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Two weeks have now slipped past since I came back from the Iatefl conference (How’s that for a Present Perfect?) and as time goes by certain things recur or fall into place in the somewhat fragmented jigsaw puzzle of my mind. I think the overall theme this year for me at the conference was the issue of where learning takes place, how muchof it is formal, tradional and how much, on the other hand, is informal, incidental, accidental if you like. The question that I keep asking myself is this: where does learning happen?
In fact incidental, informal learning was a theme that came up in the LTSig Pre Conference event where Agnes Kukulska-Hulme’s talked about it, describing the way some learners, who need to integrate themselves into new communities, with new languages, access the language they need for very specific contexts such as “going to a hospital appointment”. She discussed ways of encouraging this technologically by means of various teaching apps being developed in the projects she is participating in.
The very first conference plenary also touched on this subject as Donald Freeman wondered whether we as teachers are “frozen in thought” driven by the myths of our profession, which, as he said, are not right or wrong but may be both useful in that they are th course we chart, but also limiting if we do not see that other things are going on outside that charted territory. He questioned two points related to the issue of learning in his presentation:
1) there is direct causality between teaching and learning: teaching causes learning;
2) The teacher has “sole” responsibility for the process;
Most of us would have our doubts about these, because we all see on a daily basis that what our students learn may be what we are attempting to teach, but very often is not. Most of us also subscribe to the idea of learner-centred teaching, but the point he was making is that what is taught is often chosen by the teacher, the course book, the programme or what is required to pass exams, and rarely by what the learner truly wants or needs to learn. Of course we all have to respect syllabi, and exam requirements but these could be our map and we can also keep our eyes open to see what is going on around us as we chart this course. Freeman talked about “managing what you can’t control” when you teach but perhaps we should go even further and explore what we can’t control or help the learners control what they want to.
In my Context
In my context, which is not one of learners seeking to integrate themselves into a new world, but rather one of large classes of university students doing lessons that are often held in traditional classrooms, with a traditional syllabus and traditional expectations, I find myself increasingly asking the question I mentioned above: “Where is learning happening?”. Michael Wesch’s project in 2007 posed the same question in the YouTube video below, asking why learning was “up there” on the blackboard, rather than “down here” where the learners are actually sitting.
So much of what we do in class pays lip service to the notion of being learner centred, I think. But how learner-centred is it? Exams play a central role in the motivation and organisation of study in our university and, therefore, learning comes about often as a sort of by-product of exam preparation. In a world of continual cost cutting and shrinking course hours the focus is often on what is in the exam and what to do to prepare for it. This is almost inevitably a top-down process.
Added to this the belief in online self-access courses as a sort of general panacea and we are charting a route towards disaster rather than a real learning process. In my version of blended learning, as yoou probably already know, I believe in integrating the online work with the face to face work in what I hope is a smooth “blend”. Learners participate in the online classroom space developing online dialogues with each other and with me which help to direct our course along its charted path but without being afraid to stop and visit some fertile islands and sandy beaches along the way.
My own Beliefs
Despite the limitations of my own context I am a firm believer in learner centred classrooms and in empowering learners to help them towards autonomy, if that is what they want. One of the other things that I have brought back from the conference, for instance, is a renewed enthusiasm for the use of copora in class. My own learners often misunderstand why certain language choices just don’t work, and they will not always have their teacher there to explain things to them. To teach them how to be able to access a corpus, then, so that they can work these things out for themselves is an essential step in this journey towards autonomy and empowerment. This is easy to say but not so easy to explain so I’d now like to share one example of how we are doing this in class working on an error which is extremely widespread amony italian L1 speakers.
An example of Student/Teacher Online Dialogue
In a recent piece of work, for instance one student wrote:
” If anyone had the possibility of choosing their dream house…”
I questioned the use of “had the possibility” and this was the exchange that followed. It was an asynchronous dialogue that was developed over two weeks in the chat box function of our digital classroom, which is, in itself, a step towards more learner centred work, I think:
Possibility is the wrong choice here both because of the meaning and the verb/noun collocation . Why?
‘Chance or opportunity’ would both work better here. Check the verb patterns for these too.
Pre- and Post Speaking: what goes on in your mind?
