Great advice from St. George's, London

Language Hacking: Breaking out of the Intermediate Plateau

 

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There comes a time in the life cycle of every language learning experience where the student is hit by a brick wall. I have experienced this myself while learning, or trying to learn Irish, French, German, Spanish, Latin and Italian. I have seen other learners go through it as both a teacher and a friend. The usual course of events is this: the learner starts out by picking up a great deal of high frequency vocabulary. Vocabulary which gives them an extremely profitable return on their investment. These high frequency words are often heard and seen in reading and listening input and quickly become acquired, making the learner feel like rapid progress is being made. This happy state of affairs remains as the learner progresses through A1 and A2 levels on the CEFR and continues into intermediate stages. With each hour spent acquiring, vocabulary texts become progressively more penetrable, thus positively re-enforcing learner behaviour.

This encouraging state of affairs continues unabated right up until the quagmire that is the B1-B2 crossover point. Think of it as a dark foreboding forest where only the most valiant warriors emerge. The honeymoon phase is over. This phase creates the false impression that languages are easy to learn. Well, they are at first, that is until the learner runs out of high frequency vocabulary to learn. Then, the tables are turned, high frequency vocabulary runs out and learners became faced with the bleak prospect of learning a word which they mightn’t come across again for weeks if not months. This can happen even in a situation where the quantity of input is extremely high, such as can be found in a full immersion environment. This land of no return is well know by language learners and it’s the last stop on the line for many of them. The trains stops and they get off far out in the suburbs.

Polyglots can also experience this stage, having said that it is more rare once you’ve mastered your first second language. I will attempt to address why this is the case later.

Firstly, I want to point out that this stage, sometimes termed the intermediate plateau, is not necessarily a bad thing. This level of proficiency serves many learners well. Let’s imagine a Korean business woman in the IT industry on a trip to her company’s supplier in Vietnam, who happen to make parts for her company’s mobile phones, to oversee new standards of production. Her hosts are equally proficient in the language, and together the happy group negotiate meaning during the visit. Error counts are high- but who cares? There is no teacher around to write down their mistakes and communication, while imperfect, is mostly successful. It’s all about getting the message across and if she doesn’t happen to know how to use the present perfect tense very well-well who cares? If she doesn’t happen to have the word for a particular noun- let’s say ‘a blanket’ in the hotel that she’s staying in- well, she can just show the receptionist a picture on her mobile phone. She could go on holidays the following year to France and have a very similar experience. In short, meaning is negotiated, thrashed out if you like, between two or more willing parties.

The majority of English as a second language speakers around the world are on the plateau and are happy there. They learned the language to get by, not to understand the intricacies of assonance in Grey’s Elegy, nor watch The Godfather Trilogy without subtitles and certainly not to give a talk at a TEDX conference or publish articles in peer-reviewed journals. Their ambitions are much more modest and mediocre works just fine for them in their world thank you very much.

Sounds great, right? And remember practice makes perfect, doesn’t it? So these intermediate plateau learners (IPLs) will inevitably get better as they continue dealing with the language, right? No, that’s where we are sometimes mistaken. This isn’t my line but I wish it was, practice doesn’t make perfect but perfect practice does. If you want to progress to C1 and C2 and beyond, your learning behaviours need to change.

Before I discuss practising more perfectly, I want to quickly explore the other factor which creates the illusion that languages are easy to learn at lower levels. This is the unequal way we have divided up language learning courses into a series of levels. Be it the CEFR, IELTS bands or the old beginner to proficiency system, schools, course books and teachers do not make it clear to students that the time it takes to get from A1 to A2 is not the same as the time it takes to get from C1 to C2, not by a long shot. Think of A1-A2 as the Apollo mission to the moon and C1 to C2 as getting to Mars (and setting up a colony there). Similarly, getting from band 5 to 6 in IELTS can be done in 3 months while getting from 8 to 9 may take 3 years or 30.

Ok so language acquisition is more rapid at the beginning but once progress slows down, how can we make the time we devote to learning a language more worthwhile?
It’s not a revelation, or at least it doesn’t seem so at first, but it is. I mentioned polyglots before. They go through the intermediate plateau in their first second language as all other learners but they manage to find their way out of the forest. They master their L2. L3 is a much easier experience. The brain has been rewired to become highly attuned to acquiring. The difference between L2 and L3 for the typical polyglot is like the difference between getting a taxi from the airport to your hotel or standing in the rain waiting for a bus that’s late and trying to understand the bus maps that are in a foreign language. For the polyglot, it becomes an enjoyable experience to go from elementary to proficiency in your L3. L4 is almost done on autopilot and it gets even easier from there. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that learning a language, even your fourth is easy. On the contrary, it still takes a huge investment of time. However, what reduces is the frustration of performing learning behaviours that give little return on investment. Enjoyment increases. The pleasure of improving is felt much more often, at all proficiency levels, and there is very little of the frustration.

What do polyglots do then that’s different? Well, for one they tend to be extremely disciplined. Just like physical exercise, a little bit on a regular basis goes a long way. They stay relaxed and do not stress to much about their level or undergo anxiety during production. They’re constantly trying out what they know and taking feedback on board, always  trying to do better next time. However, they can be happy to remain silent and simply soak up what’s going on around them. They look at grammar only on a need to know basic and don’t make the mistake of trying to learn the third conditional before they’ve even noticed it during input. They have modest goals, at least at first. These might be to have a enough Italian to order food in a restaurant or hold a conversation about football in German. They find input that’s comprehensible. And of course they keep motivated, which brings me to the key ingredient: avoiding boredom.

