An A-Z of ELT

8 12 2009

In 2006 I wrote An A-Z of ELT – an encyclopedia-dictionary of terminology relating to English language and English language teaching. As soon as it was published (by Macmillan) I was already planning an update. Hence this blog. Here I will regularly post articles relating to existing entries, or with a view to creating new entries, should the A-Z be revised. You can help me, by posting responses or making suggestions as to topics that you think should be included or amendments that should be made to existing topics. I’ll be dealing with topics in no particular order, simply as the mood takes me!
I support the round
Some of the most popular posts on this blog have been re-worked in the form of an e-book, called Big Questions in ELT, which is published by The Round.





P is for Power

26 04 2015
the_english_man

What about ‘The English Woman’? Or ‘The Non-English Man’? (Language school in Barcelona)

The recent IATEFL Conference at Manchester has been generating quite a bit of heat on the social networks on issues that, to my way of thinking, relate to questions of power: specifically, who has it? who ought to have it? and who has earned it?

For example, in their presentation on the alleged invisibility of women in ELT, Nicola Prentis and Russell Mayne suggested that the predominance of a clique of (not quite) dead white males in ELT (all named and shamed!) has effectively blocked access to opportunities for aspiring writers and presenters, especially women. (I wasn’t there so I’m simply inferring the gist from what I’ve been reading on Facebook – I’m prepared to be corrected). Their concern echoes that of the Fair List, an initiative to encourage a higher profile for women speakers at ELT events, which had hosted an awards ceremony the evening before.

Where are the women in ELT? Well, while it may be true that women are underrepresented in the power structures of ELT (ignoring, for the moment, that the incoming and outgoing presidents of both IATEFL and TESOL are all women), the situation is probably healthier than in many professions. A quick check of a website where speakers from a whole range of disciplines (sciences, the arts, media, sports etc) advertise their wares shows that roughly nine out of ten speakers in all categories (Keynote, Celebrities, Motivational, Leadership etc) are men. By comparison, the ELT conference circuit seems relatively inclusive.  There is certainly room for improvement, but it does make me wonder if the gender debate isn’t distracting us from power issues that are much more pervasive and equally, if not more, pernicious.

Such as? Well, not one of the alpha males (in the list that Prentis and Mayne’s research identified) is a non-native speaker. Yet non-native speaker teachers comprise the vast majority of the teaching population worldwide – upwards of 95% by some estimates. This – more than the gender disparity – seems a much more serious indictment of the present state of ELT, and suggests that the ‘discourses of colonialism’ (Pennycook 1998) still permeate the profession, a situation in which, as Holliday (2005: 2) puts it, ‘a well-resourced, politically and economically aggressive, colonizing, Western ‘Centre’’ imposes its values, standards and beliefs on ‘an under-sourced, colonized ‘Periphery’.’ in class 1950

Ironically, these colonizing forces are particularly conspicuous at conferences in the so-called periphery itself, where the alpha (NS) males – myself included – really dominate. Is this a case of what Kumaravadivelu (2006: 22) calls ‘self-marginalization’? I.e.:

The TESOL profession is replete with instances where, in certain periphery communities, program administrators “require” or at least “prefer” native speakers to carry out teaching and consultancy, and teachers and teacher educators look up to native speakers for inspiration thinking that they have ready-made answers to all the recurrent problems of classroom teaching … By their uncritical acceptance of the native speaker dominance, non-native professionals legitimize their own marginalization.

As I’ve found, it’s very hard to persuade the head of a teachers’ organization in, say, Bangladesh or Armenia, that I have nothing of value to add to what the locals already know. TaW SIG

Meanwhile, a group calling itself TAW (Teachers as Workers) is lobbying IATEFL for Special Interest Group (SIG) status, on the grounds that it represents the interests of working teachers (‘pushing for the rights of ELT teachers in an era of precarity [sic]’), but, so far, with little success. It is a little odd, let’s face it, that a teachers’ organization (which is what IATEFL purports to be) can’t make room for a group that provides a forum for chalkface teachers. Teacher professional development, after all, is professional development, which surely includes issues of job security, working conditions, access to training, and so on. As Bill Johnston (2003: 137) writes:

I believe that all our talk of teacher professional development is seriously compromised if we ignore the marginalisation of ELT that is staring us in the face, that is, if we treat the professional growth of teachers as something that can be both conceived and carried out without reference to the sociopolitical realities of teachers’ lives. To devalue this central feature of work for huge numbers of teachers is to fail to grasp the significance of the drive for professional development. I believe that the ELT professional organisations have unwittingly colluded in this artificial separation of the professional and political. For many years, for example, the TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) Convention, the annual meeting of the TESOL organisation, was almost exclusively devoted to matters of classroom techniques and materials. These things are of course important and useful to teachers. What was lacking, however, was any sense of the sociopolitical contexts in which ELT is conducted, or of its role in those contexts.

teacher ny 1920So, don’t be put off by the somewhat hectoring rhetoric of the TaW collective. Even if it is unlikely to prosper, their cause is a worthy one.

