In praise of non-native speakers part five: localizing texts

So here we go with the fifth and final installment in a series of posts initially inspired by a desire to counter the appalling Open English advert – and to point out the many potential advantages that non-native speaker teachers, especially those teaching monolingual groups with whom they share a first language, possess. Following on from the last post on translation, which generated a real flurry of responses and debate, I’ve been loath to wrap this series up for fear of going out with a whimper, rather than a bang, but here goes nothing.

The final way in which non-natives (or, of course, bilingual natives who’ve lived in situ for some considerable period of time) can offer students superior value for money – certainly when compared to rabidly monolingual recent arrivals – is through the way teachers tackle texts. All too often texts are included in coursebooks to convey facts about the world outside – and are treated as little more than factual entities to be analysed, ‘comprehended’ and processed, but not really responded to or related to the local environment.

In Britain in the late 70s / early 80s, there was a school of thought dubbed Critical Pedagogy, led by people such as Norman Fairclough, which advocated encouraging students to adopt a critical approach to the teaching materials and methods they were exposed to. Whilst I am not suggesting this is a realistic – or even desirable – goal for most teachers, there are aspects of this approach that can help us bring texts to life for our students, especially in non-native / bilingual contexts.

The most fruitful way to think about the role of texts in the classroom is to see them both as vehicles for useful or interesting language, and also as points of comparison with students’ own cultures and life experiences. Sadly, however, not all globally available classroom material shares this perspective – and this is where the local teacher can step in and help to bring otherwise neutral (or possibly even alien) material to life. Often texts can be fruitfully exploited with the addition of a few simple questions along the lines of: what do you think is the same and what’s different here? / does anything in the text remind you of any stories you have heard about? – and so on. As ever, the teacher who is most aware of the local context will be able both to frame these questions in a way which may well work best with local students, whilst also being more conscious of what kind of answers students might typically come up with, and thus what kind of language would be most worth feeding in.

Let’s look at a concrete example: earlier this year, I was using Headway Pre-Intermediate with a multi-lingual group in London and one particular day, I had the slightly dubious pleasure of teaching a text called Supervolcano – about the Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming: a perfect example of the kind of factual ‘global knowledge’ texts that dominate many books nowadays and that seemingly have little point of entry for students. Whilst the book does have personalized questions leading into the text – what famous volcanoes are there in the world? How many can you name? Are they active or extinct? What do you know about them? – and out of the text – Where do you think there might be other eruptions in the future? If an eruption did happen, what do you think you could do to try and survive? – there’s nothing that relates to students’ locale.

Simply asking students what they would tell foreigners about the most famous natural features of their own countries, any extreme weathers they have to deal with and any natural disasters that have affected their hometowns or countries serves as a far more meaningful lead-in and makes students more willing to then engage with a text about somewhere that may very well be outside their realms of experience. Of course, whilst students are chatting, you can wander round, monitoring, picking up on problem areas and using their ideas as a source of board-based input during your round-up stage, thus once again helping them to word their own worlds.

These small but significant localizing twists can be added in to classes time and time again – and all help the local bilingual teacher to bring the coursebook closer to the worlds of their students AND the worlds of the students closer to being realised through English.

9 responses

  1. Stephanie Ashford | Reply

    I agree with you about the value of adding “localizing twists” to texts, but surely native speaker teachers (even the ones you refer to as “rabidly monolingual recent arrivals”) would also be capable of doing the sort of thing you describe in your example. I think there’s a danger here in conflating ‘non-native speaker’ with ‘local teacher’.

    (Oh, and please don’t go out with a whimper or even a bang. Go for a volcanic eruption!)

    1. Hi Stephanie –
      I guess you can blame the neatness of trying to end on nice number, and five seemed to work better than four! I do take your point about native-speaker teachers also obviously being able to ‘localize’ texts. My point – and of course it’s totally possible I simply failed to make it very well, which is one of the downsides of only having time to blog when you’re semi-comatose with exhaustion – was simply that non-natives working in a local context will be able to do this better than even a native who’s been around a while for a couple of reasons: firstly, the local knowledge will be much deeper and they’ll be able to think of more subtle local twists. Take the exercise below, for instance, from INNOVATIONS Advanced:

      Talking about politicians
      Match the descriptions with the follow-up comments.
      1 He seems very down-to-earth.
      2 I get the impression he’s very passionate.
      3 He just comes across as being really arrogant.
      4 He’s very smooth in front of the cameras.
      5 He’s obviously very competent, but he’s a bit dull.
      6 He’s a complete fascist.

      a He never listens to other people’s points of view because he think he knows best.
      b He presents a very slick image. You never see him flustered or caught out.
      c He’s just really right-wing! He wants to curb women’s rights and get rid of all the immigrants – that kind of thing.
      d He hasn’t got the spark or charisma to be Prime Minister.
      e You could imagine having a drink with him. He’s got no pretensions.
      f He genuinely believes in what he’s doing and wants to change things.

