J is for Jargon

6 11 2011

A student on my MA TESOL course posed the following question last week:

“Before becoming a teacher OF teachers, how much did you find yourself grappling with jargon specific to the discipline when teaching your students? … I guess my main issue is that I have an internal conflict with theory and jargon … and when I find it difficult to apply a concept in a concrete manner, it tends not to stick with me very well.”

In response, I paraphrased this extract from the introduction to An A-Z of ELT:

Training and development involves not just the acquisition of new skills and techniques but also a specialized language to talk about them and to make sense of how other professionals talk about them. Specialized language – called jargon by outsiders, but terminology by those who use it – is the discourse of any particular group of professionals. It facilitates communication within the group, and it identifies individuals as belonging to the group. Professional training and development, therefore, means becoming a member of a discourse community, and becoming comfortable with its language (p. vi).

Becoming a member of a social or professional group, then, means learning to ‘talk the talk’. Inevitably, as seen through the lens of an outsider, this ‘new language’ can at first seem obscure, even perverse. In an illuminating study of the development of professional discourse, Heather Murray (1998, p. 3) comments that “it is a common phenomenon on English teacher training courses that trainees regularly complain about the EFL jargon used by trainers at the beginning of the course, but rarely do so at the end”. The initial resistance not only gives way to acceptance, but the jargon becomes part of the trainee’s active vocabulary. Jargon becomes terminology.

Murray tracked this transition on a pre-service course over a seven-month period. In describing classroom events, initially the trainees would use non-specialist wordings, such as a foreigner or mistakes in the verbs. By the end of the course, however, they were substituting these for more specialist terms such as non-native speaker and poor control of tense.

Murray makes the important point that the use of the terminology may constitute the first step towards an understanding of the concepts that these terms encode: “Not only is the acquisition of professional discourse a sign of concept development, but seems in fact to drive concept development” (p. 6, emphasis added). That is, you need to be able to talk the talk before you can walk the walk.

This (Vygotskian) notion of speech preceding, and determining, thought is nicely captured in the following extract (that I came across by chance when researching ‘ownership’ for the previous blog post) in which Courtney Cazden (1992, p. 191) quotes from one of her graduate students’ journals:

As I began work on this assignment, I thought of the name of the course [Classroom Discourse] and thought I had to use the word ‘discourse.’ The word felt like an intruder in my mind displacing my word ‘talk.’ I could not organise my thoughts around it. It was like a pebble thrown into a still pond disturbing the smooth water. It makes all the other words in my mind out of sync. When I realised I was using too much time agonising over how to write the paper, I sat down and tried to analyse my problem. I realised that in time I will own the word and feel comfortable using it, but until that time my own words were legitimate. Contrary to some views that exposure to the dominant culture gives one an advantage in learning, in my opinion it is the ownership of words that gives one confidence. I must want the word, enjoy the word and use the word to own it. When a new word becomes synonymous in my head as well as externally, then I can think with it. I laugh now at my discovery but realise that without it, I would still be inhibited about my writing.

This is the processs that, with reference to other, sometimes less benign, contexts, Fairclough (2003) calls ‘inculcation’: “Inculcation is a matter of, in the current jargon, people coming to ‘own’ discourses, to position themselves inside them” (p. 208). And he adds that “people may learn new discourses and use them for certain purposes while at the same time self-consciously keeping a distance from them” (ibid.). This seems to me to be where my student is at, at the moment.

In an attempt to facilitate this process of inculcation, last summer on a methodology course that I was teaching, I gave each of the 15 trainee teachers a card with a key word on it, such as authentic, communicative, performance, fluency, inductive, etc. Their task was to individually research their word, paying particular attention to its specialist meanings, and, at strategic moments on the course, I would call on the ‘owner’ of one of the words to briefly gloss it. In so doing, they became the ‘expert’ with regard to that particular concept. This seemed to work well, and I plan to repeat the procedure next time round, but with the additional instruction that they should be prepared to compare and contrast the non-specialist and specialist meanings of their selected word. (This also raises the question as to how the same activity could be engineered during the online version of the course).

