The Recuperation of Communicative Language Teaching

“Recuperation” was the term the Situationist International coined in the 1960s to characterise the move from capitalist control of the means of production to advanced capitalist control of the means of consumption. This was surely the Sits most notable contribution to political theory. Recuperation describes the process by which radical ideas and images are defused, incorporated, annexed and commodified in order for their threat to be neutralised. It changes the meaning of radical ideas and appropriates them into the dominant discourse of the status quo.

  • Mick Jagger starts out as an outrageous drug-taking rebel and ends up as a multi-millionaire appearing on a BBC arts programme discussing culture with the Archbishop of Canterbury.
  • The fashion industry re-invents punk, selling ripped jeans and dog collars to the masses.
  • Tattoos are recuperated from their original cultural representation and become a universal “must have”.
  • Banksy’s street art is sold at Sotheby’s for millions.
  • Environmental warriors see the language of transitions to sustainability being recuperated by those seeking to delay and deflect the transition.
  • Bastani writes of the “recuperation of the internet by capital”, describing how billion dollar corporate media quickly recuperate the internet so that it now reinforces  and promotes the interests of the status quo.

Recuperation offers an explanation for what happened to Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) in English language teaching (ELT).

CLT began as a protest, a rebellion, whose proponents were signaling their dissatisfaction with the then dominant approaches to ELT. To quote from Jordan & Long (2022)

They wanted to replace teaching the structural aspects of language with “doing” language, with helping students to express themselves in the L2. This was truly revolutionary; they argued that the typical classroom routine:

•             Teacher: “I am leaving the room”. (Walks towards the door.) “What am I doing?” 

•             Students: “You are leaving the room”

Should be replaced with 

•             Teacher: “I am leaving the room”. (Walks towards the door.)

•             Students: “Hurray!”, or “Wait for us!”

Or, to paraphrase Hymes and Halliday, they thought their job should focus on helping students to appreciate the communicative value of utterances, the functional, as well as the structural, aspects of language. “For, after all, there is rarely a direct equivalent between form and function: the illocutionary force (i.e., the speaker’s intention) of “I’m leaving the room” can be “I feel ill”; “I’ve had enough”; “It’s dangerous to stay”; and many other things besides. As Hymes (1971) put it, “There are rules of use without which rules of grammar would be useless.”

CLT stressed that language should be treated not just as a collection of grammatical and structural features, but also as a system of categories of functional and communicative meaning which are used to construct discourse. … CLT’s emergence in the 1980s coincided with important developments in the study of second language learning, and thus it also stressed the importance of teaching in a way that respected SLA research findings. Perhaps the most important assumption here is that learners learn a language through using it to communicate. Following on from this, CLT adopted a humanistic theory of learning and insisted, therefore, that learning can often be promoted by getting students to work together, often in small groups, on activities which involve them in using the target language in meaningful communication so as to complete relevant tasks.

CLT flowered in the late 1970s and early 1980s; see Earl Stevick’s A Way and Ways for descriptions of some of its more outlandish expressions.

The tremendous potential of CLT was snuffed out by the arrival of the modern ELT coursebook, which recuperated CLT and turned it into a harmless component of the new, almost perfectly commodified version of ELT we have today.

To be clear: modern coursebook series, with all their add-on components, recuperated CLT, commodifiied ELT and returned it to exactly the type of teaching (a focus on learning about the language rather than on learning by doing) that the pioneers of CLT were rebelling against. Coursebooks pay lip service to CLT, but the syllabuses and classroom practices which flow from them contradict the principles and the spirit of CLT. Promotional materials for these coursebook series claim to be promoting CLT in the same way that politicians today in the UK and elsewhere claim that they’re promoting “levelling up”. They talk it up, they misrepresent it, and they betray it. They’re bullshitters blinded by their own bullshit. Karl Marx, George Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, Erich Fromm, Jurgen Habermas, and dear old Paulo Freire (probably the sufferer of the most severe recuperation in ELT literature!) described aspects of alienation that are all too evident in the stuff you read by coursebook publishers and in the stuff teachers hear at conferences and workshops delivered by their well-paid representatives.  

In the ELT establishment today we have a plethora of now very rich individuals who took part in the initial push towards CLT and who were “neutralised”. Richards & Rogers and David Nunan are the most spectacular (sic) examples: three radical pioneers of CLT who are now multi-millionaire apologists for today’s inefficacious ELT practices. Less academic, more popular figures such as Alan Maley perfectly represent recuperation: long ago they encouraged rebellion, today, they’re respected, well-heeled members of the establishment, supporting coursebook-driven ELT and voicing their skepticism of Dogme and strong versions of TBLT.  

More evidence of recuperation is found in the work of today’s ELT influencers. They come in two categories. First are those who claim to be radicals with no credentials or credibility. A good example is the work of Hugh Dellar, Leo Sellivan and others who peddle a “Lexical Approach”. They claim to offer a radical alternative to established ELT practice, while turning the work of pioneers like Pauly & Syder into dross: they write coursebook series and books aimed at “teacher educators” which nullify the radical content of their sources. Another example is the work of Tyson Seburn, who promotes himself as a radical champion of the rights of LGBTQ+ people without for a moment considering, let alone challeging, the commodification of ELT.

Then there are those who simply ignore what’s really going on. Badly-informed gurus like Jeremy Harmer and Penny Ur continue to tour the conference circuit, nodding at CLT without the slightest commitment to its core principles or its real value, while promoting their own, best-selling, truly appalling books on how to teach.

And then there’s the curious case of Scott Thornbury, one of our best ELT educators, who seems to actively participate in the recuperation of his own work. Scott is the proponent of Dogme, the prime supporter of the “Hands Up” project, the man who invented the now famous “teaching grammar McNuggets” meme, the leader in many ways of today’s gathering push back against coursebook-driven ELT. Yet Scott refuses to outrightly reject courses based on grammar teaching in particular or coursebook-driven ELT in general. “There’s no perfect method”, he says, as if anybody suggested that there were. He tells his huge following that if teaching grammar is the basis of their teaching, if they use coursebooks as the syllabus, then who is he to say they’re wrong.

Maybe, as usual, Scott is ahead of the game. Maybe he’s a pioneer in the next stage of post-post-modernism, the inevitable successor of those described by the Situationists. Maybe Scott deliberately contradicts himself. Maybe he’s the new version of Wittgenstein’s beautifully enigmatic volte-face: if you’ve followed me so far, you’ll know I’m talking nonsense. “Don’t do as I say, just kind of soak it up in your own way. It’s all bad, but if it’s good for you, who am I to disagree, as the song goes”. Scott acts out the mismatch between theory and practice like a jester: he’s a radical at heart, wearing a conventional suit betrayed by a swiveling bow tie. Actually, now I think about it, forget Wittgenstein, the real reference is Hegel. Scott goes beyond thesis and antithesis, marching on towards true, dialectically resolved synthesis. I’m joking.              


3 thoughts on “The Recuperation of Communicative Language Teaching

  1. Excellent! I particularly like the Mock Turtle’s story.

    “When we were little,” the Mock Turtle went on at last, more calmly, though still sobbing a little now and then, “we went to school in the sea. The master was an old Turtle—we used to call him Tortoise—”

    “Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn’t one?” Alice asked.

    “We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” said the Mock Turtle angrily: “really you are very dull!”

  2. “The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbable lacks.”
    ― Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s