Ten questions about language
Rod Bolitho, Ronald Carter, Rebecca Hughes,
Roz Ivanicˇ, Hitomi Masuhara, and
This paper originated at a recent IATEFL conference in Slovenia, where Rod
Bolitho and Ron Carter spoke on Language Awareness. They later came
together with the colleagues named here to explore some of the reasons why
Language Awareness has to some degree remained on the periphery of
mainstream practices in language teaching and teacher education. The article
was written interactively over an extended period of consultation by the
authors, and explores questions concerning the theory and practice of language
awareness, its descriptive orientations, its relationship with critical social
dimensions, and its connections with current theories of language teaching and
Introduction In this paper each author takes responsibility for certain questions, and
has drafted and re-drafted answers to them, taking on board comments
from co-authors, but without feeling a need to reach total consensus on
all points. Roz Ivanicˇ added a critical Language Awareness dimension to
some of the questions, mainly numbers 1, 2, 4, and 7. We hope that this
unusual approach to writing an article captures something of the
dialogue we have had over the past months. A number of issues
concerning the history and background to the Language Awareness
movement are assumed by the contributors here. Readers wishing to
explore these issues should consult the Key Concepts in
ELT (Carter 2003)
which appeared in
ELT Journal 57/1.
In the ﬁrst part of the paper (Questions 1–6) we o¤er core deﬁnitions of
Language Awareness in teaching and learning, and in theory and in practice.
Q1 – How would you Language Awareness is a mental attribute which develops through
deﬁne language paying motivated attention to language in use, and which enables
awareness? language learners to gradually gain insights into how languages work. It
Brian Tomlinson is also a pedagogic approach that aims to help learners to gain such
A key element of a Language Awareness approach is that learners
‘discover language for themselves’. Hawkins (1984: 4–5) says it involves
challenging ‘pupils to ask questions about language’, encouraging
learners ‘to gather their own data from the world outside school’, and
ELT Journal Volume 57/3 July 2003
Oxford University Press 251
helping learners to develop a ‘growing insight into the way language
works to convey meaning.’ Tomlinson (1994: 123) views Language
Awareness as something ‘dynamic and intuitive’, which is ‘gradually
developed internally by the learner.’ And Bolitho and Tomlinson (1995:
iv) see Language Awareness as helping to develop ‘a healthy spirit of
enquiry’, and as establishing the classroom as a place where ‘the only
views of language that matter are the ones that teachers and learners
have built up in their heads.’
However, van Lier (2001: 347) draws attention to the ‘traditional end’ of
the Language Awareness movement, which ‘might include explicit
teaching of form, metalinguistic rules, and terminology’. It is important
to distinguish between a teaching approach which advocates giving
explicit knowledge to the learners, and a Language Awareness approach,
which is actually a reaction against such top-down transmission of
language knowledge. Language Awareness is not taught by the teacher or
by the coursebook; it is developed by the learner. Language Awareness is
an internal, gradual, realization of the realities of language use. It is
driven by the positively curious learner paying conscious attention to
instances of language in an attempt to discover and articulate patterns of
The term ‘Critical Language Awareness’ (
C.L.A.) refers to the same
approach, but with a focus on the relationship between language and
social context. In
C.L.A. the awareness that might be developed includes
awareness of the ways in which language represents the world, and
reﬂects and constructs power relations. (See Clark and Ivanicˇ 1999).
Q2 – What are the The main principle is that most learners learn best whilst a¤ectively
principles, objectives, engaged, and when they willingly invest energy and attention in the
and procedures of a learning process. Another principle is that paying deliberate attention to
Language Awareness features of language in use can help learners to notice the gap between
Approach? their own performance in the target language, and the performance of
Brian Tomlinson proﬁcient users of the language. This noticing can give salience to a
feature, so that it becomes more noticeable in future input, and thereby
contributes to the learner’s psychological readiness to acquire that
feature (Pienemann 1985; Tomlinson 1994).
The main objective is to help learners to notice for themselves how
language is typically used so that they will note the gaps and ‘achieve
learning readiness’ (Tomlinson 1994: 122–3). Other objectives include
helping learners to develop such cognitive skills as connecting,
generalizing, and hypothesizing, and helping learners to become
independent, with positive attitudes towards the language, and to
learning the language beyond the classroom.
