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…
Modern and classical language teachers alike have been using big name textbooks for decades, yet there’s been an emerging counter culture known broadly as “untextbooking.” This movement is a response to a) the lack of proficiency, b) dropping interest/enrollment, and c) the kind of exclusivity that form-based textbook teaching has an affect on. Instead, preference within the “untextbooking” movement is given to meaning-based teaching that results in greater proficiency, higher enrollment, and a removal of obstacles, making language programs more inclusive. For years now, I’ve heard things like “there’s not enough culture,” or “this lacks curriculum support,” or some other complaint suggesting that textbooks have something necessary to offer that not-textbooks don’t. It’s been shown that textbooks can overload learners with too much vocab, grammar rules, and target-culture details (in English). However, I’m more interested in the role of proficiency. That is, for all the supplements textbooks might bring to the curriculum, what do they really do for language proficiency? Where does proficiency come into play in a curriculum?
Language proficiency generally refers to one’s unrehearsed ability to communicate (e.g. listening, reading, seeking clarification, replying, sharing ideas, asking questions, etc.). Humans can’t plan to communicate genuinely (e.g. “ready, communicate!”). It’s just something that happens when there’s a reason to do so. The following curricular questions keep language proficiency in mind (vs. studying about languages, or cultures, or memorizing vocab, which requires little to no proficiency)…
On Episode 61 of Tea with BVP, Bill explained Tasks a little bit more. He said that Tasks are usually longer term goals, but also added that level-appropriate and input-based Tasks could be given right away. They certainly could be given right away, but they’re also unnecessary. Considering how hard it is to get multiple concrete examples of Tasks, the amount of planning that needs to go into an assortment of Tasks makes me want to set up a retirement countdown timer and hope it goes by in a blink.
Bill uses the terms “Exercises, Activities, and Tasks” to categorize what we do in class as they relate to communication. Exercises are drills, practicing language for language’s sake, which haven’t been shown to significantly contribute anything to a student’s acquisition or learning experience other than anxiety and frustration for most, so I don’t recommend spending any amount of time on them whatsoever. Instead, the majority of time would be best spent on Activities and Tasks, and there’s one major difference between them…
A Task is an Activity that has a purpose.