11.12.1991 ©1991 - Patrick Boylan – patrickboylan.it
G.C. Cecioni & C. Cheselka (Eds.). Proceedings
of the Symposium on Language and Technology (Florence,
11-13 December 1991),
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO "LEARN A LANGUAGE" IN TODAY'S WORLD?
WHAT ROLE CAN PRESENT-DAY
COMPUTER TECHNOLOGY PLAY?
Patrick Boylan, Department of Linguistics,
University of Rome III
To give fresh impetus to the use of computers in language teaching, this paper asks courseware writers to stop developing sophisticated stand-alone programs (for now) and to concentrate on producing a large number of simple programs which do no more than reproduce pages (hypertexted and hot spotted) taken from textbooks currently used by the "good" language teachers. Such classroom-related courseware could: (1) justify the widespread introduction of computers into language labs and thus create a future market for more sophisticated CALL software; (2) make it clear that the real question to answer is not "What can computers do today to resolve the problems of language teachers?" but rather "What are language teachers doing today that is worth programming computers to replicate?"
How can courseware writers recognize the "good"
teaching? What kind of capacities does such teaching seek to develop
in students? Times have changed and language learning goals with
them. Students in post-industrial societies require a
"communicative-cultural" approach, based on introjecting
the target culture's Weltanschauung together
with its linguistic system. This approach is feasible even in courses
for beginners: video clips are shown of "communicative-cultural"
English courses in an Italian lower secondary school and in an
Italian university classroom. In this kind of teaching, computers may
be used for rehearsals leading to simulations
and authentic (real-life) communication.
"Communicative-cultural" work on the computer is perceived
as non-mechanical and genuinely aids the process of interiorizing a
1.1 The Quality Problem: we need to rethink what it means to "know" a foreign language BEFORE we try to teach one using computers.
Microcomputer-based technology was once trumpeted as offering a sure breakthrough in second language (L2) learning (KENNING/KENNING 1983:142-146). Less than a decade later, the trumpets have fallen silent -- as silent as most language students, even after years of study, when called upon to speak their L2 spontaneously in real-life situations requiring more than purely informative or instrumental discourse (HALLIDAY 1978:19-20) based on core vocabulary and syntax (LEECH/SVARTVIK 1975:21). The reason for this lack of success lies not in the limits of the hardware but rather in the limits of the L2 software produced so far. Courseware designers have, on the whole, simply reproduced the kind of teaching found in ordinary textbooks and ordinary classrooms, where learning and using a foreign language are equated with manipulating grammatical and/or notional-functional categories. But this is the kind of teaching responsible for the inadequate levels of L2 proficiency -- even of the most intelligent and motivated students -- in the first place (PHILIPS 1986:3)!
* Prior to embarking on any more high tech educational
projects, we should perhaps stop for a moment and call into question
the kind of teaching we have come to accept as "appropriate"
in the L2 classroom, the criteria we have learned to consider as
"indicative" in defining and measuring L2 proficiency and,
in the final analysis, the ideas we consciously or unconsciously
entertain as to what it means to "know a foreign language".
This paper will question current practice and propose an alternative.
1.2 The Quantity Problem: we need to produce -- massively -- simple, textbook-related programs that teachers can get students to use regularly (not a handful of sophisticated, self-study dust gatherers)
If computer-based technology has failed to revolutionize L2 learning, as promised, the reason is not only insufficient courseware quality, but also insufficient courseware quantity (DE VITA 1988:84-85).
Curious to see how computer-based technology can be used to help L2 students achieve more, a number of qualified professionals have, over the years, experimented with 8-bit CP/M computers using character-based displays, then 16-bit DOS computers with animated color graphics, and now 16/32-bit Windows, Mac, and OS/2 computers equipped with sound boards, CD ROMS, digital video interactive chips, and so on. Unfortunately, these professionals -- teachers and researchers -- have constituted a minority and, worse yet, their experiments have, for the most part, remained just that: after learning all about computer-based educational hardware by creating courseware prototypes and publishing their results, these educators have usually moved on to other projects. They have not persevered in fully implementing their prototypes and building up L2 courseware libraries sufficiently ample to justify the cost of installing computerized language laboratories in schools and universities (DE VITA 1988:87). Thus, ironically enough, over the past years the real beneficiaries of the stimulating educational experience that computers can offer, have been a few L2 teachers and researchers enamored with technology, not the mass of students struggling with foreign languages.
** Before launching new, sophisticated, L2 software prototype projects, we ought perhaps to concentrate, for a while, on writing programs that simply try to get students to make better use of the quality L2 textbooks and tapes that the more innovative teachers are using in classrooms today. These materials do exist (and will be described later); often they can be found on the shelves of language laboratories where, however, they are underused or improperly used. If L2 software, therefore, did no more than assure that students carry out -- properly and regularly -- the activities contained in the better L2 textbooks and tapes available today, it would do a great deal to improve the level of language learning nationwide -- much more, perhaps, than all of the avant-garde projects developed so far. To achieve this end, simple, textbook-related L2 courseware does not have to be innovative: it only has to be (and is still awaiting to be) written in sufficient quantity.
In addition to helping resolve the more obvious didactic problems in the L2 classroom (e.g., low student motivation, undetected misunderstandings, passivity, inability for the teacher to follow closely all students' work on a regular basis due to overcrowding and/or heterogeneous student backgrounds), such courseware could conceivably have a beneficial side effect as well: it could encourage the less successful teachers to switch to using the better textbooks (assuming that these would be the books backed up with computer courseware.) While this kind of spillover did not immediately occur a generation ago, when the more innovative teachers began using "communicative" textbooks backed up with audio tapes for use in the language laboratory, there is reason to believe that CALL (computer assisted language learning) materials would have a better chance of immediate success. To see why, let us first consider why audio courses for the language lab did not have the impact promised when they first came out and why they continue to be underused.
The failure of the audio-active-comparative (AAC) lab is generally ascribed to the mechanical, non-contextualized character of the first generation of exercises (HIGGINS/JOHNS 1984:11) and, more fundamentally yet, to the intrinsically non-communicative character of language learning carried out in an isolated booth. But these conditions no longer hold. The new generation of audio materials is genuinely useful, modern consoles permit sophisticated group interplay, and labs no longer need to consist of rows of isolated cubicles. In addition, lab work continues to offer the great educational benefit of permitting students to take charge of their language learning (a habit they will benefit from throughout their life) instead of sitting back passively and letting the teacher, holding a single cassette recorder, choose tasks, sequence, pace, and mastery criteria for the whole class. Why, then, are many teachers still reluctant to take their students to the lab? GUTTRIDGE (1993) suggests that the reason lies in teacher resistance to the technical challenge of mastering the laboratory console. Indeed, why should a teacher spend time fiddling with dozens of console switches, simply to get students to do (supposedly) the same things the teacher can get them to do in class more easily with a single, familiar cassette recorder? Or more profitably in groups with peer correction (never mind how seldom)? Besides, doing exercises in class avoids the administrative complications of scheduling lab hours, getting the key, and making sure equipment is in order. What Guttridge is saying, in polite terms, is something we all know only too well: educational technology has to make life easier for teachers before it gets used to make learning easier for students. If all this is so, then what is the future of Computer Assisted Language Learning? If AAC labs have been relatively unsuccessful because of teacher resistance to any technology that does not ease their work load, do not CALL labs risk the same fate?
