Putting Language in Context

Milton Alan Turner, OFLA Editor for Electronic Media
French Teacher, Saint Ignatius High School

As language teachers, we often emphasize the forms of a language (sounds and structures or vocabulary and grammar) or the meaning of words. However, the context in which these words and structures are used are often the key to correctly interpreting the meaning of utterances.  Pragmatics, which is the linguistic science of studying language in context and paying attention to who says what to whom and in which context, is a critical aspect of language instruction.

Words and sentences take on different meanings depending on who says them and why. State Farm Insurance several years ago created a series of commercials demonstrating the importance of context. These commercials featured two people using the exact same words in different contexts which as a result had entirely different meanings. You can watch one of these commercials, Jacked Up, on YouTube at https://youtu.be/k29ogXL_S2U.  

The more we can make our students aware of the contexts in which interactions take place, the more they will be better prepared to improve their cultural competence as well as communicative proficiency.  The NCSSL-ACTFL Intercultural Communication Can-Do statements call for students to “recognize some obviously inappropriate behaviors” at the Novice level and “avoid major social blunders” at the Intermediate level.  The ACTFL Cultural Framework emphasizes the interaction between products, practices, and perspectives.  The selection of appropriate authentic products (books, films, songs) is key to providing insight into the practices (behaviors/interactions) and perspectives (attitudes) of speakers of the target culture.  Representation matters!

With a focus on the contexts in which interactions take place and the situations of our interlocutors, we have made a first and essential step towards incorporating social justice education in our instruction.  We can now examine and discuss issues of dignity, respect, fairness, and equity in our classes. In this framework, social justice issues are not something outside of our discipline, but a natural continuation of our basic instruction. It is an outgrowth of our examination of the interactions between products, practices, and perspectives. As with most aspects of education, teaching for context or social justice is not a destination or a one-time activity, it is an ongoing journey or an adventure.

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