May 13, 2019
Pablo Roman

More and more, the language teaching community is becoming aware of how important input is, how important it is for students to be exposed to the spoken language, and for teachers to speak in the target language to their students. In our attempt to be useful as teachers, we try to provide students with activities that will help them learn the language. Sometimes that leads us to the trap of using the language in a way that’s not purposeful, or in a way that doesn’t have communicative intent. This is the equivalent of killing the language and presenting it on a plate. In this post, I’m going to talk about why it’s important to use the language in a way that’s purposeful, why it’s important to have communicative intent, and how can we know that we are using the language purposefully.

What is purposefulness?

Purposefulness, or communicative intent, means that the language is being used to communicate something. The language is being used to actually transmit messages. It is used to talk about something, and not just for the sake of the language itself. The language is being used so that the purpose of the words is not only to teach something about the language. This is the way how we use language naturally. When we speak, or when we write, we’re trying to say something to somebody. We’re talking about how we feel, communicating some information, or asking a question. We are using the language in a meaningful way. In a way that has a purpose, other than letting the other person hear words in that language.

Purposefulness is very important because it relates language to meaning; it relates the words to the actual purpose of communicating something. When we use the target language to communicate that we had a problem with our car today and that’s why we got to work late, we are associating those words with an actual experience. With something that our students can picture in their head, something they can imagine, they are associating those words with actual concepts, and in a context that makes sense, in which those expressions are appropriate. The complete opposite of purposefulness is drilling. Drills get the students to listen to vocabulary, to verbal forms, or to sentence examples, just for the sake of language itself. Just for the purpose of having the students memorize those words and sentences. But those words and sentences are not really used to communicate anything meaningful.

Another example of non-purposeful language is playing a Simon Says game in which we are checking to see if the students understand something that we say. There’s no attempt to tell the students anything that they don’t know, to convey any kind of information, or to really communicate anything to the students. When vocabulary and sentences are used in this way, without a purpose, the experience for the student is that those words feel empty. They just stay there, in the air, for a split second, and then they dissipate. They completely disappear without connecting to anything, without a trace. That has also been my personal experience every time I’ve been learning a language and the teacher did an activity that was not purposeful. Words didn’t stick, they were forgotten much more easily, and it made that part of the class a big waste of time.

On the other side, when using the language purposefully, the words and the sentences that you hear or read attach themselves to something. You can feel in your head how those words, those sentences, get hooked to something. They connect to meaning that exists in your head, because you are imagining the situation that the words are describing, or you’re seeing that situation in front of your own eyes.

Is this purposeful?

How can you tell if an activity that you have planned is purposeful or not? For any specific activity, the easiest way to know if it’s purposeful is to ask yourself:

  • would you be doing that activity if you were not teaching a language?
  • does that activity make sense if you were not in a language classroom?
  • would you actually do that same thing in your own language with friends or anybody else?

If you are using the language to tell a story, to talk about the students and ask them questions, to talk about yourself, or to teach about a subject that’s not the language, then you are using the language in a purposeful way. You are using the language in a way that speakers in the language also use it, and then you are using it to convey meaning. If you are doing things like testing for sentence or word comprehension, repeating the same vocabulary or sentences over and over to give many usage examples in a way that people wouldn’t normally do, then the language that you are using is probably not very purposeful.

The problem

I’ve had experiences with purposefulness and with purposelessness, both as a teacher and as a student. One thing that I noticed as a student is that when I was doing an activity that was not purposeful, I was bored quickly. I was even getting bored with myself as the teacher. I remember that I tried doing activities like Simon Says, or looking at pictures and describing them, and I started feeling really bored and sleepy. Upon reflection, I realized that an activity, in order to be engaging, to keep people’s attention, and to really help with acquiring the language, needs to be purposeful. Here’s a tip: if during your teaching or learning a language, you are getting bored, ask yourself, “Is this activity purposeful? Would I be doing this if I were not in a language classroom?”

As a student, I’ve had teachers have the class do activities that were not purposeful, and when you are a student doing those activities it becomes even harder to pay attention. It is simply boring. I’ve played games like Simon Says with hundreds of repetitions, and after repeating the same words over and over and doing it several days in the same week, I still wasn’t able to remember most of the words. Another problem with language that’s not purposeful is that it usually comes together with additional stresses put on the students. There are usually additional explicit or hidden expectations. Those expectations usually are that the students are going to learn certain vocabulary, or learn to be able to say certain things. These expectations are sometimes hidden. For example, when the teacher tries to mask a drill as a game or as a communicative activity. This, unfortunately, fails to remove the pressure that the students feel. Even if the teacher tries to mask the drill as some kind of fun activity, actions speak louder than words, and students will feel the expectations that are being put on them.

On the other hand, activities that have a true communicative intent have a much clearer purpose: just to communicate, to understand what the other person is saying. The students can relax and know that they are not being drilled, and that they are not going to be expected to remember certain vocabulary, or certain structures, at the end of the activity.

Then, what do we do?

Activities that are purposeful, as I mentioned before, are basically anything that you would do outside of the language classroom, but that obviously involves you speaking to your students and them trying to understand you. This can be something as simple as telling a story, be it a fictional or about your own life. It can be asking questions to your students and talking about their lives, and elaborating on what your students are doing or feeling in certain situations. You can teach your students something. You can teach them how to do handcrafts, or you can teach them about a topic unrelated to the language. You can teach them about the culture of the country where the language is spoken, about history, or simple physics, or anything else, in the language.

After reading this post, I hope you will reflect on the kinds of activities that you choose to do with your students, and that you see them in a different light. Look at whether the activities you are doing are purposeful or not purposeful, so you can provide your students with activities that are more engaging, that help them have fun, love the language, and acquire more.

Posted By Pablo Roman | Dreaming Spanish

I fell in love with learning languages while living in Japan. After learning Japanese to proficiency without traditional studying, I decided that a better way of learning languages is possible and I wanted to look for it. After one year in Bangkok learning Thai and experiencing a much more natural input-based method to learn languages, I decided that I wanted to help popularize these kinds of methods. In 2017, I started producing my own content that people all over the world can enjoy while learning.

Check out The Dreaming Spanish with Pablo video series here.

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