I've been working with a woman, native Japanese speaker, whose English is very good. She uses me as a "native informant" -- a resource for developing her awareness of English. (She is a Gattegno teacher/student.)
Recently we have been working on her translations of participants' feedback on a Silent Way workshop by Don Cherry. Typically, her translations are very clear with very few errors. Where I come in is helping identify the bits that are "not natural" and helping her as she finds her way to the more natural way of saying things. By "natural" we mean, as a native speaker would say (usually, as I would say, though I am careful to inhibit and let her find other, equally natural, expressions on her own).
This work got me thinking about what I am trying to do when I am teaching language. I think it may be useful to think of language learning as having three basic elements:
Think of each as one point on a triangle, related to the other two.
Communication is the most basic function, the most basic element of language learning. Is it the root or origin of the other two? I don't know. It is the most important, though, because it includes the main goal of language and it motivates the other two elements -- without communication, neither correctness nor naturalness has any meaning.
So, I emphasize communication in my teaching. I also do this because my objective is to create a learning dialogue. Communication is the vehicle for establishing the dialogue and its medium. In practical terms, it means my first priority is to get people communicating effectively, regardless of the errors or strangeness of their language -- as long as they can communicate effectively I am happy.
Because the effort to speak correctly so often impedes communication, I downplay correctness except insofar as it matters for communication.
In Japan, this is an especially reasonable approach given the years of preparation students put in studying "correctness". (Their spelling of English words, for example, is fantastic.)
But, I sometimes wonder when and how to incorporate work on "correctness"...
Correctness is what schools here focus on and the thing on which students are tested (again and again). It is not unusual to meet someone who can read War and Peace in English but can't have a simple conversation. (If I exaggerate, it's only slightly.)
Correctness is often crucial for communication -- a mistake in articles or pronouns can lead to misunderstanding -- but not on its own terms, I think. In other words, what makes correctness matter is that it can impede or enable communication. So, a speaker can make many mistakes but still communicate effectively. Likewise a person who knows every rule of correct English usage may still have great difficulty communicating in English.
The interesting factor is "naturalness."
Some speakers, like my friend, become great communicators and make very few errors, but still sometimes use the language "unnaturally." They say things that "just don't sound right," or that "I wouldn't say that way." This is tricky because a) they are communicating effectively -- so why change it, b) the "natural" way may or may not be the correct way, and c) there is no one natural way -- just discourses, ways that are natural contextually (Steven Pinker describes this well).
The Gattegno approach is interesting to me because the emphasis on developing awareness seems like a great way to help people learn to speak (and listen) naturally. You can't teach correct "naturalness", I don't think, it's one of those things you "just have to feel." Gattegno also emphasizes learning through use and inhibiting your desire to remember, these seem important oaths to becoming a more natural speaker.
What I find missing in Gattegno is the generative thematic approach that roots learning in dialogue and problem-posing. Communication must be not just real but relevant, meaningful, and charged -- problematic.
Naturalness and correctness are related, of course, but not identical (though my mother believes so!). I think mostly what we talk about when we talk about someone speaking very well is their mastery of the discourse of academic or highly educated English, maybe "well read" English. But we all know people who are fluent even if the English they speak is more "casual" or "colloquial." There is a lot of interesting messiness here. Think of Frederick Douglass's language being edited to be made more "proper." (Is this true, or just a rumor?)
I believe that grammar (in the deep generative sense) underlies all three elements: communication, correctness, and naturalness. It is in naturalness and communication that the most profound evidence of grammar is to be found, or evidence of the deepest grammar. (Children making mistakes with irregular verbs are practicing a deeper grammar, Pinker says.) Effective communication often comes out in the form of a jumbled string of incomplete sentences.
How is naturalness related to communication? If "unnatural" language can still be communicative, what is this importance of sounding natural? Maybe it facilitates communication in some way, but is this a distinction without a difference?
Tentative conclusions for language teaching:
It is right to focus on communication and downplay correctness. Correctness should be subordinated to communication. (If it's not a barrier to effective communication -- in which case the problem is not correctness but communication -- then it's like the lint you pick off your suit when you are dressed up and ready to go, as Bruce Ballenger says.)
At the same time, as I develop my ability to hear the English spoken by my students, I lose the barrier to understanding that they will find with native speakers -- in other words, I may understand them but most native speakers won't. I need to remain a "bad" listener -- to use those barriers to help students find effective communication rather than adapt my listening to their English. (The same way I have to ignore the fact that I speak some Japanese, in order to pull them into English.)
Rather than worry at all about correctness, I should see "naturalness" as the higher stage of communication, and work to help people become more aware of "natural" English(es), and more aware of their own use as they become more effective communicators.
How to do that... that's my daily work.