs instrumental approaches) are therefore often subsumed by practical concerns. Communicative approaches, with an emphasis on real communicative tasks, the use of authentic material in the syllabus and an emphasis on ‘getting the message across’, are based on pragmatic descriptions of language use derived from Hymes’ notion of communicative competence (1972) and Speech Act Theory (Austin, 1962).

    These approaches generally start from a sociolinguistic description of how meaning is communicated in particular settings, situations, and contexts and take account of a variety of parameters such as the intention to mean, the relationship between participants in the communicative act, the topic, the mode of communication and so forth. The view of language which is implicit in communicative syllabuses is thus a pragmatic one; language is seen in a functional goal-oriented sense. This contrasts with the classical liberal view which sees language on the one hand as a creative and aesthetic expression of individual thought and on the other hand as a system of formal rules. Since I started to develop my language course in the mid-1990s, communicative language teaching (CLT) has increasingly been aiming for not only developing Communicative Competence but also for Intercultural Communicative Competence. However, these original pragmatic concerns remain the bedrock of CLT.

    The two approaches I discussed here are thus almost diametrically opposed in their educational aims. The liberal tradition aims to develop autonomous critical thinking and an aesthetic appreciation whereas language learning in the instrumental or communicative approach aims at developing the competence to be able to communicate in work and social environments, including intercultural situations.

    It follows then that the pedagogical theories underlying these views also differ, but in the case of the liberal tradition of language teaching, even though based on clear educational values, there is no theory of language learning which informs teaching methodology. As we have seen, the approach was based on the way that the classical languages were taught. In the instrumental approach to language learning, I want to suggest that the problem is reversed. There is no concern with personal or educational development in many instrumentally based language classes, as the main concern is to develop skills in the learner which are useful on the job market. The language teaching itself within these classes, on the other hand, is influenced by theories of language learning as an automatic process, which I briefly set out below.

    Chomsky’s research in mother tongue language acquisition, in particular, has influenced early communicative approaches in foreign language teaching: as language learning is an automatic process, the argument goes, the role of the teacher is to provide language input of the right level and tasks and situations through which the learners can practice and absorb the use of the foreign language.

    Chomsky relates the idea of language acquisition specifically to the grammatical rules. However, in communicative language teaching, it has become a common-sense notion that the social rules of a language (the appropriateness of utterances in relation to the context in which they are expressed) are acquired along similar lines as these grammatical structures. These social rules constitute what Hymes calls ‘communicative competence’ (1972).

    What is problematic about the view of an automatic acquisition of communicative competence, is that it might explain how certain functional phrases or vocabulary items are acquired, but it allows no role for the wider social and cultural influences which shape communication and discourses. It is possible that these are acquired automatically as well. Children certainly seem to have an uncanny ability to switch their ‘social voice’, without explicitly having been taught how one speaks within certain social or cultural groups. This ability to ‘switch codes’ is likely to have been ‘picked up’ from the various discourses they are exposed to in their environment, notably through television. The question for language teachers, however, is not so much whether language, which is saturated with social or cultural values, can be acquired automatically, but whether it should be.

    If we want students to understand how language creates both explicit and implicit cultural and social meanings, then they need not internalize linguistic items automatically. On the contrary, they need to look at language consciously both to understand texts as a social and cultural construct, but also to be enabled to produce language utterances which are culturally and socially appropriate. This is an intellectual skill, which is not automatically achieved in a foreign language and would need to be addressed consciously.

    In summary, the instrumental approach to language teaching, which views language particularly in terms of its pragmatic function is much more sophisticated than the liberal tradition in terms of learning to communicate in various settings and in terms of views on language learning. But it is lacking in other ways. Firstly, the emphasis on context as shaping language utterances tends to be interpreted only in terms of the immediate parameters that define a communicative situation, and often this is interpreted in fairly reductive terms in the choice of settings, dialogues, and texts. This only takes account of the immediate social context, and not the wider cultural influences and the larger social constructs, which Halliday (1989), using Malinowski (1923), defined as being of importance in language use. Secondly, while the emphasis is on the intention to mean, it assumes that language use is always explicit in its functions and aims, it does not allow for the more implicit social and cultural values which are embedded in texts. I will discuss this further in chapter 2.

    This page titled The Instrumental Paradigm is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gerdi Quist (Ubiquity Press) .

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