In short, what I’m arguing is that teacher development and professionalization is the process whereby jargon becomes terminology. But is there a danger that the terminology functions to exclude, as much as to include?  Do teachers and academics really speak the same language?

References:

Cazden, C. 1992. Whole Language Plus: Essays on literacy in the United States & New Zealand. New York: Teachers College Press.

Fairclough, N. 2003. Analysing Discourse: Textual analysis for social research. London: Routledge.

Murray, H. 1998. The developement of professional discourse and language awareness in EFL teacher training. IATEFL TT SIG Newsletter, Issue 21, pp. 3-7.

Illustrations from Kucera, E. 1947. Método Kucera Inglés: Curso elemental. Barcelona: Enrique Kucera.





O is for Ownership

30 10 2011

Can you own an idea?

In the lastest issue of Voices, the IATEFL newsletter, in a page of teaching ideas, there appears the following activity:

Holiday photos

1.Teacher borrows a notepad from a  student and draws 2 big rectangles.

2. Teacher imagines these are family photos and describes the people and the event.

3. Students draw 2 big rectangles on their notepad page.

4. They do step 2 with a partner or small group.

5. Report back to group about their partners’ photos.

(Gobel, 2011, p. 11)

Nice activity. Except that, apart from one or two small details (only one rectangle, not two, and the fact that the teacher doesn’t describe the ‘photo’ so much as invites questions about it), this is my idea. I happen to know it’s my idea because, unusually, it came to me in a dream. (I swear!)  I’ve never written it up, but I’ve often done it in Dogme-style workshops.

So what? No one owns an idea. Moreover, there’s such a thing as synchronicity, when several people think of the same good idea at the same time. Maybe that’s what happened.  So I’m not losing sleep about losing ownership of my idea. But it has got me thinking.

Several years back I was at the other end of a more serious breach of ‘intellectual ownership’. In a methodology book I wrote, I used a term that had recently been coined and popularised by an American academic of considerable repute. Not only did I use the term, I used it in the context of describing a view of linguistics that this writer herself had recently developed and was busily promoting. I felt it was right, therefore, to acknowledge her influence by putting her name at the head of the list of the people I wished to thank.

Imagine my surprise, however, when – having received a complimentary copy – the writer in question emailed me to express her (barely concealed) anger that I had not credited her sufficiently, particularly with regard to the term she had coined.  My response – that my book, not being an academic text, was deliberately thin on referencing – didn’t wash. “We are nothing if not our ideas, Scott,” she wrote. After a hastily convened conference-call with my series editor and publisher, the aggrieved academic was somewhat mollified by the promise that – in the next edition – the wrong would be righted (a promise that was fulfilled, I might add).

“We are nothing if not our ideas”. At the time I thought this was somewhat pious, pretentious even, or just plain sad.   Having since spent time on the fringes of the US academic community, I now understand better where she was coming from.  There is a very different professional culture operating there than, say, in Britain or Europe. It is both more competitive and more proprietorial. Ideas matter.

But for how long?   On yet another occasion, I was taken to task by a reviewer of another of my books for not acknowledging the fact that one of the practice activities in that book had been invented by (the late) Donn Byrne, way back in the 1970s. I honestly didn’t know.

But be reasonable: how long does an idea have to be around before it enters the popular domain?  Does anyone have a patent out on Alibis, for example, or on dictogloss? Who owns running dictations? At what point can you safely stop referencing Stephen Krashen when you talk about comprehensible input, or Jerome Bruner when you talk about scaffolding?

Nevertheless, ideas do matter – some ideas, at least. I’m not going to lose sleep – as I say – about the holiday photos activity. But I did tick off a fellow blogger, a few months back, when he mentioned ‘teaching unplugged’ without attribution. And this – from a post on the Dogme discussion list last week – caused a brief but sharp spasm of wounded pride: “The founders, the producers, actually don’t “own” this story [i.e. Dogme], this story is time-old: it belongs to life and language learning itself”.

