TEFLSPEAK-G and the Idea of Encouraging Improvised Speech in the EFL Classroom (1)

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

TEFLSPEAK-G (the acronym refers to the many facets of non-native target language discourse in German EFL classrooms) is a sub-variant of English which is – at least in detail – almost unknown in the so-called Inner, Outer and even in parts of the Expanding Circle of the English-speaking world. It is, however, by no means new. Its history is quite outstanding and it can at least be traced back to the European EFL reform movement about a century ago when learning to speak the target language became one of the core objectives of teaching English as a foreign language. Certain features of TEFLSPEAK-G may even have evolved much earlier than that, probably as a result of the dominance of the old grammar-translation method that was used in many schools throughout Europe at that time.

In a nutshell, what are the main characteristics of TEFLSPEAK-G and its usage in many secondary schools in Germany?

As a sub-variant of ‘EFLese’ (Mario Rinvolucri), TEFLSPEAK-G deviates in many regards from everyday language use in English-speaking countries, for the most part because it is carefully controlled classroom discourse aimed at providing a scaffold to stimulate classroom interaction and to facilitate foreign language learning. As such it is very often closely related to EFL textbooks produced in Germany and based on individual non-native teachers’ beliefs of how English works and how it should be used most effectively and efficiently under the given institutional circumstances. In more detail, we can say at least that:

One of the central features of TEFLSPEAK-G use in the classroom is the quantitative imbalance of teacher talk and student talk. In TEFLSPEAK-G dominated lessons, the teacher often speaks as much or even more than all the students together. In addition to this, students rarely ask questions. Instead, they are predominantly expected to answer teacher questions or react to verbal or non-verbal prompts. The typical interactional pattern consists of three moves: teacher-question or teacher-initiated (visual) prompt; student-answer; teacher-feedback, often focused on the treatment of formal errors. As a result, English dialogues produced in German classrooms are reciprocal to a certain extent, but they are a long way away from being authentic compared to natural everyday English exchanges outside the classroom (see the large-scale empirical study DESI (German-English-Student-Achievement International) at www.desi.de).

TEFLSPEAK-G tends to pertain to the more formal norms of written language, rather than the specific grammar of authentic speech outside the classroom. Typical features of ordinary spoken English such as tags of all kinds, pragmatic markers and co-operative speech overlap are either under-represented or completely missing (instead, German tokens like ‘ähm’ or … may occur). One reason for this is that they can hardly be found in EFL textbooks (including the manifold resources accompanying them) which are still quite often the one and only basis of classroom discourse. In consequence, TEFLSPEAK-G discourse appears to be relatively stiff, distant and pedantically controlled by the teacher on the one hand, on the other lacking the relaxed atmosphere as well as the spontaneity and flexibility of authentic oral exchanges.

As ‘textbook talk’ that is often tightly controlled and generally lacks many substantial elements of authentic conversation, TEFLSPEAK-G does not prepare learners very well for English as it is used outside the classroom. Being able to make a grammatically correct oral contribution to a lesson once in a while is one thing. But it is hardly comparable to the ability of actively participating in spontaneous real-life conversations where contextual inappropriateness can lead to more serious problems (in terms of intercultural misunderstandings) than formal correctness.

Of course, TEFLSPEAK-G is a communicative compromise that is, to a certain extent, necessary and unavoidable, because of the dual status of English being the target language and central learning objective and, at the same time, the main medium of communication and instruction in the EFL classroom. Teachers who restrict themselves to using TEFLSPEAK-G only, without trying to systematically elaborate their individual classroom language towards naturalness need to be aware, however, that they run the risk of being perceived by their pupils as communicative control freaks who continuously make use of the same ‘didactic’ jargon, and who seem to expect their pupils to become functional only within this specific field of language use. As a negative by-product of all this, speaking anxiety is quite often considerably high in German EFL classrooms.

In general, this leaves German learners of English with a serious problem. On the one hand, they are constantly exposed to a variant of English which can differ significantly from what is commonly used outside the classroom. On the other hand, they are expected to ultimately become functional in a remarkable variety of real-life situations in the English-speaking world.

My short outline of classroom English usage in Germany would be unbalanced and unfair, though, if the attempts undertaken by large numbers of secondary school teachers to make EFL classroom interaction more natural and flexible were not taken into consideration. A number of widespread approaches, techniques and procedures need to be mentioned in this context, e.g. situational teaching, language games, role-play and drama, simulation, to name just a few. But how effective and efficient are they?

Although we do not have enough empirical data worldwide, and we do not have enough classroom-based in contrast to classroom-oriented research, many EFL teachers in Germany share one basic experience. Stephen Speight, one of my former colleagues at the University of Dortmund, Germany has described this experience in the following way:

“‘Situational teaching’ some­times means that children memorise their roles in playlets, and can rattle off a tele­phone conversation or a chat around a tea-table in a grand style. As a rule the ability to ‘think on one’s feet’ which is so essential a feature of any real conversation, is not taught. As a result, the slightest variation in the dialogue is likely to cause a breakdown.”

