How long, then, before automatic simultaneous translation becomes the norm, and all those tedious language lessons at school are declared redundant?
The very first thing that sprung to mind was how old the writer was. The second question was where exactly he went to school. The reason for the very first question is to find out whether he (I don’t know why I decided to call the writer a he, though) learned foreign languages through Grammar Translation or the Audio-lingual method and if all his language classes were a mixture of drills and meaningless translations. It’s been quite a while since I had my language lessons, and although I did find them boring in school where we did have to “learn” through GT, I can’t say the same about my language classes in language institutes.
It was still pretty much a structural perspective, granted. Yet, there was something else beyond the language. It was actually fun to go to a class where we were allowed to talk and to communicate. Looking back, I’m pretty sure I can say the reason for that was only clear to me after I became a teacher, and it may very well be the very reason I fell in love with teaching languages when it was supposed to be simply a way for me to try my hand at teaching before becoming a History teacher.
But the question remains dangling there. If we are ever able to devise a machine that will allow us to communicate with other people from all over the world, will the job of the language teacher be made redundant? As many professions before ours have already seen their end with the advent of technology, could this ever be the end of language teaching, or at least most of it? If we think about it, many who study English do so because they want to communicate. Well, if that truly is the case, then why would these people keep studying a foreign language when they would already be able to communicate?
Fortunately, learning a language gives you a lot more benefits than simply allowing you to communicate with others. It’s a sure fire way to keep your brain sharp, and according to some researchers, it might even lead to a different way of seeing the world. Some have already said that learning a new language is like acquiring a new soul, but that might be considered simply as too mysterious for some people out there who are just trying to communicate.
Don’t we also know that learning to play chess is also a fantastic way to exercise the brain and that it also allows you to see the world from a different perspective? Don’t we know that reading is also a much better way to exercise your imagination and creativity? I also remember reading somewhere that Sudoku may prevent Alzheimer’s. Nonetheless, I don’t see that many people playing chess or learning how to play it, or people choosing books instead of TV, and apart from very few people I know, not that many people doing their Sudoku puzzles unless they’re waiting in a queue and don’t have a smartphone on them. I’m sure you understand that I’m talking about the average joe out there, and not some high-brow scholar.
Are people really that lazy and they will eventually end up choosing the easy way out? I most certainly know quite a few people who are quite happy with working very little and simply doing nothing, and I mean, nothing for the rest of the time. I’m talking about working as little as 6 hours a day or even less, and then simply doing nothing. And it’s not just for a month or so…
A series of announcements over the past few months from sources as varied as mighty Microsoft and string-and-sealing-wax private inventors suggest that workable, if not yet perfect, simultaneous-translation devices are now close at hand.
The question we may ask then, is just how close at hand they actually mean. But before spending too much grey matter on the topic, I guess we could go back to something all teachers who are a tiny bit into edtech already know – technology will not replace teachers, but teachers who can’t use technology will be replaced by those who can. This will only be proven right or wrong in a couple more years. What if more teachers were able to do as some Harvard and Stanford teachers have done when they taught more that thousands of students at once? Would there be enough students for so many teachers?
But this is all too gloomy, isn’t it? The challenges of computerised simultaneous translation are still far too great for it too happen as fast as the article might get us thinking in its very first lines. A bit further down, it states:
In the real world, people talk over one another, use slang or chat on noisy streets, all of which can foil even the best translation system.
This doesn’t mean we won’t be able to get there one day or another, but it might be as far-fetched in reality as flying cars were for those living in the 60s. Sometimes science-fiction eludes us and makes us wonder if things are as close as we’d like them to be.
Teaching a language is a lot more than simply teaching the words and grammar of the language. Learning a language, especially on this day and age in certain parts of the world, is, indeed, opening up to a world of possibilities. The language classroom might as well be the one place people are encouraged to speak their mind and have the chance to learn how to participate in a debate. Being in a language classroom where language is conversation-driven helps even the shyer students to work on their social skills and realise that they’re also entitled to an opinion. There’s just a lot more that a language classroom can provide to learns than the mere capacity to communicate. This is, as a matter of fact, why I do believe we need to make sure that learners are always pushed in our classes – it’s about a lot more than simply being able to get a message across.
The one thing that technology is able to do as of now is meet language learners with exercise drills and grammar explanations with automated correction and explanation. If all your teaching can be summed up into new grammar items and vocabulary, it’s very likely you’ll be replaced by a computer quite soon. Language teaching is education, and any challenge language teachers will face in the near future are no different from the challenges teachers of other subjects are likely to face.
If you’ve already bought the idea of life-long learning and you are able to adapt to changes and you embrace them instead of fearing them, then there’s no need to worry about what’s yet to come. Besides, it seems that the news trying to be more and more worried about coming up with stories that seem to come out of a crystal ball than to do what it’s supposed to do: inform readers and get them to reach their own conclusions.
But that might just be the proof we need to truly see that the way we’ve been teaching no longer suits this day and age. If those who get through school are more inclined to follow what’s linked to our emotions rather than to reason and make sense of things, question, analyse and critically think about whatever is presented to them, then we seriously need to rethink our practices. If all you’ve been doing in language teaching is teaching the language superficially, if the coursebook is your master and you do all it asks of you, if you’re compelled to distribute tons of handouts to your students and if you think that time well spent in class is the time when students do exercises individually and quietly, you’ve been doing your share to automatising teaching and then I do hope you’ll soon be replaced by a computer.
If, on the other hand, you’ve already understood that times they are a-changing and there’s the need to be constantly learning in order to teach, how about sharing this concept with the teacher next door? Oh, and the automated translation star-trek gadget… Just leave it be and worry about what truly matters in your profession. Teaching, my dear friends, has finally been evolving. It’s up to us to make it a swift and smooth transition into what it’s to become, or simply wait for all the bumps and moan in the corners about what it should be. Which road do you want to take?
Language teachers are constantly on the lookout for mistakes that may or may not impede communication. Nowadays, it’s common for us to read and hear that what matters most is communication, and that learners of a foreign language should not strive for perfection or flawless language production. What, however, is communication? And does this work for all levels? For instance, do we classify successful communication at the same standard for people who are applying for a position in a multi-national company to work as a spokesperson and for someone whose aim at learning a foreign language is travelling to a foreign country and be understood when ordering food? Most importantly, should we, teachers, be the ones to judge how accurate and, narrowing it further, how appropriate our learners will need to be in their language use?