Finally, while some are banging on the doors of IATEFL trying to get in, there are others who view IATEFL and similar organizations, not as the solution, but as the problem. From his bunker somewhere in Catalonia, Geoff Jordan lambasts IATEFL and all it stands for: “The IATEFL conference is about self-promotion, it’s held to justify IATEFL’s existence and to give the huge commercial concerns that run the ELT industry a chance to flog their shoddy goods.”

Whether you agree or not, this – like the other issues I have touched on – is clearly an issue of power: whose interests does IATEFL really serve? Does it kowtow to the publishers? What discourses does it privilege, e.g. those of professional development, or of social justice or of big business?

And, taking the wider view, is ELT still tainted with its colonial past? Does the centre still hold? Is it really all about ‘the English Man’? In short, how cognizant are we (to borrow Johnston’s phrase) “of the sociopolitical contexts in which ELT is conducted”?  How is power distributed in these contexts? How could it be distributed more equitably?

References

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

Johnston, B. (2003) Values in English Language Teaching. Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2006) ‘Dangerous liaison: globalization, empire and TESOL’, in Edge, J. (ed.) (Re)locating TESOL in an Age of Empire. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pennycook, A. (1998) English and the Discourses of Colonialism. London: Routledge.





M is for Mother tongue

19 04 2015

Berlitz frontispieceIn 1906 Maximilian Berlitz wrote, in the preface to his Method for Teaching Modern Languages:

“In the Berlitz Method, translation as a means of acquiring a foreign language is entirely abandoned. From the first lesson, the student hears only the language he is studying.”

The reasons for this (at the time) radical departure from established pedagogy included the following:

“He who is studying a foreign language by means of translation, neither gets hold of its spirit nor becomes accustomed to think in it; on the contrary, he has a tendency to base all he says upon what he would say in his mother tongue, and he cannot prevent his vernacular [i.e. his L1] from invading the foreign idiom [i.e. the L2].”

This view – that languages can and should be ‘kept apart’ because, if not, they will ‘invade’ one another – has underpinned second language teaching pedagogy ever since. Likewise, the folk wisdom that, unless languages are kept separate, learners will never learn to ‘think’ in the target language, has persisted until the present day.

What evidence is there (a) that languages are stored and accessed separately, and (b) that second language learners can be trained to ‘think’ in their L2?

Not a lot. The findings of neuroscience, based mainly on neuro-imaging technology, challenge the view that languages are stored separately in the brain. Instead, ‘current research suggests that the neural representation of an L2 converges with that of an L1’ (Green et al, 2006: 111) and that ‘each language affects the other and neither is identical to that of a monolingual’ (Birdsong 2006: 22). What’s more, ‘it would appear that the brain areas involved in L1 acquisition are very similar to those involved in L2 acquisition’ (Schumann 2006: 317).  In other words, languages do not develop separately, nor are they stored separately. Nor can they be: they are inextricably interconnected. Invasion, interference, transfer, leakage, competition – these are the facts of (psycholinguistic) life. Better, perhaps, to deal with them head on, rather than attempt to avoid them.

As for ‘thinking in English’: this seems only to occur in advanced learners who are committed to living their lives as part of the target language community. Studies of developmental changes in the way speakers gesture in their L2 (e.g. Gullberg 2008; 2011), for example, suggest that L1 cognitive structures persist even at quite advanced levels. Ellis and Shintani (2014: 243), reviewing the evidence, conclude, ‘it is clearly necessary to accept that the L1 will play a major role in most learners’ inner world’.

Berltiz prefaceMoreover, from a sociolinguistic perspective, it is quite likely that the L1 will play a role in the learners’ outer world as well – even in predominantly English-speaking contexts. Purely monolingual societies have probably never been the norm, but are less so now than ever. As Rampton (1995: 338) observes: ‘The idea that people really only have one native language, that really monolingualism is the fundamental linguistic condition, … underlies a widespread failure to recognise new and mixed linguistic identities’. This is even truer now than it was in 1995: in a globalized world, there is increasing use of, and greater tolerance of, ‘code-switching’ and ‘code meshing’ by multilinguals, and this needs to be reflected in pedagogy. Learners are probably not learning English to join a single monolithic discourse community but are ‘shuttling between communities’ (Canagarajah 2005: xxvi) – hence there should be a pedagogical focus on multilingual and multicultural practices, practices in which the learners’ mother tongue is not proscribed but legitimized.