I would like to add some anecdotal evidence here. This is what I observed and wrote in my teaching diary during an excursion to London with a group of German 7th graders:

‘Today I saw three of my pupils standing in front of a bakery near a bus stop where we all wanted to meet again that afternoon. They obviously intended to buy something, but they were hesitant to go inside because they were not really sure what to say. I noticed that they tried to anticipate and somehow simulate a ‘bakery situation’ in advance: What can we say when we enter the bakery? What does (…) mean in English? What happens if do not have enough money? etc. After a while they went in. But after about 30 seconds only I saw them coming out of the bakery hastily without having bought anything. Back in the youth hostel that evening I asked them what went wrong and they told me that something beyond their carefully planned ‘bakery script’ had happened. The woman behind the counter had asked them something they did not understand. So they panicked and left the bakery.’

This is, of course, no scientific evidence, but it reveals one basic problem: at least some German learners of English seem to find it difficult to make use of their so-called foreign language competence spontaneously, more specifically, they are not really able to adapt to authentic speech situations which are quite often unpredictable. In other words, they are not able to improvise, to creatively use their own linguistic resources to ‘function’ in authentic real-life exchanges.

In my view this is problematic or at least remarkable, since we already know a lot about the importance of improvisation for human survival in general and the necessity of improvised speaking in the EFL classroom in particular.

More to come next week. If you don’t want to wait, go to books.google.com for a preview of my book on improvisation tasks in secondary school EFL classrooms (in German) (“Improvisierendes Sprechen im Fremdsprachenunterricht”).

2 responses to “TEFLSPEAK-G and the Idea of Encouraging Improvised Speech in the EFL Classroom (1)

  1. Wolfgang Butzkamm

    I’d like to comment on the Speight quote:

    “‘Situational teaching’ sometimes means that children memorise their roles in playlets, and can rattle off a telephone conversation or a chat around a tea-table in a grand style. As a rule the ability to ‘think on one’s feet’ which is so essential a feature of any real conversation, is not taught. As a result, the slightest variation in the dialogue is likely to cause a breakdown.”

    This is a stepping stone, and a necessary one. Lots of methodology books (including my own) or articles on how to teach dialogues empahsize that dialogue variations (substitutions, extensions of utterances) are necessary as well.

    The performance of teacher-made dialogues comes first. As in first language learning, imitation, pure and simple, comes first, and creative constructions follow. The pupils must go beyond memorized sentences and have to learn to control a system. Dialogues will provide the learner with an ever-growing stock of sentences, but these sentences have to become abstract models for many more sentences along the same lines. Knowledge of utterances in fact counts for very little unless the learner can break them down and combine their elements in new and appropriate ways to meet the linguistic demands of new and unforeseeable situations. So the next thing to do is to lift the words and phrases in the dialogue from their specific textual and situational context and to make them available for use in new contexts. We get away from the fixed sentences of the set dialogue by varying them through substitutions, transformations, extensions and novel combinations. This is what I call the generative principle, and I wonder why so few people have taken this up. I think it’s basic to language learning…

    When pupils perform not just little playlets but one-act plays etc. they will even by themselves be able to make the necessary adjustments and say related things spontaneously, that is things that would fit a new situation. So I can’t quite see why Speight criticizes what I consider to be an important stepping stone to “real” communication.
    Of course, improvisation techniques are welcome, too. Ultimately, any serious discussion to which pupils contribute spontaneously is improvised speech, i.e. unrehearsed and message-oriented.

  2. Wolfgang Butzkamm

    Here is one more comment on “authenticity” and “textbook talk”.

    I think you are going too far in you concern for “authenticity” (whatever that is. The classroom itself is an “authentic” situation..)
    Actaully, I’d be very glad if our pupils had absorbed the language their textbook offers them, and so would the pupils themselves.
    With what their textbooks offers them, they would pass all the DESI tests brilliantly. Of course, only a portion (an all too small portion, sometimes) of the textbook language will stick. But we as teachers also have only an insufficient active command of the foreign language unless we have daily contacts with native speakers…
    Modern corpus-based linguistics has brought to light that large amounts of language fall between the lexicon and core grammar. Languages force a competent user to memorize many thousands of arbitrary words and many thousands of more or less idiomatic, ready-made phrases, which fill a vast middle ground between arbitrary words and orderly, law-abiding, predictable constructions. A major part of human linguistic competence – much more than previously believed – involves the mastery of all kinds of more or less fixed, semi-fixed and semi-productive expressions, i.e. mixed constructions that are neither purely words nor purely rule-governed, apart from “real” idioms, routine formulas and frozen collocations. Besides the more regular constructions, native speakers use a great many quirky, idiosyncratic, non-canonical and ungeneralizable phrases that really bedevil FL learners. To sum up: Our active use of these expressions (and to a much lesser degree, our understanding of them) depends on encountering them in a full range of functional contexts which no classroom can provide. The messiness of spoken language especially has to be experienced live.

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