This week’s blog posts at the iTDi blog are on error correction, and you may read what Scott, Barb, Chuck, Cecilia, Yitzha and Steven have to say on the matter. In addition to that, there will be a live webinar on March 3rd that will deal with the matter of error correction, and I highly encourage all those who can participate to do so. Therefore, I won’t spend much time discussing error correction in this post. Instead, I’d like to shift the focus to one of the things I felt, as a language learner, that teachers did not spend much time on, and one thing that I still feel teachers tend to overlook – in addition to pronunciation. If we’re talking about communication, the first thing we should do is look at language from a broader perspective, not forgetting that language should be seen from a discourse perspective. I’d like to reflect on something more closely related to language in use, namely the pragmatic features of discourse and the importance of explicitly teaching it to our learners.
Certain aspects of language in use are commonly referred to as the pragmatic features of discourse. Pragmatics is a branch of study related to, but separate from, linguistics, because it purports to explain aspects of language and communication that have not been – or cannot be – explained by linguistic studies. [...] When we learn a language, we gradually learn to recognize and name a set of discourse events that are common in the social circles we move in. [...] Part of our socialization is gaining familiarity with a range of discourse types or genres. Some of these we may acquire through exposure and others have to be taught.
(Bloor, M. & Bloor, T., 2007 in The Practice of Discourse Analysis – An Introduction, Hodder Arnold, p. 19)
Whenever we attend seminars, a lot of attention is given to vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation through the four skills, but rarely will you see someone speaking about the pragmatic use of the language at length. Is this less important than the other features? Or is this far too complicated for most teachers to touch as it is far more complex and there are not that many prescriptive rules? We do deal with communication, and many teachers nowadays claim to abide by the rules of the Communicative Approach. If that is the case, shouldn’t we also turn our attention to the interaction that takes place between the listener and the speaker? How easy is it for teachers to assume that what they have said is what their learners actually understood? Even worse, how easy is it for us to let learners get away with something they said that does not sound right to our ears? Are we able to understand the exact meaning that learners are trying to convey simply because, well, as language teachers we are trying as hard as we can to fully understand what our learners are trying to say?
A speaker may utter a sentence which is, for example, a positive, active statement, expressing a particular content. The listener may, however, interpret the sentence as a threat, or warning, as advice or contradiction. These interpretations are pragmatic meanings. In addition to the content expressed, the listener interprets the speaker’s purpose in uttering the sentence.
(Lewis, M., 2002, in The Lexical Approach, Thomson Heinle, p. 82)
The problem becomes even more apparent when learners reach an advanced level, and mainly in interactions between native and non-native speakers of language. The point is, if we don’t teach and, from time to time, make sure our learners are capable of going beyond basic language use, we may actually be doing more harm than good. What happens is that we need to make our learners aware of how they say things, not only what they say. Vocabulary does take up a lot of our teaching when we reach advanced levels, say B2+ onwards, but vocabulary expansion by itself will do very little to help learners, as the passage below supports.
However, in situations of contact between native and non-native speakers of a language, pragmatic errors are insidious in that they often lead proficient speakers of a language to misjudge the intentions of less proficient speakers. Particularly if the speakers are fluent and accurate, listeners do not realize that a pragmatic error has been committed, instead misconstruing what was intended by the speaker and sometimes judging the speaker harshly as a result.
(Larsen-Freeman, D., 2003, in Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammaring, Thomson Heinle, p. 37)
But is it even possible to make our learners aware of pragmatic mistakes, or misuses of the language? I’ve always believed so, and, to be honest, once I was able to understand how serious this may be, I’ve always wondered why we don’t do this more often. Instead of writing on the matter with my own words, and as this has been a post filled with quotes and extracts from books, I’ll add one more extract.
For a long time, it was assumed that second language classrooms could not provide appropriate input for learning how to realize many speech acts. This was particularly the case with structure-based approaches to teaching and in particular, in teacher-fronted classrooms where the dominant interaction pattern was ‘teacher initiation – learner response – teacher feedback’. In communicative, content-based, and task-based approaches to second language instruction, there are more opportunities not only for a greater variety of input but also for learners to engage in different roles and participant organization structures (for example, pair and group work). This enables learners to produce and respond to a wider range of communicative functions. Furthermore, research on the teaching of pragmatics has demonstrated that pragmatic features can be successfully learned in classroom settings and that explicit rather than implicit instructions is most effective (Kasper and Rose 2002). This is particularly good news for foreign language learners who do not have extensive exposure to conversational interaction outside the classroom. Thus, the question is no longer whether second language pragmatics should be taught but rather how it can be best integrated into classroom instruction.
(Spada, N., and Lightbown, P.M., 2006, in How Languages are Learned, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, p. 103-104)
Next time you’re walking around the classroom, or if you’re collecting samples of students’ language, make sure you focus on something that goes beyond form. Go further. It simply makes sense, to me, to focus on emergent language and on a conversation-driven approach to language teaching – as long as you’re doing it right. The problem lies in trying to do something before you really know how to do it.
On my previous post, I wrote about the use of L1 regarding the proficiency level of the learners, and I did say there would be another post on the matter. I’ve been thinking about the situations in which I believe L1 can be used effectively when it comes to learning, and so far this is what I got:
Using L1 in the classroom is a much more than mere translation of words and phrases per se
I guess one of the reasons why so many teachers still frown upon the thought of using translation in the classroom is the fact that they equate any use of L1 to the boring lessons based on Grammar Translation that they had in classes. If teachers use L1 as a way to simply translate words and phrases and instantly become a walking-talking bilingual dictionary in class, there’s something wrong with the use of L1 in the classroom.
In his How to teach vocabulary, Scott Thornbury says that the more informed decisions and the more we know about a word, the easier it is for us to retrieve it. I guess this applies to anything else that is being taught. If we make use of L1 to help students make a contrastive analysis of L1 and L2, if we use L1 to illustrate differences and similarities between L1 and L2, and if such use helps a learner make things more personal, then it might be a good idea to use L1 in the classroom.
