Thoughts on Our Digital world after Reading “The Circle” by Dave Eggers

Thoughts on Our Digital World

As anyone who knows me is aware, I’m definitely an advocate of technology, using digital tools for work and running training sessions to help others blend their teaching techniques, but recently I’ve felt a growing sense of unease about the way many of us are using these ubiquitous tools. As usual we have tools with incredible potential but are we able to get the best out of them?

In his recent novel, “The Circle”, Dave Eggers describes a sort of technological Garden of Eden which is so alluring that most of those who work there sooner or later want to live as well as work there. This is ironic in that the every existence of this “oasis” depends on the rest of the world being its customers, and feeding its vanity. The company could be symbolic of any of the tech giants and it creates an ingenuous, brave new world of sanitised wealth for a favoured few.

The Importance of being Highly Rated

Mae, the heroine is enthusiastic and grateful to be allowed to work there in such a “cool” place, but her work, to a jaundiced outside might seem to be worthless. She begins by answering customer queries, but the aim is not only to solve their problems but to be rated as highly as possible, and if the customer rates her slightly lower, then she recontacts them to encourage them to change their rating. Why is this rating so important? Does it help to solve the customers’ problems? Probably not, and some of those customers insist on her taking a personal interest in their relatives etc. in a way that goes beyond what would be considered the “norm” in the “real world”.

Is this far-fetched? Well, having recently tried to get help from a well known telephone company, where you, the “highly valued” customer are passed from one apparently young, inexperienced person to the next I think that we are not too far away from The Circle right here and now. These people, working in a call centre somewhere, probably on minimum wages, are not always able to help you with your problem. They ask you the same questions again and again, whilst telling you not to worry (even though they are not solving the problem) and at times try to sell you an extra service to boot. You are also told that you will be contacted to be interviewed on their performance a couple of days after your call. Calls, in fact, that, if you happen to be abroad at the time, come in at quite a cost for you, the customer.

What this makes me think is that the rating, questionnaires etc. are a sort of sleight of hand designed to distract the customers and the callers to focus on something other than the main point. The workers in the call centres, of course, want to be rated highly so that they will keep their jobs, and the customer is imbued for a couple of moments with a false sense of importance, in that their opinions are being asked. This is the mirror that distorts a relationship which should simply be one of asking for help and receiving it. The focus on client satisfaction is probably more like lip service and I wonder whether it might not be better for everyone if companies like this did not focus on providing their staff with the appropriate information so that they can really help the customer.

What is Social Media actually for?

The need for recognition and to be “popular” with high ratings, of course, goes beyond the service transactions and Mae as the novel progresses, finds herself living a life of superficial protagonism, which we can see mirrored in our world every day on social media. My Facebook Page for students, for instance, constantly encourages me to “boost” posts to attract more followers, and as soon as I reach one target number of followers I’m provided with the next. My page, however, is designed for my students, and is not trying to attract customers, so why should I be interested in advertising it to as many people as possible. It is there for my students and those who are interested, and so I ignore the sirens beckoning me to sail towards the dangerous waters of “looking for high ratings” but I can see how easy it would be to get sucked into it. In the novel, just the fact of being visible is power and it means that Mae has the power to sell products because all her followers aspire to be like her in a world where there is little space for reflection and the most important life decisions are available at the click of a mouse. She, in fact, becomes a living advertising force, but loses her own identity.

What is worrying is, as I said above, not the tools themselves, but the way they are being used and presented to us. My Facebook Page for students, for example, is a wonderful tool. It gives me the chance to give learners extra pieces of information, to informally work on language and discussions in English and to do a whole range of things that would have been inconceivable just a few short years ago. My blog means that I can share my thoughts with others and learn from them as well instead of writing a journal just for myself. These are things that are well known and I will not dwell on them any further here, but when the focus of the site becomes to attract as many followers as possible it is adding a subtle sleight of hand like the questionnaires, where what becomes desirable for the users is superficial visibility and validation rather than real communication. The novel may seem futuristic or rather extreme with this cult like company, where everyone is seen to care for everyone else, but in fact nobody actually knows anyone else, or has the time to do so.

