An ELT Glossary : Target Language / Emergent language

A traditional lesson plan aiming at developing learners' language (rather than skills) competence, was/is based around the idea of target language - ie the language point(s) (which may be structural, functional, lexical or whatever) that the teacher/coursebook has decided in advance will be  learnt in the lesson and which form the main aims of the lesson. Examples of this language are presented to the learners in some way (eg through a situation or a text) analysed for their form, meaning and use, and then practised in a series of activities.

Since the seventiies though, there has been a considerable amount of criticism of this approach. Is language really learnt in a linear fashion in this way? Is the input decided by the teacher or coursebook writer necessarily what the learner is ready to transfer to intake?

These criticisms are encapsulated in Thornbury's by now well-known term the "Grammar McNuggets" approach to course design, and his suggestion that learning might be more effective if based on "emergent language".

So what is "emergent language"? Emergent language is language that "comes up", often unpredictably, in interaction between the learners, and/or the teacher and the learners. It's the language that they use, correctly or otherwise, when trying to express the meanings that they want to convey at that moment. The teacher can pick up on these expressions and focus on them for the class - they form learning affordances, or opportunities, that can be exploited on the spot. Here are two examples which I also gave in the article on affordances of how this might be done :

  • During a PW/GW warm-up discussion on "What did you do at the weekend?", aiming to reactivate the simple past, a learner says she played badminton. In the follow up the T. asks if any other learners do any sports or other physical exercise on a regular basis, and elicits the expressions focusing on their collocation with do / play / go (eg do yoga, play tennis, go running). She then elicits the rule for the choice of verb and asks the learners in pairs to brainstorm all the other sports/physical activities they know, listing them in three columns according to the relevant verb. Afterwards she elicits and boards these, and feeds in a few more that the learners haven't come up with.
  • During a T/Class follow up, a learner uses, accurately, a lexical chunk that the T. believes other learners may not know or use spontaneously. He brings this to the attention of the class, checking comprehension and doing some repetition practice.

And another example :

  • During a discussion activity on daily routines, the T. overhears a learner saying I use to get up at 8 o'clock. In the follow-up, she focuses on the expression used to do and how it can only be used in the past, with the simple present and adverbs such as always/often/usually being used to express habitual present events. She then asks the learner to write three sentences about what they used to do as a child(or when they were younger) and three about things they regularly do now. of the six sentences, three must be true and three must be false. They then read them to their groups (or get up and mingle) and the other learners have to guess which are the true and which the false statements.

Focus on emergent language is often associated with a Dogme approach to teaching, where all the language focus is based on emergent language and the syllabus is a-posteriori rather than a-priori. But it doesn't have to be either/or. A lesson can still have a-priori aims, be based on a coursebook, etc, and leave room for emergent language. Every lesson (I would argue) should have moments when what the learners will say is not entirely predictable - for example in warm-up discussion, spin-off discussions or any other type of fluency activity. As the teacher monitors these discussions s/he will overhear "interesting" emergent language items which can be brought to the learners' attention in a follow up. This means leaving ample time for the follow up and, if the language which emerges is really interesting/valuable for the learners, being willing to adapt the plan on the spot - or even through it out of the window completely. 

And this brings up two problems with the approach. The first is not so much with the approach itself, but with the coursebooks that are often used at the moment. They are often so "jam-packed" with stuff to do, that in a course with a specific number of hours, there is little time for anything else. This is not a problem if the teacher has a free rein and can pick and choose from the coursebook, leaving out activities if s/he thinks learners would benefit more from other things. But if the institution "insists" that by a certain date the teacher has fully covered a certain number of units, or if lthe learners themselves get worried at the idea of not doing "everything in the book", it can be problematic. I'd put in a plea to publishers at this point - be more realistic about the time really needed to use the coursebook materials effectively - not just "ploughing through" the activities, but exploiting them fully and also diverging from them as best suits the needs of the learners.

The second problem relates to the experience of the teacher. If you are new to teaching, it's relatively easy to focus on language which is fully explained for you in the coursebook, and then to practise it with activities provided for you. It's quite another matter to come up with an accurate explanation and to think of activities to continue the focus on the language "on the spot".

This doesn't mean, however, that the inexperienced teacher need abandon focus on emergent language all together. If it is built in to a follow-up to a PW/GW activity, it's not actually done "on the spot" - the teacher notices it while monitoring and does have a few minutes to think about what to do with it. if you know it's too complex for you to deal with immediately, ignore it - but after the lesson, look up the explanation and think of how you could have got the learners to practise it. That way, when it comes up the next time, you'll be ready for it. On the spot choose things that you can explain easily and feel confident with - maybe errors with language that the learners (and you!) have already covered and which just needs a brief focus to reactivate the rules and the correct form.