Nevertheless, current methodology still seems heavily predicated on Berlitz’s ‘English only’ principle. Teacher education is directed, not at exploiting the learners’ L1 as a resource for learning and communication, but at compensating for many teachers’ lack of knowledge of their learners’ L1, and at producing learners who are simulacra of monolingual native speakers. Worse, this ‘native speakerist’ mindset seems to have ‘infected’ many NNS teachers, who feel guilty if caught using the L1 in the classroom.

In the Cambridge English signature event at the IATEFL conference in Manchester last week, I argued that the Cambridge English Teaching Framework, a rubric for the assessment of teachers’ effectiveness, should not only NOT proscribe L1 use, but should include a section that validates L1 knowledge. Adopting the categories of the existing five competencies (which includes Language ability, but only insofar as this applies to the target language, i.e. English), it might look like this:

L1 competence Cambridge Framework

It was gratifying to receive this response (from Karima Gikar) to my not entirely frivolous proposal:

The suggestion you made concerning the modification of the [CET Framework] as to make it compulsory for NS teachers to know their students’ L1 is bloody daring! If your suggestion came to be taken more than seriously (which I hope) and implemented in internationally recognised tests like CELTA, DELTA and TESOL, it would be a huge boost for NNS teachers who have long been made to feel less capable or even deficient only because they happen to be non natives. Turning the knowledge and use of students’ L1 into an asset rather than a setback will undoubtedly make teachers who have been put off by discriminatory attitudes and practices regain trust in the profession.

References

Birdsong, D. (2006) ‘Age and second language acquisition and processing: a selective overview,’ in Gullberg, M. & Indefrey, P. (eds) The cognitive neuroscience of second language acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Canagarajah, S. (2005) ‘Introduction’, in Canagarajah, S. (ed.) Reclaiming the local in language policy and practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Ellis, R. & Shantini, N. (2014) Exploring language pedagogy through second language acquisition research. London: Routledge.

Green, D.W., Crinion, J., & Price, C.J. (2006) ‘Convergence, degeneracy, and control,’ in Gullberg, M. & Indefrey, P. (eds) The cognitive neuroscience of second language acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Gullberg, M. (2008) ‘Gestures and second language acquisition’, in Robinson, P., & Ellis, N. (eds.) Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition, Abingdon: Routledge.

Gullberg, M. (2011) ‘Thinking, speaking and gesturing about motion in more than one language,’ in Pavlenko, A. (ed.) Thinking and speaking in two languages. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Rampton, B. (1995) Crossing: Language and ethnicity among adolescents. London: Longman.

Schumann, J. S. (2006) ‘Summing up: some themes in the cognitive neuroscience of second language acquisition,’ in Gullberg, M. & Indefrey, P. (eds) The cognitive neuroscience of second language acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.





M is for Model

12 04 2015

modellingmodel n [C]: someone you should imitate because of their good qualities or behaviour [Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English]

Today, at IATEFL, I’m taking part in a debate, hosted by Cambridge English, which celebrates the publication of a new volume in the Studies in Language Testing series, called Assessing language teachers’ professional skills and knowledge (edited by Wilson & Poulter). One of the papers in this collection, ‘Teachers’ language competence: issues of appropriation and appropriacy’ by Jenny Johnson and Monica Poulter, reports the results of a survey in which teacher trainers worldwide were asked (among other things) about the level of English required for acceptance on to CELTA (i.e. pre-service) courses. One respondent replied:

‘The key, for me, is that they should be a good model for students. I wouldn’t want candidates to be teaching incorrect things to students’ (p. 187)

This more or less echoes the views of the majority of respondents, it seems, and in turn chimes with Cambridge English’s own assessment criterion (2d), viz. [the candidate should be seen to be] ‘providing accurate and appropriate models of oral and written language in the classroom.’

Which set me thinking: isn’t there something a little superannuated about the role of teacher as ‘model’? Do teachers have to be ‘someone you should imitate’? And what exactly are these ‘incorrect things’ that they might be imitating? Doesn’t this all have a vaguely behaviourist ring to it? And a ‘native-speakerist’ one, at that?  By whose standards, for example, is ‘correctness’ judged?