The ﬁrst procedures are usually experiential rather than analytical, and
aim to involve the learners in a¤ective interaction with a potentially
engaging text, so as to be able to achieve their own mental representation
of the text, and to articulate their personal responses to it. Then the
learners are asked to focus on a particular feature of the text, to work with
others to identify instances of this feature, and to make discoveries and
articulate generalizations about its use. They are then encouraged to test
252 Bolitho, Carter, Hughes, Ivanicˇ, Masuhara, Tomlinson
their generalizations by searching for other instances in other texts. On-
going research is then encouraged which involves seeking further
instances and reconsidering the generalizations which have been made.
Throughout the process procedures are used which maximize the
potential of interactive collaboration between the learner and other
learners, between the learners and the teacher, and between the learners
and proﬁcient users of the language. See Tomlinson (1994) for
speciﬁcations, and an example of procedures.
C.L.A. has the additional objective of encouraging learners to explore why
the language they are learning may have come to be the way it is: what
socio-political factors have shaped it.
C.L.A. involves recognizing that
language use has consequences for identity, and that learners may have
socio-political reasons for choosing to use some of the resources of the
language rather than others.
Q3 – What are the Theories of language are currently undergoing rapid change. The
relationships between relatively new disciplines of discourse analysis, pragmatics, and,
Language Awareness especially, corpus linguistics are pushing back existing frontiers and
and existing theories compelling new descriptions of language. There is inevitable resistance
of language? to the insights generated by these advances because they entail revision
Ronald Carter to existing theories, and challenge powerful institutional bases built up
in teaching and research in linguistics. Most existing theories have
foundations in an atomistic view of language which works from separate
levels of language organization, such as grammar and lexis and
phonology, and which engages ﬁrst, and sometimes only with the
smallest and most systematizable units.
New approaches to language demonstrate that levels of language
considered to be separate, such as grammar and vocabulary, are in fact
closely interwoven in the construction of meanings and of texts, both
spoken and written (Carter and McCarthy 1997). Pedagogically,
therefore, Language Awareness is seen as inseparable from text
awareness, and the emphasis on language in use and in context entails a
view of language as a social and cultural medium. Consequently, points
of entry into texts are more holistic, consider language and cultural
awareness to be indistinguishable, and accordingly underline that there
can be no such thing as a neutral description of language.
Q4 – What are the Language Awareness o¤ers opportunities for a¤ective engagement,
relationships between personal investment, and the raising of self-esteem (Donmall 1985: 7).
Language Awareness Support comes from researchers (e.g. Schumann 1997) who argue that
and existing theories a¤ect gives values, reasons, and motivation for learning. This process of
of language learning? recognizing patterns and consistency, according to neuroscientists, is
Hitomi Masuhara also one of the main fundamental functions of the brain (Damasio and
Damasio 1993). The cognitive emphasis of Language Awareness makes
justiﬁable use of the inherent noting-analysis-integration capability of
language users. (See also Q7.) This echoes with
SLA research that
acknowledges the importance of attention in explicit learning (Ellis 1995;
Schmidt 1995). Neuroscientists, however, identify two separate but
complementary routes of explicit and implicit learning (Bloom and
Lazerson 1988). Acquisition of automatic language skills depends on
Ten questions about language awareness 253
rich, meaningful, repeated exposure to comprehensible input without
conscious awareness. Heightened awareness in explicit learning seems
to operate in a complementary way, and strengthens the vital role of
implicit awareness arising from language experience. Tomlinson (1994)
exempliﬁes the process of how ‘noting the gap’ provides indirect but
inﬂuential e¤ects on language learning, and how the readiness of
learners can be heightened by providing an experiential phase before
These two complementary routes—the implicit and the explicit—are also
evident in the critical literacy framework proposed by Kalantzis and Cope
(2000). This framework consists of the following sequence: Situated
Practice, Overt Instruction, Critical Framing, and Transformed Practice.
Situated Practice refers to the ‘experiential phase’, and Overt Instruction
refers to explicit analysis. The element which is speciﬁc to critical literacy
is Critical Framing—the discussion of cultural, social, and political
explanations for, and consequences of, particular language choices.
