Effects of Linguistic and Language Teaching Theories on Foreign Language Teaching

By Victoria Henderson,2014-06-22 14:27
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    Effects of Linguistic and Language Teaching Theories on Foreign Language Teaching

     Abstract: This article explores the effects of linguistic and language teaching theories on foreign language teaching. It argues that theories play an instructive and facilitating role in foreign language teaching.

     To apply theory to teaching practice is the major concern of language teaching practice.

     Keywords: Language teaching theorieseffects practicelanguage learning


     Language has undergone a long periods of evolution and we can say that the history of man is also a history of language. However, the history of language study falls far behind.

     The original study of language came into being in less than one century. Then, Language was viewed as a system of forms in linguistics, but it is regarded as a set of skills in the field of language teaching nowadays. Linguistic research is concentrated on the establishment of theories which explains the phenomena of language, whereas language teaching aims at the learner’s mastering of language. For decades, the linguists over the world have developed many theories after painstaking exploration into the essence of language in this area. Taking a longitudinal view of the research and introduction concerning language science, we can find so many theories such as Traditional Grammar, Structural Linguistics, Transformational-Generative Linguistics, Functional Linguistics, etc.In terms of language, the fact is that these linguistic theories have been introduced since the seventies, however, quite a few teachers of foreign language do not acknowledge the true significance of these theories, and they tend to overlook the urgent need to base teaching on foreign language descriptions.

     What on earth are the effects of linguistic theories on foreign language teaching?

     In our country, most language teachers often regard themselves as practitioners rather than theorists. Traditionally, English teaching in our country is dominated by a teacher-centered, book-centered, grammar-translation atmosphere and emphasized rote memory. These traditional language teaching approaches reflect the features of typical Chinese classroom for learning English; that is, most of the interaction in the classroom is from the teacher to the students. Students’ initiative was overlooked and there were almost no student-student interactions. As a

    result, after studying English for several years, the students might have learned how to analyze sentence structures and how to translate and appreciate English literature, but they remain at a loss when they encounter native English speakers. Since latter part of seventies, language teachers have become increasingly aware of the need to make full use of modern western English language theories and language methodologies. They began to realize that a good theory enables them to view language teaching in a much better perspective and its relationship to other kinds of activities. The wider context for language teaching theory is education, social policy, national and international politics, and scholarship in related disciplines such as linguistics, psychology, sociology and humanities. Theory development thus should make language teaching more meaningful and intellectually more satisfying. In view of the above-mentioned facts, this paper will discuss the effects of language teaching theories on language teaching from three aspects.

    1.Making contribution to a scientific and profound understanding of language and language teaching

     Linguistics is a branch of science which takes language as its object of investigation.

Language teaching is defined as activities intended to bring about language learning, a theory

    of language teaching always implies concepts of language learning. Both linguistic and language teaching take language as their subject. Since linguistics is defined as the scientific study of language, it seems obvious that such a study would have direct relations to language teaching. A good language teaching theory would meet the conditions and needs of learners in the best possible ways. Theories about language and language teaching, their development as a mental construct, and their operation in social life, have had an enormous influence on how teachers of language have conceived of their subject A profound understanding of theory is of primary importance because this provides a general perspective on the nature of language which influences pedagogic principles and indicates how different descriptions might be adapted for classroom use. Although teachers will find descriptions in dictionaries and grammars of immense value as sources of reference, ultimately it will be up to them to decide on how theoretical ideas are to be applied and evaluated in the pedagogic treatment of language. Over the last decades, many linguists have created many theories of linguistics and made an exposition of some issues about language learning and some approaches to language teaching. Let us take a look at some of the main theories that have informed the practice of language teaching.

     Behaviorism. The psychologist Skinner applied this theory which was after all a psychological theory, and it was adopted for some time by language teaching methodologists. This method made constant drilling of the students followed by positive or negative reinforcement a major focus of classroom activity. Of course the approach was not exclusively devoted to repetition, but the stimulus-response-reinforcement model formed the basis of the methodology.

     Cognitivism. The term refers to a group of psychological theories which a linguist Noam Chomsky rejected. In his review of Skinners book he explained his rejection of the behaviorist

    view of language acquisition on the basis of his model of competence and performance. He argued that language is not a form of behavior. On the contrary, it is an intricate rule-based system and a large part of language acquisition is the learning of the system. There are a finite number of grammatical rules in the system and with abundant knowledge of these an infinite number of sentences can be performed in the language.

Transformational-Generative Grammar.

     Chomskys Transformational-Generative Grammar has been regarded by some linguists as a revolution in linguistics. Language teaching has never adopted a methodology based on Chomskys work or strictly upon cognition theories in general. Chomskys theorizing was never

    directed at adult language teaching. But this idea that language is not a set of habits-that what matters is for learners to internalize a rule and that will allow for creative performance has informed many techniques and methodologies.

     Acquisition and Learning. Stephen Krashen characterized acquisition as a subconscious process which results in the knowledge of a language whereas learning results only in knowing

    about the language. Acquiring a language is more successful and longer lasting than learning. In Krashen’s theory, acquisition is the grand initiator of message and the prime mover in communication. Communication creates conditions for the process of acquisition to take place.

     Humanistic Learning.The main aim of humanistic approaches is to draw the learner into an affective engagement with the learning process. To make classroom activities meaningful as experiences which involve the individual as a whole person. In other words, language teaching is

    not just about teaching language, it is also shout helping students to develop themselves as people. These beliefs have led to a number of teaching methodologies and techniques which have stressed the humanistic aspects of learning.

