Widdowson, H. G. (1998). Context, community, and authentic language

Topics: Linguistics, Semantics, Meaning of life Pages: 3 (536 words) Published: May 8, 2014
Widdowson, H. G. (1998). Context, community, and authentic language. TESOL
Quarterly, 32, 705-716.

Q1: Are critics justified to claim that the structuralist approach failed to focus on meaning?

Technically, no, because the structuralist approach does focus on literal meaning. But “meaning” can, and in some situations should, mean the intended, not literal, meaning of an utterance. Widdowson is focusing here on the limitations of the structuralist approach, in particular, its lack of focus on pragmatics. Widdowson's critique includes a number of speaking-listening interactions, for which there is usually much and sometimes an enormous amount of non-linguistic context. However, my guess, Widdowson's page 710 disavowal notwithstanding, is that the the weaknesses of structuralist approaches to language learning are less pronounced in writing-reading settings, though, of course, pragmatics have significant roles in those forms of production and reception as well.

Q2: Why does Widdowson put so much emphasis on context?

Context is significant because it effects literal meaning, potentially to the point of inverting it.
(a) How relevant is it to how we communicate?

Widdowson says the information provided by linguistic expression is secondary to context, “used only to compensate for what the context does not provide.” That is, context, what Widdowson sometimes calls “communal knowledge” or “local knowledge,” substantially and sometimes entirely determines how we communicate.

(b) How relevant is it to understanding language learning?

Widdowson reaches the conclusion that authentic language learning is not possible without creating context in the classroom. Language learners by definition do not share the context that native speakers do, so simply infusing “authentic” native-speaker utterances into the curriculum will not do the job.

Q3: What is the meaning of context? Does it pertain to the physical setting only?

Context is shared meaning,...
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