The Relevance of Register and Style in Foreign Language Teaching.
This essay was written in 1998, for the subject of Sociolinguistics, taught by Dr. Gerrard Mugford.
University of Guadalajara, School of Modern Foreign Languages.
When learning a foreign language, learners are taught to be functional in the society where the language is spoken. They are provided with the strategies and skills they need to get meanings across in a society that operates differently in comparison to theirs. For this reason, pupils have to learn a certain amount of structures that will allow them to respond and be a part of every situation they will encounter.
In many cases, even though learners are functional in the target language environments; they might at times face sensations of displacement as the musicality and the kind of language they speak might not fully resemble that which is spoken in the culture where the language they have learned is spoken. People’s speech reflects their group membership, and since learners’ speech might differ from the standard one which exists in the target language native environment, students’ functionality might be hindered due to the poor or limited contact they might have had with genuine language terms that are not taught in books: colloquial expressions, slang. This situation, other words, only highlights the importance of generating learning experiences where different language registers and styles are addressed in the classroom- even if this is just conducted as a mere exploration.
The circumstances described above lead to see the role of language variance in the teaching/learning process. Language varied depending on the region, the user, the situation, and the needs of the speakers. People speak their native language by virtue of their ethnicity (Holmes, 1990), creating contexts learners might not have experienced or heard about while acquiring the language. In other words, native speakers transmit the same meaning in different ways, many of which learners will not learn but until they enter in direct context with the language in its native environment, i.e. in a situation that has not been artificially generated to practice. Let us consider the following examples:
- (From a friend) Where were you last night? I phoned you to see if you wanted to go to the movies with me.
- (From a counselor) Could you please tell me where were you on the night of May the 6th?
- (From a teacher) I know you went to a concert last night, so I thought it would be a good idea if you told us about that. Where did you go last night, Rafael?
In each of these cases mentioned, the speaker is trying to obtain the same information from the listener, but the context is what affects and determines the form in which the question is posed. Thus, due to the fact that each request is expressed differently, the answer and the language demands are different as well.
These stylistic differences make language richer. In these three cases, each speech style reflects a context in which the language can be utilized, rather than the characteristics of the speakers. They are a representation of the influence of the person being addressed over the speaker, of the level of formality the context requires, and the level of familiarity and acquaintance between the people interacting.
The differences and requirements presented in the 3 examples above emphasize the reasons why the learning experiences created in the classroom need to be as varied and plural as possible. Possessing the background to be operational in various language scenarios will allow students to comprehend different language varieties with different levels of complexity; in other words, the learning process will be meaningful.
Register and Style
While regional dialects reveal the place one comes from, and the social dialect what one’s status is, Romaine (1994) states that register gives a clue about what people do. This concept is typically concerned with language variation, which is conditioned by the uses rather than by the users, and involves the consideration of the situation and context, the purpose if the use and the relationship between participants. Thus, considering a classroom situation, students would become acquainted with as many regional dialects, depending on how many different teachers they have. What is more, pupils will learn about different social dialects, depending on the variety of status-based social contexts they are exposed to.
When people decide to study a foreign language, the inherent need they have to pursue this task implies that there is a series of situations in which learners want to function. Thus, in order to become competent in such situations, a collection of vocabulary and structures need to be learned to develop the desired skill. For this reason, when a foreign language teacher contemplates what students need to know, the instructor needs to keep in mind whether his regional dialect is dominating the experience (Pride, 1980). E.g. what would be the effect of teaching ONLY the Castilian or Cuban variety of Spanish, or teaching English as a foreign language without keeping in mind the American, Australian, British and Canadian varieties? Also, it is interesting to ponder what the outcome can be depending on the background of the instructor: journalist, psychologist, and historian.
It might be said that students who want to learn a certain variety of language, either related to their field or relevant to the latitude where they live, would choose to learn it with those sole reasons in mind. For example, someone who is planning to work in a bilingual environment in the USA is better off learning Latin American Spanish, instead of the Castilian variety, for the simple reason that the Latin American population in the USA causes that variety to be more widespread. Yet, one needs to ponder how many varieties are worth learning; and how many a teacher is capable of teaching. Similarly, is a teacher who is not familiar with as many regional dialects and different registers less than a teacher who does not?