Boredom is the mortal enemy of acquisition. Polyglots have developed techniques for avoiding this boredom and its associated frustration on the intermediate plateau. One of the ways of achieving this is to change the learning source frequently. For example, if you’ve been doing French on Duolingo for a few months and have made a lot of progress but are getting a bit fed up with the routine of it all? Say you’ve read all the graded readers in your local library, you’ve got all of Axelle Red’s CDs and you’re sick of trying to read Camus’ L’étranger. Well, try another source- read BBC Afrique, watch TV5 and France 24 and listen to Europe 1. Download some podcasts. Find a TV programme from the Francophone world that you like, for example ‘Un Village Français’, have a look on YouTube for an interesting French language blogger- why not one from Cameroon? Find a language swap in your town. Find 10 of them. In short, change the channel and when you get bored: change again, stay on the same language but change the channel. Find a new French class, watch a documentary in French about a topic that you’re familiar with. Listen or watch to whatever you like so long as it’s in French and so long as you find it interesting. Watch things that you enjoy multiple times. That’ll make it more comprehensible with each listen. Acquisition is INEVITABLE once you stay relaxed, avoid boredom and keep that input comprehensible. Oh an get copious amounts of it: between 2 and 4 hours every day. C’est facile, non?

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A Short Tour of Babel: Language Change and the Emergence of New Varieties.

(PIE Language Tree image above created by Minna Sundberg for the ‘Stand Still. Stay Silent’ webcomic, P196 http://www.sssscomic.com/comic.php?page=196)
The infinite variety

It is often thought that languages evolve in much the same way as Darwinian natural selection acts upon life on Earth. In this argument, dialects can be seen as the intermediary stages in the evolution of a ‘proper’ language such as French, Japanese, or Tamil or are hybridised versions thereof. In the same way that the ancestors of modern whales can be considered to be half hippo-like creatures and half aquatic mammals. This tantalising parallel does, however, not reflect the reality. Languages develop in a way that is wholly alien to how life evolves. Notwithstanding, languages and dialects do have their own versions of the blind watchmaker. So what are these mechanisms that create new languages? How did French spring from Latin? And Hindi from Sanscrit? Danish from Old Norse? And what is the difference between a dialect and a language?

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A very human question-where do languages come from? The Biblical version of the emergence of language variety: The Tower of Babel (Pieter Bruegel)

 

Through a glass, darkly

We all instinctively understand what a language is. Most of us speak more than one. However, dialect has a more nuanced meaning. There is a lack of consensus in precisely what a dialect is because, a bit like Einsteinian physics, it depends on a given observer’s frame of reference. The traditional definition of a dialect is that it is a variant which is mutually understandable with another variant. For example, Gallego is a dialect both of Spanish and of Portuguese as it is a variant of each these languages and is mutually intelligible with speakers of either tongue. However, from the perspective of a French speaker, Spanish, Portuguese and Gallego are all languages for the same reason. In short, it’s complicated. What we consider serious enough to be given the haughty status of a language and what is regulated to merely being a dialect depends on many forces, among these being nationalism, history and politics.

Sometimes we think of ‘proper’ languages as having standardised grammars and dialects do not. If by ‘standardised’ grammar it is meant one which is universally accepted by its speakers, then every dialect has a standardised grammar, in the sense that all speakers of a given dialect use the same grammar. Of course they do, as do speakers of pidgins and creoles, even if the grammatical rules they abide by never get written down, and exist solely in the heads of their speakers. And even if they appear to be using ‘bad grammar’ to someone else. Similarly, if by ‘standardised’ we mean grammar which has been formalised and taught in schools, then languages that we often think of as dialects, such as Toscano, have a standardised grammar, so does Gallego and many others.

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Our idea of what is a language and what is merely a dialect is tied up with the development of the European nationalism. Delacroix’s La liberté guidant le peuple (Liberty leading the people)
A matter of perspective
To help get to grips with this double standard, an often quoted definition, attributed to the best known figure in Yiddish linguistics, Max Weinreich, is that “a language is a dialect with its own army and navy”. In other words, a language is what is spoken by the person who carries a gun, waves a flag and wears a uniform. These power brokers also name the language. English, when named wasn’t spoken in all of England, nor was it the only place where it was spoken, it had a large number of speakers in Scotland, Southern Wales, Eastern Ireland and further afield. Spanish is more accurately described as Castilian. There are many other languages which are native to Spain and might also be called Spanish, for example Basque & Catalan. What we now call Italian is simply a variety which was, and still is, spoken in Florence. What we refer to as German is known as High German, Hochdeutsche Dialekte, in Germany, the most prestigious variety maybe, but nonetheless just one of the competing versions of German. Other varieties of German exist elsewhere, most notably in Switzerland, where Swiss German is often referred to as a dialect. The ‘Arabic’ of Morocco is very hard to understand for someone who speaks the local Arabic dialect of Saudi Arabia. Chinese has literally hundreds of versions or ‘dialects’. All this should serve to illustrate that the distinction between a language and a dialect, from the point of view of the objective observer, is pretty redundant.
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Languages of Italy- note: these are not dialects of Italian in any sense. (image: Pellegrini’s ‘Dialetti parlati en Italia’)
“Allons enfants de la Patrie, Le jour de gloire est arrivé!”
So we can see that the very idea of a ‘language’ as separate and distinct and ‘proper’ is very recent and European and is tied up with the idea of the nation-state and a centralised political power structure. For a new one to develop, its speakers need to be cut off in some way from their neighbours. This isolation can be artificial, as in nation states, and usually involves the establishment of an official standard and the suppressing of competing variants. The English of the chancery in London shows how standard spelling and grammar sprung forth from the quill of a collection of government officials. More often, and much more naturally, languages come about because of geographical isolation, for example the languages of the island of Borneo, and develop independently within a few generations, quickly becoming unintelligible to their linguistically related neighbours.

