Printer Friendly

Mindfulness and communicative language teaching.


In the present paper we juxtapose the principles of Mindful Learning with the tenets of Communicative Language Teaching. We demonstrate how traditional instruction teaches to mere intelligence--not to mindfulness--in much the same way that traditional language instruction favors explicit learning over the development of an implicit linguistic system. Then, we demonstrate the connection between competence and performance from a mindful perspective.


Mindful Learning theory has a number of implications for Second Language Acquisition theory and foreign language teaching practice. The present paper demonstrates several connections between the principles of Mindful Learning and the tenets of Communicative Language Teaching and proposes a model of learner production from a mindful learning perspective. Although it is important to understand the theory that motivates the pedagogy, the primary focus of the present paper is to treat the pedagogical implications in depth.

Mindful Learning and Second Language Acquisition

Before discussing the relationship of Mindful Learning to Communicative Language Teaching, it is important to understand the relationship of Mindful Learning to Second Language Acquisition theory. Mindful learning is perhaps best understood by contrasting the myths of teaching with mindful alternatives. In this section we briefly summarize these parallels as they relate to Second Language Acquisition theory. We have focused upon Langer's (1997) work "The Power of Mindful Learning" for its strong heuristic value for understanding the choices made during second language instruction (see also Carson, Shih, & Langer, 2001; Langer, 1989; Langer, Hatem, Joss, & Howell, 1989; Langer & Moldoveanu, 2000).

The first myth of learning is that "the basics" need to be learned so well that they become second nature. Langer's (1997) mindful alternative is that there are general truths about how something should be performed. Teachers use repetitive exercises to ensure students learn the basics. In second language classrooms, these repetitive exercises manifest themselves as drills. Drills are not an effective use of class time because they do not promote tacit form-meaning connections.

The second myth of learning is that paying attention means staying focused on one thing at a time. Langer's mindful alternative is that students can use "soft vigilance." Traditional language teaching practice is centered on paradigms. These paradigms are charts that contain, for example, every conjugation of a particular verb in a particular tense. Langer's notion of soft vigilance applies to the way that the learner processes language for meaning when a paradigm is not the goal of interaction.

The third myth of learning is that delaying gratification is important. Langer's mindful alternative is that learning can be its own reward when students are the ones making the insights. Tedious tasks are assumed to reap benefits in the future. Traditional language instruction relies on explicit explanation followed by drills. Language learners need to be exposed to comprehensible, meaning-bearing language (input) so that they can develop implicit knowledge inductively.

The fourth myth of learning is that rote memorization is necessary for education. Langer's mindful alternative is to help students to make material meaningful for themselves. Material learned by rote memory has no personal meaning, yet language learners are often required to produce forms that they have not yet internalized (acquired). In such circumstances, language learners often have no recourse but to consciously manipulate forms and structures learned by rote memory, bypassing their implicit, systematic knowledge base in order to perform a particular task.

The fifth and final myth of learning is that there are right and wrong answers. Langer's mindful alternative is to help students to find possible answers and explore their own standards. Teaching learners that there are right or wrong answers discourages them from developing their own framework for determining what is or is not a right answer. Approaching language acquisition developmentally encourages learners to use their implicit knowledge to judge what is and is not grammatical.

Learning vs. Acquisition & Audiolingualism vs. Communicative Language Teaching

At the core of the myths of learning is the notion that intelligence, not mindfulness, is the ultimate goal. Many second language instructors, adhere to certain (mis)conceptions about second language development based on the notion that learning, not acquisition is the ultimate goal. The contrast between learning and acquisition is perhaps most clearly illustrated by juxtaposing the Audio-Lingual Method with Communicative Language Teaching. In Audiolingualism, explicit learning is the ultimate goal. In contrast, the goal of Communicative Language Teaching is the acquisition of an implicit system.

Savignon (1997) summarizes and contrasts the tenets of the Audio-Lingual Method and in her landmark book on communicative competence. Although Second Language Acquisition scholars (Savignon 1972, Lee and VanPatten 2003) have long repudiated audiolingualism, its tenets still find their way into language teaching practice. In the following section, we compare and contrast notions of mindfulness and intelligence with related tenets of audiolingualism and Communicative Language Teaching to demonstrate that teaching to acquisition is a mindful approach and that promoting explicit language learning is analogous to teaching merely to intelligence.

