Eberhard Klein, Universität Erfurt (Germany)



1 Communicative foreign language teaching: its successes and failures

2 The cognitive turnabout in foreign language teaching: raising the learner's awareness of language

3 The magic formula of "learner autonomy": fostering the learner's language learning capabilities

4 "Constructivism" - the latest panacea for all the problems in foreign language teaching?

5 Teaching foreign languages to primary school children: harnessing the young learner's predisposition to learning foreign languages

6 The multilingual approach to teaching foreign languages: focussing on the potential of interlingual inferencing

7 A look ahead: what the future may hold in store for foreign language teaching



In this article I will set out to outline the major strands in the recent history of foreign language teaching by taking the "communicative era" as a starting-point. Although the focus of this survey will be on Germany, some of the directions described in the article are certainly also applicable to the theory and practice of foreign language teaching/learning in other countries.


In the first part of this paper a brief assessment will be made of both the achievements and shortcomings of communicative foreign language teaching. This will be followed by an appraisal of what came to be labelled the "cognitive turnabout" in foreign language teaching - a step which took place in the early 1980s. Next, a variety of initiatives in foreign language teaching will be discussed that are commonly grouped under the heading "learner autonomy", a designation which was added as yet another instance to the long list of foreign language teaching catchphrases, which gained currency during the last decade.


Within this context, a theory of language learning has been advanced whose proponents claim that learners "construct" their knowledge creatively, thereby raising doubts as to the effectiveness of the knowledge which is being "imparted" to them by the teacher. This "constructivist" theory, incidentally, has led to more productive controversies among both educationalists and language teachers.


Consideration will then be given to a novel approach to the teaching of foreign languages, which incorporates both the interlingual and intercultural dimension, two aspects that hitherto have (only) been given short shrift. Finally, the focus will be on what has to be taken as the most topical issue in German foreign language teaching, namely the teaching of a foreign language (usually English) being introduced at primary school level.



1 Communicative foreign language teaching: its successive and failures


As is common knowledge, the communicative approach to foreign language teaching originated in Great Britain in the 1970s as a reaction to previously- held views on foreign language teaching. This applied especially to those attitudes which had wide currency within the grammar-translation method and the audio-lingual method as these approaches blatantly failed to produce learners with sufficient competence to be able to speak a foreign language. In the event, the "communicative revolution" amounted to a complete reappraisal of the tenets, priorities and learning objectives that up to then were more or less taken for granted. The main shift concerned the overall goal of foreign language teaching and learning, which was now defined as enabling foreign language learners to be "commmunicatively competent", by which is meant [their]


ability to produce and understand sentences which are appropriate to the context in which they occur - what [they] need to know in order to communicate effectively in socially distinct settings. Communicative competence, then, subsumes the social determinants of linguistic behaviour, including such environmental matters as the relationship between speaker and hearer, and the pressures which stem from the time and place of speaking. (Crystal 1980: 73)


Thus, "communicative competence" is in stark contrast to Chomsky's (1965: 3) notion of "linguistic competence". Whereas the explicit aim of grammar-based foreign language syllabuses was to familiarize foreign language learners with the structures and forms of the target language, communicatively-oriented or, functional-notional syllabuses (Finnochiaro & Brumfit 1983) placed major emphasis on the communicative purpose(s) of a particular speech act. They focused on what people want to do or what they want to achieve through speech. The theoretical foundation of the communicative approach to foreign language teaching was essentially two-pronged: on the one hand, approaches based on the sociolinguistic theory (Hymes 1970) and on the other pragma-linguistic theory such as speech act theory (commonly associated with Austin 1962 and Searle 1969). As a consequence, rules of language use took precedence over rules of grammar, and rules of discourse production were given priority over rules of sentence construction.


Thus, communicative competence was conceptualized as a bundle of separate competences, namely grammatical, sociolinguistic, discoursal and strategic. According to Canale (1983), grammatical competence refers to syntactic, phonetic, semantic and lexical knowledge. Sociolinguistic competence is concerned with the need to adjust one's communicative act to sociolinguistic factors such as the context, in which an utterance is made, the social status of the addressee(s) as well as general norms of conversation to mention but a few factors. Discoursal competence refers to the language user's/learner's ability to produce both written and oral texts that meet the requirements for both structural cohesion and thematic coherence. Finally, strategic competence involves mastering conversational strategies such as learning strategies and strategies of language use aimed at rendering conversation more efficient. It also compensates for linguistic deficits on the part of the learner, thus enabling him/her to realize his/her speech intention successfully.


As is usual in times of revolutionary changes, new ideas, while enthusiastically welcomed and taken up uncritically by some, are considered as newfangled by others and thus meet with scepticism on the part of those who are meant to implement them in practice. The advent of communicative language teaching proved to be no exception in this respect. Thus, syllabus designers, textbook authors, language teachers had to scrutinize the tenets of communicative language teaching and to draw whatever conclusions they thought relevant to their respective fields. The new paradigm in foreign language teaching had the greatest and most immediate impact on foreign language syllabus design.