A few of the ways in which languages change:

  • Their morphology and pronunciation changes.

The development of new forms of suffixes and prefixes appear such as adding -ism to make a generic noun, Trump and Trumpism being a recent instance. They undergo sound change, illustrated in the case of the hard /k/ sound of ‘cicer’ (chickpeas) of Classical Latin being replaced by a softer affricate (the sound represented by ‘ch-‘ in English) of modern Italian’s ‘cici’. Another example of this sound change is the early medieval pronunciation of the word ‘night’ , which was phonetic, i.e. said as it is written, and comparable in sound to its cognate in modern German ‘nacht’ but phonetically more akin to another German word ‘nicht’ (no). This medieval pronunciation of night morphed into the modern pronunciation of the word /naɪt/ following the Great Vowel Shift, GVS. (See below for further examples)

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The Great Vowel shift ‘feet’ /fe:t/ became the modern /fi:t/ (graphic from the University of  Duesseldorf)

 

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Some examples of the Great Vowel Shift: (Theodora Bynon, Historical Linguistics. Cambridge: CUP 1977, 82)
  • New grammar develops.
Or existing grammar takes on new work. Compare how the ‘passé composé’ of French is used to the ‘perfect’ in Latin or Spanish. ‘J’ai vécu à Paris’ means I lived in Paris not I have lived in Paris (for three years). Languages can develop in other ways too. ‘Synthetic’ languages, those with a high morpheme per word ratio, such as modern German, can sometimes cast off these complex morphological systems, becoming more ‘analytical’ languages. English is an example of an analytic language where word order (syntax), articles and prepositions have replaced the need for the accusative, locative, genitive, dative, nominative and vocative cases. This type of development, going from synthetic to analytic is what happened when those six cases of Classical Latin were lost in modern Romance languages such as Spanish, French and Portuguese.
  • Languages gain new lexis.

Said more simply, vocabularies expand profusely. New words are borrowed from neighbouring tongues. English happens to be greedy borrower, it loves the ‘je ne sais quoi‘ feel of foreign words, particularly Latinate ones such as ‘information’ or ‘circumspect’, Greek ones such as ‘anachronistic’ and ‘idiosyncratic’ and French words such as ‘city’, ‘accuse’ and ‘parliament’. Other words are created by combining two or more existing words, e.g. ‘Picture-postcard’, or by adding morphemes such as in ‘selfie’ and others still are coined seemingly from scratch or are onomatopoeic e.g. ‘bling’. New lexis are also created by reworking some of its existing lexicon.

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English is a greedy borrower of words. It loves the ‘je ne sais qoui’ feel of imported lexis (source unknown)

 

Semantic Change
Existing vocabulary can take on new meaning. Linguists sometimes refer to this as semantic change. Sometimes the old meaning of a piece of vocabulary is still retained while it is simultaneously re-purposed to a new use. Compare the modern meaning of ‘wireless’, i.e. ‘WiFi’, to the meaning that was attached to that word in the beginning of the last century, where a wireless meant a machine that played radio stations’ broadcasts. Friend, which used to be just a noun, now can be used as a verb as well as in e.g. “He just friended me”. Sick used to mean ill, now it can mean that something is amazing as in “Man, that new Kendrick Lamar tune is sick!”
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Semantic change: How the meaning of the English word ‘silly’ changed from its 16th century meaning of referring to someone who is blessed & innocent to its present day meaning of foolish.
Karma Chameleons
Languages can become different in other ways too, for example spelling, but there are too many to discuss in any detail here. What can be said, however, is that all aspects of a given language are in constant flux. Things like having a literate society slows this constant flux down but it is always going on, the motor of language change purring away in the background. However, as noted, they do not evolve in the same way that species do. Although they may give the illusion of having evolved, they simply change because of these drivers, without any particular purpose. They don’t change to become more suited to their environment as plants and animals do.
Shall I stay or shall I go now
Languages can be conservative, such as Icelandic, or Lithuanian, retaining more of the features of their ancestor languages, in this case old Norse and Proto-Baltic respectively. This happens because of geographic or cultural isolation or because the language is surrounded by speakers of a tongue from different language trees, as is the case with Romanian, which has retained much of the complex case system of Latin. Similarly, they can be innovative, such as French or Modern English, where because of complex socio-economic reasons, mass migration or war and invasion, they end up mixing profusely with other languages, and change in ways which are analogous to some of the linguistic features of those languages they encounter. This is what happened in the aftermath of the Norman invasion of England by William the Conqueror in 1066. The old Anglo-Saxon aristocracy was replaced by a new French-speaking one. It is no secret that Old English borrowed profusely from French but what isn’t so well known is that it also became influenced by French morphologically. For instance, it picked up the ‘-s’ morpheme to mark plurals from French, losing, for the most part, the plural markers of old English such as -an in words such as ‘naman’ , which becomes modern English ‘names’. Interestingly, vestiges of this old plural marker remain in modern English, for example in the words ‘children’, ‘brethren’ and ‘oxen’.
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William the Conqueror (1028-1087) who brought the French Language to England. (image DKFindout)
Birds of a feather and the wall flowers

The other truism about languages is that they are very rarely unrelated to their neighbouring tongues. The Indo-European family is the best known linguistic branch containing among others, the Germanic, Slavic, Greek, Celtic, Anatolic, Indic and Romance lines. Anomalies occur, languages which appear to be unrelated to many others. Basque is one particularly well known orphan, although Korean and Sumerian are also anomalies. These languages are known as isolates and are much more common than you would expect, in fact they constitute 30% of all language families.