So much for one’s precious ideas.

Reference:

Gobel. G. 2011. ‘Practical Teaching Ideas’. Voices, 223. Pewsey: IATEFL. p. 11.





A is for Autonomy

23 10 2011

Autonomy is definitely the flavour of the month. As I write, preparations are well underway for next week’s Realizing Autonomy conference in Nagoya, Japan, which, in turn, celebrates the imminent launch of the collection of papers of the same name, edited by Kay Irie and Alison Stewart (and featuring a chapter by me, as it happens).

Also, shortly to be published in the IATEFL Learner Autonomy SIG Newsletter is a joint interview with me and Luke Meddings that arose out of the Teaching Unplugged conference in Barcelona in May, and which draws links between Dogme and the learner autonomy movement. And, on top of this, plans are being finalised for my participation in the Learner Autonomy SIG pre-conference event at the IATEFL Conference in Glasgow next March.

That’s a lot of autonomy for one week!

But what I want to talk about here is not learner autonomy so much as teacher autonomy. This was triggered by a lively discussion on the Dogme ELT discussion list last week, about the plausibility of such a thing as a ‘Dogme coursebook’. This in turn precipitated a number of posts attacking coursebooks in general, and, by association, coursebook writers. Uncharacteristically, perhaps, I felt obliged to rally to their defense.

Based on my experience observing classes in a number of developing world contexts, such as Palestine, I argued that, due to a lack of training and support, as well as uncertainty about their own English language skills, coupled with learner and other stakeholder expectations about the role of the teacher, “many teachers feel insecure and disempowered.” For teachers such as these, the coursebook is their lifeline. To suggest that they should abandon coursebooks and engage with the language that emerges from the socializing and communicative needs of “the people in the room” is simply disingenuous.

Classroom in Palestine

A similar argument was made my Ramin Akbari (2008) in a TESOL Quarterly article a short while back, where he argued (with particular reference to the Iranian context, but his argument could apply in any public sector context): “Teachers in many contexts are not different from factory workers in terms of their working hours; in many countries, a typical language teacher works for 8 hours per day, 5 or even 6 days per week… The financial and occupational constraints they work within do not leave them with the time or the willingness to act as iconoclasts and social transformers, roles that will jeopardise their often precarious means of subsistence” (p.646).

In my post to the Dogme list, I suggested that a parallel could be drawn with Abraham Maslow’s (1970) ‘hierarchy of needs’. If you recall, at the bottom of the ‘needs pyramid’ are the basic survival necessities such as food and shelter. A person cannot attend to higher needs until these basic needs have been met. Higher up in the pyramid figure community needs (‘a sense of belonging’) and still higher are self-esteem needs and finally ‘self-actualisation’ . But, at all levels, satisfying one’s needs presupposes that the lower level needs have first been met.

Using this analogy, I argued that teachers, too, need to satisfy lower level needs (such as simply controlling the class) before they can ‘graduate’ to a point where they are less dependent on coursebooks, for example, and better equipped to centre their teaching on the learners (and that’s where the notion of autonomy comes in). “We could argue,” (I wrote), “that dogme is what every teacher might (even should) aspire to, but, achieving this ‘state of grace’ means satisfying – and then outgrowing – the lower level needs first. In some contexts (e.g. small private language schools on the south coast of England) one might hope that this developmental trajectory would be fairly rapid and relatively painless. In others it might take generations”.

This is not to say that a Dogme-style approach to teaching is necessarily ‘late-acquired’, i.e. a prerogative of only very experienced teachers – just that it assumes a certain degree of freedom in the way one operates professionally, coupled with a lack of insecurity at the most basic levels.

