The Internet TESL Journal

A New Perspective on the Goals of TEFL in China

Lianzhang Liu
liulz333 [at]
Hebei University of Economics and Trade (Hebei, China)
In China, the English syllabi for all levels fail to describe or prescribe the ultimate goal of teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) accurately and scientifically. "Communicative competence" blurs the difference between native language acquisition and foreign language acquisition, while "language skills training" constitutes only part of the task of TEFL. Language is the most important means of human communication, and communication is the most important function of language. Therefore, the ultimate goal of language teaching is "communicative competence", while the goal of foreign language teaching  mainly discussed in this paper should be "intercultural communicative competence", which conforms the most perfectly to the nature of language, language teaching, and foreign language teaching.


Why do we teach and learn the English language? This is the first question confronting all people involved in the profession of teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL). Whenever we talk about the goal or objectives of TEFL, we might think of the so-called "language skills" including listening, speaking, reading and writing. The acquisition of these skills have been well-discussed by many researchers and practitioners, and detailed descriptions and statements can also be found easily in the current English teaching syllabi of all levels. However, these language skills are not the whole story and they only contribute to part of the ultimate goal. The English syllabi we are using fail to describe or prescribe the ultimate goal of TEFL scientifically or accurately. Both the nature of language and the nature of language teaching imply that TEFL should be aimed at developing students' intercultural communicative competence.

Language Is Communication and Language Teaching Is for Communication

It is generally recognized that language is a "vehicle for the expression or exchanging of thoughts, concepts, knowledge, and information as well as the fixing and transmission of experience and knowledge."(Bussmann, 1996: 253) And according to P. H. Mathews, language is "the phenomenon of vocal and written communication among human beings generally."(Mathews, 1997:198) Briefly, language, since the very day it was born, has been serving as a device of human communication, and it is, if not the only, the most important device for human communication, and conversely, "Communication is (the) most fundamental social function of language."(Liu Ling, et al, 1984: 16)

Now that language is communication, it naturally follows that the goal of language instruction is to equip the learners with the ability to use the language for communication, namely, communicative competence. It is well-known that the "communicative approach", which has been predominating over TEFL for decades, emerges from the theory of "language as communication", and the goal of language teaching is to develop communicative competence. As Rivers and Temperley state, "When selecting learning activities, we must always remember that our goal is for the students to be able to interact freely with others: to understand what others wish to communicate in the broadest sense, and to be able to convey to others what they themselves wish to share (whether as a reaction to a communication or as an original contribution to the exchange). (Rivers & Temperley, 1978: 3-4) Consequently, the orthodox "four language skills" reasonably fall into the categories of vocal and written communications respectively: listening and speaking are the most important forms of verbal or vocal communication, while reading and writing are the most important forms of written communication.

Foreign Language Teaching Is for Intercultural Communicative Competence

Actually, in as early as 1960s, when "communicative approach" just began to prevail, Ruth R. Cornfield, a distinguished American scholar of communications in education, managed to give a new answer to the first question concerning FLT (foreign language teaching): "Why do we teach and learn a foreign language?" His book, Foreign Language Instruction: Dimensions and Horizons, though not entitled "communicative approach", did set communication to the goal of FLT. In his book, Cornfield put forward a list of objectives of FLT as: Probably others can make other lists, similar or different, but Cornfield's ideas no doubt greatly inspired those who later advocated "communicative approach", though he did not abstract his ideas into the later popular term. The first three objectives he enumerates here obviously all belong to communication activities. Then, what's the difference between communication in one's native language and communication in a foreign language?

Many people have attempted to find better ways to improve the teaching of foreign languages by studying the acquisition and use of mother tongue. A native speaker's language proficiency implies the ability to act as a speaker, listener, reader, and even a writer in the diverse ways. The intuitive mastery that the native speaker possesses to use and comprehend language appropriately in the process of interaction and in relation to social context has been called by Hymes "communicative competence", which has been widely accepted in language instruction and has been taken by communicative approach as its ultimate goal. By "communicative competence", Hymes means a competence of when to speak, when not, and as to what to talk about with whom, when, where, in what manner (Stern, 1983: 111). This apparently implies that its focus is that intuitive grasp of social and cultural rules and meanings that are carried by utterance. Furthermore, it suggests that language teaching recognizes a social, interpersonal and cultural dimension and attributes to it just as much importance as to the grammatical and phonological aspect. Then in the same logical sense, the goal of FLT should also be to develop the learner's communicative competence, or the competence of using the foreign language in communication. Of course this communication differs from the communication implemented between the people of the same cultural community; it is a communication between people of different cultures and it is communication across cultures, briefly, intercultural communication. Then, it again naturally follows that the goal of foreign language instruction is to help the learners to develop a competence to use the foreign language for communication with people of different cultural backgrounds. Consequently, Intercultural Communicative Competence ought to be established as the ultimate goal of TEFL.

Intercultural communicative competence implies that to use the foreign language for real intercultural communicative purposes, cultural instruction is to be implemented together with the teaching of linguistic knowledge and training of language skills, or rather, cultural instruction should be integrated into TEFL to ensure the appropriateness as well as the correctness of the use of English in intercultural communication (which I have discussed in a previously published paper "Cultural Orientation of TEFL in the Chinese Context", Higher Education Research on Foreign Studies, Iss. 1, 2000). In other words, the task of TEFL is to turn out people that are both bilingual and bicultural.

