In favour of natural English: a terminological stance

The English Kitchen - Natural English

Natural English: a terminological stance

I want to take a few minutes of your time to explain why I like the term ‘natural English’, especially in preference to any of the other labels on offer, and which I am sometimes associated with, like ‘Dogme’, ‘teaching unplugged’, or ‘the Lexical Approach’.

For me, the idea behind the term ‘natural English’ subsumes all the good elements of the other ideas that I see as positive in the ELT world, without any of the baggage that those others come with.

Let me first explain what I mean by the term ‘natural’. For me, natural ways of learning languages root the learning process in communication, which is of course the genuine purpose of learning language. I do not consider studying a language to pass an exam, never to really use it again as a process of learning but of more-or-less-forced information download and compression demanded by elitist universities, arrogant employers, and other institutions. But I will be writing more on this topic in due course. Watch this space.

So ‘natural English’, therefore is, first of all, language that people will use to communicate. So I think, and I’m not alone here, that it is best taught in a way that is conducive to promoting communication in the classroom. And there is a good reason to suppose that the idea of ‘the communicative approach’ is pretty much dead in the water, and couldn’t sustain itself for very long, as alluded to in this discussion between two of the luminaries of our field.

Most contemporary scriptures coursebooks use a lot of language that people are unlikely to hear or read, and in contexts that are sometimes truly bizarre. Very few of them are what I would call ‘natural’.

To take just one random example, from Face 2 Face Intermediate, page 28. In this video/listening text, four friends are sat around discussing a future trip to India. The conversation is divided between two couples, one who plan to go and the other who have been and are being asked for recommendations. Now, the general idea here seems authentic: friends do in fact ask each other for recommendations of places to visit on holiday. But how often do teachers pressing play on this activity ask themselves: are there any elements present in this presentation of language that would not be present in a real life scenario? And likewise, what is missing?

I would argue that the conversation is so incredibly contrived to delivery specific language items and be optimally accessible for ‘B1+ learners’ that the resulting script is deformed. In a natural conversation of this sort, there would be all kinds of diversions to anecdotes, unrelated tangents, and a lot of pauses, false starts, retractions, and other features of discourse that so many coursebook writers seemingly want to protect learners from. The problem is that whether they speak to learners of the same level of proficiency/competency, or more fluent speakers, these kinds of elements are going to be there, and they need to be ready for it if what they have acquired is to be termed useful, let alone natural.

What I feel is most missing from these kinds of texts are the authentic feelings and resultant utterances that come from people that actually are planning to go to India, and aren’t just smug voice artists sat round a microphone pretending the situation. As we’re often told in CPD seminars and conferences, sometimes how something is said can be as important if not more important than what is said, and I just think that middle-class English people (who are sometimes pretending to be working class Australians, which is another point I don’t even need to get into, do I?) pretending to want to go to India, do not approximate the value of this kind of genuine expression, from the learner’s point of view, especially not in terms of affect.

By contrast, when they heard the story of the British girl who won a talent show in China, told on page 20 of ‘Authentic Listening Resource Pack’, the excitement in her voice had my teenage students excited for her, and it really helped to convey the situation she was in and the emotions she was going through. This is more natural, and therefore objectively more useful (and more stimulating of affect) in preparing learners of English to engage with communicating in that language.

Now, I have a lot of time for ‘Dogme’/ ‘teaching unplugged’, and don’t have many critical things to say about the notions put forward by those advancing this approach or its practitioners; I’m a practitioner myself, in many ways. However, I don’t like either term, and never have.

Dogme, despite what anyone says, is related to the word dogma. The filmmakers who coined the word for their movement were being dogmatic, and the vow of chastity was a real thing. I’m not knocking the idea, and nearly all the Dogme movies are among my top 50 of all time. It is a good way of keeping films natural. But the word has proved unattractive even if filmmakers beyond the movement have been influenced by the more naturalistic, semi-documentary style. And I think it’s unapppealing precisely because people don’t like being told what to do.

Thornbury of course talks of being ‘Dogmetic’ and not ‘dogmatic’, but it feels like a Sisyphean task to try and rescue and restyle that word in my view. English is probably the least dogmatic language I know of, and in fact is a mongrel resulting from the conflux of a great many other linguistic traditions as well as some fantastic immigrant additions. So let’s not try to change the meaning of words in order to advance an approach to teaching.

There are similar reasons for not using the term ‘unplugged’, as well. It’s another unhelpful analogy with entertainment. First there were acoustic instruments, and those worked just well for thousands of years. And then in the mid twentieth century there came the electronic revolution and people started to use electric instruments. And we used the term ‘unplugged’ to refer to those that, usually temporarily abandoned their electric instruments in favour of acoustic ones. So Nirvana, Alice in Chains, etc. all made quieter, more melodious live albums for MTV.

But just as the term ‘atheist’ isn’t very helpful as it only indicates the absence of a specific kind of spiritual belief (theism), as pointed out by Sam Harris, so too I don’t think we need a term to simply express a negative and state that we’re NOT plugged. Is there nothing more that advocates of natural language teaching can say to promote their approach than it is not plugged into IWBs and coursebooks. What can be positively said about the approach? How about that it is natural, for all of the reasons I’ve given above, and more?

The last theoretical aspect that informs my teaching philosophy is the Lexical Approach, which I now consider to be more or less axiomatic, to the point where I’m not really interested in discussing it, to be honest. That language consists of lexis first and foremost, and that lexis is what most students lack, seem self-evident to me. I’m a huge champion of teaching lexically, and unlike some, I don’t think that teaching lexically is mutually-exclusive with teaching naturally, at all.

In fact, I think that since language consists mainly of chunks, and since guys like Lewis, Hoey and Selivan have done such great work showing us how frequency of occurrence and colligation can help us decide what to teach our students and in what way, such contributions seem invaluable to me. How else can we help learners really learn our language unless we unlock all the doors and then point out which ones contain the most interesting and informative rooms?

But since I can easily imagine that there are teachers out there teaching lexically but NOT naturally, I can’t simply adopt this as a catch-all descriptor for my teaching philosophy.

So, in the end, I think that natural is probably the best choice I can make in this regard.

Finally, I want to tackle a couple of anticipated rebuttals:

I know there are some people that like to say that natural is an overly-prescriptive term. Such people would say that whatever we select as natural has the danger of becoming normative. But I think that it is impossible to live without norms and prescriptions, it’s just a case of choosing the best ones that we can and making our best contribution to an ‘open market’ of ideas. Learners will then feel free to gravitate towards those that feel most natural to them, rather than being captured by the incumbency of an industry controlled by examining boards and the publishers that cater to them.

We could all sit around forever discussing David Hume and saying that we’re not really sure what we ought to do about teaching language, but I’m of the camp where instead we make a choice, provided it’s an informed, considered choice. That’s what I’m doing with natural English.

And lastly, there is the issue of Krashen. An acquaintance to whom I showed an early draft of this article said to me, “you’ve chosen this term because you think it has the least baggage, but ‘natural English’ sounds like ‘natural approach’, and therefore you are inextricably connected with Krashen.

My first response to that was to say that the most important lesson my eleven years in this job has shown me, is that nearly everything that Stephen Krashen has written about language acquisition has seemed congruous with my experience. I think the man is right, and if this article about terminology is to in any way be associated with anyone that’s come before me, I’d be most happy that it was a refreshing voice such as his.

My second response was to say that Krashen is simply not the only voice that I’ve listened to and now draw on. There is a great tradition of natural English with many advocates and many practitioners. The only contribution I’m attempting to make in this piece is one of choosing a better name.

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