Transformed Practice also has a ‘critical’ dimension: it implies that the
result of the awareness-raising work will not just be improved language
use, but also language use which is more sensitive to issues of culture,
identity, and equity.
Q5 – What are the In language teaching methodology, I see two main strands: deductive
relationships between and inductive. Language Awareness approaches are essentially inductive.
Language Awareness What distinguishes Language Awareness from inductive methods (such
and existing theories as some strands of Natural Approaches, the Audiolingual Approach, or
of language teaching? Total Physical Response) is that Language Awareness approaches do not
Hitomi Masuhara typically exploit a syllabus based on a prescribed inventory of language
items. A number of published materials suggest and exemplify such
Language Awareness teaching approaches (e.g. Bolitho and Tomlinson
1995; Tomlinson 1994, and van Lier 2001: 350–1).
Language Awareness approaches, like Task-Based Approaches and the
Process Approach, reﬂect the research ﬁndings that, in both L1 and L2,
language acquisition occurs when and only when the learners are ready
(Pienemann 1985). If this is the case, the predetermined language
syllabus loses its authority, and leaves room for exploration with more
holistic language teaching approaches.
One key question is: How can we formally assess such a dynamic
process, and the learners’ acquired ability as the end-product of a course?
This question embodies at least three further issues: target, format, and
timing of the assessment. Firstly, as the target of the assessment, are we
to evaluate the results of the learner’s analysis (i.e. product), or the
evidence of competence in following the analytical procedures (i.e.
process)? Secondly, what kinds of format should Language Awareness
assessment take that will separate the learners’ previous knowledge and
ability from those acquired during the Language Awareness course?
Thirdly, when and how often should the learners be tested to measure
the developmental nature of language awareness?
254 Bolitho, Carter, Hughes, Ivanicˇ, Masuhara, Tomlinson
Q6 – What are the Pre-service training courses usually include a Language Systems
relationships between component (often taught by specialists in grammar, phonology,
Language Awareness semantics, etc.) and (for non-native teachers) a Language Improvement
and existing models component, designed to ensure that they have the required level of
of teacher education? proﬁciency. But neither proﬁciency in a language nor knowledge about
Rod Bolitho that language are suªcient on their own to equip a teacher to teach it.
Trainee teachers need to be able to analyse language, to apply di¤erent
strategies for thinking about language (analogizing, contrasting,
substituting, etc.) in order to be able to plan lessons, to predict learners’
diªculties, to answer their questions, and to write and evaluate
materials. Only if they are able to think for themselves about language
will they be able to do all this.
All this implies working within a model of teacher education which
promotes independent and critical thinking. Many teachers will recall the
diªculty they have experienced in applying the theoretical knowledge of
language systems acquired on their pre-service training course to real
classroom situations. The model which has most in common with a
Language Awareness approach is Reﬂective Practice, a process which
allows trainees to use their own experience of language and language
learning as a starting point for questioning and reﬂecting, thereby
establishing a strong basis for learning selectively about language, and
applying this learning in planning for classroom action. Language can be
approached in this way, inductively, on a teacher education course, and
can have an impact (this would be an interesting area to research) on the
language proﬁciency of non-native speaker trainees. The e¤ect of all this
on trainees’ self-esteem, as they become their own experts rather than
relying on received knowledge, cannot be underestimated.
Having examined and argued for basic paradigms, we now move to a more
exploratory series of questions, including the key issue of a¤ect, and attempt to
establish an agenda for future practice.
Q7 – What is the role Engagement with a foreign or second language almost always provokes
of a¤ect in a Language an emotional response in learners. That response may be rooted in deep-
Awareness approach? seated attitudes to what the target language stands for (common, for
Rod Bolitho example, in learners in post-colonial countries the world over), in
prejudices about the country and the people of the country concerned, or
in simple problems of identity (the diªculties and frustrations which
learners experience in trying to be themselves in a foreign language).
