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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.
Post Method EFL: a theme for this year’s conference
As the sessions pass by and I go through the day at Iatefl I notice certain themes tend to emerge within the conference, or perhaps what people say simply reflects ideas I have somewhere in my own mind that are brought to the surface. Whatever the case it is a strange process that I notice happening every year, as one speaker takes ideas from another and weaves them into the fabric of his or her own presentation. As each day progresses I feel ideas and thoughts taking root and blossoming in the back of my mind behind any really conscious thought process. Anyway, this is starting to sound rather too esoteric so let’s get our feet back on the ground.
Going Beyond Limitations
On Friday, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, we rounded off the PCE session with a reflection on questions that may not be new but were related to our teaching practice as new technologies emerge. Diane Slaouti, whose focus was Theorising our Practice, cited Kumaravadivelu and his ideas about post method teaching and I would like to quote one idea from his 2003 publication Beyond Methods which is one of his goals to:
‘urge them [teachers] to go beyond the limited, and limiting, concept of method and consider the challenges and opportunities of an emerging postmethod era in language teaching.’ (p. 1.)
This is the idea I felt kept recurring today: the idea of going beyond limitations and exploiting opportunites. It began this morning with Donald Freeman’s plenary where he discussed the myths we believe as teachers , and that may freeze our thinking. Our methods and beliefs, our instituational contraints our own fears, hopes and habits can all lead us to limit ourselves and the learning that might take place in our classrooms. He asked who takes responsibility for learning? Does the teacher take sole responsibility for learning? We were all thinking “Oh, no. My classes are learner centred” But how true is this? Who decides what is to be taught or focused on, when and how? How often do we think things to ourselves along the lines of: “Oh, I can’t do this. It won’t work with that class” which is a decision we are making as teachers rather than giving learning a chance to “happen”. So much of learning, which also came up several times on Friday, is informal or incidental, so it it worth asking where learning is happening and how we can leave space for it to happen in our own contexts.
What Questions do we ask?
This idea was taken up by Anrew Walkley who examined the questions we routinely ask in class, and who questioned the effectiveness of classic CCQs, in particular, both for grammar and lexis. Whilst I expressed my reservations about debunking these completely as these mechanisms grew out of a need to have feedback rather than simply asking “Do you understand?” before moving on as students smiled and nodded, even though some of them had not understood a thing! It is undeniable that when done badly CCQs or comprehention questions, as they were known initially, are worse than useless, and that they can only be used to check comprehension of a context for language use rather than focusing on the specific target language being clarified. Andrew illustrated this point very clearly with the use of nonsense language that he attempted to clarify to us. Here is my own invented example:
“Iatefl nisl Harrogate bret laa year.
Is this the past?
Is this the present?
Is this the future?
Obviously you can only answer the question if you know the negative future form. The answer, for all those who want to know is “the future” as “nisl” is a negative auxiliary and “bret” is an infinitive so the translation is ” Iatefl won’t be in Harrogate next year. If you have already studied those forms, however, these questions may form a useful, quick check of comprehension. Andrew’s man point was that by asking and focusing on naturally ocurring questions in chat situations, and expanding learners’ repertoire of such questions, chat situations, which often pass under the radar in classes as teachers greet their classes with questions such as “What did you do at the weekend?” learners can focus on “real” referential questions (rather than questions designed simply for them to display their knowledge) and can develop the language they need to talk about topics that they choose, and that are relevant to them. Once again we come back to the idea of where learning is happening. Is it the teacher who decides the content or is it the learners?