How, then, can insecurity be reduced and autonomy leveraged, even in difficult circumstances? Serendipitously, in this same week a colleague sent me an article in which he argues for the ‘collaborative nature’ of teacher autonomy (Ding 2009), and adds that “there is a significant body of research examining the potential of technology and in particular ACMC [asynchronous computer mediated communication] to facilitate collaboration and autonomy” (p. 67). Put simply, this means that online communities of teachers can (theoretically, at least) provide the necessary support and motivation to help outgrow lower level insecurities, and achieve a measure of professional self-actualisation.

It just happens that the provision of this kind of collaborative online environment for professional development (and here comes a shameless plug) is one of the goals of the International Teacher Development Institute (iTDi), of which, proudly, I am the academic director, and which launches very shortly. You can read more about it here.

References:

Akbari, R. 2008. Postmethod discourse and practice. TESOL Quarterly, 42/4.

Ding, A. 2009. Tensions and struggles in fostering collaborative teacher autonomy online. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 3:1,65 — 81.

Irie, K, & Stewart, A (eds.). 2011. Realizing Autonomy: Practice and Reflection in Language Education Contexts. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Maslow, A.H. 1970. Motivation and Personality (2nd edition). New York: Harper & Row.





F is for Focus-on-form (2)

16 10 2011

Is dogme soft on form?

It’s a central tenet of the dogme approach to language instruction that, as we put it in Teaching Unplugged, it’s all “about teaching that focuses on emergent language” (Meddings & Thornbury, 2009, p.8).  To this end we enlist the concept of “focus-on-form”, as defined by Michael Long (1991, pp 45-46):

“Focus-on-form… overtly draws students’ attention to linguistic elements as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication”.

However, there are a number of problems inherent in this definition, such as how overt is ‘overtly’? And  which linguistic elements are drawn attention to – those that cause a breakdown in communication or those that are simply incorrect? But possibly the biggest problem is with the word ’incidentally’.

In an excellent (but oddly under-hyped) book by Roy Lyster (2007), based on extensive research into immersion and content-based classrooms in Canada, the writer challenges the prevailing wisdom that ‘incidental’ is good enough.  Lyster (who, admittedly, is firmly anchored in a cognitivist, rather than, say, a sociolcultural, learning tradition) pulls no punches:  “There now exists considerable evidence that the prevalence of implicit and incidental treatment of language [in immersion  and content-based classrooms] does not enable students to engage with language in ways that ensure their continued language growth” (Lyster, p.99)

Lyster is particularly critical of the tendency, in content-based classes – i.e. those where a school subject is taught in the learners’ L2 – to take learners’ non-standard utterances and simply recast them. Recasting means tidying up learners’ ill-formed utterances, but without any overt indication that they are wrong. For example:

T: Pourquoi pensez-vous qu’elle veut se faire réchauffer? Oui?

S8: Parce qu’elle est trop froid pour aller dans toutes les [?]

T:  Parce qu’elle a froid, OK. Oui?

S9: Elle est trop peur.

T: Parce qu’elle a peur, oui.

(T: Why do you think she wants to warm herself up? Yes?

S8: Because she has too cold to go into all the [?]

T: Because she is cold., Ok. Yes?

S9: She has too frightened.

T: Because she is frightened, yes. )

(Lyster, 2007, p. 102)

According to Lyster, recasting of this type seems to happen a lot in content-based instruction, and is probably motivated by a desire to maintain a focus on the subject matter, as well as to keep the lesson flowing along.  (Paul Seedhouse [2004, p. 163] calls this reluctance on the part of teachers to flag errors in teacher-student interaction as ‘The case of the missing “No”’).

But does recasting pay off in terms of language acquisition? Only in classes where there is already a strong form-focus, apparently.   In classrooms where the focus is primarily on meaning – as in these content-based ones in Canada , and, presumably, in a dogme one too – the linguistic information encoded in recasts goes largely unnoticed by learners.