Not necessarily, for there is a difference. Computer labs (or computerized AAC labs) can be programmed to run by themselves with the flick of a switch on a "librarian" network server. Such "turnkey software" would require nothing technical for teachers to have to learn and, in addition, would relieve them of such bothersome routine chores as monitoring students and correcting tests, giving them the necessary time to assist problem students, if they so choose. It could make the computer as popular with some overburdened teachers at school as TV sets are with some overburdened parents at home -- with the difference that "plopping the children" in front of the computer screen would assuredly be a more educational experience.
My second proposal, therefore, is that we produce "turnkey software" reproducing pages from the quality textbooks that the more successful teachers are actually using in classrooms today, software that would not add to what they are currently doing but, rather, would simplify their doing it -- so much so that less innovative teachers would be tempted to follow their example.
This suggestion does not mean to deny the specificity that
optimum courseware should (theoretically) have with respect to
materials designed for classroom use. But if the educational impact
of computers on L2 learning has been close to zero nationally, the
reason is not because the programs produced so far have failed to
exploit fully the capabilities that computers can offer, i.e.
individualized, interactive, real-time, guided simulation (MARTINENGO
1988). The reason for the lack of impact is much simpler: there is an
almost total lack of L2 software useable in the present educational
system -- i.e., given today's schools, today's teachers, and today's
programs. An educational institution cannot invest in a computerized
language laboratory if it is only to run a small number of
heterogeneous commercial programs based on out-of-date didactics plus
a small number of interesting experimental prototypes, often
incomplete and, in any case, extraneous to the course syllabus the
students will be examined on. This is even more so if the programs
require the teaching staff to acquire new technical skills.
1.3 Further Considerations on the Two Problems raised
As my second point, I stated my conviction that, to resolve the quantity problem in the short term, we should concentrate on creating textbook-related L2 courseware which reproduces, on the video screen, the exact same exercises that have shown their worth in the classroom situation (with teacher intervention and fellow student participation, of course) in helping students become proficient in foreign languages. But before attempting to justify this proposal any further, let us examine for a moment its "political" implications.
There has always been, since the advent of computer assisted instruction, an unfortunate tendency to think of it as a way to drastically reduce classroom teaching. Private companies with in-house language courses accept to spend heavily for technology in the hopes that it will mean spending much less, in the long run, on teachers' salaries. University science departments, for whom learning a foreign language is simply a technical accomplishment like learning a programming language, are currently pushing for the creation of high tech university centers where their students can learn L2's on their own with machines. While the more fortunate students will also have lessons given by (low-paid) contractuals, the lettori, no one will be taught by regular professorial staff. A setup like this can work, at certain conditions, for science students needing limited linguistic training (BOYLAN 1982). Unfortunately, it appears that the centers are to serve language students as well. In fact, university departments of foreign languages and literatures, more interested in teaching literature than in helping students internalize a foreign language as a productive cultural microsystem, look happily to technology to free them from the unwanted responsibility of guaranteeing the integral linguistic formation of their students. Can we, as experts on what computers can and cannot be asked to do, lend credence to their pipe dream? Ought we not to inform those in charge that while computer courseware can help, it cannot replace; and that for language learning really to improve in this country, priority must be given to the development of teacher-dependent -- not teacher independent -- software?
** In effect, what I am advocating is a revision of the very concept of L2 courseware as fundamentally a tool for autonomous learning (which, of course, it can also be in certain cases) or as a source of complementary exercises which teachers can assign at their discretion. Instead, I am proposing to consider CALL as an integral part of teacher-led classroom instruction. This kind of courseware, based on reproducing pages from the "better" textbooks, would aim at lightening the tasks that teachers are already doing with much less efficient conventional tools: chalk, registers, photocopiers, correction grids, audio cassette recorders, and, last but not least, threats (used to keep discipline, get exercises done, etc.).
This is no "corporative" call to coddle teachers or to save their jobs or to abandon the ideals of autonomous learning. It is simply an attempt to recognize frankly the limits of autonomous learning theory and of current educational technology. While CALL technology can, in special cases, replace teachers -- e.g., in teaching languages to well-defined and highly motivated groups of students with limited, short-term, behavioral objectives (SCHANK 1990:234-236, 251-252) --, general purpose L2 learning, as autonomous as we manage to make it, still requires teaching that extends from lab practice to classroom simulations to homework reinforcement to real-life experimentation and, finally, back to discussions in class. Work on the computer can only be a link in a long chain of instructional activities.
From the standpoint of development, classroom-related L2 courseware can be much easier to produce than "stand-alone" products designed for completely autonomous study. For example, classroom-related courseware does not necessarily need a sophisticated artificial intelligence engine to be optimal (MARTINENGO 1988:32): it can simply follow up on the preparatory work conducted in class by that sophisticated natural intelligence engine, the teacher. More to the point, classroom-related courseware does not have be algorithmically sophisticated in what it does or graphically eye-catching in its appeal. In fact, the claim I am making here -- to be tested through a project I have proposed at my university -- is that even the simplest classroom-related courseware will hold student interest over a longer period of time and will produce greatly superior L2 proficiency than any available stand-alone program for general-purpose L2 learning yet created, no matter how "multimedia" the program is or even how much information it puts at the student's fingertips.
I am assuming, of course, that the classroom-related courseware is based on the "better" textbooks and auxiliary teaching materials currently on the market: in other words, if used, it must at least prove itself useful in effectively helping students to assimilate a foreign language. I am also assuming that students are either intrinsically motivated to learn a foreign language or feel the extrinsic motivation deriving from the obligation to use, in the classroom, what they have studied in the computerized language laboratory.
*But just what are the "better textbooks and auxiliary teaching materials currently on the market"? On the basis of what criterion can we select the printed pages to bring to life on the computer screen? This question leads us back to the quality problem raised initially, since the criterion we finally choose will depend necessarily on how we answer the query: What does it mean to "know a foreign language"?