British applied linguists as well as foreign language pedagogues were at the forefront of concerted efforts to conceive a novel type of syllabus reflecting the concepts outlined above. It came to be known as the "functional-notional" syllabuses and contrasted sharply with both "grammatical" and "situational" syllabuses (for an enlightening discussion, see Bell 1981). The pioneering work was done by van Ek (1975), Wilkins (1976), Munby (1978), Brumfit & Johnson (1979), and Finocchiaro & Brumfit (1983), among others. The elements which all these concepts had in common can best be summarized by invoking Wilkins's (1979) credo of communicative language teaching:


I would therefore be content if, for the present, notional and functional considerations were to be regarded as simply providing another dimension to existing grammatical and situational parameters - a way of ensuring that general courses do not lose sight of the fact that linguistic forms provide a means to an end and that the end is communication. Greater concern should be given to seeing that what is learned has communicative value and that what is communicative value has learned, whether or not it occupies an important place in the grammatical system. (Wilkins 1979: 92)


The communicative approach to foreign language teaching would have been to little avail had it not been reflected in classroom teaching. Thus, in contrast to the methods typically employed in the grammar-translation and the audiolingual foreign language classroom, there were two teaching styles that stood out as genuinely "communicative": the social-communicative and the information-communicative style (cf. Cook 1991). In contrast to the academic (i.e. grammar-translation) and the audio-lingual style of language teaching, which laid emphasis on grammatical explanation, translation and on drilling pupils in dialogues and structures respectively, the social-communicative style made use of information gap exercises, simulations and role plays aimed at encouraging students to interact in the foreign language. On the other hand, the information- communicative style adhered to similar principles, but had a distinctly receptive orientation in that students first and fore-most were expected to comprehend information in the L2, the underlying assumption being that the successful processing of incoming information would eventually lead to the ability to use the foreign language. The principal method of communicative language teaching was essentially that the teacher should provide communicative situations that encouraged learners to express themselves by interacting with both their classmates and the teacher in the foreign language. Behind this approach lay the overall rationale of communicative language teaching, which can briefly be formulated as follows: language use is a necessary precondition for language learning or, more succinctly, using and learning a language are two sides of the same coin. In this process fluency was given priority over accuracy (cf. Brumfit 1984). To put it in a nutshell, "getting one's message across" was seen as the criterion for successful communication.


In an assessment of both the merits and the drawbacks of communicative language teaching it is probably fair to draw the following conclusions. Firstly, and most importantly, to the protagonists of the communicative language teaching movement we owe the insight that "functions" and "notions", rather than "structures" and "forms" are conveyed in "speech acts" as elements of human communication. Secondly, new teaching practices were steadily gaining ground that were firmly based on the belief that efficient foreign language learning could best be realized through intensive classroom interaction. Thirdly, as a consequence of the need for (more) authentic information about the country of the target language there was an upsurge in the production of modern textbooks, which, not least, because of their appealing layout contrasted sharply with the older exercise-laden textbooks of the grammar-translation and audio-lingual period.


Unfortunately, the communicative approach to language teaching also produced some negative effects, which ultimately led to disillusionment with the way in which some of the communicative tenets were put into practice. The first concerns the widespread neglect of grammar. This was due to some misunderstanding on the part of many language teachers with respect to the status of grammar within the "communicative paradigm". According to communicative language theory, grammatical structures were relegated to second place and subordinated to categories of functions (cf. Wilkins 1972, 1976; van Ek 1980) and notions (Wilkins 1976). In other words: priorities were reset in the sense that, instead of teaching grammar "for its own sake", it had now taken on merely a supportive function. The question a syllabus designer had to answer was not: what grammatical structure/form has to be taught at a particular point in time? But rather: what grammatical structure(s)/form(s) has/have to be activated to enable the learner to realize a particular language function? Since language functions and notions had been given such great prominence, many language teachers were under the impression that grammar instruction could be shed altogether. Some language teaching theorists went so far as to argue that, at least on the issue of grammar, communicative language teaching theory (or: "Pragmadidactics") had developed into a travesty of its original ideals:


[...] wenn linguistische Korrektheit nur dann gefordert wird, wenn das Gelingen von Kommunikation von ihr abhängt, bedeutet dies keine Vereinfachung oder Erleichterung in bezug auf die Partizipation der Lerner an fremdsprachlicher Kommunikation; im Gegenteil, der Anspruch, der an die Lerner gestellt wird, erhöht sich sogar beträchtlich, denn es wird von ihm die Fähigkeit verlangt, unterscheiden zu können, wann linguistische Korrektheit unter allen Umständen eingehalten werden muß und wann nicht.


Dann muß man wiederum fragen, wie er dies ohne Kenntnis von Sprachnormen können soll. Kennt er aber solche Regeln bzw. Sprachnormen, dann kann man - zu- gegebenermaßen überspitzt - folgern, daß in diesem Fall überhaupt kein Grund mehr besteht, sozusagen didaktisch legitimiert inkorrekte Sprachformen zu wählen; die didaktische Abwertung linguistischer Korrektheit ist nicht mehr einzusehen.

(Pauels 1983: 87 f)


Another drawback of communicative language teaching ideology resulted from what was regarded as the overriding principle of the communicative foreign language classroom: to make students talk in the foreign language "at all costs". This obsession, along with a widespread "laissez-faire" attitude adopted by a great many teachers, is to be blamed for certain classroom proceedings that frequently lacked structure and consistency of topics. Thus, a common scenario resulted in conversations being centered on nothing but trivial irrelevancies.


Finally, communicative language teaching theory was beset with a difficulty of its own making in that the cognitive side of learning a foreign language was unduly neglected. The problem simply lay in the fallacious belief that foreign languages could be learnt through use and interaction alone, provided there is sufficient input available, thereby implying that L1 acquisition and L2 learning are somewhat similar. Obviously, in such a context there is but little room for cognitive approaches to language learning, which are essential for the learning process, as will be shown in the following section.



2 The cognitive turnabout in foreign language teaching: raising the learner's awareness of language


The cognition-based re-evaluation of foreign language learning is closely associated with such concepts as "consciousness raising" (Rutherford 1987; Rutherford & Sharwood Smith 1985; Sharwood Smith 1980), "language awareness" (Hawkins 1984; Donmall 1985; James & Garrett 1992; Gnutzmann 1995) and, since more recently, "language learning awareness" (Bartlett 1990; Gebhard 1992; Gebhard & Oprandy 1999; Johnson 1999).


