Reference: Tella, S. 1999. Teaching Through a Foreign Language Revisited: From Tool to Empowering Mediator.
In Tella, S., Räsänen, A. & Vähäpassi, A. (eds.) Teaching Through a Foreign Language: From Tool to Empowering Mediator. An Evaluation of 15 Finnish Polytechnic and University Level Programmes, with a Special View to Language and Communication. Publications of Higher Education Evaluation Council 5. Helsinki: Edita, 26-31.

Teaching Through a Foreign Language Revisited: From Tool to Empowering Mediator

Two of the basic statements that the Evaluation Team heard at almost every site they visited were the following:

The foreign language is just a tool.

English is just the medium of instruction.

These statements seem to be rooted in an innocent and somewhat naïve belief that foreign languages can be regarded as simple tools in Teaching Through a Foreign Language (TTFL). The Evaluation Team, however, is of the opinion that the situation is much more complex and needs further analysis, which might also prove beneficial in these programmes’ future development plans.

In the following commentary, we will give a few justifications and reasons as to why we believe it is necessary and would be fruitful to broaden the current reductionist belief considerably.

Our first observation is that too little conscious attention is paid to the role, significance and potential of foreign language in most of the 15 programmes evaluated in the autumn of 1998. In the majority of the programmes, the foreign language component has been scaled down ("downsized") and sometimes hidden behind the subject-centred emphasis so well that occasionally the person(s) in charge of the programme did not even bother to mention the language component. On frequent occasions, the foreign language, in this evaluation English, was not even considered a language to be included in the curriculum but was hidden under "business communication", "learning skills" or a similar course label. Logically, language learning aims were not expressed, set very explicitly or attended to in these cases, either. Instead, there seemed to be an implicit view of the foreign language just being picked up through extensive exposure and use. This kind of attitude to foreign languages could best be described as instrumentalist, bound to lead to a narrow view of the potential of foreign languages in the implementation of any TTFL programme.

In several cases, the language component was referred to, but in a rather non-committal way, as if something had to be done about the language as well, but the main focus naturally was to be geared towards the content. Only in one or two cases evaluated had the programme providers realised the immense potential which we believe there is in the foreign language component, if it is systematically built in the programme, to co-exist and to co-influence together with the content matter. Generally speaking, most programmes were theme-based and content-oriented, while very few had attempted to balance language and content through focused attention and apposite instruction. Meetings shared by content specialists and language specialists, and organised on a regular basis, might prove beneficial in alleviating any negative effects of the present poor integration and in reinforcing a synergistic situation for the future.

Is a foreign language, then, just a tool? And why are foreign languages so often called tools?

We believe that the fundamental reason for calling a foreign language (FL) a tool is derived from an indirect and perhaps unconscious adoption of some of the now discredited accounts based on technological determinism (cf. eg. Taylor 1980; Bigum 1997). Even if these explanations are mostly used to refer to arguments associated with attempts to justify the use of modern technology in classrooms, we can see a parallelism between these kinds of arguments and equalling FLs to tools. Similarly, in this comparison, foreign languages are regarded as something much less important than, on the one hand, the content, and, on the other hand, the classroom context which mediates and shapes teacher/learner interaction and the teaching/learning process.

If foreign languages are just called tools, they are deprived of all value-laden assumptions, leading to a more ‘neutral’ technology that can then be handled more easily by most teachers or lecturers whose own expertise lies elsewhere. Speaking of languages as tools also implies that they are seen as an exclusively technical means to higher-level educational ends. The motivational framework for this kind of reasoning is based on the idea of the educational contexts being the most important elements in the teaching/learning environment. Just as in Bigum’s metaphor computers are depicted as tools in classrooms, speaking of foreign languages as tools is used to enlist and reassure novice users. This is an understandable explanation though no acceptable excuse in those cases in which the teacher, often an expert in his or her own domain of science or knowledge, is asked, requested or perhaps compelled to start teaching in a language with which he or she is not familiar enough.