Intercultural Communicative Competence and the English Teaching Syllabi of All Levels

English is now the most important foreign language taught and used in China. But unfortunately, the current English syllabi of all levels do not provide a clear statement or description of the ultimate goal, intercultural communicative competence. It seems that the nature of TEFL has been misinterpreted and the real target of TEFL has been missed.

A syllabus is the planning of a course of instruction. It is a description of the teaching goal, the course content, the teaching procedures, learning experience evaluation, and so on. Syllabi provide basis for teaching objectives, material development, methodology, and evaluation, teaching innovations, etc. Syllabi usually embody teaching theories, which are closely related to teaching practice, and conversely serve as guidelines for teaching. It may be safe to say that syllabi provide operability for teaching practice and English syllabi provide such operability for English teaching practice.

There are various types of syllabi, corresponding to the various points of view from which language can be described, and a language program will contain elements drawn from some or all of them. The current English teaching syllabi of levels, however, are actually eclectic ones----mixtures of grammatical, notional-functional and communicative features. This shows the development of TEFL in China, for it is widely agreed that in learning a language, it is necessary to develop one's ability to use the language in addition to learning the formal rules of the language and the thought of teaching a language for communication is accepted by most, if not all, people in the TEFL circles. In the syllabi, the ultimate goal of TEFL has been set at "developing students' communicative competence", and cultural aspect of TEFL has been taken into account. Let's take a quick glimpse of the pertinent descriptions and statements in the syllabi (The following quotations are translated from the Chinese versions by the author of this paper.):

College English Syllabus (For Non-English Majors, Revised Edition):

The Teaching Objective:

The teaching objective of college English is to help students develop a relatively strong reading ability and general skills of listening, speaking, writing and translating, and by so doing make students able to use English for communications. College English is intended to help students lay a solid foundation of language skills, acquire good language learning strategies, nourish their liberal accomplishment, and adapt themselves to the requirements of social development and economic construction."

Syllabus for English Majors (Revised Edition):

Curriculum Design:

The goal of the fundamental stage is to teach basic knowledge of English, to have students strictly trained in all-rounded fundamental language skills, and to foster students' ability to use the language for real situations, good study style and correct learning methods, and to lay a solid foundation for their studies at the advanced stage. The goal of the advanced stage is to continue the basic skills training, equip students with specialized knowledge and specialty-related knowledge, to further broaden their knowledge scope, to enhance their awareness of cultural differences, and to better their comprehensive use of English for communications
Apparently, the above quotations demonstrate three facts.

All these add up to an encouraging and inspiring trend of TEFL--- teaching and learning for real communication.

However, defects of these syllabi are also obvious. Firstly, English is taught and acquired as a foreign or international language, and TEFL is intended to prepare the learners for real intercultural communication. Accordingly, "intercultural communicative competence" ought to be clearly and exactly described or prescribed as the ultimate goal of TEFL, just as Professor Qi Yucun points out, "The goal of FLT is to produce talents that can use the language for communication with people of different cultural backgrounds"(Qi, 2000: 249). What matters is that none of the syllabi hits the target and "intercultural communicative competence" is mentioned only in College English Syllabus for English Majors but as one of the principles of English teaching. Consequently, to reflect the nature of TEFL more accurately and honestly, I insist that the goal of TEFL be defined as "intercultural communicative competence" rather than the somewhat ambiguous "communicative competence" or "language skills". Secondly, although cultural dimension has been taken into consideration, cultural instruction has not yet been treated fairly in the syllabi. Only a few fragmentary statements are scattered here and there. It seems that cultural instruction is still waiting to be seated. As one of the three strands of TEFL (English knowledge, skills training and cultural instruction, Liu, 2000), cultural instruction, though it may be considered less important than the other two strands, does play an unnegligible role in achieving the goal of TEFL. I am by no means suggesting that we should weaken the teaching of linguistic knowledge and the training of language skills. The three strands are actually in a complement-each-other relationship. Therefore, the integration of the three strands is of vital importance in TEFL. Logically, in the English syllabi, there ought to be more space for description and guidelines about cultural instruction in a comparatively systematic pattern in order for the goal of TEFL to have a chance to work.


"Intercultural communicative competence" as the ultimate goal of FLT is supported by sociolinguistics, cultural linguistics, and the theory of intercultural communication. It offers us a more satisfactory answer to the first question concerning FLT "Why do we teach and learn a foreign language" because it agrees perfectly with the nature of language and the nature of foreign language teaching and it also conforms well to the needs of the ever increasing intercultural communication. It is supposed that the English syllabi serve as a guideline of the practice of TEFL, and therefore, a more precise and direct statement of the ultimate goal of TEFL, "intercultural communicative competence", is in urgent need to ensure the productivity and efficiency of TEFL. Besides, teaching methodology, course design, and teaching materials should also be adapted to cater to the accomplishment of the ultimate goal. Fortunately, it is widely accepted that cultural instruction in TEFL will contribute greatly to conceptually accurate, grammatically correct, culturally appropriate, and especially comfortable English communication and to establish "intercultural communicative competence" as the ultimate goal of FLT (including TEFL) will no doubt help us hit the target.  


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. IX, No. 11, November 2003