These initiatives taken together can be considered as a strong reaction to some of the shortcomings in communicative language teaching theory. In the following, I shall focus on language awareness, "Sprach-bewußtheit/Sprachlernbewußtheit" and the "mental lexicon".


Questions about the nature of linguistic knowledge, its different features, the ways in which it is organized, stored and recalled, especially in respect of the vocabulary are very much at the centre of ongoing research in the fields of cognitive psychology, second language acquisition/learning and foreign language teaching.


Language awareness has become a vogue expression ever since it was coined by Hawkins (1984) and appears under various labels in the relevant literature.[1] This concept originated within the context of primary education in Great Britain, where research had brought to light crass deficiencies on the part of many children in both text comprehension and oral proficiency. As a consequence a module language awareness was introduced into the primary school curriculum:


The new element (language awareness) is intended for the age range 10/11 to 13/14 in comprehensive and middle schools to bridge the difficult transition from primary to secondary school language work, and especially to the start of foreign language studies and the explosion of concepts of language introduced by the specialist secondary school subjects. (Hawkins 1984: 4)


From the plethora of definitions that have been suggested (cf. Gnutzmann 1997), Donmall's seems to be the most appropriate for our purposes because this definition is sufficiently general and comprehensive: "Language awareness is a person's sensitivity to and conscious perception of the nature of language and its role in human life" (Donmall 1985: 108).


As mentioned earlier, the concept of language awareness was originally developed within the setting of British primary education, and was eventually adopted in Germany and France (Gnutzmann 1992, 1995, 1997; Bourgnignon & Candelier 1984). Thus, it was applied to mother tongue teaching (Neuland 1992) as well as to foreign language teaching in German educational contexts (cf. Gnutzmann 1997). This is in accordance with demands for "integrated" grammar teaching (Gnutzmann & Köpcke 1988), which would combine the teaching of the grammar of German (L1) and English (L2) and thus provide a contribution to general language teaching, which could lead not only to a better understanding of a particular language but would also break through the constraints of that language (Gnutzmann 1995: 279).


There are said to be four dimensions pertaining to language awareness: the affective dimension is concerned with the ways in which emotions can be expressed by different linguistic categories. The social dimension refers to the interrelation between the linguistic code and social determinants such as class-/peer-group-dependent-language use. The political dimension is concerned with the influence that a particular language use by an individual exerts on society and vice versa. The manipulative use of language is another aspect to the political dimension.


Even if the principles and aims of the language awareness concept meet with a general consensus, their application to classroom teaching is still deficient in several respects. Firstly, language awareness has so far been adapted to foreign language teaching somewhat half-heartedly. The suggestions made by Gnutzmann & Köpcke (1988), namely that the teaching of the grammar of the mother tongue (German) and that of the foreign language (English) should be combined do not go far enough. In order to sensitise learners to interlingual as well as to language-specific phenomena and to promoting their awareness of what could be called "linguistic relativity" the comparison of only two languages seems to be lacking in scope. What is required instead are multilingual comparisons if the aim of overcoming a "blinkered" view caused by fixation on the native language is to be achieved.


Secondly, more attention ought to be given to the far-reaching implications that the implementation of language awareness in foreign language teaching has for teacher training. Within the British language awareness "movement", this issue has been discussed for quite some time (while in Germany there is still some "catching up" to do). Thus, Brumfit (1991) has come up with an extensive list of very practical recommendations for teachers.


The following passage taken from Wright (1992: 63f) encapsulates what is at issue here:


The primary focus of our approach is ultimately on the relationship between the content and method of language teaching - the analyst/teacher axis. As minimal requirements, we believe that language teachers need expertise in the language they are teaching and skills to handle the management of the learning process [ ... ]. Knowledge about language is first and foremost an enabling knowledge that provides the teacher with the tools to carry out such basic tasks as interpreting a syllabus document and translating it into a scheme of work, explaining code errors to learners, making decisions on behalf of learners regarding the content of instruction and ensuring that there is a linguistic focus [my emphasis, E. K.] - either on language skills or language items or both - in any particular lesson.


Thirdly, there still seem to be myths about the nature of language awareness, which become apparent if one looks at the relevant literature, where it is emphasised sometimes that language awareness should not be taken as a "revival" of linguistics, being brought in again by the back door, as it were. This view seems rather odd, to say the least: of course it is linguistics which provides the subject-matter as well as the tools that are needed to make language awareness an indispensable component within the repertoire of foreign language teaching methods. Indeed, by making the concept of language awareness work linguistics could gain momentum again and make up for its loss of reputation among many members of the teaching profession.


The various issues concerning the organization of the language user's/learner's "mental lexicon" proved to be of considerable relevance for cognition-based approaches to foreign language learning. Since the so-called "Wortschatzwende" (Hausmann 1987), or "vocabulary movement" around the mid-80s brought into question the "monopoly" of grammar teaching, there has been a growing interest in the acquisition and learning of vocabulary, manifesting itself in two main directions. On the one hand, research has been carried out into the development of the mental lexicon (especially that of bilingual speakers) (Aitchison 1994) and into issues related to the memory, storage and recall of vocabulary. In this respect, Channell (1988) provides an overview of the psycholinguistic processes governing the acquisition of L2 lexis. On the other hand, there has been intensive investigation into matters concerning the application of vocabulary learning theories to a member of domains, such as the design of lexical syllabuses (according to the principles of structural semantics, Carter & McCarthy 1988), typologies of classroom exercises (Gairns & Redman 1986; Scherfer 1988, 1995) and the role of dictionary work in the foreign language classroom (Summers 1988). A useful survey of the efforts made in the field of vocabulary teaching/learning in the 1980s can be found in the collections of articles in Carter & McCarthy (1988) and in the specialist booklet "Wortschatz und Wortschatzlernen" of the journal Fremdsprachen Lehren und Lernen (1987).


