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Traditional and Linguistic-Oriented Approaches

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    I will start by briefly backtracking to the traditional approach to language teaching in university language degrees. This pertained to an Arnoldian concept of culture (part of which survives in traditional universities) and incorporated two views of language concurrently. On the one hand, language had a central role to play in the conceptualization of ‘high’ culture, so that language was valued for its historical, literary, and aesthetic dimensions. On the other hand, language teaching was divorced from these ideals and instead emphasized the structural properties of language, in accordance with methodologies derived from teaching Latin (Cope and Kalantzis, 1993: 41-45).

    As a result, language, as it was conceptualized in language teaching, became separate from its original anchoring in those traditional philological degrees. This split between an aesthetic and a formal view of language was occasioned, I believe, by the two conflicting trends of thought about language which were current at the time and which Vološinov [2] (1996 (1973): 53) describes as ‘individualistic subjectivism’, rooted in historical views and concerned with human consciousness, and ‘abstract objectivism’, which considers language as ‘completely independent of individual creative acts, intentions or motives’. The first trend emphasizes the individual and creative aspects of speech. Vossler, as quoted by Vološinov (ibid. p. 51), formulates it like this: ‘linguistic thought is essentially poetic thought; linguistic truth is artistic truth, is meaningful beauty’. The link with an Arnoldian view of culture is easy to recognize. The second trend, known especially for its Saussurean interpretations, looks at language as a system, and, as Vološinov (ibid. pp. 67, 68) says, ignores the social function of language and fails to do justice to its changeable and adaptable nature.

    These two opposing trends in linguistic thought remained separate within foreign language degree courses and offered a two-tier view of language within one and the same degree; on the one hand, language as literature; on the other, language as grammar. Neither ‘individual subjectivism’, nor ‘abstract objectivism’ is easily married with the idea of a relationship between language and culture if culture is interpreted as a meaning-making process as part of the wider social environment and its value systems. Whilst a Saussurean view of language allows both for an individual as well as a social side of language, Saussure sees these two elements as separate. His view is complex, but I feel relevant to the language teacher as many of these concepts have taken on the aura of ‘common-sense’ assumptions (Kress, 1994: 170, 171), and have influenced views on foreign language teaching. Saussure’s notion of langue as a system of forms represents the social aspect of language in the sense that the linguistic rules have been agreed upon by a speech community. Parole (the utterance) on the other hand, as the execution of speech, represents the individual choices the language user makes. In separating these two elements, Saussure (1973: 11) says we can at the same time ‘separate 1) what is social from what is individual; and 2) what is essential from what is accessory and more or less accidental.’ What is essential to Saussure is langue, the system passively internalized by the individual speaker. In this trend, as Vološinov (ibid. pp. 52-54) explains, ‘the individual acquires the system of language completely ready-made’. There is no room for individual creativity because the linguistic system is fixed. A Saussurean view has no time for social values as reflected in texts or utterances and is not interested in language as constructing social reality. Structuralism sees language in terms of its formal properties and not its use. This approach remained de rigueur in language teaching until the 1960s when it was gradually replaced by methodologies informed by contextual and communicative concerns.

    However, a Saussurean-based view of language has influenced language teaching in more than its view of grammatical correctness as a major criterion in teaching. Saussure’s notion of language as a system of signs encoding meaning also continued to inform language teaching approaches. For Saussure, the sign consists of the signifier (the outward stimulus) and the signified (the mental construct which the signifier conjures up). The problem with applying these notions directly to language teaching lies in the two assumptions embedded in this conceptualization of the signifier and signified. One assumption is that the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary, that there is no inherent link between form and meaning, but that this relationship is established by convention alone. The other assumption is that language as a system is stable, fixed, and bounded; meaning is tied to form and exists independently of context (Kress, 1994: 171). In other words, language is seen as an autonomous system without any relationship to culture.

    The point I would like to make – and to which Kress refers - is that if we do not think there is a motivated relation between words and meaning, then language users merely engage in recycling pre-existing meanings. Applying this notion to language teaching would lead to the conclusion that it is sufficient to teach these pre-existing meanings, whether as grammar, vocabulary or functional phrases, as has indeed been the case in functional approaches. Language teaching becomes then in effect a mere re-labeling, sticking a different label to the same concept. How can we then express individual meaning? Or, looking at it from the pedagogic perspective of reading, the consequence of this view is that the text entails a definite meaning which the reader needs to extract.

    The implication of a Saussurean view for language teaching is that semantics is restricted to surface meaning and does not extend to underlying meanings, or using Halliday’s term, its ‘potential to mean’ (cf Halliday, 1978). Much of language teaching reflects this stable view in the tendency to look at texts and use them as exercises in testing comprehension of the explicit meaning presented. Yet it is by looking at implied meanings and at what texts do not say, the significant absences in texts, the reading between the lines, that students can access the social and cultural as well as individual meanings, which are constructed in a text.

    In short, the views of language, which were, and in some cases still are, in operation in traditional language degrees, i.e. on the one hand language as an expression of individual and creative thought and on the other hand language as a system of formal rules, would not form a good basis from which to derive principles for language teaching. I will now turn to cultural and social views of language and argue that these do not necessarily negate the potential to express individual meaning.

    This page titled Traditional and Linguistic-Oriented Approaches is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gerdi Quist (Ubiquity Press) .

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