But of course, you couldn’t do that in Japan! Part One

An old post of mine about the thorny issue of how and why teachers may want – or need – to tackle issues surrounding diversity in the classroom was recently quoted in a very interesting post on similar issues, but from a Belgian perspective. In a piece on the excellent BELTA website, Eef Lenaers wrote about the frustration she sometimes experiences when her students come up with gross over-generalisations about other cultures and what can be done about this. Now, all of this got me thinking about an old talk I used to do on the conference circuit ten or so years ago, which tried to address similar issues, and I figured that as I’ve been utterly useless at blogging of late, amidst various madness that’s been visited upon me, it might be a good idea to dig that old talk up and turn it into a post. Better than nothing, eh? So here goes . . .

Frequently after classes, my students will come up to me and ask “But where are you from? You’re not very English!” Over the years, I’ve learned to delude myself into taking this as a compliment: it must be down to my warm, out-going personality, I assure myself; or perhaps it’s the fact I’m not that bad with languages, that I’m chatty, and possessed of a lust for life. These moments help me stave off the sad fact that really I’m scruffy, prone to mumbles and rants, and somehow inherently shabby in the way that only those reared on bacon sandwiches and milky tea can ever truly be!

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At home, however, it’s often a totally different story. I have a non-British partner, and the last line of attack, the riposte to which there is no return, is always “God! You’re so bloody ENGLISH!” This can mean anything from you’re the kind of sad, repressed person who walks out of the room to break wind to why on earth can’t you phone someone just because it’s after 10 in the evening! It could be quiet rage at my not wanting to talk about sex – or even really talk at all very much full stop, or else anger at my refusal to ever admit to feeling down or pissed off when the brown stuff starts hitting the ventilation. Whatever, it still comes as really quite confusing. I am English by birth and by upbringing. I feel intensely connected to certain aspects of life in Britain, repelled and appalled by others. And yet in the eyes of the outside observer, I seem to flit back and forth across a line of some supposed cultural finality.

The first point to make here is that both national identity and the notion of culture that it is so frequently associated with are far more complex than the simple retorts above suggest. However, it still tends to be the trite and the simplistic which prevails within EFL. Culture in English Language Teaching materials is a simple black and white affair; or rather, it is all too often simply white: antiseptic, anodyne, bleached and sanitised and bland. As a teacher trainer, this becomes most apparent when watching trainees use widespread EFL materials. Trainees generally come to the classroom with little or no experience and thus view the coursebook as an expert source of knowledge and as somehow implicitly right. The notion of culture as propagated in coursebooks tends to either revolve around the presentation of literature as a vehicle for culture, so the old Headway Pre-Intermediate, which I once used on a CELTA course, had, for instance, an extract from Dickens which includes such choice lines as “The mild Mr. Chillip sidled into the parlour and said to my aunt in the meekest manner ‘Well, ma’am, I’m happy to congratulate you’”. The many hours of fun to be had by watching trainees on their second teaching practice slot trying to explain to bemused students what a parlour is or how exactly you sidle is tempered only by an awareness that this is singularly useless vocabulary for learners of this level to be learning!

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Another angle on the culture issue crops up in a text in an Upper-intermediate book called ‘Soho: My favourite Place”. I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with the wonderful mess that is Soho, but the last time I looked, it was still as full of drug dealers, gay bars, meat-head bouncers policing dubious late-night binge-drinking establishments, transvestites and menacing-looking characters lurking in shadows as it has ever been. Not in Headway, though, of course! Oh no! The nearest any of this comes to impinging on the antiseptic world of the coursebook is the admission that “the place is a bit of a mess”, whilst readers are coyly told that there are “surprises around every corner”. Those of you familiar with a bit of classical mythology may also be surprised to learn that Eros apparently celebrates “the freedom and friendship of youth”! This is culture as a kind of white-washed national tourist board ad.

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All of this is then compounded by a persistent triteness which reduces people from other countries down to their crudest stereotypes, as in yet another text from a well-known coursebook that looks at ‘Minding your Manners Around The World’. Here, trainees get to inform students that if they are expecting the arrival of foreign business colleagues, they can be sure that Germans will be bang on time, Americans will probably be fifteen minutes early, Brits will be fifteen minutes late and as for the Italians! Well, you’d best allow them anything up to an hour! The supposed veracity of these gross, offensive stereotypes is not even challenged by the methodology. The kinds of questions students are asked to discuss after reading the text are almost always simply comprehension-based, so they are forced into uncovering ‘Which nationalities are the most and least punctual’, for example.

It seems to me that three broad issues arise from all this: the basic question of what exactly culture is, how trainees can be made more aware of it, and how a broader notion of culture leads to methodological changes. I strongly believe that even initial preparatory courses such as CELTA should be addressing these sensitive areas. Here, though, I’ll just try to outline some basic notions of what culture might actually involve – and look briefly at how this could impact on initial training.

The title of this particular post comes from a comment made to me early on in my teaching career. It was, presumably, intended as useful guidance to a rookie teacher and also perhaps as some strange form of protection for any mono-cultural Japanese classes that might later be encountered. The myth of the difference and uniqueness of the mono-lingual, mono-cultural context is a very damaging one in that it insists on speakers of one foreign language somehow all being equal participants in a shared, mutually agreed upon culture. Those still clinging on to such an idea might like to discuss the following exercise (later adapted for OUTCOMES Advanced) which we frequently used to do with CELTA trainees on our courses.

GOD SAVE THE QUEEN?

1. Are the following part of British culture? In what way?

2. Do any of them mean anything to you personally? What?

3. Have you seen any of them mentioned in EFL materials? In what capacity?

God Save the Queen                      

bacon and eggs

Balti curries                                      

lager

port                                                      

the Costa del Sol

a week in Provence                          

ballet

the Proms                                                   

Reggae

Old Labour                                                  

Conceptual Art

The Beautiful Game                        

The Environment

bowler hats                                        

Notting Hill                          

French art-house films                 

Irvine Welsh

Cockney rhyming slang               

Shakespeare

Islam                                                             

Sunday school

marijuana                                                    

Cricket

Direct Action                                     

Harrods

car boot sales                                            

St. Patrick’s Day

kebab shops                                     

Easter

Chinese New Year                                   

ackee and salt fish

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My own take on this is that all of the above form part of the complex fabric of modern British life in one way or another and that the degree to which each is relevant to any individual with any connection to British culture depends on the webs of micro-cultures we each weave for ourselves. As such, there is very clearly no such thing as ‘British culture’ in any monolithic sense – it is rather, as the axiom has it, horses for courses, and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. You also cannot make assumptions that, say, reggae and marijuana will always overlap or that Islam should somehow exclude fish and chips! It should also be added that not only will the same intense involvement in a wide variety of micro-cultures be the case for all foreign learners, but that often – as moneyed, globally-oriented beings – many of our students will  frequently participate enthusiastically in exactly the same globalised micro-cultures as many native-speakers. This is where non-native speaker teachers, working in the countries of their origin, have a huge advantage over native-speaker teacher imports. The local teachers will almost always know far more about the macro-culture of the country they are teaching in and can thus use all of this knowledge to hook new language onto in ways that are pertinent and meaningful to their students. Once you accept that mono-lingual certainly does NOT mean mono-cultural, at least when one is thinking of culture in terms of micro-cultures, then the gap that then remains can be envisaged less as cultural and far more helpfully as a purely linguistic one, with any attitudinal differences that each participant in any micro-cultural discourse might feel then being acknowledged and negotiated through language. Such an understanding of the way we all contain and negotiate a vast variety of cultures within our day-to-day lives will hopefully result in the end of essentialising comments about what ‘Arab’ or ‘Muslim’ or ‘Chinese’ or ‘Turkish’ students can and can’t somehow cope with in classes, and will lead instead to a classroom culture in which students in ANY context are given the time, space and language to be first and foremost their own complex selves.

