Many second language learners admit having the same experience listening to more advanced speakers: they seem to possess language necessary for a similar performance, but they end up nowhere near it. The resulting cry for simplicity and lightness is so pervasive that it drew my attention as a potential area for improving speaking skills without touching vocabulary or grammar.
I know the feeling firsthand. During the final stretch before our German oral exam at the university, one of my friends made a sudden improvement in speaking. From a person struggling like the rest of us, he became one expressing himself with clarity and lightness. It felt like he suddenly shifted up a gear without actually expanding his resources. Listening to him at that time, I could not but sigh with envy: “I wish my German was so simple”. I thought I had all the lexis and grammar to speak equally well, but I could not. And many learners having the same experience, let us turn from feelings to observations.
What can be said about our admired speaker? She makes clear referencing, clear cause and effect connections, there is logical sequencing in her speech, she uses short, not too dense sentences, applies proper intonation: pauses in the right places and applies word and sentence stress correctly. She seems to be focused, mostly undisturbed by common ailments like missing words, or losing track of her thought. At the same time, there is nothing spectacular happening at the level of grammar or lexis. The listener — often not proficient himself — is able to understand the message with ease, which only intensifies the feeling of envy, as similar performance seems within reach.
What strikes at first is how little of the general impression of ease is actually created by language itself. There must be a certain degree of grammatical correctness, but the listener cannot verify it. If there is anything impressive about lexis it is not its sophistication, but the ease of finding the right words at the right time. It becomes evident that the aura of liberty comes from beyond language. It is not the most accurate, articulate and fluent speaker who seems free, but the one who makes her thoughts clear and understandable to others.
What impresses, in other words, is not language but communication.
The two share a mysterious relationship, and may exist independently. Communication survives imperfect grammar, imprecise vocabulary and mispronunciation, and in extreme cases it can do without language altogether. But as a rule, the more clarity there is in the language the greater the likelihood of successful communication.
Clarity, however, is very often taken for granted. I have yet to meet a learner who would come to me saying “I need to express myself clearer”. People come seeking “more grammar” or “more vocab” but hardly ever do they feel the need for more clarity. Why? Because nobody suspects themselves of not being able to think clearly. And they have good reasons for doing so.
In his book Thought and Language a Byelorussian linguist Lev Vygotski talks about two different types of speeches: the inner and the external one. The inner is for communicating with ourselves, and the external for communicating with others. Both are radically different in terms of syntax. While thoughts exist in their entirety like images, language needs to be carefully constructed chunk by chunk. The transition from thoughts to language is, therefore, fraught with linguistic and logical traps. We may understand ourselves perfectly, but making our thoughts understandable to others is only achieved after a great deal of careful processing. Easy speaking is in fact hard thinking. But what does it mean to think?
John Dewey, an American philosopher, talks about four definitions of thinking. First, it may be everything that passes through our head at a given moment: from daydreaming to remembering a funny moment from the past. Thinking may also refer to everything that escapes our senses, and is not visible, touchable or otherwise detectable by senses. Dewey counts storytelling as an example of such thinking: a chain of logically connected thoughts unconcerned about facts or the truth. The third definition of thinking includes unverified convictions, often of unknown origin, such as “I thought you were in the kitchen” or “the Earth is flat”. Dewey calls them judgments given before the trial, which contrasts with the fourth definition where thinking is not only well-organized but also verified. Dewey calls this last type “reflective thinking” because its conclusions are never self-explanatory, and need premises.
Reflective thinking is the most rigorous form of thinking which — if carried out successfully — produces the most understandable language. Both analytical and critical thinking skills, which make up reflection, facilitate communication by introducing logical sequencing and providing additional perspectives. A speaker who thinks reflectively is less likely to lose her train of thought and she may find it easier and more natural to use transitional expressions and paraphrases, which add also to her flow. Thoughts expressed this way contrast with impressions, memories and feelings whose randomness and lack of premises make them much more dependent on accurate language.
Knowing the beneficial effects of reflective thinking on speaking, it is natural to ask if it is teachable. But this I honestly do not know. What I do know, however, is the general truth that an organ which is not used withers away. And our industry seems to be particularly hesitant with employing reflection.
Language learning is mostly devoid of reflection.