Let us therefore examine this question, first in absolute terms using the theoretical concepts made popular by the applied linguists working on the Council of Europe's "unit/credit system" (RICHTERICH 1977). There are, of course, other more highly developed linguistic theories currently in vogue, generativism and cognitivism in particular, but they have not led to the creation of corresponding language learning methodologies.
"KNOWING" a foreign language, for many applied linguists today, means possessing a situational and pragmatic competence in the L2 and that, in general, is equated with ease in manipulating an inventory of culture-specific realizations of generalizable (trans-cultural) linguistic NOTIONS and FUNCTIONS (VAN EK 1977, HIGGINS/JOHNS 1984:15). In other words, languages continue to be seen fundamentally as rational conceptual systems (which they are only by derivation: MALINOWSKI 1972:152), rather than as alogical microsystems of existential values and drives (their bedrock: ARCAINI 1966:93-94; cf. KAPLAN 1966:4-5,15). Thus, for these linguists, "LEARNING" a language is simply a question of mapping specific semantic contents (associated with the specific lexical-grammatical forms of the foreign language being studied) onto the appropriate situational and pragmatic categories (inventoried as generalizable notions and functions). "But," as SHANK (1990:243) rightly objects, "learning a language is learning a culture: simply understanding the structure of a language and being able to translate sentences (appropriately) from one language to another is rarely enough for effective communication". Glossing Shank, I would define "learning a culture" as "acquiring the capacity to assume, even if only temporarily, a sensibility and a world-outlook (Weltanschauung) consonant with the society whose language one wishes to assimilate". Neither the world-outlook nor the sensibility are totally definable in terms of one's native cultural matrix and even less so in terms of a trans-cultural matrix. Acquiring this capacity is the aim of what I would call the "communicative- cultural" approach to L2 learning. While fully communicative-cultural didactic materials are not yet out, sufficiently good textbooks and tapes have existed for over a decade and may be found in a fair number of classrooms. These are the ones that should, in my opinion, constitute the didactic platform for L2 courseware development.
Let us look, now, at these considerations more closely.
While notional-functional language syllabi do focus on speech as "communication" and not simply as "patterns of linguistic forms" (as did the post-war structuralist view), they are nonetheless based on universals and thus lead textbook writers to propose exercises which are just as concept-based as those found in the more traditional language courses. These exercises are, in fact, based typically on four kinds of classification:
(a.) classes of notions and
functions (e.g., polite greetings, service offers)
(b.) types of situation (e.g., hotel interior; evening; reception clerk, client)
(c.) generalizable pragmatic aims (clerk wishes to greet client, offer service)
(d.) paradigmatic linguistic realizations ("Good evening,/how/may I/help/you?")
Thus, producing utterances in the L2 is seen as fundamentally a conceptual process in which categories are "mapped on to one another" (HALLIDAY 1978:122) to produce meaning. But real speech by real people does not lend itself to conventionalization so easily (except when people are striving to be conventional). Categories are not so tidy and all-encompassing, as in this example taken from a recent American film:
(a.) classes of notions and functions (e.g., polite greetings, service offers)
(b.) types (?) of situation
(hotel interior, Memphis; evening; almond-eyed girl
enters, approaches the black reception clerk and exclaims: "Good night!!!")
(c.) generalizable (?) pragmatic
aims (clerk's aim in replying: play for time to
study weird client? avoid contradicting her out of meekness? humor her?...)
(d.) paradigmatic (?) linguistic
realization (*"Good night,/how-may-I-help-you?"
-- Mystery Train, dir. Jim Jarmush, 1989:17'22")
Real speech, of which "tidy speech" is a frequent but borderline case, is fundamentally an alogical intentional process in which culturally-conditioned drives are strategically channeled into locally meaningful modes of expression, the "structure" of which is largely a historical accident (cf. DI CESARE 1991 on Humboldt, p.XIV seq.).
These two different views of speech derive from different (but not necessarily antithetical) views of language: 1) language as a rational, conceptual process; 2) language as an historical, intentional process. While the second view admits the first (as a special case, wherever discourse is logos), the first view tends to marginalize the second, oversimplifying the fundamentally asystematic, volitional, experiential dimension of acquiring and using languages, i.e., the dimension that the communicative approach was supposed to have brought into the classroom in all its richness (ALLWRIGHT 1979) but apparently has not. For this reason, I feel that the first view, in spite of its current standing among many linguists and teachers, misrepresents what languages are and what it means to "learn" and to "use" one.
The first view also fails to pay sufficient attention to that "interiorized representation of collective intentionality and experience" which goes by the name of "culture". Thus, it encourages writers of syllabi to concentrate on what is common in human communication and not on what distinguishes one language from another culturally (the "genius of the language", as it was called in the 18th and 19th centuries: ROSIELLO 1967). Textbooks (and courseware) based on notional-functional syllabi therefore tend to present a given linguistic act as the exemplification of some universal strategy and not as the satisfaction of some (personalized) culture-specific drive. Of course, if we are dealing with the largely referential, informative discourse characteristic of technical linguistic acts -- writing error messages to appear on a computer screen, for example -- this view may appear to be justified (although EVANGELISTI 1992 and MAURANEN 1993 remind us that even technical discourse is culturally typed). But in other kinds of cross-cultural communication -- e.g., multilateral political meetings, international film productions requiring dialog adaptation, transnational advertising campaigns localized country by country or, more simply, correspondence with the head office in multinational firms --, we need a far richer view of language and thus of the language learning process. "Knowing a language" has to include the cultural dimension. A competent speaker of an L2 has to be able to grasp the cultural originality that his foreign interlocutors communicate through a given way of using their native language. A competent speaker has to be able to communicate his or her own originality to foreign interlocutors, making use of the culturally-peculiar expressive potential of their language. In a word, a competent speaker has to have interiorized a foreign language considered as a cultural microsystem of existential values. I will return to this concept later on in this paper.
The first of the two major points this paper wishes to make, then, is the importance of giving L2 courseware a firmer communicative basis by founding communicative activities on speaker INTENTIONALITY, as well as a wider cultural or "ethnolinguistic" perspective by providing for communicative activities which seek to REDIRECT the speaker's NATIVE INTENTIONAL SYSTEM. (Cultural adaptation, in fact, is the trait that distinguishes communicative competence in one's native language or in some interlingua, from communicative competence in an L2 -- see BOYLAN 1992 and DE MAURO/BOYLAN forthcoming). This paper therefore maintains that what we should be looking for in "quality" L2 software, is not whether it makes full use of the computer's multimedia potential, but rather whether the activities it has the student carry out (speaking and writing and not only listening and reading) are indeed
COMMUNICATIVE, i.e., intentionally directed to a foreign interlocutor (real or felt to be real) whom the student wishes to influence with words, and
CULTURAL, i.e., based on the (temporarily assumed) world- outlook of that interlocutor.