But it’s not just recasts that Lyster takes issue with. He is also sceptical about the value of a purely reactive approach in general:

“If teachers were to rely exclusively on reactive approaches, students would soon be discouraged by being pushed in ostensibly random ways to refine their target language output, without the possibility of accessing linguistic support provided systematically through proactive instruction” (Lyster, p.137)

Dogme is very much a reactive approach, but, I hope neither random nor incidental (in the dictionary sense of incidental, i.e. “related to something but considered less important” [Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners]). In Teaching Unplugged we insist that the language that emerges in the conversation-driven classroom “must be worked upon. It must be scrutinised, manipulated, personalised and practised” (p. 20).

For an exemplary instance of this kind of rigorous focus-on-form, check out Chris Ozog’s blog post (‘If you were a dogme, would you regret barking?’) Chris describes how he orchestrated a spontaneous class discussion, after which

we got to the focus on form. We were 70minutes into the lesson and it had been pure conversation with lexis fed in where appropriate (sometimes the learners are surprised by how long and how much they speak in the class). This is where the ‘fight’ began. I am a firm believer that a focus on form is absolutely essential in the language classroom.

He then describes in detail this key stage of the lesson.  Read that, and then tell me that dogme is soft on form!

References:

Long, M. 1991. ‘Focus on form: A design feature in language teaching methodology’. In de Bot, K., Ginsberg, R., & Kramsch, C. (eds.) Foreign Language Research  in Cross-cultural Perspectives. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Lyster, R. 2007. Learning and Teaching Languages through Content: A counter-balanced approach. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Meddings, L., & Thornbury, S. 2009. Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Peaslake: Delta.

Seedhouse, P. 2004. The Interactional Architecture of the Language Classrom: A Conversation Analysis Perspective. Oxford: Blackwell.

Illustrations from Alexander, A.G. 1968. Look, Listen, Learn. London: Longmans.





P is for Problematizing

9 10 2011

‘How is Carlos?’ I once asked a friend in Spanish, referring to a mutual acquaintance. But, confusing the two verbs ‘to be’, estar and ser, what I actually said was ‘What’s Carlos like?’ – Carlos ¿cómo es ? instead of  Carlos ¿cómo está?   Mischievously, my friend replied,  Bueno, es calvo, bajito.. (‘Well, he’s bald and short…’).  Puzzled at first, I then realised my mistake, and was able to repair it. But the good-humored feedback made a lasting impression. By responding to the literal – but unintended – meaning of my question, my friend had effectively problematised a distinction that I hadn’t fully internalised. The effect (I’m guessing) was more memorable than had he simply ignored the error and answered my intended message (Carlos está bien) or had he explicitly corrected me: ¿Quieres decir “Cómo está”? (‘Do you mean: How is he?’)

Problematizing a language item means alerting learners to the fact that a distinction that they had otherwise regarded as trivial or insignificant actually matters. One way of doing this is deliberately to induce an error and then show its effect.  This is sometimes called a ‘down the garden path’ intervention, in that it lulls learners into a false sense of security and then intentionally trips them up.

R. Ellis (2008, pp. 883-84) describes it thus:  “Most production practice is directed at enabling learners to produce the correct target language forms (i.e. by avoiding errors)”.   He contrasts this with an experiment by Tomasello and Herron (1988) in which the researchers compared the effects of two kinds of instruction on errors caused by overgeneralisation (like my ser and estar error).  “In one treatment, the problems were explained and illustrated to the students (i.e. explicit instruction).  In the other, which Tomasello and Heron referred to as the ‘down the garden path’ treatment, the typical errors were induced and then immediately corrected.  The results of this study show that leading students down the garden path was more effective”.

Ellis continues: “Two explanations for the results were offered. First, Tomasello and Herron suggested that the ‘garden path’ technique encourages learners to carry out a ‘cognitive comparison’ between their own deviant utterances and the correct target-language utterances.  Second, they suggested this technique may increase motivation to learn by arousing curiosity regarding rules and their exceptions.”

A ‘garden path’ approach works best, I think, when learners are unaware of a problem until they’re suddenly confronted with it.