I’ll leave it there for now, but be warned: there’s a part two to all of this and maybe even a part three waiting in the wings.

I’ll see what comes back in response to this one first and take it from there.

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Just writing the word ELEVENSES makes me feel peckish. It has a lovely Pooh Bear quality to it, doesn’t it, redolent of hot buttered teacakes and steaming mugs of tea.

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But anyway, I digress. In case you’re wondering what on earth I’m on about thus far, ELEVENSES seems to have become almost a technologically-transmitted disease in ELT blogging circles over the last couple of months. Before Xmas, I started noticing the odd person whose blog I followed suddenly answering eleven questions and nominating others to do the same, like some kind of viral convulsion or online domino-chain.

I had been hoping to escape infection, but was recently nominated for all this by someone I follow on twitter and may or may not have met or even shared pub space with, the mysterious Secret DOS. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I figured answering some peculiar questions that someone else has come up with seemed like a fairly stress-free way to ease back into the world of blogging after a lengthy and much needed break from much of the Web over the Xmas period. Here goes:

1.  In your profession, what is the greatest myth that people still believe?

What a great question to kick things off with. There are so many myths that are still fairly common currency in ELT that it’s hard to know where to begin. Is this the time to have that long overdue pop at the snake oil peddlers selling us learning styles and multiple intelligences gobbledygook? Or the notion that a four-week course somehow prepares you for professional life? Or the idea that anyone anywhere can provide accelerated learning that gets students from Elementary to Advanced in a year or less?

I know. We really are spoiled for choice when it comes to fairy tales to cling onto! In terms of the GREATEST myth, though, it’d have to be the deeply ingrained idea that what makes learners better is essentially to do with the study of discrete grammatical structures. Or to paint in even broader brush strokes, the idea that grammar is at the heart of the language, that it’s what students need most, or that it’s even really teachable in any objective and global sense. A lingering myth that should have been killed off at least a decade ago, if not two, but that poisons so much of what we do to this day!

2. What is the single greatest truth that you think a language teacher should be aware of?

That language is at heart lexically driven.

And that learning any language to any serious degree of competence is bloody hard work!

3. If our cognition is located in our environment rather than in our heads, how should language teaching change? (One suggestion is enough!)

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4. What do you wish you didn’t know?

I’m assuming you mean apart from the fact that giraffes can kick the head off lions, that meat in southern China has been injected with dirty pond water in a bid to swell its weight and raise its price, and some unpleasant truths about myself, right? Well, I guess I’d rather not have known some of the politics and Machiavellian dealings that go on in both universities and also in the publishing world. I was probably purer and less tainted by knowledge of these things when I first set out in my own naive way to try and change the world with my first book, thinking good ideas would out simply because they were right, whereas in reality we all know that ideas become good when they come with added study trips to the UK, fridge freezers and so on. Other than that, I’m quite happy knowing pretty much everything I know about everything, as even the dark stuff is interesting and helps to flesh out the picture of the world and its inhabitants that I’ve been piecing together these 45 years!

5. The Michel Thomas method offers language learners the chance to go from beginner to confident speaker without books, homework or having to memorise anything – how likely is this?

The first thing I have to say in response to this question is that for people of a certain persuasion – and I include myself in this group – hearing mention of Michel Thomas – even without the A – leads to thoughts of one thing – and one thing only.

Now THAT, my friends, was magic.

Michel Thomas, sadly, is yet more proof, as if it were needed, that if you hype yourself strongly enough and make claims so big and bold that you seem mad to the sane person, plenty will buy into your dream machine and the bucks will surely fly. It takes little bits of Suggestopedia, little bits of Direct Method, little bits of self-help rubbish, little bits of Krashen and his affective filter, boils it all down to a dull, turgid muddy brown and sells it as The Best Thing Ever (TM).

Anyone who’s ever spent time trying to teach a language – or learn one – knows the claims are nonsense, and, for me, such total nonsense that I almost can’t be bothered trying to work out what it is within the hard sell that may actually be of value. Thomas benefited from having a remarkable life story that he could weave into a very salable narrative (not that I’d wish torture on anyone, of course!) and one that resonated particularly in Hollywood, where he built up a devastating client base. The whole privacy of his language school has the kind of cult effect Callan has, and is similarly lacking in any real theoretical grounding.

That said, I’m with him on the idea that anyone – or almost anyone – can learn a language and I guess I too do tend to see failure as a result of bad teaching rather than bad students. Interleaved learning – or mixing old stuff with new stuff – is also very sane, and what any decent teacher does almost automatically. Not totally bonkers, but as the last days of the Maoist commune in Brixton recently showed, cults are really no place to spend the next thirty years of your life.

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6. Does language learning have more to learn from the field of linguistics, psychology or neuroscience?

I’m really tempted to just sidestep this question by saying “Yes, it does” and be done with it.

The main issue for me here is that I’m honestly not sufficiently informed in all three fields to be able to comment with any degree of any authority on this. Language learning is generally very slow to learn from even the disciplines closest to, as can be seen from the depressingly limited impact the work of the greatest thinkers in our field, like Michael Hoey, have had thus far, so I think that to begin with, it’d be nice if language teachers learned more about language, which means linguistics, but there are also obviously lots of thins that we can all learn from psychology – and all good teachers pick up a lot of psychological insight on the job, even if they’re not conscious of having done so!

The benefits of neuroscience I, far less convinced of, personally, especially as it’s been used to dress up some of the multiple intelligence dribblings we’ve been subjected to! I’m wary of the way the new brand of folk neuroscience seems to be getting used to validate personal identity and subjective experience, and where the harder, purer stuff does get though, while it’s interesting, I’m not convinced it tells us a huge amount about what we should be doing in our classrooms.

7. What single small change would make a classroom a more effective place for learning?

The obvious answer to this would be a question – or two: which classroom? Where? If we’re just talking in very general terms, then I’m not sure I am able to narrow it down to one. There are three or four things that I think would make a huge difference: see language less as a machine or the linguistic equivalent of some obscure kind of algebra and start treating it – and using it – more as a means of communication that enables people to get to know each other better and to discuss a wide range of things of interest to them; work the language that is there in the classroom – explore and exploit it, and involve the students in this process; focus on whole language – lexis with grammar, and grammar with lexis – all the time; two steps forward and one back! Those four should start to make some kind of positive change in combination.

Perhaps.

8. Can language actually be taught?

Or only learned? I’m guessing that’s the sub-text here. If so, then I think it’s a false dichotomy as whilst in one very fundamental sense of course everything one learns to do has to be learned by the individual, teaching by another can help smooth the whole process and ensure the learning is more focused, more effective and more interesting. Things can’t ONLY be taught, but teaching can aid and assist learning in profound and remarkable ways.

9. Who has more to teach us: Tony Soprano, Jimmy McNulty or Walter White?

About what? About language teaching? Or about life? if the latter, all three shed light on many pertinent areas of the human soul and condition. If the former, I’m not sure any of them are particularly brilliant role models or mentors. If push came to shove, though, I guess I’d go with Walt, if only because watching Jesse Pinkman shouting “Yeah! Science, bitches!” as Mr White cooked up some new recipe or took out rival cartels with demented chemistry was testament to the fact that even the most unlikely students could be won over if he subject were to be pitched to them on a level they related to.

Incidentally, while we’re here, ever notice the marked similarity between Dominic West as Jimmy McNulty and my friend and co-author Andrew Walkley?

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When you add to this the fact that Dominic West also played mass murderer Fred West (no relation), it all starts getting very sinister indeed.

