May 17, 2009, 3:50:58 AM5/17/09
Traditional methods of learning a foreign language die hard. 我们难改学习一
门外语的传统方法。As long ago as 1921, Dr Harold Palmer pointed out the
important difference between understanding how a language works and
learning how to use it.早在1921年，哈罗德尔默博士指出，如何理解一种语言和学习如何使用它的重要区别。 Since
that time, a great many effective techinques have been developed to
enable students to learn a foreign language. 自那时以来，许多有效的使学生学习一门外语的方法已经产
生。In the light of intensive modern research, no one would seriously
question the basic principles that have envolved since Palmer's day,
though there is considerable disagreement about how these principles
can best be implemented.鉴于密集的现代研究，没有人会对哈罗德尔默博士提出的基本原则表示怀疑，但有相当大的分歧关于如何把
这些原则才能最好地执行。 Despite the great progress that has been made, teachers
in many parts of the world still cling to old-fashioned methods and to
some extent perpetuate the systems by which they themselves learnt a
foreign language. 尽管已经取得进展，但在世界许多地方的教师仍坚持老式的方法，并在一定程度上延续他们自己学到一门外语的方式和方
法。It may,therefore, not be out of place to restate some basic
principles and to discuss briefly how they can best be put into effect
in the classroom. 因此，重申一些基本原则并简要地讨论如何能够最好地落实在课堂上不能算是不合时宜。
Learning a language is not matter of acquiring a set of rules and
building up a large vocabulary. 学习一门语言不是收购一套规则，并建立大词汇量的问题。The
teacher's efforts should not be directed at informing his students
about a language, but at enabling them to use it. 教师的努力不应是通知他的学生有关语言，而是
使他们能够使用它。A student's mastery of a language is ultimately measured by
how well he can use it, not by how much he knows about it. In this
respect, learning a language has much in common with learning a
musical instrument. 学生学习的语言是最终他可以使用它，而不是知道它。The drills and exercises a
student does have one end in sight: to enable him to become a skilled
performer. A student who has learnt a lot of grammar but who cannot
use a language is in the position of a pianist who has learnt a lot
about harmony but cannot play the piano.在这方面，学习语言同与学习乐器------使他能够成为一个熟练
的使用者。 The student's command of a language will therefore be judged not
by how much he knows, but by how well he can perform in public.一名学生学到了很
Sense and Nonsense in the Classroom
A. Chinese learners tend to try to learn one word at a time.
‘closed system’ and ‘open sets’:
‘What causes us to draw a distinction between grammar and lexis is the
variable range of the possibilities that arise at different places in
‘In some instances, we face a choice among a very small number of
possibilities. This happens for instance when we have to choose
between ‘this’ and ‘that’; or between singular and plural; or between
past, present and future; or between positive and negative. There are
some places in every language where we have to make such choices; we
cannot avoid them or remain neutral, and there is a limited number of
possibilities to choose from…. There are other places, however, where
we are choosing from a very large number of possibilities; we cannot
count them, or draw a clear line round them, such as will separate
what is possible from what is impossible. In a clause which begins ‘he
was sitting there on the …’, certain items - chair, settee, bench,
stool and so on - are likely to follow, but very many are possible,
and probably no two people would agree on the hundred most likely
‘This is the basis of the difference between grammar and lexis.
Grammar is concerned with choices of the first kind, where there is a
small fixed number of possibilities and a clear line between what is
possible and what is not. The second type of choice is in the domain
of lexis. These two types of choice are known respectively as ‘closed’
and ‘open’; the range of possibilities in a closed choice is
technically called a system, but in an open choice, a set. As a
reminder of this distinction, we often talk of ‘closed system’ and
‘open set’. The closed system is thus characteristic of grammar, the
open set of lexis.
English is a ‘word-order language’. The task for the learner is to
learn not just the words, but the ways that words fit together to make
Early education in China focuses on visual learning. This leads to an
over-reliance on reading in the process of learning English.
Using a language is about ‘doing’ as much as ‘knowing’. Reading is not
Conversation consists of 4 language acts: understand; answer; ask;
say. Reading usually means studying affirmative statements. The rest
of the paradigm is often ignored.
Language consists of whole contexts, not just words.
Grammatical knowledge is not enough. Learners need to be able to
operate the system.
‘Operating the system’ means being able to understand, answer, ask and
say. ‘Saying’ is only one part of the task.
If reading leads to ‘saying’, that is a lucky accident, and a
representation of the learners’ resourcefulness.
B. The search for syllabus
Syllabus, in the sense that we use it now, is a relatively modern
Grammar-translation relied on the study of individual words and
grammar rules. Reading was a ‘code-cracking exercise.
The key statement about syllabus comes from the work of Professor
‘The vocabulary in a well-graded language course will be arranged in
such a manner that the more useful words will be learned before the
less useful. (Let us remember that there are two kinds of ‘useful
words’; those which are useful in themselves on account of their
intrinsic meaning, and words which are useful as sentence formers…).
