N is for… Natural Language

One thing that is always true about language is that it changes. A few years ago, it would have been difficult to predict the rise of words and phrases like ‘hashtag’, ‘fake news’ and ‘climate strike’. This is one of the things that makes teaching and learning a language fascinating.

  • Subject:ELT/ESL

  • Reading Time:5 minutes

One thing that is always true about language is that it changes. A few years ago, it would have been difficult to predict the rise of words and phrases like ‘hashtag’, ‘fake news’ and ‘climate strike’. This is one of the things that makes teaching and learning a language fascinating. It can be difficult to keep up though, particularly in ELT publishing, where a coursebook may take many months to go from first draft to publication. And a lot can happen in the meantime. In this post, we will be looking at a few areas where thinking about ‘natural language’ – by which we mean language that reflects up-to-date and realistic usage – can improve the experience of learners using a course.

One area where this is obviously important is the selection of vocabulary that will be taught in a course. What kind of language do students need to talk about their lives and the world around them? In today’s digital world, this will inevitably include words connected to modern devices and how they are used. A few years ago, it wasn’t unusual for coursebooks to have sections on ‘textspeak’ – including once-common abbreviations like ‘L8R’ and ‘GR8’. Today, even more of our informal communication takes place via mobile phones. As typing on tiny keyboards has become quicker and easier, textspeak has faded out of use, but emojis now play a bigger role. While these symbols are international and don’t need to be taught as such, they do form part of the language as it is used today. So, should they form part of the language that appears in ELT textbooks? Arguably yes, although their rapidly changing usage means that they too are likely to date quickly.

 

Many ELT textbooks include sections or features that focus on everyday language. This often includes the kinds of words and phrases that students will need in different situations, from job interviews to online chats with friends. In other words, functional language. These phrases can be formal or informal, depending on the situation, and it is important to alert students to different levels of formality, or register. Language that sounds natural in a formal letter may sound very strange in an informal conversation. Different registers, while implicitly understood by proficient speakers of a language, are often difficult for students to detect and produce. Coursebooks can help by regularly drawing their attention to these differences.

Students also need regular exposure to examples of natural language in context. This is commonly done through texts and audio recordings (or videos) in a range of styles and genres. These should be well-matched to the level of the students, but also to the types of texts they are likely to come across in the world beyond the coursebook. The reason for this is twofold: it helps students to tackle similar text types when they come across them in their wider reading and it also motivates them by providing ‘authentic’ texts, similar to ones that they might read or listen to in their own language. Authentic texts should aim to mirror their equivalents in the world outside the classroom and contain the kind of language that would naturally occur in those texts. They could be magazine articles, blog posts, recipes or any of a wide variety of texts written for different purposes. However, this need for authenticity should be balanced against the pedagogic value of the text, and the language learning opportunities it presents.

 

Authentic texts should aim to mirror their equivalents in the world outside the classroom and contain the kind of language that would naturally occur in those texts.

Audio scripts are another opportunity to provide students with examples of natural language. Coursebooks will usually have a mixture of scripted or semi-scripted genres, for example radio shows and news bulletins, and simulations of unscripted language, such as conversations between friends and dialogues in shops or restaurants. It is no easy task for a coursebook writer to master all the different genres that are generally covered in a language course, each with its own conventions and typical features. Another complicating factor is that audio scripts, like reading texts, are normally expected to contain examples of target language that will be analysed in a subsequent grammar or language focus section. These grammar examples need to occur naturally in the reading and listening texts so that they don’t appear forced. Stilted language can be avoided by careful planning at the scope and sequence stage, pairing grammar points with topics and text types that are a natural fit.

 

As we have seen, using ‘natural language’ is an important consideration when creating materials for language learners. There is a fine line between language that is up to date and language that is of the moment and likely to date quickly. What words and phrases can you think of that came into fashion only to disappear without a trace?

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