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10. If somebody doesn’t have what it takes, can they get it?

That all depends on what you think IT is, of course.

I’m guessing you mean in terms of being a teacher? Well, up to a point, I think the answer is yes. Every now and then, as any trainer will tell you, you do encounter trainees who struggle immensely during their early teaching practices and who seem destined for disaster, be it due to crippling shyness or nerves or whatever, but even these folk can learn the basics and get to a stage where they can function to at least the point of being employable somewhere. Once there, if they have the right contacts and colleagues and conversations, there’s no reason why they can’t push on and develop and get better. Having spent many years watching Tony Adams play football – a man of essentially limited capabilities who ended up excelling at his craft simply though sheer exertion of effort and willpower – I’m a firm believer in the notion that desire and hard work and focus can trump innate talent. And we can all think of examples of seemingly ‘naturally’ gifted folk who’ve got complacent or failed  to live up their potential for whatever reason, so yes I suppose is my answer here.

We’re actually in the middle of a methodology book that is an attempt to break down and define in step-by-step forensic detail what we think IT might involve, by the way, and how teachers can slowly go about acquiring it!

11. Is language learning a uniquely human endeavour? Are there any parallels to it elsewhere?

It clearly is not only uniquely human, but also, arguably, what MAKES us human.

Right. Well, that’s that, then.

Officially, what I’m now supposed to do is nominate eleven other bloggers to answer eleven questions of my won choosing, but I’ve never been much of a one for dumping work on others if I can at all help it. Add to that the fact that I’ve come to this rather late, and pretty much everyone I know who might’ve been interested in playing has already offered up their own version of this parlor game and you have my get-out clause! I’ll get my coat . . .

The final part I’m now supposed to add is eleven random facts about me, so here goes nothing:

1 My dad was once arrested for lobbing a Molotov cocktail through the window of Rhodesia House. And again for catching, killing and cooking a swan.

2 I went to school with Mary McCartney and used to see Paul around town and at parents’ evenings and the like.

3 I lost my virginity on my sixteenth birthday. Sort of by accident.

4 I spent a fair chunk of my teenage years writing for a fanzine called FREAKBEAT and now do a fair bit of scribbling for another zine called SHINDIG!

5 My Indonesian is pretty decent.

6 I worship at the shrine of Bo Diddley.

7 I have never knowingly refused a free drink.

8 Possibly my favourite ever novel is The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

9 I sing in a rock’n’roll band called The Beatpack.

10 My house is home to over 8000 LPS and 2000 45s.

11 I get a monthly haircut, cutthroat razor shave, hot towel treatment and so on – the full works – done at my local old school Turkish barbers.

green_lanes_re_style

There (and sort of) back again

Here’s only the second guest post on this particular blog.

This time, it’s a post by a wonderful teacher I’ve been lucky enough to meet via the MA TESOL I work on at University of Westminster. Mumtaz Ayub  has been teaching for the past 13 years and currently spends most of his time teaching ESOL in an FE college in Westminster.  He lives in East London with his wife and two children – and here he is in action!

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This post arose out of a discussion we had a few weeks back and is featured here for two reasons, really. Firstly, I’ve long been interested in teachers’ stories and the narratives that we construct for ourselves to explain how we got from where we once were to where we now find ourselves. Obviously, within any transition, there are a hundred tiny events that impact on us and push on in one direction or another: conversations with colleagues, things we read, stuff that happens in class that we later reflect on through the filters of our current state of mind, conferences we attend, and so on, and out of this slow accretion of experience, we weave a narrative thread that makes sense to ourselves. We condense the multitude of experiences into easy-to-understand signposts along the road. This in itself is always interesting. There’s more, though.

The second thing that drew us together was a shared feeling that we’d moved very consciously away from a grammar-driven approach out of frustration at the fact that it wasn’t rally – or certainly wasn’t DIRECTLY – helping our students achieve the outcomes we felt they most needed to be working towards. In addition to this, i was interested in the fact that Mumtaz works predominantly in the British ESOL sector. In many ways, an artificial wall has been erected between EFL and ESOL, yet what Mumtaz’s story seems to me to illustrate is that teachers on both sides of the great divide are essentially grappling with very similar issues.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on far too long.

Here’s Mumtaz in how own words . .

“I usually tell people I became a teacher by mistake.  I’ve always studied whatever interested me from science and martial arts to Arabic and politics.  When the time came to choose a career, computing seemed a good bet, so I started working as a software engineer, eventually becoming an IT manager for an investment bank.  It was interesting in its way and the pay was good, but I didn’t have time to breathe, let alone live.  Our young daughter was growing up fast and I just wasn’t seeing her enough, so I took drastic action.  I left my job and we moved abroad for a year. Within a few months, I found myself teaching science in one of the better schools in our area.  It was amazing!

With all due respect to my friends in banking, I felt like I had finally found something useful to do for a living.  There’s just something so powerful, meaningful about being a teacher.  In fact, I was so strongly moved by this experience that, on my return to the UK, I decided to retrain as a teacher.  My interest in communication and the relatively painless CELTA lead me to choose ESOL.

I was lucky enough to be trained by an inspirational teacher trainer at my local FE college and was soon working as a full time ESOL teacher at the same institution.  I loved interacting with my students and giving them the language and skills they needed to access our society.  I felt enthused and empowered; life was good!

Over time, however, things started to change.  Ofsted requirements were interpreted as lists of dos and don’ts. Staff would be observed and yet the criteria for assessing them seemed opaque.  I tried to understand what was required of me, but could never quite get to an answer.  Managers and senior lecturers would talk about the elements of good practice but I could never work out exactly what they were talking about.  To me, all they were doing was giving me lists of activities that were deemed appropriate for teaching, but with no explanation as to why.

After several of years of this, I eventually came to the conclusion that it was just too difficult for me to understand.  Over time, this lead to a major change in my psyche and my teaching practice: I essentially began to teach what other people told me would work.  There was almost no creativity or confidence and, instead, my lessons became little more than a series of activities that were roughly on topic and kept the students busy.  I am ashamed to say that I would dust off and teach practically the same set of lessons every time inspectors came.  This was simply because I knew they would be well received.  But I didn’t know why!  My teaching had become ritualistic.  This, I suppose, was my stagnation phase.

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At this point, I had to make a choice: leave teaching, move into management or try again to understand how to teach a good lesson.  I was fortunate enough to be offered a job teaching at a university in Saudi Arabia and I accepted.  Working in Saudi gave me plenty of time to think and it didn’t take long to realise that I needed help and that that help needed to come from outside the world of FE.  I decided to do a Delta at International House, London.  I started with module 2 (the teaching element) and the experience was transformative.  The way I describe it is that I had had a fair amount of knowledge of language teaching, but it wasn’t structured.  As a result, I didn’t know what to use and when and, thus, I began to blindly follow the advice of ‘experts’ on what to do without really knowing why.  My time at IHL changed that completely.  My knowledge now had shape and I was also exposed to a number of ideas that were new to me, ideas which I have continued to research and add to due to a new found desire to read all things ELT.

Materials became tools to allow students to communicate with whatever language they had at their disposal and then to compare that with better versions before trying again.  Task-based approaches appealed a lot to me as did grammaring activities and work with prosody and pragmatic features of language choice.  I would capture learner errors wherever possible and incorporate them throughout my planning and teaching.  As for specifics, I began to survey learners to find out where they use language and based my topics broadly around the results.  I then chose or produced texts as uncontrived as possible, often based on my own recordings, and then analysed them for useful lexis – usually common phrases and fixed/semi-fixed expressions.  I would then produce lexical exercises based on this analysis and use them in class to go through meaning, form and pronunciation as appropriate.  Thus, materials are there simply to facilitate this journey from meaning to form, hoping to produce opportunities for experimentation and thinking about language.  They give just enough to get us going and sometimes they help keep us on track.  But, of course, it’s in the interaction where everything really happens.  It’s a never-ending, flawed and experimental process, but based on principles that I have engaged with and make sense to me.