Despite the remarkable results achieved in a relatively short span of time, there still remains a lot to be done, both for theory-led research and for research oriented towards concrete teaching requirements. This applies in particular to "integrated" vocabulary teaching (in analogy to the above-mentioned "integrated" grammar teaching), the aim of which must be for the learners to acquire a general "lexical awareness" by means of appropriate communicative processes.


Further research is also required in the field of idiomaticity (cf. Alexander 1984, 1985, 1988), which could include an interlingual component, as I argued in Klein (1995).



3 The magical formula of learner autonomy: Fostering the learner's language learning capacities


The idea that learners should become more actively involved in the learning process and be given greater opportunities to co-determine the route to achieving a particular learning objective is by no means a new element in the history of education. In fact, it dates back at least to the reform-pedagogical movement that took root in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. In more recent times a fresh impetus was provided by research conducted in such diverse fields as anthropology, sociology/politics, general education and language pedagogy (cf. Legenhausen 1998: 78 f). In the domain of foreign language learning it was Holec's (1981) seminal study Autonomy and foreign language learning which triggered a growing interest in the concept of "learner autonomy" in the last two decades.


The definition of learner autonomy suggested by Little (1997: 236) summarises its principal elements:


In formal educational contexts, the basis of learner autonomy is acceptance of responsibility for one's own learning; the development of learner  autonomy depends on the exercise of that responsibility in a never-ending effort to understand what one is learning, why one is learning, how one is learning, and with what degree of success; and the effect of learner autonomy is to remove the barriers that so easily erect themselves between formal learning and the wider environment in which the learner lives.


To what degree foreign language learners can really achieve "autonomy" in the above-mentioned sense largely depends on such factors as the age and type of the learner, his/her language learning aptitude, the learning and communication strategies adopted, the ways in which the learner "manages" his/her knowledge, the teaching methods, the objectives set by the curriculum, classroom variables (e.g. whole-class and sub-group dynamics), to name but a few.


In the following, I will illustrate how the effective use of learning and communication strategies and the effective management of the different knowledge components can help language learners to obtain a higher degree of autonomy thus facilitating the learning process.


Although it is sometimes argued that the distinction between  learning strategies and communication strategies is problematic[2], I will adhere to this duality for the sake of the argument. Thus, learning strategies can be characterised as attempts to develop linguistic and sociolinguistic competence in the target language. The motivation for the use of any particular strategy is the desire to learn the target language rather than to communicate. (cf. Tarone 1981). O'Malley & Chamot (1990: 44 ff) classify learning strategies into three categories; a) metacognitive strategies, which are seen as higher order executive skills that may entail planning for, monitoring, or evaluating the success of a learning activity; b) cognitive strategies, which operate directly on incoming information, manipulating it in ways that enhance learning; c) social/affective strategies, which represent a broad grouping involving interaction with another person.


Communication strategies, on the other hand, are seen as an adaptation to the failure to realize a language production. They serve the purpose of "negotiating meaning" when either the linguistic structure or sociolinguistic rules are not shared between individuals or, in more straightforward terms, when the comunicative act is on the point of breaking down. Communication strategies - or: as far as vocabulary use is concerned, for example, production strategies (Tarone 1981) - are predominantly activated with the aim of filling lexical gaps whenever they may occur in spoken discourse.


They make use of any of the following techniques: approximation (i.e. getting as near as possible to the intended meaning of a word), word coinage (i.e. making up new words impromptu), circumlocution (i.e. paraphrasing the intended concept), translation from L1, language switch, appeal for assistance, mime, and foreignizing.


Up to the mid-90s the discussion about learning and communication strategies centred mainly on theoretical issues. However, suggestions were eventually put forward about possible ways of how to bridge the gap between the theoretical bias in this area of research and the potential it holds for classroom practice. For example, Tönshoff (1995) proposes models of training these strategies systematically, whereby close classroom observation, learner introspection through thinking-aloud protocols, interviews with the learner, self-assessment by the learner and such like are some of the empirical tools that have proved useful.


According to Tönshoff, empirical evidence of the effectiveness of such training schemes is already available. To implement this approach on a broader basis, the following requirements will have to be met: firstly, both learning strategies and communication strategies have to feature in foreign language curricula; secondly, both learning strategies and communication strategies have to be formulated in such ways as to make them comprehensible for learners, and typologies of exercises will have to be used for practising these strategies; thirdly, teachers will have to create a classroom atmosphere that is conducive to learning and that encourage learners to self-reflect.


The nature of linguistic knowledge together with and its different manifestations provide yet another focus of research into cognitive psychology and (foreign) language acquisition/learning and are also relevant for the issues under discussion in this paper. In the following few paragraphs, they will be given brief consideration. Wolff (1995) draws a distinction between "declarative" and "procedural" knowledge and characterises the former as the static and the latter as the dynamic component of linguistic knowledge. "Static" knowledge refers to the entire inventory of language elements an individual has at his/her disposal including the interrelations holding between them and the system of rules by which they are governed. To take an example: the mental lexicon can be considered a prototype of static knowledge as it is the locus of the vocabulary along with all the semantic networks, the lexical relations and the rules of word-formation.


By contrast, "procedural" knowledge makes use of "planning strategies" for the productive processing of the declarative knowledge and it represents the connection between the "language world" and the real world. In short, one could speak of procedural knowledge as language learning knowledge that manifests itself both in conscious and sub-conscious language use. According to Wolff, it is this language learning knowledge which fulfils important tasks in the process of language acquisition. It also ensures that new declarative knowledge is added to the already existing body of knowledge, which by necessity undergoes restructuring.


