Tag Archives: Fluency

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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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:

‘How to join communicative pressure and cooperation in a speaking or writing activity’ by Paolo Torresan

This has got to be the most interactive and fun session I attended at TESOL Italy 2015. It was sponsored by Pilgrims and Paolo mentioned that there will be a course on improvisation in EFL run both in July and in August 2016, at Pilgrims, in Canterbury, by Peter Dyer (more info here).

But back to the workshop. There was no ppt. No lecturing or the audience listening with hidden yawns. Instead, there was a lot of practice, and as the title suggests, communication and cooperation in speaking and writing activities.

I came in slightly late, so missed the instructions to the first activity, but the other teacher I was paired up with explained that we had to improvise and pretend we were giving a gift to each other. One person gives the present, without saying what it is. The person receiving it has to accept it, thank for it, and choose what the gift is, i.e. improvise (Paolo is grateful to Peter Dyer, who developed this activity). Then we swapped roles.

Very simple, but very effective at the same time. The whole room seemed very engaged, and I could see it working very well with real students too. It was fun, involved creativity, a bit of acting, and plenty of opportunity for students to practice some functional language.

After the activity, Paolo explained the basic framework that we would also use in the following demos. The underlying pattern looks like this:

  • Yessing, or accepting your partner’s contribution
  • Adding, adding some info in order to let the action/dialogue take place, and go on, for example:
    • Yes and…
  • Paolo pointed out we should avoid contradicting, i.e. patterns such as ‘Yes, but/however’, because it works as a blocking device, and can lead to ‘conversation paralysis’

So the next demo was called ‘One word at a time’ and was adapted from a book by Keith Johnstone, Impro. Improvisation for the Theatre, published in 1981 by Bloomsbury, London. We were put in pairs with a different teacher and had to imagine we were now one person having an internal dialogue. We can only say one word at a time and we can’t contradict our partner. Paolo demoed the activity with a volunteer:

IMG_20151113_142617

 

We were then asked to choose a context, and for one reason or another somebody shouted out ‘desert!’, so we ended up having to construct an internal dialogue while being in the middle of a desert… It went kind of like this:

A: We…

B: …are…

A: …looking…

B: …for…

A: …well…

B: …because…

I can’t remember the rest exactly, but it involved finding a gold fish and eating it for dinner – I know, English teachers can have bizarre ideas sometimes.

Again, everyone was very engaged and active. And as with the previous activity, I can see it work really well with students. Lots of room for individual creativity, but at the same time quite demanding linguistically, to be honest. A possible follow up could be to retell the dialogue to a new partner, or even write it down, or record it at home.

The next activity was dynamic storytelling developed by Peter Dyer. One volunteer had to come to the front to start the story by saying a sentence. Again, it was left purely up to us what the context would be, and if I remember right, it was: Once upon a time there was a wolf. Perhaps not terribly imaginative, but it did the trick: starting the story off. The next volunteer would come to the front and say another sentence. But the sentence could be from anywhere in the story: right after the first one, the middle, or the end. The person would stand in a line either close to the first volunteer, or far away, depending on where in the story their sentence would come. And off we went. Again, it was fun, engaging, with lots of language practice. There was a lot of repetition, as you had to remember your sentence and the ones around you to make sure the story would flow. There was definitely plenty of room for peer correction too. As with the previous ones, the creative aspect had us all very much engaged.

In the second part of the workshop we looked at improvisation and creativity for writing activities. Again, they were surprisingly simple, but at the same time very effective and engaging.

Among several that we saw, I will describe the first one, which was group picture activity. It starts with an empty white board. The first volunteer draws the first picture. It can be anything. I think in our case it was a palm tree. The next person adds another picture or element to it, and so on (this activity comes from Sion C., 2000, Creating Conversation in Class, Delta, Peaslake). Once there are quite a few things drawn, Paolo explained that there are several ways in which the pictures could be used as a springboard for writing activities. For example:

  • Write the names of the objects
  • Create a dialogue between the people in the pictures
  • Create an sms (or perhaps in our modern times Whatsapp or FB) chat
  • Write a story connecting the pictures
  • Fill in the empty parts of the board with a story

I imagine this would lend itself nicely to a speaking activity too, either before or instead of the writing phase. I’d imagine the students being quite engaged in the writing, because it’s their story, rather than one imposed by the teacher. A scaffold is developed by the students and for the students, and there is plenty of room for individual creativity.

I would have certainly enjoyed doing these activities in a language class.

My other summaries from TESOL Italy 2015 sessions can be found 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

Meu instantâneo 15 [3677412]Paolo Torresan obtained his PhD in Linguistics and Romance Philology at Ca’ Foscari University, in Venice. He has carried out research at Complutense University, Autonoma University, in Madrid, and at Lancaster University. He has taught at Rio de Janeiro State University and Santa Monica College, Santa Monica, CA. He is Editor-in-chief for the following journals: Officina.it and Bollettino Itals. Among his books we mention: The Multiple Intelligence Theory and Language Teaching (Perugia 2010). He’s also studied improvisation at the Groundlings school, in LA. You can get in touch with Paolo through his profile on academia.edu here.