It’s certainly a view that has a long history. E.g.:

‘It is a sad thing to think that all over the world teachers are busily teaching incorrect pronunciation to thousands of children daily! … Yet it is within the power of nearly every teacher of English to achieve a level of speaking which is a very close approximation to the natural speech of a native speaker of English who speaks carefully and enunciates clearly’ (Gurrey 1955: 14-15).

salle de classeI once had a trainee on a Diploma course who confessed to the fact that, in an earlier life, he had been an art teacher – not by choice, since he can’t draw. But he said that this wasn’t actually a handicap. If you’re a good teacher, you can teach anything – he argued. But you don’t have to model it.

Couldn’t the same be said about second languages?

Isn’t the teacher’s main role to provide the conditions of learning? And isn’t a key condition of language learning language using? Imitating a ‘good model’ is hardly using the language – compared, say, to authentic communication. And, anyway, if it is exemplars that are needed, we now have the technology to provide any number of samples of a huge range of accents, registers and speaking styles. Not to mention writing. Moreover, these exemplars can be selected so as to match the learners own needs and aspirations. After all, the ‘model’ that a learner aspires to, or can realistically achieve, may not be the teacher’s.

And, crucially, if the teacher’s role is construed less as a model to imitate and more as a facilitator of learning, the invidious distinction between NS and NNS starts to collapse. NNS teachers need no longer feel that they are somehow deficient, simply because they can’t simulate a native speaker. Why should they? As Vivian Cook (1999: 194) argues, “People cannot be expected to conform to the norm of a group to which they do not belong”.

So, is it time to inter the notion of ‘model’ once and for all?

References

Cook, V. (1999) ‘Going beyond the native speaker in language teaching’ TESOL Quarterly, 33/2: 185-210.

Gurrey, P. (1955) Teaching English as a foreign language. London: Longmans.





G is for Grammar(s)

5 04 2015

Fries grammarThere is more than one way to skin a cat. And more than one way to describe a language. Hence, more than one type of grammar.

It all depends on your point of view. Take this sentence, for example:

THIS DOOR IS ALARMED

Structuralist grammars foreground the way that the basic structure of this sentence (NP + verb to be + V-ed) provides the template for any number of similar sentences, such as This window is closed or Your days are numbered, but not Doorman will return shortly or Your number is up. Grammar, viewed thus, is a system of building blocks. In the words of a leading structuralist, ‘All the structural signals in English are strictly formal matters that can be described in physical terms’ (Fries, 1952: 56). Grammar is matter.

Grammar-as-matter is what a bog-standard computer program might be able to unpack, simply by skimming the surface of a text. The exclusive focus on the formal features of our model sentence (THIS DOOR IS ALARMED), however, might blind the computer to its inherent ambiguity, an ambiguity that has been playfully exploited by graffiti writers, e.g. THIS DOOR IS ALARMED. ‘What startled it?’ or THIS DOOR IS ALARMED. ‘But the window is not bothered’.

chomsky grammarExplaining how one sentence might have two quite different meanings impelled linguists like Chomsky to drill down beneath the surface level of sentences and expose their ‘deep structure’. Thus, the deep structure of the passive THIS DOOR IS ALARMED and its active equivalent SOMEONE ALARMED THIS DOOR is essentially the same.

But Chomsky’s project is more than simply the description of patterns, deep or otherwise. He wants to explain how the rules that generate these patterns are derived from innate and universal cognitive structures. His grammar, therefore, is less an account of linguistic behaviour than a theory of mind. As Chomsky himself put it (1972: 100), ‘When we study human language, we are approaching what some might call the ‘human essence,’ the distinctive qualities of mind that are, so far as we know, unique to man.’ Grammar is mind.

But, like the structuralist account, Chomsky’s reduction of grammar to a set of mathematical rules tells us nothing about the meaning of our sentence THIS DOOR IS ALARMED. Nor does it explain how it functions in context – how it has the force of a warning, for example (Don’t open this door!). Nor how its elements map on to some objective reality, e.g. how this in THIS DOOR ‘points’ to a specific door. A functionalist grammar, on the other hand, tries to relate the linguistic forms to specific communicative purposes and their contexts, and, more ambitiously, to explain how these purposes and contexts actually determine the way the grammar has evolved. Grammar is not simply a reflection of thought, but is ‘motivated’ by its social and cultural functions. Or, as a leading functionalist grammarian, Michael Halliday, puts it, ‘language is as it is because of what it has to do’ (1978: 19). Grammar is function.

Halliday grammarA not dissimilar, cognitive, view of grammar starts from the premise that, as one scholar puts it, ‘language is rooted in human experience of the physical world’ (Lee 2001: 48). That is to say, grammar is the linguistic realization of the way we physically experience and perceive the world. Thus, the sentence Doorman will return shortly does not mean that the doorman will, literally, be short when he returns. Rather that, because we tend to construe time in terms of physical distance, it makes sense, when we talk about time, to use spatial words like short and long (and back and over). Likewise, our use of grammatical tense, aspect, modality, countability, and so on, all originate in our lived experience. Grammar is perception.

