A New Perspective on the Goals of TEFL in China

A New Perspective on the Goals of TEFL in China

In China, the English syllabi for all levels fail to describe or prescribe the ultimate goal of teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) accurately and scientifically. "Communicative competence" blurs the difference between native language acquisition and foreign language acquisition, while "language skills training" constitutes only part of the task of TEFL. Language is the most important means of human communication, and communication is the most important function of language. Therefore, the ultimate goal of language teaching is "communicative competence", while the goal of foreign language teaching  mainly discussed in this paper should be "intercultural communicative competence", which conforms the most perfectly to the nature of language, language teaching, and foreign language teaching.


Why do we teach and learn the English language? This is the first question confronting all people involved in the profession of teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL). Whenever we talk about the goal or objectives of TEFL, we might think of the so-called "language skills" including listening, speaking, reading and writing. The acquisition of these skills have been well-discussed by many researchers and practitioners, and detailed descriptions and statements can also be found easily in the current English teaching syllabi of all levels. However, these language skills are not the whole story and they only contribute to part of the ultimate goal. The English syllabi we are using fail to describe or prescribe the ultimate goal of TEFL scientifically or accurately. Both the nature of language and the nature of language teaching imply that TEFL should be aimed at developing students, intercultural communicative competence.

Language Is Communication and Language Teaching Is for Communication

It is generally recognized that language is a "vehicle for the expression or exchanging of thoughts, concepts, knowledge, and information as well as the fixing and transmission of experience and knowledge."(Bussmann, 1996: 253) And according to P. H. Mathews, language is "the phenomenon of vocal and written communication among human beings generally."(Mathews, 1997:198) Briefly, language, since the very day it was born, has been serving as a device of human communication, and it is, if not the only, the most important device for human communication, and conversely, "Communication is (the) most fundamental social function of language."(Liu Ling, et al, 1984: 16)

Now that language is communication, it naturally follows that the goal of language instruction is to equip the learners with the ability to use the language for communication, namely, communicative competence. It is well-known that the "communicative approach", which has been predominating over TEFL for decades, emerges from the theory of "language as communication", and the goal of language teaching is to develop communicative competence. As Rivers and Temperley state, "When selecting learning activities, we must always remember that our goal is for the students to be able to interact freely with others: to understand what others wish to communicate in the broadest sense, and to be able to convey to others what they themselves wish to share (whether as a reaction to a communication or as an original contribution to the exchange). (Rivers & Temperley, 1978: 3-4) Consequently, the orthodox "four language skills" reasonably fall into the categories of vocal and written communications respectively: listening and speaking are the most important forms of verbal or vocal communication, while reading and writing are the most important forms of written communication.

Foreign Language Teaching Is for Intercultural Communicative Competence

Actually, in as early as 1960s, when "communicative approach" just began to prevail, Ruth R. Cornfield, a distinguished American scholar of communications in education, managed to give a new answer to the first question concerning FLT (foreign language teaching): "Why do we teach and learn a foreign language?" His book, Foreign Language Instruction: Dimensions and Horizons, though not entitled "communicative approach", did set communication to the goal of FLT. In his book, Cornfield put forward a list of objectives of FLT as:

  • For use in world understanding,
  • For use in commerce and industry,
  • For use in travel,
  • For pleasure and 
  • For greater insight into one,s own language (Cornfield, 1966: 1).

Probably others can make other lists, similar or different, but Cornfield,s ideas no doubt greatly inspired those who later advocated "communicative approach", though he did not abstract his ideas into the later popular term. The first three objectives he enumerates here obviously all belong to communication activities. Then, what,s the difference between communication in one,s native language and communication in a foreign language?

Many people have attempted to find better ways to improve the teaching of foreign languages by studying the acquisition and use of mother tongue. A native speaker,s language proficiency implies the ability to act as a speaker, listener, reader, and even a writer in the diverse ways. The intuitive mastery that the native speaker possesses to use and comprehend language appropriately in the process of interaction and in relation to social context has been called by Hymes "communicative competence", which has been widely accepted in language instruction and has been taken by communicative approach as its ultimate goal. By "communicative competence", Hymes means a competence of when to speak, when not, and as to what to talk about with whom, when, where, in what manner (Stern, 1983: 111). This apparently implies that its focus is that intuitive grasp of social and cultural rules and meanings that are carried by utterance. Furthermore, it suggests that language teaching recognizes a social, interpersonal and cultural dimension and attributes to it just as much importance as to the grammatical and phonological aspect. Then in the same logical sense, the goal of FLT should also be to develop the learner,s communicative competence, or the competence of using the foreign language in communication. Of course this communication differs from the communication implemented between the people of the same cultural community; it is a communication between people of different cultures and it is communication across cultures, briefly, intercultural communication. Then, it again naturally follows that the goal of foreign language instruction is to help the learners to develop a competence to use the foreign language for communication with people of different cultural backgrounds. Consequently, Intercultural Communicative Competence ought to be established as the ultimate goal of TEFL.

Intercultural communicative competence implies that to use the foreign language for real intercultural communicative purposes, cultural instruction is to be implemented together with the teaching of linguistic knowledge and training of language skills, or rather, cultural instruction should be integrated into TEFL to ensure the appropriateness as well as the correctness of the use of English in intercultural communication (which I have discussed in a previously pub

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