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Teaching Useable Language
by Steve Schackne
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What Constitutes Useable Language

Useable language is predicated on the real need of a person to communicate; that is, a person must have a relatively high desire to a) uncover information, b) accomplish a specific task, or c) solve a clearly defined problem. In short, the speaker must have a communicative purpose. Examples would include finding out the schedule of trains running between Beijing and Shanghai (a), giving your staff a status report on company financial operations over the past month (b), determining when you can sit a make-up examination even though you have a hectic, sixty hour, seven day a week schedule (c).

In addition to being communicative, useable language must also be portable. A speaker must be able to carry it in his head at all times, ready for immediate use. Portability here implies manageability. The language must be manageable-we are not talking about a comprehensive year long program designed to elevate a learner from low intermediate to high intermediate level, but a limited, though defined, corpus of language, including patterns, structure, and vocabulary designed to carry out a function (e.g., apologizing) or a particular situational task (e.g., buying a sports jacket in a clothing store).

Criteria For Acquiring Useable Language

The most important criterion for the language lesson is that it must be communicative. Jeremy Harmer defines communicative as having several elements-the presence of a communicative desire and purpose, a focus on meaning not grammar, the use of a variety of language as opposed to one discrete language item, minimal teacher intervention, and minimal dependence on materials such as textbooks and tapes.

The presence of a desire or purpose can not be taught, so teaching useable language to students assumes a goal or need on the part of the student. Unmotivated students who are taking a required English course often have a low rate of success in acquiring useable language, while highly motivated students and independent learners, who seek a teacher out and have a particular reason for learning the language, most often succeed.

A communicative, useable language module must also focus on meaning and content, not form or grammar. Since success or failure depends on understanding and being understood, grammar's only place is to facilitate meaning and understanding. Put another way, grammatically flawed language, which conveys the speaker's meaning, trumps grammatically correct language, which doesn't.

*/Tomorrow me go/ to the zoo.

/Today I went/ to the zoo.

If one wants to describe an action planned for tomorrow, the ungrammatical sentence will get the job done. However, a beginner student could, in haste, change the first three elements to form a grammatically correct sentence which would, unfortunately, mislead the listener. This is not to say useable language promotes ungrammatical English-the idea is better expressed - Tomorrow I will go to the zoo - but a focus on meaning, not grammar, is crucial to the student being understood.

Useable language also stresses variety rather than focusing on the discrete. Having a store of language, being able to select several options to express oneself is a characteristic of native speech which is important to genuine communication. Hence, a useable language activity always offers the student several different ways to carry out a communicative task; that is, the student is given several ways to say, basically, the same thing. If one fails, the student can paraphrase and approach the task from another angle-the more bullets in the cylinder, the more opportunities to hit the target. Students are also encouraged to freely draw from any previously acquired language to carry out a communicative task.

Obviously, a useable language activity also minimizes materials control and teacher intervention. Not only are these key elements of Harmer's communication continuum, but most real communicative acts take place without teacher or materials accompaniment.

In addition to Harmer's communicative elements, an information gap must also be present. Speakers have a communicative purpose, listeners must listen to discover that purpose-one (the speaker or the listener) has knowledge the other doesn't have, creating an information gap, and a purpose to communicate. Harmer uses the example of a man asking a woman for the time. If the man really wants to know what time it is, the gap lies with him-the woman has information he doesn't have. If the man simply wants to make the woman's acquaintance, the gap is reversed, as the woman doesn't know the man's real purpose. The presence of an information gap is the underlying motive for most real communication; hence, creating one for useable language practice is essential for genuine communication.

An information gap predicates both productive (speaking) and receptive (listening) language. Accordingly, useable language activities should include a reasonable amount of comprehensible or, what Krashen referred to as roughly-tuned input. This is receptive language which incorporates the realistic facets of native speech-it focuses on meaning, often has minor mistakes, stops, starts, and is recursive or somewhat repetitive. Roughly-tuned input, with all of its hesitations and sputterings, has the advantages of most realistically recreating genuine speech and forcing students to focus on content. The tendency to try to memorize is effectively eliminated.

The concepts of information gaps and roughly-tuned input are communicative because they are key elements in actual real-life communication. Realism is an important consideration in practicing and learning useable language modules-in fact, it is somewhat difficult to distinguish between the terms realistic and communicative as many principles, such as information gap, can be defined as both.

In addition to the presence of information gaps and roughly-tuned input, the useable language module should also be contextualized-communication does not occur in isolation. It should be presented in a realistic situation, preferably a situation mirroring what the student will actually encounter. Problem solving, role play or simulation, and discussions can all be excellent activities in the useable language classroom as they are both realistic and communicative.

In order to reinforce and "map" the language, the student should be required to use it as soon as possible-a gap of no more than a few days should be allowed between learning and real-life execution. The more quickly the language is used in a real-life situation the more quickly it will be mapped, mapping here being a synonym for acquiring, assimilating, internalizing. Since mapping is synonymous with acquisition, it also solidifies portability, making the language permanently available for use at any time. The example I often use is my experience as a youth-when I had an attack of dysentery, I had to quickly get toilet paper from a Chinese dry goods store. My classmates gave me the three-character word for toilet paper, and I went across the street and purchased it. I never forgot the term because it was learned and then immediately used in a real-life context.

As previously mentioned, useable language must also be portable. Large amounts of language learned over a period of extended time are not focused enough, and may be difficult to contextualize. The useable language learner needs specific language to successfully perform a function or communicate in a particular situation. Traditional extended language learning is also not of the moment-the useable language learner has an immediate need to carry out a task-moving from one language level to another over a period of months is not of primary concern.

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