We don't speak English here

14th March 1997 at 00:00
TARGET LANGUAGE, COLLABORATIVE LEARNING AND AUTONOMY By Ernesto Macaro Multilingual Matters Pounds 14.95

Target language, that is communicating in the language being studied, was high on the agenda for the national curriculum, which took effect for modern foreign languages in 1992.

Office for Standards in Education inspectors place considerable importance on its use, and a further piece of the jigsaw (some would say nail in the coffin) is fitted with the 1998 GCSE which sees stringent new rules introduced restricting the use of English in question-setting, and promoting, therefore, target language testing in all the language skill areas.

Debate ensued, certainly, after the first assertions of the national curriculum, but it often centred on the practicalities involved with target language. Articles and manuals have proliferated, but there has been a relative lack of engagement with the theoretical underpinning and the research evidence - why target language rather than simply how best?

Ernesto Macaro pushes back the boundaries of the debate in a most welcome way. His own description of his book as "a case study of one country's introduction of a new curriculum" is accurate, but does not tell the whole story, for he goes much further. In analysing the prescription of the nat-ional curriculum in England, Macaro seeks to place it in the context of research into second language acquisition and learning, and in so doing exposes some fundamental weaknesses and contradictions.

Macaro's original source of data is his own "Tarclindy" project, the title a portmanteau term representing its four strands, namely the use of target language by first, teachers, and second, pupils, collaborative learning through pair and group work, and independent learning.

His findings are recent, and therefore embrace topical issues. His synthesis of target language considerations with collaborative and autonomous learning is intelligent and always thought-provoking.

At times he permits himself to be radical, and to challenge some of the unchallenged practices of the foreign language classroom. At the same time, however, he remains practical, and all his thinking is firmly rooted in evidence.

This is a first-class book, of relevance and interest to all language teachers. It is clearly written and, as far as is possible, jargon-free.

I particularly appreciated the complete absence of the kind of bullish assertion that we have come to associate with statements about methodology emanating from other sources.

Macaro presents his findings and his thinking modestly, and, in a good research tradition, tentatively. I would, however, defy language teachers to read this book and not be moved to re-examine, in a positive way, some aspects of their practice.

John Trafford is a senior lecturer in education at the University of Sheffield

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