What is paramount is that teachers need to be familiar with the context and content of the resources students will work with and, since these might be originated in different regions of the world, the need to possess (some) knowledge of the way language is used in different countries and by people in different social strata is vital. Some examples on this can be:
- The differences in use of words such as rubber vs. eraser, lift vs. elevator, lorry vs. truck in British and American English.
- The gigantic differences in meaning of regional idiosyncrasies of the Spanish verb coger; and the use and situational appropriateness of the Spanish pronouns tú, usted, vos.
- The history of the formality of peux-je est-ce que je peux—- in French.
Students must be presented with the opportunity to witness an ample range of language varieties, for even if some of the students’ lives are not directly related to the others’, their language proficiency will increase up to the point where they can recognize different registers (Trudgill, 1984). For this reason, taking advantage of students’ backgrounds is a tool no teacher must reject as this represents an opportunity to exploit and explore different social dialects and a wider variety of jargon in the most natural way.
One’s relationship with the people one is addressing is crucial in determining the appropriate language style one is to employ. Likewise, an important element of social relationships is the how well one knows somebody or how close one feels to him or her. Thus, factors such as relative age, sex, social roles, whether people work together or are part of the same family, contribute to determine the degree of social distance or solidarity amongst people.
Holmes (1989) states that people are able to speak to both children and adults by simply accommodating as required. Besides the attainment of successful linguistic exchanges, accommodating one’s speech style to that of others is a sign of one’s desire to feel (and make the other person feel) comfortable during the conversation. In other words, the style one uses reflects the extent to which one feels close or familiar to the listener. More than anything, it is a polite speech strategy.
Aiming at teaching all the situations to which one needs to accommodate is practically impossible for no language user is entirely knowledgeable or is entirely familiar with all contexts and social strata traits. However, taking into consideration that learners will be surrounded with the language and the way society uses it, it is paramount to include the most possible stylistic variations in one’s teaching.
Providing students with a wide range of stylistic elements requires a lot of planning. This attempt requires a high degree of critical thinking to select the contexts that best benefit the learning process, and a significant degree of creativity to recreate those possible situations in a classroom environments, retaining as many genuine features as possible. Similarly, since, ultimately, one of the goals of studying a foreign language is to assess how well it has been learned, teachers will encounter difficulty testing students’ understanding on the different styles in the curriculum they will be assessing. Therefore, such all style-related items to be taught need to be fitted in the written curriculum in order for them to be reasonably and validly assessed.
It is important to note that the benefits of generating exposure to different styles will bring enormous benefits to language learners, for the language they are learning will become nuanced and rich, and the extent to which they will be able to operate in a wide range of situations will also be empowered. Moreover, since students will have a background on how to recognize the connection between a certain style and the context in which it has to be used, their linguistics receptiveness will also become enhanced, as they will be able to read a wider choice of literature and to view a broader variety of audiovisual media.
Thinking that one can be linguistically functional in the society where the target language is spoken solely with the language taught/presented in text books is absurd to a certain point, for language is more than grammar and vocabulary. Learners limiting their experience to such items will find themselves at a disadvantage as they enter in contact with different people and context in genuine / native language environments. For this reason, while it is part of teachers’ duty to provide an ample variety of learning experiences, students must be made understood that they should aim at learning beyond what is taught in the classroom and to test everything they have learned in different situations in order to increase their level of affectivity.
By keeping the initiatives mentioned above in mind, proficiency and sustainable performance will be guaranteed; adaptation into any possible authentic situation where the language is being used will be easier; and adoption and incorporation of linguistic information not learned before will be almost natural, for learners will have been sensitized about them and equipped with the necessary tools through their practice in the classroom.
Holmes, J. (1989) An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Longman
Pride, J. (1980) Sociolinguistics: Aspects of Leaning and Teaching. OUP
Romaine. S. (1994) Language and Society: An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. OUP
Trudgill, P. (1984) Applied Sociolinguistics. Academic Press, London.