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I am now more able to immerse myself in student language and try to understand exactly where my learners are on their path to proficiency.  I am again enthusiastic about my work, but this time my engagement is at a deeper level; much more closely linked to each learner’s journey and informed by theory as well my own experience.  In short, my practice has moved from ritualised activities to principle-based teaching.  A recent Ofsted inspection went well, I’ve had some teacher training opportunities and I’m now doing an MA to dig deeper into concepts covered in the Delta.

I feel empowered again.

My journey continues, but now at least I feel I have the tools I need to help steer a course”.

Building on shaky foundations: China, IELTS and the dash for cash

In 2008, a devastating earthquake measuring around 8 on the Richter scale hit the Chinese province of Sichuan, killing over 70,000 people. Despite their initially sterling work in responding swiftly to the disaster, the government soon started to come in for stick as details emerged of the thousands of inadequately engineered schoolrooms that had collapsed when the quake hit. The Chinese themselves coined a new phrase that translates as tofu-dregs schoolhouses to convey their disgust at the death traps that had claimed so many young lives. Parents around the province accused local officials and builders of cutting corners in school construction, citing that after the quake other nearby buildings weren’t damaged anything like as badly. In the aftermath of the quake, many local governments promised to formally investigate the school collapses, but little official word followed.

The artist Ai Weiwei started posting the names of dead children on his blog until the content was officially ‘harmonised’. He later made a heart-wrenching installation entitled Remembering on the facade of the building where a retrospective show was held in Munich. It was constructed from 9000 kids’ backpacks and spelled out the sentence “She lived happily for seven years in this world” in Chinese characters – a quote from a mother whose child died in the earthquake.

REMEMBERING

A year or so later, a film called DISTURBING THE PEACE emerged and is now available both on DVD and online. The film follows Ai Weiwei’s attempt to attend and protest against the trial of Chinese activist Tan Zuoren, who was charged following his research into the collapse of schools and into student casualties. Should you be interested, you can watch the whole thing here.

Now, you’re doubtless wondering why I’m telling you all of this, aren’t you? Perhaps this is a crass and clumsy metaphor, in which case I apologise in advance, but the issues of cutting corners, building on shaky foundations, purported fast tracks that turn out to be dead ends, the dash for cash and China have all been on my mind of late as my place of work has had a bunch of Chinese students fail their eleven-week pre-sessional courses, be denied access onto the degree courses they had been hoping to take and find themselves instead on General English courses. I’m teaching some of them; colleagues of mine are teaching more. And what’s most notable about them is the fact that they’ve so clearly been hot-housed to pass IELTS that they’ve experienced the linguistic equivalent of stunted growth. Seemingly fed from the very onset of their language-learning careers with the academic word list and Chinese equivalents for each item, along with endless memorised blueprint examples of writing for the different possible permutations of the writing section, they can more or less string groups of abstract nouns together and produce answers to the Writing 1 part of the exam that might just about scrape a 4.5 in the exam, but cope so poorly with everyday English that the bulk of them have ended up in Pre-Intermediate and are having to come to terms with the fact that they’re facing at least a year of intensive General English before they’ll be anywhere near ready to take the test again.

At this stage, I should state categorically that I teach lots of Chinese students and for the most part, love doing so. I’ve learned a lot not only about China, but about life in general from teaching them; I’ve been made to laugh uproariously on more than a few occasions by them; I’ve socialised with them, been to their houses and had them come to mine and stayed in touch with them after they’ve returned home. That’s all by the by.

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The crux of the matter is this: now that British universities have introduced fees that exclude large numbers of home students, there’s a dash to attract more foreign students, and obviously this ideally means more foreign students with cash. This in turn means increasing pressure on the institution itself to gear up to processing students through the language training part of their studies so they can get onto the more lucrative under- and post-graduate courses. Inevitably, this means there is at least a temptation to try to force lower-level students through the system. If you add to this the fact that there have been repeated questions about the validity of many IELTS scores, then it should come as no great surprise when institutions such as London Met find themselves in hot water for being unable to produce “proper evidence that the students’ mandatory English levels had been reached”. It’s a slippery slope and if you work in higher ed in the UK, one you’re doubtless also on.

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At the same time, schools have emerged around the world – and I’m certainly NOT, by the way, suggesting these issues are in any way unique to China. It’s simply that our latest cohort originate from there – offering short cuts and easy routes to academic success. One of my older Chinese students was telling me recently that many schools advertise themselves as being able to get students from IELTS 0 to 4.5 in a short period of time. However, this is clearly not simply a speedy route to somewhere useful down the line; rather, it’s leading students into dead-ends from which they struggle to retreat.

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In much the same way as teachers who have experience in, say, rough inner-city secondary schools and who then embark on CELTA courses often struggle more than the fresh-faced raw recruits simply because they have to unlearn much of what has become ingrained before they are even at the starting point the others begin from, so too this new breed of learner at some point has to come face-to-face with the facts and realise they’re miles from where they need to be, and that to go forward, they first need to go back (to basics) and learn, for instance, that we say DO you enjoy it, not ARE you enjoy it because ENJOY is a verb not an adjective.

Anything that we as teachers can do to dispel the notion of quick fixes and magic bullets and to gently break the news of the long, hard slog ahead to the already disheartened can only be for the good.

As the old saying has it, the road is made is walking.

Ways of exploting lexical self-study material in the classroom part three: beyond personalisation

In the two previous posts in this little mini-series, I have talked firstly about how I might tackle any given piece of vocabulary-based / lexical self-study material that you bring into class in terms of what I’d do, say, ask and write whilst checking the answers, and then in the second post I looked at ways we might get students to connect more personally to the language that emerges from working with an exercise in this kind of way – and what we might then with the output they produce.

In this post, I intend to just briefly outline three other ways you could get students to do more with what’s there on the page – or, as is more likely to be the case in this instance, on the photocopied handout (just make sure you’re all aware of the 5% rule and that your institution is signed up with the CLA!). These are all things Andrew Walkley and I will be exploring and discussing in more detail in a methodology book we’re slowly plugging away at, so i don’t want to give away the whole secret recipe, but a taster never hurt anyone now, did it?

In case you’ve forgotten what we’re talking about here, I’ll insert the piece of material i selected to base things on:

Collocations exercise

Now, the first thing you can get do students to do is to develop what’s there either horizontally or vertically. All too often with sentences in coursebooks or exercises, students tend not to see them as anything other than dead objects to be completed, checked and then discarded or progressed on from, so anything we can do to help them engage further with what’s there can only be a good thing. The idea of getting students to think about how the examples that are there could be developed in discourse terms is one way of doing this. It also gives the teacher the chance to help students both grammaticalise and lexicalise their ideas better and deals with student output and ideas in a holistic way.

By horizontal development, I mean thinking about what might be said by the same speaker / writer immediately afterwards – or possibly even immediately before. Vertical development is more to do with how a dialogue or conversation featuring the example might then progress, how another person might respond to what’s been said.