      Now match these descriptions with the follow-up comments.

      7 I get the feeling he’s very ambitious.
      8 He’s very charismatic.
      9 He just seems very honest.
      10 He comes across as being quite shifty in interviews.
      11 He just comes across as incredibly patronising.
      12 He’s just a complete hypocrite.

      g He never gives a straight answer. I just wouldn’t trust him.
      h He’s very straight with people. If he thinks something is bad, he says so.
      i He’s just power-mad. He’s only interested in getting to the top.
      j He complains about private schools, but he sends his son to one!
      k He talks down to people like they’re children.
      l He gives some very powerful speeches. He’s got this aura of confidence which people find attractive.

      Spend two minutes trying to remember the descriptions.
      Student A – say one of the comments a-l.
      Student B – close your book and respond with one of the descriptions.

      Now discuss these questions. Try to use some of the language from this activity.
      – Are there any politicians or public figures you like or respect? Why?
      – Which politicians don’t you like? Why?

      Now obviously as it stands, it’s easily localised by any teachers working anywhere as students will (hopefully) talk about people they know. However, an aware non-native will know WHICH politicians from where students will know about, what the majority opinion about each one is likely to be and so on. As such, they’d find it easier to twist this by, for example, giving a list of names and saying “You may want to talk about some of the people below”. That’s guaranteed to bring the material even closer to the students’ world than the questions above on their own can manage. In addition, the non-native teacher will be better able to predict what locals MIGHT say about each one and can build this awareness into planning and predicting what language might be worth focusing on in the round-up. It takes ages for an incomer to build up this kind of broad-base local knowledge and to get the local context in the way a non-native can. NOW, knowing what I know about Indonesia, for instance (a country I used to live in and have been going to for nigh-on twenty years now), I’d expect something like the following to come out of a discussion in Jakarta:
      SBY (the local short form for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) is doing his best to c……. / t………. corruption, but it’s an uphill battle.
      I worry about the rumours of a r….. between SBY and Jusuf Kalla.
      I think he’s just a p……… and there other people behind the scenes pulling all the s………. .
      and would then try to elicit curb / tackle, rift, puppet and strings whilst rounding up.

      In the same way, non-natives will be better able to hook new lexis onto local context better whilst teaching the actual vocabulary as well. Not saying that natives cannot do this, of course; just that it’s harder and that non-natives have a definite head start in this department.

      Finally, of course, it may well be that students lapse into l1 on occasion during these kind of real, meaningful conversations, and non-native teachers will obviously be better placed to deal with this as well, more able to bring this over into new English input.

    2. Hi Stephanie,
      I think you are right about recent English-speaking arrivals also being able to “localize” to a degree. When I first came to Germany, I was. of course, also completely clueless about a lot of things which locals take for granted. However, I was able to turn my ignorance into an advantage in the classroom on occasion by asking my students questions about local customs, places and people. They would always respond very enthusiastically and give me lots of information! Of course, I wasn’t able to prepare these discussions in any way, as Hugh mentions would be possible with a local, but, at the same time, these exchanges had the benefit of being totally genuine because it was NOT the case that I was pretending not to know something: I really didn’t!!!
      Reversing the power dynamics in the classroom had a nice effect on the atmosphere between me and my – mostly adult – students, because it was then no longer the case that I was the supposed expert and fount of knowledge; instead, I was the one receiving the knowledge. All I contributed was some English glue to stick the information together!
      If a newly-arrived “rabidly monolingual” (what a lovely image, hey???) teacher tries to do this during their stay in a new country, then I can imagine that they can also benefit from the localizing technique, if not in quite the same way as a genuine local, or long-standing English-speaking resident.

      1. Yes, Amanda, that curiosity and desire to know more about the people and places we find ourselves go a long way, I absolutely agree.

        I was very similar when I first went to Indonesia, though at that fairly nascent and un-self-aware stage of my own teaching I’m not that sure of the degree to which I was really able to turn this into language teaching, given that such notions weren’t really part of my mindset yet. Point taken, though.

