“I wish my language was so simple” think many second language learners listening to more advanced speakers. They feel they possess the language necessary for a similar performance, but they lack parallel lightness of expression. The experience is so common that it drew my attention as a potential area for improving speaking skills without touching vocabulary or grammar.
I know the feeling firsthand. Before my German oral exam at the university, one of my friends made a sudden improvement in speaking. From a person struggling with the output like the rest of us, he became one expressing himself with clarity and surprising ease. It felt like he had suddenly made a noticeable progress without expanding his linguistic repertoire. Listening to him at that time, I could not but sigh with envy: “I wish my German was so simple”. I thought I had all the lexis and grammar to speak equally well, but I could not. And with many learners reporting the same experience, let us turn from feelings to observations.
What can be said about our admired speaker? She makes clear referencing, clear cause and effect connections, there is logical sequencing in her speech, she uses short, not too dense sentences, applies proper intonation: pauses in the right places and applies word and sentence stress correctly. She seems to be focused, and does not suffer from common ailments like missing words, or losing track of thought. The listener — often not proficient himself — is able to understand the message, which only intensifies the feeling of envy, as similar performance seems within reach.
What is striking, however, is how little of the general impression of ease is actually created by language itself. There is nothing spectacular happening at the level of grammar or lexis. Of course, certain degree of grammatical correctness is necessary, but the listener often cannot verify it. If there is anything impressive about lexis, it is not its sophistication, but the ease of finding the right words at the right time. It becomes evident, therefore, that the aura of liberty comes from beyond language. It is not the most accurate, articulate and fluent speaker who seems free, but the one who makes her thoughts clear and understandable to others.
What impresses, in other words, is not language but communication.
The two share a mysterious relationship, and may exist independently. Communication survives imperfect grammar, imprecise vocabulary or mispronunciation, and in extreme cases it can do without language altogether. But as a rule, the more clarity there is in the language the greater the likelihood of successful communication.
Clarity, however, is very often taken for granted. I have yet to meet a learner who would come to me saying “I need to express myself clearer”. People come seeking “better grammar” or “richer vocabulary” but hardly ever do they feel the need for more clarity. After all, nobody suspects themselves of not being able to think clearly, and they have some very good reasons for doing so.
In his book Thought and Language a Byelorussian linguist Lev Vygotski talks about two different types of speeches: the inner and the external one. The inner is for communicating with ourselves, and the external for communicating with others. Both are radically different in terms of syntax. While thoughts exist in their entirety like images, speech needs to be carefully crafted chunk by chunk. The transition from thoughts to speech is, therefore, fraught with linguistic and logical traps. We may understand ourselves perfectly, but making our thoughts understandable to others is only achieved after a great deal of careful processing. Easy speaking is in fact hard thinking. But what does it mean to think?
In his essay How We Think, John Dewey, an American philosopher, talks about four definitions of thinking. First, it may be everything that passes through our head at a given moment: from daydreaming to remembering a funny moment from the past. Thinking may also refer to everything that is not visible, touchable or otherwise detectable by senses. Dewey counts storytelling as an example of such thinking: a chain of logically connected thoughts unconcerned about facts or truth. The third definition of thinking includes unverified convictions, often of unknown origin, such as “I thought you were in the kitchen” or “the Earth is flat”. Dewey calls them “judgments given before the trial”, which contrasts with the fourth definition where thinking is not only well-organized but also verified. Dewey calls this last type “reflective thinking” because its conclusions are never self-explanatory and need premises.
Reflective thinking is the most rigorous form of thinking, but successfully applied, it gives birth to the most understandable message. Analytical and critical thinking skills, two ingredients of reflection, facilitate communication by introducing logical sequencing and providing additional perspectives. A speaker who thinks reflectively is less likely to lose her train of thought, and she may find it easier and more natural to use transitional expressions and paraphrases which add also to her flow. Thoughts expressed this way contrast with impressions, memories and feelings whose randomness and lack of premises make them much more dependent on linguistic accuracy.
Knowing the beneficial effects of reflective thinking on speaking, it is only natural to ask if it is teachable. But this I honestly do not know. What I do know, however, is the general truth that an organ which is not used withers away. And our industry seems to be particularly hesitant about employing reflection.
