The Perils Of Junk Communication
by Mark Wilson
What is meaningful?
Consider the following oral activity:
Why do birds have wings? So that they can fly.
Why do we eat with knives and forks? So that we don’t get our fingers dirty.
Why do we brush our teeth?
Why do we have traffic lights?
Why do we cut our hair?
Why do we lock things?
Why do cars have brakes? etc.
From the viewpoint of orthodox communicative methodology, the activity above would be criticised on the grounds that as everybody already knows the answers, there is no motivation to ask and answer – they are simply "display questions". It is more meaningful, it is argued, to use questions which are genuinely interesting or which prompt unpredictable responses, such asWhy do people build fences around their gardens?
orWhy do people ask celebrities for their autographs? or Why do governments have spies?
This argument is a sound one as far as it goes – the latter types of question are undoubtedly “more meaningful” to most people. Yet I have never been convinced by the implication that the “unmeaningful” type of practice is somehow worth less, or even worthless, and that we must prioritise genuine communication above all else. To my mind, genuine communication as a worthy and orientating goal does not rule out "non-genuine" stretches on the road towards it.
For all its eventual benefits, “more meaningful practice” usually entails two major practical classroom problems. Firstly, it usually requires a delay for students to mull the question over, and this adversely affects pace and hence attention levels. Secondly, learners often lack the vocabulary to respond as they really want to.
The advantage for the learner of “unmeaningful” practice is that there is very clear immediate right/wrong feedback, and that the restricted use of form, and the careful selection of questions so as elicit a limited range of possible responses, provide what we might call a good “assimilation zone”. Once the form has been more or less assimilated, then it becomes useful to pass on to more meaningful practice – but not before. If teachers try to force the pace, then we end up all too often with stumbling, hesitant, inadequate production which frustrates and embarrasses the learner. It is junk communication.
I should confess perhaps that this is not the result of my extensive study of the literature; it is simply what I have seen in classrooms over more than twenty years.
For me, the “unmeaningful / meaningful” dichotomy is spurious. It fails to acknowledge that denotational and referential meaning do not hold the monopoly on meaningfulness for the learner at the moment of first engaging with unfamiliar language forms. For the learner, the immediate meaningfulness of what they are engaged in may have less to do with its communicative usefulness than with its purely formal aspects. For the student of language (by which I mean “one who has chosen to study it”), the meaningfulness of a tricky new form lies in what it is, and not yet what it does. It has meaning as artefact, not yet as medium. It means something for me, the student, to get to grips with it uncommunicatively – then, when I’ve done that, I’ll start using it (the same applies, for example, for a guitarist learning new chords).
Granted, to provide only the “unmeaningful” type of practice would be insufficient. But to ignore it altogether and attempt to plough straight on through to real communicativeness is a recipe for something just as bad. Practice in which the “meaningful” aspect is afforded undue prominence yields awkward, error-strewn, unsatisfying student output. Junk communication.
There is an assumption that the following kind of classroom communication is to be looked down upon because it is not genuine:
(Prompt 1) When we got back our house had been burgled
(Expected Response) Oh! That must have been a shock / awful or You must have felt terrible, etc.
(Prompt 2)But fortunately they hadn’t stolen anything really important
((Expected Response) Oh, that must have been a relief, etc.
...whereas this is genuine, and therefore in the communicative classroom, more “pedagogically correct”:
T: What did you do at the weekend?
S: Nothing special.
T: Didn’t you go anywhere?
S: I met with my friends.
T: And what did you do?
S: We went for a walk and (suddenly remembering a handy chunk) things like that.
In the first instance, there is of course an important sense in which the exchanges are not genuine. But in a classroom where students accept that they are there to study and learn a language, it does have an instrumental or ludic genuineness – “we are playing this little game so that we get used to using this little bit of language”. To deny that this type of genuineness exists seems to me almost perverse. It’s like saying that practising penalties is not a genuine act of football.
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