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Endangered Languages around the World (UNESCO)
Endangered species
The other constant is that as one language is born, another dies. According to Ethnologue, of the (roughly) 6,909 languages which are spoken in the world today, 3,000 of these are spoken by fewer than one thousand people and are in severe danger of extinction. When a language dies, an extremely valuable part of the cultural inheritance of humanity is lost. We may struggle to preserve them, and record them for posterity, but are we merely putting off the inevitable?
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A Phoenix from the flames? Can we recover endangered or even dead languages (source unknown)

A Phoenix from the flames?

To end on a more optimistic note, languages, like phoenixes, can rise from their own ashes. They can be reborn or if not reborn then resurrected and given new life, having spent hundreds, or sometimes thousands of years, on the deathbed. The reemergence of Hebrew in Israel as the Lingua Franca gives me hope that we can further recover Irish as the language of everyday communication on the island of Ireland, alongside English. A quick glance at the map below shows how Gaeilge (as its speakers refer to it) was the spoken language of the majority of the population (over 4 million of a total population of over 8 million) before the Great Famine of 1845-50. Due to mass immmigration, death from starvation and disease, the native Irish-speaking population was decimated, becoming about 250,000 by 1922. Since the founding of the state, various, sometimes half-hearted attempts have been made to reintroduce it as the community language in a wider proportion of the country but these initiatives have only had moderate success at best. The tide seems to be turning finally and I am happy to see this beautiful language being spoken more and more today. Much work needs to be done, however, to truly give it renewed vitality as we move towards the middle of the 21st century. I, for one, would love to see a truly bilingual Ireland. How can this be achieved? This is perhaps a question best answered in another blog post.Thanks for reading.

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The pre-famine (1845) dominance of the Irish language is clear to see here. Can the language be brought back as the language of everyday communication? image: A History of Ireland in 1,000 objects.

Click on the link below to listen to the author, Robert William McCaul, discuss the topics presented in this article with Marek Kiczkowiak on the TEFL show:

Dialects, Language Change, Death and Revival

 

Photo under CC by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig from flickr.com

A NNEST perspective on teacher development: a complicity of silence?

Recently, there’s been quite a lot of debate about initial teacher training programmes such as CELTA or CertTESOL and how adequately they prepare people to enter ELT profession. For example, Hugh Dellar argues in this post that such courses are biased towards native speakers. The article sparked quite a bit of a debate, so I’d recommend reading the comments below it, as well as this critique by Anthony Gaughan. On the other hand, James Taylor takes a much more positive view of the CELTA in this article. And if you feel more like listening rather than reading, then you can check out this podcast by The TEFL Show where Rob McCaul and I discuss the pros and cons of the CELTA.

So where do I stand in this debate? Well, I acknowledge that there are some really good things about CELTA or CertTESOL:

  • they’re cheap in comparison to an MA
  • they’re short
  • they’re internationally recognised
  • they’re practical

Now that we’re done and dusted with the positives, let’s look at some criticisms. I take a much more critical view of these courses for a number of reasons. I can’t discuss all of them in one post, so I decided to focus on one, the Non-Native English Speaking Teacher (NNEST) perspective, which is partly related to Hugh’s argument. I expand his argument to talk about teacher development in ELT more general, but all of the points I make also refer specifically to initial teacher training programmes.

[NB: This article originally appeared in IATEFL Teacher Development SIG Newsletter (73), p. 8-9. You can download a pdf copy of it from my academia.edu profile here. I’d like to thank Adam Simpson and Willy Cardoso for their comments and suggestions on the initial draft of the article.]

Introduction

When I was originally asked to write this article for IATEFL Teacher Development Special Interest Group newsletter on Teacher Development (TD) for NNEST, I thought that the whole premise was somewhat divisive. I don’t really buy Medgyes’ (1992) argument that “NESTs and non-NESTs use English differently and, therefore, teach English differently” (p. 346). Treating the two groups as if they were separate entities can lead to creating even more stereotypes (read this article by Michael Griffin). After all, both NESTs and NNESTs need to undergo pedagogical training and to participate in TD programs if they are to be successful teachers, for “teachers are made rather than born” (Phillipson, 1992, p.14).

However, the more I pondered the topic, the more I realised that there is indeed a NNEST perspective on TD (see Mahboob, 2010 for NNEST lens). While NNESTs have and still continue to make significant contributions to our profession, they have for decades been treated as second-class citizens. And despite the growing NNEST movement and support for it, there seems to remain a certain reluctance to embrace the idea of equality between NESTs and NNESTs (Holliday, 2005); a certain complicity of silence, if you will.

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Photo under CC by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig from flickr.com

Indeed, as far as TD is concerned, the issue of native speakerism in ELT barely ever receives any attention during CELTA, DELTA or in-house TD programs. So, this article will outline some of the ‘silenced’ issues and argue that they must feature more prominently in TD if our profession is to ever extricate itself from the unprofessional and damaging grip of native speakerism.

For the purposes of brevity, the four main issues will be summarized here. I acknowledge the criticisms of NEST and NNEST labels, but for want of better terms use them here. Finally, this article should not be construed as a ‘rant’ against ELT, but rather as a suggestion for areas that I think should be discussed more openly and regularly during TD sessions. For “racism, as well as native speakerism, only survive if they are constantly reinforced through daily discourses that make them seem natural” (Ruecker, 2011, p.407).

