Language Context and the English Tea


Improvisation or transfer is the core of a course,based on the communicative approach.That is,the students are required to transfer what they learned in the textbook to real-life situation as far as possible.And in the present-day textbook of Middle School,the courses are organized in authentic everyday situations in which students can easily identify.So in the process of English teaching,it is very important for the teachers to set the language contexts correctly and flexibly.

Ⅰ.The meanings of the language context

Generally speaking,the language context can be divided into two major types:situational context and sociocultural context.

Rivers suggests that items of language in total isolation have no function;they need a system and a setting to give them both function and meaning.Children often ask for the meaning of a word in isolation,without seeing the need to provide anything for it;too quick and too casual a reply can often have unexpected the child asks what cricket is and you say it is a game,and then discover that it was a“cricket”in the context of insects.Even if we know the strict linguistics,we still need to check further into the situation and even into the society and culture to be sure of what item of the language is appropriate or acceptable.

In a narrow sense,the language context means the situational context.In Halliday’s opinion,the situational contexts include the setting,the way of talking,and participants.But Hymes divides it into eight elements:setting,role,function,notion,style,stress and intonation,grammar,vocabulary and language aids.Those factors affect each other and decide which language form is appropriate.

The situational context and sociocultural context can’t be isolated from each other.In certain sociocultural context,people must obey the particular communicative rules when they use a certain language.And in a certain situational context,people should not only pay attention to the social communication rules but also adjust themselves according to the factors of the situational context.That is,the situational context and sociocultural context affect each other and are complementary to each other.

Ⅱ.The language context and the communicative competence

“Competence” is a central issue in linguistics,whether in terms of abstract syntactic theory(as with Noam Chomsky)or in terms of social interaction(as with Dell Hymes).And Hymes thinks the communicative competence should include four types:language competence,sociolinguistic competence,strategic competence,and context competence.If we consider the language competence is the core of the language teaching,then the other three abilities must also be taken into consideration.

Wallwork suggests that“sociolinguistic competence is necessary to language study and to attempt to study language without society is like studying anatomy without a body.”A knowledge of our society will enable us to predict with some degree of accuracy the probability of certain kind of language being used in any particular situation,and conversely give a sketch of language we can predict with some to a country where you understand not a word of the language around you.But by observing the social context and listening to the noises,you learn the meaning.So one can’t be said to know fully the meaning of any language without knowing the social context in which it may or does occur.Widdowson also points out that the English teaching also involves an understanding of the communicative value of linguistic elements in context and this is based on a knowledge of how these elements may serve as clues which can be interpreted by reference to share conventions of communication.So in the English teaching,the teachers should train the students’sensitivity to judge which language form is right in certain language context.

The context competence and strategic competence can be realized in certain language context and have their effects on communication.In a normal language context,we often communicate in discourse,not in a single phrase or sentence.A learner who can communicate with the correct language forms has a strong context competence and knows how to use the signals to convey the information and conform it to the meaning.And according to these signals,they can understand each other better.In different language contexts,we can also make use of the strategic competence to start,end,maintain or extend a conversation.And the communication strategies we often used are such as avoidance,tolerance,suspense and accommodation.

Ⅲ.How to set the language context

A.Use all kinds of teaching aids

In the classroom,students should be provided with a chance to experience the language in meaningful ways and try out their skills,so the teachers should try to use all kinds of teaching aids to set the language context for the students.And we should not only be acquainted with the use of flash cards and wall pictures,but also we need to learn to collect and make visual aids,such as pictures from magazines,used objects like can and boxes,flannel board,and stick-figures.So with a piece of chalk,objects,people,animals,settings are created on the blackboard and the students’interest and attention are aroused.A relaxed atmosphere is created.Another technique is to use latern slides,not to tell a story but to creat situations when the students are asked to act out their dialogue or play their roles against the background of a restaurant,street,playground.We can use an over-head project,then the students can talk like real“native speakers”.And when we use the pictures,we should know the picture with accompanying voice(sometimes with music accompaniment.)will impress the students greater than a printed text or the voice alone.

