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Communicative Use of Language and Syllabus Design*


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    A preliminary version of this paper was presented at the Conference on the Teaching of French organized by the University of Calgary, March 1977.


ABSTRACT  The ability of a learner to use the target language with relative fluency in simulated speech transactions is recognized as an important objective for today's American foreign language classroom. The adoption of that goal requires, in addition to modifications of classroom practices and the teaching environment, a thorough revision of present syllabus-design practices. A teaching syllabus is defined as the selection and ordering of the subject matter to be taught. Current syllabuses are based on linguistic features that bear no direct relationship to either learner processes or units of which communicative transactions are composed. The optimal pedagogical syllabus should lead the learner to participate in the largest number of communicative transactions in the shortest period of time. In the absence of knowledge about psycholinguistic processes that guide foreign language learners and about the organization and structure of speech acts, it is difficult to abandon linguistic features in the design of syllabuses. Four new orientations may be followed that lead more directly to language use than do monolithic and paradigm-oriented linguistic features: (1) frequency and utility indexes, (2) intralinguistic analysis, (3) language acquistion and processing universals, and (4) observation of second language learners. Syllabuses stressing the ability to use a language rather than knowledge of its structure should be guided also by the following principles: (1) drastic reduction of the number of features introduced, (2) the use of cyclical rather than linear ordering, (3) reduction of the complexity of the material presented (shorter utterances and use of analytical devices instead of inflectional material), (4) reduction of variants and alternants, and (5) tolerance of learner errors.