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Language learning: know-that, know-how, means or end?

November 10, 2013

I was at a meeting the other week with people who evaluate the quality of teaching and learning across all subjects in the FE sector. At the beginning of the meeting, one of them expressed how intrigued he was with ESOL by saying: “It’s partly a subject and it’s partly a provision.” What did he mean?

I think he was talking about the kind of knowledge that is acquired, and the purpose that it is then used for. If you look at most subjects that are taught in further education colleges (or anywhere for that matter), you can generally stick them into three broad groups, according to the type of knowledge they deal with. There are your “academic” subjects – maths, biology, psychology, English (for native speakers), history, that sort of thing. These subjects deal with propositional knowledge – the ability to conceptualise and understand information that is presented as fact, and then (sometimes) draw conclusions based on this knowledge.

Then there are the “practical” subjects, like hairdressing, catering or construction, which deal with procedural knowledge: “knowing how” as opposed to “knowing that”. These subjects are mostly focused on practising and developing skills that allow you to do specific things. A certain amount of propositional knowledge is required for this, obviously. For example, if you’re going to bake a cake you need to know that putting it in the oven will make it rise. But the aim of these subjects is to combine knowledge and skills to allow a person to do something specific, something that will allow them to bake a cake, or dye someone’s hair, or build a wall, etc.

You can also say there is a third category of subjects – the professional subjects. This would include areas like engineering, accounting or management. While a large amount of propositional knowledge is required for these subjects, this knowledge is presented with a view to applying it in a practical context of some kind. This concept of applied knowledge is often referred to as professional knowledge (Schon 1983: 24). Courses that prepare people for other professional careers, such as teaching or medicine, are also concerned with professional knowledge.

So, you can know stuff for the sake of knowing it, you can know how to do stuff, and you can know stuff that is helpful in allowing you to do a range of complex things.

But where do languages fit into this? Traditionally, foreign languages have been taught as academic subjects, with mastery in a language seemingly dependent on the propositional knowledge of grammar rules, vocabulary items and pronunciation patterns. However, we all know that simply knowing words and how to form sentences with them is very different from actually being competent in a language (for now, at least).

Image Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) has shifted the focus onto the achievement of communicative competence; not so much what a learner knows but what they can do with that knowledge. This would suggest that language learning is more about procedural knowledge. Propositional knowledge is useful – for example it’s worth knowing that many verbs have –ed on the end when used to talk about past events – but the main focus in CLT is (or should be) on the learner’s ability to talk about the past, or complete a specific transaction, or perform a certain task. Language teaching is therefore a practical subject, as it prioritises procedural knowledge. Of course this raises the question of why languages are still taught as if they are academic subjects, and why learners are often assessed on their ability to demonstrate knowledge of a range of language items, rather than how effectively they use language to perform specific tasks. But let’s leave that for another post.

So, learning a language is like learning how to cook, or cut hair, or build things. Kind of. Except for one thing. Doing a course in catering prepares you to work in the catering industry. Doing a course in hairdressing prepares you to become a hairdresser. Doing a course in construction prepares you to work on a building site. What does a course in English prepare you to do? It prepares you to do whatever it is you can already do, but in English.

A subject could involve the study of a specific skill, or a profession, or the demonstration of the learning of propositional knowledge. But there are also things that you need to study in order to do something other than the thing you are studying. For example, when I did my masters I had to do a module on how to use a specific software application, which could be used in academic research. It was kind of a bolt-on to the masters – unrelated to the rest of the content, nothing to do with applied linguistics, but necessary nonetheless.

I think this is what the guy in the meeting meant when he used the word “provision”, and in the context of further education I can see why he views ESOL in this way, at least in part. Because let’s face it, most people don’t learn English for the sake of learning English. “Professional” users of English are limited to the fields of education and translation/interpreting. A relatively tiny number of people learn English for these purposes. Most learn English in order to do something else.

But what else? Anything in particular? There are some programmes where learners are working towards a common goal, in which case English can be seen as a provision – in-sessional courses for university students, for example. But most classes are full of individuals who want to learn English for a whole range of reasons. You could identify a broad reason for learning that covers all needs – social integration, say. But are we still talking about provision here, or are we now describing English as a subject? If we are, it’s not the same as the vocational purpose of study that exists in other practical subjects. In which case, are we back to describing language teaching as an academic subject again?

It’s not just motivation for learning that makes ESOL difficult to define. Language acquisition itself is a strange one. If you believe Chomsky (and most people do) you’ll believe that language acquisition and use is a very basic capacity that we all have. Do we have a similar in-built capacity for hairdressing?

This is confusing me. What am I teaching? Is it a subject? If so, is it an academic subject that deals with propositional knowledge, or is it a practical subject that deals with process knowledge? Maybe it isn’t a subject at all, but an additional provision that allows people to do other things. Or maybe it’s even more fundamental than that.

It’s taken me 20 years to get here, but finally I have got round to asking the question: What am I teaching?

References/Further Reading

Eraut, M. (1994) Developing Professional Knowledge and Competence, London: Falmer Press.

Forde, C., McMahon, M., McPhee, A. and Patrick, F. (2006) Professional Development, Reflection and Enquiry, London: Paul Chapman.

Schon, D.A. (1983): The Reflective Practitioner, Farnham: Ashgate.

  1. i guess most ontologies and categories of knowing/knowledge promote (unwittingly?) a static view of learning, hence your difficult question of what is english language teaching.

    i am not that familiar with details of systems thinking in language learning but can see how a dynamic view of language can be a better description of it.

    having said that i do think that without a foundation of language knowledge there is no possible way to use it. so fundamentally what we teach is lexis, grammar, register, pronunication.

    there’s some relevant reading here


    • Hi Mura,
      Yes, it’s the dynamic/developmental aspect of language acquisition that makes it hard for me to compare it directly to learning other subjects. I wonder, though if lexis, grammar, register and pronunciation are actually what we teach. Don’t we teach the application of these things, not just the things themselves?

      • hello again steve,

        yes true. i guess one can make divisions in order to set a syllabus keeping in mind the artificiality of said syllabus? :/

      • Or, don’t build the syllabus around those small bits at all. Make the syllabus holistic, using real-world tasks or projects as the organising principle, and then focus on the grammar/lexis/pron as and when required.

  2. Thanks for this interesting blog. I would want to argue that one of the main reasons people learn English today is to interact with knowledge and others as globally connected citizens. This I suggest takes us from Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) to Mobile Assisted Language Use (MALU) On a separate matter Prof. Keith Johnson one of the founding fathers of the communicative approach talks about procedural and declarative knowledge in his keynote on Huw

    • Thanks for this, Huw. It’s certainly true that changes in the way we interact with technology are bound to have an impact on how we learn. Thanks for the link to TESOLacademic as well – I can really recommend it to everyone for a wide range of quality articles.

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