In section 2.2 we will see, in practical terms, what the
"communicative-cultural" approach to language learning
involves. For now, let us simply conclude that, in view of the
theoretical reasons just given, the "communicative-cultural"
view of language may be said to describe linguistic acts more
completely than do the views underlying post-war "structuralism"
or current "notional-functional syllabi"; because of this,
the "communicative-cultural" view of language provides, in
absolute terms, a better conceptual framework for creating and
evaluating L2 learning materials. If our goal is to give students the
fullest picture of what language is and what language learning
entails, then didactic materials with a "communicative-cultural"
orientation are the ones that we should choose to enhance with CALL
2.1 Producing Larger Numbers of Simpler, Textbook-related Programs
Let us now go back to the proposal to resolve the Quantity Problem by creating a lot of simple CALL programs which reproduce the exercises that students are already doing in the classroom using the "better" textbooks. Then, in section 2.2, having determined the kind of programming that needs to be done, we can take up the Quality Problem once more and examine the implications of the proposal to redefine L2 learning in communicative and cultural terms (possible criteria for selecting the textbook platform). To begin with, then, what are the advantages of textbook-related courseware? I have already suggested a few of them in the preceding discussion; what follows is a comprehensive summary.
First and foremost, the L2 courseware purchased by the educational institution would be actually used by the students, and the computers acquired would finally serve for something more than video games and word processing (useful as these activities are, if conducted in the L2). Researchers report, in fact, that teacher-student acceptance of CATOW, the Computer Assisted Teaching of Writing, increases markedly when there is interplay between what the students do in the computer room and what they do with their teachers in the classroom (BRUCE/PEYTON 1990). Secondly, the actual use of the L2 courseware -- at least by a part of the teachers -- would immediately provide the classroom-management benefits discussed earlier: automation of lesson handling, better student motivation, greater student initiative, fewer undetected misunderstandings, more homogeneous classes, easier handling of overcrowding, increased individual attention, an encouragement to the more traditional teachers to follow suite. Thirdly, the educational institution would offer students a more homogeneous and mutually reinforcing instructional package (classroom exercises, lab exercises, homework exercises, field trips). Fourthly, the availability of a large number of unsophisticated but usable L2 programs, easily produced because of their simplicity, would encourage other institutions to install computerized labs for language study; this, in turn, would provide a user base (i.e., a stable market) for the development of more sophisticated courseware -- even stand-alone courses -- in the future.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, if L2 courseware became an extension of classroom teaching, the computer would no longer be seen as a potential Messiah or magic cure-all but rather as a machine that is only as good as the teacher it supports. Thus, in computerized language labs just as in ordinary classrooms, the educational goals pursued, the didactic approach chosen, and the language-learning results obtained would be neither the merit nor the fault of so-called educational experts or educational materials developers. The final responsibility would be -- and would be seen to be -- that of the teachers, for it would be their teaching style that would determine the kind of materials that would be actually produced and used. This last point deserves some comment. To make it clearer, I would like to propose a mental experiment. I would like you to imagine two simple software programs meant to improve listening comprehension, which I will describe now in detail. Both attempt to support teachers in their classroom activities, yet only one software program is, in my opinion, didactically valid. This is because each program is designed for a different kind of teacher and therefore offers a different kind of support. After describing the software, I will conclude that the usefulness or the uselessness of the two kinds of program may be traced back, in the final analysis, to the different conceptions of what it means to learn a foreign language, that each of the two teachers entertains and that each one is responsible for encouraging, by his or her educational practices, among textbook and courseware producers.
Suppose that a teacher of English as a Second Language is using the intermediate listening course Accent on America. In this course, students listen to recordings of old time American radio shows while they look at comic strips illustrating what they hear. The dialog balloons contain only a few key words and icons to facilitate comprehension; unlike the audio-visual filmstrips of the '60's, these prompts are deliberately minimal (to avoid the rebus effect). Using context, the students are led to guess the dialog frame by frame, before hearing the exchanges from the audio tape. Usually the teacher divides the class into groups: students guess the lines only of the character they have chosen to play and thus "identify with". Guessing may be oral but becomes much more effective if students quickly jot down their hypotheses singly or in pairs (a goal difficult to attain unless classes are extremely small and students extremely motivated but which, on the contrary, would be perfectly attainable if students had computers to work with). This kind of exercise does not provide for teacher correction of the oral or written student responses before a segment of audio is played. The important thing at this stage is to encourage spontaneous linguistic production, even in an interlingua: this serves to sharpen the students' pragmatic, discourse and lexical-syntactic expectations. It also serves to link specific linguistic-cultural values with specific, "felt" intentionalities.
Although the course Accent on America puts above-average emphasis on intentional, culturally dense linguistic production, the exercise format it uses is a commonplace one -- one that can be easily ported to a computer study station. Computers plus AAC tape recorder systems have been around for years; with the arrival of low cost mass storage, the tapes can now be replaced with a CD ROM or an optical disk; for exercises requiring only brief audio passages that can be recorded on a floppy disk as ".WAV" files, the only computer accessory needed is a sound board. A programmer can produce courseware exercises like the one just described, using an elementary authoring program such as PILOT: the computer simply has to present the comic strips (scanned from the textbook) on a video screen, open an input window under each frame, accept any input string (no evaluation is necessary), and then play the appropriate segment from the audio tape or the CD/optical/floppy disk.
Admittedly, this deliberately minimal use of hardware and software turns the computer into a lab supervisor more than a teacher, an entity that simply makes sure that the students are keeping awake and are actually producing some keyboard activity before listening to each bit of dialog. But since anticipatory mental rehearsal is a prerequisite for spontaneous speech and only the "best" students practice it normally in class, this result is far from negligible. If computers were networked, the program could be made to provide the teacher with a printout (or video display) giving student input strings grouped either by name (for grading) or by comic strip frame so that the teacher could easily compare the various student guesses, frame by frame, in class. The program could even use PILOT's wildcard string evaluation facilities to check for key lexical items (syntax does not matter since this is a "brainstorming" phase), assign grades to the students on the basis of the number of themes anticipated and, finally, show each student his guesses frame by frame, together with the guesses of the students scoring highest.