Finally, an emergent view of grammar is one that has, in part, been fuelled by developments in corpus linguistics. Corpora demonstrate that language is both formulaic and subject to constant variation. This tension between stasis and flux means that, over time, certain strings of words (called constructions) become fixed and assume a grammatical, i.e. non-literal, function: they become grammaticised. The English future form going to is a case in point: a verb string that started life meaning the same as walking to, but became a metaphor for futurity, and was eventually reduced, informally, to gonna. According to the emergent view, grammar is ‘the set of sedimented conventions that have been routinized out of the more frequently occurring ways of saying things’ (Hopper 1998: 163). Grammar is routine.

Matter, mind, function, perception, routine: which of these multiple ways of looking at grammar (and this by no means exhausts the number of grammars that have been theorized) best serves the needs of language learners and their teachers? I’ll leave that for you to ponder on.

 

cognitive grammarReferences

Chomsky, N. (1972) Language and Mind. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Fries, C. C. (1952). The Structure of English. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1978) Language as Social Semiotic. London: Edward Arnold.

Hopper, P.J. (1998) ‘Emergent grammar’ in Tomasello, M. (ed.) The New Psychology of Language: Cognitive and functional approaches to language structure. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Lee, D. (2001) Cognitive Linguistics: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press

(A version of this post first appeared on the Cambridge English Teaching forum)





F is for Forty years on

29 03 2015
IH Shaftesbury Avenue - where it all started

IH Shaftesbury Avenue – where it all started

It came as a slight shock today to realize that I started my career in TEFL forty years ago last month. So, forgive the somewhat indulgently autobiographical nature of this post.

February 1975: newly arrived in London and eager to return to Greece under whose spell I had fallen en route from the dominions, I enrolled in a four-week course at IH London — in those days housed in its quaintly labyrinthine headquarters in Soho. It cost £65 – probably the best £65 I ever spent.

I was instantly captivated by the ‘IH method’, a Direct Method derivative, where ‘grammar points’ were presented using ingeniously contrived situations, and vocabulary was taught through mime, realia, visual aids – anything, of course, but translation. The fact that we were plunged into teaching practice from day one made perfect sense, but ratcheted up the intensity of the experience to a degree that might have been insupportable had I not had a background in children’s theatre.

The Monday after the course finished I was already teaching – at the International House affiliate in Hastings. I still cringe when I remember some of those first lessons: presenting countable and uncountable nouns using a painstakingly assembled bag of groceries, drilling the present simple instead of the present continuous to narrate a picture story, being challenged (and failing) to explain the grammar of ‘I wish’ to a group of insolent Iranian naval cadets, walking my class through Hastings old town in order to reinforce the learning of those same countable and uncountable nouns…

Hastings 1975 - writing my application for a job in Cairo

Hastings 1975 – writing my application for a job in Cairo

Four months on, with my visa due to expire, I applied to join the teaching staff of a new IH affiliate in Cairo. I’d wanted to go to Greece, but Egypt seemed close enough. My original teacher trainer, who happened to be in Hastings at the time, urged me on: ‘It’s a new school and expanding rapidly. Stick it out and in a year’s time you’ll be assistant Director of Studies. And then … who knows?’

Which is more or less what happened.

So, looking back, what has happened to TEFL in those forty years?

Only a year into teaching and the first waves of the communicative approach started breaking on the methodological shore. I’ve written about that elsewhere, so I won’t say more now, except that its advent was perfectly timed to provide a humane alternative to the ‘drill-and-repeat’ methodology I had been trained in and which, I have to say, I had perfected to the point that my classes had an almost military rigour.

This trend was reinforced by serendipitously coming across a book by Earl Stevick, which – like Chapman’s Homer – opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking about teaching – in fact, not thinking about teaching at all, but about learning.

This undercurrent of early CLT and humanistic principles permeated my subsequent teacher training career at IH Barcelona, reinforced by my reading on task-based instruction, along with a heavy dose of Krashen – all of which bubbled to the surface as Dogme ELT (aka Teaching Unplugged) – a rearguard action to salvage communicative principles in the face of a grammar-driven materials tsunami.

By now I was starting to go to conferences, where my thinking was further moulded by luminaries too numerous to mention. The first major conference I dared to speak at myself was at IATEFL in, uniquely, Lille, France – on the subject of reflection, which had been the focus of my MA dissertation at the University of Reading.

