Vivian Cook 
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Audiovisual Language Journal, 8, 1970

Present day methods of teaching second languages, in particular those known as audiolingual, have recently been criticised for a number of reasons. One failing is alleged to be their neglect of the creative aspect of language use. This article attempts to characterise briefly this creative use and to decide how appropriate some typical present day techniques are for teaching it.

The creative use of language has become important largely through the development of transformational generative grammar. Three aspects of interest to second language teachers can be distinguished.1

(i). Every day a native speaker hears sentences that he has never heard before; nevertheless he understands them. Similarly he says sentences he has never heard or said before; nevertheless he is understood. The grammars, both in his own mind and in the linguist's analysis, that account for this, must enable him not only to understand and reproduce familiar sentences, but also to understand and produce new ones* For from being a minor part of language, innovation may be language at its most typical; nearly every sentence produced or understood is new in the sense that one has never said or heard one identical. ". . . the number of patterns underlying our normal use of language and corresponding to meaningful and easily comprehensible sentences in our language is orders of magnitude greater than the number of seconds in a lifetime."2

(ii) How does this ability to create new sentences function? Transformationalists argue that it cannot be accounted for by anything describable as habits. Understanding or producing sentences in the past can only lead to understanding or producing the same sentences in the future. It has usually been accepted in language teaching that 'analogy’ or 'generalisation’ can bridge this gap between the finite number of sentences one can hear and the infinite number one can potentially understand and produce, yet Chomsky and Halle point out "It is important to emphasise that there is no significant sense of "generalisation" in which the new utterances can be described as generalisations from earlier experience and no sense of the term "habit" in which the normal use of language can be described as some kind of "habit system" or as "habitual behaviour" ."3

(iii). Since it is not habit, then the creative use cannot be responses to particular stimuli. A new sentence may be unconnected with any observable physical or linguistic stimulus, in other words, stimulus-free rather than stimulus-bound. However meaningful the terms 'stimulus' and 'response1 are when applied to other language uses, it is singularly unhelpful to seek to account for new sentences as responses to stimuli.

As far as second language teaching is concerned, it seems that, if the learner is to be able to use language creatively in a similar way to a native speaker, he must be able to produce and understand sentences he has never previously encountered. It is unlikely that this ability can be acquired by teaching techniques that make use of habit formation and stimulus response association. Let us take two techniques that are common to several current methods, dialogues and structure drills and see how these may teach the creative use.

The most familiar use of dialogues is found in the audiolingual and audiovisual methods. The dialogue is used to present new structures and vocabulary in a context. It is usually short, so that, by repeating the individual sentences a number of times, the learner can know it almost or completely by heart. The following stages are usually recognised in teaching the dialogue: I. presenting the dialogue to the learners either from a taperecorder or by reading aloud; II. making the learners repeat the dialogue sentences either individually or in chorus; III. guiding them in expansions of the basic dialogue; IV. allowing them to express themselves freely.

            I                 II.                III.                    IV.

presentation --> repetition --> expansion --> free expression

These four stages in the teaching process are paralleled by four stages in the presumed learning process: I. hearing the sentences; II. learning the sentences by heart; III. generalising from the sentences; IV. producing new sentences.

      I.                II.                         III.                       IV.

hearing --> learning by heart --> generalisation --> production

The fourth stage, while it also includes other aspects of language use, must include the creative.

Stages I and II do not make the learner produce sentences he has never previously encountered. They do expose him to sentences he has never heard before but only in the trivial sense that everything in the foreign language is new to him, with no guarantee that he understands anything. Habit formation plays an important part in that the learner is taught to repeat what he hears; what he does is also stimulus-bound. Yet the most dangerous emphasis is that on learning by heart. Two quotations are typical: R. Lado, "If our students could memorise large amounts of the language, say ten plays or a full-length novel, they might be pretty advanced in the language"5; D. van Abbé, "There is no objection to pressure on younger pupils doing much memory work and learning the texts off by heart; this would be desirable for all students"6 The assumption behind such statements is that learning pieces of language by heart has a value in itself and inevitably leads to Stage III, generalisation, and to Stage IV, free production. In this strong form the claim is easily refuted: (a) the limitations on human memory necessitate some organisation of the data before new sentences can be produced in the appropriate situation; (b) many opera singers have performed precisely this feat of memorising entire works in foreign languages without reaping the slightest benefit in ability to speak the language themselves. These two stages cannot directly teach the creative use; Stage III must be the vital missing link. In the learning process, however, Stage III is rather nebulous in character: the term 'generalisation' is not adequate as an explanation. A second, less general, assumption is also made about learning by heart. This is that material learnt in one rigid form can be changed into a non-rigid productive system producing new forms. As we have seen, this is linguistically unlikely: to quote Belyayev on the psychological aspects "The reproductive spoken word is based on memory and not on the thought with which a foreign language must be directly linked when used in practice."7 Stage III of the teaching process is equally unclear; the classroom procedures involved largely undiscussed and few in number. For instance, R. Renard talks about "La phase d’exploitation de la leçon par les procédés de la méthode directe: questions sur les images, passage du style direct a l’indirect, construction de questions d'aprés des résponses données, transposition des structures dans d'autres situations, etc."8 As this stage is crucial, it is to be regretted that so little help is offered to the teacher, and that, to judge from lists such as this, the techniques have so little to do with the creative use.

