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A to Z of Methodology

Critical language awareness

What and why?

In language teaching, we now recognise that language is not simply grammar, but also a system of 'communication'. For this reason, we often involve students in sharing information, using language for special purposes, expressing opinions and so on. One result of a view of language as 'communicating', however, is that it ignores the fact that people do not use language neutrally. Language is used not only as a means of sharing ideas, but also as a way of controlling people and influencing what they think and do. Language use involves making choices about lexis, grammar, register, discourse structure, etc., and these choices are often made for particular reasons. For example, a choice of words may be important an armed group, for instance, might be called 'terrorists' or 'freedom fighters' depending on whose side you are on. Similarly, the passive voice, for example, might be used to hide facts or give authority to a statement as in, for instance, 'Ten million pounds were lost last year.' (We could ask: 'Who lost them? Why? How? "Lost" means what?' and so on.) Register might be used to encourage people to act in certain ways. Advertisements, for example, often use a friendly, familiar tone of voice ('We care for you') to make people feel that a product is important to them personally. Discourse structure can also determine what your 'rights' are in a conversation - as, for example, in a job interview where only one person might have the 'right' to ask questions.

In recent years, this way of looking at language has developed into what is now called 'critical language analysis' and, in schools, many teachers now try to raise the students' awareness of how language is used, so they are not so easily influenced by others. The word 'critical', here, does not mean 'negative' but 'careful, thoughtful'. (See also CRITICAL PEDAGOGY.)

Practical ideas

  • If you start from the assumption that language use involves making choices, you can ask students 'Why did they say that?', 'Why did they use that word rather than another word?', 'Why did they use that tense?', 'What are they not saying?' and so on.
  • There are many words in English that are typically only used when talking about women, or about men or about children, and this may affect the way we think about people. For example, 'gossip' is typically associated with women, while men might 'talk'. You can give the students a list of words and ask them to categorise them and then discuss why they have categorised them that way. For example, they could try to categorise the following words into 'About women', 'About men', 'About boys', 'About girls': beautiful, strong, trustworthy, silly, pretty, mature, gossip, weak, handsome, rough, ambitious. If they put some words in two or more categories, you can discuss how the word changes its meaning.
  • You can encourage students to think about statements about things and ask if they are 'negative', 'positive' or 'neutral'.
  • If the students read a news story, you can ask how the story would change if someone else was reporting it. For example, if the story is about a strike in a factory, how would the story change if the strikers reported it, or the employers, or the government, or customers?
  • You can encourage students to think about what the writer thinks about the reader. For example, if you look at an advertisement, what type of people is it appealing to? Does the advertisement suggest (even implicitly) that certain things are desirable? How does the advertisement do this?
  • If there are words in English in public places in your country or if English is creeping into the students' mother tongue, you could ask students to consider why, in each case, English is used. Some writers talk about 'linguistic imperialism' to describe how English is entering into other languages.
  • You can ask students to think about mother tongue language use too: which words are used mainly by young people? Which words are more 'official'? Can they think of any English equivalents?
  • You can ask the students to look at the conversations in the Out and about sections and to choose one of the characters. If that character changed to, for example, 'head teacher' how would the language change?


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