Hiring policies

CELTA’s promise of “open[ing] the door to exciting teaching opportunities all over the world” should be taken with a pinch of salt, as research (e.g. Selvi, 2010; Ruecker & Ives, 2014; Mahboob & Golden, 2013) shows that approximately 75% of all job ads published online are for NESTs only. Not only does this mean that a NNEST with CPE grade A, CELTA, DELTA and a BA in English Studies will not even be considered, but also that any application from a NEST from the ‘Outer Circle’ (e.g. Zimbabwe, India) may well be rejected too. In fact, in certain countries (e.g. South Korea), NES status is further ‘refined’ to being white and Western-looking. This has its obvious negative effect on the importance of professionalism in ELT. However, what I find more damaging is that not discussing this issue during TD programs creates a vicious circle. NNESTs are not given support or tools to fight such prejudice. Conversely, NESTs find this advantageous, and thus have little incentive to openly question such policies.

One ingenious initiative to address this was started by @StudyCELTA. They inform their candidates about discriminatory job ads and direct them to @TEFLwork job board which only accepts equal opportunities ads.

ELF and World Englishes

I only came across these two terms (for a detailed discussion see Jenkins, 2007) six years into my teaching career, having by that time done both CELTA and DELTA. I can’t remember them having been discussed in any of the two courses, nor any in-house TD workshops I’d attended. The fact that most interactions in English nowadays take place in situations where no Native English Speaker (NES) is present is crucial, as it allows us to question the idea that students or teachers should aspire to a rather idealised NES model from the ‘Inner Circle’ (e.g. the UK, the US). It can be quite liberating for those NNESTs who have already developed the “impostor syndrome” (Bernat, 2008), simultaneously aspiring to comply with NES norms while being aware of the near impossibility of the task. For a NEST it is also vital to become aware of the fact that the English they speak is just one of a multitude of Englishes, and thus what is deemed correct or an error becomes much less clear cut. If we are to adequately prepare our students for interacting in English outside the class, we need to acknowledge and embrace the fact that “the standard English is no longer the preserve of a group of people living in an off-shore European island […]. It is an international language” (Widdowson, 1994, p.8).

Teaching methods

There seems to be a silent agreement within ELT to view teaching methods as neutral, apolitical, universally applicable and having sound theoretical or empirical foundations. Yet, these assumptions have been questioned on numerous occasions (see Pennycook, 1994 for a comprehensive discussion). In fact, if one examines the countless ELT methods that have over the years “roll[ed] out of Western universities and through Western publishing houses” (Kumaravadivelu, 2006, p. 20) and have been propagated with “an evangelical zeal” (Kachru, 1990, p.15), it is difficult not to notice the economic, political and cultural interests of the Centre lurking in the background (Pennycook, 1994, p.152). The “active, collaborative, and self-directed ‘learner-centred’ teaching–learning techniques” (Holliday, 2005, p.1) have been promoted as clearly superior to other methods, despite an acute lack of empirical evidence, and a disregard for local educational traditions. While TD courses certainly teach you how to best apply these ‘superior’ methods in class, they show little attempt at cultivating a more critical approach to ELT methodology. Thus, in their vast majority, courses such as CELTA produce teachers who are unaware of the underlying Anglocentricity of most ELT methodology, and who will “work within the confines of the institutions of the existing hegemonic order” (Kumaravdivelu, 2014, p.12) helping to perpetuate the privileged position of NS. On the other hand, what these courses should aim to do if we are to move beyond the pervasive ideology of native speakerism (see Holliday, 2006 for a brief discussion), which still imbues our profession, is to cultivate active and critical members of ELT profession.

Students want NESTs?

We’re constantly told by recruiters (e.g. Edge, 2011; Mahboob et al. 2004) that it’s all due to market demand. Students want NESTs, so schools can’t hire NNESTs, unless they pretend to be NESTs – as some colleagues have had to do. However, as Cook (2000) put it, “Nowhere is there an overwhelming preference for NS teachers. Being an NS is only one among many factors that influence students’ views of teaching” (p. 331). The majority of students want good teachers. It seems then that there is a profound disjunction between what many ELT professionals believe students want (i.e. a NEST at all costs, regardless of everything else) and what the majority of students actually want. There is also a belief that as far as the demand for NESTs is concerned the client is always right. On the other hand, we are prepared to question countless other misconceptions about learning and teaching languages that our students might have. This not only further undermines NNESTs’ confidence in their own abilities, but also buttresses the dominance of NESTs in ELT. Exploring this during TD is crucial as it can help us move the focus away from L1 as the most important and sought-after ELT ‘qualification’ to a discussion “about critical competencies of effective teachers and effective teaching regardless of that teacher’s background”(Farrell, 2015, p.3). Finally, it allows for an exploration of the qualities that students really value in English teachers, and of how these can be fostered in teachers.

Conclusions

I started this article with the premise that ELT is still imbued with native speakerism; that is the belief in inherent superiority of NESTs. While there are various other reasons why, despite over 20 years of NNEST scholarships and advocacy, native speakerism is “alive and kicking” (Phillipson, 2012). A very important factor seems to be that, as far as TD is concerned, there is a complicity of silence, a certain unwillingness to discuss and question it. Looking back at my career, I am convinced that if the four issues discussed here had been put on the table much earlier on, before I found out the hard way what effects native speakerism has on job prospects, for example, I would have been much better prepared to question the assumptions behind it and to defend my own rights. I also think that many more NESTs would also speak out against native speakerism, defending not only their NNEST colleagues, but also the value of their own professionalism, experience and qualifications.

PS: If you are concerned about professional equality between native and non-native speakers in ELT, check out and support TEFL Equity Advocates work here.