Teacher training, IH Barcelona 1986

Teacher training, IH Barcelona 1986

It was at one of these early conferences that I was approached and invited to submit a proposal for a book of language awareness tasks, which became About Language – now in the process of being re-written for its long overdue second edition. The rest is not exactly history, but it is of perhaps less consequence in terms of my overall development.

So, what is different in TEFL now compared to 1975? For a start, the very notion of EFL itself has succumbed to the complexity and diversity of globalized English, where the distinctions between English as a foreign, or second, or international language are blurring to the point of illegibility.

And those who confidently and even imperiously ‘owned’ EFL in those days – the (mainly white) inner circle native speakers like myself – are slowly relinquishing their authority to the majority outer and expanding circle non-natives – although not without a struggle. And, of course, technology has radically changed the way that language is used and learned – although its benefits for teaching, and its unintended consequences, have yet to be fully understood.

But that’s enough of me. What’s changed since you started teaching?





I is for Intersubjectivity

22 03 2015

edmund whiteIf I had to reduce language learning to the bare essentials and then construct a methodology around those essentials, it might look something like this (from Edmund White’s autobiographical novel The Farewell Symphony):

“[Lucrezia’s] teaching method was clever. She invited me to gossip away in Italian as best I could, discussing what I would ordinarily discuss in English; when stumped for the next expression, I’d pause. She’d then provide the missing word. I’d write it down in a notebook I kept week after week. … Day after day I trekked to Lucrezia’s and she tore out the seams of my shoddy, ill-fitting Italian and found ways to tailor it to my needs and interests.”

Whatever theoretical lens you view this through, Lucrezia’s ‘method’ contains the right mix. Those who subscribe to the ‘learning-is-information-processing’ view will approve of the output + feedback cycle and the covert focus on form. Those of a sociocultural bent will applaud Lucrezia’s scaffolding of learning affordances at the point of need. Dynamic systems theorists will invoke ‘the soft-assembly of language resources in a coupled system’. What’s more, my own recent experience of trying to re-animate my moribund Spanish suggests that the single most effective learning strategy was ‘instructional conversation’ with a friend in a bar. That is to say, the same kind of ‘clever method’ that White celebrates above.

But, of course, unless you have a willing partner, such intensive one-to-one treatment is costly and not always available. Could this kind of conversation-based mediation be engineered digitally? Is there an app for it?

alan turingInteractive software that replicates human conversation has long been a dream of researchers ever since Alan Turing proposed the ‘Turing Test’ in the 1950s, which challenged programmers to design a machine that could outwit a jury into thinking that they were interacting with a real person.

While no one has yet met Turing’s conditions in any convincing way, programs such as ‘chatterbots’ have certainly managed to fool some of the people some of the time. Could they substitute for a real interlocutor, in the way, say, that a computer can substitute for a chess player?

It’s unlikely. Conversation, unlike chess, is not constrained by a finite number of moves. Even the most sophisticated program based on ‘big data’, i.e. one that could scan a corpus of millions or even billions of conversations, and then select its responses accordingly, would still be a simulation. Crucially, what the program would lack is the capacity to ‘get into the mind’ of its conversational partner and intuit his or her intentions. In a word, it would lack intersubjectivity.

Intersubjectivity is ‘the sharing of experiential content (e.g., feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and linguistic meanings) among a plurality of subjects’ (Zlatev et al 2008, p.1). It appears to be a uniquely human faculty. Indeed, some researchers go so far as to claim that ‘the human mind is quintessentially a shared mind and that intersubjectivity is at the heart of what makes us human’ (op.cit. p. 2). Play, collaborative work, conversation and teaching are all dependent on this capacity to ‘know what the other person is thinking’. Lucrezia’s ability to second-guess White’s communicative needs is a consequence of their ‘shared mind’.

It is intersubjectivity that enables effective teachers to pitch their instructional interventions at just the right level, and at the right moment. Indeed, Vygotsky’s notion of the ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD) is premised on the notion of intersubjectivity. As van Lier (1996, p. 191) observes:

‘How do we, as caretakers or educators, ensure that our teaching actions are located in the ZPD, especially if we do not really have any precise idea of the innate timetable of every learner? In answer to this question, researchers in the Vygotskian mould propose that social interaction, by virtue of its orientation towards mutual engagement and intersubjectivity, is likely to home in on the ZPD and stay with it.’

alexander hide and seek01Intersubjectivity develops at a very early age – even before the development of language – as a consequence of joint attention on collaborative tasks and routines. Pointing, touching, gaze, and body alignment all contribute to this sharing of attention that is a prerequisite for the emergence of intersubjectivity.

