Joachim Grzega's Blog

13. Juli 2009

Fachreflexion Englisch: Anmerkungen zu Diskussionsrunden

Filed under: Sozioökonomische Linguistik — Schlagwörter: , , — grzega @ 01:06

Die vergangene Sitzung im Seminar „Fachreflexion Englisch“ fand in Form von drei Diskussionsrunden statt, die von jeweils einem Studenten geleitet wurden. Es ging um verschiedene Themen zum Nutzen der Linguistik für die Gesellschaft (sozioökonomische Linguistik). Diese Diskussionsrunden waren eine Möglichkeit des „Leistungsnachweises“ im Rahmen des Portfolios. Ich habe mich aus den Diskussionen rausgehalten, habe aber den Studierenden noch einige Anmerkungen im Nachhinein zukommen lassen wollen. Ich kopiere meine Rundmail an die Studierenden einfach hier herein:


Dear all,

let me add a few remarks on the three discussions last Monday.

First a few bibliographical hints since I was asked whether there are any books on linguistics for foreign language teaching. If you enter the key terms “applied linguistics”, “second language acquisition”, “Sprachlehrforschung”, “Sprachlernforschung” und “Fremdsprachenforschung” in OPAC, you will step on a number of books. Furthermore, I’d like to point out a few relevant web documents that were composed by students and myself in seminars: have a look at the section “Sprachdidaktik und Sprachlernforschung” at

Now briefly some more specific annotations.

Ad Topic 1: What can linguistics do in an age of economic crisis?

Many linguists say that “true linguistics” must not have any relevance for society. I, of course, disagree. Language is central to human nature. In my view, it is even a duty for linguistics to seek for its potential contributions to societal issues. Basic research and applied research must be treated at least equal. A few examples for applied linguistics in an age of economic crisis:

– PISA showed that there is a lack in reading competence when it comes to mathematical-scientific tasks. Linguists can help non-language teachers to integrate the training of reading skills in their subjects. People in knowledge-based societies need various forms of literacy.

– It was mentioned that engineers are needed. But what kind of engineers? In an age of global economics we need engineers with intercultural communicative competence. This is part of linguistics.

– Computer linguists help to improve speeech recognition and speech production programs to facilitate exchange of information.

One of the discussion participants asked, why didn’t linguists say anything before the crisis came, why didn’t they say that there is danger? As a matter of fact, there are linguists who commit themselves very much to topical political issues: George Lakoff and Noam Chomsky are two of them. Lakoff is focussing particularly on political rhetorics. Politicians have to master a difficult task. They have to recognize problems and they have to find solutions, but they risk losing the next elections if they say the truth. At present we are witnessing the perverse fact that more people during than before the crisis vote those who propagate a system that has precisely led to this economic crisis. Similar examples can be quoted for the past.

Ad Topic 2: What does successful expert-layperson communication look like?

One of the central competences in a knowledge-based society is communication between human and human and no longer man-machine-communication. A central source for getting information and knowledge is Wikipedia. Therefore, using Wikipedia correctly seems to me a central issue at school today. This must be integrated in non-language subjects, too. Teachers should not only be there to give facts and to teach certain methods specific to their discipline, but they should also practice with their students how to evaluate information they have found.

Somebody mentioned the topic of bad computer translations. In fact, there are some programs that are quite advanced. A crucial task for a translation program is to incorporate algorithms for a high degree of correct semantic interpretation. The semantic web is a huge issue also for the internet (e.g. to enable better search results for a question you enter in a search engine).

Someone also said that a teacher was bad because the students had to do the teaching. I would be very careful with such a general correlation. Evaluating ways always depends on your goal. There should be a clear distinction between effectivity (reaching the goal) and efficiency (reaching the goal in a comfortable and rapid or in an uncomfortable and slow manner). If you view classroom work only as a presentation of facts than the teacher justly stands in front of the class as the advanced and experienced “fact-holder”. Those of you who were in my introductory class had to merge into the didactic concept of learning by teaching (Lernen durch Lehren / LdL), because I do not only want to teach facts and terms, I also want you to train (a) playing with the facts (which helps to grasp them more fully and to anchor them in your mind more sustainably), (b) being able to present facts as experts to a lay audience, (c) being able to react to answers and questions from the audience and thus being to able to react to unanticipated things (enduring incalculability, i.e. something everyone has to be able to in the professional world), (d) being able to come up with exercises (a task that those of you who want to become teachers have to deal with), etc. If you are interested in more information on LdL, have a look at; student answers on the effectivity and efficiency were analyzed in an article that I wrote together with one of my Ph.D. students. It is available at

Ad Topic 3: Materials for self-taught English

Ideas by Vera F. Birkenbihl were mentioned. And it was criticized that they are not “scientifically proven”. What is “scientifically proven”? More and more often you can read that the “scientific methods” accepted in western countries cannot explain why something functions (cf. the effect of alternative cure methods). There may even be ethical doubts you can raise with western methods (e.g. working with control groups that you confront with a method you have experienced as worse). We will hear more about methods in our last session. And again, whether something can be seen scientifically convincing depends on what your goal is. Someone mentioned that it is not advisable to follow Birkenbihl’s suggestion to color material for effective memorization, since every computer-designer knows that you should not use more than three colors. This is not a general rule. It simply depends on your goal.

Nevertheless, it is a pity that Birkenbihl has not reflected more on your language teaching, e.g. the vocabulary that she selects and the way of training pronunciation. However, her method of “literal” translation is, in my view, very useful. I use it in my English lessons with adults, too. And also Wolfgang Butzkamm propagates this technique (you may want to read the article on Wolfgang Butzkamm in the German or the English Wikipedia).

Finally, several of you supported the view that grammar and vocabulary should be taught in context. Someone who tries to do that in the most rigid way is Michael Lewis. His approach is called the “lexical approach”.


Joachim Grzega


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