Is there anything wrong, then, in the argument of FL being just a tool? Well, yes, because foreign languages can be much more than just tools or means of instruction. One way of looking at this problem is to use a three-tier categorisation, the aim of which is to facilitate comprehension of this complex situation. The categories presented here are modified from Jonassen’s (1995) ideas of relating human behaviour and the surrounding technology. By using this comparison, we argue that foreign languages can be used as (i) tools, but that they also serve as (ii) intellectual partners, and that they help to construct and maintain new (iii) educational contexts.

At the moment, an increasingly and steadily growing number of high-profile teachers, tutors and lecturers are becoming cognisant of the fact that they should know more of these various interpretations of language use, in order to keep up with the latest developments and in order to be more capable of coping with new challenges offered by TTFL classes. Presenting these three categories in this publication aims to make it easier for teachers of other subjects and disciplines to understand what sort of inner meanings foreign languages can give to TTFL classes.

Speaking of foreign languages as tools refers to the primary category of artifacts in Wartofsky’s (1979) classical categorisation. Foreign languages are then compared with axes, saws, hammers and other tools humankind has made extensive use of in its production in particular. In foreign language contexts, other kinds of tools should perhaps be equalled to language, viz. dictionaries, thesauruses, spellers, manuals but also, if Cole’s (1995) extended classification is accepted, computers and even telecommunications networks. We argue that this first level is a good starting point but it is certainly not enough.

The secondary level is concerned with intellectual partnership that foreign languages can give to the learners. This level includes various representations both of primary artifacts and of modes of action using primary artifacts but also, more importantly, cultural models (social interaction, discourse, word meaning). At this level, the question is of articulating what learners already know, ie., representing their prior knowledge, reflecting on what they have learned and how they came to know it, supporting the internal negotiation of meaning making; constructing personal representations of meaning, and supporting mindful thinking. In Jonassen’s terminology (1995, 62), intellectual partners not only extend but also amplify the capabilities of human beings. In teaching through a foreign language this level is then extremely important, as it forms the bridge or gateway to the cognitive levels of the learners.

The second level can also be seen to form a natural link to the technological tools that can be used in TTFL within the framework of an anchored instruction model (cf. eg. Lin et al. 1995, 59). This is an approach that aims at developing a wide variety of anchors that can serve as common grounds for further studying and learning. Anchors in this sense can be videos, computer games, simulations, hands-on activities on the computers, computer-mediated communication activities, etc. Anchors can also be the different kinds of gadgets, instruments, tools and means used in the learning environment, as necessitated by the respective disciplines, subjects or domains of science and knowledge. Technological tools are intended to contribute to the learners’ social construction and appropriation of knowledge, instead of just letting them restate what has earlier been said or told by the teacher or by the textbook.

The third level is concerned with new emerging educational contexts and learning environments. Our main argument is that foreign languages can–and should–be used to create, establish and maintain these new environments that are beneficial and conducive to meaningful learning. At this level, meaningful real-world problems, situations and contexts are replicated through foreign language, highlighting and representing the different beliefs, perspectives, opinions, views, arguments, claims and justifications of human beings. At this level, learners should be thought of as members of knowledge-building communities of learners, not "simple" learners or students. In this sense, foreign languages help constitute relatively autonomous "worlds" of their own, which establish social relations across different cultures.

