FROM LINGUISTIC COMPETENCE TO COMMUNICATIVE COMPETENCE: RECONSIDERING THE ROLE OF THE DIALOGUE IN THE TEACHING OF ITALIAN AS A FOREIGN LANGUAGE.
Gabriella Colussi Arthur
Almost a decade ago Sandra Savignon (1983), in her preface to Communicative Competence: Theory and Classroom Practice, wrote:
“Real communication”—as opposed to the drill-like . . . pseudocommunication to which teachers and learners have been accustomed—“meaningful activity,” and “spontaneous expression” are now familiar terms in discussions of what should go on in a language classroom.”
On this view of “real communication” the dialogue, as a language teaching device, must be superseded as it belongs to the realm of the prepackaged structured presentation of the oral language. Or, is this necessarily the case? This paper intends to propose how the dialogue, still a central feature of Italian language textbooks, may be used to impart “meaningful” and “spontaneous” language learning, rather than merely “pseudocommunication.”
Origin of the Dialogue
The dialogue has been a feature of foreign language teaching at the elementary level for over 40 years. It emerged in North America during the 50’s after it was concluded that grammar-translation practices, deeply rooted in the study of the classics, were inadequate for the study of modern languages. With the emergence of descriptive or structural linguistics the idea quickly spread that oral language was primary and should be given foremost consideration in the classroom. The first application of the oral primacy skill was seen in the Army Specialized Training Program whose graduates, to the amazement of many, were truly able to use the foreign language they had learned. Subsequently, from the field of psychology emerged the theory of behaviorism which in turn evolved into the stimulus-response theories of learning. The combination of descriptive linguistics and psychological theory led to the creation of the Audiolingual Method, a method of the sixties which gave primary importance to aural-oral skills rather than to reading and writing and chose the dialogue as the chief means of presenting the language.
Introduction of Communicative Competence
As early as the beginning of the 70’s, second language theorists, researchers and classroom teachers began quietly revolting against the Audiolingual Method on the grounds that it was inflexible, uncreative and unresponsive to learners’ needs. It had become more and more evident that presenting the second language as a series of elements to be mastered in a structured and sequenced manner was not necessarily producing students who knew how to communicate in the language they were learning. In 1972, the anthropologist and linguist Hymes presented a concept which would become widely accepted in language pedagogy, that of communicative competence. Emerging as the definitive challenge to Chomsky’s linguistic competence, which was simply concerned with internalizing rules of phonetics and syntax removed from the social rules of language use, communicative competence proposed to go beyond the mastery of sounds and basic structural patterns and focus on the social and cultural rules and meanings that are implicit in communication. As H. H. Stern observes, communicative competence “no doubt implies linguistic competence,” but also “further suggests that language teaching recognizes a social, interpersonal, and cultural dimension and attributes to it just as much importance as to the grammatical and phonological aspect” (Stern 229). Canale and Swain (1980) further proposed a quadripart definition of communicative competence as it applies to the second language learner. It includes grammatical competence, sociolinguistic competence, discourse competence and strategic competence.
To simplify, Savignon (Communicative Competence: Theory and Classroom Practice, Texts and Contexts in Second Language Learning 24 ) offers a series of guiding tenets to the communicative approach to second language teaching. In abbreviated form they are:
a. Language use is creative and consists of many abilities.
b. L2 learning begins with the needs and interests of the learner and these must be reflected in materials development.
c. Secondary importance should be placed on error correction since production should be concerned with the conveyance of meaning.
d. Lessons should become more and more learner-centered since learners must participate in a wide range of communicative situations.
In the 80’s then, in the area of syllabus design, alternatives to the structural or grammatical syllabus emerged, most notably the notional-functional syllabus in which were developed the uses to which the language is put rather than the grammatical categories that are used to describe it. Battles raged between those who refused to part with “grammar” as the cornerstone of language study and those who would do anything to promote communicating meaning under any circumstances (Savignon 1).
In addition, in the mid 80’s, oral proficiency testing gained extensive ground through The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). As stated in the ACTFL manual, the oral proficiency interview (OPI) is “a standardized procedure for the global assessment of functional speaking ability, or oral proficiency. . . . There are four categories of assessment criteria: the global tasks or functions performed with the language; the social contexts and the content areas in which the language can be used; the accuracy features which define how well the speaker performs the tasks pertinent to those contexts and content areas, and the oral text types—from individual words to extended discourse—produced” (ACTFL, 1989: 1-1).
As a result of these new developments in L2 and FL teaching, loyalties to the structural syllabus waned, and teachers were left with a trail of seemingly “outdated” methods and techniques available for use in the classroom.