If the value of such software is extremely low from the standpoint of using the computer's full potentialities, what is its didactic value in terms of L2 learning? Clearly, it is at least as high as that of the original printed exercises: if they represent the kind of work a student benefits from doing, as in the case just presented, so does their software implementation. In addition, even the most rudimentary software implementation, like the one just mentioned, automatically gives students at least some of the benefits CALL can offer, such as focusing, constant elicitation and self-pacing.
Now let us imagine a counter-example. It, too, will aim at showing that, while the goal of courseware developers should be to encourage better language teaching in the classroom by providing suitable supporting software in the language lab, in the final analysis, the software they produce can be no better than the teaching that their software is designed to support.
Suppose that a teacher of English as a Second Language is convinced of the didactic value of dictations. (I will suggest later on why I consider this activity generally counter-productive and often downright harmful, but of course the issue is open to debate.) Suppose, too, that this teacher prefers conducting the dictation exercise in the classroom, and not in the language lab. (Doing the exercise in the lab would give the students the advantage of self-paced listening but requires the teacher to fiddle with switches to record the dictation onto the students' tapes. A teacher will tend not to consider the effort worthwhile unless he or she recognizes the value of providing a learning phase, based on self-paced dictations with peer correction, before the testing phase, based on imposed-rate dictations and teacher correction. Not all teachers do.) Lastly, let us imagine that the course book used by the teacher for the dictations is sold with floppy disks for the students and that the school has a language lab (or computer room) equipped with computers containing sound boards, the minimal accessory. The program on the students' floppy disks could be extremely elementary: it would only have to (1) play a ".WAV" file, (2) display a dotted line on the screen where the student is to write the sentence just heard, and (3) impede the student from typing any but the right succession of keys. I have produced a BATCH file program -- using almost only DOS commands -- which does exactly that, as proof of how simple writing such a program can be (it is the program you see in the handout).
Why would language teachers accept to accompany their students to the language lab, floppy disks in hand, if they never took them there with audio cassettes in the past? First of all, I am assuming that the courseware just described is of the "turnkey" variety: the teacher doesn't have to do anything at the console and the students, upon inserting their disks in their computers, can immediately begin to work (the software locates the right exercise without the tedious delay of rewinding and searching through an audio tape, etc.). Secondly, the students are guided by the program, so the teacher is free to walk around and help the students needing individual attention, or simply relax for half an hour. Finally, there is nothing for the teacher to correct at home afterward. With slightly more sophisticated programming, the students can have prompts to help them guess the words they can't hear or spell, and the teacher can have a printout for grading purposes with the number of attempts it took each student to write the text correctly.
Do not think, however, that this detailed description of dictation courseware means that I am recommending it. On the contrary, I find it doubtful that such courseware would actually help to improve language learning in schools. For the didactic value of dictation courseware, whatever its advantages may be in making the teacher's job easier, can be no higher than that of dictation exercises in general: if they are didactically harmful, so is any courseware proposing them. And this may very well be the case.
In their traditional form, dictations have been claimed to be, among other things, a useful listening exercise; in reality, however, traditional dictations are usually based on monodirectional, decontextualized, self-contained passages; in a word, they do not accustom (and may disaccustom) students to normal "situated" speech, spoken at normal speed with normal inflections and junctures, etc. -- the kind most students need to learn to understand. Dictations are also said to help teach students to take notes; but in fact note-taking requires a different kind of training (SIMONET 1988). OLLER and PERKINS (1978) claim that dictations help students to perceive language globally, and thus reinforce their perception of the langue; I would object, however, that these authors do not distinguish between what students ought indeed to focus on in order to understand an element (the global context, perceived synthetically) and what dictation exercises in reality encourage them to focus on (segments, perceived analytically). In conclusion, there is evidence to suggest that dictation software may not help (and may actually hinder) the development of a capacity to understand languages as they are really spoken. It turns the computer into an electronic school-marm, bent on making sure that students analyze and spell strings of words properly and indifferent as to whether they can use those words to do things in real life. Must we accept this? Can't software developers do any better? Of course they can! And they will, I believe, as soon as they see more teachers stop giving dictations and start using the many excellent situational listening practice materials that have been available for over a decade. (These materials often have a communicative-cultural flavor: for English as a Second Language, see for example GORE 1979, MCLEAN 1981.) Indeed, through symposiums such as this, the more innovative teachers can inform software developers that various communicative-cultural materials ARE being used in schools and universities and that not all teachers consider language to be strings of words to analyze and spell.
What I've been trying to do, with this lengthy description of anticipatory listening exercises and traditional-style dictation exercises, is not, however, to offer compelling proof in favor of the first and against the second. The point I wish to make is another: proposing a dictation exercise -- or any other kind of exercise -- in the language classroom or on a computer screen, is NEVER an entirely obvious choice. It requires us to seriously question the didactic practices we have come to take for granted. So, in symposiums such as this one, where language teachers ask what technology has to offer them, the very first task at hand is, I feel, to establish with them what they (and not just computers) should be doing in schools. In other words, the really pertinent question to raise in symposiums such as this, is not "What can computers do today to resolve the problems of language teachers?" but rather "What are language teachers doing today that is worth programming computers to replicate?"
These last considerations are important because they save us from a Catch-22 situation. I asserted earlier that courseware, to become widely used, must complement the textbooks that teachers are actually employing in the classroom, or else the teachers will not get their students to go to the computer lab and the software, however good it may be, will be just as underused as the many good listening courses in today's AAC language labs. But then, -- an objector might ask -- how can we improve language teaching through technology if teachers are not ready yet to use better textbooks? If teachers continue to prefer dictations instead of the more sophisticated listening comprehension exercise described earlier, what can courseware designers do today but follow their lead? If teachers do not see the importance of giving ethnolinguistic content to language teaching and do not look for textbooks that have such content, how can a courseware designer play on cultural paradigms in his programs?
The reply to this objection is that courseware does not have to cater to all teachers but can limit its initial target to the more successful ones. As I just suggested, symposiums like this one can permit courseware designers to find out in what direction the better teachers are moving, what typology of exercises they are using and -- finally -- under what guise that typology may be ported to a computer. Courseware so designed will, of course, have a limited initial market, but one that should expand to the rest of the teaching staff once the example has been set and the use of computers has become popular among the students ("Doesn't your teacher let you use the computer?"). This is exactly what began to happen in the early 1970's, and increasingly so in the 1980's, when quality textbooks, then of the "proto-communicative" type, began to appear accompanied by audio cassettes (for use in the classroom, if not in the lab -- HIGGINS/JOHNS 1984:12).
Let us now address the question of who is to provide the courseware that backs up the textbooks used by the "better" teachers.
