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2.3. What should you learn next?


Perhaps you have all the time you need, and all the help you need in the form of LRPs, and plenty of friends to visit, and other language learners to encourage you, and you have made yourself accountable either to a language learning specialist or to a fellow language learner. You also grasp the three key principles: you need to expose yourself to massive comprehensible input, to engage in extensive extemporaneous speaking, and to get to know the people in depth. You feel pretty secure. Then suddenly a question occurs to you: What do I learn?

A popular catch word in the field of foreign language education is proficiency (see Higgs, 1984; Omaggio, 1986). By proficiency is meant the ability to use the language for authentic purposes in real-life communication situations. A proficiency oriented course will thus be organized around real life communications situations. You might wonder why anyone would want to learn to use the language for any other purposes.

Strange as it may seem, I believe that it is easy to misapply this concept. I knew someone who said that the language learner living in the second language community should never learn anything that s/he does not specifically plan to use in communication. This person offered the example of a friend who had needed to buy shoes. The friend therefore spent several hours memorizing some specific sentences for use in buying shoes, went out and said the sentences from memory to the shoe seller, and returned home excited at having used the language for an authentic purpose. The problem is, how often do you buy shoes? Perhaps some of the sentences will carry over to other situations, but still, it probably isn't realistic to spend several hours memorizing specific sentences for narrowly defined communication situations. There is simply too much to learn and too few hours available for learning it.

There is a related movement for learning languages for specific purposes (Widdowson, 1983). It is recognized that learners will be more motivated to learn material which relates to their area of special need or special interest. For example, if a man is planning to work as a nurse in Thailand, then he will be more motivated to learn if the material he is learning is going to be useful in talking to patients and to other health professionals. Once again, a word of caution is in order. I once heard a nonnative English speaker fluently lecture and answer questions related to his special academic field. While answering one of the questions he started to talk about a party he had recently been to, and quickly became tongue-tied. He could talk about his specialized field almost like a native speaker, but he was not nearly as capable of talking about everyday life. Consider our nurse once again. Once he is in his hospital in Thailand he will be getting extensive exposure to the language of nurses and doctors as they talk to patients and talk to each other on work related matters. Obviously he will want to have some basic ability in dealing with such communication before starting work, but you can pretty well guarantee that, in the course of his day to day work, the nurse will have extensive opportunity to improve his job-related speaking ability, even if he develops little ability to use the language for any other purpose. So then, if you have extra time off the job to devote to language learning, there is much to be said for using some of it to improve your general speaking ability, rather than working further on your job-related speaking ability.

What I am getting at is that it is important to take a broadly based approach to learning the language, while also emphasizing your specific communication needs. It is a matter of balance. Yes, you should let your specific needs be a source of ideas as you design your language learning activities. No, you should not limit yourself to your most specific needs. So let's think about analyzing your specific needs. But let's also think about learning the language in more general terms.

2.3.1 Specific Needs
2.3.2 General communication ability: Topics and language functions

2.3.1 Specific Needs

There is a lot written about needs analysis for language learners (see, for example Munby, 1978; Brumfit and Johnson, 1979). A simple, practical approach to needs analysis was devised by Allwright (described in Dickinson, 1987). You may find it helpful when you are trying to decide what to focus on in your language learning.

Here is an adaptation of that approach. The first step is to come up with a list of purposes for which you have needed to use the language in the past, or currently need to use it, or expect to need to use it. It is recommended that you begin with a group of fellow language learners and brainstorm together. After the group discussion, you go off by yourself and make your own list. Try to be specific. For example, you could say that you use the language “for shopping.” But you could also break this down into specific types of shopping, and within the context of shopping, there will be more specific communication needs, such as asking for help in finding what you want. Some of the situations reflected in your list may only require listening ability. For example, you may wish to be able to understand sermons in church, or the news broadcast on television. Many of the situations will involve two-way interaction such as bargaining over a price. Your goal is to come up with a long list of purposes for which you have wished to be able to use the language in the past, or wish to be able to use it in the present, or expect to want to be able to use it in the future.

Let's suppose that your list of 101 items includes the following five needs:

Once you have produced your list, go over it, and give each item a numerical rating for the frequency with which the need arises. You can use a rating scale of 1 to 5. If a need occurs with extreme frequency, give it a 5. If it hardly ever occurs, give it a 1.

Now, in addition to frequency, you can rate each need with regard to how essential it is. For example, you may have been able to use a go-between to hire a domestic employee. On the other hand, you have heard that winning the favour of the immigration official may depend on your ability to use the language. Again, you can use a scale from 1 to 5.

Then you will want to consider each item in terms of how important it is to you personally. That is, is it something you place a lot of value on, apart from its urgency? Having such a rating allows you to bump something up in importance even though the need is neither frequent nor urgent.

Now go back and total up the three ratings, to get a composite rating.

You're not done. You have determined the importance of each of your communication needs, but you next need to determine the extent of your current lack in communication ability in relation to each need. For each item, decide what level of ability is demanded of you in order to fulfill the need. For example, in dealing with the immigration official, you may feel you need to have exquisite communication ability. When it comes to responding to marriage proposals, you may be happy to simply get your point across emphatically. Once you have decided what level of ability you need or desire, decide what level you already have, and subtract it from the level of ability you need or desire. Again you can use scales of 1 to 5, where 5 means exquisite ability, and 1 means very limited ability.

