Volume 3 (2012) Issue 2 - Book Review Tinnefeld

JLLT Volume 3 (2012) Issue 2.pdf

Journal of Linguistics and Language Teaching

Volume 3 (2012) Issue 2 (PDF)

Veronica Smith: Tertiary Language Learning. Changing Perspectives and Practical Responses. Tübingen: Narr 2010 (Tübinger Beiträge zur Linguistik; Bd. 518). X + 112 pages. (ISBN 978-3-8233-6522-8).

The present monograph documents recent developments in foreign-language methodology which are implemented in a practical approach, Scenario-based Language Learning, as well as a model developed by its author, both of which represent the consistent and logical culmination point of the reflexions made.

The book is outlined in seven chapters, with the first three chapters presenting the recent history of language teaching and the last four dedicated to scenario-based learning, its prerequisites and backgrounds:

  1. Second Language Learning (pp.1)
  2. Theoretical Approaches (pp. 11)
  3. SLA and Languages for Specific Purposes: Converging Interests (pp. 33)
  4. Developing Enabling Skills in Language Learning (pp. 43)
  5. Scenario-based Language Learning (pp. 53)
  6. Assessment in Scenario Learning (pp. 71)
  7. A Model of Tertiary Language Learning: Eight Theses (pp. 97)

The eight theses listed in Chapter Seven, which Veronica Smith elaborates last, can be a logical starting point for a review of this book because they represent the framework which the author employs for her reflexions, thus providing readers with a fruitful orientation as to what will be elaborated further.

Thesis 1: The fundamental aim of the ideas presented here is the development of a communicative and interactive approach to language teaching and language learning. (p. 97)[1]

The background of this thesis lies in the evolution of language methodology from the grammar-translation method via the audio-lingual method (pp. 2) and all the other steps developed by and by, which, via the cognitive and constructivist approaches, led to the communicative approach(es) that are of importance for today’s language teaching and learning and which do not have to be explicitly listed here. In the course of her professional career, the author has come to appreciate the importance of communication for and in language teaching (e.g. p. 53) and puts this personal finding into theory and practice here.

Thesis 2: The development of such an approach requires the integration of reading, writing, listening and speaking in the course of the language process. (p. 98)

Logically, any communicative approach has to integrate all the basic skills which enable human beings to exchange information and show their feelings. Therefore, taking these very skills into account is nothing but consistent – and, if this may be added here – realistic. According to the author, these skills, however, are not simply to be taken into account on a theoretic basis, but teaching methodology has to orient itself to them, which is expressed in the following thesis.

Thesis 3: The integration of these skills implies a commitment to what Widdowson calls “use” (or parole, in the sense of Saussure) and not to “usage” or the system of language (langue). (p. 99)

On the one hand, the classroom situation should mirror authentic language as naturally as possible, whatever “authentic” language use and language teaching in a classroom situation may be, as the author rightly points out (pp. 8). For her, this orientation to parole on the one hand not only refers to language use itself, with students feeling confirmed when communicating successfully and noticing the linguistic gaps to be filled when communication fails. The orientation to parole, in her point of view, also means that students’ curricular and personal needs should be reflected in the language taught inasmuch as, by means of the Internet, they may even contribute to the set of relevant language samples they would like to learn (p. 99). It is not only in this claim that the author’s student-centred approach becomes visible.

Thesis 4: In this communicative and interactive context, oral communication in groups or pairs is the basis for most classroom activities. (p. 99)

Classroom interaction in groups and pairs rather than in a plenary approach is fruitful in multifold ways. As the author states, students do not feel permanently observed by their teacher, can interact freely and even learn from each other by giving each other peer feedback (p. 50). What is more, feedback given by the teacher will, whether in the form of grammatical explanations or just of prompts and recasts, be more functional and more discreet, thus more efficient, than given in a plenary context. Moreover, students are naturally motivated by this form of interaction and may even enjoy language learning practiced in this way. Finally, group and pair work go very well with scenario-based learning and are, for this reason alone, the preferred way of teaching. (p. 100)

Thesis 5: Practical, pragmatic text comprehension and its assessment will require explicit treatment of metaphors and metonymies. (p. 100)

Smith stresses the fact that, by means of metaphors, students can “’look beyond’ the immediate surface representation” (pp. 100) and understand intercultural differences (p. 101). She also highlights that metaphors can boost students’ linguistic sensitivity (pp. 48). In this context, translations can be of functional value as students can extend their word banks and learn to understand nuances in their L2, which they are already familiar with in their L1 (p. 49).