Cultural aspects are important at all levels, regardless of the age of the students (cf. eg., Mustaparta & Tella 1999, 37). As Yli-Renko (1996) argues, language and culture are generally regarded as inseparable and learned. Language is the fundamental condition of a culture, and culture is an integral part of the interaction between language and thought. Both transmit beliefs, values, perceptions and norms. Language expresses the thinking behind the culture as well as its worldviews. Dede (1995, 47—48) points out that historically the social context cues guiding communication have usually been more physical than verbal (e.g., modes of dress, tone of voice, posture), so that now in virtual worlds (worlds stripped of non-verbal contexts), users have unconsciously felt the need to create a new type of rhetoric for exchanges on the Internet, as it is felt to be vital in distributed constructivist environments. – In TTFL contexts, this level is directly related to cross-cultural and transnational communication. The situation is further complicated by a legion of other factors that intervene. For instance, many TTFL classes in our universities and polytechnics are multi-age, multi-degree, multi-cultural or multi-lingual, generating a lot of problems that should be tackled gently but efficiently. During the site visits we saw several examples of the tension between Finnish communication patterns and those typically represented by people coming from different countries all over the world. The question may be of differences between high-context and low-context cultures (cf. eg. Tella 1996), differences with which the teaching staff of the TTFL programmes should be more familiar because misunderstandings do happen and might even lead to claims by the students of racism or indifference in teaching or supervision situations. In these cases, "treatment" should start from sensitivity training, aiming at fostering understanding of the differences among people so as to resolve interpersonal conflicts. The role of the FL in these situations is often to help to overcome the problem that arises when group-focused issues are reduced simply to interpersonal conflicts instead of contextualising interpersonal relations within group issues. A simple interpretation of language as a tool does not help in these situations, which call for a more sensitive analysis of the linguistic and paralinguistic cues embedded in the problematic issue under discussion. It is partly through language that we can give students cognitive support (eg., coaching, modelling, scaffolding, team working, time management skills, study skills) and help them find and develop personally appropriate studying strategies for learning purposes. The teacher’s good language proficiency is an important asset when accommodating these kinds of different learning styles and strategies.

Based on the above, we find it too restrictive to speak of foreign languages as simple tools. But how else could we then express the multiplicity of the functions and roles of foreign languages in the teaching/learning process?

One way towards a more modern interpretation might be found in the ways foreign language methodology has advanced during the past 20 years. Some of the recent emphases are concerned with the nature of communication itself (authentic, genuine, real-time, dialogic and technology-facilitated; eg. Tella & Mononen-Aaltonen 1998), others with the learner’s task (autonomy, collaboration, initiative-taking, responsibility-assuming, distributed expertise, shared cognition). There has been a drastic shift from a closed linguistic system towards an open system of knowledge and communication, underlining the importance of pragmatic, communicative and cross-cultural proficiency, intellectual challenges embedded in the use of language, and the trend towards authentic, genuine and immediate/online/real-time communication, enriched with mediated modes of communication.

The latest constructs deal with the paradigm shift in foreign language methodology, viz. the pedagogical shift from a medium (= a tool) towards mediation (cf. eg. Widdowson 1990; Tella 1997, 36—37).

The medium concept implied that the message was conveyed through the language–the meaning of the communication act was linguistically encoded (a traditional structural view). In the mediation concept, the question is not what linguistic expressions communicate but how people communicate by using linguistic expressions, so the question is about the pragmatics of language use, pragmatic features and problem-solving situations, an eclectic but critical methodological approach and in-depth understanding of other people and cultures, in addition to one’s own. One of the basic principles of the mediation concept is that the language is controlled by intake, not by input. This aspect reflects the belief in the learner’s capacity to "take in" and to digest language material to a varying extent. In current pedagogical thinking, it is central to allow FL learners and users to control the intake themselves. It should not be regulated by the textbook, the curriculum or, worse still, by the teacher. It is understandable therefore that if the teacher’s FL proficiency is poor or leaves much to be desired, the whole situation is bound to affect the learning potential of the student counter-productively. In this light, and especially if the learner is seen as an autonomous, self-regulating and self-directed learner, the teacher’s role becomes more than that of a resource person. Additionally, the role of the language itself becomes more important than just a tool. Language becomes an empowering mediator between the teacher, the content matter and the culture represented by these two on the one hand, and the community of learners and the learning tasks on the other.


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(Lehdistötiedote, in Finnish) (Päätöspalaveri, in Finnish: arvioinnin lähtökohtia PDF, keskeisiä suosituksia PDF, vieraskieli: työvälineestä mediaattoriin PDF)