As Nick Ellis (2008, p. 240) puts it “”We rarely think about driving, until it breaks down; as the clutch grinds, or the child runs into the road, these are the times when we become aware of the need to escape automatized routines.  ‘The more novelty we encounter, the more conscious involvement is needed for successful learning and problem-solving” (Baars, 1997).”

One way of engineering this ‘novelty’ is through forcing a misunderstanding. As Tony Lynch (1996, p.85) puts it:

Comprehension problems are vital opportunities for learning.  If learners encountered no difficulties in understanding, they would not need to go beyond their current level.  It is by having to cope with a problem — either in understanding someone else or expressing themselves — that they may notice the gap and may learn the missing item.

As an example, here is an activity adapted from one in Uncovering Grammar (Thornbury, 2001). Ask the class to draw the following:

a room with a glass on the floor

a man buying paper

a girl with a long hair

a room with a light in it

a bowl with tomato in it

a room with glass on the floor

[At this point some students will cry: “We’ve already done that one!” Ignore them, and continue]

a bowl with a tomato in it

a man buying a paper

a girl with long hair

etc.

When students compare their drawings, they’ll discover that what at first seemed quite simple is now vastly confusing!  The feature of language that has been problematised is, of course, the indefinite article that flags countability (a paper vs paper).  For learners who are fairly dismissive about such ‘details’, the activity acts as an entertaining wake-up call!  As R. Ellis says, elsewhere (1997, p. 128):

Learning becomes possible when the learner admits responsibility for the problem and so is forced to play [sic] close attention to the input. It follows then that it is not comprehension per se that aids learning, but… lack of comprehension.

My interest in problematizing was pricked when a fellow teacher trainer once commented that he was very suspicious of observed lessons that ‘go like clockwork’: “If there are no problems, there is probably no learning”.

A complex systems view of learning (as proposed by Larsen-Freeman & Cameron 2008, for example) would seem to support this view. A system that is relatively stable is resistant to change. But when a system is teetering on the brink of chaos, when it’s at its ‘tipping point’,  it doesn’t take a lot to trigger a ‘phase shift’ – that is, a qualitative restructuring of the system.  Problematizing a feature of the language that is in ‘free variation’ (like my verbs in Spanish) might just provide the necessary catalyst. N. Ellis (2008, p. 240) sums up the dynamic nature of this complex system:

L2 acquisition involves learners in a conscious dialectic tension… between the conflicting forces of their current interlanguage productions and the evidence of feedback, either linguistic, pragmatic, or metalinguistic, that allows socially scaffolded development.

Problematizing is a way both of heightening that tension and (hopefully) of resolving it.

References

Ellis, N. 2008. ‘The dynamics of second language emergence: cycles of language use, language change, and language acquisition. The Modern Language Journal, 92: 232-249.

Ellis, R.  1997. SLA Research and Language Teaching.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ellis, R. 2008. The Study of Second Language Acquisition (2nd edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D.,  & Cameron, L.  2008.  Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lynch, T. 1996. Communication in the Language Classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thornbury, S. 2001. Uncovering Grammar. Oxford: Macmillan.

Tomasello, M., & Herron, C. 1988. Down the garden path: Inducing and correcting overgeneralization errors in the foreign language classroom.  Applied Psycholinguistics 9: 237-46.

Illustrations by Quentin Blake for Success with English, by Geoffrey Broughton, Penguin Education, 1968.





P is for Prescriptive

2 10 2011

I’m puzzled why my MA students have so much trouble getting their heads around the prescriptive- descriptive distinction. But, then, they’re probably puzzled as to why I think it matters so much.

Some defining might be in order. To quote from An A-Z of ELT, “If a prescriptive grammar is about how people should speak, a descriptive one is about how people do speak”.  Thus,  a prescriptivist will argue that taller than me is wrong, and that, for various abstruse reasons, it should be taller than I.  A descriptive grammar would simply state (as does the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, Biber, et al. 1999, p. 336) that, after as and than, “both nominative and accusative forms occur”, and that the accusative forms (e.g. taller than me) “are predominant…especially in conversation”. So, while prescriptivism is about opinions, descriptivism claims to be about facts.