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References:

Bernat, E. (2008) Towards a pedagogy of empowerment: The case of ‘impostor syndrome’ among pre-service non-native speaker teachers. TESOL. English Language Teacher Education and Development Journal, 11, 1-8. Retrieved October 21, 2015 from: http://xa.yimg.com/kq/groups/16022259/699956107/name/impostor_syndrome_native_speakerBernat2008.pdf

Cook, V. (2000). The author responds… TESOL Quarterly, 34(2), 329-332. Retrieved October 21, 2015 from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.2307/3587957/references

Edge, J. (2011) The Reflexive Teacher Educator in TESOL. New York: Routledge.

Farrell, T.S.C. (2015). It’s Not Who You Are! It’s How You Teach! Critical Competencies Associated with Effective Teaching. RELC Journal, 46 (1), 1-10. Retrieved October 21, 2015 from: http://rel.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/01/27/0033688214568096.abstract

Holliday, A. (ed.) (2005) The Struggle to Teach English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Holliday, A. (2006). Native speakerism. ELT Journal, 60(4), 385-387. Retrieved September 30, 2015 from: http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/content/60/4/385.full.pdf+html

Jenkins, J. (2007) English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kachru, B.B. (1990).World Englishes and Applied Linguistics. World Englishes, 9(1), 3-20. Retrieved October 21, 2015 from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-971X.1990.tb00683.x/abstract

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2006). Dangerous liaison: Globalization, empire and TESOL. In J. Edge (Ed.), (Re)locating TESOL in an age of empire (pp. 1–26). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2014). The Decolonial Option in English Teaching: Can the Subaltern Act? TESOL Quarterly, DOI: 10.1002/tesq.202

Mahboob, A. (Ed.). (2010) The NNEST Lens. Non Native English Speakers in TESOL. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Mahboob, A., Uhrig, K., Newman, K., & Hartford, B. (2004). Children of a lesser English: Nonnative English speakers as ESL teachers in English language programs in the United States. In L. D. Kamhi-Stein (Ed.), Learning and teaching from experience: Perspectives on nonnative English-speaking professionals (pp. 100–120). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Mahboob, A., & Golden, R. (2013). Looking for native speakers of English: Discrimination in English language teaching job advertisements. Voices in Asia Journal, 1(1), 72–81. Retrieved October 21, 2015 from: https://www.academia.edu/4517679/Looking_for_Native_Speakers_of_English_Discrimination_in_English_Language_Teaching_Job_Advertisements

Medgyes, P. (1992). Native or non-native: Who’s worth more? ELT Journal, 46(4), 340-349. Retrieved September 30, 2015 from: http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/content/46/4/340.short

Pennycook, A. (1994). The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language. Harlow, Essex, UK: Longman Group Limited

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. Oxford University Press.

Phillipson, R. (2012). Linguistic imperialism alive and kicking. The Guardian. Retrieved October 21, 2015 from: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2012/mar/13/linguistic-imperialism-english-language-teaching

Ruecker, T. (2011). Challenging the native and nonnative English speaker hierarchy in ELT: New directions from race theory. Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, 8, 400–422. Retrieved October 21, 2015 from: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/15427587.2011.615709

Ruecker, T. and L. Ives. 2014. White Native English Speakers Needed: The Rhetorical Construction of Privilege in Online Teacher Recruitment Spaces. TESOL Quaterly. Early view. Retrieved October 21, 2015 from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/tesq.195/abstract

Selvi, A. F. (2010). All teachers are equal, but some teachers are more equal than others: Trend analysis of job advertisements in English language teaching. WATESOL NNEST Caucus Annual Review, 1, 155–181. Retrieved October 21, 2015 from: https://www.academia.edu/226716/All_Teachers_are_Equal_but_Some_Teachers_are_More_Equal_than_Others_Trend_Analysis_of_Job_Advertisements_in_English_Language_Teaching_2010_

Widdowson, H. G. (1994). The ownership of English. TESOL Quarterly 28(2), 377–88. Retrieved October 21, 2015 from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.2307/3587438/abstract

 

 

 

Photo under Creative Commons from: http://usa.streetsblog.org/2008/07/22/cartoon-tuesday-drilling-deeper/

Controlled oral practice in ELT – what happened to drilling?

[This article was originally published as What happened to drilling? in the BELTA Bulletin in October 2014. It’s available on-line for BELTA members here. It’s reprinted here with the permission of the editor.]

As communicative language teachers we are told that drilling is bad. We’re told it is pointless, uncommunicative and deprived of any meaning. It also makes our classes teacher–centred.

Before you jump on the bandwagon and continue the rant, I’d like you to pause for a moment and ask yourself whether drilling really has to be so horribly boring and uncommunicative as we are repeatedly told. I hope to show you with this article that, no – drilling doesn’t have to be boring. It can actually be fun, meaningful, effective and rewarding for the students.

In this article I’m going to first look at eight common criticisms of drilling and controlled oral practice (COP) and show why they are not all together accurate. Then I’ll describe a couple of COP activities which you can use in class, and offer some final tips on using COP.

Let’s then look at the criticisms.