The Teaching of Italian as a Foreign Language
Second language theories have revolutionized methodologies, but the production of textbooks for Italian have remained more or less as they always were. Teachers of Italian still regularly encounter dialogues at the beginning of a lesson, unit or chapter in beginner’s level texts. Dialogues continue to constitute the core of the lesson, existing as a forum for a particular set of grammar and vocabulary items. This is the case for the following currently available textbooks of Italian for beginners: Basic Italian (Speroni, Golino), Oggi in Italia (Merlonghi, Merlonghi, Tursi), Prego (Lazzarino), Buon giorno a tutti (Lèbano, Baldini), Ciao (Pease, Bini), L’italiano per tutti (Villata), Mastering Italian (Messora), and in italiano (Chiuchiù, Minciarelli, Silvestrini).
At the Intermediate level, the textbook which included dialogues as part of the lesson was Giorno per giorno (Kibler). Other publications currently available offering dialogues bound separately, independent from teaching or reviewing grammar are Sì, parlo italiano (Katerinov), Lettura e Conversazione (Bancheri, Colilli, Iuele, Lettieri), Dialogues for practice in idiomatic italian (Sanguinetti Katz) and conversazioni in italiano (Moneti). The common feature of these materials is that they are organized according to the philosophy of the structural syllabus.
Advocates of the communicative approach have marginalized the “dialogue” or disposed of it outright, labeling it a contrived and limited segment of language. They argue that language must be presented in a meaningful context and must reflect authentic and non-scripted exchanges between native speakers. Indeed the literature on communicative methodologies makes no reference at all to the use of a dialogue as a teaching tool. Rather, as Brumfit put it, “. . . the development of fluency implies that students must do many things which are not entirely predictable, which may well sound rather odd, but which will indicate that their natural language capabilities are being exercised and being encouraged” (Johnson and Morrow 48).
If we are to be realistic, however, and admit to the fact that we are bound to the textbooks of Italian we have at hand, then we are irrevocably tied to “the dialogue” as a teaching tool. It is important, then, in an attempt to update the methodologies currently used in the teaching of Italian that efforts be made to modify the dialogues presented and extend them in such a way as they can also serve to teach communicative competence.
A New Role for the Dialogue
The communicative approaches, notional-functionalism and pragmatics, all advocate that the goal of language teaching should be to develop communicative competence: the ability to use language in a social setting for the purpose of communication. In order to do so, then, dialogues should reflect the following two features:
1. an enthusiasm of language in use rather than in structure.
2. a consequent preference for semantics (i.e. meaning in real-life context) over grammar (i.e. rules and paradigms in isolation from authentic language use) in the formulation of tasks for learners to perform.
The dialogue, as we know it, was created as a tool for a methodology whose purpose was not communicative competence but linguistic, grammatical competence, i.e. simply teaching students to learn the code. Given these opposite points of view, would it still be feasible to pursue the use of the dialogue as a pedagogical tool for the purpose of teaching communicative competence?
We propose that it should be possible if the dialogue is rethought according to the goals of communication. This would involve (1) reshaping the core around which dialogues are created; (2) creating a dialogue model that offers the students the open-endedness characteristic of authentic communication.
The so-called everyday conversational situation of the grammar-demonstration type dialogue, is simply an excuse for communication. It has been manipulated in such a way as to seed within it the structures relevant to a particular chapter or unit. If we liberate dialogues from the tyranny of a structural core, then, they need no longer serve as a presentation text and we can reshape their core to suit other purposes. The alternative core, central to the most current theories of language, is notional-functionalism. Language is conceived of in terms of notions: time, space, location, movement, shape, emotion; and functions: the purpose or intent of the speaker, what he does with the language such as inviting, purchasing, ordering, thanking, reporting, asking, inquiring. Rather than constructing dialogues around structures and placing them in everyday conversational settings, we propose that they be constructed around functions and notions. Thanks to the work of Wilkins, who classified them, and subsequently Van Eyk, who applied them for the Council of Europe in the Threshold Level, it was shown that dialogues can be worked with as structures were. Indeed the process of substituting functions for grammatical structures has already been completed at the level of curriculum guidelines by the the Ministries of Education in Ontario, Canada and in New York State.
Let us say then that we had already successfully rewritten dialogues, replacing the structural core with a functional core, would we have embarked on a path that leads to communicative competence? We feel that the advocates of communicative competence might still choose to question the validity of the dialogue as a pedagogical tool in and of itself, on the grounds of prepackaging. While this statement is on the whole correct, upon closer inspection we shall discover that it is only partially correct. Granted, authentic communication is not prepackaged; however, given a certain set of variables—such as specific notions and functions—the exchanges between people can be traced to reflect specific semantic patterns and it is within these parameters that they can be predicted.
We can assume, for example, that if we have just done a good deed for someone, we are likely to receive a thank you; if we have just smashed into that person’s car we are most likely not going to receive the same thank you. In the same way, if we have just been invited to a social gathering, we are not likely to respond by commenting on the weather. We shall most likely accept, refuse or postpone the decision. If we accept, then we shall probably thank the host, discuss the time and place of the event, establish the dress code, etc. If we refuse, we shall most probably provide an authentic explanation or invent an excuse, express regret and hope for a rain check. Prepackaging the reply for a student learning a second language, then, is not of itself the central cause of the inadequacies of the dialogue as a pedagogical tool. Rather, it is the preordering of a fixed set of exchanges bound to a single outcome. In order for the dialogue to be pedagogically feasible vis-à-vis communicative skills it must not be offered to the student as a monolithic entity, an unalterable, inflexible text. The student should be presented with what we might visualize as a blown-up version of the dialogue, beehive-like, whose features are a set of realistic alternatives which reflect the flexibility of authentic communicative exchanges.