        As you surmised, though, my point above was that non-native / local teachers would simply be able to exploit these areas better as they’re more genned up and thus – potentially at least – more able to predict and pick up on emergent language here. The fact that you’d be less focused on the actual message, as much of it would already be old news to you, may perhaps mean you’re more able to focus on the linguistic wrapping – and to help your students to do so too.

  2. Your post on “localizing” texts is a very timely one for me, so I must once again thank you most profusely!!!
    I have been using “Headway Elementary, The Third Edition” with a one-to-one student who I teach three times a month. During the last few months I have experienced many moments of frustration at the kind of texts they have included, as well as the questions one is supposed to ask the students.
    My student – I’ll call him Mehmet (after the football player, Mehmet Özil) – is Turkish, in his mid-30s and married with two small daughters. He came to Germany with his family when he was about 11 and is pretty much bilingual. He’s a bright guy and ambitious, too, and has already done various courses in evening classes to improve his job chances. Now he needs English if he is ever to have a chance of moving up the career ladder a little further, leave shift work behind and have more time with his family.
    When he came to this part of the world at the age of 11, with no German, he was automatically put in the “Hauptschule”, the lowest rung on the three-tier German school system, which provides very basic schooling for 11-16 year olds. As a result, he simply doesn’t have the general knowledge and knowledge of, say, European history that I might expect from someone who had attended a “Gymnasium”, the local equivalent of a grammar school. What’s more, his home life is strictly Turkish and Muslim-oriented. He reads Turkish books, his wife speaks little German (so far, at least) and has their TV tuned into Turkish channels. They also see a lot of his large family who live nearby.
    From Unit 6 onwards, I have had increasing troubles with Headway Elementary as the level of knowledge they are expecting is beyond what I imagine my student learnt at secondary school. Secondly, the focus seems to be very Eurocentric and “high-culture” oriented. For example, in U6, we are shown pictures of Salvador Dali, Charlotte Bronte, Tiger Woods and Albert Einstein. The questions posed above these pictures are:
    “What are these people famous for? Discuss with a partner.”
    If you don’t have a clue who they are, then the “discussion” is going to be very short and sweet!!! And, in an international, mixed-nationality group, I can imagine that some students may end up feeling stupid and ignorant because they don’t know who these “famous” people are, whereas others do. I don’t think we as language teachers want our students to feel bad about themselves in our lessons! (Talking in a new language can be difficult enough already, without having this compounded by being confronted with your own cultural ignorance!)
    My student knew of Albert Einstein – he was born near here – and Tiger Woods, but he hadn’t a clue about Salvador Dali or Charlotte Bronte!!! And why should he know about them, or even need to know about them?!?! As far as I know, only a very small section of the world’s population spends their weekends visiting art galleries and reading ancient English fiction!!! I was annoyed because I felt like I ended up “showing him up” and making him look ignorant, when he isn’t.
    Later, in Unit 8, there was a section about inventions, with an information-gap pair-work activity. Again, it almost seemed like the aim of the exercise was to test the level of general knowledge possessed by the students, rather than to generate discussion which involved use of the simple past. And, once again, there were quite a few things he didn’t know about and I ended up feeling that I had “shown him up” again.
    Without having a clue about the concept of “localizing”, I had nonetheless done this every now and then, asking him about his home country, or about how Ramadan “works”, partly just out of curiosity because I know very little about either Turkey or Muslim traditions, and partly to give my student a chance to be the “expert” in our exchanges. I try to do this as often as possible to reverse the “power dynamics” in my classroom, especially with adult course participants, so that it doesn’t always appear that I, as the teacher, am the one in possession of all the important knowledge and my student is the ignorant one.
    However, it was more by accident than by design that I put these questions to my Turkish student. Now, however, I have a new “weapon” I can use when I next come across a similar problem in a textbook: if I can use the “localizing” technique, this will take the focus away from what my students DON’T know, to what they DO know.
    I think this is an added benefit of localizing, which can be especially helpful if you are using textbooks with the kind of problems I mention above. I am looking forward to learning more about Turkey and Muslim traditions!

    1. Thanks for this Amanda.
      I’m delighted that anything I’ve said here has provided some kind of help and support for you!
      The kind of knowledge that makes it all worthwhile for me, to be honest.

      I was tickled to read your Headway stories.
      Ah, they took me back.