One of the uses I have already found to be effective is when we use L1 to compare sayings and idioms. I do enjoy using humour in the classroom, so you’d more often than not hear me saying silly things in class. I’ve already noticed students, quite often, remembering something because of one of the silly jokes or anecdotes. There’s nothing new there, I suppose. For instance, one day during an exam prep class, students had difficulties in one of the items that asked them to change VIABLE into a noun. When we were correcting it, I just told them that you should be rooting for your abilities. In Portuguese, we’d say “Vai, someone” when we want to encourage or support them. On many other occasions when they were asked to write the word, they made no mistakes.
Literal translations of expressions can also be used if you ask them to find the correct equivalent in L2. The point is whether or not the idea is more important than the words themselves, that’d be good use of L1.
L1 should be seen as yet another resource in the teacher’s toolkit to generate understanding
Before we think about banning or using L1 in the classroom, I think we should look at it for what it is: yet another resource we have available to help learners understand what is being said in L2. Just like any other resource we have at hand such as images, mimes, drawings, songs, videos, limericks and what have you, L1 is yet another resource than, just like all others, can be used poorly or effectively. Just as we’re trying to keep up with all the new technological advances in order to teach people who are more and more dependent on technology, we should stop awhile and reflect on how to properly use L1 in the classroom.
Analyse your aims and allow yourself to use L1
One of the comments to the last post, Andrea’s, were exactly about this. If you have decided that your learners should talk for 10 minutes of the lessons, and you are asked a vocabulary question while they’re doing the activity, you have to decide on how to deal with this doubt. Well, if you expect THEM to do the talk and there’s an allotted time, and you know it’ll take you quite a while to explain the word(s), it makes a lot more sense for you to simply translate it outright. In 2 seconds, students are ready to continue with their talk, and you won’t have got in the way of their stream of thought. Needless to say, it’d be nice to find a way to go back to these vocabulary questions later on so as to recycle, revisit, retrieve… well, what we usually do to help them with vocabulary.
Your learners can’t get used to speaking L1 and getting an answer
In a monolingual class, and when the teacher shares the L1 with the learners, it’s quite easy to hear what students are saying in L1 and reply. I honestly think teachers should train themselves not to respond to what learners say in L1 on most occasions. More often than not, students use L1 to make remarks which are unrelated to the topic of the lesson, or it’s something that they have already learned how to say in L2. We can’t, obviously, simply become completely oblivious to any L1 utterance in class. The point is being able to correctly judge whether or not that’s something that really needs an answer or if it’s something that learners are saying just because they don’t want to participate in the class. Are they being lazy, or they really can’t say what they are trying to say in L2? I’ve already seen students who can clearly understand what their teachers say in L2, but can’t say the same things in L2. Comprehensible input is important, but comprehensible output is equally as important. If you don’t require them to use what they’ve learned in L2 from the very beginning, this is likely to become fossilized, and it’ll be harder and harder for them to use L2 as structures become more complex.
It’s somewhat complicated to prevent learners from sharing opinions in their L1 among themselves, but we can get there by showing them we’re paying attention to our surroundings and listening to instances of L1 in the classroom.
Is that all?
Absolutely not! This is not meant to be a comprehensive list – it’s just a couple of thoughts regarding the use of L1 in class that I wanted to share with you and perhaps hear what you’ve got to say. I always try to keep an open mind when it comes to receiving criticism, and if by any chance I have to come back here and contradict everything I’ve said thus far, no problems! Fortunately no one is the bearer of the ultimate truth! Just like with anything else, use your common sense when it comes to use of L1 in the classroom. This means that you ought to be actively listening to your students and teaching according to their reactions. Fortunately, there’s no definitive guide to the classroom, and I don’t there’ll ever be one!
I admit that when I started teaching English I had more willingness to learn how to do it than actual knowledge of how to actually do it. Most of what I did in classes were things that I had to do in the classroom as a student, and I tried my best to remember what those teachers I thought to be outstanding did in class to help me learn. Furthermore, there were a couple of rues that were so deeply ingrained in my mind that it was hard for me to allow for some flexibility and to see any kind of benefits for learners. One of these rules was the rule of “Portuguese (my L1) is forbidden in class”. As I studied English in an EFL setting, which means all learners shared the same L1, this rule made me believe that L1 was the bogeyman that would come to you and steal all English you may have learned in a class.
Based on this experience, it was only natural that I frowned upon any remark that was in favor of L1 in the classroom. I didn’t really care much about how it was being used – it was definitely the worst thing that could happen to a student in a language class. Soon enough, after I was sure that I wanted to be an English teacher, I (fortunately?) had the chance to study about teaching and learning, and my perception of use of L1 in a classroom where all learners speak the same L1 changed quite a bit. There are many things I’d like to share with you regarding use of L1 in the classroom, but I’ll start with only one in today’s post. This means a part 2 is definitely on the way, and who knows even a part 3. I’d love to read your comments on whether you agree or disagree with what I have to say, if possible. The main thing to keep in mind is that use of L1 in a classroom goes way beyond translation, and I hope to get to that in subsequent posts. So, shall I begin?
Use of L1 and Proficiency Level
As I’ve learned English quite a while ago, I’ve always felt like remembering what it was like to start learning a foreign language from scratch. I was lucky enough to have the chance to take German classes – a language I have never really had the chance to be in contact with. One of the things I noticed, as a student/researcher in the classroom was the fact that the teacher only spoke German in the class. This was actually good for me, as I could clearly see what a true beginner felt like in my classes. I tried my best to do everything I always tell students to do – I was always a volunteer in class, I took part in debates, group and pair work, I did my homework, and I studied regularly at home, and I didn’t skip a single lesson. It turns out this actually worked and I could understand most of what the teacher said in class. After our third test, I felt confident enough (and had already got good enough grades to pass) to try and do what some students do: I spent a week without attending lessons, I didn’t touch my books and notebooks, and I deliberately avoided any contact with the German language that could come my way. For one week I have done that…
Upon returning to classes, I was flabbergasted by the fact that I couldn’t understand anything that was said in class. It was as though I had been thrown into the class on that very same day. To make matters worse, the teacher was constantly asking me questions as I usually jumped at them. She soon learned that I couldn’t make head or tail of what she was saying.
