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The Perils Of Junk Communication
by Mark Wilson
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Norms and deviations - how wrong can you be?

In our globalised world, English is increasingly used as a lingua franca amongst non-native speakers, or amongst people from places with different local varieties of English, each with their own conventions of use and usage. The rise of the internet has meant a sudden and mighty surge in the rate at which English is evolving. Given this context, there is understandable and laudable reluctance, widespread in the ELT global community, to perpetrate or collude with any form of “linguistic imperialism” whereby language forms which are widely accepted in one part of the world, or within a given community of use (wherever they may be located geographically), are somehow regarded as “substandard”.
Yet this presents us with a problem. How elastic can a language be?

All teachers owe it to their students to provide them with a – not necessarily the – norm, from which it is the learners themselves who should be allowed to decide how far they shall deviate, and not teachers who decide in advance to accept all forms of deviation as valid so long as they serve their communicative purpose. Teachers should always provide information as to what, in the particular norm within which they are operating, is regarded as “norm-al”.
It is not a question of making value-judgements as to what is correct or incorrect, but of presenting facts as to which forms would most likely be used by the linguistic community that we are taking as a reference point. It is fact, not opinion.
If learners are producing language which contains accumulated instances of “deviant” forms then there will come a point – impossible to locate precisely, impossible to know in advance – where intended meaning becomes obscured or open to misinterpretation.
Take the following genuine spoken example, from an FCE student whose first language is Spanish:
I do the gymnastic since I have ten year.
How acceptable is this, and according to what criteria? Are we to judge it on the grounds of communicative effectiveness and (assuming that its place within the surrounding discourse makes its meaning clear) say “oh well, fair enough then”? Perhaps we wish to promote spoken fluency by taking some notion of “tolerable comprehensibility” as our field of acceptability, and only interrupting or correcting that which blatantly oversteps its boundaries.
The problem is, though, that if you get a group of non-native speakers of English, each of whose spoken proficiency in the language has only ever been honed to the requirements of “tolerable comprehensibility”, then the fuzzy edges of that field of acceptability will prove to be fertile ground for misunderstanding, and worse still, for unnoticed misunderstanding. When you get people thinking they are understanding each other when in fact they are not, the results might (if you’re lucky) simply be comic. On the other hand they might be pretty damned serious.
So please let’s not throw out attention to a norm as a reference point; let’s not equate a degree of “focus on accuracy” with some kind of retrograde uptightness, or worse still with cultural imperialism. Paradoxically, there is in fact a huge amount of cultural imperialism implicit in much ELT practice anyway – the imposition, upon learners not culturally predisposed towards it, of well-meaning liberal thought, involving the public expression of feelings and opinions - to an extent which is anathema to the very principles upon which such practices are supposedly based. Let me impose my liberalism upon you, you know it makes sense.


I am not trying to turn the clock back, but to turn it forward to a “post-communicative” era in which the pre-communicative, form-assimilating stages of a lesson, transparently focusing on adherence to a given norm, are once more given due value. This new age will not have dawned until major coursebooks are unafraid to incorporate once more the kind of teacher-prompted oral practice drills which once, admittedly, claimed too central a place, and yet which have become so unjustly and unjustifiably unfashionable. I believe most language learners need these every bit as much as the communicative activities which help to activate meaningfully what has been assimilated. Junk communication is certainly better than no communication - and in a target-language environment it may well be all students need as a launchpad - but for many language learners in their L1 environment, the scaffolding of controlled oral practice is immensely helpful.


Mark Wilson is a DOS and teacher trainer at International House, San Sebastián. He previously worked in the UK, Indonesia, India and the Dominican Republic.

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