Gradation means passing from the known to the unknown by easy stages,
each of which serves as a preparation for the next’.
Grammar-translation lessons persist today, not because they are
useful, but because they are ‘expected’.
Many teachers continue to present grammatical information in examples
based on the classroom furniture. Such examples are often in distorted
language - anti-communicative, or even plain wrong.
Many course-books still apply ‘syllabuses’ based on lexical control,
but are casual about including large numbers of unfamiliar, (even
conflicting) structural items.
Some recent course-books reject the idea of managing the grammatical
syllabus at all, arguing that students should only work with
‘authentic materials’. These force students to formulate their own
(possibly mistaken) theories and rules, and create remedial problems.
We still see many course-books with very long texts. These lead to
lessons which consist only of presentation.
A good course-book, and a good lesson, will give equal weight to the 4
essentials of conversation: understand, answer, ask, say.
The classroom is a reflection of the society in which we find
ourselves. If we are to make the best use of the time available, we
must examine our pedagogic inheritance. If we can be ruthless with
time-wasting procedures, and concentrate on realistic language, in
graded contexts, we can increase our efficiency many times over.
Pedagogic maxims and classroom practice
Theories of teaching and learning go in and out of fashion. Old,
discredited theories often reappear with new names. The usual
argument, put forward under different names, is that, because children
learn their own language ‘naturally’ by listening and speaking,
foreign-language lessons should use the same approach. This argument
is seductive, but simplistic. Learning another language in the
artificial circumstances of the classroom is an entirely different
proposition and requires sophisticated solutions.
Excessively simple theories of teaching and learning tend to come with
a high level of dogma. The usual one is that all use of the students’
first language must be banned from the classroom. Of course, the
principle of using English whenever possible is valid. But good
judgment should never give way to dogma.
Another dogma is that, because we do not use pattern drills and
repetition exercises in our first language, we should regard them as
too artificial to have a place in teaching language for communication.
(Actually, children do generate pattern practice and repetition
exercises when they are learning L1.) But the language classroom is an
artificial learning environment anyway. Why should we cut ourselves
off from any helpful resource, for the sake of an arbitrary rule?
When we teach a Foreign Language, we are not teaching people to be
human. We are teaching the intellectual content (grammar and
vocabulary), and the behavioral content: (understanding, answering,
asking and saying; or understanding, speaking, reading and writing)
that match our learners’ first-language skills. Louis saw that there
must therefore be 2 syllabuses: the content syllabus and the skills
syllabus. The vehicle for transmitting these is a highly considered
methodological system. That is why New Concept English contains an
explicit, integrated methodology.
The starting point for each pair of lessons is Language In Context -
what Louis called ‘the graded multi-purpose text’. His criteria for
such texts were these:
1. They should be carefully graded, passing ‘from the known to the
unknown by easy stages, each of which serves as a preparation for the
2. They should be written in natural language, such as might be used
by any ordinary person in a variety of everyday situations.
3. The graded situations and stories should be complete contexts. They
should be meaningful, and thus comprehensible.
4. The content should reflect positive values. In education, as in
life, Louis rejected all negative images and bad behaviour. His
characters are often funny; they are never vicious.
5. The texts should be short, so that presentation leads to, and
leaves time for practice and exploitation.
6. The narrative of each piece should engage the learners’ human
interest, because this is what makes language memorable.
The exploitation of the text is based on questions and answers that
are intended to be practiced orally. In the early dialogues in FTF,
models of questions and answers occur in the text, alongside examples
of affirmative and negative statements. The narrative texts which
begin at Level 2, are made up of affirmative and negative statements,
which are followed by comprehension questions. The comprehension
questions are text-based - but they introduce a series of
transformation exercises designed to give intensive practice in word
order changes, and in manipulating the regular- and irregular-verb
system of English (Is this your car? This is your car, isn’t it? Is
your car a Toyota? Which car is yours? Which is your car? How old is
your car?). The answers train the students to pay attention to the
form of the question, and use the same verb in the answer. (Yes, it is/
No, it isn’t. That is/isn’t my car. That’s not my car. It’s his. My
car’s not a Toyota. It’s an Audi. etc.) The variations in these
patterns in English are enormous. By following the prescribed
methodology, the students can reach a point where the right word-order
and the right verb forms are automatic.
Louis and his colleagues on the Council of Europe Committee on
Language Teaching and Learning characterized these habit-based skills
as ‘low-level language-behaviour’. The word ‘behaviour’ is important.
Of course learning anything is impossible without cognition - that
process in the brain by which we absorb information, and process it as
thought. And language and thought are so close together, that the one
is dependent on the other. But using language, to interact with our
environment and to communicate with other people, is behaviour.
Without practicing to the point that correct word-choice and word-
order are automatic, we cannot free our higher cognitive processes so
as to communicate.