The need for literature in a language course [Archives:2006/984/Education]

September 25 2006

Dr. Umesh Prasad Pattanaik
Associate Professor of English
Hadhramout University

Language, as we know, is a tool for communication. This becomes more so, when it happens to be a foreign language. Not many learn a foreign language for the purpose of enjoying its literature. Enjoyment of literature for them is nothing but incidental. On the other hand, a vast majority of the people learn a foreign language for the purpose of communication. They primarily learn it as a tool of communication. Their main objective is to be successful communicators in the foreign language. They naturally aim at mastering the four skills of language (LSRW)., so that they can effectively establish contacts with others and interact with them as successfully as they can. Similarly, no government that invests so much of funds, man power and man hours on foreign language teaching would ever expect their children to be excellent scholars in the foreign language literature, just appreciating and adoring it. What they reasonably expect of their children is to learn the language well, so that their services can be gainfully utilized in furthering the interest of the country vis-a-vis the world outside. However, this does not mean that literature has no place in a foreign language course. Honestly speaking, it would be unwise to banish literature completely from a language course. On the contrary it would be prudent if we can use literature in teaching language in an FL situation.

The need for literature

There are several reasons justifying the inclusion of literature in a foreign language course. First of all, literature is sweet and enjoyable. It has universal appeal and it directly touches the learner's heart. Because of its strong appealing quality, literature finds a permanent place in the memory of the learner. Hence, literature is considered to be a fit medium for language teaching. Besides, there are a host of experts who are of the opinion that for effective foreign language teaching and learning there should be proper integration between language and literature. For instance, Carter (1996) unequivocally argues that in the teaching of a foreign language “opportunities should be sought for extensive and integrated study of language and literature”. Similarly, Widdowson (1996) suggests that the teaching of literature should be “coordinated (at present so often undertaken in mutual isolation) in a way which should be beneficial to both.” Weber (1996) in his editorial pages often harps upon the same note when he comments that the current trend is to “work towards the integration of language and literature along the lines suggested by the British Council”. Lastly, Maley (1990) makes a similar comment when he suggests that “literary texts should be used as language teaching resources rather than as objects of literary study as such”.

Apart from the general observations made above, literature has certain specific uses in a foreign language teaching course. To begin with, the vital skill of guessing the meaning of an unfamiliar vocabulary item from the context can be easily developed with the help of literature. Any literary text whether prose or poem, provides the learners with a rich context and adequate clues to guess the meaning of new words from. Secondly, in a literary text words frequently occur in related groups. These group of words which are semantically related not only contribute to a better understanding of the text but also facilitate register based teaching of vocabulary items. Thirdly, literature can play a crucial role in the acquisition of syntax and parameter fixing. As is frequently suggested by Chomsky, parameter fixing including acquisition of syntax relies more on “crucial data” rather than on repeated exposure. This “crucial data” is to a great extent provided by literature. For example, let us take the famous line of John Keats: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever”. As students of literature all of us have learnt and remembered this line. But how many of us realize that along with this line we have, in effect, internalized a special syntactic device meant for focussing? This is the beauty of literature. Children can learn the rules of grammar, but without being aware of the fact that they are learning the rules. Last, but not the least, the four basic skills of language , i.e. LSRW, can be promoted through a literary text. This can be achieved by designing suitable language activities based on the text.

In sum, it is unwise to cast literature away as useless. On the contrary, literature, should be gainfully used in foreign language teaching.

Promoting Language Content and Skills through a Shakespearean Sonnet

For the purpose of language teaching and learning, a simple Shakespearean sonnet is selected for analysis and discussion. The sonnet opens with the line “Not marble, nor gilded monuments”. However, our objective here is not to provide rigorous and elaborate vocabulary and grammar practice to the learners through this poem, but to sensitize them to the typical grammatical and vocabulary items effectively and gainfully used by the poet in this poem. The discussion in this section is done under four heads: (i) the overall message of the poem; (ii) the key vocabulary items used in the poem; (iii) the dominant points of the grammar employed; and (iv) the language skills to be promoted.

The overall message of the poem

The poem is about keeping the memory alive and thus conferring the status of immortality to a person who is loved and / or respected. Towards this end, the poet chooses the medium of rhyme, whereas a mason turns to sculpture. It is argued in this poem that the marble or gilded monuments created by the sculptor in honor of powerful rulers do not survive the test of time and are subject to decay and destruction. In contrast, the work of art created by the poet in honor of a loved one survives the test of time and in the work the loved one continues to live for ever.

Key vocabulary items used in the poem

In order to convey the message and to show the basic difference between the two forms of art, the poet chooses and employs naming words and expressions belonging to four different fields. The fields cover the field of sculpture illustrated by “marble”, “monuments”, “statues”, “stone”, “the work of masonry”, “princes”, etc.), poetry (illustrated by “rhyme”, “powerful contents”, “the living record of your memory”, “lovers' eyes” etc.), forces of destruction (illustrated by “war”, “broils”, “Mars”, “war's quick fire”, “death”, “enmity”, “sluttish time”, etc.) and the field of religion (illustrated by “doom”, “judgment”, “arise”, etc). The inter-play among these fields not only brings out the overall message of the poem but also lends a religious overtone to it.

