Plenary by Peter Grundy

This plenary talk considers questions regarding the reliance on literal meaning in language teaching.

About the session

Strange Seas of Thought: Literal Meaning and Language Teaching

In his work on levels of meaning (1995, 2000), Levinson draws attention to our ability to distinguish words even when language is spoken at up to three times normal speed. He conjectures that we speak relatively slowly so as to allow those we address time to work out what we mean by what we say, as in this exchange with my niece after I said that her aunt enjoyed gin and martini:

Nina: Like James Bond.

Peter: Like James Bond. [meaning, of course, that my wife is not like James Bond at all]

In this talk, I want to consider three hypotheses:

  • Meaning comes from the use of language rather than from language itself.
  • We use language to point to thoughts.
  • The real meaning of an utterance isn't the literal meaning of what we say but the unspoken thought that we intend to communicate and that our utterance points to.

These hypotheses have obvious implications for pedagogy: in mainstream presentation-practice-production style, we tend to treat the meanings of words and of sentences as relatively stable (e.g. like James Bond always means the same thing) and think of language learning as a rehearsal for language use. But what if using a language meaningfully, i.e. to communicate thoughts, is actually the best way of learning it? And if utterances point to thoughts, how is a second language learner fixated on translation, literal meaning and the (bilingual) dictionary going to identify these thoughts? Finally, do we dare to ask Prufrockian questions, such as whether most of what we focus on in the teaching of vocabulary misses the real point, and whether our work in areas like corpus linguistics needs serious rethinking?

About the speaker

I've worked in schools in the UK and Germany, in teacher training and in higher education in the UK and Hong Kong and am author of several resource books for teachers including Beginners and Newspapers and, with Arthur Brookes, Writing for Study Purposes and Beginning to Write. I'm especially interested in pragmatics, and my book Doing Pragmatics is now in its third edition. My two most recent books are English through Art with Hania Bociek and Kevin Parker (Helbling Languages, 2011) and The Pragmatics Reader with Dawn Archer (Routledge, 2011). I'm a past president of IATEFL and currently chair the IATEFL WMS Committee.

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