      I’m tempted to say that you’ve simply come up against one of the immutable laws of nature: just as paying peanuts results in monkeys, so using Headway results in Euro-centric Trivial Pursuits mind melt! Headway was a very formative book for me in that I had to use it a lot in my early years of teaching – in Indonesia, with students who really really could not care less what Linda McCartney had for breakfast! It taught me the importance – as a writer – of never including anything too culturally (or temporally) bound, of never assuming what I might think of as global knowledge (but which is inevitably age / class / gender / nationality, etc. bound), of never losing the curiousity to ask others about THEIR worlds and of not equating linguistic competence with a worldview similar to that of me, the author! I’d like to think these things have all stood me in good stead, both in class and on the page, so for that, if nothing else, thanks John and Liz!

      The list of what I think is wrong with headway Elementary, and all the mini-mes it has spawned it is hugely successful wake, would require at least a post all of its own, but in terms of what you’re describing above, I think they key to appraising it critically and twisting it to make it fit your students, or in this case, just Mehmet’s world, better is to first understand what function the activities in the book serve – and to then scrap that activity and do your own version instead.

      Take the famous people thing. If the point was to work on past tenses, you could simply scrap the whole book exercise, and instead ask Mehmet to think of two or three famous people. They could be from his country – or somewhere else, if he’d rather, from his field of work, from now or from the past, and they could be famous for anything. Ask him to write the names down and make notes on why each person is famous – and to then tell you about them. You then listen, probe, ask questions and, by reformulating, focus on on the grammar and lexis combined that he’d need to tell his stories better.

      A flipped way of doing that would be to simply present a text about someone, without expecting him to necessarily know anything about them, use the text solely as a vehicle for language presentation and work and THEN do the exercise above, but this time telling him to use some of the new language to talk about the people he wants to talk about.

      Again, with inventions, what was the goal? Maybe the passive? if so, twist it by asking what he thinks was invented in Turkey / what goods are exported / what crops are grown? And get him to tell you as much about that as he can, reworking and feeding in new language. OR ask for three inventions he thinks have been most important and why – and do the same. In all these cases, the important thing is to work from the student.

      For me, as a writer and as a teacher, I’m interested not in testing any kind of so-called ‘general’ knowledge, but instead in thinking about what students might want to say about the topic in hand – famous people fro their countries, say, or seminal inventions – and to then predict as much useful language around the topic as possible in advance and to work out ways of getting it to the students one way or another so that when they take their own turns, they’re well equipped.

      Hope this all makes sense and is of some (further) use!
      Thanks, as ever, for your contributions.

      1. What a brilliant reply!!! I shall copy and paste this answer into a Word document and keep it in Mehmet’s file for future reference.
        It sounds like you were already thinking in terms of becoming a materials writer way back when in Indonesia to have considered the questions you were asking yourself above. I suppose that it has not been *quite* so obvious to me so far because I have been working in Europe and, most of the time, my students have been familiar with the Eurocentric material I have had to use. It is only after all this time of teaching that this element of the Headway series has proved a major stumbling block.
        I think your ideas of how I can still follow the basic structure, but tweak the content to a more student-centred one are great and I shall certainly use them. I decided to use the Headway Elementary book out of ignorance as much as anything else: there are two bookstores catering to the EFL/teaching market in Stuttgart, one is run by the Klett publishing house, who are affiliated with Cambridge University Press and the other is Cornelsen, who are affiliated with Oxford University Press. And their store is the most centrally located!!! I wanted to use a coursebook so as to have a concrete structure to follow and give the guy a grounding in the “basics”. However, I may well be purchasing one of your and Mr Wakeley’s books soon, either as an alternative source of ideas/material or as the next book I will use with him. I saw a review of one of the Dellar/Wakeley books on recently and the guy who did the review said that it was fantastic to use in the classroom, even if a little different from what German course participants would expect.
        My problem is now that I have to make some decisions about WHAT to buy next: there are so many books on my must-have-right-this-minute list that all my earnings from teaching will be going into book purchases if I’m not careful!!! And that wasn’t really the plan…
        Which is the most recent series, Outcomes or Innovations, by the way?
        Looking forward to reading your new post even though all the Dogme stuff has passed me by out here in my little village!!!

      2. Glad to have been of some use Amanda!

        As far as our books go, OUTCOMES is the most recent series, but if you’re looking for an Elementary book designed to help students get to grips with basic conversational needs, then I’d recommend INNOVATIONS Elementary, a book we’re very proud of!

        Hope, by the way, the next series of posts give you at least some sense of what Dogme has been about and where I see it as applicable to both writing and using coursebooks.

  3. […] has been Bridging the Culture Gap in the classroom. Slightly depressingly, the least viewed is one of the posts I wrote in praise of non-native speaker teachers, which has so far only attracted […]

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