Let us consider the following example. The function to be illustrated is to purchase. The nucleus of the dialogue might have these features:
Characters: Il cliente, il commesso
Place: A department store such as 'La Rinascente'
Time: Early in the morning
Intent: To purchase an item of clothing
Additional functions would be included, such as: il cliente, asking for the object, describing it; the commesso, offering assistance, providing information on the item, agreeing on the selection of the item, etc. In a realistic setting, with a native speaker, any complication or unexpected item of information would be dealt with accordingly since the native speaker would know how to respond. If we were to allow this dialogue to remain a monolithic entity and not allow for reasonable complications in this transaction, then how would the non-native speaker react when the salesperson informs her that the desidered article is out-of-stock; or when the buyer sees or receives the article requested and sees it has a defect? Or, as often happens in a realistic setting, the buyer looks around, considers a number of the possibilities the salesperson has offered, but is not convinced or pleased with what s/he has seen and leaves without purchasing anything.
We propose, therefore, the creation of a multiple-model text consisting of a basic functional core , but whose linguistically and socially appropriate responses are interchangeable according to predictable variations. Furthermore, we propose to differentiate the physical or visual presentation of the multiple-model text according to the level of the learners. As already proposed by Maiguascha et al. (134), at the elementary level, the multiple model text would consist of individual mini-dialogues.
“. . . we have created a series of dialogues (most often four) to represent the most common variations of the same theme. These are meant to reflect different social, cultural and situational features such as time of day, location, persons involved, etc. In addition, offering students more than one dialogue provides them with an element of choice, of freedom of use, and thus encourages creativity.” (135)
At the Intermediate and Advanced levels the multiple-model text would consist of a common starting point, but would subsequently unfold through branching or honeycombing (to retain the beehive metaphor): students would choose different cells according to different alternatives or complications in the situation. At the Elementary level, maximum attention would be paid to providing the appropriate linguistically correct input according to (as per Maiguascha et al.) four variations. At the Intermediate and Advanced levels, maximum attention would be paid to having students manipulate the alternatives and focus on the functional-communicative dynamics: semantic and psychological dynamics, or in other words, the meaning of what is said and the reactions that may occur.
Concurrent to our proposal for a multiple-model dialogue is a set of procedures for its use. As we have differentiated two types of text according to the level of the learners, so too we propose two sets of procedures. At the Beginner’s level, the students would follow a four-step procedure. They would be required to:
a. Memorize the dialogues and recite them aloud. It is important students at the elementary level to master input from the point of view of oral production.
b. Reorganize a scrambled version of the dialogue. Students focus their attention onto the sequence of the exchanges, noticing in particular the “action-reaction” between the speakers.
c. Complete missing elements of an incomplete version. Students must recall the linguistic and socially appropriate item which permits the dialogue to continue.
d. Recreate the dialogue through role plays. Students are assigned a role to play according to a set of instructions. Each character is assigned individual instructions and then must act out the scene appropriately.
At the Intermediate or Advanced levels, the procedure is reduced to three steps:
a. Internalization of the dialogue. Rather than memorize and recite the basic dialogue, the students should discuss the vocabulary and language items with the instructor and then internalize them.
b. Analysis of the dialogue. What began as attention to sequencing at the elementary level, here becomes more sophisticated. Through a series of questions, students are asked to discuss and compare the semantic and psychological dynamics of the various alternatives; in other words, who says what to whom, why and how. This step conducted in the target language serves to raise consciousness around the dynamics of communication and how speakers act and react to each other.
c. Reconstruction of the dialogue through role plays. At the Intermediate and Advanced levels, role plays serve even more efficaciously since the instructions provided to students can reflect more complex alternatives and students themselves can be more creative.
Since Italian textbooks continue to advocate primarily traditional methodologies, namely those which present and structure the language in order to develop linguistic competence, it is important for teachers to learn tech-niques by which to modify materials at hand so that students may also learn to communicate meaningfully and spontaneously. It was once believed that students, having learned the foreign language according to the audiolingual method, were unable to produce spontaneously meaningful language and would simply have to scramble in unfamiliar or unrehearsed situations.
At the elementary level, teachers will have to invest their own time and energy to enrich and expand current dialogues. At the Intermediate and Advanced levels, textbooks with more sophisticated and lengthier dialogues may used as the basis for functional-communicative analysis around which role plays may be created for students ultimately to communicate in a spontaneous and unrehearsed fashion. Only in this way can the dialogue, a device of limited capability, become a teaching tool of much greater value.
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