In fact, language learning is mostly devoid of reflection.
Despite widely declared shift towards communication, teaching foreign languages continues to be centered on the development of their surface structure. Teaching grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation is evident and, most importantly, measurable. Teaching how to think is anything but that. Yet ultimately, whether it is this or the lack of insight, proper know-how and materials, the result is that teaching speaking skills overlooks the underlying mental processes which precede and assist its delivery. What does it mean in practice?
I went through thousands of speaking activities and conversation questions from many publications, and I can say with confidence that they leave very little room for reflective thinking. The vast majority of questions favor introspection and retrospection instead of reflection. There are questions about past events such as what did you do last weekend? Personal preferences like what is your favorite day of the week? Or asking for advice: What’s the best place to spend a free afternoon in your town? All of which are memory-intensive, not intellect-intensive. I do not wish to say that recounting is a thoughtless process, but it is easy to see to what extent the current questions are re-creative and their answers non-participatory. If personal feelings or impressions serve as premises, there is little room for the co-creation of meaning and, consequently, authentic interactions in the classroom. Answering typical conversation questions does not require the use of imagination, analysis or judgment, only finding the right words and structures to recreate a preverbalised message.
Dissatisfied with the quality of conversation questions, I started tweaking them. First I have stripped them of the personal pronoun “your” by means of which I changed their optics from intro and retrospection to projection. The answers remain deeply personal, but are no longer to be found in memory, because now they need premises: analysis, synthesis and personal judgment.
Next, I deprived my questions of time reference. They are no longer about what happened in the past, what is going on now or what is yet to come. This seemingly illogical move, especially for those who want their students to practice particular tenses, creates in reality a much better setting for activating reflection, which could otherwise be stifled by emotions generated by current events, or the Deweyan second type of thinking in the case of both retrospection and speculation.
However, asking about concepts instead of specific events situated in a particular time and space does not produce answers made exclusively in simple present. Asking about concepts stimulates imagination, evokes associations, memories and projections equally well, at a cost of only slightly lesser control over the tense and aspect of the verb that is going to be used by the speaker. Having in mind the benefits of activated reflection, however, it is a cost well worth bearing.
Applying the tweaks I mentioned, I have arrived at four basic types of, what I call, educative questions. The first is about a difference between two concepts, for example: what is the difference between a team and a group? The second type offers a comparison between two or more concepts, and requires a decision, for example: what is more effective an order or a request? The third asks about a relationship between two concepts, such as: do the level of difficulty and the level of stress go together? And last but not least, there is a question about a single concept, for example: is cleaning free time?
Educative questions activate reflective thinking while remaining fairly easy and pleasurable to answer. Judging by my teaching practice, they do not pose more difficulty than the typical conversation questions, and in many cases they facilitate the output. The grasp such questions have on learners’ minds makes them focus primarily on communication, not language. There is an observable increase in the willingness to communicate and persistence in communication, i.e. skills which Scott Thornbury and Diana Slade call essential in their book Conversation: From Description to Pedagogy. Educative questions, in other words, turn language learners into language users.
And the users who get a chance not only to speak but also to reflect are happy ones too. The role of satisfaction and pleasure in teaching adults is typically reduced to minimum, but it cannot be underestimated. It aids motivation and helps to endure the difficult and long process of learning. My experience tells me that most adults do not take to role plays or the imaginary, and they need to be entertained in a different way. Educative questions provide a rare form of entertainment which breaks away with the routine, while keeping one foot in the real world. The exploration of concepts is something real and serious, but it is, at the same time, unburdened by the need to find the correct answer or to reach any specific depth. The intellectual pleasure coming from sheer reflecting ranks among the most pleasurable things in life. Why not make a conversation course the source of it?
Having done my pleasurable part of reflecting on the improvement of speaking skills let me bring back the key observations.
What is enviable and impresses the most in speaking a foreign language is not the quality of language as such, but the quality of communication. The latter benefits enormously from the employment of reflective thinking which is largely absent from the current materials. Reflective thinking, however, can be activated by means of educative questions, an innovative alternative to the predominant type of conversation questions.
This article was based on the presentation “How To Say More With Less” I gave during the 38th International TESOL France Annual Colloquium “Making Waves” in Lille, France on December 1, 2019.