A Cognitive Science View on Communicative Language Teaching

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

From a cognitive science perspective, communicative language teaching (CLT) can be thought of as an ‘idealized cognitive model’ (see Lakoff 2007), which has been interpreted and translated into secondary school EFL syllabuses, textbooks, and everyday classroom practice in a variety of different ways around the world since its introduction in the 1970s. Implementations of CLT in secondary schools usually vary in their subjectively perceived or intersubjectively agreed upon degree of typicality or similarity to its theoretical core assumptions and the set of general learning and teaching principles derived from it (for a brief overview see, for instance, Richards 2006). Some instructional designs, procedures, and forms of classroom interaction appear to bear close resemblance to the theoretical core of the overall CLT framework. It seems to be reasonable to see them as prototypical examples, as highly representative cases or ‘good members’ of the ‘CLT family’ (see Spada 2007). Other ways of instruction appear to share relatively little with the idealized core theory – their family resemblance is considered to be comparatively low. They may therefore be viewed as more or less ‘peripheral family members’ or ‘distant relatives’ only. Yet, excluding these supposedly less representative members from the CLT family entirely is problematic, because they often share a few of the central properties of the abstract prototype, or seem to be motivated by it at least in certain ways.

Judgements as to whether a certain instructional design or practice is or is not to be accepted as a member of the CLT family are notoriously difficult, because they call for ‘reference point reasoning’ (see Rosch 1975), i.e. for categorization of teaching practices relative to a culture, context- and person-independent theoretical prototype. This highly complex process is influenced by a large number of individual and contextual factors such as teacher biography and education, teaching experience and know-how, the specific cultural, institutional and situational context of teaching English as a foreign language, non-native English teachers’ subjective theories and beliefs of how the target language is taught and learned best, the curriculum and the textbook, to name just a few.

Judgments concerning the typicality of a specific classroom practice are all the more difficult when the underlying theoretical core assumptions and the basic set of principles of learning and teaching on which this practice is supposedly based are themselves vague. One of the central problems of CLT seems to be that in contrast to some basic everyday cognitive models such as ‘bird’, where many people would say that ‘robin’ is a typical member of the bird family and ‘penguin’ is a less typical member, because birds usually fly, agreement on what is or is not CLT is far more difficult to achieve. The main reason is the elasticity of the overall CLT framework which is relatively fuzzy with regard to the significance and the optimal balance of language form and language use in the learning and teaching process (strong vs. weak version). Furthermore, there are so many different theoretical manifestations of CLT nowadays, for instance TBI (task based instruction) and CBI (content based instruction), that it is difficult for EFL practitioners – and especially for teaching novices – to recognize whether their teaching is in line with the core CLT theoretical framework.

Coming to a better understanding of the complex relationship between theory and practice is vital. According to Larsen-Freeman (1997) this is ‘an area crying for research’ – and this has not changed enough since Larsen-Freeman first recognized the need for further research over ten years ago. Categorization, (proto-)typicality, family resemblance and category membership are central concepts in cognitive science. They could help us gain a more profound knowledge of the complex relationship of CLT in theory and in practice, of how core theoretical concepts in foreign language education are acquired / learned, mentally represented and accessed in practice. This in turn could help to explain the discrepancies which often become visible when CLT is translated into actual everyday classroom action by individual teachers.

Lakoff, George (2007), “Cognitive models and prototype theory”, In: Evans, Vyvyan; Bergen, Benjamin & Zinken, Jörg (Eds.). The Cognitive Linguistics Reader. London & Oakville: Equinox, 130-167.

Larsen-Freeman, Diane (1997), “Chaos / Complexity Science and Second Language Acquisition.” Applied Linguistics, 18/2, 141-165.

Richards, Jack C. (2006), “Communicative Language Teaching Today.”

Rosch, Eleanor (1975), “Cognitive Reference Points.” Cognitive Psychology, 7, 532-547.

Spada, Nina (2007), “Communicative Language Teaching: Current Status and Future Prospects.” In: Cummins, Jim & Davison, Chris (Eds.). International Handbook of English Language Teaching. Part 1. New York: Springer, 271-288.


2 responses to “A Cognitive Science View on Communicative Language Teaching

  1. Hector Urruti-Beheity

    I’m a native speaker of Spanish with an undergraduate degree in TESOL , a Ph.D. in Linguistics from Stanford University and forty years of foreign language teaching experience….
    Prof. Kurtz’ comments do not add anything to some one’s understanding of the teaching/learning process. Too theoretical because… individual lacks the experience of teaching at various levels. Not all foreign language students want to learn. They may be in the class because they have no choice. So, what do we propose to these people? Of course, nowadays, repetition is out. Just talk… communicate no matter how. Please specify or name one activity that has worked for the whole class or that has attracted the interest of “most” of the students in the class. You want to hear about one that will make you shudder?
    Acting as interpreters. Yes, siree. I’ve found that students love that. You, the teacher, act as the dumb tourist and they, the bilingual speakers, help you out, e.g.: Where is the post-office, please? Le monsieur/la dame voudrait savoir où est [se trouve] le bureau de poste. Etc. etc. etc.

  2. Thank you for your comment!

    You asked me to “specify or name one activity that has worked for the whole class and that has attracted the interest of ‘most’ of the students in the class”. – Please read the TEFLSPEAK-G series on this blog! (parts 1-10 which offer theory, practical recommendations, and transcripts to illustrate).

    In your comment, you also state that “of course, nowadays, repetition is out.” – I’m afraid I can’t follow you there. Repetition is one of the pillars of foreign language education (think of the spiral curriculum, etc.). How is foreign language learning or development possible without repetition?

    As a motivating classroom activity, you recommend: “acting as interpreters” (for “dumb”? tourists). The underlying skill you are probably referring to is nowadays conceptualized not simply as translation, but as a fifth skill, i.e. as culture-sensitive ‘mediating’.

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