In Search of Processes of Language Use in Foreign Language Didactics

by Maria Dakowska (Author)
©2015 Monographs 370 Pages


The author addresses key questions of foreign language teaching: How does foreign language learning take place? What is the mechanism of foreign language use and learning? What are the sources of our understanding of these processes? What significance does our understanding have for foreign language teaching? The main argument is that, in order to deal with the complexity of language learning and meet the current demands for foreign language competency, we must employ the framework of an empirical, relatively autonomous discipline of Foreign Language Didactics, constituted as a «normal» science which strives to understand foreign language learning as its subject-matter. This constructivist psycholinguistic conception targets language learning processes in the real world, i.e. as language use in the context of verbal communication, i.e. comprehension and production in speech and writing. The processes are represented as taking place in the learner’s cognitive system for information processing in communicative interaction, a universal human phenomenon. This perspective leads to systematic options and strategies for the practical teaching of foreign languages with focus on English as a world language.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Dedication
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • In a nutshell
  • The purpose and its limits
  • Some important conceptual distinctions
  • The questions
  • Chapter 1. Addressing the mystery of language learning and teaching: a retrospective sketch
  • Introduction: colonizing the unknown territory
  • 1.1. The pre-linguistic stage: grammar as the key to foreign language learning and its alternatives
  • 1.1.1. Preoccupation with grammar
  • 1.1.2. Alternatives to the Grammar-Translation Method
  • 1.1.3. Characteristic features of the pre-linguistic stage
  • 1.1.4. Contributions of Sweet, Jespersen and Palmer. The impact of phonetics
  • 1.2. The linguistic stage: the role of the source disciplines in the mid-twentieth century
  • 1.2.1. Approach, method, technique
  • 1.2.2. The role of Transformational Generative Grammar
  • 1.2.3. Selecting a descriptive linguistic model of language
  • 1.2.4. Complicating the relationship of the field with the source disciplines
  • 1.3. The present: mapping the territory
  • 1.4. Toward autonomy
  • 1.5. Concluding remarks
  • Chapter 2. Targeting the relevant aspect of language: focus on language use
  • Introduction: on the many facets of language
  • 2.1. How to reduce the complexity of the problem?
  • 2.2. The format of ‘normal’ academic disciplines as a source of orientation
  • 2.2.1. Scientific activities as specialization of human cognitive processes
  • 2.2.2. How can scientists communicate with the empirical reality?
  • 2.2.3. On the interface between Foreign Language Didactics as an empirical discipline and the empirical reality
  • 2.2.4. What informs a ‘normal’ academic discipline?
  • 2.3. On the meaning of the adjective ‘interdisciplinary’
  • 2.4. Applications in a ‘normal’ academic discipline
  • 2.5. The field of Foreign Language Didactics as a ‘normal’ academic discipline
  • 2.5.1. Deriving models of language learning from language use
  • 2.5.2. The human locus of foreign language use and learning
  • 2.5.3. The learner as human information-processor
  • 2.6. Advantages of regarding language use and learning as human information processing
  • 2.7. The constructive contribution of the language learner to language use
  • 2.8. Concluding remarks
  • Chapter 3. Focus on the learner’s cognitive equipment: the mechanism of human information processing (HIP)
  • Introduction: the cognitive site of foreign language use
  • 3.1. Distinctive properties of human cognitive functioning
  • 3.2. Human information processing (HIP)
  • 3.2.1. Hierarchies (subordinate and superordinate levels) in human cognitive functioning
