Teaching Useable Language by Steve Schackne

Why Can't They Speak?

So many stories abound, that it has almost taken on the status of an urban legend. Students who spend four, eight, even ten years learning English, but have little or no communicative competence to show for it. The Japanese student reading a complicated technical manual in English, but tongue tied when trying to introduce himself to a foreigner. The Spaniard who prefaces every English noun and verb with a vowel. The English major in Taiwan who flawlessly describes the intricacies of the English verb tense-aspect system, but has to describe it all in Mandarin.

These are stories that make the rounds, some xaggerated for effect, to be sure. The glaring disconnect, however, between attendant time and elapsed time studying English, and communicative competence in English is a reality supported by empirical as well as anecdotal evidence. I often have new teachers gather English learning background information from their low level classes; specifically, the number of years the students have been studying English. The results, correctly predicted by most veteran teachers, almost always come as a surprise to the younger teachers.

Why is this? English language learning policy and practice around the globe is often caught up in inconsistencies (at best) and cross purposes (at worst).

First, the profile, or background, of teachers who practice EFL worldwide varies as much as the populations they teach. The English teacher in any given locale at any given time may be an adventurer recruited off the street or a highly renowned scholar with publications, teaching awards, and other educational accomplishments taking up several pages of a cv. This is not to say that engaging young "native speakers" can not be effective teachers. There is a social dynamic to language teaching and enthusiastic novices often bring personalities that are effective in sparking motivation in their students. There is, though, no pedagogical or logical sequence for students who are educated this way. They may learn a lot from one teacher, nothing from the next; their English may improve with teacher A and actually regress with teacher B; teacher Jones may reinforce what was previously learned, teacher Smith may contradict what was previously learned. In the long run, this is not conducive to rapid progress.

Second, methodology can vary at almost every level of the educational pyramid-from region to region, country to country, school to school, classroom to classroom. While some students are taught using communicative, task-based methods, many students are still dependent on non-communicative methods such as grammar-translation and audiolingualism. This is not to say that students can not learn language in an audiolingual, or what Skinner referred to as a behavioristic, habit formation environment. They can, but communicative, task-based methodology gives students a communicative purpose and then asks them to actually use the language to solve a problem or perform a task. The non-communicative approaches lack these two criteria of real-world language use, so students from non-communicative environments often understand the workings of the target language (metaknowledge), but can not actually perform in the target language.

Third, a distinction must be made between teaching language and teaching language-related skills; specifically, between teaching language and teaching test taking. Many purported language classes are not directed at language acquisition, but are actively involved in teaching strategies designed to pass standardized tests, either at the school, regional, or global level. TOEFL prep classes often focus on test design rather than the language tested. Students in these classes often learn that, statistically, in multiple choice tests, (c) is more often the correct choice than (a), (b), (d), or (e). Also, (all of the above) or (none of the above) are disproportionately used as correct answers, not as distracters. Along with this training, vocabulary lists, sample questions, and other non-communicative approaches are covered. This certainly helps the students achieve the goal of "passing the test," and some language might actually be acquired along the way. However, since the goal is transitory in nature (successfully jump the test hurdle), what is learned in these classrooms is often forgotten fifteen minutes after the test is over.

While a vast majority of language students do not spend a lifetime in the above three scenarios, less than ideal teaching and acquisition environments are common enough worldwide to have given rise to a wandering migration of mature language learners who, despite years of formal instruction, are still searching for the keys to using and mastering simple useable English.

What is Useable Language?

Useable language is a specific chunk of language a learner can command or control in order to successfully complete a communicative task. This task can be functional (registering a complaint with a policeman), situational (explaining an ailment to a doctor), or simply structural (manipulating questions to glean information from a university registrar).

The Research as a Whole

If one follows the research, we see a linear development which progresses from grammar-translation through audiolingualism, cognitivism, humanism, to the communicative approaches espoused by task-based advocates, such as Prabhu and Allwright, and the natural approach linguists, Terrell and Krashen.

Sorting the research can be difficult because so much has occurred in a relatively compressed period of time - the period of audiolingual primacy to the era of Stephen Krashen was merely a quarter century or so.

Today, at least for young native speakers learning to read in a literacy starved environment, the arguments seem to surround the battle between a phonics and a whole language approach. The controversy, however, has become so politicized that even the non-partisan linguists have difficulty evaluating the merits and drawbacks of those two schools of thought.

Rather, one generalization that can be distilled, as one views the last half of the twentieth century from a distance, is that "language learning" has moved from the
theoretical and the academic and more in the direction of the practical and commercial. Linguistics as a somewhat dense social science has become less popular in the academy, and language programs, which encompassed both language and literature, have fallen into disfavor on many campuses. Learners want knowledge that can be used in the marketplace, quickly-business, engineering, computer science. ESL-EFL programs now clearly de-emphasize literature and concentrate on language skills, specific language skills which often parade under acronyms such as ESP (English for Special Purposes) and EOP (English for Occupational Purposes).

While this is regrettable and perhaps only a temporary state of affairs, language teachers and program developers have to recognize that today's (2002) second language learners demand skills which are quickly and readily applicable to both a global marketplace and a global lifestyle-communicative language customized to fit a variety of professional and personal situations.

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.

A Brief Summary

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
- contextualization
- portability

A Brief Scenario

A 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.

Terminology (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, ________, _____________, _____________, ______________, _________ ,__________, _______________, ______________, _________________, ____________, _________, _____________, _____________, ________, ________, _____________, _____________, ____________, ________,

Sample Patterns:

I 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….

I would like to purchase a ticket from Chicago to New York on….
(buy) (roundtrip ticket)

I need to leave on….
(come back)
I would like to leave on….
(would prefer to) to leave on..

There is a flight (number) (airline) leaving Chicago on (date) at (time) arriving New York City (airport) (date) (time).

I (we) have a flight (number) (airline) leaving Chicago on (date) at (time)
Arriving New York City (airport) (date) (time).

There is a (airline) flight (number) departing Chicago on (date) at (time)
(leaving) (O'hare)
in the morning, arriving at Laguardia on (date) at (time) in the morning.
(afternoon) (JFK) (afternoon)
(evening) (evening)

Return flight (leaves) New York on (date) at (time).
(leaving) (name of airport)

That's fine….
I would prefer….
I would rather….

Would you like to book a hotel

Do you need to arrange….

Is there anything else…?

Notice, 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, communicative practice.

A 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….

Later, 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?

Remember, 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 backpacker.

Parting Statement

A 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.


Allwright, R. "Language Learning Through Communication Practice" ELT Documents 76/3 1977b.

Harmer, J. "What is Communicative?" ELT Journal 36/3 1982.

Harmer, J. Krashen's Input Hypothesis and the Teaching of EFL" World Language English 3/1 1983.

Harmer, J. The Practice of English Language Teaching, New Edition, Longman 2000.

Krashen, S. Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning Pergamon Press 1981.

Krashen, S. The Input Hypothesis Longman, 1984.

Krashen, S and Terrell, T. The Natural Approach Pergamon Press, 1982.

Prabhu, N.S. Second Language Pedagogy. Oxford University Press, 1987

Schackne, S. "Language Teaching Research-In the Literature, but not Always in the Classroom" Journal of Language and Linguistics 1/2 2002.


Steve Schackne has spent 25 years in the field of linguistics. In addition to teaching, his background includes teacher training, program administration, and online-distance learning.
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 Online.

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