     Input and Output. In deciding how to approach the teaching and learning of English we can divide classroom activities into two broad categories: those that give students language input, and those which encourage them to produce language output. Whether students acquire or learn languages consciously, there will be stages at which students are receiving language, that is, language is in some way being put into the students. We also need to provide opportunities for them to activate this knowledge, for it is only when students are producing language that they can select from the input they have received. This is the production of language which can be divided into two distinct sub-categories: practice and communication. Practice means that students are asked to use new items of language in different contexts, and communication refers to activities in which students use language as a vehicle for communication because their main purpose is complete some kind of communicative task.

     Having discussed these implications and applications that linguistic theories have in the field of language teaching, we can find out two points implied. On the one hand, language teaching is a very practical business. A good command of knowledge of linguistic and language teaching theories are of much significance to language teachers who should single out some linguistic theories which are applicable and valuable for him. But a good knowledge of these theories are not necessarily enough, the teacher on his own part should start from the empirical reality and must be aware of the learner’s needs. On the other hand, these theories are not the only theoretical field which has impact on language teaching practice. Other studies such as education and psychology also exert strong influences.

    2.Promoting the research on theories of foreign language teaching and giving instructive functions in language teaching

     Theories are abstract .They have to be actualized as techniques in the particular circumstances of different classrooms. The teaching task is to see that the techniques that are used are effective in promoting language objectives, so they have to be designed to account for specific contexts of instructions. So far, there emerge two trends in the research on theories of foreign language teaching and practice of language teaching.

     First, in the research on theories, different methodologies in language teaching have their own propositions and advantages, but gradually they have manifested themselves a more obvious trend which work of each others views and merge with practice of language teaching constantly. At the same time, most of practitioners of language teaching take an attitude toward adopting each other’s good points.

     Secondly, in the exploring of practice of language teaching, because of the compatible methodologies, there emerged more and more distinct trends in individuation. With the propagation of all kinds of methodologies in language teaching and based on these modern Western language methodologies and current educational practice, teachers have initiated a series of experiments which thus reconcile theories of language teaching with concrete language teaching practice.

     Therefore, teachers began to realize that any theory of language teaching must at least attempt to understand what the methods stand for and what they have contributed to current

    thought on teaching. The specific characteristics of language teaching that concerned with language and language learning impose its own specification. Nevertheless, language teaching as educational activities should at least take into consideration what educational theory has to offer and what language teaching has in common with other educational activities. So it is most necessary to study and make some research on these concerning theories. The functions of theories are to promote the improvement and enhancement of language teaching practice. Language teachers can be seen as faced with methodological decisions as to where adjustments are to be made in the matching up of abstraction with actuality. Teaching can be conceived of as a research activity whereby experimental techniques of instruction are designed to correspond with principles of pedagogy. Teachers cannot just assume the researcher role and use students as experimental subjects, observing how they learn under varying conditions with detached interest to satisfy an intellectual curiosity. The teacher’s business is to induce learning, and the techniques that are used

    have to work to that end. So we can regard the classroom as the context for two related kinds of activity. In one, techniques are devised with regard to their practical effectiveness in the promotion of learning. They are directed at the benefit of learners. This we might call the instructional activity, with the teacher engaged as a participant mediating the techniques concerned, in the other activity, techniques are related to principles with a view to enquiring into the relationship between the two. Here they are directed at the benefit of the teachers’ own understanding of their technique. This we might call the experimental activity, with the teacher acting as an observer manipulating the techniques concerned. So the teachers are made to define their own problems and provide their own solutions. They cannot directly transpose the outside research, whether descriptive, experimental or speculative, to the classroom context. Research has a crucial role to play in two respects, theoretically and methodologically, theoretically, it can serve as a source of ideas and insights which are of potential relevance for the formulation of principles; methodologically, it can provide example of what is involved in critical enquiry, of how intuition can be subjected to conceptual and empirical evaluation. Thus, we can see the value of research is that it can help teachers to define more clearly the problems that they themselves must solve .What it can do is to stimulate interest and encourage teachers to think about the implications of their practices. It can also provide them with a conceptual context within which to work, in the form of hypotheses to test out in the conditions of their particular classrooms. In short, theory can help practitioners to adopt a theoretical orientation to their task, whereby they seek to refer particular techniques they use to more general principles, and test out the validity of such principles against the observed actualities of classroom practice.

    3.Promoting the transfer from the mastering of knowledge to application of it

     Many Chinese language teachers are now attempting to incorporate some western theories in language teaching. But some vague concepts and ideas prevent Chinese teachers from adopting the theories and reconciling the theories and methodologies for Chinese students. In China, on the basis of the traditional education pattern, generations of teachers have formed instinct teaching and methods which today influence the way they teach English. In the traditional Chinese classroom, Teachers of English spend most of the class time explaining the vocabulary, language points, and sentence structures, and then ask the students to learn by heart. Students know very little about the English language, let alone the culture of English-speaking countries, because there is little exposure to information from English-speaking nations that students might use as a model.


     Based on the analyses elaborated above, linguistic and language teaching theories can facilitate the current foreign language learning and to a large extent, optimize the current teaching arrangements of foreign language learning, once appropriately applied. Thus, language teacher educators should promote relevant research on linguistic and language teaching theories to deepen language teachers’ understanding of them and maximize their instructive roles in language teaching. Only we are capable of the profound definitions of those concepts and theories, can we grasp their true essenceand in turn, improve the backward state of foreign language learning and teaching.

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