Why do I think that the distinction matters? Well, because a lot of trainees, coming to ELT fresh, tend to associate grammar teaching with the kind of ‘good style guide’ grammar that they got at school. They think grammar teaching is going to be all about not starting sentences with ‘And’ or not ending them with a preposition. They may mistakenly see themselves as part of this tradition – as guardians of the cultural legacy enshrined as ‘proper English’.  They may have been indoctrinated into the view that “students should be taught that correct speaking is evidence of culture; and that in order to speak correctly they must master the rules that govern the use of the language” (from an editorial in The Detroit Free Press, 1928, quoted in Fries, 1940).

However, this is not the problem with my students. Quite the opposite. The problem is that they come to associate all rules with prescriptivism. Thus, the rule that “to form the past tense of regular verbs, you add –ed to the base form of the verb” is considered prescriptive – simply because it’s a rule.

But this is to confuse rules-as-regularities with rules-as-regulations.  Adding –ed is something we regularly do; saying taller than I is something we don’t do regularly, but which (according to prescriptivists) we ought to. Theirs is an attempt to regulate language use.

There’s an added problem, however, and that is: are student grammars really that descriptive? After all, the so-called pedagogic grammar – which purports to be a sub-set of the rules of descriptive grammar – is by definition selective. It selects some usages and ignores others. And the usages it selects are those that are considered standard – or the norm.  But a norm is only a norm because it has been accepted by a speech community as such. It has been validated.  What the grammar describes is what the speech community prescribes. As Cameron (1995) argues, “there is no escape from normativity”.

Moreover, in order to obviate the messiness of exceptions, pedagogic grammars tend to be more assertive than they need to be – often at the cost of accuracy. Rather than stating rules, they issue edicts.   (Perhaps they should be called ‘pedantic grammars’).  So we get:

Some verbs are used only in simple tenses. For example,  “You cannot say ‘I am knowing’. You can only say I know. (Murphy, 1985, p. 6)

And they use the ‘we’ word a lot, too. So you get:

We can make negative sentences with nobody, nothing… With these words, we do not use not…:

He said nothing. (NOT He didn’t say nothing)

(Swan & Walter, 2001, p. 114).

Who is this we? At times, it starts to sound a little like the royal we. It starts to sound very prescriptive. No wonder my students get confused.

Not just my students – there is a strong sense generally that description = good; prescription = bad. Nevertheless, there is one area of language teaching where most teachers are happy to be prescriptive, and that is vocabulary. We regularly caution students not to use words that are considered offensive or vulgar, even if they are commonly used by native-speakers. Dictionaries do the same. They shamelessly prescribe. And, because of this, they are excellent sources for tracking shifts in cultural values. Consider the two entries (below) from the first edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (1948) and the same entries from the 6th edition (2000).

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

This should serve to remind us that, as Cameron (op. cit) puts it, “we are all of us closet prescriptivists”.  As she explains:

I have never met anyone who did not subscribe, in one way or another, to the belief that language can be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, more or less ‘elegant’ or ‘effective’ or ‘appropriate’.  Of course, there is massive disagreement about what values to espouse, and how to define them.  Yet however people may pick and choose, it is rare to find anyone rejecting altogether the idea that there is some legitimate authority in language’ (p.9).

References:

Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., & Finegan, E. 1999. Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Harlow: Longman.

Cameron, D. 1995. Verbal Hygiene. London: Routledge.

Fries, C. C. 1940. American English Grammar. Tokyo: Maruzen.

Murphy, R. 1985. English Grammar in Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swan, M., and Walter, C. 2001. The Good Grammar Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press.





B is for Bad language learner

25 09 2011

Mayor Bloomberg

As a precaution against the recent hurricane that threatened his city, the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, “issued warnings and press statements, often in basic, un-accented [sic] Spanish”.  This prompted a Spanish-speaking New York resident to launch a Twitter feed that  caricatured the Mayor’s “broken Spanish”. “The feed soon went viral and has attracted a large online following” (according to the BBC’s website).

