viernes, 1 de junio de 2018

TO BE (contextualized) OR NOT TO BE? That is the question!

By Enrique Rojas R.

Since men started to inhabit the world, we have tried to develop ways to communicate with each other orally. Thus, different human groups developed diverse languages. In order to connect with other groupings, at least some of the individuals had to familiarize themselves with the language of others. And that is how, through history, so many systems and approaches to teach foreign languages have developed.

Admittedly, some systems were more effective than others, but, in the end, they all achieved their purpose and responded to the reasons why they were created. For example, in the late 19 century, behaviorist theories, combining elements of philosophy, methodology and psychological theory dominated society and determined the way a second or foreign language should be taught. Nevertheless, eventually cognitivist views took over establishing that human beings’ behavior adjusts to the cognitive and to the expectations of what is known. Since learning began being considered a process which brings about the adaptation of significances in the interior of the minds, new proceedings had to be established for the teaching of second/foreign languages.

A number of approaches or systems for the teaching of new languages were created and used, mostly related to the psychological theories prevailing in the time. And they all produced a result. Thus, we arrive at the 1970’s with the advent of the Communicative Approach with the theory that the best way to learn a language is practicing and using it in a meaningful way, this is, really for purposes of communicating something instead of studying the language just as a body of words, sounds, and systems.

Together with communicative language came the issue of Contextualization that is providing learners with language items “into a meaningful and real context rather than being treated as isolated items of jargon for language manipulation practice only.” (British Council, 2006). Halliday defines it as “the events that are going on around when people speak,” in other words, it refers to the situation in which people speak. Spolsky accentuates the importance of social context. He remarked: “…a social context results in learners having different attitudes towards the situation they are in or at least perceive themselves in. This leads on to a higher motivation in learners, which in the case of a task helps learners to focus on it and solve it.” And then he added: “In the model the motivation and other aspects of the pupils’ personality lead to learning opportunities. The context itself can also offer learning opportunities.”

So, for the first time, language was being used in classroom teaching for its communicative function and not just as raw material or educational matter for learning the subject of “language”. Roland K. Yeo et al supplement that learning language in context permits: “Through an integrative framework, we demonstrate that the interplay of cognition, behavior, and context offers insight into how and why learning occurs at multiple levels.” 

In spite of this, it has been contended for a long time that textbooks present language that is a poor representation of the real thing. David Crystal & D. Davy (1975) see it as: “far away from that real, informal kind of English which is used very much more.” (Crystal & Davy 1975: 2) Crystal, D. & D. Davy (1975). Advanced conversational English. Harlow: Longman)

On the other hand, if we are to take as model the way children learn their first tongue there are those who sustain that the way in which children learn their native language is more frequently than not, decontextualized. They say that children learn decontextualized vocabulary from their parents’ speech, language that is deprived of the here and now containing pretend, narrative, and explanatory discourse, with preschool children. Meredith L. Rowe offers examples of these with explanations by parents on why we do things or how things work, commentaries about things that took place in the past or could happen in the future, make believe expressions used during imaginary play, and non-immediate talk during book reading. She observes: “Decontextualized language is challenging for children for several reasons. First, because the meaning of decontextualized language is conveyed primarily through the linguistic cues and not through the context, it requires a more abstract level of analysis by the child than does comprehending contextualized talk that is focused on the here or now, such as object labels… and the linguistic nature of decontextualized language is itself more complex.” (Rowe, 2013)

At any rate, the magic wand to teach foreign languages quickly, effortlessly and ultra-effectively is yet to be found. The best advice is still “Use out of each method those things that work for you and your students.”

And now it is your turn:
What do you think about contextualized language teaching?
Do you employ it? Habitually or sporadically?


Bauer M., 2014 The Role of Contextualization in Teaching and Learning English Retrieved: May29, 2018.
Halliday, M. A. K., Mc Intosh, A. y P. Strevens. 1964. The Linguistic Sciences and Language Teaching. London: Longman.
Rowe, M. 2013 Decontextualized Language Input and Preschoolers’ Vocabulary Development, Ed.D.1 Retrieved: May29, 2018.
Spolsky, B. 1969. “Attitudinal Aspects of Second Language Learning”. Language Learning 19, (3 / 4), págs. 171-185.

Graduated in Journalism at the PUCP, Peru, Enrique Rojas R. holds a MA in Journalism and MA in Inter American History from Southern Illinois University, USA; an MA in Literature from University of the Americas, Puebla, Mexico, all the coursework for a MA in TEFL at Universidad de Piura, Peru and BA in Education from Universidad Federico Villarreal. He has also obtained Certificates of Proficiency in English both from Cambridge University and the University of Michigan and the Diploma for EFL Teachers from Universidad del Pacifico. He is an Oral Examiner for the Cambridge University exams and has been awarded the title Expert in E-Learning from Asociacion Educativa del Mediterraneo and Universidad Marcelino Champagnat. He has worked as a professor in universities in Peru, Mexico and the United States; as a newscaster and a producer in radio and television stations in the United States and Mexico, and as a writer and editor in daily newspapers of the same countries. He has been in the staff of CIDUP for 19 years teaching English and Spanish specializing in International Exams, English for Business, ESP and Teacher Training. He has been a speaker in every Congress of English for Special Purposes organized by Centro de Idiomas de la U.P. He is also a member of its Research Area. 

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