Improvisation is not only in theatre and jazz
Limitations also appear when we adhere too closely to our own, safe, familiar methodology, and our lesson plan can become a straightjacket that limits both teachers and learners rather than acting as a springboard for teaching, providing learning opportunites. Adrian Underhill also talked about an aspect of this with his session on the ‘dark matter’ of teaching, of the energy that appears when teachers depart from their lesson plans and improvise, identifying the best point to leave the lesson plan and to go somewhere else, to listen to what our learners are saying or what they need and to follow their lead. Lesson plans, in this way, might be considered to be the map which points the way whilst the lesson itself is the actual journey with all its delays, smells, dialugues and unexpected events. Lessons are social events with human beings and all their interactions which is what makes them messy but what also makes them wonderful and unique as , people open up their own thoughts and worlds to each other, and invite each other in. This is the point at which, as one person, who was sitting next to me said, “the magic happens”.
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.
The annual TESOL Italy Conference has been going on this weekend, in Rome against a backdrop of blue skies and political agitation in an Italy characterised as ever by contrasts. Even being able to attend a conference like this is a privelege in theses times of economic crisis, and this is, I think, to some extent reflected in the quality of the content being presented and discussed here. This is a conference with a very friendly atmosphere where people felt happy to exchange their views with each other and by the end of the two days everyone seemed to know everyone else :-)
The Advantages of Physically Attending a Conference
Online conferences and webinars are a wonderful opportunity for people to share knowledge and learn in ways that were simply not possible in the past but if I can, I still prefer to attend a conference physically, so why is this? Well, here are a few reasons:
1. firstly, you get the chance to “take time out” from your daily routine which means that you probably focus that much more on what is going on at the conference;
2. You get to see a wonderful new place like Rome and breathe in a different atmosphere;
3. You can physically see the body language of people, communicate directly both during sessions and outside by smiles, eye contact and a whole range of signals that are difficult to achieve online, although there other advantages to the online spaces, but more about that later;
4. Most of all the whole event is an adventure and this one began when I was sitting on a high speed train being whisked through a whole range of autumn colours and landscapes. I could already feel myself relaxing and I leafed through the programme reading abstracts and deciding which sessions I wanted to go to. There were some names I knew already but there were a lot of sessions being held by people I didn’t know. They were simply names on a timetable, but then I arrived and went to the sessions and over a coffee or a Prosecco I got to know some of the people behind the names, their worlds, experiences, hopes and fears and they got to know me. Our worlds for these two days began to coalesce, and now that I’m back in Verona I have this warm feeling of having made a whole new group of friends and colleagues as well as catching up with some old friends too.
However conferences are mainly a great opportunity to learn and to share knowledge so here are some of the main threads that ran through this rich tapestry.
One of the key themes in this conference was inclusion which extends beyond the idea of special needs to encompass all learners with their various differences, seeing each person as someone unique with something to contribute to the group. Another key theme was CLIL which actually seemed to spark a rather stormy reaction from some of the audience, perhaps, as a reaction to some of the ministery’s less popular decisions and treatment of the topic in recent times. On the other hand, there were some high school students at the conference presenting their CLIL projects in an extremely professional way related to art and design with a project that took some teenagers to Aarhus in Denmark to investigate the architecture of living spaces and to participate in a design project themselves creating a bench. Another group tackled the complex topic of thermodynamic laws and the way in which household appliances create heat, which they did in a lively. entertaining presentation that was well choreographed and performed. I, for one, will never look at my fridge in the same way!
Lifelong learning and Professional Learning Communities were two more threads. Nowadays PLCs inevitably include the aspect of online professional development which I mentioned above but in her plenary, Deena Boraie also warned against those who seek to “stick a plaster” over a gaping need for development by creating portals with online content but no real support in using or learning from such resources. I, as eveyone knows, am very much in favour of technology and what it can add to teaching and learning but it doesn’t mean that I am blind to the abuse of resources. Like anything else, though, I don’t believe this is necessarily connected to technology itself but to the use people make of it.