Incidentally, if one takes both forms of knowledge into account, a remarkable difference between L1 acquisition and L2 learning comes to light: whereas the child acquiring its mother tongue always develops its declarative and procedural knowledge of the world simultaneously, as happens with its declarative and procedural language knowlege, the L2 learner already possesses the procedural knowledge, which can then be used for the acquisition of declarative foreign language knowledge (Wolff 1995: 221).


As a result of this type of research, a stronger tendency towards process orientation can also be seen in foreign language teaching methods. This finds expression in the contributions to the collection of articles in Multhaup & Wolff (1992), which spans the spectrum from the investigation of mother tongue production processes to the concrete application of theoretical knowledge to classroom teaching. Especially in this last-named field there is a growing need for action. For example, working techniques as suggested by Wolff (1992) ought to be made available to the practising foreign language teacher as contributions  which induce and optimise the learning skills in the various productive and receptive areas of language activities.


A considerable number of the ideas discussed so far in this section have been taken up by textbook authors who streamlined them so as to make them more manageable for teachers and students alike. Thus, both in Britain and Germany the concepts of language awareness and learning and communication strategies were taken up and integrated into teacher/learner training programmes. Ellis & Sinclair (1991), in their book with the illuminating title Learning to learn English, placed their emphasis on their students' reflective capabilities, as is shown by the following questions (taken from the chapter "Preparation for language learning"):


1.    What do you expect from your course?

2.    What sort of language learner are you?

3.    Why do you need or want to learn English?

4.    How do you organise your learning?

5.    How motivated are you?

6.    What can you do in a self-access centre?

(Ellis & Sinclair 1991: iii)


As can be seen easily, the above questions are aimed at eliciting students' self-assessment regarding the factors learner type, learning objectives, learning techniques, motivation and self-directed learning.


In another praiseworthy effort Rampillon & Zimmermann (1997) included the concept of language awareness as a module in their training course. In concrete terms, the "awareness" concept is classified into four subcategories: 1) "language awareness" (referring to meta-cognitive reflections on language learning), 2) "linguistic awareness" (including linguistic knowlege and linguistic skills), 3) "communicative awareness" (covering communication strategies, strategies concerning mime and body language, discourse strategies, dominance strategies, and the ability to interpret and implement these strategies), and 4) "learning awareness" (concerning the knowledge of the ways language is mentally processed and inference strategies).

(Rampillon & Zimmermann 1997: 175 ff)[3]



4 "Constructivism" - the latest panacea for all the problems in foreign language teaching?


No other language learning theory in Germany at present is attracting as much attention as "constructivist" theory. It seems that while "constructivism" is being hailed by some as a potential panacea for the many problems of foreign language teaching, it is also coming in for harsh criticism by others.

The fundamental idea of "constructivist" theory is the following: it is impossible for a human being to perceive reality in any objective manner; we rather "construct" reality by means of mental strategies on the basis of our previous experiences, our prior knowledge and our social interaction. In brief: reality in the strict sense of the term does not exist. If our ideas, concepts and theories constructed in this way survive and if they can be adjusted to our experience, they are said to be "viable". Hence, "viability" has become the key concept within constructivist theory.


Two variant forms of "constructivism" have evolved over the years: one "radical", the other "moderate".


Let us first give a brief outline of the "radical" variety of constructivism. The term "radical constructivism" dates back to neurological, philosophical and psychological research carried out in the US during the 60s and 70s of the last century and is closely linked to the American psychologist Ernst von Glasersfeld, who worked as a researcher at the "Biological Computer Laboratory" of the University of Illinois. Researchers at Illinois tried to explain the functioning of all living organisms in a uniform way. According to von Glasersfeld and his colleagues, living beings are "autopoietical", that is, they are systems that are involved in a process of constant self-reproduction. On the assumption that no concrete perceptible reality exists, which is independent of the person in question, Wolff (1994), one of the German adherents to the theory of "radical constructivism", points to the following postulates:


1.    Human beings have to be thought of as "autonomous" systems, which are not subject to cause-effect relations. The attempt to perceive objective reality is not particularly important, whereas the effort to guarantee the survival of the species is of prime importance.

2.    Human beings are conceived of as "closed" systems incapable of gathering information from the outside world by means of symbols. The human nervous system cannot be manipulated from the outside. Peschl (1990: 26) argues that perception is the result of activities of the neurons interacting within this closed system.

3.    Living beings are attached to their environments. Adapting to these environments is seen as the only way of survival.

4.    Since human beings need symbols and concepts to describe the phenomena of their environments, human cognition is bound to be subjective. Nervertheless, it is possible to communicate ideas, feelings and concepts to other people through language. For radical constructivists, language cannot have denotative but only connotative functions, in other words: in verbal interaction there is no way of transmitting information. Instead, due to concepts and ideas being exchanged between the participants, verbal interaction effects constant changes in their cognition. As Schmidt (1986) puts it, we are dealing with models of reality which are determined by social conventions.


In contrast to radical "constructivism", representatives of the "moderate" version of "constructivism" argue that there is no insuperable opposition between ontological reality and the reality as we experience it. Indeed, some scholars believe that despite the fact that the phenomenal world and the "real" world differ to a certain extent, they are nevertheless interrelated in the sense that the former can be regarded as representing the latter. Whereas the proponents of radical "constructivist" theories assign a decisive role to the human being in the process of perceiving reality, representatives of the moderate version of "constructivism" postulate an equilibrium between the perspective of the "perceiver" and ontological reality, thereby refuting the argument put forward by the "radicalists" that a human being is a "closed system".


In conclusion, one would probably say that there is more convincing evidence to support the moderate variety of "constructivism". For example, in most situations we simply do not need any absolute knowledge of the phenomena of our environment. Under normal circumstances, some intuitive knowledge resulting from established conventions of human communication is sufficient for conversing with people about everyday phenomena of the world around us. After all, there are few discrepancies in the way most people perceive these phenomena. Obviously, when it comes to reaching consensus on abstract concepts, "constructivist"ideas take on greater importance.