In classroom terms, all I’d do, once I’d checked the answers and worked the language that was there, is simply tell the students to look at the six sentences again and, with a partner, decide (and write – this makes it easier for the teacher to see what students have come up with, which in turn makes it easier to build up towards feedback) what was said or written immediately after – or maybe before each sentence. It could be what was written / said by the same person or by another person. I might go through one with the whole class to model the task, so I’d ask, for instance: OK, with number 1, do you think it’s more likely to be the same person or a different person who speaks next? The same? yeah, me too. Why? Right. It sounds like a speech or something, doesn’t it? Or maybe an essay putting forward a particular argument. So what’s the next line, do you think? yeah, probably one idea about what we can actually do to address the issue of alcohol abuse. For instance? Yeah, raise taxes on alcohol. So it might be something like this: Well, firstly, the tax on alcohol could be increased. I’d make it passive here because the raising of the taxes isn’t done by the speaker, but by someone else, like a government person. Plus, it puts emphasis on the tax increase more.  OK then, so like this. For all six sentences, what’s said afterwards – or maybe before.

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As students worked together, coming up with ideas, I’d then go round, check what they were coming up with, help out, correct, question, comment and so on. As ever, I’d also be looking for ideas I could rework on the board to base some kind of feedback on. As I came across ideas I liked, I’d write things up on the board, with gaps left in, to come back to once the majority of pairs had more or less finished. Of course, if I failed to see anything worth picking up on, I’d simply invent stuff based on what I think might be said next – or before! In the end, the board might have things like this on it:

Less developed countries end up being d……………… on richer ones and never have the chance to develop their own in……………….. for dealing with these kinds of things.
Shops were looted, cars were stolen, it was awful! It took the police days to re……………. c…………… of some the worst-affected areas.
In the w……….. of these latest attacks, community leaders have made a plea for calm.

I’d then simply paraphrase the missing words (dependent, infrastructure, regain control, wake) in order to elicit them. For instance, I’d say something like: OK, so some of you were saying that one of the problems with aid agencies always providing emergency relief is that it kind of makes countries lazy; they feel they can always rely on other countries helping them, so they don’t develop all the systems needed to tackle disasters. They come to rely on other countries, they end up being MM-MM-MM on them. Right. Dependent on them.

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Let’s move on. Another thing teachers can do to encourage some kind of deeper engagement with content is what we’ve dubbed read, remember, cover, say and check.

As I said earlier, all too often for students completion of an exercise becomes the end goal and once the answers have been checked, they don’t always do enough to pay attention to – and attempt to learn – the language contained in the actual exercises. We can counter this by telling students to read the sentences again and to try and remember as much as they can. Then put students in pairs. All the A students should close their books (or turn their handouts over!), while the Bs keep their open. Student A then says each of the sentences in the exercise as accurately as they can. After each attempt, B either corrects or else says it was fine. As teacher, you could model the task by closing your own copy of the coursebook and saying what you remember of the first sentences – and then checking your answer! It always helps if you get it right, but not 100% right, so the students see your own humanity!

There are simple twists you can make to this exercise – and things you can encourage students to do at home as self-study. For instance, you could ask students to read, remember and then write individually what they remember. They could then compare with a partner, see if they can agree a final version and then check by opening their books. They could also do basically the same thing, but instead of writing, simply say what they remember and then check.

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One final thing we can do to encourage students to pay more attention to the language and to notice how things work in English is two-way translation. Now, I’ve written before – and at some length – about translation and its many uses, but I feel it’s still a very under-used and under-appreciated technique / approach.

When students have finished an exercise, either tell them to translate all of it into their own first language or else select a few sentences to be translated. If you teach monolingual groups and speak the students’ L1, you can put students into pairs and tell them to decide on the best translation and then check ideas with the whole class. In multilingual classes, you may still be able to put groups of students who share the same L1 together to help each other. Even if you don’t speak your students’ L1, they’ll generally be able to translate so long as they understand the sentences. Tell students to ask you if there’s anything they are unsure of the meaning of.

Next, either collect the translations or tell students to keep the translations somewhere safe. Tell them you will return to them at some point later. In the next lesson or at some other later date, tell students to look back at their translations and – without looking at the English sentences they originally translated from – to write what they think the correct English is. Tell them to compare their translations in pairs and to discuss any differences. Let students compare their translations with the English originals and then discuss why any differences might have occurred. Ask if they can now see any differences in the patterns between the two languages.

Right, that seems like plenty for now.

Hope it’s given some of you a few more ideas on how to get more from less.

Ways of exploiting lexical self-study material in the classroom part two: some things we can get students to do

In the first part of this post, I explored some of the things that you can do as teacher – both in terms of preparation / planning and in terms of actual classroom practice – to help to take lexical self-study material off the page and to bring it to life and make it more real for the students. In this post, I’m going to assume that that message has already been absorbed and am going to move on to talk about what you might do next. Once you’ve given students time to go through an exercise, you’ve out them in pairs to check their answers, you’ve elicited answers from the whole class and, as you did so, you’ve explored the language in the sentences and expanded upon both the items there and connected bits and pieces. You have a board full of great, connected, whole-sentence fully grammaticalised input . . . and then what?

In case you’ve forgotten – or never read the first post to begin with – here again is the exercise I’m describing, and thinking about how to exploit:

Collocations exercise

Well, the most obvious thing is to get students talking about their own ideas, experiences and opinions using the language they’ve just looked at. The way I’d usually do it is to prepare some questions based on what’s there. Take, for instance, the first item – address an issue. You could just ask What are the main issues in your country? Do you think the government is doing enough to address them? Those aren’t bad questions, but to support students more, and give them more ideas of what to talk abut, I’d probably twist this slightly to something like this:

Decide which three of the issues below are the biggest problems in your country.

Mark them from 1 (=most serious problem) to 3.

Alcoholism

Domestic violence

Drug abuse

Unemployment

Illegal immigration

Non-payment of taxes

A growing wealth gap

Digital connectivity

Illiteracy

Public and private debt

Now tell a partner which three issues you chose.

Explain why you think they are such big issues, what is being done to address them – and anything else you think could be done to improve the situation.

Just this on its own would be quite sufficient for a good fifteen-minute speaking slot in class. I’d give students a few minutes to read through and to ask about any vocabulary they weren’t sure of – there’s bound to be some in the list above. I might then model the task by explaining which of the above I think is the biggest issue in the UK (they’re all contenders, if truth be told, but personally I’d opt for the growing wealth gap!), why and what’s being done about it. Once I’d stopped foaming at the mouth about the fact my prime minister is currently at an EU meeting to lobby for the right to ignore Europe-wide restrictions on bankers’ pay whilst more and more of the people he’s supposed to be looking after are increasingly reliant on food banks, I’d then put students in small groups of two and three and get them to discuss their own ideas.

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As students talk, I’d go round, listen in, correct any pronunciation errors I might hear, ask questions and chip in with the discussion and – most crucially – try to find things students were trying to say, but couldn’t quite . . . or things they were saying that I would say in a slightly different (and better!) way. I’d zap backwards and forwards to the board and write up whole sentences, with the odd word here and there gapped. Once things were slowing down and some pairs / groups had almost finished, I’d stop the whole class and say OK, that was great. let’s just quickly look at how to say what you were trying to say better. I might have something like the following on the board:

A lot of men are frustrated with their l………… in life and then drink and end up t……………… it out on their wives.
A lot of women f…………….. their homes and end up in r……………… for battered wives.
Unemployment has r………………… over the last couple of years. Loads of people are moving abroad in s………… of work.
We’re being f…………….. / s…………… with immigrants. It’s causing serious f………………. in lots of areas.

To elicit the missing words, I’d basically paraphrase / retell the things I’d heard by saying things like this: A lot of people are unhappy with where they are in life they’re unhappy with their position, with what they’ve achieved, so they’re unhappy with their MMM in life. Anyone? No? They’re unhappy with their lot in life. And they drink and get angry and come home frustrated and they’re angry at the world, but they hurt their wives instead. They feel angry and frustrated, but don\’t know what to do with that anger, so they MMM it out on the ones they love. Yeah, right. They TAKE it out on them. And as a result, some women escape from the family home, like people MMM a disaster or MMM a war. Anyone? Yes, good. They FLEE and they end up in special buildings where women who have been beaten up – battered women – can hide and be safe from danger. These places are called? No, not refugees. Refugees are people who have to flee their own countries. The places are called REFUGES. Where’s the stress? yeah, REFuge, but ReFUgee. Good.