Thinking about this situation and comparing it with what I experience in English, I could clearly see lots of differences. I can easily spend a week, a month, and even more without speaking English and still feel comfortable using it after this period. This has helped shape the use of L1 in the classroom by my learners. It’s much harmful for beginners to speak L1 in the classroom than it is for, let’s say, FCE students. The less we know a language, the more important it is for us to be presented with it in terms of input and the more important it is that we are asked to speak it. This is not an easy task on the teacher, though.
It’s the teacher’s role to be able to properly create communicative activities that will foster conversation in class at an appropriate level for the learners so that there can be effective scaffolding. If we accept that language learning is conversation-driven because we tend to engage in conversations that are meaningful to us, and that we learn best things that are meaningful to us, this means the teacher is responsible for creating activities that will do exactly that – allow learners to engage in meaningful conversation using whatever limited command of the language they may have.
The problem is how often I hear from students, parents, and even teachers that it’s OK for beginners to use L1 in class because, well, they’re just beginners. Just the same, I find it just as worrisome that these people also say that advanced learners can’t speak L1 because, well, they’re advanced learners. To be hones, I feel it should be exactly the other way around. Obviously, it’s much easier for teachers and for students to speak only in L2 once learners have become independent users of the language. However, it’s much more important for them to speak English only when they are still not independent in the target language.
When it comes to use of L1 and proficiency level in the target language, I believe it’s much better for learners to even be allowed to use L1 once they’ve become able to express themselves in the L2. If they’re still taking the first steps towards learning the target language, use of L1 is not forbidden, but teachers should be much more careful about it. Just as anything we do in class, L1 can be used to help learners. It should never, though, be used just to make the teacher’s life easier. If so, this might come at the learners’ expense of long-term learning and independence in the target language. L1 one is yet another tool available for the teacher – learning when and how to use this tool can make or break a lesson.
Truth be told, we make many decisions in class on the spur of the moment. Nevertheless, I do feel that having some guidelines can help us make better informed decisions and lead us to further reflection once the class is over. In a nutshell, I feel that I should try much harder to avoid L1 with beginners that I should with advanced learners. How about you?
It’s a commonly held belief (at least where I live) that in order to fully be able to speak a foreign language, one has to live abroad. It is only through immersion that you’ll finally be able to understand the subtleties of the language you want to learn. This is also widely spread on TV by some ‘experts’ and, needless to say, many people buy into this idea without giving it any kind of serious thought or consideration. As a teacher of English as a Foreign Language, I’d be unemployed if this were true. Actually, I would never have been able to become an English teacher, or even to speak the language as I’ve never lived nor studied abroad. But this is as personal as I’m going to get on this post. What’s been making me think for a while is exactly the difference between learning a language in an immersion situation, or learning it in the formal environment of the classroom.
One can easily see why it’s so easy to be led into the argument in favour of living abroad as the only possible solution for really learning how to speak a language. “Learn a second language as naturally as you’ve learned your first language,” says one advert. “I’ve studied English in [insert a non-English speaking country here] for more than 6 years, but it was only when I went to [insert an English speaking country here] that I realised I had not learned how to speak the language,” reads a testimonial next to the picture of a girl in her ‘I love London’ T-shirt who has just returned from a month of studies in, well, London. Add to that the fact that we all know a friend of a friend who’s been through this very same situation, and also the fact that, when it comes to education, everyone is an expert, and voi-lá – you’ve got yourself the perfect scenario. How can you persuade someone that, yes, even though it does help, it’s not a sine qua non condition for language learning?
The problem is aggravated when a neuroscientist is invited for an interview on TV about the best age and method for you to learn a foreign language. Why would they invite a linguist, after all, huh? As if that were not enough, people are constantly bombarded by adverts from an ever-growing number of language schools in the country that claim that learning English is easy. Easy? Seriously? I’m fine with learning English is enjoyable, pleasant, fun, but not easy, sorry. Learning, not only languages, requires dedication, motivation, work, and effort. “Ok, but what’s your angle, Henrick?” one might wonder. My angle is this:
Whenever we have to learn something new, we need to be motivated to do so. We’re going to, even if it’s subconsciously, analyse the amount of work and effort involved and the pleasure we’ll derive from mastering A or B and then decide whether it’s worth or not going through the trouble of learning it. We’ll also use others, usually our friends, as the yardstick against which our success or failure will be measured. We don’t want to lose face in front of others either, so it’s much easier to go with the flow and fail as long as everyone else is failing too than go against the mainstream and fail when all around you succeed. For example, if you need to lose weight and you decide to start on a weight-loss programme that will take a while to complete, but all your friends tell you of that miraculous new crash diet that will help you shed 20 pounds a month that they’re all going through, you end up giving in. Even when we know deep down that there’s no such a thing, it seems we’re somehow afraid that this might be the very first time it’s going to work. The same is true of business opportunities – we know success depends on hard work, but every now and then it’s easy to be lured by that new business opportunities that just seems too good to be true. Guess what? It is.
Learning languages is no different than that. Depending on how proficient a speaker of the language you want/have to be, you will have to invest a certain amount of time, effort, and hard work to reach your objectives. But it’s easy to be misled by an advert that portrays a TV star telling you how easy it is, and we end up falling into a vicious circle. Let me see if I can get this into writing…
People are constantly on the lookout for the soft path – generally speaking. Therefore, if I find a place that will ‘teach’ me English without requiring too much work from me, that’d be perfect. If, on the other hand, there’s a lot of homework, teachers nagging you in class all the time, serious assessment criteria and possibility of failing, people are likely to be more serious when choosing this kind of course. But then, and here’s where it hits the fan, when people are bombarded with adverts that state that you can only possibly learn a language effectively by living abroad, your expectations towards any kind of serious course are lowered – why would you go through all the trouble serious courses and teachers would put you through when you won’t be able to reach native-like fluency?
In Brazil, language courses fall under the category of any kind of course and are not regulated at all. Hence, it’s common for you to see people who have got no knowledge of the language whatsoever start a language course. It’s just business like a bakery, only instead of selling bread, it sells education. Obviously, these money-oriented people are way more concerned with making money than actually teaching anything, and if this kind of mentality becomes the norm rather than the exception, we have a problem. These people start selling what people want: a course which will teach them a foreign language fast and with very little effort from them. Suddenly, a whole bunch of people just flock their way. Other schools, who are also in need of students so they can pay their bills, see what’s happening and decide to follow suit. From this point on, schools do whatever it is possible to make sure students get what they think they want (not studying hard and still learn) at the expense of what they really expect to get at the end of the course (becoming at least independent users of the language).