  • 3.2.2. The mechanism of human information processing including foreign language use
  • 3.2.3. Perception: the interface between the subject and the environment
  • 3.2.4. The role of perception in learning a foreign language
  • 3.2.5. Attention
  • 3.2.6. Attention versus working memory
  • 3.2.7. Working memory and intentional behaviour
  • 3.2.8. Memory
  • 3.2.9. Memory representations requisite in language use and learning
  • 3.3. Information structures and their types: cognitive schemata
  • 3.4. Concepts in our mental lexicon
  • 3.5. Procedural and declarative representations
  • 3.5.1. Multiple coding and filing in language use and learning
  • 3.6. Controlled, automatic and hybrid processing
  • 3.7. Skill acquisition and expertise
  • 3.7.1. Differences between experts and novices in the use of skills
  • 3.8. The role of feedback in learning
  • 3.9. Implications for understanding foreign language learning and teaching
  • Chapter 4. Focus on the phenomenon of language use in verbal communication
  • Introduction: the communicative structure of language use
  • 4.1. Information, signals, signs and symbols in verbal communication
  • 4.2. Verbal communication as a human cognitive activity
  • 4.2.1. Alignment in verbal communication
  • 4.3. Interpersonal communication as a relationship
  • 4.4. Verbal communication in the developmental perspective
  • 4.5. The centrality of meaning in verbal communication
  • 4.6. Ties between verbal communication and culture
  • 4.7. Verbal communication as human operations in time and space
  • 4.8. The nature of verbal communication
  • 4.8.1. Constituents of verbal communication
  • 4.8.2. Constructing communicative intention
  • 4.8.3. Targeting the message at the addressee
  • 4.8.4. Encoding the communicative intention into the verbal message
  • 4.8.5. Reconstructing the communicative intention by the addressee
  • 4.9. Knowledge, skill and discourse as a cycle in language use
  • 4.10. Language as the code of communication
  • 4.11. Implications for understanding foreign language learning and teaching
  • Chapter 5. Focus on comprehension and production in speech and writing with potential applications in teaching English as a foreign language
  • Introduction: Toward a realistic account of language use
  • 5.1. Comprehension and production: the status of meaning and form
  • 5.1.1. The nature of comprehension; the nature of production
  • 5.2. Properties of comprehension and production in speech and writing
  • 5.3. The component of skill in language use and learning
  • 5.3.1. Options relevant in developing the skill component in language use
  • 5.3.2. Task difficulty in the development of language skills
  • 5.4. Reading comprehension as search for meaning
  • 5.4.1. The depth of reading comprehension
  • 5.4.2. The EFL learner’s perspective of reading
  • 5.5. Listening comprehension as an integral part of verbal communication
  • 5.5.1. Functions of auditory input in learning English as a foreign language
  • 5.5.2. Sources of difficulty in listening comprehension tasks
  • 5.5.3. Feedback on form in listening tasks
  • 5.6. The nature of speaking as an integral part of verbal communication
  • 5.6.1. Abilities involved in participating in a conversation
  • 5.6.2. Long-term investment in the speaking skill
  • 5.6.3. Related strategies for developing the speaking skill
  • 5.7. Writing as constructing a message
  • 5.7.1. Differences between experienced and inexperienced writers
  • 5.7.2. Long-term investment in the writing skill
  • 5.7.3. Error correction in the written work
  • 5.8. Some accuracy enhancement strategies
  • 5.9. Concluding remarks
  • Chapter 6. Conclusions
  • 6.1. Characterizing language use for the purpose of Foreign Language Didactics
  • 6.2. Fundamental questions in Foreign Language Didactics
  • 6.3. On the notion of foreign language teaching in the educational system
  • 6.3.1. Systematizing options for foreign language teaching
  • 6.4. Concluding remarks
  • Explanation of terms
  • References
  • Index of Authors
  • Index of Subjects