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Other questions connected to the vocabulary in the exercise that I might ask students to discuss could include the following:

  • Can you think of a time when law and order completely broke down in your country? What sparked it? How long did it last?
  • Why do you think some people might not agree with aid agencies providing emergency relief? What do YOU think about it?
  • Can you remember any news stories from the last few months about an area needing emergency relief? Why? What happened?
  • Can you think of anyone who’s been arrested for inciting violence or racial hatred? What happened?
  • Would you like to be a social worker? Why? / Why not?

With any of these, again I’d give them a minute or two to read through and ask questions about. I’d model and I’d then listen in and find things to rework, before ending up by reformulating student output on the board. If you’re not sure of your ability to hear things in the moment and to think of better ways of saying things, you can always cheat by doing exactly what I did above and plan in advance things you think students MIGHT or COULD say, decide the best words to gap, and then simply write these up whilst monitoring. You can begin by saying OK, here are some things I heard some of you saying. Fools them every time!

In the third and final post in this little series, I’ll outline some other things you could get students to do with an exercise like this.

Cheers for now.

Hugh

Ways of exploiting lexical self-study material in the classroom part one: what the teacher can do

This post is essentially a response to a request by one the blog’s readers, Patrick Gallagher, who emailed me recently and asked for ideas on using material that’s essentially written for self-study in the classroom.

Now, initially I was struck by this because, naturally, as a coursebook writer, my immediate reaction is simply to ask why on earth you’d need to bring this kind of material into the classroom when there are already great lexically-rich materials out there written specifically for everyday classroom use.

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However, as I thought about it more, it occurred to me that there’s actually a fair bit more decent lexically-oriented material geared towards self-study than there is geared towards explicit classroom study, and maybe this fact shouldn’t surprise. The Headway / English File atomistic structural grammar syllabus still dominates and within this framework, vocabulary is not only treated very much as second best, but is also all too often limited to a focus on single words or, at best, collocations. The harsh reality is that it’s hard to get lexically-rooted material into class as the main focus, so I guess many teachers out there get round being shackled with a coursebook they may not particularly believe in or have much philosophical affinity with by bringing photocopied extracts from self-study material in.

And there IS plenty of good stuff out there: my own personal favourite and the one I recommend to all my students is ENGLISH VOCABULARY ORGANISER by Chris Gough, but then there’s also the ENGLISH COLLOCATIONS IN USE series by CUP, the PHRASAL VERBS ORGANISER and IDIOMS ORGANISER published by National Geographic Learning, George Woolard’s KEY WORDS FOR FLUENCY series and so on.

So what might teachers do with this stuff if we do decide to bring it into the class? One of the problems with doing this is obviously the fact that this stuff is all written to be done and home, checked and gotten on with. I was never designed with the classroom in mind and so fails to leap off the page in any kind of obvious way. As a little thought experiment, I’ve picked one exercise from ENGLISH COLLOCATIONS IN USE Advanced and imagined what I might do with it were I to use it to supplement a class, in the hope that it might provide some food for thought and fresh ideas for some of you. So here goes.

The exercise I’ve chosen is on social issues, which I’ve selected simply because this week with my Intermediate class we were doing some work on describing changes and this came up (Unemployment has gone down a bit over recent months / The divorce rate has risen dramatically over the last few years, and so on.) Here it is.

Collocations exercise

Well, the first thing I’d do is look long and hard at what language is there to be exploited so that when I was going through the answers, eliciting them from the whole class, I’d know what I wanted to focus, what I could ask the class about, what extra examples I might want to give and so on. I think it’s important that the teacher leads the class through this process BEFORE asking students to anything more personal or creative with what’s there.

In class, I’d tell students we were going to look at a bit more language to help them talk better about social issues, give them the exercise and tell them to fill in the gaps with the best missing words. As students are working their way though, I usually go round and check what’s right and wrong. If they have wrong answers, I might just say something semi non-verbal and negative like ‘Uh-uh!’ and point at the offending item. If students ask about a particular item, I may give a quick contextually-relevant answer too. In between doing all this, I’d also be writing sentences up on the board, with gaps in them, to expand on what’s there on page in a minute or two. These sentences are just things I either plan in advance or come up on the spur of the moment and they’re all things that might be said / heard around the language that’s being tested.

Once maybe 60-70% of the class have finished, I stop the whole class and put them in pairs, tell them to compare and then round up once I can see a few pairs have basically checked and agreed.

The round-up / checking is the first way the teacher can bring some of this language to life. What’s vital is we do more than simply get the answers and write them up. Here’s how I might run through this part myself:

So, number 1? Yeah, right. ADDRESS. Where’s the stress? Good. ADDRESS. The second syllable. And what how could a government, say, ADDRESS an issue like alcohol abuse? What might happen? What might they do? Well, for example, they might MMM street drinking. They might make it illegal. Right, so they might BAN it. Good. Another thing they might do is to make it more expensive to buy alcohol, so they might MM-MM taxes on alcohol, they might make them go up, so? yeah, INCREASE. And one last thing they might do is they might make it harder for companies to advertise alcohol, so they might not ban it completely, but they’ll MM-MM it. Anyone? No? The first letter is R. No? RESTRICT it.

On the board, by now, I’d have added the three words I elicited – or tried to elicit – to the sentences I wrote up earlier, so I’d already have something like this:

Last year they banned people from drinking on the street. It’s totally illegal now.
They’ve increased taxes on alcohol again.
They really ought to restrict alcohol advertising, so that kids aren’t exposed to it as much.

I’d then ask if anyone else had any other ideas on how the issue of alcohol abuse could be tackled – and would either accept students’ offerings, or else rephrase / reword them, maybe writing up extra sentences, depending on what came back from the class. I might also ask what other kinds of issues governments might sometimes need to address – and would hopefully get back one or two ideas from the class.

Teenagers drinking alcohol

For number 2, I’d again elicit the answer and probably write it up on the board. I’d then ask if they could think a famous example of an aid agency (Oxfam, ActionAid, the WHO, etc.) and would ask what kind of things they might provide as emergency relief – and when. Again, I might add some of their ideas to an already-prepared sentence on the board. Perhaps something like this:

The provision of emergency aid / supplies / relief in the wake of the earthquake / flooding / tsunami / volcanic eruption saved thousands of lives.
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Next, I’d elicit the answer to 3, and ask what happens when law and order completely breaks down. Again, I’d have already got a couple of sentences prepared to help narrow the focus and hone the input. As such, I’d ask something like this: So one thing that often happens when law and order breaks down is large groups of people go into the streets and fight the police or the army. They maybe throw petrol bombs or rocks at them, they might burn cars, that kind of thing. This is called a? Right, a RIOT. And RIOT can be a noun or it can be a verb, so here it’s a noun. OK. And another thing that often happens is people go into shops – large groups of people often, and maybe when the shops are closed, you know, they break in and then they steal loads of stuff, so they MM the shop. Anyone? Begins with L. No? They LOOT the shops. And what kind of thing might make all this happen? Why might people start rioting and looting? Yeah, right. It’s often when people are angry at the police because of something the police have done. And this makes the riots happen. It MM the riots. Anyone? Like a match, when you light a match, sometimes little MM fly off. Yeah, right. SPARKS. And it can be a verb too, you can SPARK riots or SPARK public anger. On the board, I’d then have this.

