Linguistics and Pedagogy

Re: Illocutionary force | Robert Haines | February 5th, 2004

The thread on illocutionary force has made for sweet brain candy. It's also provided me with the shape of things to come (just submitted the FND).

I'd love to hear from you all on how an awareness of such concepts helps us work with the people (language learners) we meet with regularly as an essential part of our jobs.

Also, does anyone else find it interesting how language is being subjected to analysis in so many ways by so many different people, e.g. J.L. Austin, when, in the end, a cake is a cake no matter how you cut it up.

I mean to ask: Isn't it the whole of language rather than the analysis of its parts that makes it so dynamic and mysterious, ensuring it can never truly be "explained"? Of course, that won't stop us from trying to crack the nut of language, I suppose.

Has anyone come across a more global and holistic approach to language analysis?


Re: linguistic concepts in the classroom | Jerry Talandis | February 5th, 2004

I'd like to respond to Rob's request:

I'd love to hear from you all on how an awareness of such concepts helps us work with the people (language learners) we meet with regularly as an essential part of our jobs.

I think the primary benefit of understanding linguistic concepts is that it makes the teacher more confident about their craft. I teach low level college students, kids, and adults with no time to study or use English, so I don't foresee a situation in which I'll be explaining concepts like "illocutionary force" anytime soon. But, I feel better knowing what it means. It makes me feel more confident, and I hope that helps me teach with a sense of authority. It's a subtle yet important point.

If a teacher really KNOWS the language down to fine linguistic detail, that gives them a aura of credibility. That credibility helps motivate students to pay attention. Motivated, engaged students do better and learn more. Think about it- remember the last time you saw a real scholar speak? Weren't you hanging on their words, paying real close attention? I saw Dave Willis give a presentation recently at the JALT conference. He presence was commanding and authoritative. I knew that everything he said was based on a strong foundation of experience and knowledge. So, if you know your stuff, you become a better all-around teacher, even if you never have to use what you have learned with your students.


Re: Illocutionary force | Mike McDonald | February 5th, 2004

I'd love to hear from you all on how an awareness of such concepts helps us work with the people (language learners) we meet with regularly as an essential part of our jobs.

I'd like to back up what Jerry Talandis said about the value of theoretical knowledge in increasing teachers' confidence and credibility, and to toss in a few more factors: flexibility, sensitivity, and humility. Novice teachers quite often have rather fixed ideas about pedagogy (e.g., "decreasing teacher talking time is good", "never use the mother tongue", or "correct every mistake"). By studying applied linguistics, we soon realize that there are lots of ifs and buts: much depends on the context, the students, the cultural background, the purpose of study, and so on. Instead of saying "A means B", we learn to say "In this situation, A means B". Instead of saying "You shouldn't do X", we learn to think "Why is she doing X?" Instead of saying "You have to do Y", we might say "If you want to do X, you could do Y". Of course, not all our current ideas are wrong, but we need to examine them from time to time. As Widdowson says, "the importance of principle in no way denies the value of experience or customary practices but simply requires that they are subjected to evaluation and not just taken on trust."

Familiarity with linguistic concepts also helps us to recognize potential learning problems and teaching opportunities. For example, a teacher familiar with the concept of illocutionary force might be more attuned to students' actual or potential problems in interpreting a speaker's intentions. To take Tom Bloor's example, if a speaker in a taped dialogue says "I have plenty of money", instead of

T. How much money does the speaker have?

S. Plenty.

T. Good. OK, next question,

We might get an exchange more like this:

T. Is the speaker rich?

S. Yes.

T. How do you know?

S. She says she has plenty of money.

T. Why do you think she says that?


Good luck with the IIC module: it's been hard work but I've enjoyed it.

Mike McDonald

Re: Illocutionary force | Tisa | February 5th, 2004

Dear all,

What I love about reading all these threads is that I find myself agreeing partially with everyone!   Here are some of my thoughts.