B.Design all kinds of activities

The role of the teacher in acommunicative classroom is not an informer or a supervisor but amanager or helper.The teachers should try to design all kinds of activities to help the students perform or interact among themselves as much as possible.But designing a course which prepares students to interact in specific roles in real-life situations requires that the course designer first discovers that what part is played in these activities by the language of different kinds.He must find out what topics come up often enough to be worth discussing in class,and we must also bear in mind the kind of people the pupil will eventually have to deal with.So we should let the students have the opportunity to learn,and become proficient in the games and diversions of English-speaking people.They should be able to participate in verbal competitions,where there are special activities to be associated with festivals or national holidays,students should be able to engage them at the appropriate time,decorating the Christmas tree and singing Christmas carols,celebrating Guy Fawkes Day,rolling eggs at Easter,dressing up for trick-or-treat,preparing a Thanks-giving dinner etc.On the other hand,much autonomous interaction can take place at the English language students' club or at class excursions and on picnics.So we can arrange some visits to see exhibitions of American or British paintings,to eat at restaurants which serve English or American specialities,to see films in English,or to attend performances by visiting theatrical companies.Groups within class may take turns preparing typical meals and inviting the others.We also invite some foreign guests and students to have a talk with us.And students should try to show their towns or schools to English-speaking visitors or tourists.For these courses,activities such as those described above will plunge the students into normal use of language.

C.Use paralinguistic features

Sometimes when we set the language context,using paralinguistic features such as gestures,facial expressions and some actions will be more convenient and vivid than using teaching aids such as pictures or Unit 5 of SB1A,when we explain how to grow cabbages,if we use the teaching aids such as pictures,or slides,it will take us a lot of time to prepare the teaching materials before class.But if we act out the process of growing cabbages in class with a few actions,the students will understand the process more vividly in a shortwhile.So no matter when teachers present,demonstrate,drill,practise the teaching material we should pay attention to using paralingui

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stic features flexibly and appropriately.And paralinguistic features are complementary to the teaching aides in the English teaching.

Ⅳ.The rules of setting language context

How to set the language context correctly and flexibly becomes a problem which teachers are concerned about.

A.The language context must be real

Situational teaching and meaning teaching both mean that the teaching materials should be those normal utterance made in real-life situations and be practised in authentic everyday situations.

B.The language context must be relevant

Situations set for practice should be those which the students are likely to encounter in their present and future communication.It is a waste of time to ask them to discuss problems beyond their level of maturity and knowledge of the world.

C.The language context must be definite

When we set a language context,we should take all the factors of language context into account.For example,in a shop,we can start a conversation between shopkeepers and customers,and we can also start the conversation between the customers.Then what is the objective of the conversation?What kind of language form can be used in the language context?It requires that the teachers must give some clear or definite explanation to the students.Only when the students know what kind of roles they will play and what the objective of the talking is,they can avoid mechanical memorization and be able to start a free conversation in the language context.

D.The language context must be helpful in developing the students'creativity

In the process of English teaching,teachers should not remain satisfied with the memorization of the language,but should extend the development of language skills through language study and proceed from the manipulated practice to the communicative use of the language.After the students have learned some language points in a dialogue,they may be asked to create a new dialogue by giving them some new ideas and lines,which could,of course be in conformity with the original dialogue.


Halliday,M.A.K.Towards a Sociological Sementics.In Brumfit&Jahnson(ed),1979.

H.G.Widdowson.1978,From Teaching Language as Communication,Oxford University Press.

Hymes.D.H.On Communicative Competence,University of Pennsylvania Press,1971.

J.F.Wallwork.1968,An Introduction to the Study of Language,London:Longman.

Rivers.W.M.&Temperley.M.S.A Practical Guide to Teaching English as a Second Foreign Language,Oxford University Press,1978.

Tom M.c.Arthur.A Foundation Course for Language Teachers,Cambridge University Press.

(江苏省如东县兵房中学 蔡平

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