In the following section, some examples from the field of language teaching and learning will be discussed, which, according to the proponents of the "constructivist" theory, provide ample evidence of the didactic potential of "constructivism".


First, let us consider an example taken from phonetics. The sounds of a language are not pronounced as if they occurred in isolation because in the stream of speech they are subject to processes such as elision, assimilation, accommodation etc., and yet we are usually able to identify a particular speech sound the reason being that during the learning process the learner develops mental mechanisms which serve as a guide in distinguishing between different speech sounds. In "constructivist" terminology one could say that the learner "constructed" the speech sound that he/she had identified as a sound belonging to the repertoire of a particular language.


Our next example concerns lexical meaning. As is common knowledge, the signification of a word is by no means fixed but depends on the context in which a word occurs. Furthermore, words are subject to polysemy: for example, table has at least the following two meanings in German: a) Tisch, b) Tabelle. In addition, words often carry special meanings depending on the cultural context in which they are used. An obvious example is democracy, which understandably has a different connotation in a country with a long democratic tradition than in a country that lacks such a tradition. These phenomena are usually dealt with in terms of fuzziness.


As regards the "constructivist" approach to such cases of fuzzy meaning, one would probably argue that the language learner constructs the sense of a particular word/expression by tapping his/her experience in order to find contexts in which it had preciously been encountered.


Another argument that "constructivists" often advance in suppport of their theory is the following: The presentation of grammatical phenomena by the teacher does not necessarily mean that they are incorporated successfully into the learner's cognitive system. The various language elements are acquired in fairly fixed sequences, and the successive phases of the teaching process do not correlate with the different phases of the acquisition process.


Cook (1989) gives the following succint explanation:


It must be recognized that one does not learn the grammatical structure of a second language through 'explanation' and 'instruction' beyond the most rudimentary level for the simple reason that one has not enough explicit knowledge about this structure to provide explanation and instruction.


For many foreign language teachers the following situation is quite common: although the production of a speech sound has been demonstrated by the teacher, students, when asked to produce that sound keep make the same mistake. For Bleyhl (1998), a leading German "constructivist", the explanation is straightforward. He claims that in the above-mentioned situation the student has not yet developed a "mental programme" which would enable him/her to produce the linguistic structure required. This theory throws doubt on the widely-held belief that people learn by imitating models of language which are provided by the teacher. According to Bleyhl, one can only imitate those structures, forms etc. that are already integral parts of the learner's competence.


Finally, according to "constructivist" theory, the transmission of linguistic signs in itself does not guarantee the correct interpretation of the message by the learner. It is the learner himself/herself who has to assign an interpretation to the signs that he/she has received. Therefore, the assignment of meaning to a word/phrase/sentence is a subjective process because it implies the successful effecting of "construction" processes by the learner.


The theory of "constructivism" itself as well as its application to language learning has met with criticism.


1.    The neurophysiological evidence that is often invoked to justify (radical) "constructivist" theory seems to be based on an unsound foundation (cf. Reinfried 1999: 169 ff).

2.    The "viability" concept is too reductionist in the sense that it only applies to human perception rather than to general ideas. As Nüse u.a. (1995: 175) points out, theories and ideas are not directly relevant for people's survival; clearly, people can survive even when entertaining the most abstruse ideas.

3.    The absolute dichotomy between any kind "objective" reality and a "subjective" reality as perceived by the language user/learner fails to do justice to complex phenomena such as language and culture, which cannot be accommodated at the level of strict objectivity but rather are subject to being "negotiated" by the people concerned.[4]

4.    Finally, contrary to claims put forward by adherents of "constructivist" theories that only learner orientation guarantees successful learning, empirical evidence suggests that learners normally do not formulate (grammatical) rules themselves but incorporate the rules explicitly formulated by the teacher (e.g. in the course of grammar instruction) into their body of existing knowlege (see East 1992: 210). This supports the necessity for instruction in foreign language teaching thus rendering the "constructivist" - "instructivist" dichotomy vacuous.



5 Teaching foreign languages to primary school children: harnessing the young learner's predisposition to learning foreign languages


The topics of particular importance in this domain of language teaching include the following: various aspects of early childhood bilingualism, the didactic concepts of primary school foreign language teaching, including their consequences for the curriculum, primary school-specific teaching methods and problems in connection with the continuation of foreign language teaching in the first years of secondary school.


Various points of view including second language acquisition, psycholinguistics and multilingualism and concerning the postulate that language awareness should be developed at an early age, the principle of bringing forward the start of foreign language teaching to the third (or even the first school year) has generally been accepted by now[5] (cf. Bliesener 1993; Gogolin 1995; Gompf & Karbe 1995; Kierepka 2000, Schrand 1993; amongst others). In contrast, questions concerning the didactic concept optimally suited to the primary school remain subject to controversy. This controversy has (unfortunately) been reduced to the dichotomy between "systematic foreign language teaching" and "incidental encountering of foreign languages" ("Begegnungssprachenkonzept"), which has been amply documented in the literature (Brusch 1993; Doyé 1991; Hellwig 1992; Pelz 1991; Rück 1994; Sauer 1992, 1993, 2000).