In terms of Robert's query about the relevance of such 'jargon' to our relationship with our students, well, for me, it's an indirect one. All of these terms relate to what we do within (and outside) the classroom, even if we may not actually use them with our students. For instance, I never realized how much I followed a so-called 'task-based approach' until I started reading more about TESOL methodology. Now that I know it's an approach--with an acronym and all!--I know what to type into a search engine or what to look up in an index. By extension, I can begin to research my own teaching practice, and hopefully, help my students to learn more effectively.   Another example is when I focus on an expression like 'I look forward to seeing you' because so many students leave off the '-ing'. How can I explain the reason for the '-ing' if I'm not aware of the role of prepositions and gerunds?   I don't need to drop the jargon on my students (although many know these terms already), but I do need to know them for myself so I can check a grammar book to do further research. In any case, students who want to do grammar self-study, will certainly find such terms useful.

Robert questioned the value of subjecting language to so many different analyses. I think it's a case of the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know.   As a result, the quest for greater understanding will continue until eternity. Researchers will always find different takes on issues or other angles to approach things from. What I don't like, though, is when there are so many terms for the same thing. While I was doing the FND, I had trouble distinguishing between the terms 'curriculum' and 'syllabus'.   And I still have a lot of trouble describing my job in a covering letter (TEFL, TESOL, ELT...).

Well, that'll be all for now.

Lausanne, Switzerland

Linguistics and pedagogy | Robert Haines | February 6th, 2004

I've just typed out a very long reply to all your interesting comments that has been deleted by my infernal computer! Let's leave it at "Argh!" and move on to a much shorter version (I hope):

This medium seems to increase the possibility of misunderstanding exponentially, or maybe it just demands that we be more articulate. Either way, perhaps I was not clear in my query about linguistic concepts and their value in helping us with the people in the room (language learners).

Let me be clear in stating that I did not intend to question the value of meta-language and jargon in expediting communication between ELT colleagues and carrying out web searches. That seems obvious to me. Like you, Tisa, I've discovered, after the fact, a technical term for something that happened in class, which only seems to speak for the way in which learning and effective pedagogy can happen without labels and jargon.

I also did not want to question whether familiarity with applied linguistics or linguistic concepts can increase or decrease teachers' confidence; I'm sure it can and has done so.

As far as an "aura of credibility" is concerned, Jerry, that might be something we as colleagues of Dave Willis can sense, but I'm not sure language learners would unless we were out to demonstrate our knowledge of linguistics, which I don't think you and I are or should be. I agree that "Motivated, engaged students do better and learn more." However, I don't believe it takes linguistic knowledge to motivate and engage language learners. I think it requires a genuine interest in students' lives and a willingness to work with them as equals without coming across as "commanding and authoritative".

Mike, you've rightly stated that "...there are lots of ifs and buts...", a fact that could make some teachers less confident if they want to cling to pillars of knowledge. I could not agree more with you that "...much depends on the context, the students, the cultural background, the purpose of study, and so on." Still, isn't a teacher of five years more qualified to know these things than an Applied Linguistics major who's never set foot in this teacher's classroom and never met her students?

Common sense would tell me that the second example of interaction you've provided between teacher and student is more meaningful in terms of negotiating meaning. Wouldn't it be even more meaningful, motivating and engaging to address the issue of money when the student raises it out of personal interest, then deal with language as it arises? Well, perhaps that's a whole other can of worms.

Finally, Mike, I'm not sure which context you've pulled Widdowson's apt words out of, but you might want to also examine what he has to say on applied linguistics and linguistics applied ( Widdowson, H. 2003. Defining Issues in Language Teaching. Oxford: OUP.)

My favorite teachers had never made an open display of their knowledge about pedagogy or any particular subject; they have always been kind, patient men and women who took a genuine interest in me and my learning. While they may have been quite versed in the jargon of their craft or science and felt equally confident because of their knowledge, it was, upon reflection, pedagogy, the art of teaching, that made them truly effective.