In listing the advantages of developing classroom-related courseware, I emphasized the importance of considering the teacher responsible for defining the "right" objectives in L2 learning and thus for creating a market for the "right" kind of supporting material. I was supposing, to simplify things, that if teachers did so, software developers and publishing houses would immediately furnish the "right" materials for the new market thus created. While this has, to some extent, been the case with purely classroom-centered trends requiring a modest amount of didactic innovation and/or electronic equipment (situational textbooks, audio courses, now videos), it is unlikely to occur with the same spontaneity in the case of L2 courseware, which requires the installation of an expensive language laboratory equipped with at least one computer and some kind of sound source for every two students. Here, indeed, we have a potential Catch-22 situation: schools and universities will not buy the hardware until the software exists, and publishing houses will not produce the software until the hardware exists in schools and universities to run it. How do we escape from this trap?
I feel that the initial momentum must come from those socially
responsible for didactic innovation -- from university researchers
such as myself but also from associations of teachers, from
individual teachers or professional programmers who dabble in
educational software as a hobby, from small software houses availing
themselves of Regional or EEC funding for pilot projects -- in short,
from the kind of people who first began producing L2 software (AICA
1992:XIV) and who come to symposiums such as this one to decide on
what kind they should be producing in the future. My proposal to
these colleagues is to abandon developing underused stand-alone
software and, with the permission of the publishing houses,
concentrate on producing simple, textbook-related L2 courseware for
those schools, mostly technical institutes, where computer labs
already exist for the scientific subjects. It should be possible, in
pilot projects of this kind, to find funds to equip the computers
with cheap sound boards and to find a certain number of language
teachers on the staff who are already using (or who are willing to
switch to using) the "right" textbooks. In other words,
this is an occasion to set standards for the market to follow.
2.2 Rethinking L2 Didactics in Communicative-Cultural Terms
These last remarks about the "right" textbooks and my previous assertions regarding the merits of "anticipatory listening software" and the demerits of "dictation software" lead us naturally back to the Quality Problem: the need to rethink L2 didactics before turning to computer technology.
There is, however, a preliminary step: updating our goals. We have to make sure we know just what foreign language abilities people need today. Doing so will permit us decide on the kinds of L2 exercises to privilege in the classroom and on the video screen. For example, to settle the question of the usefulness of dictations, we need to be able to say something like: "Dictations focus attention on language acts as strings (linear emissions) of phonemes and graphemes; but reinforcing this particular vision of language does not deserve the priority it had in the past, when people studied foreign languages in order to read lines of (literary) text; today priority should be given to exercises like the one described earlier -- anticipatory listening of authentic oral exchanges -- because they focus attention on language acts as adjuncts to ongoing, situated, co-regulatory processes and today people increasingly need to interact in foreign languages." But is it true that people today "increasingly need to interact in a foreign language"? And if so, to what degree? In short, if we want to formulate reasoned and falsifiable hypotheses about the utility of this or that didactic practice, we must first clarify empirically what it means to "know" a foreign language, not only in absolute terms (which we discussed earlier), but also in relative terms (how foreign languages are actually put to work today).
When asked for such a clarification, most teachers usually respond by invoking the so-called four abilities: knowing a foreign language from the standpoint of "putting it to work", they say, means being able not only to read and write it, as in the past, but also to speak it and to understand it when spoken. True enough, I would reply, but what about the pragmatic and ethnolinguistic dimensions of speech? Simply listing the "four abilities", for example, does not tell us HOW a student ought to be able to speak. "HOW" involves not only "correctness" and "fluency" but also "appropriateness", i.e., whether one's manner is consonant with WHAT one has to say, TO WHOM, WHERE and WHEN (HYMES 1972). And what about WHY the student speaks? If his reasons for speaking are not authentic, he will not "sound authentic" (situationally, culturally).
This last question has extremely wide didactic implications. Asking WHY students bother at all to speak or read or write in a foreign language gives us a clearer picture of what "knowing languages" means in their society and, therefore, what teaching methods would be appropriate in that context.
In the 1950's and 60's, while Italy was rebuilding its basic industries and developing its tourist facilities, "speaking" or "writing" a foreign language meant simply encoding raw referential information: for example, prices in business letters or street directions in oral "service encounters" (CENTRO 1968:625-629). As to knowledge of the foreign culture, this was NOT to be demonstrated through cultural awareness in speaking and writing the foreign language (the linguistic criterion), but rather by how much one could say -- in one's native tongue -- about the foreign country's literature, a capacity one could put to use later on in life at dinner parties if not in writing book reviews for the local newspaper (the belles-lettres criterion): see TAMBORLINI 1955:22-23. Thus, in Italian society in the '50's and '60's, a "practical" knowledge of foreign languages was considered something secretaries and shipping clerks had to have; the intellectual elite studied a foreign language primarily for its cultural value, and what that "culture" produced was strictly for domestic consumption, not for exportation.
Such a conception of language and language competence, however, has become totally inadequate in the 1990's. Ours is an increasingly post-industrial society which seeks to produce and export indexically meaningful intangibles ("values") more than context-free meaningful tangibles ("objects"), e.g. newspaper dispatches and TV plots more than newspaper pulp or even TV sets (CENSIS 1990:9-71). Effective communication, within and without, therefore requires linguistic skills that are both highly practical and highly sophisticated, i.e., linguistic skills capable of adequately representing the highly elaborated values produced (LOMBARDO 1990:78). In foreign language transactions, this means the kind of communicative-cultural capabilities described earlier by SHANK 1990 (see also BROCCA 1989:19).
In a word, as productive members of a post-industrial
society, our linguistic needs are no longer what they were. Today we
need to know how to
REACT TO THE NON-LITERARY LINGUISTIC MANIFESTATIONS OF A FOREIGN CULTURE (as well as the literary ones), just as a typical member of that culture might; and
MAKE OUR NATIVE VALUE SYSTEM FELT IN SPEAKING (as well as in writing) THE FOREIGN LANGUAGE, by exploiting the linguistic-cultural potential of that language.
To rephrase this second concept in more everyday terms, we need to know how to say things in a foreign language just as an accepted member of the foreign culture might possibly have said them if, finding himself in a similar communicative situation, he had felt expressive needs similar to ours and if, while growing up in his culture, he had had formative experiences similar to ours.