These issues are seldom addressed overtly in language classrooms. And
there is more: why is it that girls initially achieve more success than boys
in foreign language learning? Could it be that many girls have a more
positive, less inhibited attitude towards a new language? What is a
‘feeling for language’ (German: Sprachgefühl), and what does that mean
in mother tongue as well as second language learning? These are some
of the a¤ective factors which may lead to success or failure in language
learning, and yet how often are they fully aired or investigated in
classrooms and training rooms? How much time is spent on playing
with language, especially once learners get older, and on challenging the
cultural and national stereotypes which every language carries? A
Language Awareness approach opens doors to these a¤ective
Ten questions about language awareness 255
dimensions in ways which might make all the di¤erence to learners
struggling cognitively with grammatical and lexical diªculties.
Sensitivity to a¤ect in teachers may inﬂuence lesson and course design
in a profound way through choice of texts and activities, and may help
them to ‘unblock’ failing learners by encouraging them to respond
a¤ectively as well as cognitively to language inputs of various kinds.
A¤ective engagement with language in use also has the considerable
advantage of stimulating a fuller use of the resources of the brain.
Positive attitudes, self-esteem, and emotive involvement help to ﬁre
neural paths between many areas of the brain, and to achieve the multi-
dimensional representation needed for deep processing of language.
Q8 – What are the As already noted, Language Awareness approaches place high value on
main justiﬁcations for the creative and situated use of language, and value even more highly the
using a Language active engagement between learner, language data, and the learning
Awareness approach? process. This means that for the practising teacher there are two main
Rebecca Hughes practical beneﬁts for language pedagogy.
First, Language Awareness approaches can provide a tangible, more
holistic and teacher-friendly framework for aspects of the
Communicative Approach. Second, a Language Awareness approach can
provide balance to the more form-focused, atomistic approaches.
Hughes and McCarthy (1998) deal with the pros and cons of sentence
versus discourse level approaches to teaching grammar. As teachers, we
have all been in the situation where the learner wants to know ‘why’
they can/cannot say something. Given time-constraints, learner
expectation, and very often a teacher’s own sense that they are expected
to know ‘the answer’, ad hoc attempts at formalization tend to prevail.
Very often, a broader ‘language awareness’ discussion brings in textual,
contextual, socio-political, and attitudinal factors as well as semantic or
syntactic ones. This broader understanding can give us the conﬁdence
to extend the boundaries of that puzzling beyond words and clauses in
the classroom as well, and also into a creative dialogue with our
students. Language Awareness approaches fulﬁl an important practical
role for the teacher. They can provide logical extensions of, and links
between, two strands of language teaching and learning which still
dominate our classrooms, and exist in a generally not very creative
tension: those approaches which place the learner at the centre of the
learning process, and those which value an explicit focus on language
Nevertheless, there is work to be done within the Language Awareness
movement to ensure that the distinctive qualities of the approach are
better targeted and more widely understood. In particular, its scope in
relation to other approaches, its strengths and weaknesses in relation to
di¤erent learning styles, and issues of classroom and syllabus
constraints in di¤erent international teaching contexts, need to be
256 Bolitho, Carter, Hughes, Ivanicˇ, Masuhara, Tomlinson
Q9 – What can be At classroom level, Language Awareness o¤ers a chance to discuss
achieved through language (instead of life in a suburban family, for instance) in terms
Language Awareness which learners can relate to and understand. For beginners in a
work? language, this may mean using the mother tongue to discuss aspects of
Rod Bolitho the new language, such as the diªculties they are encountering, contacts
with L1, etc. ‘What is the overall message of the text?’ and ‘whose interests
are served by this text?’ are more valid awareness-raising questions than
‘Why is this tense incorrect in line 9?’ Through Language Awareness
work, learners engage with message, medium, and the relationship
between the two. This enables them to draw on their existing experience
of language, and of the world (resources which are too often ignored by
teachers, especially in beginners’ classes) to make sense of a new
language. Language Awareness is not a method; it cannot do everything (it
doesn’t facilitate spontaneous responses in unplanned discourse, for
example). It is an approach which, once understood by teachers and
learners, enables them to ‘get beneath the surface’ of a language in ways
which knowledge-based approaches alone can never achieve. The result,
in an ideal world, is that language classes become educational: learners
develop the capacity to think critically about language, and about the target
culture. I have also spoken to non-native teachers of English who have
asserted that engaging in Language Awareness work in English has led to
important new insights about their mother tongue. Perhaps this touches
on the greatest potential value of Language Awareness work: it can open
up attitudes to language and language learning by helping teachers and
learners to see the limitations of closed categories, and by encouraging
shared enquiry about language, rather than blind acceptance of existing
‘expert’ linguistic knowledge and analytical frameworks.
