Beyond Utility in Task-Based Language Teaching

As my two regular readers know, I am rather given toward task-based language teaching (TBLT). Quite often it has a good reputation (such as it being aligned with what we know about how languages are learned). However, it can get criticised as being rather utilitarian (see, for example, Richards & Rogers, 2001). In my opinion, and experience, it does not have to be this way.

Why does it get this reputation?

In the literature that covers TBLT we mainly see the following settings:

specific purposes, namely work (e.g. Gonzales-Lloret & Nielson, 2015);

academic purposes, mainly university study (e.g. Douglas & Kim, 2014) ;

immigrant language programmes.

“I need you to need me”

None of these types of programme seem to be much of a laugh. I’ve an idea why: people are getting so uptight about needs analysis (NA) that they cannot see the wood for the trees. Why do we, as people, use language? To communicate not just to fulfil economic and gastronomic needs but also our emotional and psychological ones.

We are being blinkered to the actual needs of learners when we look at things through a utilitarian lens. It tends to result in ideas like tangible return on investment, such as business people communicating with international clients more easily and gaining more revenue. Unfortunately intangible benefits tend to fall by the wayside. The needs of making and maintaining friendships, consuming culture for pleasure, these tend not to be actual analysed needs in NA. Learners do not tend to bring up these needs, but how isolated does the new migrant (Norton Peirce, 1995), the medium-term business traveller and the international student feel and how does it influence their learning(Baker-Smemoe et al., 2014)? Some do not feel very integrated, and I doubt these needs are given a huge priority in syllabi because, I speculate, that we assume learners will just get on with socialisation without language instruction. We also have to bear in mind the people using English as a Lingua Franca who will interact with other ELF speakers (Weyreter & Viebrock, 2014). Some learners claim to just be motivated by the things they have to do. No matter how nervous or reluctant they are to socialise in the language they are learning, it is highly likely that they will encounter frivolity. Its it such a good idea to neglect it in the syllabus?

So, is TBLT this huge, neoliberal, utilitarian approach?

No. There are units in business courses on socialising, building rapport and dealing with people and such. Could they be better? Undoubtedly, there’s room for improvement in most courses, including non-TBLT ones. There are, aspects of academic courses that deal with building relationships with classmates and the university community. Again, this is not just a TBLT point to improve.

Basically, I suppose I am trying to say that TBLT does not have to be po-faced and earnest. Have a laugh. Add a bit to your needs analysis: participate in fun situations in order to build social bonds and not live in a vacuum devoid of feeling.


Baker-Smemoe, W. , Dewey, D. P., Bown, J. and Martinsen, R. A. (2014), Variables Affecting L2 Gains During Study Abroad. Foreign Language Annals, 47, 464-486. doi:10.1111/flan.12093

Douglas, S. R., & Kim, M. (2014) Task-Based Language Teaching and English for Academic Purposes: An Investigation into Instructor Perceptions and Practice in the
Canadian Context. TESL Canada Journal, 31(8), 1-22.

Gonzales-Lloret, M. & Nielson, K. B. (2015) Evaluating TBLT: The case of a task-based Spanish program. LanguageTeaching Research 19(5), 525–549. DOI: 10.1177/1362168814541745

Pierce, B. Norton. (1995) Social Identity, Investment, and Language Learning. TESOL Quarterly 29(1), 9-31.

Richards, J. C., & Rogers, T. S. (2001) Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge: CUP.

Weyreter, M., & Viebrock, B. (2014) Identity Construction in Adult Learners of English for Specific Purposes (ESP): Exploring a Complex Phenomenon, in Abendroth-Timmer, D. and Eva-Maria Hennig (eds.) Plurilingualism and Multiliteracies: International Research on Identity Construction in Language Education. (pp. 145-158) Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

2 Replies to “Beyond Utility in Task-Based Language Teaching”

  1. Hi Marc,

    My feeling is students develop some sort of “natural resistance” when exposed to too much utilitarian stuff. At least in this part of the world. For example, I’m teaching what might be called a TBLT or ESP course where the students in a company are expected to master giving one specific kind of presentation to clients. But after a long day at work, which is full of meeting clients, the girls just want to have some fun and business presentations are often the last thing on their mind. So I try to juggle stuff, they do mini talks on fun, easy stuff, we started (huge success) the Adrift video course by Chasing Time English, and we do the serious work when there is imminent danger: presentation next day or something of that sort. So I guess you’re right. A great post, as always. Thanks!

    1. Cheers Kamila. I found that it tends toward extremes at times, here. Also, after a NA, I usually find that there’s some kind of need to chit chat with coworkers and stuff. Thank *you* for the thoughtful comment.

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