"Similar" is the key word in this last definition. For we can take it for granted that no typical member of the foreign culture -- as such -- is equipped to perceive the exact same aspects of the communicative situation and to feel the exact same expressive needs as we do; and even if he were, his formative experiences in childhood and adulthood surely would be different in kind from ours and would tend to lead him to express himself differently. After all, foreigners who manage to speak our language correctly and appropriately but not authentically, continue to "sound foreign" to us precisely for these reasons. Nonetheless, it is not unreasonable to postulate that in any culture, there are accepted (albeit not necessarily typical) members with whom we in fact share analogous or complementary formative experiences and therefore with whom, if we so choose, we may identify to a large extent. This identification may be defined in psychological terms as the introjection of new behavioral models and, in particular, of new ways of expressing ourselves using the foreign language as a medium. We become "one" with those members and, through them, with their society (which we, as they, do not necessarily have to accept in its entirety). Adopting, even if only temporarily, their set of mental and linguistic modes permits us to bridge, without difficulty, the cultural gap separating us from them. It permits us to speak their language with a more authentic ring to our voice. It permits us both to be ourselves and to be accepted.
The alternative solution, of course, is to refuse to assimilate the foreign language as culture, keep our native ways, and demand that the members of the foreign culture accept us with most, if not all, of our linguistic-cultural diversities, i.e., with our foreign accent, foreign modes of expression, foreign manners and foreign ways of thinking. This is, in fact, what many language learners prefer to do, even at the price of occasional (or even frequent) losses in communicative and social effectiveness in dealing with native speakers of the language learned. It is, without doubt, a perfectly respectable choice. At times, however, it is imperative to be able to present one's "self" -- GARFINKEL 1967:116-185, after Goffman -- in terms to which one's interlocutors can readily relate; it such occasions, it may be a godsend to know how to meet one's interlocutors on THEIR linguistic-cultural grounds. This is what we do unconsciously in our own language when we playfully coax a small child to eat or when we delicately inform a venerable professor that we shall be dropping his class. And in doing so, we change our language and our "mental set" without feeling either disloyal to our primary identity or hypocritical. (We sound false or become ridiculous only when our playfulness or our respect do not derive from an authentic identification with the other person's world.) The same holds true when we speak a foreign language.
Is this asking for too much from a language learner? Some authors hold that linguistic-cultural assimilation is an impossible goal (I will come back to this question) and, in any case, an undesirable one (SMITH 1981, 1983; QUIRK 1982; ALPTEKIN/ALPTEKIN 1984). It can appear to many students, say these authors, as a kind of "cultural surrender", particularly in the case of learning English (a neo-colonial language in many parts of the world). These authors suggest, for the purposes of international communication, the teaching of a de-culturalized or trans-culturalized form of English ("nuclear English", or the "international English" used in world trade centers), or of an aseptic, artificial language (e.g., Esperanto), or of a literary language belonging to no single national tradition (e.g., classical Arab in muslim Africa and Asia).
I would beg to differ. The proper way to limit English/American cultural imperialism in one's country, is for schools there to teach more languages better, not English worse (or some cultureless idiom middlingly). Students should, of course, be entirely free to learn only a neutral or "scholastic" form of English (or of any other language), colored by their own culture, if they have no desire to assimilate a new linguistic-cultural personality or if they plan to use the language only as a tool for business or travel in countries where it is spoken as an L2. This is, in fact, what most Italian schoolchildren have been doing for generations. But I feel that students should have at least the possibility of seeing what "foreign languages" really are (they are NOT unfamiliar ways of expressing familiar thoughts and feelings) and what it means really to learn one. It is relatively simple, I find, to structure an L2 class so that students can have diversified learning goals. As in music education, there can be singing from those who wish to learn to sing, humming-along from the others, and all can be given credit for having "learned music". (NO ONE learns what music really is, however, when the class simply practices scales or solfège.)
I would, therefore, urge careful analysis of the arguments made against communicative-cultural approaches to language learning, in the name of greater respect for each nation's cultural identity. I believe they contain a trap. Any nation that clings blindly to its linguistic-cultural identity, condemns its culture to oblivion. (Economically hegemonic nations are exceptions -- and not even always.) So that its culture may live, a nation must share it and thus needs citizens capable of representing its values in a manner that other cultures can relate to. Today, all of us are ambassadors-at-large of our respective cultures. If we want to assure truly cross-cultural communication, we have no choice but to speak to our foreign interlocutors -- provided we know how -- in a language that, if it cannot be ours, is at least authentically theirs. For in any communicative exchange, we must genuinely understand to be genuinely understood, and that means temporarily adopting our interlocutors' sense of orientation, however divergent from ours, to communicate effectively to them where we are situated; it means sharing with them, if possible, the idiom they feel most intimately, not some ersatz; in a word, it means speaking their language, not just their langue. Doing so reduces the chances of misunderstanding by half and opens infinite expressive possibilities to us, limited only by our knowledge of their language and by our capacity to make authentic use of their interpretive schemes. Doing so also gives us the upper hand: in any cooperative exchange, the party accepting to use the other party's language cedes control over the normative standards but keeps control over the information flow. Thus, if our interlocutors do not make the effort to meet us on OUR linguistic terrain, it is THEY who have surrendered. They deserve our compassion.
For these reasons (and for those in DE MAURO 1992), therefore, we may consider that the linguistic-cultural assimilation of an L2 is a perfectly desirable goal. But is it a feasible one? Can it be practiced in the average school or university classroom? Bland forms certainly can be -- and, in fact, are being practiced thanks to the cultural content of the better communicative textbooks and audio-visual materials. The video clips I will show demonstrate that more rigorous forms are also practicable through, for example, the drama techniques espoused by Stanislavski (1961). Other catalyzing activities are also possible. Teachers may, for instance, encourage their L2 students to develop an identikit of the person they feel comes closest to being their "double" in the foreign culture. The raw material, stored in a data base on a computer and accompanied by a simple retrieval program like those used by Dating Agencies, may come from film clips, interviews and biographies of celebrities or, better yet, from real-life case studies: the better textbooks abound in material like this. From then on, the students are held responsible for speaking as their "double" would. (Here we are simply expanding on the common practice of calling students by their "foreign name equivalent" during the lesson.) This symposium is hardly the place to discuss in further detail whether or not such practices really prepare students for the kind of communicative-cultural competence I have described. I mention them only to bring home the different conception of language learning at the bottom of the communicative-cultural approach. Encouraging students to assume an intimately-felt second personal identity differs radically from purely linguistic teaching, in which students continue to think and feel as always when they speak the foreign language (and tend to sound like it, too).
The point is not, however, whether the drama or identikit techniques I just described are the ones to use. The point is whether we feel we should be aiming for a different kind of goal -- one involving cultural introjection -- than most language teachers are currently pursuing. My conviction is that we should, and that we can no longer prepare our students simply to "speak, write, and understand" a foreign language correctly from the standpoint of phonology, lexis and grammar. Nor is it enough to prepare them to "speak, write, and understand" the foreign language appropriately from the standpoint of semantic and pragmatic universals. Students today need to "speak, write, and understand" foreign languages authentically. They must therefore be able to introject -- in varying degrees, according to their personal motivation -- the foreign culture's Weltanschauung (MANNHEIM 1974) as an alternative system to their native cultural matrix (which they of course conserve).