← 14 | 15 →Introduction

In a nutshell

In the field of foreign language learning and teaching, like in all language sciences, everything revolves around our understanding of the notion of language (for a recent discussion, see Seedhouse et al. eds. 2010). In this book, I develop a conception of this central notion intended to be relevant to the field of foreign language learning and teaching with focus on English as a foreign language. This seems natural since English is the most widely taught foreign language and has become the international language of global communication. My conception is presented in the following stages:

1.First, I take a look back at some past strategies of conceptualizing the notion of language in the context of the developing field of foreign language learning and teaching and in order to address this issue I choose the framework of an autonomous (even if only relatively autonomous) empirical discipline.

2.Next, I define language for the purpose of this discipline as a representation of its subject matter; as a result, I can use this field’s constraints on the scope and level of generality of this representation to narrow down the notion of language to language use by people, whose cognitive activity is information processing, and who use language within the universal phenomenon of verbal communication, as a coding device in comprehension and production in speech and writing in various human sociocultural situations.

3.Then, I look at the locus of foreign language learning, in other words, the main components, processes and information structures of human cognitive mechanism of information processing specialized for verbal communication in order to gain some insight into the participation and constructive contribution of the foreign language learner in the process of language learning.

4.To make the notion of verbal communication more specific, I present its basic structure as the flow of articulated, information-carrying energy discharges from the sender to the addressee and vice versa, but first and foremost, I emphasize the centrality of meaning (and sense) as the causal factor of verbal communication, as well as the role of cognitive, linguistic and communicative resources available to the participants. Naturally, I recognize the dynamics of verbal communication, i.e. constructing and deconstructing ← 15 | 16 →the communicative intentions which involve task-specific activations of vast knowledge representations by the participants, as well as their constructive and reconstructive processes, operations, skills, strategies and procedures involved in weaving the thread of discourse in human relationships.

5.I finally focus on comprehension and production in speech and writing to identify the foreign language learner’s perspective of target language use in order to outline the options in foreign language teaching which emerge from this cross-sectional conception.

The purpose and its limits

This book is an attempt to conceptually identify foreign language learning as language use, a sociocultural phenomenon with its cognitive and psycholinguistic underpinnings, i.e. language-specific operations performed by people in their interactions with other people in verbal communication. Regarding some key terms, foreign language didactics is understood as an academic discipline in its own right, i.e. a science, to use a more ambitious though controversial term; for any format of reflection on foreign language learning and teaching, the term ‘field’ rather than ‘discipline’ is used. ‘Foreign language learning’ and ‘foreign language teaching’ are treated as symmetrical concepts in that our understanding of foreign language learning determines the ensuing teaching procedures. A phenomenon is an occurrence in space and time, whereas cognitive and psycholinguistic underpinnings refer to the activity of human information processing, especially verbal communication and reasoning. Operations and procedures imply human subjects with resources as well as abilities to make and integrate the necessary choices. It is a distinctive feature of this perspective that central position in the subject matter is taken up by human subjects constructively involved in communication. My purpose is to:

a)conceptually decompose the phenomenon of language learning into language use as a more elementary entity in the subject matter of foreign language didactics;

b)justify the choice of foreign language didactics as a discipline, in contrast to the past developments and conceptions in the field, to provide a map of steps and junctures for the purpose of dealing with the complexity of language;

c)elaborate the discipline’s internal hierarchical organization with some guidance from the theory of science to be able to identify language use realistically, i.e. as human cognitive processes and operations involved in verbal communication, i.e. comprehension and production in speech and writing, the processes which are psycholinguistic in nature;

← 16 | 17 →c)draw conclusions and guidelines from this realistic understanding regarding various options and strategies of eliciting and cultivating processes involved in language use in the context of teaching English as a foreign language with possible relevance to teaching other foreign languages.

As a term, language use emphasizes an essentially cross-sectional perspective of foreign language learning, i.e. it barely touches upon foreign language learning along its longitudinal, developmental dimension. However, without a more explicit cross-sectional view of what it means to be able to use a foreign language, it is hard, if not impossible, to develop a longitudinal perspective because the most significant temporal changes are derived from the entities of the cross-sectional representation. With this important reservation in mind, the book is intended for specialists in foreign language learning and teaching, especially English as a foreign language, which is used as a world language with all the ensuing consequences for its learning and teaching.