  1. Criticism: Too much emphasis put on accuracy, hindering the development of real communication skills. Rebuttal: It is true that these exercises focus on accuracy. CLT does not. And this is why a little bit of COP can do your students a lot of good. By no means should COP become the main focus of all your lessons. It’s only part of the diet, like broccoli. And even though we might not like the taste, we still eat it every now and then, because we know it’s good for us. The same rule applies to COP.
  2. Criticism: Only useful when practising language students have just encountered. Rebuttal: Usually COP is seen as a prelude to the real icing on the cake, that is, the free speaking activity. But why not use it as a quick revision to address fossilised errors, or give students quick extra practice in something they are struggling with?
  3. Criticism: COP is only applicable and valid when teaching lower levels. Rebuttal: Why should that be? COP can and should be used at any level. It helps students automatise the language they might already know but still struggle to use confidently and naturally, or eradicate fossilised errors.
  4. Criticism: COP does not promote learner autonomy and is teacher–centred. Rebuttal: That would be true if your class were to consist entirely of COP. If done judiciously, it is actually empowering since students will get more comfortable with the language, and are more likely to use it later on in more communicative activities. And it does not need to be teacher–centred. Put them in pairs. Put one student in charge of the drill. There are a number of options which allow you to disappear.
  5. Criticism: Usually only word or sentence–based, decontextualised and very restrictive. Rebuttal: Whenever possible, use real–life situations. Set the context and make it meaningful. Try to implement natural features of the spoken discourse into your drill. Use drills which allow for more than one answer, and which are more flexible.
  6. Criticism: It goes against some styles of teaching, especially the role of the teacher as a facilitator. Rebuttal: Give it a go. Once you and your students get comfortable with it, COP can become an important part of your facilitative approach. Just don’t overdo it. Too much of anything is never good. But if done correctly, COP can be really enjoyable for the students. It can also nicely change the focus and pace of the class.
  7. Criticism: Being able to repeat in a parrot like fashion does not mean the student will remember or be able to use the language in real conversation. Rebuttal: That might be true. But then if they don’t repeat the language a few times in a safe and controlled environment, will they be more or less likely to use it in a real conversation? Probably less. Plus, what they are trying to memorise and automatise, are not the examples they are drilling, but the language patterns embedded in them. COP can also help with avoidance.
  8. Criticism: The course book writers ignore it, and so should I! Rebuttal: Since the advent of CLT, drilling has been heavily put down, and course book writers responded by ignoring COP in their materials. It’s like switching from only eating meat to being a vegan.

Having dealt with some of the most common criticisms, let’s look at examples of COP.

Photo by Rob! under Creative Commons from: http://www.doshort.com/4POr
Photo by Rob! under Creative Commons from: http://www.doshort.com/4POr

Substitution Drills:

This is probably the COP I’ve used most often myself, as it’s readily applicable for almost any language point. The basic idea is that the learners repeat the modelled grammar using the new information given, e.g. “I’ve been reading for two hours”.

T: midday

S: I’ve been reading since midday.

T: she

S: She’s been reading for two hours.

Make sure the examples lead to meaningful and probable sentences. Once you and your students get comfortable with this drill, consider some of the below variations, which aim to increase the cognitive difficulty and make the COP more natural and meaningful.

Multiple Substitution Drills:

Instead of substituting one item, students substitute two. So with the example from above:

T: he/drinking

S: He’s been drinking since midday.

Progressive Drills:

The difference between this one and the classic substitution drill is that you don’t come back to the original sentence, but continue from the last. If you do it as a whole class, it causes other students to listen carefully to what the previous student has said as they’ll have to pick up from there.

T: play football

S1: He’s been playing football since midday.

T: two hours

S2: He’s been playing football for two hours.

Open ended Drills:

Students repeat the modelled language, or finish a sentence, making it logical or true for themselves. The idea is they have to manipulate not only the grammar, but more importantly fill in the content in a very short time, which cognitively is of course much more challenging then a classic substitution drill. At the same time, it is arguably more natural. For example, to practice “in order to/so that” for purpose:

T: Why do birds have wings?

S: In order to fly./So that they can fly (or anything else that makes sense)

True/False drills:

Students manipulate the content of the sentence to make it true or false for them. They are more challenging cognitively and require the learners to process the language at a slightly deeper level. They are also more meaningful than classic substitution drills. For example, to practice “used to”

T: play football

S1: I used to play football as a child

S2 I didn’t use to play football as a child.

Mumble/Silent drills:

The teacher models the TL and the students repeat it quietly. It’s less intimidating then doing it out loud, and the students can be told to repeat the same phrase a few times under their breath, which gives them more practice and increases their confidence (I also assign it to my students as a ongoing HW, i.e. speak to yourself quietly or in your mind and repeat the language you have problems with.

Back–chaining:

A sentence is built from the end by adding short (between eight and ten syllables), natural chunks of language. Each chunk is modelled by the teacher and repeated by the students.

  1. the test
  2. for the test
  3. for the test
  4. should have
  5. should have studied
  6. I should have studied
  7. I should have studied for the test.

As Chris Ozog suggests in his article (see references below), we should focus on natural chunks of language, i.e. it would have been odd to drill have studied as a chunk. He also points out that back-chaining “also serves to promote noticing of features of connected speech” and “may help the students recognise fluently delivered English better”.

Jazz Chants:

They involve repetition of short, multi-word phrases at a consistent rhythm. They were popularised by Carolyn Graham, and here you can see video of her demonstrating how to create your own jazz chant.

Photo under Creative Commons from: http://usa.streetsblog.org/2008/07/22/cartoon-tuesday-drilling-deeper/
Photo under Creative Commons from: http://usa.streetsblog.org/2008/07/22/cartoon-tuesday-drilling-deeper/

To sum up, any good COP should fulfil one or all of the below aims:

    • to establish new habits and minimise or get rid of the bad ones, some of which might be deeply ingrained (e.g. fossilisation, avoidance)
    • boost learners confidence with language by practising it at reasonably natural speed
    • to increase spontaneity, i.e. to facilitate making the quantum leap from having to think about it very hard, to simply saying it correctly without thinking (Wilson, M.)