The entry level in most schools has dropped straight to A1 even when you’re dealing with students who are well capable of being challenged a tad beyond that. When students start their course, they love it and say it’s all easy and they can learn the language without having to bend over backwards to find the time to study and do all the exercises. It’s all too beautiful until time passes and then, two years after studying, they experience very little progress. That’s when they finally admit that the only way for you to learn a language is by studying or living abroad. Aren’t many language schools headed for a Catch-22 situation in the near future? We need to make sure students realise they can learn a foreign language by taking a course and committing to their studies, but this requires them to push their students harder than most other schools do, which means many students will choose to study in an “easier” course. Consequently, in order to have students studying and paying for their bills, especially after the school has grown to a certain size in which it needs to have a minimum number of students just to exist, they end up having to lowering their standards. When they lower the standards, the arguments in favour of taking a course abroad become much more apparent, and these language schools, in the near future, may end up losing their students.
In other words: are certain language schools laying the ground for their own failure by lowering their standards so that they can compete with schools who are not seriously committed to education? What’s worse, isn’t this going to make it even harder for people to believe they can learn a language by taking a course, as I and so many other friends of mine have done? Are teachers, by lowering their standards, starting to make themselves redundant?
* This post is based on a talk I had with a friend who is currently taking an English course and, after two years of studies, has realised not much learning has taken place. This person also works in the field of education, which made our talk even more profitable.
** It all made perfect sense in my mind. In case there are things which were not clear, just ask!
Coming back to the blogosphere after a rough beginning of year has been, well, tough! To be honest, ever since I joined the cause I knew it would be pretty much impossible for me to read every single post with all the care and attention they truly deserve, and despite all the learning that the experience has led me to, there are times when your life beyond the computer/Internet does not give you enough time to do the things you both enjoy and profit from. Anyone, I’ve read a couple of interesting posts recently, and decided to participate in David’s mini-challenge. It consists of creating a word-cloud from your blog and then doing a brief analysis of it. I used wordle, and this is what I got:
Apparently, I’ve been writing a lot about students and language. The words writing and tests were also quite big on the cloud, maybe because I’ve written two recent posts on these topics. However, I guess I’ll look at this from a different perspective and try to give meaning to the way the words appeared together, shall I?
The first thing I noticed was the position of the words L1, English, far, big, and things. When looking at this, I thought about the fact that, yes, learning a foreign does open doors (excuse me for the cliché), it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. If Google and other companies are finally able to perfect online text and voice translators, why would anyone care to go through the hardships of learning a foreign language, say, in 15 years’ time? I guess the answer is that learning other language apart from your L1 allows you to do far bigger things and accomplish a lot more by the simple fact that learning a foreign language, in my humble opinion, does broaden the mind.
The second bit that called my attention was this one on the right that puts the words grammar, reason, and testing together. First, I’m not against tests and I see a good reason for them in the language classroom. However, if the only reason for testing is grammar in some kind of an order, this is likely to fail flat and not allow for learning opportunities. Tests have got to allow for learning opportunities. Otherwise, we’re just pretending to be testing learners, and they’re just pretending they’ve learned the subject for the test. Assessment is a lot different from testing, and teaching is a lot bigger than both.
This was a rather interesting one and I guess pretty much all words are important, so I’ll just talk about it instead of pointing out the words. I guess speaking too much is one of the first problems one faces as a language teacher. there are, of course, times when it’s OK to forget about Teacher Talking Time (TTT) if you know what exactly you’re doing and depending on your approach to language learning. It also seems acceptable, at least for certain levels, to speak a bit more. If you want to teach well, just don’t forget you’re not alone in the classroom and always remember to take your students into account.
Following the train of thought from the snapshot above, it’s only clear to say what good teachers do, or at least should do: help learners. And if you’re in teacher-training, you should get your teachers to help their learners, which will, in turn, change them into good teachers. Got it?!
This is also rather interesting. In spite of my personal interest in pronunciation, it’s not just about having a pretty accent. Learning involves many different things, such as grammar, vocabulary, pragmatics, speaking, listening, and reading. Learning, however, also needs writing. It’s not just about writing, obviously. Nevertheless, I truly believe that pronunciation is not the only thing that is neglected in out teaching (for many different reasons), but so is writing. Perhaps we could also look at it more carefully, huh?!
As a dogmeist, I couldn’t leave aside the bit of the cloud that deals with conversation. In a way, if we give our students a chance to talk and really communicate, it might be a lot easier for them to learn the language. Nevertheless, teachers cannot lose sight of the fact that mere conversation isn’t enough – learning has got to be the main point of the activities if we want our students to succeed and come across as independent users of the language.
This last bit I’ve chosen to analyse might be a note to myself. Even though I’ve been feeling like writing more often, perhaps my writing isn’t exactly good. Has it actually gone bad? Has it ever been good? I mean, maybe it’s time I started changing the focus of the blog and the posts, which might perhaps help me improve on my reflections on teaching and learning. Or, you know what, maybe the blog should keep on as it was conceived – a place where I can share my views, hear other people’s voices on the matter, and finally be able to learn a tad more about what I was thinking. To be honest, I don’t expect it to be good or bad, as long as it was worth your time reading up to this point. And if you happen to have the time to leave a comment, or go through some of the old posts of mine I linked to throughout the post, even better!
If you haven’t had the chance to participate in this Wednesday’s #ELTChat, you may not know that we discussed writing and how to teach writing in our classes. One of the best things about these discussions is all the ideas it generates afterwards and the discussions that arise from it. In one of my tweets, I suggested that students are likely to need writing skills more than speaking skills. Fortunately, this didn’t go unnoticed and @ma_luv2teach sent me another tweet soon after the chat was over:
If you haven’t had the chance to participate in this Wednesday’s #ELTChat, you may not know that we discussed writing and how to teach writing in our classes. One of the best things about these discussions is all the ideas it generates afterwards and the discussions that arise from it. In one of my tweets, I suggested that students are likely to need writing skills more than speaking skills. Fortunately, this didn’t go unnoticed and @ma_luv2teach sent me another tweet soon after the chat was over:
However long ago writing really started, it has remained for most of its history a minority occupation. This is part because although almost all human beings grow up speaking their first language (and sometimes their second or third) as a matter of course, writing has to be taught. Spoken language, for a child, is acquired naturally as a result of being exposed to it, whereas the ability to write has to be consciously learned.