Scott Thornbury made the point that the promises made by commercial technology are nothing new and that they are often mirages designed to sell. There is no reason to use technology just because of the “wow factor” if something else will do the job just as well. He cited Marcos Benevides’ “nightmare” experience with ebooks, when he tried to use them in class with students constantly losing their passwords or having technology problems, which makes me think of the “The dog ate my homework” syndrome to some extent and Made me smile. Marcos himself has created incredibly high quality ereaders and is one of their advocates, so coming from him these warnings are all the more poignant. and I agree wholeheartedly with all this, having attemptd to encourage my own students to download the ebook version of their coursebook, which was extremely complicated and we wasted a lot of precious classroom time trying to sort it out. There are also aspects to ebooks that may not be abvious and things that learners, or anyone else, need to know. When they buy an ebook, for instance, and not the paper book, they are paying for the license and not the content, which means that they will probably only be able to access that content for a certain number of years, so although just buying the ebook is cheaper it is actually probably better to get the paper book and then download the ebook as well.
These commercial concerns are real, and like anything else, a great deal of care needs to be taken with the tools we use.Technological resources are the same as any other resources, and it is always how we use them that makes the difference.
Leo Selivan and Anthony Ash also gave a great presentation of online platforms and they themselves are the embodiment of the good things about the online spaces. They had not actually met “in the flesh” until shortly before their presentation, although they knew each other well online. Despite this they gave a wonderful performance presenting their content in the form of a type of informal conversation where one seemed to be chatting to the other and asking each other questions in a seamless flow. One of the pros of online webinars which I love (never being one to hold back when it comes to commenting and asking questions, myself) is the chat stream in webinars where you can ask questions during the session itself instead of having to wait until the end when you may well have forgotten your question.
Creativity and Mindfulness
These were also threads running through this conference and John Angelori’s session on the mindful classroom was a small oasis of calm in the middle of the day. Elizabeth Evans also drew on some central tenets of mindfulness such as the need for moments of stillness, which I really liked. One of the pearls of wisdom she gave us was:
“Be still until the sunlight pours through and dispels the mists. Then act with courage.” ( Ponca Chief White Eagle)
I adapted this to apply to the principled use of technology in learning and my version goes like this:
“be still until relevance dispels the wow factor mists of technological tools and then act conscientiously with insight and courage.”
Making Assessment Relevant to the Learners
Sarah Ellis kicked off on Friday morning with her interesting talk on LOA (Learner orientated assessment) which is seeking to focus on the fact that formative assessment is an ongoing ingredient in the recipe which is teaching and learning and that summative assessment has to be the dish that we eat at the end of it.
I have to add here that food was another very important thread in the conference, being mentioned by more than one presenter and being sampled by everyone, in particular at the music and wine tasting on Friday, so it definitely wasn’t all work and no play.
Creativity and Assessment: combining the seemingly disconnected and making exam preparation more relevant for learners
Luc Prodromou took creativity up again on Saturday morning by reminding us that exams preparation needs to be relevant and memorable to our learners and that creavity can be described as connecting the disconnected, like the surprising combination of Alberto Sordi on the wall of a building in the amazing Garbatella area where the conference was held.
Luc gave us a whole range of creative activies including old Pligrims favourites and some new ideas too. Looking at exams preparation, for instance, might mean hiding song lyrics in emails that are written as exams practice. These emails can then be used in class as learners search for the Hidden songs”.
The last session on Saturday was well worth waiting for too, as Michela Romoli stunned us with her Introduction to Prezi and the prezi she had made itself, which is an excellent example of how effective this presentation tool can be. To see it follow this link:-)
All in all, the atmosphere at the conference was very friendly and inclusive and I certainly learned a lot as well as having the chance to catch up with lots of friends and make new ones. I also discovered an area of Rome: Garbatella (see the photo above) which is very interesting and as is the name itself which comes from a young lady who ran a hostelry in this area and was both “garbata” polite and “bella” beautiful: hence: Garbatella. There are some incredible buildings in this area which I find fascinating. So thank you Tesol Italy, for a lovely two days :-) Hope to see you all again next year.
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.