As utopistic as it may appear, this goal is in fact no more difficult to attain than the goals traditionally set for language students in most upper secondary schools and in all universities. Think about it: today, most upper secondary school and all university Foreign Language and Literature programs demand that students claim to understand genuinely (and manage to comment germanely) the writings of dozens and dozens of authors from various epochs of a culture that is not theirs, without having thoroughly reconstructed and interiorized the linguistic-cultural value system of each epoch and after having practiced the foreign language only for a few years in its modern version! Surely the kind of studies I just described are much less utopistic! True, communicative-cultural teaching, even aided by CALL technology, will never be able, singlehandedly, to prepare students fully for authentic interaction with members of a foreign culture; but it can prepare students to test and refine continually their linguistic-cultural hypotheses though interaction with foreign interlocutors, both during their course of studies and on their own afterwards. This is more than can be said for linguistic-literary teaching with its overloaded programs: however good it may be, such teaching ends up being more doctrinal than hermeneutic and remains, in any case, given its brief duration and non-falsifiable mode of inquiry, an inconclusive encounter with cultures that will never be studied again (students rarely continue with philology or historical criticism later on in life). What one can say for linguistic-literary studies, provided they are not simply finishing school causerie, is that they do teach students to BEGIN to interrogate texts of the past ("cultural depositories"), clearly a valuable intellectual acquisition. But communicative-cultural studies teach students to interrogate not only texts but also human beings ("cultural vehicles") of the present, through the skillful use of the foreign language, much like anthropologists come to understand members of tribal societies by learning their language. Surely this is just as valuable an intellectual acquisition.
We may therefore conclude that the communicative-cultural
approach to learning foreign languages is at least as desirable and
feasible as the linguistic-literary approach which dominates the
entire educational system. If so, there is no reason why the
communicative-cultural approach should not be taught from
the very first lesson in those institutions which opt for
it; it could thereby constitute a homogeneous methodological platform
for textbooks and courseware ranging from Lower Secondary Schools to
Universities. This is, in fact, as I mentioned earlier, to some
extent what is already happening in various schools and universities,
thanks to the better materials now available and to the initiative of
a few teachers and lettori. In many ESL (English
as a Second Language) classes, for example, the initial "Hello"
or "Hi" of the course is no longer taught as an
interjection (the grammatical approach), nor as a greeting convention
(the linguistic approach), nor even as a way to welcome an
English-speaking visitor into the room (the communicative approach).
It is taught as a means of signaling to that visitor a felt attitude
(perhaps an attitude of British -- not Italian -- deference expressed
with a fall-rise tone "Hello", or an attitude of American
-- not Italian -- gregariousness expressed with a falling tone "Hi":
see LEECH/SVARTVIK 1975:38-39, 151). Students learn to see the
foreign language as the expression of a new world of values, ones
that can become theirs (in part). Initially the values tend to
correspond to cultural stereotypes, like the examples of "polite
greetings" just given. But as the course progresses and the
students get to identify with the various real-life characters in the
scenes enacted -- for example, with the black reception clerk, whose
polite greeting in 1.3 (d.) was hardly stereotyped --, the
commonplaces are left aside and the foreign culture reveals itself
for what it is: a peculiar, multifaceted search for meaning.
2.3 Down to Work
Let us conclude. I have described the communicative-cultural qualities that, in my opinion, an L2 course should have to be successful; in addition, I have claimed that these qualities characterize the textbooks used by the more innovative teachers today, at least in an embryonic form. Let me mention, just to give a concrete example of the kind materials I am talking about, the ESL textbook Challenges and the ESL video course Family Affair, both published by Longman, or the ESL advanced listening materials Varieties of Spoken English by Oxford University Press. (I am deliberately limiting myself to older publications since I'm suggesting types, not advertising titles.) In other words, the material is out there for us to use should we decide to develop good classroom-related courseware. And I have stated why I feel developing good classroom-related courseware SHOULD be our priority: it would take CALL out of our research laboratories and put it finally to work in our language laboratories.
The authoring systems are out there, too: using PILOT (DOS), Top Class (DOS) or Guide (Windows) -- or, for the affluent, Authorware or Icon Author, both requiring Windows --, we can easily
-- capture the scanned image of one of the pages from one of the better textbooks,
-- draw hot spots over the "Check the box" exercises,
-- write hypertext teacher explanations for the items in the "Decide what to do in these situations" exercises,
-- provide calls to read or write ".VOC" files for the "Open dialog" exercises,
and, in three days time, produce a whole "video page" of textbook-related L2 courseware, ready to be used. (Add a few days more to make the software perfectly "turnkey".) If we don't want to do the programming ourselves, there are, thanks to the popularity of hypertext authoring tools, many young programmers and software firms that, for a commission, will. (Some are listed in AICA 1992:107-135). The work is, admittedly, not very glamorous and since the software must be written for a fairly basic hardware platform, the work will not even give us the satisfaction of being able to play with the latest hardware gadgets. But it is work which will effectively help teachers get their job done better. It will permit students to receive at least a minimal amount of guidance while they carry out -- regularly, properly -- the exercise activities they might otherwise do slovenly or confusedly or not at all.
The textbook pages we bring to life on the computer screen with
our programming work can only be, as I have said, a small part of a
whole educational process that extends from lab practice to classroom
activities to homework to real-life experimentation and finally back
to classroom discussion (BOYLAN 1992). But if these video pages are
inherently efficacious, i.e., if they are not centered on "grammar"
or "functions" but rather enable the student to rehearse
intentional, culturally dense
utterances in private before using them in classroom simulations
and real-life situations, then I believe that our software will
effectively promote real language learning. How can we tell if "real
learning" is taking place? A sure sign is the shift in attitude
toward the object of study. As students gradually assimilate a new
"mental set" with the new set of sounds and roles they try
out (and hopefully take to) in the lab or in class or in real-life
encounters, they will begin to consider the foreign language a bit
less "foreign". They will show, from their increasingly
convincing acting during role play (see VIDEO CLIPS) and even in
their joking before and after classes, that their natural reluctance
towards acquiring a foreign linguistic personality is gradually
withering away: the new language and its culture are becoming theirs.
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(Thanks for their helpful comments to Wanda D'Addio, Chair of
Language Teaching Methodology at the Third University of Rome, and to
the participants at the International Symposium organized by the
University of Florence, where this paper was first read.)