Most students, especially these days, look for language classes that promise an emphasis on conversation. This means a lot of speaking practice and very little grammar – especially to the learner. If you allow me, I don’t think they are actually looking for conversation alone. I do believe what they mean is communication, and the reason why they dread sitting through grammar lessons is mainly because of the bad experience they had been through while studying in school. “Grammar lessons were not communicative nor engaging. Therefore, if a course teaches grammar, it will never teach me how to hold conversations” may be one of the things crossing a learner’s mind. When we ask our learners to write, we are going to correct them on their grammar sooner or later. It’s actually a good thing for the teacher as it might show him or her a couple of things that students need further practice in.
Learning how to write is time consuming, and based on the L1 teachers I talk to, it is something that students have difficulties with even in their L1. I have to be honest and say that it is exactly because of the fact that learning how to write is usually frowned upon by students that most language schools and teachers fail to emphasize it. This sometimes doesn’t even have anything to do with beliefs or lack of will, but it may just be a matter of how students see it. Language schools are, let’s not forget that, a business. In order to be able to exist, hire and pay teachers, they need students. If there is another school across the street that says students will be able to learn the language in less time and studying much less, many students will eventually go there, and now the other schools have two options – follow suit, the easy way out, or try to stick to its beliefs and hope that students will see they are right and come back. Whenever I think of this I remember the recurrent articles published every year about language courses that should be avoided. However, as long as people believe in magic solutions and are afraid of working harder than others to reach their goals, they are likely to buy it and go with the flow – if they turn out to have been fooled afterwards, at least they were not fooled alone.
3. Learning how to write will boost your speaking skills more than the other way around
OK, I could actually spend sometime talking about the difference between learned and acquired language, but as the difference is kind of blurry, I’ll just make use of another point. We need exposure in order to be able to reflect upon our sentences and utterances. This happens very fast when we are speaking and we hardly ever have the time to analyse what we are saying so that we can rephrase what we are trying to convey. However, when it comes to written language, it’s a lot easier for us to go through what we thought we were trying to say and be aware of different ways to say it. It’s much easier for us to be consciously aware of our production and remember it when using it in different occasions. Here I’d make use of Bialistok’s model for language learning:
I believe it’s much easier and faster for learners to refer to their explicit linguistic knowledge in order to progress than for them to base their learning experience on speaking practice alone. “Eh?! What happened to language being conversation driven, you dogmeist you???” Fret not, I’m a firm believer in the fact that language is conversation driven (at least until today). Written production may be an excellent source of input for learners and also an excellent source for them to learn about their own mistakes and be more conscious of them while holding a conversation. Let’s not forget that there are still many illiterate people out there who can even speak in public very well, but are incapable of reading and writing. Yet, I’ve never seen anyone – please, let’s not go into disabilities – who’s able to read and write but can’t speak. Much on the contrary, even in L1, it’s quite common for us to witness people becoming more proficient speakers once they start writing more. I really don’t think you’ll become a better writer by speaking more.
To sum it up, writing and speaking are both important skills that should be well attended to in class. My point, however, is that we tend to go from one extreme to another quite too fast. It is much more pleasant to talk to others in class than to write messages. You don’t walk around writing things on a piece of paper and showing others, but, IMHO, when it comes to foreign language interaction, writing is still a lot more common than speaking. A good example of it? How many voices do you know from the people in your PLN?
** A big thank you to @ma_luv2teach for helping me think more about this topic. I’m far from having this as my final word on it, and I do hope others (if they could put themselves to read this till the end) can also help me on this one.
It is customary for Brazilians to say that the year only truly starts in Brazil after our world famous Carnaval. This is a tongue in cheek remark, obviously, but I may just be getting the feeling that my 2011 is still about to begin. I’ve just returned from the US with a group of students who went there to participate in Harvard Model U.N., or, simply put, HMUN. The trip was amazing, and even though it was a lot of hard work, it was also an opportunity to take a break from the day by day routine. The feeling that I get about 2011 still being about to begin refers to my posts on this blog, though. There were just so many things to take care of before the trip, and then while we were there, it was pretty much impossible to keep up with everything that was going on both on the blogosphere and on Twitterville. I noticed I missed some #ELTChats I’d love to have participated in – if you know me you know I’m talking about the one on pronunciation.
I have to confess that I have only read a couple of blog posts ever since I came back as I brought with me an undesirable companion – the flu. Still, I’d like to add a word or two on the matter, if you will bear with me for a moment. I had the chance to visit three different cities with 25 high school students, and they can all communicate effectively in English. Most of them have already finished their English language courses as EFL learners, or are about to finish it. Our first stop was Washington D.C., and our very first meal was, guess where, at McDonald’s. That was just the beginning of the junk food route, which included lots of pizza places, Subway, Flammers’, and what have you. Language-wise, what caught the eye was how hard it was to speak to an American instead of a Latino. Anyway, after D.C., we went to New York and sent a little more time there. Students were given some freedom to go around Macy’s and Times Square to do some shopping, and I won’t even mention the Outlets. That was not a problem at all, and they could all, I repeat that, communicate effectively in all these places. They were able to buy things, meet new people and hold conversations without a problem. Their command of the language is pretty good for that. They had very little problems with accents and they all told me they could understand, if not all, pretty close to that. These are students who study in the same high school, but take their English lessons in many different language institutes, which means their teachers, coursebooks, and contact with the language was also diverse. Yet, they could all communicate.
Then came Boston, and with it, the HMUN. Now this is a situation that is a lot more challenging for English language learners as a foreign language mainly. Not only did they have to communicate, but they also had to play the role of delegates in the U.N. They had to remember to use formal language, they had to have good negotiation skills for all the unmoderated caucus that took place, and they also needed to be able to speak in public fairly well. Every time I think of speaking in public, I remember Jerry Seinfeld’s bit about it where he says that speaking in public is the number 1 fear in America. Guess how it must have felt for EFL learners to stand up and deliver a speech that had to be one-minute long in front of more than 200 teenagers from all over the world.
