Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity    April 2000 Volume XXIII Number 1


A Matter of Negotiation

by Nick Riddle

It was only with World War II, when Americans suddenly found themselves dispatched to Europe and the Pacific, that the teaching of foreign languages began to be taken seriously in the United States. As the Cold War became a global issue, the growing need for foreign language training gave rise to a system known as audiolingual methodology (ALM), or audiolingualism. The basis of this approach lay in the then-fashionable field of behaviorist psychology, which held that all learning takes place through “habit formation.” This led to the preponderance of drills and repetitive exercises in the language classrooms of America, right until the late seventies.

Amy Zoeller, Wendy Mendelson, and Jennifer Meyers (left to right) are in a Spanish grammar and composition class taught by James Lee, Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese and Director of Language Instruction, Indiana University Bloomington. Here their task-based activity requires them to converse in Spanish about which painting they would give to a friend or family member and why.

That decade saw a gradual shift in the assumptions underlying second-language acquisition. Rather than memorize chunks of dialogue and pattern practices, students learned to use the language in context—in other words, to communicate. The new approach of communicative language teaching was an improvement on audiolingualism, but instructors still tended to use drill-based exercises, asking learners a question and directing them to give a certain answer. Lee’s work, which he began at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign before coming to IU in 1997, is founded on the belief, now becoming widespread, that communication is more than question and answer. He suggests that a more useful definition of communication is “the expression, interpretation, and negotiation of meaning.” To this end, he emphasizes the role of tasks in second-language acquisition.

Lee’s new book, Tasks and Communicating in Language Classrooms, sets down the approach of task-based learning. He gives examples of task-based interactions and contrasts them with language drills. The advantage of the former over the latter becomes clear. It’s all a matter of—to use a word that is central to Lee’sargument—negotiation.

“There are several ways in which people negotiate meaning between one other,” Lee explains. “If there is a misunderstanding, we enter an exchange to resolve it. Another way is to confirm the meaning and intent of what was said.” One type of language learning task that entails negotiation, and one particularly suited to the classroom, is a discussion toward a consensus. Lee gives an example: “If you and I were asked to select the best five novels published in the 1990s, we would have to enter into the back-and-forth exchange of proposal and counter-proposal that naturally involves negotiation.” The great advantage in this approach is that learners must interact with each other, as well as with the instructor.

Lee learned that such an interaction is successful during his research on tasks and negotiation. His conclusions have had a direct impact on oral testing in the first four semesters of language instruction at IU: For the one-on-one interaction between instructor and learner, Lee has established a new practice in which “three learners are given a task-based activity to carry out in a set amount of time.” The instructor is not part of the group’s dynamic, and therefore “the three learners are given all of the communicative burden of carrying out the interaction. They’re perfectly capable of doing that, and they actually do very well on their oral tests.”

The task-based approach makes certain demands of instructors, as Lee explains: “We ask that they understand what goes on in the minds of language learners.” Some knowledge of related fields—psychology, linguistics, and discourse and communication theory—is therefore essential. Just as important is a willingness to use a teaching model quite different from the one they were taught as students; research has shown that instructors often perpetuate the model used to teach them.

Sometimes a source of frustration is the attitude of the students, which reflects the utilitarian origins of language teaching in America. Language is a requirement for many students, and that’s often their sole reason for enrolling, says Lee. For Spanish, he observes that “many students feel that Spanish will be useful to them in their careers because they see the growing Spanish population in this country. As far as many of them are concerned, it has nothing to do with the pleasure of learning another language.”

Technology has taken a while to make its presence felt in language teaching. But things are beginning to change. Several other universities already have technology-enhanced language programs, and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at IU is developing technology-enhanced courses with funding from the Office of the President through the College of Arts and Sciences. “Our goal is to place up to one-third of course materials on the Internet, so that students can do their work asynchronously,” says Lee. “We are working on ways to create explanations, practices, and exams that can be completed online.” The project will take three years.

It seems, then, that Second Language Acquisition is coming of age. “In the past ten years, the number of people going into this field and producing research has just skyrocketed,” says Lee. That has led to a change in attitude within the academy, where applied linguistics and second-language acquisition are beginning to find acceptance in modern language departments, alongside the study of literature and culture. But the biggest shift within the discipline is easy to identify, says Lee: the conscious move “from the study of language teaching to the study of language learning. It’s a change in emphasis from developing classroom materials to examining what goes on in the minds of language learners themselves. That emphasis is, I think, going to remain the focus of the field for a long time.”

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