Yesterday was Day 3 at Iatefl, well Day4 for those of is who were here for the PCE as well. , added to which I was speaking today but not until 5.25 pm so the tension gradually built during the day and I had to do something to take my mind off it. I find that when I’m giving a talk, even though I’ve done it before, I rehearse it continually in the hours running up to it, taking bits out here and adding comments there in my mind and, of course, the actual event was different again, when we got to it. I had opted for a 30 minute slot, which in hindsight was much too short for what I wanted to say, but in any case it worked quite well and there was a lovely atmosphere in the group. When I actually arrived at my room, though, I discovered that Iatefl had decided to reinvent me and had given me a completely new name, as you can see in the photo. This was a bit confusing for some people who had been looking for the “old Sharon Hartle” instead of which the notice proudly procliamed a talk by Shanon Harper! Apart from that there were very few little hitches though. What is undeniable however is that, for some reason, no matter how many presentations you give you always feel nervous on the day of the event. I decided in the morning that , because of this continual rehearsal process of my own talk, that goes on all day in my mind, I probably couldn’t focus on taking in a lot of new ideas, so I throught it would be a good opportunity to “do other things” like interview a few people at the conference or do things that were a bit different from simply going to a series of presentations.
So how did I set about “doing something different”? Well, I started bright and early in the morning by going to the 8.15 pre-plenary session on writing for ELT Journal. These are “How to…” sessions that deal with various aspects of conferences and are often related to things like writing for Conference Selections, the Iatefl publication, or could be sessions to help those who are new to the conference. This talk was very interesting as we went through the mechanics of peer review and Graham Hall gave is all a series of useful tips for publishing articles in various journals. He was generally extremely encouraging, urging us not to “give up” even if we have our articles rejected as this happens to everyone. Even though this had meant starting the day with no breakfast, I was glad I’d made the effort to go.
Then I gravitated to the exhibition centre where I looked in at the TELC stand. They were giving anti stress Telc men away (see photo) which I thought that was quite timely for me with my pre-speaker nerves. I used it all day, in fact. I talked to a few people who were relatively new to Iatefl and there were two main themes from these “interviews”. One or two said that they had been struck by the international flavour of the conference, one, in fact, saying that she had expected native speakers and that it was incredible to be able to speak to professionals from all over the world, from Latin America to Nepal. Others said something that I found interesting which was that they would prefer generally not to do pairwork in talks, as they had come here to learn from the experts. I had been intending to a short pairwork slot in my own talk, but after this I decided to cut that, especially since my talk was at 5pm so people are generally quite tired by that stage. Anyway, it’s an interesting point which has come up before, so I was wondering what you think. Here is a short poll for people to vote on this:
Forum on Online Learning Platforms
I normally avoid events which last for more than one session as it means you miss all the parallel sessions from other speakers in two slots, but there was a very interesting forum on Moocs (Massive open online courses) which had come to my attention. This format included three speakers who spoke for 15 minutes each before taking questions which led to even more discussion. Peter Davidson gave us a short background of Moocs, Tam Connors-Sadek talked about managing a summer course from the administrational viewpoint using Google, and then Chris Cavey talked about the British Council Mooc “Exploring English:language and culture”. I have done quite a few Moocs, and I know that the quality varies considerably. One of the main questions is how to manage feedback and interactivity between intrusctors or moderators and the thousands of participants. Chris talked about how the participants supported each other showing examples of peer support in forums and the positive overall response that this had. This is something I have found too. On a good Mooc, if you ask a question in a forum the response comes from other participants and there are often varying degrees of expertise, so we all learn from each other, with the moderators interveining when they can. One of the questions from the audience was about feedback and peer reviews for writing skills on Moocs, and there again experiences vary, but it can be very rewarding for participants to beome reviewers, looking at each others’ writing from a different viewpoint and having their own work reviewed.
Designing Moocs is an ongoing learning process, though, and the downside is that it needs considerable motivation and drive to complete a Mooc so there is an enormous dropout rate. Gavin Dudeney raised the point that some are saying Moocs should become smaller and better moderator so could we not simply go back to calling them “online courses”? I don’t know that this is what matters particularly to me but what I think could be a good spin off effect is that universities may have to rethink their distance learning approaches and can learn a lot from some of the more successful Moocs.
An Open Space event at Iatefl is a sort of “conference within the conference”. I had intended to go to this last year, but it lasts for two hours, which means that you miss other things, such as a session on lexis that I wanted to attend. This year, however, I decided to take the plunge and go for it. This was also because I was wondering if we could use this format in the local TESOL Italy group we’ve set up for the Val d’Adige. It is a self organisation approach to conferencing, developed by Harrison Owen, and in our format the participants organised themselves into groups and each person selected an ELT related theme that was “on their mind” and that they were particularly interested in knowing more about. Of these two were voted as being of most interest to the small group and then a list was compiled. This process continued until everyone in the group could see a topic that was of great interest to them. The groups then reformed according to the topic they had chosen (as long as there were enough people to make it viable) and then discussed it together for 25 minutes coming up with a short summary at the end which was then presented and further crystalised into one question. The discussion was held not as experts exchanging their ideas but rather with a spirit of inquiry so that we could start to ask questions and push our boundaries of knowledge further. Adrian Underhill, who was moderating with Susan Bardhun and Ros Wright, emphasised this aspect and said it should be something that you feel you are “on the edge of”. I chose lexis and we discussed ways of introducing vocabulary to learners of all levels asking “Whatever happened to Michael Lewis?” since we had the impression that lexis is often a poor relation to grammar, even now in the C21 and this it is a fuzzy area that coursebook writers and educators have difficulty organising and that the clarification exercises available in coursebooks are often more akin to tests than teaching tasks. Our final question was how it can be systematically taught going beyond the single word to help learners “put it all together”.
This was an enlightening experience because it is, as Adrian Underhill stressed and “emergent form” where what happens is that the content comes from the participants and the discussion is transformational rather than transactional. Everyone takes part in a discussion that is of vital importance to them and the topics ranged from “Should we intervene in fluency? If so when?” to “Social Justice: what is the role of the teacher?”. By choosing the topic and then speaking to likeminded professionals about it, you can transform (or at any rate get the cogs turning) your own thought. It is an interesting approach that I will definitely come back to.
And finally, lexis again!
After my own talk there was still what the graveyard slot and I went to Jane Templeton’s talk on bringing coprora activities into the classroom. She described her own process of transformation from being initially very enthusiastic about data driven learning to an increasing awarness of its difficulty for learners. She then moved towards developing corpus investigation skills for learners where the corpus is used as a reference tool. This is much easier nowadays than it was in the past with tools like the popular wordsandphrases tool, part of the bigger American Corpus (COCA), created by Mark Davies. Learners can easily use this tool to search for collocations, as well as lexical grammar , register and connotations. Incidentally, Mark Davies has just introduced a new tool based on the general world of Wikipedia which I think is worth investigating for all those interested and I am very excited about the SkeLL tool, part of Sketch Engine, which has been developed with English language learners in mind and actually provides collocates in useful grammatical categories. I heard about this one last Friday in James Thomas’ talk and it is one of my Iatefl “discoveries”.
So, another packed day at Iatefl rounded off by a glass of red wine with a few friends.
I’ve been attending the Iatefl conference for quite a few years now and, as I said in an earlier post, it is one of the most uplifting moments in my professional year, even when you wake up to grey skies and rain. When you’ve been teaching for a while, you need this sort of event to recharge your batteries and to help you keep up your enthusiasm. The conference is enormous, though, so it is important to have some kind of game plan before you even start, otherwise the wealth of parallel sessions, not to mention the evening events will overwhelm you. So here are a few tips for a great conference. (I’m writing them for myself, by the way, but I thought I’d share them with you too.
Tips for a Getting the most out of the Conference
1) First of all, if you can’t come physically, don’t despair. Iatefl, together with the British Coucil, stream many of the sessions and others are videod so you can watch them at your leisure. Go to Iatefl Manchester 2015 Online
2) Also the fact that so many sessions are videod means that you don’t need to panic if you can’t see everything. You can catch up later. So check which sessions are being filmed and if it clashes with something else, or, which sometimes happens, the room is full, don’t worry. You can see it later.
3) Use the programme well. It is an enormous publication with a wealth of information. This year it’s smaller than usual but is still quite heavy so if you don’t want to carry it around with you, pull the coloured pages out from the back for each day and use them as your working programme.
4) Don’t try to do everything. I generally have several criteria I apply to the sessions I attend. (Yours may well be different but the point is you need to have some :-)
a) I look to see who is presenting to go to talks by people I’m interested in because I’ve read their books, know their blogs etc. and I try to see new people each year;
b) I restrict my sessions to fields I’m particularly interested in, such as lexis, e-learning and technology, learner autonomy. However, I don’t reject other things that may look interesting, and every conference seems to organically create a sort of intuitive “narrative thread” for me when I get there. I remember my thread in Harrogate 2010 was “Storytelling” and I seemed to see references to this all round me. In fact, I wrote a conference review that year, and it was based on Agatha Christie’s disappearance in Harrogate… It all went on from there.
c) Remember to take time out to relax, to have coffee and chat with people and to sleep, or just to walk around the city and have fun. I don’t know Manchester very well, but I’m enojying soaking up the atmosphere and looking at the architecture. Yesterday on my way back from the university I discovered Sackville Gardens, a lovely green space with a monument to Alan Turing, for instance.
There is also some lovely countryside around the city if you get the chance to go for a drive. Crossing the Pennines is still an exciting thing to do, there is something wild about the morrs that always humbles me. This time out is essential as it also gives your brain time to rest and process all the input you’re getting, and you often come back with ideas you hadn’t even realised you were developing.
d) Finally I think it is in the spirit of the conference to share what strikes you with others, with your colleagues who could not attend, with others via Social Networks and with learners, who often get left out, but who, let’s face it, are pretty central to the whole process.
So, I hope you have a great conference. I’m off to have a good breakfast now before heading to the Conference centre for Day One :-)
Today I entered the hallowed halls of Manchester University, or to be more exact, the Ellen Wilkinson Building to be met by an abundance of coffee and cakes, Oh yes, and the LTSig organisers who had everything well under control. As we went into the lecture theatre, which true to the essence of technology had a sign up saying that it was equipped for “lecture capture” a new collocation that I hadn’t come across before, but then, we don’t do much capturing of lectures in my neck of the woods.
What followed was a whirlwind of “Mobile technology in action”, with three plenary speakers all of whom presented fascinating projects ranging from a project to assist language learning aspects of immigrant integration in the UK and other European countries, presented by Agnes Kukulska-Hulme from the Open University, to the “Digital Corner” project in Argentina and finally James Thomas introducing Hypal, software which he, with others, has developed at his university to annotate written work, to categorise errors and provide feedback and reflection.
The coffee continued to flow throughout and biscuits were readily available too, with the result that when lunchtime came I could hardly eat a thing, which was a crime as there was a buffet which can only be described as lavish. In the afternoon we had parallel 30 minute sessions where different people presented different technologies. I did a presentation on Socrative, which went down very well, particularly when we did a unicorn race. Iatefl participants are, of course, romantics at heart, shunning the rockets in favour of the more gentle, fabled beast.
I had the chance to go to another presentation by James Thomas on SkeLL which is the new software made available by Sketchengine, which is the well known corpus software, but the difference with SkeLL is that it is specifically for language learners, and can do single word or phrase searches. Its results are limited to 40 hits, but they are not simply the first 40 hits the programme finds but are sorted to provide different meanings and patternings. A fascinating tool which is well worth exploring. The final talk I went to was Vicky Saumell’s talk on Tellagami, a mobile technology tool I also use to send messages to learners on Facebook, from time to time, but she explored ways in which learners can use it and how inventive her learners are at “cracking the app” and making several short games, which can then be linked together into one longer video, as the free version limits you to 30 second recordings.
The day was rounded off by Diane Slaouti who works at Manchester University with Gary Motteram, thanks to whom we were able to be at the university, using the facilities. Diane provided us with a thought provoking end to the day asking if the questions we were asking were old ones or new ones, and whether the old ones need to be reassessed in the light of new technologies. For instance, one idea that emerged from Agnes Kukulska-Hulme’s presentation was the idea of “preparing learners for incidental learning” so the question that we need to ask is, perhaps how can we do this? How can we analyse learner needs so that we can prepare them well, with the language they need?
Another idea that struck me was the “mismatch between learner expectations and what teachers may want to do” which Diane mentioned with reference to Kumaravadivelu’s 2003 article Beyond Methods, which called for “principled pragmatism” in choosing what and how we teach. Not all, but some of our university learners, I feel, are not motivated to “learn” which is rather ironic since we call them “learners”. Some are, but many are motivated to get the piece of paper that says that they have completed a degree in the hope that it will help them find a job.
This is something, I think that we have to bear in mind, and the idea I took away with me, among others, was the importance of motivation, and how learning and therefore teaching starts with this. It is only be knowing our learners, talking to them and exploring their worlds that we can understand what is relevant for them and what we can do to help them want to learn. In our world incidental learning and informal learning are becoming increasingly common, so if we are the experts then the question is definitely how can we help learners use what is available to the best of their abilities in ways that will be fruitful for them. All in all, a lot of food for thought today, as well as the amazing food to eat. Well done LTSig :-)
So, now, in a Shakespearian frame of mind I’ll just say: put out the light… because tomorrow is another fine day here at the Iatefl conference and the adventure continues.
Just a quick post to welcome all those who are coming to the PCE day today. I’m attending the LTSig so more about that later :-) The sun is shining and the coffee is flowing so, all in all, we’re set for an exhilerating day.
Feeling tired but enthusiastic after travelling all day yesterday. I don’t really know Manchester very well, even though I come from Yorkshire and nearly always fly into Manchester Airport when I’m in the UK. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but the initial impact is amazing. The weather was wonderful yesterday which helped matters, and getting here a day before the PCE was a really good ideas as I could wander round the city centre, watch the world go by in Picadilly Gardens and then walk along the canal area before going back to the Premier Inn near the station. I made a little film for you just to remind you that whilst there’s so much going on at a fantastic conference like Iatefl, it’s important to take time out too, to stop, take a deep breath, look around and appreciate the host city you are in.
In short, as they say,I’m really happy to be here in Manchester :-)
Italy is a world of contradictions, sparkling aquamarine seas and dazzling snowy summits, barren areas of parched wasteland and green forests. Areas of natural beauty haphazzardly crossed by shaky looking electrical cables. It is the land that has produced Dante Aleghieri, Macchiavelli, Silvio Berlusconi, a whole series of creative industries such as the fashion world and of course the Mafia. This is a culture that is often portrayed in the media as an old civilisation with ancient, traditional values, where complex families live proudly in crumbling, but at the same time exquisite, palazzi. In the Twilight saga, to name just one popular contemporary film, the Italian family, the Valturi, is ancient and noble but it definitely stands for the old values and resists innovation or change. Venice is another popular image where beauty and decadence go hand in hand with a city whose inhabitants cannot afford to live there, and which is gradually sinking into the lagoon.
The Italian Education System
Language education in this world, then, is also fraught with contradictions: where the central figure in many school classrooms is still the teacher, whose role is in essence to provide knowledge and learning for the learners and to test them. This teacher has probably been told to teach communicative English but is also expected to develop an awareness of and appreciation of literature. There is widespread belief among teachers of the supremacy of a grammar centred approach when teaching a language no matter what communicative tenets they may pay lip service to. The language used to teach in in monolingual classrooms tends to be Italian, and group or pair work is relatively unknown, possibly because of a what is perceived as being the limitation of work in groups in large classes, or also the unwillingness of the teacher to abandon centre stage. In universities the trend continues with teacher fronted lecture theatres and some written exams butmuch more oral exams, which is the standard method of testing. Much of what students learn can be considered rote learning and oral examinations do not really give students much time to demonstrate much critical thinking even if it has been developed in class, or by learners’ independent reading. It is also contradictory in that learners are often left to their own devices to deal with huge amounts of material that they will then be tested on, but at the same time little time is spent in preparing those learners to work autonomously, so that they cannot really be considered to be independent learners either.
In Italy education is almost classical in tradition basing much of its content on vast ministerial programmes that are not imposed as such, since we have what is known as “La Libertà dell’insegnamento” (Freedom to teach) meaning teachers can choose how they want to teach. Constraints appear, however, puctually in the form of exams and one of the most important exams here is the school leaving exam known as the “Maturità”, the idea being that students who pass these exams are then “mature” although you might not think so when you see some university students in my classes :-)
In these exams, which have been taking place this week, external examiners may use ministerial programmes as a general syllabus to consult when deciding which questions to ask. This, of course, drives generations of teachers into a state of panic as they wonder if they have “covered” enough in class, and it drives generations of students into the reassuring arms of social media with sites springing up right left and centre to “help” them find their way. Students are mostly expected to memorize vast amounts of information rather than developing critical thinking in a way that is reminiscent of Medieval Church led education where texts were memorized to glorify God, but nobody was expected to interpret or question those texts.
“For the Middle Ages knowledge was an authoritative body of revealed truth. It was not for the scholar to observe nature and to test, question, and discover truth for himself but to interpret and expound accepted doctrines. Thus the medieval scholar might debate about how many angels could stand on the head of a pin, but he did not question the existence of angels.” Robert Guiseppi The history of Education, http://history-world.org/history_of_education.htm
The education system in Italy is, like many other sectors, beset by troubles, lack of funding, government reforms and constant burocratic requirements and the traditions, I mentioned at the beginning, which may or may not be fruitful or productive. Memory work, for instance, is essential if you want to learn a language, but it should be done in a meaningful way and not simply rote learning. Tests are also useful, in fact, we are constantly testing ourselves to see if we can remember where we put the car keys etc. This is a part of life, but if these elements become automated or are done out of a sense of paying lip service to guidelines that teachers do not really believe in, then the routines and rituals in schools and universities make it difficult for meaningful teaching and learning to take place, and the institution paradoxically gets in the way of the learning process. Difficult, but not impossible and here and there you can stumble across inspirational teaching. I was under the impression that my university language centre classroom was one of those places, but recently I have been questioning quite a few of my assumptions and beliefs.
Questioning my Assumptions
In Italian state schools,universities and private language schools most of the teaching is done by means of course books, and unless learners are preparing for specific exams like Toefl, for instance, the model tends to be British English, so much so that native speaker teachers whose L1 is a different variety of English, American, Australian etc. have been known to accommodate to the language rules they find in these coursebooks.
I spend a lot of time with advanced learners supplying them with strategies to help them become independent such as dictionary skills, ways of working on the internet, learning strategies and the like, but I always assume, somewhere, deep inside, that these advanced learners, whether they are university language students or adults who have reached a high level and want to maintain it, aim to master Standard English, but today I am increasingly asking myself whether that is true in our world, and what exactly Standard English is.
What do learners need?
The fact that there are different world Englishes is nothing new, and it makes sense, if you are studying in the USA, for instance to study the American model. If you are, in fact, living in a context where English is the L1 then your motivation is probably integrational in that you are aiming to be accepted by the community and, therefore, you are probably aiming to approach native speaker competence as far as is possible. In our world, however, where communication is increasingly transnational and more and more online communities are appearing which are also virtual, not limited by geographical boundaries in any way those using English to communicate for politics, business, academic and cultural purposes such as to study or attend international conferences or simply to listen to music, watch films or even read newspapers, will be using English in a different way. The motivation here is often instrumental, in that these individuals are using the language as a means to an end. Motivation is a complex thing, tied into our very vision of who we are, and our motivation may change as time goes by as well, but if what you want is to be able to use the language to communicate with others whose L1 is different to yours, then the language itself is a code used to weave meaning into the rich tapestry of plurilingual communication by means of English.
This takes us right back to the notion of what language is, and to take a very simplistic view, imagine what happens when you repeat a word or utterance ad infinitum. It generally loses all meaning very quickly and becomes simply a string of sounds. The same thing happens if you look at a word or sentence for too long. I remember how years ago, when I lived in Berlin, and was desperate to integrate myself into a German speaking world, for instance, I stopped seeing words in English. I walked past a bar, whose name was “Pipeline” every day on my way to the underground station, but it was only after about six months, that I realised that it was an English word and it then had meaning. Up until then I had been looking at the individual letters and pronouncing them in my mind in a syllabic way, as if they were German ( something akin to “Pipalina”, sorry I haven’t got any phonetic symbols here) and of course, that didn’t mean anything. This, to my mind, shows how the letters and sounds themselves are only signs, and it is the convention of the language speaking community that endows them with meaning. Something similar happens to me these days here in Italy because I have Sky T.V. which I usually set to the “original language”, mainly out of habit. At times though, if there is a storm or the lights fail, the system sets itself back to Italian, and I often find that I have watched a whole episode of a TV series before I realise that the language has changed back to Italian. What this means, I think, is that what interests me is the meaning, again: what lies behind the words rather than the words themselves. They are simply a code which transmits meaning, and meaning comes from the users of the language. I can almost here the cries of “Oh, but what about literature, poetry, the musicality, the intricate linguisitc patterns woven by a skillful wordsmith?” Well, I can only repeat that I’m not considering language here as an art form but simply as a means to communicate. When it comes to literary works and in particular poetry I agree, that I want to read these in the original language, and translation does alter meaning, and cultural references, but that is another discussion. Here, I am simply thinking of language as a code for communication, which is what many of our learners want to be able to use it for.
Models of Language: a personal experiment
The problem of models of language and which one to teach and assess, then, is a vicious circle, as. A third element which leads me to think that the words themselves are not as important as the people who use them is the general tolerance which most individuals show when communicating with each other. Here we could go back to Grice’s cooperative principles.
People who are communicating with each other generally want to understand and be understood, and collocations or lexical choices, for instance that may not be completely orthodox from the point of view of the Standard British English model are perfectly comprehensible when viewed in context. To test this theory, I did a small experiment the other day on Facebook, where 50% of my friends are native speaker English users. I posted this message after I’d been working hard to put together a new cupboard I had bought from Ikea ( an achievement in itself which is why I’ve put a photo here of the finished product :-)
“Guess how long it took me to mount my lovely new Ikea cupboard?”
I chose the word “mount” because I wanted to see what would happen. For Italian speakers it is very close to the ItaIian “montare” which would be an appropriate collocation here, but it is not quite right in Standard British English. We might collocate “mount” with a picture, meaning to put it on a card, or, and this is the perfidious bit, we can “mount” kitchen cupboards on the wall. So, we might conclude that in English “mount” something, has connotations of “putting something onto something else, which is then suspended, in some way.”
Most of my Facebook friends ignored this lexical choice completely and just guessed how long it had taken me to put the thing together, or they made admiring noises about the fact that I was doing this on my own at all! Finally someone noticed the word “mount” and commented that I’d obviously been in Italy too long! The point here, is that the choice of “mount” even though it was not “Standard English” in no way impeded my message, or was even considered worthy of note by most of the people reading the post. Even that last word “post” is an illustration of the way that what is important is the meaning individuals attribute to language. Not so long ago the way I am using it here would have been unintelligible, as the “post” was something that arrived through the postbox in the front door at breakfast time. Language is, in short, what its users make of it, and it is the users who create the meanings, not the words themselves.
How important is Collocation, for instance?
As I said, I spend a lot of time helping my advanced learners to work on lexical choice in the hope that I am helping them to express themselves more precisely and clearly, and enabling them to develop a greater awareness of complexity that will help them to write, communicate and ultimately be accepted in the big, wide world outside the classroom door, but the question I am asking myself after the “mount” experiment, is how important such things as collocations really are.
There are, of course collocational choices that make a difference. There is a difference, for example between “making breakfast” or “having breakfast” which could lead to misunderstandings, although even here, the context would probably make it clear which meaning was intended. When C1 learners use collocations such as to “give importance” to something, in their writing or presentations, I tend to correct them as they do not conform to the standard, and then show learners where they can find information about which collocations are the commonly accepted ones ( in dictionaries, corpora etc.). This however brings me back to the other question I asked at the beginning: which model do my learners need?
The coursebooks we generally use in Italy are produced in the UK, on the whole, as are the dictionaries and reference materials. Dictionaries include information about differing usage according to different varieties, but the model we are teaching is undoubtably British English. Having said that, though, all it takes is the click of a mouse to find models that are not strictly “British English” and are we really sure what that means these days. Here, for instance, is a lesson I did recently based on the Goyte song “Somebody that I used to Know”, if you want to see this lesson in action, follow this link to my digital classroom. We’d be very happy to see you. Given that Goyte is of Belgian extraction although naturalized Australian, the text of his song looks remarkably similar to British English to me!
Much depends, of course, on what your learners need to do with the language. Those, for instance, who want to publish articles in academic journals definitely need to know about complexity of language and collocation norms, so maybe all my hard work hasn’t been completely in vain. The bottom line, as usual, comes back to respecting learner needs and continually questioning your own practices and assumptions. This is the way, I think, to make progress.
So, what should we be teaching and testing?
I’ve concluded, after quite a lot of thought, that for my Italian students the British English model is “closest” to them and as such is a good place to start. Like anything else though the initial model is just that: a model, and it is then up to them to make it into their own “English” by choosing the expressions and structures they need and like, and by experimenting with creative ways of using vocabulary. One example of this is the word “overseas” which in British English is perfect for descriptions of students, for example who come from abroad as Britain is an island, so they literally come “over the sea” to get there, but in Italy this is not so obvious, but one non native speaker who has a wonderful grasp of his own brand of Italian English is the journalist Beppe Servignini (not to be confused with Beppe Grillo) who refers to this concept from the roots of his Italianicity as “north of the Alps”. This makes perfect sense when you are in Milan or Verona, and is the perfect way, I think, to make the language your own. What we should be teaching then is whatever our learners need, starting from the standard model and taking it from there. What we should be testing is another story which deserves another blog post but suffice it to say that I don’t believe it should be the Native Speaker standards of competence which are dizzying heights that are almost impossibile for learners to reach.