Now, compare your two sets of results. In terms of the rating of needs, your strongest need is item 1, followed by item 52. Items 37, and 51 are tied for third place, although in your full list this might not be the case, since there might be other 10s, 9s, or 8s. But let's assume there are not. Now you might cross item 23 off the list on the basis of its only being a weak need. Item 1 is a strong need (the total rating is 12), but the need is already adequately met by the current ability (the difference between current and desired is 0). So scratch that from the list. Item 37 stays on the list, since it shows the greatest lack (that is, the greatest difference between current and desired ability). Item 51 gets scratched even though it is a fairly strong need, because, as with item 1, there is no lack (difference = 0). Item 52 stays on the list, even though the lack is only moderate (difference = 2), since the need is a strong one (total = 10). So we are left with items 37 and 52.

In practice, each time you perform this sort of needs analysis, you may end up choosing four or five items as the ones most deserving of attention. You may want to repeat the process periodically if you are having difficulty thinking of specific communication needs to work on.

2.3.2 General communication ability: Topics and language functions

So much for specific communication needs. I have noticed that when people do this type of personal needs analysis, they typically include a need such as “general conversational ability” or “ability to make small talk with my neighbors and visitors”. Of course, that doesn't really constitute a specific need. What it does is to indicate that learning to communicate in connection with specific needs is not enough. You also need to be developing general communication ability. That is, you would like to be able to easily talk about all the things that a typical native speaker can easily talk about. You would like to know all the vocabulary that is known to a typical native speaker. For example, the need for you to know the word for the human navel may not yet have arisen. You have no way of predicting when that need will arise. But the word is one that is known to any four-year-old child, and it is a word that any full-fledged speaker of the language must know. That is, the first time someone uses it, and you indicate ignorance of its meaning, it will be clear that there are still very basic vocabulary items that, for some strange reason, you don't know. It is not a good idea to wait until you hear such vocabulary in real-life communication before worrying about learning it. A large portion of the vocabulary that confronts you in real life will be in this category, and you'll be better off if you have made the effort to become familiar with it in advance. That will increase the percentage of input that is comprehensible, and decrease your dependence on communication strategies. So in the case of the word for the human navel, why not become familiar with it during a session with your LRP when you deliberately spend a lot of time discussing the human body and most of its parts, and some of their functions. Then the first time that the word for navel arises in real-life communication, say in a story you are listening to, you will already know it, and your comprehension of the story won't suffer as a result.

There are countless topics that fall into the category of everyday topics. One of the best ways to come up with a list of such topics is to frequently walk through the community and take note of items and activities which any typical speaker of the language would be expected to be able to discuss. You can keep this list in the same notebook as your needs list, and refer to it as you plan your daily language learning activities. Van Ek (1975) provides an extensive list of settings and topics which would be important to an adult language learner in a European country. It is reprinted in Brumfit and Johnson (1979) and Finocchiaro and Brumfit (1983). In other parts of the world you will need to come up with your own list. Van Ek (1975) also provides a list of the functions which language fulfills (e.g. describing, warning, consoling, etc.). It is also reprinted reprinted in Brumfit and Johnson (1979) and Finocchiaro and Brumfit (1983), and in the U.S. Defense Language Institutes modified form, as applied to Greek, in Omaggio (1986). This list can be taken as more universal, although the details of how the functions are carried out will vary from language to language. A very important source of ideas for settings and functions is Larson (1984), since it is built around a concept of a language learner who is in the process of becoming integrated into a new society.

One useful collection of language functions is found in Moran (1990), where each language function is illustrated by a cartoon strip with empty bubbles. The cartoons are somewhat based on a European setting, though many of them would be applicable in most parts of the world. The functions of language represented in Moran's cartoon strips include greetings, leave-takings, interrupting, apologizing, answering the door, begging, refusing, declining an offer, offering help, requesting help, consoling, thanking, warning, making an introduction, responding to an introduction, asking directions, complimenting, expressing condolences, extending an invitation, expressing distaste, answering the telephone, expressing delight, expressing displeasure, congratulating, expressing pain, expressing fear, requesting permission, getting someone's attention, asking for repetition, expressing ignorance, encouraging, accusing, seeking reassurance, expressing fear, remembering, welcoming, asking about health, requesting permission to speak, reprimanding, expressing disappointment, expressing affection, and calming someone down.

When considering such functions you need to bear in mind that there may be a large number of possible ways to fulfill each function, and your choice among the possibilities may partly depend on

  1. your social standing relative to the person you are talking to,
  2. how well you know the person,
  3. who is listening, and
  4. the circumstances under which the communication occurs.

In other words, as you work on specific language functions, don't expect to simply memorize a single sentence for each function! You might consider role-play as a means of exploring language functions as they are carried out with a variety of speakers and hearers in a variety of circumstances.

In summary, as you plan the content of your language learning activities you should be moving forward on two fronts. On the one hand, you should be learning to deal with the specific areas of communication that are most important to you. On the other hand, you should be learning to discuss all the areas of life which a normal speaker of the language is able to discuss, and you should be learning to use the language for all of the functions for which it is normally used.

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Go to SIL home page This page is an extract from the LinguaLinks Library, Version 3.5, published on CD-ROM by SIL International, 1999. [Ordering information.]

Page content last modified: 21 August 1998

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