‘ELF and TESOL: A change of subject?’ summary of Prof. Widdowson’s plenary

Finally, I managed to get my act together and write another blog post. It’s been too long! But the PhD in TESOL I started recently has swallowed up what had previously been called free time. You might also have noticed a flurry of activity around The TEFL Show podcasts, which I co-author, and which you can find now on their brand new website here. So, I was delighted when last weekend I managed to get away for a weekend to go to TESOL Italy convention in Rome. So for the next couple of posts I’ll be writing up summaries of some of the sessions I’ve seen. We’ll start it off not with the first talk, but with perhaps the one I’d been looking forward to most: Prof. Henry Widdowson’s plenary at the end of Day 1. NB: this summary has been edited following Prof. Widdowson’s suggestions and feedback.

The third plenary session that I saw during TESOL Italy 2016 was given by Prof. Henry Widdowson. Having read many of his books and papers I was really looking forward to finally seeing him live giving a talk. As you can see from the photo below, I wasn’t the only one looking forward to this opportunity – the room was absolutely packed (you might be able to see Barbara Seidlhofer and Diane Larsen-Freeman sitting in the first row). I actually had to ‘borrow’ a chair from the terrace area and sneak in right beside the podium to be able to see the talk.

IMG_20151113_150314

As the title suggests, the talk proposed that the Teaching of English as a Second/Foreign Language needs to undergo a paradigm shift from teaching English as a language ‘belonging’ to and ‘owned’ by Native English Speakers (NES), to teaching English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). This issue has been widely discussed recently in academic publications, and was explored in-depth in two books Defining issues in ELT by Widdowson himself and in Understanding ELF by Barbara Seidlhofer.

The talk started with a historical overview of the shift away from a Structural Language Teaching (SLT) to Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) which took place in ELT starting in the late 70s and early 80s. Many might think of this change as a profound paradigm shift from a structure, grammar and correctness oriented approach to a focus on productive skills, communication and interaction. However, Prof. Widdowson points out here that in fact very little changed. The subject being taught remained essentially the same. So did the basic assumptions behind teaching.

In fact, in certain basic respects we haven’t moved on at all. The (idealised) NES competence was the subject of SLT and still is that of CLT. The two approaches might seem radically different at the surface, but they’re underlying assumptions remain exactly the same. And as a result of these assumptions, learners are only labelled as successful provided they conform with the NES models.

It is true that in SLT the focus of teaching was slightly different as the emphasis was placed on linguistic terms. In addition, English was thought of as radically different from students’ L1, which made it seem really difficult to learn. Students had to internalise this foreign and alien code. A lot of SLT also focused on differences in form between L1 and L2.

The introduction of CLT was said to lead to a radical shift in how English was to be taught, and what aspects of it. Radical at face value only, however. For example, it is true that communicative competence, as opposed to the linguistic or structural one, started to be viewed as paramount. Communicating meaning in interactions was emphasised over ‘dry’ grammar. All of this reflected a similar change in linguistics. However, it is not true that language taught through SLT was decontextualized. SLT DID focus on meaning too. The difference was that in SLT the context was subservient to the code or the linguistic structure. On the other hand, in CLT the linguistic structure is viewed as subservient to the context.

But if we examine the underlying assumptions of the subject matter (English language) to be taught and the context in which it is to be presented, it becomes clear that actually no shift had taken place. After all, it was still the (idealised) NES norms of language use which were to reign supreme and had to be abided by if a NNES was ever to be deemed a successful learner. While CLT focused on context and SLT on linguistic structure, they were both underscored by the same assumption: there was to be only one correct context or structure, of course that of a NES. And it is an orthodoxy that is still followed. The C in CLT is highly misleading, because the method is not concerned with communication per se, but rather with communication in conformity with NES norms. It seems then that CLT was not a radical shift at all, but rather a quick and somewhat superficial make over.

If we then examine the acronym TESOL/TEFL, it becomes self-evident that the E can only mean one thing. English of NES, that of Inner Circle speakers. So the only correct English belongs to NES, and the communicative competence so cherished by CLT is of course that of a NES too. That is, a successful learner in CLT has to conform with how English is used in communicative situations by NES. We could say then that what CLT has done is to have doubled the difficulty faced by learners: they now not only need to use English correctly, i.e. conform with the NES linguistic code; but also appropriately, i.e. conform with the NES communicative and interactional rules. For, as Prof. Widdowson put it, it was believed that “Otherwise you’re communicatively disabled”.