Q10 – What is the My fear is that our approach to Language Awareness will be
Future of Language misunderstood as part of the back-to-grammar movement. My hope is
Awareness? that Language Awareness, as a means of helping learners to help
Brian Tomlinson themselves, will inﬂuence curriculum developers, materials writers, and
teachers. Encouragingly, a number of national textbooks have been
produced recently which use a learner-centred Language Awareness
approach (e.g. in Namibia, Norway, and Singapore) and a number of
global courses recently published in the United Kingdom now include
Language Awareness sections.
I would like Language Awareness to become one of the main objectives
of teachers’ and learners’ courses rather than a supplementary section of
them. I would like ‘language’ to include all aspects of language in use
(and not just grammar), and I would like ‘awareness’ to become both a
principle and an objective in all language lessons. What I would like to
see in the future is a commonly used approach in which:
π some lessons are experiential, with the learners unaware that they are
developing implicit awareness by focusing on features of a text in order
to achieve an intended outcome;
π other lessons are both experiential and analytical, with the learners being
helped to begin the exploration of features of a text which they have just
Ten questions about language awareness 257
π other lessons are analytical, with the learners being asked to articulate
and reﬁne discoveries they have previously made;
π in all lessons the learners are asked to think for themselves, and are
encouraged to become more aware;
π learners may also become more ‘critical’, in the sense of being more
questioning, and better equipped to challenge language conventions,
language attitudes, and language policies when it is in their interests to
Idealistic, perhaps. But it could happen as more and more teachers
become aware of the potential value of a Language Awareness approach.
Final revised version received June 2002
258 Bolitho, Carter, Hughes, Ivanicˇ, Masuhara, Tomlinson
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Rod Bolitho is Assistant Dean of International
Education at the College of St Mark & St John,
Plymouth. He teaches on the M.Ed. programme,
and is a consultant to national textbook projects in
Russia and Belarus. His main interests are in
trainer-training, language awareness, and
materials design. He is co-author or author of a
number of articles and books, including (with
Brian Tomlinson), Discover English (Heinemann).
Ronald Carter is Professor of Modern English
Language at the University of Nottingham. He has
published widely in the ﬁeld of applied linguistics
and language education. Recent publications
include The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to
Speakers of Other Languages (ed. with David
Nunan) (Cambridge University Press 2001).
Roz Ivanicˇ is Senior Lecturer in the Department of
Linguistics and Modern English Language at
Lancaster University, and currently chairperson of
The Committee for Linguistics in Education. Her
publications include Writing and Identity
(Benjamins 1998); The Politics of Writing
(Routledge 1997) (with Romy Clark); Situated
Literacies: Reading and Writing in Context
(Routledge 2000) (with David Barton and Mary
Rebecca Hughes is Senior Lecturer in the School
of English Studies and Director of the Centre for
English Language Education, University of
Nottingham. Her publications include: English in
Speech and Writing (Routledge 1996) and Teaching
and Researching Speaking (Pearson 2002).
Hitomi Masuhara is Senior Lecturer in Lesser-
Taught Languages at Leeds Metropolitan
University, and Secretary of the Materials
Development Association. Her recent publications
ELTJournal Survey Review ‘EFL
Courses for Adults’ Vol. 55–1, and two chapters in
the forthcoming book, Developing Materials in
Language Teaching (Continuum 2003).
Brian Tomlinson is Reader in Language Learning
and Teaching at Leeds Metropolitan University.
His books include Openings, Discover English (with
Rod Bolitho) and Materials Development in
Language Teaching (Cambridge University Press
1998). His new book, Developing Materials in
Language Teaching, is published by Continuum
Press in 2003. He is also the Founder and
Email: Rod Bolitho: INTED@marjohn.ac.uk
Ten questions about language awareness 259