A man died in police custody and it sparked three days of rioting and looting. The police totally lost control of the whole area.

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For number 4, after eliciting the answer, I’d check what the group thinks social workers do. I’d then ask what it means in this context, breaking the cycle of abuse, and check they understand that it means kids who are physically abused themselves are more likely to abuse their own kids – or other people’s – later in life. It’s a vicious cycle. I might have a sentence like this up on the board:

Kids who are abused are more likely to abuse others in later life. It’s a vicious circle that’s hard to break.

I might also add that in lots of regional conflicts around the world, it can be very very hard to break the cycle of violence. One side kills someone, the other side seeks revenge. There’s then revenge for THAT attack, and then yet more revenge and so it goes on. It’s really hard to step out of that.

I’d then elicit number 5 and point out that both tenses are possible, depending on whether it’s connected to something happening now or not. I’d add that you can also make a plea for peace or for calm. I’d ask when someone might make this kind of plea (after a murder, after a terrorist attack, after a terrible crime, etc.) and why (they don’t want things to turn violent) – and I might also add that charities can make a plea for help or for donations at times of real need. I might end up with something like this on the board:

The father of the murdered boys has called for peace / has made a plea for peace amidst fears that the tensions could explode into violence.

I might then tell the amazing story of Tariq Jahan, whose two sons were killed during the Birmingham riots of 2011, but who almost single-handedly prevented an ugly situation getting much worse through his calm, his compassion and his charisma.

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Finally, I’d elicit the answer to number 6 and I’d ask how you might INCITE violence. I might add that Tariq Jahan could easily have incited anger and hatred after the death of his sons, and could easily have persuaded others to go out and seek revenge, but chose not to. I might then add that there are relatively new Hate Speech laws in place in the UK that outlaw hateful, threatening, abusive, or insulting communication that targets people on account of skin colour, race, disability, nationality, ethnic or national origin, religion, or sexual orientation. It’s not uncommon for extremists to go on trial accused of inciting racial hatred, for example. I might add / complete one final sentence on the board, perhaps something like this:

He’s some kind of neo-Nazi. He’s on trial at the moment. He’s accused of inciting racial hatred via his website and his online publications.

Hopefully, this will give some pointers as to how the teacher can bring a fairly dry self-study piece of material to life in the classroom and use it to revise and recycle language students already know, to allow exposure to plenty of fully grammaticalised sentences, to connect the classroom material to the wider world outside and to provide space for students’ own ideas, theories and questions.

In the next part of the post, I’ll go into some more detail about how teachers can next get students to do a range of interesting things with any kind of self-study material they might happen to bring in. Until then, I look forward to your comments and questions.

Rethinking grammar

It’s been way too long since I managed to post anything here. The last few weeks have come and gone in a bit of a blur: new writing projects, a new term at work, a plenary at the wonderful Poland IATEFL conference and so on. Anyway, yesterday my co-author and partner in crime Andrew Walkley and I gave a talk at University of Westminster, where we both work. The talk was part of our ongoing series of Teacher Development talks and was entitled RETHINKING GRAMMAR.

Rather than write about it, I decided to make a video of the Powerpoint and narrate the thing more or less as we did it last night.

Hope you enjoy it and look forward to reading your thoughts and comments.

Twenty things in twenty years part ten: the main point of focusing on pronunciation in class isn’t to improve pronunciation!

Pronunciation is quite possibly the most neglected area of language teaching. In many of the classes I’ve observed over the years, I’ve seen little or no attempt to work on pronunciation and where it IS focused on it’s often instinctive attempts at correcting mispronounced discrete phonemes of the kind we’re all so familiar with due to the phenomenal success of certain books that hone in one these areas.

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Part of the problem, of course, is that after a certain (very formative) point, time spent on pronunciation reaps very scant reward, especially when compared to other areas of language that one could work on. Imagine the degree to which you might expect your communicative competence to be boosted if you were to spend a hundred hours studying, developing and revising vocabulary – and then compare and contrast to what you might expect to gain in communicative terms if you were spend those hundred hours working on your pronunciation. In all but a few rare cases, there’d be no comparison.

Partly this is because – unlike other areas of language skill (with the possible, arguable exception of writing, of course), pronunciation is essentially a motor skill, and ultimately develops as a result of practice, practice and practice. And then some more practice after that – in much the same way as a musician learns a song by going over and over and over the fingering and the strumming and the chords and the notes, drilling them into the muscle memory until they become second nature.

When it comes to discrete phonemes, there is often little we can really do in the limited time that we inevitably have with. If students are struggling, say, to produce a /v/ instead of a /b/ or a /r/ instead of a /l/ we can stop them when they err; point out what they’re saying and show with our own mouths and voices how we would do it differently. We can explain and demonstrate that a /v/ sound is voiced and requires the bottom lip to raise up and touch against the two front upper teeth, for instance, and we can encourage students to practise, pointing out when they’re still doing it wrong – and once they nail it, telling them and encouraging them to remember the feel in the mouth the sound makes and to practise it at home. We can correct it again next time we here it, but really after that they’re pretty much on their own.

Some people seem to have a much better ear for the degree to which what they’re producing resembles the output or models they’re exposed to, and there’s also surely some kind of sociocultural / psychological element involved which must affect the degree to which many speakers try – and deliberately don’t try – to accommodate themselves to particular kinds of native-speaker norms. I’ve often pondered how it is that the manager of my beloved football club, Arsene Wenger, can have lived in London for almost two decades and can have learned English to such a remarkable degree and yet all the while has clung to more or less exactly the same kind of French-inflected accent he first arrived with.

Well, part of the problems seems to be the fact that accents stick very early on, and once we’ve passed a certain point, changing this is incredibly hard to do. Research findings on this obviously vary, but there does seem to be a considerable body of evidence to suggest that we start being primed in our own first language from our very earliest moments here on earth, and this priming seems to last. This, coupled with the kind of lingering class-bound prejudices and perceptions that once led George Bernard Shaw to observe that “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him”, might explain the proliferation of accent reduction courses that prey on the insecurities and fears of NATIVE speakers. Obviously, if your priming in L1 has led to the production of sounds radically different to English, then you may well have problems unless quite an intense focus on pronunciation is made a central part of your early experience of learning the language. Debate rages on about whether or not there actually is a cut-off point beyond which it’s all-but impossible to acquire native-like pronunciation, but there does seem to be a fair amount of evidence to suggest that by the early twenties accents in a foreign language are already pretty fixed. All of this may well go some way towards explaining why I’ve met only perhaps three or four non-natives who didn’t live in a native-speaking country until they were adults who could nevertheless be mistaken for natives (as well as why the vast majority of non-natives I know who do live in native English-speaking environments are easily identifiable as non-native – often to their great annoyance – despite speaking amazingly good English). It also accounts for the Chinese and Thai students I somehow teach whose learning thus far has been both almost entirely based on written sources and also very much in vain as the English they have acquired is rendered unintelligible by their accents, which are rooted very strongly in the tonalties of their mother tongues.

To add a further level of complexity to these obvious issues, recent discourse about ELF – and particular the work of Jennifer Jenkins, who has written at length about what she sees a phonological core of ELF that allows communication unimpeded by lapses in intelligibility without forcing strict adherence to the native-speaker RP construct (as she sees it) – has (and I’ll be gracious here and add unintentionally) led to a furthering of the Why bother? attitude to pronunciation. The vast majority of discrete phoneme mistakes don’t affect intelligibility; natives can’t even agree on how to pronounce grass and castle, while the Irish (allegedly!) say TREE TREES to describe these things:

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We’ve all got accents, even native speakers . . . so what if my students sound French or Russian or what-have-you? That’s because they are. I can understand them all, why bother? And so the self-justification continues. Given all of this, you may yourself by now be thinking why bother. What’s the point of slogging on with something so unrewarding and that offers so few noticeable signs of improvement in return for such hard work on your part?