In this sense, intersubjectivity is both situated and embodied: ‘Intersubjectivity is achieved on the basis of how participants orient to one another and to the here-and-now context of an interaction’ (Kramsch 2009, p. 19). Even in adulthood we are acutely sensitive to the ‘body language’ of our conversational partners: ‘A conversation consists of an elaborate sequence of actions – speaking, gesturing, maintaining the correct body language – which conversants must carefully select and time with respect to one another’ (Richardson, et al. 2008, p. 77). And teaching, arguably, is more effective when it is supported by gesture, eye contact and physical alignment. Sime (2008, p. 274), for example, has observed how teachers’ ‘nonverbal behaviours’ frame classroom interactions, whereby ‘a developed sense of intersubjectivity seems to exist, where both learners and teacher share a common set of gestural meanings that are regularly deployed during interaction’.alexander hide and seek02

So, could a computer program replicate (as opposed to simulate) the intersubjectivity that underpins Lucrezia’s method? It seems unlikely. For a start, no amount of data can configure a computer to imagine what it would be like to experience the world from my point of view, with my body and my mind.

Moreover, the disembodied nature of computer-mediated instruction would hardly seem conducive to the ‘situatedness’ that is a condition for intersubjectivity. As Kramsch observes, ‘Teaching the multilingual subject means teaching language as a living form, experienced and remembered bodily’ (2009, p. 191). It is not accidental, I would suggest, that White enlists a very physical metaphor to capture the essence of Lucrezia’s method: ‘She tore out the seams of my shoddy, ill-fitting Italian and found ways to tailor it to my needs and interests.’

There is no app for that.

alexander hide and seek03References

Kramsch, C. 2009. The multilingual subject. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richardson, D.C., Dale, R. & Shockley, K. 2008. ‘Synchrony and swing in conversation: coordination, temporal dynamics, and communication’, in Wachsmuth, I., Lenzen, M. & Knoblich, G. (eds) Embodied communication in humans and machines, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sime, D. 2008. ‘”Because of her gesture, it’s very easy to understand” – Learners’ perceptions of teachers’ gestures in the foreign language class.’ In McCafferty, S.G. & Stam, G. (eds) Gesture: Second language acquisition and classroom research. London: Routledge.

Van Lier, L. 1996. Interaction in the language curriculum: Awareness, autonomy & authenticity. Harlow: Longman.

White, E. 1997. The farewell symphony. London: Chatto & Windus.

Zlatev, J., Racine, T.P., Sinha, C., & Itkonen, E. (eds) 2008. The shared mind: Perspectives on intersubjectivity. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Illustrations from Alexander, L.G. 1968. Look, listen, learn! London: Longman.

 A version of this post first appeared on the ELTjam blog in November 2014.

 





J is for Jokes

15 03 2015

laugh_and_be_merry_smallThe polemical Slovenian cultural critic and philosopher Slavoj Žižek recently published a book of jokes designed, in the words of the blurb, to ‘provide an index to certain philosophical, political, and sexual themes that preoccupy him’.

This got me thinking about our own field, and the illustrative jokes that I often weave into talks — none of them as incisive, as witty or as racy as Žižek’s, I fear — but perhaps worth sharing, nevertheless, not least for the light they might shed on various aspects of language and of language learning. Here is a selection.

Firstly, then: jokes about language:

  1. Semantics

Adam (naming the animals): And finally, that is a hippopotamus.
Eve: Why is it called a hippopotamus?
Adam: Because it looks like a hippopotamus, silly!

I like this one because (for me) it pokes fun at the notion that we are hard-wired with the mental representations of the things we refer to when we use language – what has been called ‘mentalese’. That is to say, the concept HIPPOPOTAMUS pre-exists our actual encounter with a real one in the wild and is a precondition for our being able to name it. As Jerry Fodor puts it, ‘One cannot learn a language unless one has a language.’ Of course, none of the proponents of mentalese – Fodor included  – would go so far as to suggest that the word itself (i.e. ‘hippopotamus’) is part of our DNA, but the idea that you wouldn’t be able to think about a hippopotamus without your having been pre-programmed to do so seems equally implausible.

On a more mundane level, the joke also captures a particular mindset displayed by some (not very good) teachers that assumes that English words are self-explanatory, and often takes the form of exchanges like this:

Student (baffled by unfamiliar word in text): What means ‘hippopotamus’?
Teacher: A hippopotamus?  A hippopotamus is, erm, a hippopotamus.

  1. Pragmatics

Man (on park bench to woman, admiring the dog at her feet): Does your dog bite?
Woman: No.
(Man pats dog and is bitten).
Man: I thought you said your dog didn’t bite!
Woman: It’s not my dog.

