Language processes and language teaching
indian journal of applied linguistics vol. III No 1, 1977
language by aiming at 'competence' has neglected many 'performance' factors that
are vital to the use of language. Among these are: the conversion of message
into language in speech production; the use of selection and attention in
perception; the interaction of production and perception processes; the roles of
primary and secondary memory in processing and storing language. In addition the
bias towards competence has ignored the process of language learning: specifying
a syllabus should involve looking at learning issues as well as the description
of competence, even if that is broadened to include communicative aspects.
originally formulated linguistic competence, the ideal speaker's
knowledge of the language, was contrasted with performance, the use of
language in particular situations (Chomsky 1965). Though this formulation was
initially appealing, it led to problems when it was applied to the areas of
psycho-linguistics and sociolinguistics. The solution that was commonly adopted
was to construct an intermediate term with some of the properties of
performance, some of competence; examples of this are 'abstract performative
grammar' (Watt 1970) and 'communicative competence' (Hymes 1971). What implications
does Chomsky's original formulation and its later adaptations have for language
teaching? A convenient starting point is to compare the language of the
classroom with a 'natural' use of language outside the classroom. As a classroom
let us take a beginners class in English as a Foreign Language; as a 'natural'
use the language of the students chatting to each other in their coffee-break in
whatever language they choose.
lesson starts, say, with a dialogue about the adventures of a young couple in
London. The students listen to what the characters say; they repeat the
sentences; they read them aloud. Then they practice particular functional and
grammatical points arising from the dialogue; they do drills and repeat
sentences for pronunciation practice. Halfway through the morning they go to the
canteen for a coffee-break.
group of students sit together and talk about pop music; another group discuss
their money problems; a girl describes the symptoms of her cold; a man tries to
persuade a girl to go out with him.
difference between these two are striking. The type of classroom situation in
which the students were placed is heavily controlled: nothing happens without
the consent of the teacher or the materials writer. The student is not expected
to initiate activities: he does what he's told. This control covers not only the
choice of activities but also variations within the activities themselves and
the language the student hears or is expected to produce; if the student is
asked to repeat, he must repeat word for word without varying the syntax, the
vocabulary or the pronunciation; if he is asked to vary the structure of the
sentences in a drill, he must not take the initiative and decide where or how to
vary it: there is one correct answer decided in advance. The coffee-break
situation is comparatively uncontrolled. The activities that go on, the topics
that are discussed may, indeed, be limited; it would be unlikely that the
students would start dancing a tango or discussing whether electrons are made
out of quarks. But these limitations are imposed by the students, not by the
teacher; the student himself decides that dancing and nuclear physics are not
appropriate to the coffee-break. The classroom forces the student to encounter a
carefully selected and controlled form of language behaviour; the coffee-break
leaves him free to talk about whatever interests him, using the structures and
vocabulary he has at his disposal. In the classroom the student is externally
controlled, in the coffee-break internally controlled.
differences between classroom and coffee-break reflect an approach to language
similar to the distinction between competence and performance. Competence—the
ideal speaker's knowledge—is independent of speech production or perception;
it contains no errors, meaningless repetitions, and so on. The language of the
classroom is often intended to have the same properties. Performance—the
processes of speech and examples of actual speech—depends upon mental
processes of perception, production, and memory; it tolerates all kinds of
mistakes and distortions that are idealised out of competence: so does the
coffee-break. Competence is not concerned with the situation at the moment of
speaking; neither is the classroom. Performance concerns a specific person
talking and listening at a particular time, motivated by his own needs and
urges; so does the coffee-break. The typical classroom situation seems to
involve an abstraction, from 'natural' language similar to the abstraction of
competence from performance.