From language teaching point of view the learners should be sensitized to the semantic relatedness of the words and expressions belonging to each group and also how they contribute to the totality of the meaning conveyed by the poem. Secondly, this semantic grouping will also help the learners to guess the meaning of unfamiliar expressions from the context of each group. For example, it will not be difficult for them to guess the meaning of “monuments” from words like “statues”, “stone” and “princes”.

Similarly, the action words and expressions employed in this poem belong to two groups: life sustaining group and life destroying group. The former includes expressions like “outlive, shine more brightly, pace forth, find room, arise, live and dwell”. In contrast, the latter set has expressions like “overturn, root out, burn and besmeared”. What is significant to note here is that the latter expressions are all associated with the work of the sculptor, which are subject to decay and destruction over time. On the other hand, the former expressions stand for life and its continuance and are all related to the poetic art form.

Lastly, it may be noted that the poet in this poem uses adjectives quite effectively and purposefully. The study of the adjectives reveals how beautiful things turn ugly with the passage of time. For example, the “gilded” monuments of powerful princes, with the passage of time, are left “unswept” and forgotten and in the long run turn “besmeared” (oily) and “sluttish” (dirty). In contrast, a rhyme, the artistic creation of the poet, remains “powerful”, shines “more bright”, and ultimately becomes a “living record” in the lovers' eyes.

To sum up the vocabulary section, it may be said that even a short poem like this one presents ample scope for vocabulary teaching. However, learners' attention may be drawn to the use of these vocabulary items mentioned above through appropriate language activities.

Key grammatical items employed

The most striking grammatical structure that has been repeatedly employed in this poem is the use of the modal “shall” with third person and second person nouns and pronouns in the subject position. Such conjugation of “shall” with 3/2 person subjects does not come under normal use of English. Only when the speaker wants to convey a strong sense of determination and intention, he adopts this kind of grammatical strategy. Throughout the length and breadth of this poem except the concluding lines the poet goes on repeating the use of “shall” and by this he gives expression to his intention of according the status of immortality to the addressee in the poem. But in the concluding lines the poet switches over to the simple present (e.g. “you live… and dwell …”) and thereby accords permanent existence and immortality to the addressee. The contrast between the use of “shall” and the use of “simple present” is most likely related to the contrast between the stage of intention and the stage of completion. Only in the concluding line, the poet's intention turns into an actual realization.

Although the “shall” and “simple present” contrast is a fit subject for language teaching and practice, it is, however, not advisable to have elaborate and varied teaching and practice exercises on this point as overt grammar teaching is not our goal in teaching poems. On the contrary, what is suggested is that the attention of the learners should be drawn to the contrast. It is hoped that this will enable the learners to understand the contrast and thus facilitate the process of internalization of the rules involved without the need for repeated practice.

Language skills to be promoted

A poem readily lends itself for listening and speech practice. As a rule, poems are musical and sweet to hear. Hence, the poem to be taught should be recorded and then played for the benefit of the learners. The learners may be encouraged to listen to the recording as many times as possible. This will not only give them a feel of the music present in the poem but also provide them the much needed exposure to the sounds of the target language. For this purpose, the poem that has been discussed above is a good sample. It is rich in rhythm and rhyming.

Next, speech practice may follow listening practice. We should let the learners recite the poem in chorus, then in groups and at last individually. This will enable them to have practice with the target language sounds in a meaningful manner.

Also, speaking practices can be ensured by engaging the learners in a discussion in the class. After they have learnt the poem and got the overall message, they may be asked evaluative questions as the following:

Between the poet and the sculptor, who do you like more? And why?

Initially, the learners may be asked to find justifications for their answers from within the text. And, at the next step, they may be allowed to seek justifications from outside the text. This will encourage natural and spontaneous speaking in the class.

It is not that only listening and speaking can be promoted with the help of a poem. Reading and writing can also be promoted. However, for obvious reasons the latter two skills have not been touched upon in his paper.


To conclude, we may say that literature is a fit subject for the purpose of language teaching. It may be exploited both for content teaching and skills promotion. However, adequate attention should be paid to proper text selection. If the text is beyond the level of comprehension of the learners, then the purpose of language teaching will also get defeated. Therefore, the text should be simple and interesting in keeping with the level of proficiency of the learners.


– Brumfit, C.J. And K. Johnson (1979): The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching, OUP, Oxford.

– Carter, R. (1996): “Study Strategies in the teaching of literature to foreign students”, published in The Stylistics Reader (1996) edited by J.J.Weber, Arnold, London, New York.

– Duff, A. and A. Maley (1990) : Literature, OUP, Oxford.

– Fowler, R. (1996): “Studying literature as language” published in The Stylistics Reader (1996) edited by J.J.Weber, Arnold, London, New York.

– Maley, A. and S. Moulding (1985): Poem into Poem, CUP, Cambridge, London.

– Sharyan, A. (2003): An Introduction to Literature Forms II, Sanaa University, Sanaa.

– Weber, J.J. (1996): “Towards contextualized stylistics: An overview” published in The Stylistics Reader (1996) edited by J.J.Weber, Arnold, London, New York.

– Widdowson, H.G. (1996): “Stylistics: An approach to stylistic analysis” published in The Stylistics Reader (1996), edited by J.J.Weber, Arnold, London, New York.