A perfect illustration of the flouting of Grice’s ‘maxim of quantity’: ‘Make your contribution just as informative as required.’

  1. Prescriptivism

I love anything that takes the mickey out of the grammar police:

A Texan was visiting Harvard University, and was lost. He stopped a student and asked, “Do you know where the library is at?” “I sure do,” replied the student, “But, you know, you’re not supposed to end sentences with prepositions.” “Oh, ok,” said the Texan, “Do you know where the library is at, asshole?”

  1. tell a jokePrecriptivism AND pragmatics

A linguistics professor was lecturing his class the other day. “In English,” he said, “a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn’t a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative.”
A voice from the back of the room retorted, “Yeah, right.”

Which reminds me that I’ve yet to see a corpus-based study of the not totally unusual discourse marker and turn initiator: ‘Yeah. No.’

As in:

Half past six? It’ll all be finished by then will it?
Erm yeah no. Say seven o’clock anyway…

Carol’s having one, did you know?
Yeah no yes well, she told us when she’s a– (unclear) having one…

(from the British National Corpus)

  1. Miscommunication

The following joke was told to me at primary school when I had no idea where Wembley was, but for some odd reason it made a lasting impression.

There are three hearing-challenged men on a train. (It wasn’t ‘hearing-challenged’ when I was at school, of course).

1st man: Is this Wembley?
2nd: No, it’s Thursday.
3rd: So am I. Let’s have a drink.

What I loved (and still love) about this joke is that none of the men is aware that they’ve misheard the other: an instance of misunderstanding, rather than partial understanding, where, in the words of people who study these things, ‘the interlocutor who misunderstands is not aware of it’2.  I suspect that this kind of misunderstanding between second language users occurs more often than we think, and is possibly a characteristic of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) communication — which may, in turn, account for the impression given in the literature that ELF interactions are invariably successful. The reality is that no one realizes that they have been misunderstood.

  1. Classroom talk

english_made_funny_smallMisunderstandings occur between teachers and learners too, of course, as in this joke:

Teacher: What is the outside layer of a tree trunk composed of? Jimmy?
Jimmy: Dunno.
Teacher: BARK, Jimmy, BARK!
Jimmy: Woof woof. Woof woof.

I’ve witnessed similar interactional cross-purposes during classroom observations, where the teacher’s real question has been misconstrued as a display question – as in this (real) example:

Teacher: How was your weekend?
Student: Fantastic – I won the lottery!
Teacher: Wow! How much did you win?
Student: I didn’t. It was just a sentence.

  1. Language acquisition

Doctor: What’s the matter?
Patient: I’ve got a pain in my kidley.
Doctor: You mean kidney.
Patient: That’s what I said, diddle I?

Failure to register the non-target-like nature of one’s own interlanguage is a characteristic of both first and second language acquisition. The child and the learner – like the patient – can hear and recognize the target pronunciation, but can’t hear themselves not achieving it. Which suggests that there is more to pronunciation teaching than simply ear-training and imitating models: you have to be able to hear yourself.

  1. Real-time processing

A French scholar has been awarded a prestigious prize in the US. Not being an English speaker, he follows the advice of his colleagues by repeatedly practising ‘Thank you very much’ – but without the tell-tale ‘z’ so typical of French speakers. ‘THHHHank you very much… THHHHank you very much’ – day and night, even using a mirror to monitor the position of his tongue. On the fateful day, he walks up to the podium to receive the prize, and says: ‘MerTHHHHHi beaucoup.’

Moral: if you don’t practise in ‘real operating conditions’, you might as well not practice at all. Or, as Gatbonton and Segalowitz (1988: 486) put it ‘the [practice] activity should be designed to allow learners to experience some of the normal psychological pressures felt by people engaged in real communication.’

  1. Multilingualism

A mouse is in his mouse hole and he wants to go out to get something to eat, but he’s afraid there might be a big cat outside, so he puts his ear by the opening and all he hears is “Bow Wow” so he thinks, “Well, there can’t be a cat out there because there’s a big old dog”, so he goes out of his mouse hole and is promptly caught and eaten by a cat, who licks his lips and says “It’s good to be bilingual !!”

Which makes a nice story, but I suspect that even a mouse would be able to tell a non-native barker from a native one.

_______

1 cited in Evans, V. 2014. The Language Myth: Why language is not an instinct. Cambridge University Press.

2 Weigand, 1999 – quoted in House, J., Kasper, G., & Ross, S. (eds) 2003. Misunderstandings in Social Life: Discourse approaches to problematic talk. London: Pearson.








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