Intelligence corresponds to reality by identifying the optimum fit between individual and environment. It is a linear process moving from problem to resolution as rapidly as possible. Intelligence is a means of achieving desired outcomes. It is developed from an observing expert's perspective, which focuses on stable categories. Intelligence depends on remembered facts and learned skills in contexts that are sometimes perceived as novel. Mindfulness controls reality by identifying several possible perspectives from which any situation may be viewed. It is a process of stepping back from perceived problems and perceived solutions to view situations as novel. Mindfulness is a process through which meaning is given to outcomes. It is developed from an actor's ability to experience personal control by shifting perspectives. Mindfulness depends on the fluidity of knowledge and skills and recognizes both advantages and disadvantages in each.

Audiolingualism treats language learning as habit formation. Learning occurs mainly thorough imitation and repetition. The notion of language as habit formation can be seen as a vestige of the influence of behaviorism on second language teaching. According to this view, language performance consists of four basic skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. Language learning is defined in terms of discrete skills that learners need in order to perform any given task. Development of classroom materials and sequence are based on a contrastive analysis between the learner's native language and the target language. In the classroom, the basic unit of practice is always a complete structure. Learning begins with listening and speaking, regardless of the goals of the learner. Production proceeds from repetition to substitution until responses are automatic. Creative language use is delayed until learners have "mastered" the target structures. Production errors in structural or phonological features imply that the patterns have not received sufficient prior drilling.

Communicative Language Teaching encourages learners to use whatever knowledge they have of the target language system to express meaning in a variety of ways. This approach is consistent with a generative view of language development, which recognizes that imitation and repetition do not account for instances of creative language use. Classroom language use is dependent on the roles of the participants, the situation and the goal of the interaction. This approach encourages the development of systematic knowledge with which learners can approach a novel situation. Development of classroom materials proceeds from an analysis of learner needs and interests and learning begins with the needs and interests of the learner. In the classroom, the teacher assumes a variety of roles, permitting the learner to participate in a wide range of situations. The basic unit of practice is always a chunk of discourse. Production begins with the conveyance of meaning. Spontaneous expression is encouraged at the beginning levels of instruction. Formal accuracy in the beginning stages is neither required nor expected. Fluency is emphasized over accuracy at the beginning levels. Learners are encouraged to communicate their own meanings from the outset. Learners will unavoidable rely on conscious monitoring whenever task demands exceed the capacity of the implicit system, but the ultimate goal is the development of the implicit second language system.

There are a number of parallels between audiolingualism and teaching to intelligence. Each defines the desired outcomes for the learner. Each assigns a primary role to rote memorization. The teacher is the expert and center of all knowledge and interaction. Learners are expected to "master" the basics before moving on to the meaningful application of knowledge. There are also a number of parallels between Communicative Language Teaching and teaching to mindfulness. The learner is an active participant. These learner-centered approaches represent a departure from traditional student and teacher roles. Each provides for outcomes that are meaningful for the learner, leading to more successful integration of knowledge. Each allows for creative approaches to a situation, preparing the learner to deal with novel situations.

A Model of Learner Production

We offer the following model of the relation of teaching goals, classroom techniques, and performance. When we consciously, or subconsciously, hold a belief that intelligence is the goal of education we enact specific classroom behaviors that may actually be inconsistent with our pedagogical beliefs. In the case of language learning, these behaviors include drills that do not promote language acquisition. These techniques develop students' skills in a particular area and yield a specific form of performance that draws on consciously controlled knowledge, not on acquired knowledge.

In contrast, when we consciously hold a belief that mindfulness is the goal of education our behavior in the classroom shifts to create an environment that allows for language acquisition. In such a classroom environment we begin with meaning, not delaying it until learners have mastered the basics. Instruction is aimed not at learner performance, but at the competence that underlies that performance. This model offers a means for understanding the parallels discussed above. It also suggests that by looking at errors that reflect conscious monitoring, not language competence, we can better understand what we might be doing in the classroom.

Because we believe that we want mindful students we work to develop their competence. The key to understanding this model is to recognize that that a mindful, communicative approach yields performance that qualitatively different from the performance that results from an approach directed toward intelligence and learning. A learner who depends on consciously controlled knowledge will be less fluent and will tend to produce utterances that resemble the first language grammar "dressed up" in second language vocabulary.

Implications for Second Language Instruction

As the instructor who teaches according to the principles of mindfulness aspires beyond teaching merely to intelligence, the language instructor who teaches communicatively aspires to teach to acquisition, not merely learning. VanPatten (2003) provides five theoretical implications for second language instruction. When we foreground both our desire to develop mindfulness and our desire to adopt communicative practices we increase the likelihood that our classrooms will operate according to these implications.