superficial resemblance, however, conceals important differences. These can be
explored by looking at one aspect of the competence/performance distinction,
that in which competence represents static knowledge, performance dynamic
process. A corollary of this is that the forms in which knowledge is stored in
the mind or the rules by which the linguist represents this knowledge are not
necessarily the same as the processes that speakersuse when handling specific
bits of language. Linguistic competence is deliberately distinct from mental
there may be similarities between competence rules and speech processes, every
attempt to use competence rules directly as a model of speech processes has been
doomed to failure. Take, for instance, the sentence "There's a book on the
table." In terms of competence rules it is derived from an underlying
structure paraphrasable as "A book is on the table" (Burt 1971). It
seems highly unlikely that this derivation corresponds to the order of speech
production or perception, in other words that the speaker starts with "A
book is on the table" and then changes it into "There's a book on the
table" or that the listener hears "There's a book on the table"
and has to change it into "A book is on the table" before he
understands it. Rules of competence are not the same as processes of
performance; the best one can say is that they may provide some clues about
production and perception but no more. In addition performance requires more
than linguistic competence. When the speaker is actually processing speech, as
well as his competence, he makes use of memory processes, physiological
processes, general cognitive operations, and so on: the description of an actual
speaker in an actual situation requires much more than an account of his
competence. But, to come back to the classroom, both these points have been
largely ignored in language teaching: the language has been selected and graded
in terms of competence; the activities have made nothing but the vaguest
concession to the other components of the speech situation.
classroom implies that the student is the ideal speaker of competence and that
performance processes are irrelevant; what happens in the classroom is an
approximation to what native speakers would do if they used solely their
competence in speech. There are then two implications of the classroom/
coffee-break distinction that go against competence/performance. One is that
competence rules are treated as performance processes; the other is that
linguistic competence alone is taken to be sufficient for speaking and hearing.
us now look at some processes of performance that are specifically excluded from
competence and from the classroom. The logical point to begin is speech
production. At one time research in this area tended to take refuge in
painstaking studies of pauses; their location, duration, frequency, and rhythm
were used as evidence for underlying mental processes (Goldman-Eisler 1968).
More recent work has postulated a variety of internal processes and usually is
based on the assumption that speech production consists first of deciding to say
something and then converting this 'something' into speech by selecting the
appropriate syntax, lexical items, morphology, and muscular movements (Fry
1968). One model of production, developed by I.M. Schlesinger, starts with the speaker's intentions—what
he wants to say; those of his intentions that are linguistically relevant form
an 'I-marker' that represents relationships without any information about order
or word category.
speaker converts the I-marker into speech by 'realisation rules' that assign
order and word-categories (Schlesinger 1971). The initial input is then crucial:
you don't get a ticket out of the machine without first putting in some money;
you don't say something unless you have some kind of intention to convey. The
distinct processes of production depend on the initial 'message' and cannot be
considered in isolation from it. Clearly this view of production has been
thought irrelevant to the classroom. The student has been discouraged from
having intentions or messages of his own; he has not been permitted to follow
the normal order of first having something to say and then producing it. Rather
the processes have been disconnected; he practises producing utterances without
having anything to say. Thus the basic process of speech production—the
conversion of message into speech—has been neglected. It seems that the
teacher is aiming at a competence-like knowledge of the language independent of
the ability to produce speech.
production are the processes of speech perception, which have shown themselves
more amenable to investigation. Some of the factors involved can be seen by
taking a brief extract of spontaneous speech. In the following passage an adult
educated native speaker of English is describing a cartoon. "Yes well er we
got here we have a story er a story in three pictures about um there's a
psychiatrist and one of his patients typical American story and um we have the
patient lying on the traditional couch er with his pad and er pencil and um
obviously he's incredibly bored by the whole the whole thing."
Characteristic features of performance illustrated in this extract are the
hesitation noises ("er" and "um"), the broken constructions
("a story in three pictures about um there's a psychiatrist"), and the
repetitions ("the whole the whole thing"). These are typically
excluded from linguistic competence, and edited out of teaching materials.
far as perception is concerned, their presence means that part of the listener's
task in perceiving speech must be the filtering out of irrelevancies. The hearer
knows that hesitation noises are not significant; he realises that some
repetitions such as "very very" are significant and others are not. He
must therefore possess a means for setting aside part of what he hears as
irrelevant. This filtering process is allied to the general psychological
process of attention—how
the hearer selects only the relevant information out of all the information he
has been exposed to. Research on this 'cocktail party' problem showed that the
hearer can attend to only one message at a time even when he hears several
competing messages; he is oblivious except to the message he is attending to.
What is still uncertain is the point at which the listener decides between
conflicting messages. Some research seemed to show that the choice was made very
early in the process of perception and lay between actual physical channels; the
hearer can attend to a message coming to his right ear but be unaware of a
message simultaneously coming to his left (Broadbent 1958).
research suggested that the choice is made somewhat later and that all messages
receive some kind of analysis even if they are later rejected (Treisman 1964).
In the classroom the student has had the problem of attention and filtering
solved for him: he hears speech in idealised conditions where the performance
features have already been filtered out and where there is
one distinct message; he is rarely exposed to 'noisy' conditions; he does not
have to filter out irrelevancies or to select one of several competing messages.
Again the processes of performance have been ignored in favour of
competence-like language and the student has not been required to use the normal
processes of perception. Curiously enough this exclusion of performance
features may well increase the difficulty for the student. While he no longer
has to cope with broken constructions, repetitions, and hesitation noises, their
absence means that the message is effectively shortened and a certain amount of
redundancy cut out. Trying to perceive and comprehend edited normalised speech
may well be more difficult than dealing with natural speech, for all its alleged
processes of perception are similarly excluded from the classroom. It is known,
for instance, that there is no simple correspondence between phonemes and
acoustic signals; greatly varying acoustic forms can be heard as the same
phoneme (Liberman, Cooper, Shankweiler and Studdert- Kennedy 1967). Whatever the
hearer uses to perceive speech, it is not primarily the phoneme (Savin and Bever
1970); rather he works out the relevant sounds from a variety of clues : speech
perception consists of 'decoding' the vast range of speech sounds into a limited
number of significant speech elements. Yet this process of decoding has not been
practised in the classroom. In pronunciation classes the learner has been
presented with material organised, implicitly or explicitly, in terms of
phonemes: he repeats tongue twisters exemplifying particular phonemes; he
discriminates minimal pairs. While the native speaker is of course capable of
doing this, it can be disputed whether it forms part of the normal process of
speech perception. Again a performance process has been left out of the
As an illustration of processes of greater abstraction one may take
analysis-by-synthesis (Halle and Stevens 1964). In this model perception is
subordinated to production. Rather than analysing the speech he hears, the
listener continually constructs a message of his own, which he compares with it:
we understand speech by matching a message of our own to what we hear. This
accounts for the ease with which we can supply the very word for which the
speaker is fumbling or can see the way his sentence is heading almost before he
does. Analysis-by-synthesis suggests that perception uses the same processes as
production in the same order but adds a further matching process.
we perceive what we can produce; we cannot perceive what we cannot produce. This
model has far-reaching implications for language teaching; for instance, it
reverses the normal priorities among the four 'skills' by making the 'passive'
skill of listening dependent on the 'active' skill of speaking.
Analysis-by-synthesis does have certain grave defects; it is difficult to see
how any loophole is left for learning new items since anything new would
automatically not be perceived; it is hard put to cope with evidence that
people who cannot produce speech can nevertheless understand it (Lenneberg
1962). But in a sense this model is simply the extreme statement of a common
theme in models of perception, namely the emphasis on the listener's active
contribution. He may, for instance, impose upon a sentence degrees of stress
that are only present in his own mind(Lieberman 1965); he may utilise deep
structures that are not present in the surface (Bever, Lackner and Kirk 1969).
The processes involved in listening are far from passive. But the classroom has
set this aside; the student does not process speech in a 'natural' way.
the most critical aspect of performance that is eliminated from competence and
absent from the classroom is memory. Competence is timeless and hence
memory-less; the speaker does not take time to produce or understand sentences.
In a real situation speech is involved with time; the whole sentence cannot be
uttered or perceived simultaneously.
memory is a vital component in the processes of production and perception.
Current research commonly recognises at least three types of memory process
(Craik and Lockhart 1972). First there is the extremely brief process that
registers the sensory input momentarily. Then comes primary memory, which has
been extensively studied in recent years (Craik 1971). Primary memory processes
information for only a few seconds and then discards it or passes it on
elsewhere. It processes language primarily as sounds rather in terms of syntax
or semantics; even material that is presented visually is received as sounds.
This link between primary memory and sound coding develops in the child about
the age of 5 (Conrad 1971). Primary memory can only process a few items at a
time, current estimates being between 2½ to 3½
words. So far as the classroom is concerned this is another process conspicuous
by its absence. Some attempt has been made to investigate its properties in the
second language learner, summarised in Cook (1978) but little has yet been done
to apply the results to language teaching.
