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Functional Language Follies

I have to admit that every time the Real Life section rolls around my eyes do a little rolling too. It’s not that I don’t think functional language is useful, but a) the way it is presented in many textbooks strikes me as very contrived (I suppose this kind of goes with appearing in a textbook at all) and b) I can’t stand it that when this functional language turns up on the test, it is with a gap fill in a preposition exercise. Yes, for many phrases part of the trick is memorizing them, but it seems to miss the point when the test is of your memory rather than your ability to use the phrases effectively. And you can use them effectively without preposition perfection.

Oh, yes, there’s one more: c) I get irked when a six-line dialog includes three new and largely irrelevant vocabulary words which are necessary for understanding the dialog. If it’s a lesson on functional language, then let’s do that, and not spend fifteen minutes clarifying bizarre vocabulary.

All my complaints aside, I do acknowledge that there much of the language is relevant and useful – giving and receiving directions (at any level, really), ways of emphasizing (in moderation anyway), expressing sympathy, making small talk, or reading out numbers and understanding signs. I realize that textbook writers need to try to fit one in each unit and should try to make it related to the rest of the content.

I also have not come up with a failsafe way to deal with all of these…I can skip the worst ones if there’s a time crunch, I can adapt some of them, or reduce the number of phrases included, but there’s usually still something left over. The language taught at lower levels tends to be much more useful and much more practical, and I think students sense this as well and it makes a difference in how they respond to the tasks.

Roleplays are often very effective and mirror a real word situation better than anything else. They are usually useful, and especially fun if your students are creative enough come up with some good situations (for “responding sympathetically”, imagine some situation which the speaker thinks is just tragic but no one else will, for example).

Are most of my readers more or less bound to textbooks, and if so, how do you deal with this functional language section when it rears its head?