To function or not to function? That is the question. Have you ever been faced with a 36-hour business English intensive course that aims to bring beginner-level students to a “functional” level of fluency in a work-place setting? Do you think this type of course can be successful in developing “functional” fluency? I think not.
There currently exists a panoply of “function-specific” ESL courses, from business correspondence to academic purposes. While it is possible to teach an advanced student to draft conventionally proper business letters, it is virtually impossible to do the same with a beginner. In order to meet this demand however, many institutions offer short courses which are function-specific. In other words, the ESL course will not cover, say, the present perfect, its meaning, its use and its practice, but will solely focus on a stock transcript of a receptionist answering a phone, replying to an email and greeting a client. Students are encouraged to practice these transcripts and substitute portions to match their own work reality. This is all fine and dandy when real people follow the transcript, but how often does that happen? There are 3 major erroneous assumptions in the world of language teaching and learning that makes these function-specific courses attractive to language institutions and their students, even though they probably do not lead to authentic language pragmatics.
The Quick Fix
This erroneous assumption begins with the student’s misplaced motivation, or should I say, extrinsic motivation. The student probably needs language skills for some external reason, i.e. a promotion, a job, an important presentation, etc. The interest here is related to the job and not the development or authentic language ability for its own sake. This is only human nature. Which one of us would rather take the long ponderous road to a destination if we can take a shortcut? The problem here is that the shortcut is full of traps and tangential thorny paths that lead many a student astray. As the TOEIC test points out – it takes 3000 hours for a beginner to develop to the advanced level. That is a long road – the only authentic road. A 36-hour business ESL intensive can perhaps arm students with a few exponents, but once the conversation veers onto a “thorny path”, all bets are off if they do not have an authentic mastery at the required language level. Unfortunately, it’s usually the diploma that counts in these situations and not real pragmatics.
English is Easy!
Yes, compared to Math, Chemistry, maybe Philosophy, English is perceived as an easy topic. After all, it’s just learning to talk to one another, right? Yes and no. While schools have been creating Math courses that scaffold complex problems over nearly 20 years of schooling for students, language courses do not have such a levelled approach. Especially when it comes to adults, many institutions engage in “ad hoc” placement with no other measurement for progression than the regular “beginner, intermediate, advanced, etc.” But where is our 3000- hour curriculum? Because that’s what it takes. English is not easy. It is comprised of nearly 2 millennia of culture, including various modern cultures that employ it. It has a huge amount of vocabulary that must be maintained with rigorous reading, not to mention the vast amount of idiomatic expressions which, in some cases, requires knowledge of etymology.
The Functional Approach
I have been told by many talented ESL teachers to stay away from the more academic / scientific approach to learning English, because it affects the student’s motivation negatively. I have been told to simply keep it functional, light and fun. In other words, don’t spend three classes on developing authentic pragmatics with the present perfect tense across all possible functions (i.e. at work, at home, at the store, anywhere, etc.). No, only focus on what English speakers might say, using the present perfect at work. Keep your exercises simple and provide many transcripts that illustrate work situations. Once the students can repeat the transcripts from memory, congratulate them and spend time encouraging them to continue with the next transcript. As a teacher, I have a major issue with this. What other discipline does the same? I am hard-pressed to name one. In what other discipline do we state something like, “no, don’t apply differential calculus to all possible applications. No, keep it simple and light and focus on only one function.” If math curriculums were taught this way, we would have very inflexible, perhaps even useless engineers who would not be able to think outside of the box. We may be encouraging our students, but we are also lying to them.
In conclusion, learning English (or any language) takes time and it’s certainly not easy. It cannot be effectively broken down into functions if we want our students to develop authentic, deep, spontaneous language ability. There are no shortcuts!
What’s your opinion? What has been your experience with teaching English for Specific Purposes?