It is recognized and strongly emphasized that the site of foreign language use is the cognitive system of human beings, specialized for verbal communication. When we try to reconstruct conditions for, and stimulate the processes of foreign language learning, we address this and no other cognitive mechanism and its communicative functioning There is no way of circumventing it unless we wish to go against the grain of target language learning. Therefore, the cognitive site of communicative processes is selected as a justified point of reference. To be useful to the discipline of foreign language didactics, such a perspective must be specific and comprehensive enough to target real processes, operations and strategies involved in language use. In the long run, such a specific focus may even contribute to the field’s transformation from its present state into a still more articulate format of an academic discipline.

It is not my purpose in this presentation to investigate the relevance to Foreign Language Didactics of various conceptions, theories and models in Second Language Acquisition Research, or its attitude to the neighbouring fields based on the attempts to reconcile these conceptions, theories and models with its own concerns (as can be found in e.g. Hulstijn 2002, Seedhouse et al. 2010, Whong 2010). This fascinating line of enquiry has been saved for a subsequent monograph project. Here, I prefer to focus on the phenomenon of language use itself.

Some important conceptual distinctions

In view of the above, three aspects of the notion of second/foreign language learning and teaching can be distinguished:

← 17 | 18 →a)the natural phenomenon of first and second language learning, i.e. the empirical domain of language use and learning, which exists independently of our research policies and degree of our understanding of this phenomenon;

b)the intellectual domain of reflection on first, second, and foreign language learning and teaching, which may range from commonsense to scientific, and employ a variety of perspectives on language learning and teaching, as well as representing, exploring and understanding foreign language use and learning, and

c)practical teaching, aimed at evoking first and second/foreign language learning in the educational environment, i.e. the cultural domain of formal (partly constructed) foreign language learning and teaching, which may be influenced by our implicit and explicit ideas and values.

The first point refers to the natural processes of language acquisition in the typical social environment, which include first, or native, language acquisition/learning as well as other languages learned subsequently, such as second language acquisition/learning. I use ‘learning’ and ‘acquisition’ as synonyms, with no reference to Krashen’s distinction. First language acquisition is the norm in the human species. Both first and second language acquisition are natural in the sense that they happen as inevitable and universal human processes. Certainly, language acquisition cannot take place in the absence of a speech community, especially without the child’s interaction with more competent individuals (E. Clark 2009, Taylor and Taylor 1990), but this interaction is spontaneous, or some would say, instinctive, and is qualitatively different from deliberate human actions, involving institutional choices and educational work, i.e. goal-oriented physical and/or mental effort to make language acquisition happen. While phenomenon is regarded as an event or episode in space and time, the adjective ‘natural’ stresses its ubiquity and inevitability in the human species, regardless of our degree of understanding or control of this phenomenon.

In contrast to its natural counterparts, foreign language learning takes place when we institute it in the educational system and try to make it happen by teaching. In most neutral terms, foreign language teaching can be understood as the construction of the learner’s educational environment and experience, i.e. input, interaction and feedback. In this broad sense, although the process taps our natural human propensities to some extent, it is always sensitive to various socio-cultural and political factors, not to mention material and intellectual resources, as well as social values and expectations regarding foreign language proficiency (for a recent account, see Phillipson and Skutnabb-Kangas, 2009). In other words, it is a cultivated phenomenon par excellence. As in the case of ← 18 | 19 →any other cultivated phenomenon, people in charge of foreign language education are designers who make choices, i.e. follow strategies based on their understanding and resources, in contrast to the inevitable natural phenomenon of first language acquisition in childhood. Needless to say, first language development benefits from schooling later in life leading to its diversification and specialization at various levels. Second languages may be acquired both naturally, via social interaction in the field, and in the classroom environment, while being taught.