On the whole, we have been witnessing a vacuous discussion between the proponents of the two opposing concepts of teaching a foreign language to young children. Teaching English - or any other foreign language - to children cannot be anything but "systematic". Going about this task in a non-committal, casual manner would run counter to anything we know about the predisposition of 6-10 year-old children to learning. After all, the other subjects are also taught systematically. However, with respect to primary school foreign language teaching, "systematic" has a somewhat different meaning than in a secondary school context. On the one hand, foreign language teaching at primary school level does not follow a fixed progression (as is the case in secondary school), but on the other hand, the foundation has to be laid for the various levels of the language which can be built on in secondary school. Thus, in phonetics, for example, the children have to be familiarized with the basic inventory of speech sounds. In the field of vocabulary, however, one has to teach them those words and phrases that are of direct relevance to their environment and that meet their immediate requirements. As regards syntax and pragmatics, those basic sentence patterns and speech functions ought to be taught that satisfy children's most basic communicative needs.


There seems to be a general consensus that this aim can best be achieved within an "holistic" approach, which, for Maier (1995), is an essential feature of primary school-specific foreign language pedagogy.


Selbstverständlich geben wir uns nicht der Selbsttäuschung hin, daß die ganzheitliche Methodik, die sich auf die [...] Erkenntnisse der Bezugswissenschaften und der Fremdsprachendidaktik stützt, alle Faktoren des komplexen Bedingungsgefüges der gesteuerten Fremdsprachenvermittlung berücksichtigen oder gar in den Griff bekommen könnte. Trotzdem scheint uns ein solches Vorgehen am ehesten geeignet, die größtmögliche Zahl von Sprachaneignungsprozessen in Gang zu setzen, der Unterschiedlichkeit der Lernvoraussetzungen und Lerntypen Rechnung zu tragen, dem Sprachvermittler in fachlich bestimmten Grenzen die freie Wahl der ihm am meisten zusagenden und in der konkreten Unterrichtssituation am geeignetsten erscheinenden Mittel einzuräumen, [ ... ] das eine Lernende und Lehrende lähmende Langeweile verhindert. (Maier 1995; 159 f.)


The heated arguments of the early and mid-90s between the proponents of the "systematic" approach and those favouring the "incidental encountering" approach have now given way to a more sober assessment of the situation. We are now witnessing attempts to "unify" all the different experiments in early English instruction in Germany. It seems that the supporters of a "moderate" systematic approach to an early start to foreign language teaching are getting the upper hand.


To conclude this section, I will mention three aspects which should be given our fullest consideration; first, the concept of language awareness (see section 2) holds considerable potential also for foreign language teaching in primary schools as long as it is adapted to the requirements of young children.


Secondly, given the fact that a first foundation of foreign language competence has been laid in the primary shcool, the problem of the "didactic linkage" at the juncture between primary and secondary school inevitably arises. Secondary school teachers can no longer argue (as many of them still do) that it is in the fifth form, i.e. at the beginning of secondary education, that the "real thing" (i.e. foreign language teacher proper) starts - as if they were starting teaching the foreign language "from scratch". It is all too obvious that the transition from primary to secondary school affects issues such as teaching methods, EFL syllabuses, teaching material, and - above all - teacher training.


Thirdly, as we saw earlier, foreign language/English teaching at primary school level is not merely secondary school teaching "brought forward" by a few years, but rather has its own distinctive features, which require a number of specific qualifications for primary school teachers. Rück (1994: 153) lists the following:


-         a good command of the foreign language, particularly of the oral mode

-         a thorough knowledge of phonetics that enables teachers to explain and demonstrate correct pronunciation

-         familiarity with the main principles of second/foreign language acquisition/learning

-         familiarity with primary school-specific teaching methodology

-         awareness of the didactic potential of primary school-specific media

-         a good knowledge of the target language country

-         knowledge of the different concepts of primary school foreign language teaching.



6 The multilingual approach to teaching foreign languages: focussing on the potential of interlingual inferencing


Ever since Lado (1957) the question as to what effect the knowledge of one's mother tongue (or an already acquired foreign/second language) has on the learning of further foreign languages has been a central theme in the discussion of second language acquisition. According to the behaviourist theories of language learning of the 1950s and 1960s, it was claimed that identical (or similar) structures in L1 and L2 always resulted in positive transfer thereby facilitating the learning task, whereas structural differences resulted in negative transfer (i.e. interference) thus making learning harder. This hypothesis, formulated and somewhat modified by Wardhaugh (1970), eventually gave way to a more differentiated view of the issues involved. On the whole, it is still accepted that a second/foreign language is learnt in quite a different way from the first language, in other words: some sort of language transfer takes place. This has qualified the so-called "identity hypothesis" of the 1970s (Dulay & Burt 1974, 1975). In just this connection, some questions relevant to classroom foreign language learning arise: how does foreign language knowledge taught in class influence the learning of a further foreign language? (Bausch u.a., 1995). In what ways do learning and communication strategies acquired during the learning of a first foreign language positively influence the acquisition of a further foreign language? What role does the type of the foreign language learnt first have on the learning of (a) further foreign language(s)? To answer questions like these, research has been conducted by Barrera-Vidal (1995), who investigated the question of "dual contrastivity" on the example of German natives having learnt French as their first foreign language (L2) and subsequently learning Spanish as their second foreign language (L3), and by Königs (1995), who is concerned with the more general question of what mental mechanisms guide "learning by contrast."


In Germany the multilingual approach to foreign language teaching has by and large remained a domain of researchers specializing in Romance languages. The main stimuli for this research come from research teams at the Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt/Main (see H.G. Klein/T.D. Stegmann 2001), at the Justus-Liebig-Universität, Giessen (see Meißner & Reinfried 1998) and the Technische Hochschule, Darmstadt (see Hufeisen & Lindemann 1998).


However, there is a need to include English, which is after all the first (obligatory) foreign language in the German educational context (as is the case in most other European countries) and thus the learning of English forms a basis for any language to be learnt subsequently. First initiatives to this effect have already been made (e.g. Klein 2002).