advocates of teaching methods that insist on oral presentation before written
may draw some consolation from the important role that sound appears to play in
other major form of memory is secondary memory, the process that stores
long-term information. Mostly this information is derived from primary memory
possibly through 'rehearsal' (i.e. repeating the material audibly or inaudibly),
or by organising the information into a form that fits with what is already
present in secondary memory. For instance a minister is supposed to have
remembered his friends' phone numbers in terms of hymns: Egham 851 became
"All things bright and beautiful." There is, however, some evidence
that information can reach secondary memory directly without passing through
primary memory (Shallice and Warrington 1970). The form in which information is
stored in secondary memory seems to be largely semantic and various proposals
for semantic features (Kintsch 1970) and semantic networks (Rumelhart, Lindsay
and Norman 1972) have been made not unsimilar to developments in
transformational grammar. In language teaching, however, the organisation of the
material has been made by the teacher on syntactic or logical grounds; the
teacher has neither benefited from recent research in the area nor allowed the
student to fend for himself. In general it is true that this work on memory
processes can as yet provide few concrete points of guidance for the teacher;
the precise details of the processes involved in the perception and storage of
language are far from established. Nevertheless the teacher should be aware of
the centrality of memory processes to performance and to normal language
processing: memory is not something we use simply for learning poems by heart
but is employed every time we produce or perceive an utterance.
far we have contrasted competence and performance and have argued that
performance processes have been almost entirely neglected in the classroom.
But another type of process is involved in language behaviour, namely language
learning process is not necessarily reflected in the grammar of competence, nor
is it necessarily the same as performance processes. The elimination of
performance processes from the classroom leads to unreal competence-like
language; the only possible justification for it is that it facilitates second
language learning. The teacher seems to be adopting the hypothesis that
language learning proceeds more effectively when the learner does not have to
use normal performance processes. One may well question what evidence there is
for this hypothesis. Take the editing of 'mistakes' out of teaching materials
for example: does this in fact aid learning? Braine (1971) reports an experiment
in which adults learnt an artificial language; the proportion of errors to
correct sentences they heard did not affect their learning. Perhaps this could
be dismissed as too remote from second language learning. However, direct
evidence about second language learning is almost non-existent on this point and
in any case does not sufficiently distinguish the effects of language teaching
from language learning. Research in first language acquisition suggests that
there are indeed differences between the language addressed to children and the
normal language of adults, as a recent collection of papers suggests (Snow and
Ferguson 1977): certain 'babytalk' features are used (Ferguson 1964); the syntax
may be 'simpler' and more redundant (Snow 1972); the functions of interrogatives
may be more varied (Holzmann 1972). Language to foreigners may have similar
characteristics in terms of simplification and the adoption of special lexical
forms (Ferguson 1975). These 'simplified' forms of language seen in babytalk and
foreigner talk may reflect something about instinctive adaptation to a more
basic form of the language suitable for learners (Corder 1977).
these do not add up to the peculiarities of classroom language either in quality
or quantity. The greatest effect on the language the child produces is the
child's mind itself: what he understands, what he says, are limited far more by
his own conceptual apparatus and language processing systems than by the
interfering adult. Those who have tried to 'improve' the child's language have
often found that the best results are achieved, not by restricting the syntax
and vocabulary of the language the child hears but by increasing its variety and
richness (Cazden 1965). The teacher's hypothesis about second language learning
is not confirmed by evidence from first language acquisition.
present ignorance about the processes of second language learning should not
provide an excuse for the teacher to take learning for granted. Suppose that the
teacher decides to introduce performance processes into the classroom to a
greater extent than hitherto; this would still expose him to two possible
dangers. One is simply that of being too selective about the processes he uses,
by stressing, say, 'intention' and omitting 'attention'; the present article has
tried to give some idea of the complex processes involved and the extent to
which they are interdependent. The second danger is that of assuming that by
describing the content he has automatically solved the problem of learning. It
may be that perceptual strategies are identical to learning strategies (Bever
1970) but this is not logically necessary.
listener perceiving speech is 'decoding' the message using a code he already
knows; the learner acquiring the language is 'codebreaking' the message to
retrieve a code he does not know. Codebreaking may well use different processes
and memory systems than decoding. So the introduction of' communication into the
classroom or the adoption of a notionally-based syllabus does not provide an
automatic answer to the question of how language is learnt or how it is to be
taught: the 'communicative' teaching of English implies not just using
communication in the classroom but teaching how to communicate. The present
article has suggested that there is a case to be made for a hypothesis
completely the reverse of the assumption that performance processes hinder
learning, namely that the use of performance processes actually helps second
language learning. Supporters of the two hypotheses need to find more evidence
that will help to decide between these positions since they are so diametrically
opposed and have such far-reaching consequences for the teaching situation.
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