One of the things that struck me was that these students who had just had living proof that they could communicate quite well and even handle problems in English, suddenly were a bit self-conscious about their command of the language – vocabulary and pronunciation, mainly. I wonder what the reasons for that might have been, but it was clear that they were a bit self-conscious about their pronunciation and vocabulary, and also about their accent. Now I don’t think that the accent is a problem – having an accent is actually the norm rather than the exception, isn’t it? However, what shocked at least some of them the most and even prevented them fro asking for the floor and speaking on the mic wasn’t accent, it was pronunciation, and I’d say mainly supra-segmental features, or just connected speech. This was the first shock, for sure. And I can certainly put myself in their shoes because I once felt like that when I was learning English, and sometimes even after I had become a teacher. Looking back, I can clearly see that pronunciation was overlooked when I was studying English. It took me a long while to overcome the commonly held view that you can only become fluent in a language if you live in a country where the language is spoken. Honestly, I don’t think so, and I have many friends and fellow teachers that can easily prove me right. Just like me, they have never lived or studied abroad, and yet one of the first questions they hear is “Where did you live abroad?”
I have serious issues with taking the teaching of pronunciation lightly and thinking that students will simply pick it up. Just the same, I think that some teachers of advanced levels (B2+) sometimes see their students’ fluency in the language as a sign that students should come to class just to practise conversation skills. It is a class, let’s not forget that. Learners at higher levels can contribute a lot more to it with input and the amount of language that emerges, but they are there to learn more. Being able to communicate is enough when you are going shopping, sightseeing, or casually meeting someone. However, we can’t forget that we don’t know what our learners will be using the language they are learning for. I really don’t think it’s nice to see learners finishing their English courses and still feeling unprepared to deal with situations they might be required to face in their future. It’s been such a long time since, skipping Willis for a while, Michael Lewis published “The Lexical Approach” and talked about the plateau that learners reach after reaching an intermediate level. Yet, it seems to me that there are many teachers who still fail to push students beyond the plateau and show them there’s a lot more they need to learn. Perhaps this is why it’s getting harder and harder for us to see coursebooks being written for C1 level students. I can’t say I have seen it with my own eyes, but I have already heard of times in which students were required to pass their FCE exams before moving on to the advanced levels of certain language courses. These days seem to be gone. Nowadays it’s actually becoming rare for us to see students being able to take a prep course for CAE after they finish their English courses. Isn’t it time we raised the standards again?
*** If you’d like to see some of the pictures from this trip of mine, feel free to do so clicking here.
I do believe DoS and coordinators have the best of intentions when they assign groups of the same level to teachers. After all, if you’re teaching the same level twice, and if both classes are using the same coursebook, this will definitely mean a lot less work for you as a teacher when it comes to lesson planning, right? I mean, if your students from both classes are expected to leave the course having learnt the same things, why bother to plan different lessons, right? The same is true when you have the same level semester after semester, year after year – if you do a great job the first time and keep track of everything you’ve done, you can just relax during your lesson planning and any kind of preparation that lessons might need during the upcoming semesters. Right???
I said it in the very beginning, and I repeat it here – I do believe that teachers are given the groups of the same level with the best of intentions. However, I’ve seen my share of teachers who would take that as a sign that only one planning was necessary. It’s actually quite easy to understand what might be going on in the minds of such teachers. “I’m supposed to teach this lesson, and this is a wonderful activity, so I’ll simply keep using it. It has worked before.” The problem does not lie in the teacher’s attitude to keep a notebook with everything he or she has done and repeat it over the years. The problem is that this kind of teacher still hasn’t learnt that teachers are supposed to teach students, not lessons.
It goes without saying that, if you have to use a coursebook, knowing the coursebook from start to end helps a lot when it comes to planning. That doesn’t mean, though, that no more planning is necessary. It doesn’t mean your little notebook with all your notes and all the post-its and notes you’ve written in the book will help you to successfully teach the group of eager (?) learners. If you’re teaching the lesson, you’re seriously risking having some students in the classroom who already know what you’re saying and will end up finding the whole thing way too boring, and having another share of students who are still not quite ready to learn what you’re teaching them.
If teachers have the benefit of teaching a level or book twice, they should look at it from the right angle. It’s not about repeating procedures. It’s about getting in touch with those students who are there with you during the learning moment. Learning is dialogic, and it’s much easier to learn when the person who’s trying to teach us is actually willing to listen to us. How often have you lost your temper when you need to call the help desk for any kind of problem and the person on the other side just keeps repeating the same answers over and over again, clearly reading from a manual that he or she has been given and not bothering to truly listening to you so that YOUR problem can be fixed, not the problem that is described in the manual? If teachers insist on simply repeating what they had planned for a class of the same level / coursebook but different students, that’s exactly what’s going to happen – you’re reading your answers from a manual and never actually caring about what your students in the classroom have got to say. You just don’t listen. As if this weren’t bad enough, sometimes these teachers really can’t understand why this particular group doesn’t seem to grasp what he or she is saying when the previous group had no problems whatsoever.
It may come across as a fictitious story, but I have already seen that many times in my teaching career. To be perfectly honest, I’ve been advised to do so when I was in the very early days of being a teacher. Fortunately, or at least I like to think so, the very first time that happened to me, even though I was teaching the same level with the same coursebook, the two groups had students from such different age range that it was just impossible to do the same things with both classes. I also like to think that it was this particular experience that helped me understand it first hand that two groups are never the same. Teachers have to respond to the needs of their groups, and that is why having a whole course pre-planned for teachers is highly unlikely to succeed.
Next time you get the same level again, try ignoring your notes and lesson plans. You will obviously know what will come next, it’ll be easier for you to anticipate difficulties, but don’t simply assume the current group will have the same difficulties that the previous group had. Make sure you take advantage of already having taught the same level before to help students, not to hinder their learning. Practice makes perfect, but only when done appropriately. I think we can define stupidity as repeating the same things over and over again and expecting a different result. In this situation, you’re likely to repeat the same thing over the years only to see that you’ll never be able to be as successful as that very first time you devised your lesson bearing those students who were in class in mind. And if you fail to realise you don’t teach the lesson, but you teach people, you’ll never understand why you’re not being as successful as before.
