Traditionally, language learning syllabuses for schools and colleges were structured around the grammar of the target language, dealing with categories such as noun classes or verb tenses systematically in turn and they assumed that the learner’s goal was a complete, in-depth mastery of the target language, and also that the learner would be willing to study for some years before applying practically what had been learned. However, by the 1970s language educators were increasingly dissatisfied with such formalistic views, which seemed increasingly out of line with the needs and interests of the new mass learners of foreign languages coming forward in the postwar years. Both for busy adult learners with vocational needs and for new style,less academic learners of school age, it was realized that motivation depended largely on much more immediate ‘payoff’ in terms of the usefulness for practical purposes of what was taught. A search began, therefore, for types of language syllabi which could offer at least limited communicative ability from an early stage. The situational syllabus, as we have just discussed,was such an attempt and now we turn to a second, more influential, type of early“communicative” syllabi; namely, the functional-notional syllabus.

In the seventies, it became even more apparent that second language students were unable to fully express themselves nor were they able to do so with precision. They were quite capable of imitating and memorizing the language, but could not use it in context. The Council of Europe took on the challenge to find another means of teaching/learning a second language. In 1971, agroup of linguists, now known as the Expert Group, was invited by the Committee of Out-of-School Education of the Council of Cultural Cooperation to study the needs of European students and to enquire into whether it was feasible to create better and more effective conditions for language learning by adults.

As the initial reports of the Group were received favorably, their mandate was generalized in1978 to cover all levels and types of language learning, including schools and universities andfor those learners who need to become functional in a language, outside the traditional school curriculum. They developed a large and cohesive body of work, the most notable of which is Van Ek’s “Threshold Level” of the Council of Europe which is in the form of a document and it includes a list of situations, topics, general and specific notions and adequate language forms,as well as some methodological implications. In fact, the functional-notional basic principles to syllabus design are described in Threshold level English authored by Van Ek and Alexander,1980. The Council of Europe activity proposed new, functional-notional syllabus models for foreign languages, which have become internationally influential.

Among the linguistic philosophers, applied linguists such as David Wilkins (1972) borrowed functional view of language. Wilkins realized that it was possible to group language items for teaching purposes not only in terms of the grammatical category to which they belonged but also in terms of the language function they performed. Thus, for example, a range of grammatically varied language could be taught together to exemplify functions such as‘apologizing’, ‘thanking’, ‘requesting’, etc.
Last modified: Tuesday, 20 April 2010, 9:37 PM