As a second language user myself, and as a language teacher,  teacher trainer and methodology writer, it offends me when anyone who attempts to communicate in a language that is not their own (whether they be mayor, football coach, actor, ex-pat, or student) is mocked in this way. However ‘bad’ his Spanish is, surely the mayor should be congratulated, not caricatured?

I tweeted to this effect – that I didn’t find it particularly funny, and that this seemed to be a case of ‘damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t’. However, a fellow tweeter in Brazil, Higor Cavalcante, went so far as to blog his disagreement, arguing that, as mayor of a city with a large Hispanic population “Mr. Bloomberg has the obligation to speak excellent Spanish”. (Not to mention Chinese, Greek, Yiddish and Korean either, I suppose).

Excellent Spanish.  Not just good, or passable, but excellent.

I suspect Higor is a good language learner.  He certainly writes beautifully in English. But maybe Mayor Bloomberg is not a good language learner. I’m sure he would love to be able to speak excellent Spanish, but maybe for him excellence comes at a cost – a cost that even his billions can’t meet.  Yet  should he be penalised for trying?

Good language learners often find it difficult to understand what it’s like to be a bad language learner.  They think you can just flip a switch and out it flows. As a bad language learner myself, I run up against this constantly.

Ok, I said it. I am a bad language learner. I am a bad language learner for a variety of reasons, biographical, psychological and maybe even physiological (I have terrible ‘phonemic coding ability’ – maybe related to the fact that I can’t sing in tune either!).

It’s not that I haven’t tried. I’ve been to classes, I’ve done conversation exchanges, I’ve studied the grammar, I’ve memorised lists of words, and I read five to ten thousand words of Spanish daily.  Yet I’m still barely B2-ish, speaking-wise, exacerbated by an uncompromising anglo accent.

But I get by.   I’ll always sound like a guiri (or gringo) but I can live with that, despite the scorn heaped on me by other, more proficient Spanish speakers. (Once a Californian woman, on hearing me speak, held up her arms in the shape of a cross, as if to ward off evil spirits). As I said, good language learners seem to think that anyone can learn a language to C2 level in a matter of months – and that the failure to do so betrays some moral weakness.  But for us drones, it will take years and years, and we may still never  get beyond B2 (or even A2 for that matter).  However, we shouldn’t be discouraged from trying. Mockery doesn’t help. Nor the implication that our lack of success is a moral failing.

I took this photo

Besides, how many hundreds of hours would it take to bring Mayor Bloomberg’s Spanish up to a level that would satisfy his critics?  And doesn’t he have better things to do with his time? He’s the mayor of New York City, for heaven’s sake.  His time is cut out just getting the trash collected and the subway running on time. If New Yorkers want a Spanish-speaking mayor, let them vote for one.

So, a plea on behalf of the bad language learner: never, never, never mock a second language speaker – even if it’s someone (like George Bush or José María  Aznar) whose politics you disagree with. It’s a cheap shot. And, if you are a language teacher, it ill becomes you.  It’s your job to encourage second language use, however non-target-like. What’s more, ridicule is counterproductive.  There is nothing more de-motivating than being laughed at.   As Earl Stevick (1980, p. 130) eloquently put it:

When two people speak with each other in a language that is foreign to one of them, either or both may be laying their lives on the line – at least their lives as speakers of that language. Such an understanding therefore calls for sensitivity on both sides. Sensitivity here means more than just seeing the dangers and shying away from them. It includes sensitivity to what the other person is able to do, and is ready to try.

On the plus side, I think that being a bad language learner has made me a good language teacher. I am very, very sympathetic to the drones.  I know what they’re going through. I am endlessly patient and encouraging. I would never mock them, because I know how de-motivating it can be.

So, Señor Alcalde, all power to you  – I applaud your bad Spanish!  At least you are trying.

Reference:

Stevick, E.W. 1980. Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.