Well, on one level, the point is that even incredibly fluent students, like the Finnish woman Hanna who I recently taught on a Pronunciation & Presentation Skills course, still fret (in what may, to many native speakers seem like an unnecessary manner, but this does not detract from the reality of these emotions) about their accents and feel they could be improved – often by moving closer to some perceived idealised native speaker mode, which often means RP. Interestingly, actually, non-natives seem far more concerned about the finer details of pron than most natives for whom a diversity of options is a norm. I’ve lost count of the number of times after a talk I’ve done a non-native teacher has asked me whether I say ofTen or off-en, for instance.

So there’s that, but even this argument about student desires, persuasive though it may be, still actually misses the point.

Because the main issue here is that the REAL reason for persisting with pronunciation is NOT because it has that much of an impact on students’ own pronunciation.

It’s because it’s help students LISTEN better.

For students, listening is hard for one of two reasons: either they’re hearing language that’s simply unknown to them, and thus they fail to understand it in the same way as they would if they were to see it written down – or else they’re hearing language that they’d be able to deal with if they saw it written down, but cannot grasp as it comes out in the acoustic blur of normal speed speech. This is often because their main exposure to language has been the written form; and because listening – and more crucially the inter-relationship between listening and pronunciation – has been neglected during the early stages of their language learning experience.

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If students cannot hear language that they are able to process when written down, it is rarely if ever because of issues with discrete phonemes. If it’s outside of the classroom, it may perhaps be because of a particularly unfamiliar or strong accent, though inside the classroom such accents are generally filtered out. This means that it’s down to what happens when we speak at speed: the use of weak forms, the elision of sounds at the beginning or end of words, the way words ending in consonants are linked to following words if they begin with vowels, the way we add in /w/ and /j/ sounds to link between vowels across words (as in the /j/ English or go /w/ ahead) and so on.

What this means is every time you take your time when modelling and drilling (both chorally and individually) the weak forms and linking and so on in a phrase like IT’S A BIT OF A NIGHTMARE or HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO KNOW, you’re helping the students get that little bit more used to how words sound when run together and said consecutively.

And while your efforts may or not impact positively on their own actual pronunciation, the chances are they’ll slowly contribute to your students being better able to distinguish language they have already studied when it comes at them think and fast in future listenings.

Grey cardinals, rubber time and the piece of shame: speaking foreign languages in English!

This post follows on from the one I bashed out last week considering the influence of advertising on speech, and the way in which this can sometimes make life hard for even the most fluent of non-natives. It also follows on from conversations and thoughts I had during my one-week stay in St. Petersburg recently. During a typically intense conversation in a bar one night, a Russian teacher started talking about the undermind – instead of the subconscious. I was curious about the expression and wasn’t sure whether this was simply a direct translation from the Russian and was being used to paper over the fact that word subconscious wasn’t known (or because it was just being assumed that it ought to also work this way in English!), or whether it was actually a slightly different concept to the subconscious, that I myself had yet to grasp!

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It turned out that the teacher simply hadn’t realised that the words would be different from Russian to English, and so was translating directly in optimism and hope, but the idea of the under mind stuck somehow because the next day, whilst presenting to a big group of teachers there, I (subconsciously!) used the phrase myself- a fact which was noted and commented on by the teacher who’d passed it my way in the first place.

Now I can already hear you thinking so what, right? Well, as you are probably all aware, we all – to varying degrees – accommodate ourselves to our linguistic environments. The theory of communication accommodation was developed in the early 1970s by Howard Giles from the University of California and basically states that “when people interact, they adjust their speech, their vocal patterns and their gestures, to accommodate to others.” The theory also explores why it is that humans tend to do this, and considers  the links between language, context and identity.

All of which got me thinking about the degree to which people living outside of countries where English is the first language, and who are conversant to at least some degree with the local language, but who also spend a lot of time interacting in English with locals who speak the language well, start to pick up and use expressions which basically don’t really exist in English in any broader sense, but which work in the local language and thus also work when used in English conversations between (semi-) bilingual locals and foreigners. In other words, there must be countless EFL teachers (and other long-term peripatetic ex-pats) out there, residing in this country or that, spending much of their free time with very fluent locals and speaking a strange mashed-up hybrid that is in essence English as it’s spoken elsewhere, but all manner of locally-inflected variants.

Last year, I saw David Crystal talking at Spain TESOL about the way in which conversations such as those mentioned above can often be derailed by casual references to local phenomena that speakers take for granted and that they assume all participants must be aware of as they have such common currency in the local / national context. Crystal was referring more to the kind of thing my colleague Andrew Walkley has been blogging about of late – the Stephen Lawrence murder, the Leveson Inquiry, 7/7 – and so on and was suggesting that a worthwhile project would be to establish a kind of Wiki of some sort detailing and exploring the cultural meanings and significance of such condensed summarised tagging phrases. Of course, the longer one lives in a place, the more of such references one comes to understand.

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But at the same time, and this is, I think, far less discussed or appreciated, one also comes to acquire a whole range of chunks, idioms and expressions that are used in the local L1 and one starts to use them freely in English as well. Thus it is that when I’m with Indonesian friends (either here in the UK or back in Indonesia) who speak good English (my own Indonesian is around B2 level, I guess) I may well joke about rubber time when they’re late, a directly translated reference to the local concept of jam karet, often used to justify or excuse lateness that by English standards verging on the psychotic!

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In the same way, I’ve spent enough time with super-fluent Russians over the years to understand that if someone – usually Putin (!) – is referred to as the grey cardinal, it basically means he’s the power behind the scenes, the puppet master pulling all the strings. I’ve heard the expression used by Russians – in English – so many times that the fact it’s not actually a real English expression with currency beyond the Russian-speaking world barely registers. It’s become so that it actually feels like it IS normal English, albeit the kind of normal English one only engages in with Russians.

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In the same way, I’ve heard so many Spaniards – and ex-pats who’ve lived in Spain for a fair while – offer me the piece of shame (the final piece of a particular dish designed for sharing, so the final bit of tapas, or the final biscuit on a plate or whatever), that I’ve started adopting the expression myself and have even found myself using it with other English natives or fluent foreigners of non-Spanish origin. I’ve also long since ceased looking puzzled when Japanese friends joke about sleeping dictionaries or when Swedes tell me not to paint the Devil on the wall if I’m being particularly pessimistic. As with anyone who’s spent half their life working with non-native speakers, these expressions – and many many others – have seeped into my own vernacular to the point that they almost feel ‘native’.

There must be thousands and thousands of these expressions out there, many of them maybe used by you! They maybe fill a gap that the English language doesn’t quite capture properly, or else capture a locally common concept in a particularly condensed and pithy manner. They exist in the grey areas being local pidgeonised variants and that elusive and possibly mythical beast ELF and, as with advertising slogans, basically have no place in the EFL classroom, particularly not as something one sets out to consciously teach!

However, sometimes democracy does strange things. In a Pre-Int class last year, one of my students turned up late and left the door wide open on entering. A Chinese student became very animated and shouted “OH! How long is your tail!” – a direct translation from Chinese. I laughed, as did most students, for the concept was immediately clear. I then explain that usually in English we say something like Were you born in a barn?

Even after the concept had been explained, the class remained unconvinced. The next day, when another student arrived late and left the door open, the masses had decided. Chinese English prevailed over my own preferences – and for the next few weeks in the particular micro-climate of our class How long is your tail was one of the most commonly recycled phrases!

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