Discourse for teaching purposes by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
A cursory glance over old and newly produced EFL coursebooks attests to the assertion that too much reliance has been placed on the traditional "text" format as the primary source of information about how language is used and functions. Here, it will be argued that English language teaching is deprived of discourse as "live language" and "grammar above the sentence," being characterised instead by a slavish adherence to "form," which leads to stilted language and other features that are not typical of natural language use. Much of the discussion that ensues is based on Millrood's article, "Discourse for Teaching Purposes" (2002), which appeared in Research Methodology: Discourse in Teaching A Foreign Language (Tambov State University).
Discourse can be defined as a pattern of verbal behaviour but, at the same time, it can be viewed as a verbal form of social behaviour, an instance of communicative language use, and the process of unfolding an idea into a text (Brown & Yule, 1983; Cook, 1989; Nunan, 1993). According to Millrood (2002), the difference between discourse and text is that discourse is a "live language," whereas a text is a "monument to life." 'Discourse processes can certainly be reconstructed from texts, but one needs insight and intuition in order to interpret movement cast in stone' (ibid.). Many texts, however perfect, fail to give readers a true picture of how language works. A very serious problem in EFL teaching, which the present paper sets out to explore, is the unfair representation of communicative reality, which is mainly based on "perfect texts" rather than on discourse processes. This means that genuine communication is treated as 'movement cast in stone', to hark back to Millrood's metaphor.
Aspects of discourse analysis
Discourse as "live language" can be analysed from at least
seven perspectives: context, clause, cohesion, coherence, cognition, communication,
Spoken discourse and teaching
Spoken discourse is important in teaching English communicatively. There have been some attempts at describing oral discourse grammar for teaching purposes (McCarthy and Carter, 1995: 207-218). In terms of content, spoken discourse activities in EFL coursebooks have so far dealt with service encounters (e.g., at a shop), problem-solving situations, information exchange, casual talk etc. Yet, spoken discourse in real life situations is not systematically presented by materials writers and language teachers. Let us explore the areas where this is observed.
Elliptical structures in spoken discourse
Here is an example of casual talk, "Preparing for a party" (found in McCarthy and Carter, 1995: 208). What characterises the extract below is the use of elliptical structures, e.g. "Don't have to " Omitted elements, however, can easily be reconstructed from context. The same holds for repetitions, long pauses, seemingly irrelevant words etc. All these characteristics of genuine discourse are often ignored by coursebook writers or, at best, they are tackled in an unsystematic way. As Gabrielatos (2002) notes, 'if learners expect over-explicit messages, they may be confused and discouraged by the elliptical nature of everyday language'.
A: Now I think you'd better start the rice
In spoken discourse, like in written discourse, there are some conventions of what is correct. For instance, in expressing futurity, "to be going to" is associated with intention, while "will do" is supposed to express decision-making. This distinction, though, has no merit, unless it is embedded, thus enacted, in a natural discourse such as in a restaurant:
A: [to her friend] I'm gonna have the deep-fried mushrooms, you like
mushrooms don't you?
Obviously, "to be going to" is addressed to a friend sharing one's intention to choose certain food, while "will" is addressed to a waiter, since it is more proper for giving food order.
Length and content in discourse
In real life, spoken discourse such as in buying or selling things, or
in having other business done, is characterised by short dialogues, which
are grammatically and semantically simple. Yet, in coursebooks, such dialogues
are misrepresented as quite long texts which are grammatically and lexically
complex, thus misleading learners of English (Taborn, 1983).
Shop-girl (approaching): Are you being attended to, ladies?
Customer: Do you have any chocolate eggs?
A "typical discourse"
Anyone can imagine a typical dialogue at the doctor's and compare it to the one given below:
D: What's the problem?
Full replies in discourse
Another tendency exhibited by EFL coursebooks is the overuse of full replies beginning with "yes" or "no," or "yes, I do" or "no, I don't."
Betty: Good morning. Do you sell oranges?
This form is very widely used by foreign learners, and is also very common in textbooks. However, it is highly unlikely that one will ever come across such forms in native speakers' everyday language.
Listening to each other in discourse
In textbook conversations, it is assumed that people actually listen to each other when they talk, and that questions are immediately answered and requests attended to. The following natural dialogue gives the lie to this assumption:
Father: Are you going out this evening?
In real life, people talk to each other simultaneously, interrupt each other, continue others' phrases and give multiple answers to one and the same question (Crystal, 1995: 110).
Precision in natural discourse
Another assumption that permeates communication is that using words precisely is what is necessary for effective talk. In reality, though, there is a great deal of exaggeration, generalisation, vagueness and ambiguity involved. These devices are called "hedges." I think it probably is the money and the chap used to spend about a thousand a year and he's been to the last two or three tournaments and this is about 50 per cent of his normal (Crystal, 1995: 117).
What one can glean from this brief discussion is that the language used in EFL coursebooks has been based on an idealised "native speaker" model, existing above regional varieties and cultures (Alptekin, 2002). Such a native speaker, though, is a non-existent abstraction. The real native speaker is a person who relies on someone else to complete his / her utterances, who seldom or never finishes the sentence, who speaks very quickly, talks vaguely, and fogets what he or she wants to say (Crystal, 1995: 119). In this light, EFL coursebooks should be based not on "hunches" and introspection, but on real communicative data. Natural speech is dramatically different from an "ideal coursebook dialogue," which not only fails to square with reality but also leads to misunderstandings as to the "mechanics" of genuine communication. Unless coursebooks expose learners to the real language, it will be impossible to foster communicative and sociolinguistic competence.
· Alptekin, C. (2002). Towards intercultural communicative competence
in ELT. ELT Journal. 56(1), 57-64.
Dimitrios Thanasoulas studied English Literature and Linguistics at Athens University and then did an MA in Applied Linguistics at Sussex University. After that, he earned an MBA from Mooreland University and is currently finishing the second year of my PhD studies in Education at Nottingham University. His academic interests include fostering cultural awareness and learner autonomy, as well as such issues as language and ideology, Critical Discourse Analysis, Pragmatics, Sociolinguistics, and the Psychology of Education. Dimitrios can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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