The More Input the Better

VanPatten defines input as language the learner hears or reads that has communicative intent or is meaning-based. Optimal input makes meaning central. Some methods that deliver optimal input are immersion, content-based instruction, using picture files, meaningful vocabulary presentations, and the use of level-appropriate reading material of interest to learners. The Natural Approach, an approach that favors input over abstraction, is another means of optimizing input. Total Physical Response (TPR), is also a way of presenting meaningful input. In Total Physical Response, learners respond non-verbally to the input, usually acting out commands. This emphasis on processing meaningful language over manipulating formal, abstract knowledge is a mindful approach to language instruction.

The More Interaction the Better

Teacher-fronted discussions relegate learners to a passive role. Task-based instruction maximizes the interaction between learners. Interaction promotes acquisition by allowing learners to manage the input they receive, making it more comprehensible. Interaction also heightens learner awareness of form, pushing learners to process input actively. This emphasis on negotiation of meaning is a mindful approach to language instruction.

All Learner Production Should be Meaning-Based, or Communicative

Mechanical drills are not an effective use of instructional time. Learner utterances should neither be forced nor constrained. An emphasis on outcomes that are meaningful to the learner is a mindful approach to language instruction.

Focus on Form (or Grammar Instruction) Should be Meaning-Based and Tied to Input or Communication

Grammar instruction should keep meaning in focus. When instructors respond to or recast learner utterances, they should keep the focus on meaning and form. Confirmation checks can also be used to negotiate a correction and clarification requests to overtly inquire about the intended message. Text enhancement can be used with comprehension tasks to heighten learner awareness of formal features of the text. Structured input is a type of input enhancement in which learners must pay attention to form in order to construct meaning. This emphasis on language as a means to a meaningful end is a mindful approach to language instruction.

We Should Watch Out for What We Expect of Learners

Production is the end product of language acquisition. Forcing learners to talk too much before they've built up a developing system will lead them to production strategies that require manipulation of explicit knowledge. It is important to remember, however, that comprehension alone does not maximize acquisition. Structured output is a form of instruction that helps to reinforce form-meaning connections by requiring learners to access forms in their developing systems during an information-exchange task. This learner-centered approach to language production is a mindful approach to language instruction.


The myths of learning, as explained by Langer (1997) closely parallel the (mis)conceptions about second language acquisition seen in VanPatten (2003). The givens of second language acquisition also mirror Langer's mindful alternatives. While it is important to understand these theoretical foundations in relation to mindfulness, the present article adopts a primarily pedagogical perspective. We argue that Communicative Language Teaching is a mindful approach to language instruction, just as the Audio-Lingual Method parallels teaching merely to intelligence. Having long repudiated audiolingualism, Second Language Acquisition scholars also have much to contribute to the discussion of mindfulness. Language also teachers have much to learn from Mindful Learning theory.

Language instructors whose teaching practice still contains vestiges of Audiolingualism may find the case for mindful learning more compelling than the case for acquisitionoriented instruction that language scholars have long advocated. Because mindfulness theory transcends academic disciplines, it lends authority to the case that language scholars have been making for Communicative Language Teaching.


We gratefully acknowledge the support of the VOICES project at Saint Louis University.


Carson, S., Shih, M., & Langer, E. (2001). Sit still and pay attention. Journal of Adult Development, 8, 183-188.

Langer, E. J. (1989). Mindfulness. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Langer, E. J. (1997). The power of mindful learning. Reading, MA: Peruses.

Langer, E. J., Hatem, M., Joss, J., & Howell, M. (1989). Conditional teaching and mindful learning: The role of uncertainty in education. Creative Research Journal, 2, 139-159.

Langer, E. J., & Moldoveneau, M. (2000). The construction of mindfulness. Journal of Social Issues, 56, 1-9.

Lee, J. F., & VanPatten, B. (2003). Making communicative language teaching happen. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Savignon, S. J. (1998). Communicative competence: Theory and classroom practice (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

VanPatten, B. (2003). From input to output: A teacher's guide to second language acquisition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Tony Houston, University of Missouri-Rolla

Paaige K. Turner, Saint Louis University

Tony Houston, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Spanish at the University of Missouri-Rolla. Paaige K. Turner, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Communication at Saint Louis University.
COPYRIGHT 2007 Rapid Intellect Group, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Turner, Paaige K.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 2007
Previous Article:Interdisciplinary curriculum design.
Next Article:Reconsidering information literacy.

Related Articles
Student language narratives and discrimination.
Students' perceptions about Japanese teacher talk.
Reconciling language teaching and legal concepts.
Reconceptualizing textbooks in culture teaching.
Peer evaluations and the language classroom.
Mindful learning and second language acquisition.
Content-based ESL instruction and curriculum.
Attendees of the May meeting of the Greater New York Chapter of the Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM) were treated to a mini seminar titled...

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters