Category: language

Welcome to Italy

 IMG_1300Welcome to Italy: a world of contradictions

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.

file0001662874096The 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 but much 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.

The Living DeadBecoming Mature

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.

Confusion
Am I just feeling stressed?

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.

Photo credit: Buffleetab on Photobucket @ http://media.photobucket.com/user/buffleetab/media/words.jpg.html?filters[term]=words&filters[primary]=images&filters[secondary]=videos&sort=1&o=0
Photo credit: Buffleetab on Photobucket @ http://media.photobucket.com/user/buffleetab/media/words.jpg.html?filters%5Bterm%5D=words&filters%5Bprimary%5D=images&filters%5Bsecondary%5D=videos&sort=1&o=0
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, nut 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.

IMG_0546Models 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 cunning 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?

20120413-210933.jpgWhich model?

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.

English Learning in Italy: models for C21 learners.

 IMG_1300Welcome to Italy: a world of contradictions

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.

file0001662874096The 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 but much 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.

The Living DeadBecoming Mature

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.

Confusion
Am I just feeling stressed?

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.

Photo credit: Buffleetab on Photobucket @ http://media.photobucket.com/user/buffleetab/media/words.jpg.html?filters[term]=words&filters[primary]=images&filters[secondary]=videos&sort=1&o=0
Photo credit: Buffleetab on Photobucket @ http://media.photobucket.com/user/buffleetab/media/words.jpg.html?filters%5Bterm%5D=words&filters%5Bprimary%5D=images&filters%5Bsecondary%5D=videos&sort=1&o=0
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.

IMG_0546Models 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 ItaIianmontare” 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?

20120413-210933.jpgWhich model?

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.

Monday Morning Blog Challenge: which model?

file0001662874096June Blog Challenge

Since it’s the first Monday in June I thought I’d kick off the week with a Blog Challenge about models of English, which is something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot. Obviously, we all use English in different ways, depending on our needs, but is the model we are providing, and, above all, assessing the right one for our learners?

Which Model is right for Italian students?

I teach, as you know, in Italy, and our model tends to be Standard British English. The coursebooks used in state and private schools, and to some extent universities, are mass market globally produced books that come from the UK, on the whole. Even though there are some locally produed books, particularly for the eaching of literature, most of the books are not local, so how relevant are they to our context? Our learners, unless they are language students with a deep rooted interest in language, are motivated to study because they will use English, not to become part of a community where English is the L1 but to communicate in multilingual contexts. This begs the question of what we should teach them. If individuals with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds wish to communicate, of course they will need a model which enables them to understand each other, so, for instance, a local model which includes code switching between English and Italian or “Italian forms in English” will only work among Italian speakers, which rather defeats the purpose!

My take on this has always been to teach the standard British model, as we are in Europe, so it is arguably the closest one to us, and then to encourage creative use, such as adding local sayings, idioms and metaphors (in English) which enrich the language. So far so good. Students learn the basic model to the best of their abilities and then go off into the sunset using it as well as they can. The next problem is assessment.

What is lexical grammar?
What is lexical grammar?

Assessment

When it comes to assessment I think we need to be using a different model. In recent years, with the implementation of the CEFR the move has been to recognise what individuals “can do” when they are communicating, with an emphasis on skills rather than the lexico-grammatical system, although of course the two are closely interconnected. This, however, is where beliefs and traditions die hard, and some find it very difficult to be able to change their perspective towards seeing these learners as people who are using the language to commnicate, and recognising what they can do, rather than simply focusing on the errors.

I have a lot of sympathy for examiners. It’s a complex job which involves judgments that combine the application of criteria (if that is the type of examining being done) with beliefs and traditional habits. For teachers, in classrooms, and this, in my experience is true both of NESTs and NNESTs, what we notice first tends to be error. It hits you between the eyes, if you like, and is seen as something “broken” and many see the job of the teacher as “helping learners to avoid error”. Is it realistic, however, to expect learners to achieve high, almost native speaker like, levels of competence and do they need to do this? I believe that assessment means looking at successful expression and teaching means facilitating learners so that they can develop their own voice and expression tools, to the level that is required by the use they will ultimately make of the language.

So, what about the challenge? Here it is: a few questions for you to consider about your context.

  1. What context do you teach in?
  2. What is the dominant model of English taught?
  3. What is the dominant model of English assessed?
  4. Does this meet your learners’ needs?

I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts :-)

 

Do learners want to speak English… or not?

20131002-221141.jpgDo learners want to speak English… or not?

Most learners, if asked why they are studying a language, will answer that they want to learn to “speak that language”.  In fact, in English we collocate the ability to use a language speaking when we say “I speak German” for instance. This is not true of various other languages which,whilst often having the “speak a language collocation” also have other ways of expressing language mastery such as “Knowing the language” or other “being able” etc.

This is just an anecdote, so before you all rise up to contradict me, I’m not suggesting that the English don’t take the written language seriously, I’m just wondering how important the spoken language is for most learners. I personally, when I study a language, want to learn to do everything, and if possible straight away, because I want to be able to put things into practice immediately, which is why I love modal verbs. All you have to do is to learn the modal verb you want and then apply it to a whole range of infinitives, and Bob’s your uncle! You can use the language to express quite complex ideas before you have even learned the general verb inflections.

 

What do learners want and what motivates us?

If I really examine my motivation, I think this is because I am fascinated by languages and their patterns and the power they give you to be able to express ideas. This goes some way beyond the socioeconomic motivations that are being bandied about at the moment by those who look at language use, and what is “required for the work of work” as David Graddol did in his recent plenary at the Harrogate Iatefl Conference, whilst asking the question of how successful the global study of English has been, among other things. Graddol was simply presenting the results of his research so I am not criticising this, but I think that language learning, like any other type of learning is driven by a whole range of factors and motivation is an intensely personal phenomenon. Learning and learning motivation, I think, and I am firmly convinced of this, is tied up, as Dornyei says in his work on L2 Identities with our view of who we are. This is why, when I recently decided to reactivate my ailing Spanish, I began reading again but I also decided to go to the tertulias, or parties,organised by the Italo-Spanish cultural association in Verona, where you can listen to Spanish and use it to speak to other people about interesting topics, over a glass of Cava, without having to go to a traditional course.

What happens in the classroom?

Ok, so am I, as a teacher, shooting myself in the foot here, by saying I don’t want to go to a course. I don’t think so, because when I don’t want to go to a course, the reason is that I have already studied the lexico-grammatical systems when I studied Spanish at university. I then developed this knowledge by doing skills work both in Scotland and in Spain and I remember my tutor at St. Andrews University Prof. Bernard Bentley, who introduced the idea of tertulias which were similar to the ones here in Verona, except that we tended to eat, drink wine and play boardgames, but the one cardinal rule was that we used Spanish all evening. The tertulias were informal but they were definitely events that provided us, as students, with  learning opportunities. So teaching, I think, needs to provide both the cognitive study of the system, because, after all, if you do not know how to form a comparative adjective, you’ll be hard pressed to make comparisons, and the same goes for lexical and phonological aspects. Despite all the criticism of the poor, long suffering communicative language teaching approach, I still think that to teach learners to communicate with these rules in truly meaningful, and I mean meaningful, not just “meaningful on the surface”, frameworks, is the most logical way for us to work in our world. Classes are made up of individuals, who all have different needs, beliefs and desires (and this includes the teacher) and what happens in class is often a sort of “bargain” between teacher and learners, which is negotiated over a period of time and is not at all linear. But, what do learners really want? Are they like me or not?

What do learners want?

Obviously, the answer to the question above is “not” but on the whole most of my learners do want to be able to express themselves in English and to speak the language to communicate with others. This brings me to my second question: why don’t they speak English in class? This is a big one and I have been thinking about this for some time. Many, when faced with this problem, would blame the methodology: small groups don’t work in monolingual classrooms, discipline problems etc. etc. but I think it goes deeper than this and so let’s go back to the tertulias for a moment. As I said above, I haven’t used Spanish with any regularity for about 30 years, but even so it’s still there somewhere, and I can drag it out of the recesses of my brain, when I have to, which I noticed in Malaga in December, which is what made me want to reactivate it in the first place. So, on the way to the tertulia, I sit on the beus and think to myself in Spanish. I already know what the topic will be so I think about that in Spanish for a few days before I go (off and on of course in a very relaxed informal way) and I may even write a Spanish comment on the Facebook page. This is a mental and psychological effort and as I get closer to the venue all those feelings of inadequacy flood my mind. Will everyone else be better than me? Will I be able to say anything at all? I am motivated to speak the language though, so I grit my teeth and march onwards towards the bar.

Taking the plunge at the risk of losing face.

When I get to the bar I meet the next hurdle. This is a largely monolingual group. There are NS Spaniards and South Americans and it is fairly natural to speak with them in Spanish but there are also a lot of Italians and it takes a supreme effort to speak in Spanish to them, as everyone looks at each other in the eye, knows deep down inside that they can communicate much more safely in Italian, without risking either your intended message or your face, and so, to take the plunge and use the L2 has to be a conscious, risky decision. I, of course, am a language teacher, I know that I can take responsibility for my own learning,  and I am not so interested in “face” in this informal group setting, nor do I feel threatened in any way, so I don’t care if I make mistakes. I just want to increase my “communciative competence” in Spanish (See how much Hymes has influenced us all.) so I take a deep breath and start using Spanish. Other people join in and we all relax until the final hurdle of all…In comes a newcomer who discovers that I’m English, and guess what? Yes, he wants to practise his English… I leave the rest to your imagination.

A question of motivation but also of habit

As this salutory little story tells us, it is not so easy to “speak English” in a monolingual group but it is possible if the learners are a) motivated and able to take responsibility for their own learning and b) establish the habit of doing so. To illustrate what I mean I want to take two different monolingual classes that I teach and to compare them. They are both groups of monolingual Italian speakers, but the cultural settings and age groups are very different. One is an adult conversation group, where the participants come because they want to, and do not see it as ‘institutionalized learning’. They have been coming for years, are friends and speak Italian outside the classroom, but as soon as they come in they use English all the time because a) they are at a B2+ level and can do this and b) they have established this use of “English” in the classroom over years of lessons. (That doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t use Italian if we need to.). The other group is a group of young university undergraduates who are studying language and who say that they would like to improve their spoken language and do not have much chance to speak English outside class, but who are very loath to do so in class. I have spent years, like many of my colleagues bustling round classrooms exhorting learners to “Speak in English” with only varying degrees of success, so I decided that it was time to give them the opportunity to face up to what was going on.

Speaking in class

So I gave them this Powerpoint Presentation with a number of questions to reflect on (inspired by my own experiences at the tertulia combined with my observations of what happens in class).  The stuents reflected on these questions and we discussed them at some length (You can see the answers in the full presentation below.) What they finally concluded was that they did need to make the conscious decision to use English, and that by doing so they would actually establish the habit of using it. My bargain with them was to make it clear in class when they should be using English in communicative group work and when the aim of the group work was different such as error analysis etc. so that the use of Italian was fine. So, of course things haven’t changed overnight, and now I go round the class saying “Make the decision now, that you’re going to use English’ but here’s the thing. It is working and the learners do want to do it, so, in my book, that makes it well worth carrying on with.

This is the full Presentation

Who’s afraid of…_

 

The Demand keeps growing higher, and higher…

Confusion
Am I just feeling stressed?

Quality teaching means helping the learners to learn without feeling stressed.

The theme of High Demand has stayed at the back of my mind all day today, beginning with Katherine Graves’ plenary this morning, when she spoke very eloquently about the way that what is often perceived as an inefficient use of classroom time in ‘bureaucrat speak’, where the key is efficient, cost effective outcomes, actually means quality teaching; to my mind this is an application of Adrian Underhill and Jim Scrivener’s “demand high teaching” meme that I was talking about on Tuesday. What it means is that classroom feedback does not stop at merely eliciting an answer and moving on, regardless of whether the learner has really understood all that it might imply. Katherine Graves’ example came from a mathematics class where learners needed to know the technical term “perimeter” but said something like “goes all the way round” and the teacher accepted this, as the concept had been communicated, but did nothing to help the learner come to terms with the word “perimeter”, which they would need to know for their school work. In the same way in a language class, it is not enough to go round the class merely eliciting answers and replying “Good” even when the answer is not particularly good, which does not help the learner. What helps the learner is to respect the fact that he or she is having trouble with something, finding out what that is and helping them to work through the process of understanding and producing the language, or understanding the problem, without feeling threatened or belittled along the way.

Words or Phrases?

My other main focus today was lexis, and Michael McCarthy’s presentation was as memorable as ever, as he discussed some of the data from the Cambridge Learner Corpus that shows learners have trouble with delexicalised verb + noun phrase collocations. He gave a series of examples which occurred across the board ranging from B1 to C2. What was interesting was that the same problems occurred, just that the word choice tended to become more complex as the level increased. With the example of “make” and “do” being mixed up, for instance, at B1 learners might say “make sports” at B2 “make work” at C1 the instances of confusion were fewer but they were still there with example like “make business” and at C2 “make wonders”. Some items occurred from B2 to C2 like “make research”. His point was that, as he said, when quoting Sinclair, that collocation is not fringe and although he did not really go into the teaching side of all this the implications are once again that it makes no sense to teach single words. Learners need to be focusing on collocations, phrases, and chinks as single units, right from the start.

What is lexical grammar?
What is lexical grammar?

The Lexical Approach or the Lexical Dimension

At the moment, grammar is still probably king with lexis coming second and being fitted into the lesson around the grammar. Michael Hoey will probably tell us tomorrow, in fact, that this is the opposite of the way we use language where it is the grammar that seems to be generated as a result of lexical choice. Michael Lewis also wrote about chunks, collocations and precisely the problems that were mentioned today but the problem of his “Lexical Approach”, which generations of teachers have tried to apply, is that it is not systematic enough for educators to build a curriculum around. Materials and teaching approaches need to be developed along systemic lines and based on sound principles, and whilst the principles here are sound, in my opinion, the system is lacking. This is why Ivor Timmis article in 2008 in the Modern English teacher was such a breath of fresh air to so many of us, because he put down in words what we were all feeling but couldn’t find the words to express. He said that what we need is not to radically change the syllabus we are teaching but to add a lexical dimension to it. This again brings me back to the demand high teaching theme, because what it means is that is not enough for learners to look at single words, which is still so often the case in the materials that are commonly available, but to look, as McCarthy said at “the company they keep“, to look at the collocations and the chunks and to work with them.

Collocation, of course, varies from one language to another, but, to come back to Katherine Grave’s point of respecting the learner and their language, this could actually be used as a resource rather than a problem, working on contrastive analysis in class, and playing with this phenomenon.

It’s quite late and I fear I may be rambling now, so I’m going to have a cup of tea and leave you until tomorrow, when the day starts with Michael Hoey’s plenary. I want a good night’s sleep so that I’ll be bright eyed and bushy tailed for that. (there are a couple of lovely collocations to sleep on :-) )

Lessons from My Office Hours

What is the point of Failure and what can it teach us?

From Microsoft Clipart

 

I know this title sounds pretty bleak but it is partly the result of an episode that happened this week during my office hours, and that I thought I’d like to share with you. Before I do so, though I need to outline our C1 exam so that you will understand how both the student and I felt:

The University of Verona Language Centre C1 Test

Our C1 exam consists of three parts, and students need to pass all three to be given the credits they need. The first part is a computer based test which focuses on Use of Language in Context, Reading and Listening. This is followed by a Written test, which at this level involves producing a text of approx. 200 – 250 words in either a narrative, descriptive or discursive style on various subjects. The final test is an oral test of about 10-15 minutes which is usually in a paired format and students have to show that they can communicate in effective English about familiar and more abstract topics. In order to pass all this they need to get a minimum of 60% over the three parts of the test, and they are allowed to score from 55% to 60% on one of the parts if this is then compensated for on one of the other parts.

What this means, then, is that a student can pass the whole test if he or she scores only 55% on the computer test but this is then compensated for if he or she goes on to score 65% on the written and then 60% on the oral test, giving a total of 60% overall.

Failing your exams … or, even worse, Almost Passing

So, to come back to the episode last week, this is what happened: a student came to my university office hours last week, clutching an enormous exercise book and communicating in an English that was perfectly comprehensible. She told me that she had tried to do our C1 written paper various times and was having trouble. She had passed the computer test but couldn’t pass the composition paper. This girl had been in my course and had religiously printed out all the work she and others had done on writing during the course. (This is available for all students on my wiki, with the questions, the students’ answers and my comments and correction code. See this example page.) She had also gone on to develop this by focusing on specific areas such as phrasal verbs etc. all lovingly colour coded in her exercise book. She had come with a few intelligent questions such as what did I mean by “effective language”. (I explained that I meant language that “did its job” of communicating the message you wanted it to, clearly and well.) All this told me that she was a student who had studied hard and thought about what she was reading. This is what we want in our students, isn’t it?

Well, then she showed me a practice essay she had written in a narrative style, using an old exam question as a model. She was convinced that this was “perfect” and yet as soon as I read the first sentence I knew that we were up against quite a few problems and I could feel a sinking feeling come over me.

What was the Problem?

The first sentence was already problematic:

“I can’t descend.” Emma said.

I asked her whether the story was informal or formal and she said that that was another thing she had not really understood. What did informal language or formal language mean. I explained and gave her examples in Italian, so that she realised that the use of “descend” here wasn’t natural. You wouldn’t say that to a friend. She said that she had been avoiding simple words like “get down” because she thought they were too easy, aren’t they more of a B1 level??? was the question. It took quite some explaining to show here that words as such can have many different levels and what is important is to know how to use them.

Coffee and mug
Coffe pot and mug the perfect collocation

Collocation, colligation and Word Choice

We all know how important collocations are in natural language use, and we spend quite a lot of time talking about this in class. Despite this, however, my student had quite a few unnatural collocations such as “It was snowing abundant” (as well as the fact that she was using aan adjective instead of an adverb). She knew what collcations were but didn’t know how to find them, check them or notice them. She said, the problem was that she did not know when something was not possible. The same was true of colligation or “grammatical collocation” as you might think of this. She had looked up the word “discesa” which in Italian means a slope but can also be used as an adjective or adverb meaning downhill. She had found the word “downhill” and was using it to mean “slope” so she produced a sentence like this: “They skied along the downhill with ease.” We have a problem here of incorrect word choice followed by inappropriate colligation as a result of this.

You can see where all this is going and I’m not going to go through the whole composition but, as I explained to her, this language was not “effective” because it did not communicate what she wanted to, because of the words she was choosing, how she was using them and also because of the register. These are all things that, at a C1 level, you need to be able to do.

Two Major Problems

By this time the poor student was nearly in tears and I was feeling very depressed too, because there were two major problems here:

1) she did not have a good monolingual dictionary, despite the fact that I had recommended several. As soon as we started looking at her “problem language” in the Longman Contemporary Dictionary of English (the online version, in fact) all these problems were clear and she began to see what I was talking about. She needed to learn how to use a dictionary well, and yet, this is something we do all the time in class, so for me, as a teacher, this means there is no guarantee that students sitting in my lessons will actually benefit from what I’m teaching them to do;

2) She chose words, which were often false friends etc. and she was convinced that they were correct. One example of this was the word “structure” which can be used in italian to mean the company or firm etc. In her case it referred to a ski resort, and she wrote “The director of the structure” which does not really work in English. When I showed her that this was unnatural and we looked at structure in the dictionary she said: “But I had no idea! How do I know when something has the right meaning or not?”

This is the crux of the matter and it is very difficult to answer. My answer is that enough exposure to a language teaches you what is appropriate and what isn’t, but I’m not sure that this is always true. This student told me that she read widely in English but she read for the ideas and didn’t really notice the language, so I suggested reading first and then taking a page or so every now and then and analysing the language. Part of me, however, wonders whether there are simply some people who are interested in the way language words and others who are not. I was watching an Austrian detective series, for example, the same day and something in my mind noticed that they used the verb “recherchieren” and without even realising it, I was thinking, “Would that be used in Germany or South Tyrol?” It comes naturally to me to question these things, but does it come naturally to everyone? If it doesn’t come naturally to you, then you simply have to train yourself to do it, but I think that many of my students who have been through a traditional style of school system do not believe in the value of these things. They think they need to do a lot of grammar exercises and practice tests and then they’ll be alright, which is rather sad in university language students.

An hour later my student was thoroughly depressed at the thought that this composition would not have passsed the test either and when I asked her what she had learned she said that she had learned not to discount simple words, and to get a better dictionary.

I felt extremely drained after this and felt the need to write about it because I feel as though I have failed her in some way. This was someone who was willing to study, who told me that she uses English every day in emails at work, but I had not been able to help her prepare for her exam. One of the most difficult things for a teacher to do is to chip away at student beliefs such as the sacrosanct nature of the grammar exercise, and all you can do is keep on going in the hope that some will understand the message.

So, what can failure and suffering teach us?

We all know the value of passing a test, but failure can teach us something too. In this case the student has failed her exam but she has learned some important lessons about how she approaches another language. In my case I failed to communicate my message to her in class, but I helped here in my office hours, and the whole episode has led me on to think about the process, so that I can use it in an exemplary way to others.

Failure inevitably leads to suffering but suffering in itself has lessons to teach us as well. ON a personal level, if I never suffer then I don’t appreciate so many of those little pieces that go together to form the amazing mosaic that is every simple moment of the day. If I never have to live without “hot water” for instance, I don’t appreciate how wonderful it is to have hot water readily available when I have a shower.

On another level suffering helps us to understand what other people are going through, and if we have never suffered ourselves then we cannot develop any real empathy. I know what it means to fail a test, so I can understand what my student is going through. Empathy is essential in a teacher, and not only, because it is by understanding what somene is going through that we can start to help them to come out of it.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say, but everything begins somewhere. I don’t know if my student has really understood what she needs to do for her exam, or whether I have been able to help her, but both her and my failure have taught us something as has the suffering.

Sorry to go on at length about this but I felt the need to write it down and share it to work it through in my own mind. I’d be really interested to hear other people’s take on it too.

 

Grammar? Who needs it?

20120413-210933.jpg

Not many peole in my classes really like grammar. They may think they need it, and they get a lot of satisfaction in ploughing through exercises, because we all know that when you get the answers right you feel good, and you can go home happy, can’t you?

A few years ago I taught a translation class, because my students had to do a translation exam. A the end of the course they could all do simple translations quite well and I was quite happy with them until one day someone told me that tourists had stopped them in the street asking for help and they didn’t know how to give simple directions!!

The anti grammar backlash

This, of course, is the type of realisation that caused the backlash towards the grammar translation approach in the first place, resulting in functional teaching and the Strategies Coursebooks. They may seem a bit dated nowadays, but I can safely say that “Building Strategies”, when it was first introduced was like a breath of fesh air to me. For the first time ever there were listening exèrcises in a book with sensible questions and quizzes for learners to do. These are things that we take for granted nowadays but things have changed quite a lot. The functional approach, however, was criticised too, and quite rightly, in fact, because it went too far the other way, so that much of what learners were taught was relatively “empty” language, and not always natural at that. So things began to swing back the other way again in favour of grammar, vocabulary, skills and the multistrand syllabus…

Where are we now?
Now there are those who are still using grammar and translation, others who swear by their exercises and oleplays and then there are those who reject grammar all together.
You don’t need grammar to learn how to speak, they proclaim, even going so far in some cases as to say that studying grammar interferes with learning how to speak.

Ok, I would agree that you need a lot more than simply grammar to learn how to use a language effectively whether you are speaking, writing, listening or reading. Each skill requires a whole array of sub-skills. Having said that, when I learn a new language I have to start with the grammar. Quite simply, if I don’t know how to make comparative forms, for instance, I can’t compare. I might pick it up if given enough exposure, but most adult/ young adult learners are not in that situation. How can I describe the past if I don’t know the past forms of the verbs?

This seems to me to be so fundamental that is hard to see how anyone could dispute it.

Grammar alone is not enough

What I would say, however, to come back to my original anecdote of the tourists eanting directions, is that grammar alone is not enough. It is a starting point and the only way for learners to imporve their language skills, whatever they may be, is to experiment with the language and learn from their mistakes.

The tasks learners are given are essential, and if those tasks are simply mechanical controlled practice of grammar, then of course it is not enough but a logical progression might be something like this, although the order of various steps may change. If, for instance you are focusing on emergent language the clarificatioin may grow out of a need you have seen during a previous phase. But a rough guideline might be:

1. Clarify the target language (whatever it may be, and in whatever eay you think is most appropriate to your learners;
2. Provide contexts for them to experiment with this language, play with it, shape it and make it their own;
3. Provide motivating, realistic follow up tasks so that they can begin to integrate this “new language” into their overall competence.

It isn’t a recipe and it isn’t cut and dried, because those who become expert language users need a lot of exposure to the language in various ways, of course, and not only the productive skills.

Motivation and tasks are key

The tasks we set our learners, then, are really important, but the learners themsleves have to be motivated too. You can juggle and entertain to your heart’s content in a classroom but if your learners are not motivated or have other more pressing matters on their minds, it will be to little avail, I’m afraid. You, as a teachèr, can only do your best and help your learners as well as you can. The rest, is actually up to them.