Thesis 6: Apart from being communicative and interactive, second language acquisition is intercultural and hence must be oriented towards particular text types which have a culturally specific character, e.g. advertisements, which represent aspects of culture as metonymy or synecdoche. (p. 101)

Intercultural aspects - intercultural differences in the first place - can, not only according to Smith, fruitfully utilised to enhance students’ motivation to learn a foreign language. For the author, an appropriate text type to convey these intercultural aspects are advertisements, be it in magazines or on TV: advertisements, regularly used, can thus serve to keep language teachers themselves as well as students updated in terms of identifying and following trends through time. (pp 101)

Thesis 7: From this perspective, translation between two languages can be viewed as an intercultural process, which, apart from transmitting linguistic insights, also develops cultural, i.e. pragmatic awareness. (p. 102)

By translation, the author denotes ‘functional’ translation which focuses on top-down textual and / or pragmatic phenomena. In this context, attention here lies on the macrostructure of texts, i.e. text types and their underlying conventions, rather than on the language level, which refers to wording and grammar. This type of macrostructural translation, as the reviewer would like to name it here, comes with considerable intercultural implications. (p. 102)

Thesis 8: Second language learning should be geared towards a new category of skills, namely enabling skills, which reflect the demands society now makes on everyone in terms of the ability to communicate well in all walks of life. (p. 103).

Smith gives the following definition of enabling skills:

Enabling skills are then those cognitive skills which are actively drawn on by learners to learn a new language. They are developed and refined in the process of interactive confrontation with a different linguistic system and are furthered by motivation to learn the language and use it for intercultural communication. (p. 45, original in italics; T.T.)

Enabling skills, thus, are those skills which allow learners to communicate in a given language. Consequently, the notion of enabling skills, oriented towards cognition, is closely linked with languages for specific purposes (LSP) as it goes with the functional and efficiency-oriented character of the latter. In addition to that, this notion responds to the need of a fast changing world and creates distinctive language awareness. (p. 103) What is more, developing enabling skills is a prerequisite for implementing scenario-based language learning, which represents the teaching method the present monograph is targeted upon.

Scenarios represent a set of openly structured classroom activities whose target output is not foreseeable and which largely depend on student interaction. There is no or only little guidance from the teacher. In Smith’s view, scenarios show a high affinity towards business life and, thus, to LSP. The activities which scenarios are characterized by are interrelated, cover a certain period of time and are highly contextualised. They are oriented towards situations of the real world and can, or should, be situated in a (geographical) context which students are familiar with. (pp. 56) Scenario-based language learning generally follows the so-called spiral curriculum, i.e. the work in cycles. (pp. 62)

In terms of learning objectives, scenarios allow students to:

  • “Develop independent study skills, e.g. research, planning, etc.
  • Develop a holistic approach to learning, using knowledge to increase knowledge
  • Learn to analyse and structure a complex problem so that resolution is possible
  • Use group for sharing, checking and reflecting on ideas
  • Develop an awareness of personal language needs” (p. 62)

Resources available for scenario-based learning are the media, any online language sources, dictionaries and task-relevant text types. Modes of working can be group and pair work, individual work as well as class plenaries. Timing can be negotiated among students. Outcomes of scenarios can be a the creation of a portfolio of letters, the presentation of a project or the making of telephone calls to arouse a potential partner’s interest or to arrange a meeting. (p. 65)

An important advantage of scenarios is that they challenge, and extend, students linguistic mastery in accordance with the goals of performance they have defined for themselves. Another advantage, which lies in the location of scenarios in students’ local context, is that the latter convey information about their own country or home town, which students are normally required to do when being abroad and communicating with locals. (p. 69)

As advantageous as scenarios may be, Smith points out that there are also some disadvantages. One of their disadvantages is that learners, when being forced to express a given content in the foreign language, tend to use strategies which include transfer from their mother tongue. This transfer can be negative and lead to interference and errors. In the author’s view, it is, however, worthwhile giving it a try, as transfer can just as well be positive. (pp. 68)

Scenarios can be used in intermediate as well as in advanced stages of learning. As an example for scenario-based learning at an intermediate language level, Smith quotes the Klagenfurt City Arcade which consisted in evaluating the influence of the project of a shopping centre on the retail trade and suburb-based shopping malls (pp. 63). Her example for more advanced learners refers to establishing a business plan for a small company (pp. 66). These examples show that scenario-based learning stands good chances to provide students with authentic classroom settings (pp 67).

While scenario-based learning is of high potential interest to students, its assessment may be a problem. To bread down this potential problem, Smith comes up with respective checklists – one for assessing oral group performance (p. 75) and one for students’ individual assessment of their performance in a telephone test (p. 83), which are soundly based on methodology and her own teaching experience.

All in all, it can be said that Tertiary Language Learning is a well-written book which presents a functional approach to teaching intermediate to advanced adult learners (of English, with findings being extendable to other foreign languages) and which rests on a sound methodological basis. In some cases, like the first three chapters, the reader would, nevertheless, be delighted to be provided with some more visual elements like summarising or clarifying graphs which would facilitate text reception and which would especially be of help to the novice reader. What is of importance, however, is that the author presents a functional teaching model which any interested language teacher can easily apply in his or her own classes. The eight theses the author presents and discusses can, as she wishes (p. 103), serve readers as a guiding principle and easily show them the author’s methodological position. In short, Tertiary Language Learning is a valuable and inspiring read.


Prof. Thomas Tinnefeld

Saarland University of Applied Sciences

Business School

Chair of Applied Languages

Waldhausweg 14

D-66123 Saarbrücken

E-mail: thomas_tinnefeld@htw-saarland.de

[1] In the book reviewed here, these theses come in boldface.