Despite widely declared shift towards communication, teaching foreign languages continues to be focused mainly on developing language, and not the underlying mental processes which precede and assist its delivery. Technically there is not much standing in the way of employing reflective thinking in the classroom, but strategically such move may seem controversial. Acknowledging the role of reflection in the negotiation and co-creation of meaning implies assessment of intellectual alongside linguistic skills, which may feel unfair or wrong given thinking makes such a poor subject for standardization or norms. No wonder the communication that is being offered remains based on the good old development of the linguistic system. What does it mean in practice?
I went through thousands of speaking activities and questions from many publications (read more), and I can say with confidence that they leave very little room for reflective thinking. The vast majority of them favor introspection and retrospection instead of reflection. There are questions about past events such as what did you do last weekend? Personal preferences like what is your favorite day of the week? Or asking for advice: What’s the best place to spend a free afternoon in your town? They are all memory-intensive, probing feelings and impressions at its deepest, yet leaving deeper thinking largely unemployed. I do not wish to say that recounting is a thoughtless process, but it is easy to see to what extent the current questions are re-creative and their answers non-participatory. Answering does not require using imagination, analysis or judgment, only finding the right words and structures to recreate a preverbalised message. Such questions generate inauthentic interactions in the classroom.
Dissatisfied with the quality of conversation questions, I started tweaking them. First I have stripped them of the personal pronoun “your” by means of which I changed their optics from intro and retrospection to projection. The answers remain deeply personal, but are no longer to be found in memory, because now they need premises: analysis, synthesis and personal judgment.
Next, I deprived my questions of time reference. They are no longer about what happened in the past, what is going on now or what is yet to come. This seemingly illogical move, especially for those who want their students to practice particular tenses, creates in reality much better setting for activating reflection which could otherwise be stifled by emotions generated by current events, or the Deweyan second type of thinking in the case of both retrospection and speculation.
It would be wrong to think, however, that asking about concepts instead of specific events situated in a particular time and space produces answers made exclusively in simple present. Asking about concepts stimulates imagination, evokes associations, memories and projections equally well, at a cost of only slightly lesser control over the tense and aspect of the verb that is going to be used by the speaker. Having in mind the benefits of activated reflection, however, it is a cost well worth bearing.
Applying the tweaks I mentioned, I have arrived at four basic types of, what I call, educative questions. The first is about a difference between two concepts (for example between a team and a group), the second offers a comparison between two or more concepts and requires a decision (for example: What is more effective an order or a request?), the third asks about a relationship between two concepts (such as: What is the relationship between difficult and stressful?), and last but not least, there is a question about a single concept, for example: is mopping a floor free time?
Educative questions activate reflective thinking while remaining fairly easy and pleasurable to answer. Judging by my teaching practice, they do not pose more difficulties than the typical conversation questions, and in many cases they facilitate the output. The grasp such questions have on learners’ minds makes them focus primarily on the answer, not the language. There is an observable increase in the willingness to communicate and persistence in communication, i.e. skills which Scott Thornbury and Diana Slade call essential in their book Conversation: From Description to Pedagogy. Educative questions, in other words, turn language learners into language users.
And the users who get the chance not only to speak but also to reflect are happy ones too. The role of fun and pleasure in teaching adults is typically reduced to minimum, but it cannot be underestimated. It aids motivation and helps to endure the difficult and long process of learning. Unlike young learners, however, most adults do not take to role plays or the imaginary, and need to be entertained in a different way. Educative questions provide a rare form of entertainment which breaks away with the routine while keeping one foot in the real world. The exploration of concepts is something real and serious, but it is, at the same time, unburdened by the need to find the correct answer or to reach any specific depth. The intellectual pleasure coming from sheer reflecting ranks among the most pleasurable things in life.
Having done my pleasurable part of reflecting on the improvement of speaking let me bring back the key observations.
What is enviable and impresses the most in speaking a foreign language is not the quality of language as such, but the quality of communication. The latter benefits enormously from the employment of reflective thinking which is largely absent from the current materials. Reflective thinking, however, can be activated by means of educative questions, an innovative alternative to the predominant type of questions.
This article was based on the presentation “How To Say More With Less” I gave during the 38th International TESOL France Annual Colloquium “Making Waves” in Lille, France on December 1, 2019.