You might consider making these aims clear to your class. Students often want to know why they are doing what they are doing. And if they understand that the purpose of the activity is to improve their speaking, they are much more likely to give it a go, despite some initial reluctance.

Read up and continue drilling:

Aspects of contemporary English – TESOL Italy 2015 talk by Jon Hird

 

IMG_20151114_133837This is the fourth of the series of posts on the talks I attended at TESOL Italy 2015. You can read the previous ones here:

  1. ELF and TESOL: a change of subject? plenary by Henry Widdowson
  2. Learning to teach listening: students’ and teachers’ perceptions. by Chiara Bruzzano
  3. ‘How to join communicative pressure and cooperation in a speaking or writing activity’ by Paolo Torresan

The session started with prompts for questions from which we had to formulate correct questions to ask our partner. Afterwards, we had to try to remember the information we heard, and check with our partner it was right by asking tag questions. This can be seen below:

IMG_20151114_135732

But why bother with the complexities of the ‘correct’ question tags, if we can simply use ‘innit?’ in all cases. Or can we?

Of course, many would argue that ‘innit’ as a question tag is uneducated, uncultivated, vulgar and – worst of all – ungrammatical! But is it? Jon Hird’s talk aimed to question the prescriptive attitude to the language, and through vivid and hilarious examples of language (mis)use show that any language, especially one as extensively used as English, is a living thing which never stops evolving and changing.

However, attempts to dictate and prescribe what is ‘correct’ English are by no means new. Already a few hundred years ago Jonathan Swift was convinced that attempts must be made in order to ‘ascertain’ and ‘fix’ the English language forever. A very often used argument to support this is that otherwise the language will inevitably decay, and that ‘vulgar’ forms will become the norm, while the ‘cultivated’ and ‘correct’ ones will be forced into oblivion (you can read my post about what is ‘correct’ English here, and a listening lesson plan on a similar theme here).

Despite such claims, there is of course no evidence that this might have happened in the past or might occur at any time in the future. Interestingly, as far as English is concerned, there are only a few dozen grammar features that are considered non-standard. So in the next part of the talk, we look at some examples of non-standard English.

The first example is by Jagger: “Come off of it”.

The second one is now spreading very rapidly (as a grammar plague?), not just in English, but also in other languages (it’s definitely the case in Polish and Spanish, and a teacher sat next to me said that Swedish was one of the victims of this grammar ‘vulgarism’ too). So, many English speakers now use less both with countable and uncountable nouns. It has become so common that we hardly notice it any more, unless a grammar pundit points it out. This results in famous companies making grammar ‘mistakes’ in their ads. For example, British Airways might tell you that there are “less than 10 seats left”. If you’re thinking of grabbing a quick coffee, go for Starbucks, because they are a green company, and as they put it: “Less napkins. More plants. More planet”. Can’t argue with that.

Next comes the example of the infamous tag question we already saw at the very beginning, innit? The tag is so widespread, that it’s well bad, innit? It was wicked, innit? He’s not coming, innit? And so on. Just stop by and listen to how people speak. There’s no more room for the ‘correct’ question tags. They’re too cumbersome. Too long. Too varied. Innit?

Another example of non-standard English is teenspeak. One of the examples that entered ‘adultspeak’ and became quite widespread and popular a few years ago was chillax. What a brilliant word! I remember hearing it for the first time, and it was almost a revelation. Now you could chill and relax at the same time. And you had a word that described it! Well bad, innit? Unfortunately for the teens, as soon as they found out the word was spreading among adults, they had to drop it. It wasn’t wicked any more.

But if we had to choose a word in English that was by far the most widely spread and used more frequently, it would have to be ‘like’. Jon shows us a transcript of his teenage son speaking which very clearly illustrates that ‘like’ is everywhere now:

IMG_20151114_140803

One more example Jon gives is LOL. First used on the Internet, it’s now started an exciting and adventurous linguistic life of its own. In short, it’s gone completely out of control. So now you can say: lol at you! Lols! That’s so lols!

I literally lolled when I saw these examples.

For some, this is a clear indication that language is going to the dogs. And if this decay is to be prevented and reversed strict measures need to be taken. For example, banning certain words from use:

IMG_20151114_140057

One aspect of English that tends to drive some grammar pundits up the wall is the uncanny ability of the English language and its speakers to turn any word into a verb. Even LOL is now a verb. Anything can be a verb. As Humpty Dumpty put it, the only question is, who is to be the master. And verbing, as it’s sometimes called (yes, apparently ‘verb’ is a verb too), has been going on for centuries. According to Pinker, “It’s what makes English English”.

But of course, certain people don’t like the way in which this process ‘impacts’ the English language. For example, BBC went as far as banning the use of ‘impact’ as a verb. We can only see how this might ‘impact’ the English used by BBC reporters, but looking back at the history of English, ‘impact’ as a verb is there to stay.

There are many other more interesting examples of verbing words in English, though. For example, if you’re on Twitter, you can ‘favourite’ others’ tweets. No one questions that now you ‘google’ things. However, you might want to ‘wikipedia’ it too. And if you’re playing Angry Birds, well, you can angrybirds it up, yo!

IMG_20151114_142237

So, did you have a good time conferencing? I certainly did. And Jon’s talk was well bad, innit?

PS The issue English teachers are faced with is whether any of the above uses of language should be taught in class. They’re incredibly widespread, and students – especially the ones studying in an English-speaking country, or watching a lot of TV and films in English – are bound to come across them sooner or later. Would you teach ‘innit’, ‘like’ or verbing to your students? Why (not)? Let me know what you think in the comments section.