The real radical shift in ELT might come from ELF, which aims to change the paradigm of dependence on NES norms, of viewing learners as constant failures.  For what the use of ELF shows is how the resources of the language can be strategically exploited in non-conformist ways to achieve communication as appropriate to different contexts and purposes. Such non-conformist uses correspond in many ways to so-called learner ‘error’, which can also be seen as attempts to make the language being taught communicatively real and in correspondence  with the learners experience of their own language. From the learning perspective, the E of TESOL/TEFL/ELT would then become the E of ELF, not the E of NES. Hence, the proposed change of subject.

IMG_20151113_150320

You might wonder, though, why we should be looking forward to the ELF shift. Hasn’t CLT been successful enough? On the superficial level, perhaps yes. However, when we look at the underlying native speakeristic assumptions behind SLT and CLT, the picture becomes much less optimistic.

The first corrosive effect of relying on NES norms is that learners are doomed to failure from the very beginning. They are made to conform with communicative norms and structural rules of native- speaker English, and their performance is constantly being evaluated in terms of their inability to conform with these norms and rules. In other words, learners remain forever locked in a state of linguistic and communicative disability. Hence, as Prof. Widdowson summarised it, ELT methodologies “have amounted to a pedagogy of failure”.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves why students do not conform, where the errors come from. Learners will have the pragmatic awareness from their L1 and learning will always involve transfer from L1 experience. However, there is no valid reason why it should be seen as a negative interference. Functionally, then, these errors could be seen as communicative transfer. The student focuses on what is communicatively important or salient, and filters out what has little pragmatic value. Yet, teachers spend hours trying to correct these ‘errors’, to eradicate the interference which at the end of the day has little communicative importance. As a result, the natural learning of communicative capability  is hindered by teacher’s insistence on conformity with the NES norm.

On the other hand, ELF relates English more closely to the learners. From a foreign and alien tongue impossible to master, English becomes more familiar and real, a language that is actually learnable, that can be appropriated by the learner, made their own. ELF removes the necessity to conform with NES norms which dooms all learners to a painful and demotivating failure. It moves the focus to pragmatic and communicative capability  per se, rather than the NES communicative competence of CLT.

Prof. Widdowson concludes the talk by highlighting that the insistence on conformity with NES norms actually hinders the development of learner autonomy, a concept which we as teachers supposedly go into great pains to develop. After all, the student is faced with an irresolvable dilemma: practising the newly learned language outside the class (i.e. learner autonomy) will inevitably lead to making errors, and hence failure. What this creates is that just as employers have employees, teachers have teachees, who must conform with the rules set by the teacher, and are not allowed to experiment with the new language. However, students should be allowed to develop communicatively. We need to cease to judge learners success or failure in view of the errors they make. Instead of this ‘pedagogy of failure’, ELF focuses on the positive, on the “development of the potential to use English” ie of a communicative capability.

As teachers, we need to change how we think of English as a subject. Why teach a competence that so few learners can achieve?

Why not instead teach a more realistic model. Set realistic objectives, which reflect learning, not failure. Objectives which are achievable.

If we continue with the pedagogy of the NES ideal, we teach learners to fail. We stigmatise them as incompetent, forever communicatively disabled.

However, if we accept the reality of the English language, which is no longer the sum of NES norms, the purpose of teaching becomes the development of students’ capability to use English with whichever linguistic resources at hand, whether conforming to NES norms or not.

Henry Widdowson is an authority in the field of applied linguistics and language teaching, specifically English language learning and teaching. Widdowson is perhaps best known for his contribution to communicative language teaching. However, he has also published on other related subjects such as discourse analysis and critical discourse analysis, the global spread of English, English for Special Purposes and stylistics. The Routledge Encyclopedia of Language Teaching and Learning calls him “probably the most influential philosopher of the late twentieth century for international ESOL” (674). Widdowson is Emeritus Professor of Education, University of London, and has also been Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Essex and Professor of English Linguistics at the University of Vienna. He is the Applied Linguistics adviser to Oxford University Press and series adviser of Oxford Bookworms Collection. Widdowson is co-editor of Language Teaching: A Scheme for Teacher Education. He is the series editor of Oxford Introductions to Language Study and the author of Linguistics (1996) in the same series. He has also published Defining Issues in English Language Teaching (2002), and Practical Stylistics: An Approach to Poetry (1992). His most recent book is Text, Context, Pretext. Critical Issues in Discourse Analysis (2004), published by Blackwell’s (from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Widdowson).

‘I don’t have talent’ and other language learning myths

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All The TEFL Show podcasts can be found in this playlist on Soundcloud and in the iTunes Store here. You can subscribe to the show there, download the podcasts to listen to later and share them on social media.

In this episode of The TEFL Show we use our own language learning experience to debunk some of the most common myths and misconceptions about learning languages, such as that you need talent or a very long time to get to a high level. We also give several tips that will hopefully boost your language learning progress.

What has your language learning experience been like? Do you have any other tips? Have you found the ones we’ve given useful? Let us know in the comments section below.

If you’re interested in learning languages, you might find this section of the blog useful. All the previous podcasts can be found here on the blog.

The podcast music theme is under Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0 International License and was downloaded from this website.