Communicate ≠ Communication ≠ Communicative Approach ≠ Comprehension

I thought it’d be helpful to go through some terms that seem to be used interchangeably. Why? The misunderstandings have an effect on pedagogical discussions, and there’s always room for reminders. So, communication, as defined by at least Sandra Savignon and Bill VanPatten, boils down to “the interpretation, negotiation, and expression of meaning.” Each researcher added details like “within a given context, and “sometimes negotiation,” but the basic idea us teachers can focus on is in the three words, also conveniently picked up by ACTFL and keyed to their three modes: interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational.

  • Examples of interpreting Latin would include listening and reading. You can do this alone. It’s one-way (input).
  • Examples of negotiating in Latin would include some interaction, which isn’t necessarily spoken because you can respond in non-verbal ways, and you can also do this via writing, such as email correspondence. You can’t do this alone. It’s two-way (input + output).
  • Examples of expressing Latin would include writing or speaking. You can do this alone, such as when writing a story, or publicly speaking. It’s one-way (output). When giving a presentation, there are people there, but you don’t necessarily have to interact with them. Think lecture without follow-up, or better yet, think videos. TikTok videos are people expressing meaning. Of course, any follow-up would involve interaction, thus becoming interpersonal communication.

OK, those are very clear examples of communication from a second language perspective. However, when most people say that they “communicate” with others, that usually just means speaking, and maaaaaaybe writing. That is, the verb “communicate” is often synonymous with “talk,” and almost always suggests two-way interaction. That’s…fine…but we start running into problems when language teachers use the two interchangeably…

Communicative Approach
A communicative approach to language teaching is when there’s a purpose for communication within the classroom. That means there’s a reason to interpret (i.e., listen & read), negotiate (i.e., interact), and express (i.e., speak & write). Of the few reasons humans do these things, the three found within most classroom contexts are entertainment, learning, and creating. Therefore, a teacher using a communicative approach ensures that at least one of those reasons is present during class. This excludes exercises, drills, and things that are done for no purpose beyond language learning itself. That’s important. For example, pretending you can’t hear a student so another student restates what happened using indirect discourse is a grammar exercise. That’s a drill dressed up in a role-play. There’s no other reason any human would do this. This is non-communicative. It’s possibly a game, but not a game that any student of mine would ever find entertaining. This is a teacher exercise, not a communicative practice.

Also note that a teacher using a communicative approach doesn’t necessarily need students to interact or express themselves in Latin. Those are just two of the three modes. Therefore, a teacher who ensures there’s a purpose to interpreting (i.e., reading) a text—beyond just language practice—can be using a communicative approach.

Full stop.

This is where most of the misinterpretation occurs. Latin teachers are using “communicative approach” to mean “speaking Latin,” either creating an all-Latin immersion environment that students must adhere to (i.e., no English/L1), or just emphasizing their own shift to speaking Latin more in the classroom. However, those are both just speaking Latin. For example, it’s possible to speak Latin and teach entirely with a grammar-based approach. In fact, this is often the case with many Latin teachers today. What began with traditional grammar, then became immersion (but still grammar). Some teachers are here, teaching grammar in Latin. Others have moved away from that grammar.

Comprehension-Based Approach
A comprehension-based approach is just like it sounds. The basis of language use and priority of class is that students understand the target language. A teacher with this approach seeks out and implements practices used to ensure comprehension. There are different perspectives on this, from the macro to micro, gist-level, or word-level. The former could be what’s referred to as comprehensible input, and the latter could be what’s referred to as comprehended input. That is, the former might include small amounts of “noise” in the input, although enough to still be understandable, whereas the latter would include as little “noise” as possible. These perspectives aren’t mutually exclusive, either. Many comprehension-based teachers move from macro to micro depending on the context. However, comprehension remains the priority either way with this approach.

Still, teachers might use a comprehension-based approach, but not a communicative one. If you use both, that’s CCLT (comprehension-based AND communicative language teaching). However, there could be complete focus on full comprehension, but no communicative purpose to what’s going on. That is, class could be mostly exercises leading to fully-comprehending a paragraph of Latin. However, that’s not communicative. Exercises are just practice for the sake of learning language itself, rather than having a larger purpose for doing them.

A communicative approach isn’t needed for a comprehension-based approach to be effective, although they’re often combined. Why? It could be that purpose addresses some of the obstacles many find with learning, in general. Since communication is a universal human trait, it’s quite possible that a communicative approach is more equitable. However, if teachers shift practices to prioritize comprehension and don’t quite get to a communicative purpose, that’s certainly going to have the greatest impact in teaching and learning, getting us most of the way there. How far? I dunno, 75-90% maybe? Comprehension is key. In sum…

  • If you don’t consider reading an act of communication, check out more of what ACTFL has put out, and spend time with the concepts of one-way, and two-way communication.
  • If you use “communicate” interchangeably with “talk,” that’s certainly most people’s take, but not a second language teacher’s take. Consider that the only way for learners to “communicate with the ancient world,” for example, is from reading. That should help reframe the concept.
  • If the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “communicative approach” is you speaking Latin, and/or students speaking Latin, perhaps in a full immersion environment, you’ve been led astray. This is not how the profession uses that term. Bill VanPatten’s While We’re On The Topic was written for teachers. Start there?
  • If you’re a comprehension-based teacher and want to be more communicative, keep an eye on whether the class agenda is entertaining, students learn about themselves and the world, and/or you create something in Latin together.

4 thoughts on “Communicate ≠ Communication ≠ Communicative Approach ≠ Comprehension

  1. “if teachers shift practices to prioritize comprehension and don’t quite get to a communicative purpose, that’s certainly going to have the greatest impact in teaching and learning” Would you say that rigorizing comprehension is a way to address the cognitive-informational purpose of communication?

    • Not sure, could you give an example. What I meant was that if comprehension + purpose = 100, comprehension alone probably gets us 75-90, being the greatest percentage of impact.

    • Although I’m not sure cognitive-informational is even a real purpose in the classroom. I think it’s there only if we invent information gap activities or something.

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