by Steve Schackne
Useable language is a specific chunk of language designed
to carry out a particular function, perform a situational
task, or solve a problem. It may include grammar, sentence
patterns, vocabulary, and any other language or communicative
elements to carry out the task or solve the problem. The learner
must be motivated and have an immediate need to perform a
specific task. A useable language lesson should be communicative,
realistic, and be quickly internalized. To that end, it ought
to include the following:
focus on meaning or content
a variety of language options
- minimal teacher intervention
- minimal materials control
- information gap
- roughly-tuned input
- relatively immediate real-life use for mapping
A Brief Scenario
middle-aged Chinese executive comes to you in a semi-agitated
state. He has to purchase a Chicago to New York round trip
airline ticket from a travel agency in Chicago. The businessman's
English is lower intermediate. He knows you could purchase
the ticket for him, but he wants to do it himself because
he will have to buy several such tickets over the coming months.
(up to 50 items): United, American, Northwest, US Air, departure,
arrival, destination, connection, gate, terminal, window,
aisle, upgrade, book, first class, business class, economy
class, coach, check-in, leave, depart, Midway, O'hare, Laguardia,
JFK, Newark, ________, _____________, _____________, ______________,
_________ ,__________, _______________, ______________, _________________,
____________, _________, _____________, _____________, ________,
________, _____________, _____________, ____________, ________,
would like to fly to New York on
I need to fly to New York on
I would like to book a ticket to New York on
would like to purchase a ticket from Chicago to New York on
(buy) (roundtrip ticket)
need to leave on
I would like to leave on
(would prefer to) to leave on..
is a flight (number) (airline) leaving Chicago on (date) at
(time) arriving New York City (airport) (date) (time).
(we) have a flight (number) (airline) leaving Chicago on (date)
Arriving New York City (airport) (date) (time).
is a (airline) flight (number) departing Chicago on (date)
in the morning, arriving at Laguardia on (date) at (time)
in the morning.
(afternoon) (JFK) (afternoon)
Return flight (leaves) New York on (date) at (time).
(leaving) (name of airport)
I would prefer
I would rather
you like to book a hotel
Do you need to arrange
there anything else
most of the key language (in parentheses) is content, conveying
meaning-these terms are nested in a variety of relatively
commonplace grammatical patterns. The student will be paying
attention to the semantic permutations, not the underlying
grammar. The exact progression of the conversation can not
be predicted, but with the key concepts we can construct realistic,
logical activity would be a simulation or role play with the
student trying to purchase a ticket. The role play should
be repeated several times, first with minor non-semantic variations:
I have a flight leaving
- We have a flight leaving
- There is a flight departing
the role play should be repeated with semantic variations:
Yes, we have three flights leaving on Thursday afternoon
- No, we are all booked up on Thursday. Could you leave Friday?
these simulations are not strictly scripted. The information
gap lies in the variation of possible responses which are
limited by the situation-only so many airlines offer so many
flights on any given day-and the responses they can trigger.
The principle is the same across languages, functions, and
situations--we could use the scenario of a hungry backpacker
wanting to eat at a noodle stand in Xiamen, China. A successful
completion of the task helps to map the language, thereby
promoting repeated success for both the businessman and the
useable language approach is not a magic bullet for language
acquisition. To be sure, it can not always be successful.
Many language specialists are, moreover, skeptical of its
piecemeal, laser-beam focus. Whole language and integration
of skills approaches still enjoy currency in many quarters.
There are, however, several pluses useable language can tout.
First, it's based on solid theory as elucidated by many of
the most respected second language acquisition experts in
the language teaching field. Second, it aims squarely at a
positive communicative result, something that is often missing
in traditional institutional programs. Finally, it addresses
the current practical demands of busy individuals who need
to communicate for a specific, practical purpose.
R. "Language Learning Through Communication Practice" ELT Documents 76/3 1977b.
J. "What is Communicative?" ELT Journal 36/3 1982.
J. Krashen's Input Hypothesis and the Teaching of EFL" World Language English 3/1 1983.
J. The Practice of English Language Teaching, New Edition,
Krashen, S. Second Language Acquisition and Second Language
Learning Pergamon Press 1981.
S. The Input Hypothesis Longman, 1984.
S and Terrell, T. The Natural Approach Pergamon Press, 1982.
N.S. Second Language Pedagogy. Oxford University Press, 1987
S. "Language Teaching Research-In the Literature, but
not Always in the Classroom" Journal of Language and
Linguistics 1/2 2002.
Schackne has spent 25 years in the field of linguistics.
In addition to teaching, his background includes teacher
training, program administration, and online-distance
He was educated at the University of North Carolina and
the State University of New York, and has taken post graduate
language training at Taipei Language Institute and the
University of Macau. His postings have included Taipei
Language Institute, Tunghai University (Taiwan), Kansas
University, Culver Educational Foundation, University
of California--Santa Barbara, Oklahoma State University,
University of Macau, Ming Chuan University (Taiwan), and
Fooyin Institute of Technology (Taiwan). He has lectured
and published all over the world, but is now best known
for his educational resource web site, Schackne
the beginning of the article
the articles index