In some methods structure drills are used to teach Stage III; in others they have a different role. Roughly the same four stages can be recognised. In the teaching process these are: I. examples of the grammatical point are presented to the learner; II. he is given some more items to practice; III. the same point is practiced more freely; IV. he is allowed to express himself freely. The parallel stages in the learning process are: I. hearing; II. habit formation: III. generalisation; IV. Production. Again Stage III is neglected and is sometimes conflated with Stage II, though recognised as distinct by R. Lado, who thinks that at this stage the learner "has the patterns ready as habits but he must practise using them with full attention on purposeful communication.”11

The technique of drills is nakedly stimulus and response; the learner is encouraged to form habits. ". . . in the end it is hoped to set up conditioned reflexes in the pupils' minds so that similar stimuli wherever encountered elicit from them adequate responses in the foreign tongue."10 However, the creative use is not stimulus-bound; it is unlikely that learners will arrive at it by a technique that implies every sentence in a response to a stimulus. Whatever the degree of contextualisation, a. drill still teaches a purely automatic response to a stimulus; in some courses this is even accentuated by the ringing of a bell when the learner has to respond. In drills, also, everything possible is done to direct the learner unambiguously towards one answer. Sometimes this is due more to the limitations of taperecorders than to the technique. If the learner is to be "reinforced" by hearing the right answer after his own attempt, then there must be a single right answer recorded on the tape; a teacher can be that much more flexible. Nevertheless the essence of drills is that the learner's response is forced into a rigid mould.11 The value of drills to teaching the creative use cannot come directly from Stages I and II but must be derived from Stage III. This is true regardless of whether Stage III is actually taught in the classroom or is presumed to happen purely in the learner's mind. Again everything is left to 'guided expression’ and 'generalisation’; again the assumption is made that rigidly learned material can be changed into a productive system; again the descriptions of teaching and learning processes are inadequate. For example W.M. Rivers has a list of fifteen points on the construction of drills, the last of which is "15. Some provision will be made for the student to apply what he has learned in the drill series in a structured communication situation, that is, in directed dialogue, by questions and answers within the class group in some form of game, or in short, oral reports."12 Although the aim of a drill is to teach one particular grammatical point, it is evident that one cannot practice more than a small number of grammatical points with most of the above activities: how does one practice imperatives when giving "short, oral reports"? Also none of these activities, with the exception of games, involves the creative use directly.

Both drills and dialogues are faulty basically because they control everything that the learner has to do and such control is not compatible with the creative use; in a drill the learner is not permitted to do anything but produce one answer; in a dialogue he must repeat and memorise sentences supplied to him. It is believed that this control can be gradually relaxed so that the learner can be guided into the creative use, yet both the psychological justification and the classroom techniques for achieving this remain unclear and hardly discussed. As Herschel Frey says, "If a language learning methodology based on imitation precludes the learner's acquiring the ability to produce and respond to novel sentences, then this indispensible ability must be acquired through other means ."13

If one believes that what the learner hears and says must be severely restricted in grammar and vocabulary, and at the same time that the teaching techniques must directly encourage the creative aspect of language use, then perhaps one has to use techniques that are half-controlled. Some would be developments from the activities mentioned above, such as language games where the learner's sentences, though restricted by the rules of the game, nevertheless make him use the language creatively. Others might be developed from drills, such as 'semidrills' where one aspect of the sentence is controlled while another is left free, e.g. a drill where the grammatical structure is specified but the learner is free to supply lexical items of his own. It remains to be seen whether such activities can be developed to a pitch where they can overcome the apparent contradiction between the creative use of language and most present day second language teaching techniques.

V.J. Cook,
Lecturer in English as a Foreign Language,

Ealing Technical College.


1. See particularly N. Chomsky, "Linguistic Theory," in Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, 1966, Reports of the Working Committees, ed. R.G. Mead, Jr., 1966.

2. N. Chomsky, Language and Mind (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968), p. 10.

3. N. Chomsky and M. Halle, The Sound Pattern of English (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), pp. 3-4.

4. For a fuller discussion see Wilga M. Rivers, Teaching Foreign-Language Skills (Chicago; 1968), pp. 32-55-

5. R. Lado, Language Teaching; A Scientific Approach (New York, 1964), p. 62.

6. D. Van Abbé, "General Principles," in Programming for the Language Laboratory, ed. J.D. Turner (London, 1968), p.11.

7 B. V. Belyayev, The Psychology of Teaching Foreign Languages, trans. R. F. Hingley (Oxford, 1963), p.136.

8. R. Renard, La méthode audio-visuelle et structure-globale de Saint-Cloud-Zagreb (Mons, 1963), p.68.

9. Lado, p. 113.

10 . Van Abbé, pp. 4-5.

11. For further discussion see V.J. Cook, "Some types of oral structure drills," Language Learning, XVIII, Nos. 3&4 (1968).

12. Rivers, p.105

13. H. Frey, "Audio-Lingual Teaching and the Pattern Drill", MLJ, Oct. 19^"