The natural and the cultivated phenomena of language acquisition/learning are treated as equally real and available for investigation in the empirical reality, i.e. as empirical phenomena. For analytical purposes, however, we should keep in mind that foreign language learning and teaching are shaped by someone’s implicit or explicit understanding of the whole process, reflected in the construction of learning environment and resources, as well as in teaching behaviours. The extent to which these ideas result from, are congruent with, or interfere with the mechanism and processes of language learning is open to investigation. In an attempt to understand the mechanism and the processes of language learning, its natural instances certainly provide a more solid point of reference and evidence than the cultivated ones because the latter are, of necessity, stained by our partial/approximative understanding.

The difference between second and foreign languages is considerable: second language learning takes place in the educational setting where the language is taught, as well as outside, in the broader social environment where it is used for communication; the learner has extensive input and interaction opportunities outside the classroom. The ultimate attainment is attributed to both sources, i.e. language use ‘in the field’ and in the educational setting. A foreign language, on the other hand, is not used for communication by the speech community at large; it is learned principally while being taught, within the confines of the educational system (on the distinction between naturalistic and instructed learners, see Ortega, 2009). This has important consequences for constructing the process: the classroom must provide sufficient conditions in the form of input, interaction and feedback opportunities to evoke foreign language learning. Mitchell and Myles (1998: 1) use the collective term ‘non-primary languages’, within which they distinguish second from foreign languages; I use my terms in the same way:

…‘second languages’ are any languages other than the learner’s ‘native language’ or ‘mother tongue’. They encompass both languages of wider communication encountered within the local region or community (e.g. at the workplace, or in the media), and truly foreign languages, which have no immediate local uses or speakers.’

← 19 | 20 →Cook (2010) aptly points out that the notions of ‘native language’, ‘second language’ and ‘foreign language’ refer to dynamic phenomena and require much finer distinctions than has been the case so far. Nevertheless, the level of specificity he suggests is not absolutely necessary at this point. Foreign language teaching is the domain of deliberate human activities aimed at reconstructing the phenomenon of language learning in the educational environment, in other words, instituting it from scratch, in the absence of this language being used by the community at large. This reconstruction takes the form of language experience, materials and resources, based on our conception of the respective phenomenon. Like breeding livestock on a farm, growing plants in a hothouse, and regulating/enhancing our own fertility, second/foreign language learning and teaching is both natural and cultivated/meliorated by human expertise, choices and work. Its reconstruction, cultivation and melioration in the educational context, however, can be effective only to the extent to which it is understood as a real occurrence, i.e. to the extent to which it is understood as an empirical phenomenon.

The third area refers to the mental domain of exploration and reflection on first/second/foreign language learning and teaching, i.e. the domain of concepts, their systems, questions, conceptions, perspectives, interpretations and ideas, ranging from elementary, commonsense and informal to highly sophisticated, systematic, and even scientific, forged by various intellectual traditions and schools of thought. For the lack of a better term, let me call this aspect ‘academic reflection’, ‘academic’ for its link with the institutions of higher learning and organised/developed forms of knowledge rather than in the sense of ‘too theoretical to be of any practical value’.

Various fields of research have evolved to take a specialized interest in primary and non-primary language acquisition, such as psycholinguistics, the study of bilingualism and multilingualism, first and second language acquisition research, applied linguistics, foreign language teaching methodology, second language pedagogy, foreign language didactics, and others. Subfields of linguistics have also investigated numerous aspects of language and language acquisition from universal, prescriptive, descriptive, synchronic, diachronic, stratificational, functional, generative, cognitive, and numerous other perspectives. For this reason, it is not precise enough to claim that the field of foreign language learning and teaching must be guided by the field of scientific research on language - there are many, potentially relevant areas to look up to and use for guidance.