The general objective of a multilingual theory of foreign language learning is to develop methods which would facilitate the learning of a third/fourth etc. foreign language by making use of the knowledge of languages already mastered by the learner, or, in brief, to find "short cuts" on the way to learning further foreign languages. In order to achieve this aim, one has to resort to concepts which are central to the multilingual approach to foreign language teaching, namely transfer, interference and inference. Transfer is to be understood in a more neutral sense without the negative connotations that make us equate the term with interference.


The definition suggested by Odlin (1989) seems to be the most adequate in this respect:


Transfer is the influence resulting from similarities and differences between the target language and any other language that has been previously (and perhaps imperfectly) acquired. (Odlin 1989: 27)


For a multilingually-based approach to foreign language teaching to be efficient, a more positive attitude towards cross-linguistic phenomena will have to be adopted. Thus, instead of placing undue emphasis on interference when dealing with grammatical, semantic and lexical phenomena of the various languages involved, we should enable students to put forward hypotheses about the target language(s) in the sense of Ellis (1985: 298):


Inferencing is the means by which the learner forms hypotheses by attending to input. It involves forming hypotheses about the target language by attending to specific features in the input, or by using the context of situation to interpret the input.


Thus, the overall aim of a multilingual theory of language teaching can be summarised as follows:


[ ... ] die "fördernde Kraft, welche zwischensprachliche Prozesse für das Erlernen neuer Fremdsprachen darstellen" (Meißner 1999: 62), optimal zu nutzen, d.h. in letzter Konsequenz solche Lernstrategien für Lernende erfahrbar zu machen und solche Übungsformen zu entwickeln, die sie dazu befähigen, "von den Vorteilen des Interlingualen Transfers [zu] profitieren und seine Nachteile, nämlich interferenzbedingte Fehler, möglichst [zu] vermeiden." (Reinfried 1998: 23) (Klein 2002: 58).


In general, making inferences of the kind described above is possible on all linguistic levels. However, due to the particular types of languages which are at issue here (Romance languages plus English with its considerable substratum of words of Romance origin in its vocabulary), it is lexical inferencing that holds the greatest didactic potential. The following example is a case in point:


            Spanish             French              English             German

1)           ironía                 ironie                 irony                 Ironie

           occidente           occident            occident           Okzident

             urbano               urbain                urban                urban


2)         valentía            vaillance              valour                  Mut

              coraje              courage            courage            Kourage

            bravura            bravoure            bravery             Bravour


3)  baloncesto           basket-ball                    basketball            Basketball

  política realista    politique réaliste                realpolitik             Realpolitik

guerra relámpago    guerra éclair                    blitzkrieg               Blitzkrieg


4) apisonadera        rouleau com-                steam roller              Dampf-

                              presseur à vapeur                                               walze

   reactor rápido    surrégénérateur              fast breeder      schneller Brüter



The above word lists from Spanish, French, English and German show that there is a continuum ranging from situations which allow inferring from any of the languages concerned to any of the remaining languages (example [1] to situations in which no inferences are possible (example [4]), with intermediate stages that permit drawing inferences from particular languages to particular other languages only.


Incidentally, it should be borne in mind that lexical inferences, as described in the foregoing paragraph, are restricted to language perception on the graphemic level. If one were to add the dimension of language production and also include the phonetic/phonological level, a number of problems would arise, which, however, are outside the scope of this article.[6]



7 A look ahead: What the future may hold in store for foreign language teaching


Although it is notoriously difficult to predict future developments in disciplines that are subject to many imponderables, there is some evidence in the current state of foreign language teaching that provides some clues as to the course our discipline may  may take in the years to come.


First, the teaching of foreign languages in primary school will certainly gain momentum and, hopefully, will include languages other than English to an increasing extent. The current tendency for extending foreign language instruction to pre-school will probably intensify. If these aims are to be achieved, teacher training will have to be given top priority.


Second, the growing tendency towards further internationalisation in the fields of politics, business, culture and education will necessitate an increasing need for multilingualism - both on a collective and an individual level. This, in turn, calls for even greater efforts to implement efficient teacher training schemes for primary school teachers.


Third, content-integrated language teaching (avoiding the misnomer "bilingualer Sachfachunterricht" that has established itself in the German foreign language teaching profession) is an up-and-coming branch of foreign language teaching. It refers to a setting in which non-language subjects such as history, politics, geography, physics, biology etc. are taught through the medium of a foreign language. Research has shown that this approach leads to better learning results as the language is used as a "vehicle" rather than as an end itself, thus being in line with task-based approaches to foreign language teaching. Coherent didactic concepts and appropriate teaching materials and textbooks are the main desiderata in this particular field.


Finally, all forms of foreign language teaching that make use of electronic media (e-mail, internet, etc.) will undoubtedly gain in importance. However, in view of the breathtaking development in computer technology and its consequences for international communication it is difficult to forecast in which concrete guises they might appear.





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sent 2002.11.27






[1] "Metalinguistic Awareness", "Linguistic Consciousness", "Sprachbewußtheit", "Sprachbewußtsein", "Métacognition", "Conscience Linguistique", amongst others.

[2] To avoid having to distinguish between the two, some authors use the term learner strategies (e.g. Tönshoff 1995), others specify that communication strategies should be termed production strategies because they are essentially used in verbal interaction (e.g. Ellis 1985).

[3] Besides offering the above classification, Rampillon makes some useful suggestions for applying these different strategies to practical classroom work.

[4] In contrast, physics, chemistry, biology etc. are subject to higher degrees of "objectivity".

[5] Most German Länder have already passed legislation to the effect that foreign languages (English as a rule) are a compulsory component of primary school curricula. Those which have not already done so will soon follow suit.

[6] Further examples from the field of lexis can be obtained from Meißner (2000). Examples of "interphonetics" are discussed in Klein (2000, 2002).