Thanks again for the thought-provoking discussion.

Best of luck to you all,


The evolving discussion | Gerry Munzing | February 6th, 2004

Greetings to all on a cold wintery day in Kyusu!   Ah, even in southern Japan the wind coming off the Japan sea can have quite a nasty bite to it in Jan and Feb! If it's snowing where ever you are, I hope you are the type of person who enjoys it!

Having oiled the wheels with obligatory weather comments, I'd like to say that I'm truly impressed how a relatively innocent request for help has evolved into a rather stimulating discussion. As far as my two cents are worth on all of this, it appears that we have stumbled into something of a debate on the value of linguistic theory. If I may be so bold as to paraphrase Bilbo Baggin's birthday speech in the Fellowship of the Ring, I've read much less than half of what there is on teaching and linguistics and I've been able to understand half of that less than I would have liked. Therefore, I don't know if I'll be able to provide an example of the "more global and holistic approach to language analysis" that Robert is searching for. However, if such an approach doesn't exist, then, I believe an important step towards creating it involves the process of "becoming theoretical" as described at the beginning of FND.  

Diving into linguistics, or any academic field, can be very intimidating because it's easy to feel like there is an infinite amount of knowledge to digest. At least for myself, I doubt there's a way I'll ever be able to write a book or article and include enough references to appear credible. It's a case of the more I read, the more I realize there is even more to learn.

In terms of the usefulness of the stuff and how it applies to our everyday practice, well, I'm rather confident that I will more than likely never do a workshop on illocutionary force and pragmatics with the teachers I train (and sadly so because personally I find this stuff fascinating!). I can easily imagine them rolling their eyes wondering, "What does any of this have to do with me and the students I teach?" Unfortunately, I believe this a general perception of theory in that it's something "out there" which is imposed on us rather than "in here" and concerned with what we actually do.     

One of the reasons why I chose to do the MSc at Aston was because I got the impression the program wasn't simply trying to promulgate the status quo of theory on top and practice somewhere down below. The crux of this matter is Action Research. I have just finished working through my first two modules after FND and I am starting to understand how the process of Action Research empowers practitioners by moving us towards gaining ownership of theory through observation and description of it in "action". In the first unit of MET, Steve asks us to consider what has become "unconscious" in our practice. By examining and rediscovering what has become routine, we, hopefully, become better teachers. In turn this should benefit our students because we, as teachers, stand to gain a deeper understanding of how to recognize and use theory in the context of applying it to our professional action. Thus, Action Research might be part of the "holistic" or "global" approach that brings together theory and practice.    

As I mentioned previously, I'm just about to start IIC. In the first unit, which I read on-line, Keith defines the terms Investigating, Interaction, and Context. I doubt that I'll ever attempt to explain any of these, or for that matter what illocutionary force is, to the teachers I train. However, at least now I have a better understanding of the concepts and this helps me to better understand my research, which in turn fuels the investigations I conduct. I don't know what the end result will be, in fact right now I don't even know what my project will be about, but I'm looking forward to the exciting process of discovery that will take place when I examine what is going on in the classrooms I am responsible for.     

BTW, yesterday, I purchased the Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching & Applied Linguistics, but even after having it at my disposal, I still think it's much more interesting to try and articulate in our own words what we think something means instead of passively receiving knowledge from a dictionary. Thanks to Jerry for asking me to do that after my initial post. After all, for many of us, the e-mail list is the closest we'll get to having the kind of discussion which would normally take place in a classroom.  

Thanks again to everyone for taking the time to articulate and send out your thoughts,


Action Research | Robert Haines | February 6 th , 2004


I think you're right about action research being an essential part of becoming more theoretical, as Julian describes it in the FND.

I also like what you have to say about using our own words when possible to describe experience rather than quoting from books on the subject. That goes for language learners as well, doesn't it?




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