The three aspects of second/foreign language learning and teaching, i.e. the natural phenomenon, the intellectual and the practical domains, have been ← 20 | 21 →distinguished primarily for the sake of clarity; in fact they are hardly separable. It would be a good idea to visualize them as a system of communicating vessels in which the domain of academic reflection refers to the phenomenon in question and reciprocates with non-arbitrary guidelines for constructing the conditions for and cultivating the phenomenon. In turn, the natural phenomenon cannot be addressed and investigated without some cognitive tools, such as concepts, terms, ideas, and theoretical systems, more or less explicit, which are formulated within the academic domain. If this domain sees itself as relevant to the society at large, especially to the practical activities of foreign language learning and teaching, it deliberately targets the relevant empirical phenomenon in question, i.e. events and episodes in space and time, to capture and explain their nature, generate their understanding and to develop applications on this basis. Whether or not, and if so, to what extent the aspect of non-primary language learning as an empirical phenomenon, relevant to foreign language learning and teaching, has been systematically targeted in the language sciences is not so obvious. However, to attempt this task a very urgent matter because in the world of professional foreign language teaching on a mass scale, especially teaching English as a Lingua Franca, the practical domain cannot afford not to focus on a realistic account of language use and learning processes which emerge from the respective academic discipline. It needs all the help it can get.

However, despite these interactions, each entity must be recognized as having its own specificity and limits. For one thing, research attempts targeted at the phenomenon are mere approximations at understanding so there is no reason to treat them as foolproof or sacrosanct. At the same time, under no circumstances should the natural phenomena and processes which function in the empirical reality be confused with formal constructs which function in the researchers’ minds. The relationship between the empirical reality and the researcher who tries to explore them is interaction, at best. Whether or not, and to what extent, our cognitive processes can approximate representation and understanding of the empirical reality adequate for the purpose at hand is another matter. It certainly does not hurt to try. On the other hand, the fact that we would like to elicit the phenomenon of language learning with our practical activities neither predestines the phenomenon for, nor prevents it from becoming the subject matter of a scientific discipline. The development of such a ‘normal’ academic discipline may take place when the phenomenon becomes the focus of a research agenda congruent with the accepted scientific values, criteria and operations relevant for the domain in question. The more conceptually ‘colonized’ the empirical domain, i.e. the more knowledge we have about the nature of the phenomenon in question, the easier such an approximation may become.

← 21 | 22 →There is a significant difference between being scientific and being practical. This is a matter of attitudes, values, criteria, and strategies. We must recognize two fundamentally distinct human goals: epistemic, i.e. to understand the world and ourselves, and practical, to meet our survival needs and to adapt to the environment. Being scientific is a specialized route to understanding which uses such sophisticated strategies as model representations and explanations negotiated socially and tested against evidence. Being practical, on the other hand, is a route to effectiveness and workable solutions to everyday problems not limited to rationality (Carruthers, 2002, McGregor, 2007). Clearly, there is a considerable overlap and interdependence between these two forms of human activity, especially nowadays when workable solutions must be based on highly sophisticated, socially negotiated rather than subjective understanding. Both are a form of problem solving. However, confusing one with the other would only obscure the matter.

Table. 1: Polarizing practical and scientific thought and action



the goal

to satisfy our cognitive curiosity, i.e. the need to understand ourselves and the world around us; looking for underlying coherence, invariance, systematicity, generality, mechanisms;


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (November)
verbale Kommunikation Erkenntnis Fremdsprachenkenntnisse
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 370 pp., 1 b/w fig., 20 tables

Biographical notes

Maria Dakowska (Author)

Maria Dakowska is a Professor of Applied Linguistics affiliated with the Institute of English Studies at the University of Warsaw (Poland). She works with EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher trainees, lectures, as well as conducts MA and PhD seminars on TEFL. Her academic interests range from Foreign Language Didactics as a scientific discipline to conceptions, current developments and strategies of teaching English as a foreign language. She has studied at universities in Britain, the US and Germany, authored six monographs and numerous articles in Poland and abroad.


Title: In Search of Processes of Language Use in Foreign Language Didactics
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