On a final note, if simply repeating the lesson were bound to be successful, then computer would surely be able to replace teachers. I’m awfully sorry, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case. If not ever, not in a long while. Teaching involves a lot more than simply passing on information.
* I’d like to thank @wbarboza for suggesting this topic. I’m still looking forward to his guest post, and, yes, I’m making it public because I know he’s been up to his ears with his studies and perhaps a little push might give him the boost to write it! If you still haven’t started following him, I recommend you do so. Many thanks for your support with the comments and feedback on the posts, Wallace!
I still remember the very first time I heard someone talking about the differences between native English speaking teachers (NESTs) and non-native English speaking teachers (NNESTs). It was in a conference, and I unfortunately don’t remember the name of the speaker. What he focused on was the differences between NESTs and NNESTs, their strengths and weaknesses. I remember that one of his arguments was that NNESTs tended to be a lot more knowledgeable grammar-wise whereas NESTs had the upper hand when it came to vocabulary and pronunciation. He moved on to say that one of the challenges of NESTs was to study more grammar while NNESTs had to work a bit harder at improving their vocabulary and pronunciation.
Grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation are, as I see it, the tripod of language learning. Each one of these has their own sub-set, and they are to be learned according through certain skills – reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Larsen-Freeman adds a fifth skill – Grammaring – in her (IMO excellent) From Grammar to Grammaring. What we should do, then, is try to come up with the differences that come up in the decisions that are made by NESTs and NNESTs when they are teaching. Do NESTs tend to focus harder on pronunciation and vocabulary and support the view that these are the most important points for communication? Do NNESTs tend to over-teach grammar points (grammar McNuggest??) as they feel a lot more comfort doing this? Do NESTs avoid teaching grammar for the same reason NNESTs avoid teaching pronunciation and vocabulary – lack of confidence?
Another thing that comes to mind is the idea of communication and accent. These days there’s a large number of people who do not accept that native-like pronunciation is to be the model. I’m still unsure about this, I just don’t think that teachers should feel good about what they’ve been doing if their learners tell them that they can understand anyone speaking English but native speakers. Sure, intelligibility and communication are the ultimate goal of most language learners – they want to be able to travel abroad and do whatever they want to do without feeling that lack of command of the language is holding them back or that it might put them in trouble while they’re happily enjoying their time abroad. However, if we consider that native-like pronunciation is not the model, why is it that many of our learners feel much more secure when they’re having classes with a native speaker of the language?
Is the view that native speakers are better teachers because they know how the language really is, and NESTs are much more likely to give learners better examples of natural language, with a lot more use of phrasal verbs, idioms, slang – the real deal – whereas NNESTs will only be able to teach them grammar rules still mainstream among learners? I was thinking about this just this Saturday as I went to a building where I was asked to identify myself. The man who asked me for my information spoke Portuguese very naturally, but, poor teachers who can’t simply enjoy life without thinking about teaching, what got me thinking was whether or not a non-native Brazilian Portuguese teacher would be able to teach that in his classes. And that, obviously, led me to another question, would I be able to equip a learner of Portuguese to be able to understand the guy saying something close to /pó zbi/ as Pode subir? Needless to say, I immediately went to English, and started wondering whether or not teachers – NESTs or NNESTs – can, on their own, teach and prepare learners for what they’ll face in the real world while engaging in communication with others?
As Karenne Sylvester wrote in her Dogme Challenge #6, there are far more NNESTs than NESTs in the world. And there are lots of successful learners who have never had classes with NESTs. Is it the learner, then, who makes the big difference? What is the role that the teacher has in the process of language development? And does it make any difference if the teacher is a NEST or a NNEST? To be perfectly honest, I don’t think that being a NEST or a NNEST make that much of a difference, specially in this day and time. Even though there’s still a part of the world where people haven’t got access to computers and the Internet, I don’t think this is the case for most cities where English is taught. I might be mistaken there, but I guess people are only interested in learning a foreign language when they see a need to learn it. If you’ve never been in touch with a particular language, your desire to learn it is likely to remain dormant till you encounter the language. It is based on this assumption – that most people learning English live in an area where they’ve got access to computers, Internet, TV, movies, and songs – that I state that the division between NESTs and NNESTs is diminishing.
What makes the difference, then? The difference lies in the teacher’s ability to instill in learners a desire to become better speakers of the language. The difference lies in the teacher’s capacity to respond to learners’ needs and help them feel more confident about their knowledge. The difference lies in the teacher always striving to become a better professional and, on account of that, be able to prepare their learners to the world they’re going to face. Within the boundaries of one country alone there are many differences that prevent people from two different regions to understand one another. A good teacher, NEST or NNEST, will probably realise that it’s a lot more sensible to rely on corpus research in terms of usage than on his or her personal experience, which might be limited.
NNESTs have a lot of opportunities to become more proficient in the language through the effective use of the technology that is available these days. Reading international newspapers, listening to podcasts, speaking to native speakers is a lot easier to do these days. Conversely, NESTs have myriad courses that prepare them to enter a classroom and teach English these days and learn how to teach (oh, if it only were so simple!). These days, fortunately, many – not most just yet – people in charge of recruitment understand that being a native speaker is not the same as being a good language teacher. Both NESTs and NNESTs have got to always look for ways to improve.
The big difference isn’t whether or not one is a NEST or a NNEST, but whether or not one is or isn’t a teacher. As Péter Medgyes states in his article When the teacher is a Non-native speaker:
Who is a native speaker? A native speaker of English is traditionally defined as someone who speaks English as his or her native language … The next question that springs to mind is: What qualifies someone as a native speaker? Among the criteria for “native speakerhood,” the most oft-cited and, at first glance, most straightforward one is birth (Davies, 1991) … The trouble with this is that birth does not always determine language identity.
Being more knowledgeable in terms of vocabulary and pronunciation is a matter of being more in touch with the language. If a NNEST is constantly reading and listening to native speakers, chances are this teacher will be able to make the same choices a native speaker would when it comes to vocabulary, for instance. Can a NNEST be qualified as a NEST if such is the case? If so, what’s the difference, then?
- Péter Medgyes text is found in Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language, edited by Marianne Celce-Murcia.
* Cecília Coelho’s post about NESTs and NNESTs here.
* Sabrina’s post about NESTs and NNESTs here.