The Nature of Friendship

Real friendships involve listening and dedicating time and effort to the relationship, being there for others and caring about them not just when they are sharing their experiences with you but also when they are in trouble. This is the dark side of the social media coin, perhaps, as those who cease to blog may well be quickly forgotten. Using social media to foster relationships that already exist or that are then developed in the real world as well, is a wonderful thing, but a friendship that only exists online is not so substantial. In the novel, in fact, taking a weekend off to visit ill parents is frowned upon and even going off on your own is seen as being antisocial, unless you take photos and comment on the place “for everyone else”. Private space is seen as secretive and therefore negative behaviour, reminiscent in fact of the classic orwellian totalitarianism.

In fact, although we have not reached these extremes yet, we are already quite close to this, and many of us feel the need to “share” our activities constantly with our “friends”, for all kinds of reasons. In a Utopia, of course, sharing everything may be harmless, and the argument is often put forward that people don’t mind providing access to their data because they “have nothing to hide”. This was a common comment that people made when discovering that the government had supposedly been monitoring their calls in the USA. Allowing our data to be used in exchange for free tools like Google search, for instance, may seem to be a small price to pay, in fact this is an argument I have often used myself.

Undermining our Professions

I recently read Jaron Lanier’s book Who owns the Future?, (admittedly on my Kindle, as I keep saying, I am in favour of technology and love the way it makes my life easier) however, and he talks, among many other things, about Google Translate. This software, if we can call it that, seems to “magically translate” and it is getting better at it every day. How does it do this? By using texts that “human translators” have already translated and which are available online, to find similar phrases in different languages and to then “translate” them. This means that by putting our translations and texts online, translators, and this is just one example, are actually undermining their own profession. Lanier, in fact, claims that the crisis we are in is largely a result of this type of software on the Internet, which has already visibly undermined the music, photography and writing sectors and all those other industries that worked together with them. The economic crisis is not simply, according to Lanier, a question of politics and banking but goes much further than that. In actual fact, we do not live in Utopia, and giving our data away every day to those few who run the computers, even though they persuade us we are sharing with each other, means that we may well be actually undermining our own world, if we live in the real world, whilst the lotus eaters play in their insulated bubbles.

Final Word
Although, at times, the novel is rather forced the characters are intentionally two dimensional and reflect something that we need to guard against and the warning against danger is clear. There are many other themes in the book, of course, such as the speed that we work at, which is so fast and continuous that there is little room for thought or reflection. I am still convinced that the answer lies in education. I believe in the potential of the online world and benefit from it daily as I communicate, learn, research and work, but it is also important to know how to do this, where to look, when to resist the siren call of ratings and popularity drives, and the younger generation need to be taught how to stand back, take a deep breath and think for themselves before taking the next click. It is more difficult to see how our world is changing and will change in the next few years, but although we do not live in a utopia we do not live in a distopia either and hopefully there will always be a certain amount of balance between generosity and greed, altruism and selfishness, profit and loss, creativity and plagiarism. Incidentally, and perhaps most telling of all in the novel the one form of privacy that was guarded right until the end was the “intellectual property” of the company, and the most worrying result of company policy was that those working there seemed to lose any semblance of critical thinking. So maybe this is what we need: to use our resources as well as we can and to think critically whilst doing so.

EFL Advent Calendar Activity 2014

Hi everyone,

A couple of years ago I made a Powerpoint Advent Calendar for my students, which would work just as well this year. You can also use the Powerpoint as a template to make your own if you’d like to. :-)

Last year though I tried something new, although it may be rather complicated, using Smilebox (see below) and this could also be used this year, so take your pick: Powerpoint or Smilebox?

First play the smilebox, after it has loaded, which takes a couple of minutes, and you will see a classic advent calendar with windows and little animations behind each one: excellent for all those teaching young learners. It could be used as a prompt for Christmas vocabulary or a game: guess what is behind the window etc.

But there is even more….

If you click on window 24 and wait you will come to a series of 24 photos (yes, you’ve guessed: one for each day in December). Each photo has a question that can be used for multicultural discussion or even as a warmer at this time of year: so here is it the singing and dancing Advent Calendar 2012 with all its bells and whistles :-)

Click to play this Smilebox greeting
Create your own greeting - Powered by Smilebox
A free digital ecard by Smilebox

TESOL Rome 2014: a moment of sharing and meeting.

TESOL ITALY 39TH ANNUAL CONFERENCE

imageThe 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.

Key Themes

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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.

if you would like to see my Prezi on the subject follow this link

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

imageThese 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.

imageCreativity 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 :-)

 

imageFinal thoughts

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 :-)