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Task-Based Language Teaching: What Does It Really Mean?

If you Google Task-Based Language Teaching, or TBLT, you’ll find a lot of definitions related to the latest trend in teaching second or foreign languages. But what does it really mean?

TBLT is an approach to language learning that was popularized in the 1980s by N. Prabhu in Bangalore, India. Prabhu discovered that learners were able to learn more effectively when they were focused on a tangible, non-linguistic task like reading a map, than when they were focused on a linguistic task such as using second conditional verb forms.

Similarly, learning a language at its core is simply learning a new skill. And just like any other skill—playing the piano or swimming, for instance—you learn by doing. The sooner you start playing music or jumping into the pool, the sooner you’ll start learning and practicing the skills you need to play an entire song or swim the breaststroke. In contrast, studying music theory or reading a book about swimming techniques may be insightful, but it probably won’t help you achieve your real goal as quickly and efficiently as possible.

TBLT is centered on meaningful tasks using target language (the language being learned) in real-life situations, as opposed to focusing on the target language on its own without any relatable or concrete context. Examples of tasks can range from scheduling a doctor’s appointment and filing a complaint with customer service to answering job interview questions and using small talk with colleagues. TBLT prepares learners for real-world situations, while traditional language teaching that focuses on target language in isolation will not, like a lesson on the past perfect of the verb “to be.” You can easily draw examples of the traditional approach to language learning from your own experience: your high school Spanish teacher may have had you complete irregular verb conjugation exercises instead of role-playing ordering food in a restaurant and applying the target language to a real-life situation. With TBLT, you will never wonder why you’re learning a specific verb tense or set of expressions. The reason will always be related to a real-life situation that is crystal clear to you from the start.

From a language learner’s perspective, a TBLT approach means that your goals and real-life outcomes for learning a new language—whether you want to easily communicate abroad in a country where the language is spoken or work at an international company—should guide your decision when choosing a course, software or tutor. Never lose sight of your goals along the way. For example, if you plan on traveling abroad to Spain and want to learn some Spanish to help you get around, focus on the types of interactions and situations you expect to experience in Spain. Think of common tasks such as asking for directions, ordering food in a restaurant, reading a menu and checking in to a hotel. Don’t spend too much time focusing on language that falls outside of these interactions as it won’t pertain to your experience. And because that language isn’t relevant to your goals, it may discourage you from sticking with it. You don’t need to learn how to describe someone’s eye color (Bob tiene ojos marrones) or learn the comparative in Spanish (El gato corre más rápido que el perro), but you do need to know how to politely ask for information (Disculpe, sabe cómo llegar a la estación de tren?) or how to tell a server that you are a vegetarian (Soy vegetariana. No como carne ni pescado.). This way, you’ll actually be prepared for your trip, you’ll save time and you’ll stay motivated!

More often than not, language learners do not assess their goals when they embark upon the brave journey of learning a new language. They assume that any one-size-fits-all solution will work for their specific needs, but everyone’s goals are different and TBLT acknowledges this as critical to success. If you’re learning English to improve your career versus learning English because you’ll be traveling to New York, the language you’ll need is different. So how could the same exact course help you achieve two very different goals? Instead of choosing a static course designed as a catch-all solution, choose one that is customizable and adaptive based on your unique goals—a task-based and personalized solution.