A is for Accent

1 10 2017

vivir-es-facil-con-los-ojos-cerrados‘Living is easy with eyes closed’, David Trueba’s 2013 movie, which I watched again on TV this week, is interwoven with references to language and language teaching. It is based on the true story of a high-school English teacher in Spain who, in 1966, manages to infiltrate himself on to the set of ‘How I won the War’, which was being filmed in a remote part of Almería, and persuade John Lennon to include the printed lyrics of songs in subsequent Beatles albums.

Apart from the teacher’s inspired use of Beatles lyrics to imbue his students with a feel for English, the film touches on other language issues too. At one point the teacher comments on the broadness of the accent of an elderly villager, who retorts, ‘No, I don’t have an accent. It’s them from Málaga and Cádiz who have the really broad accents.’

The perception that only other people have accents is, of course, a common one. So, too, is the view that some accents are ‘neutral’ or ‘slight’ or ‘faint’ – whereas others are ‘thick’ or ‘broad’ or ‘strong’. What this really means is that any given speaker’s pronunciation displays features that are either nearer to, or further from, the accent that the interlocutor is most familiar with. This could be the local one (as in the case of the man from Almería), or, more typically these days, the ‘standard’, where ‘standard’ is defined as ‘the variety that is normally spoken by educated people and used in news broadcasts and other similar situations’ (Carter, 1995, p. 145).

Significantly, the adjectives that most commonly co-occur with accent (according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English [Davies 2008-], and excluding for the moment names of languages – like French, Russian etc) are: thick, heavy, foreign, slight, strong, soft, faint, fake, lilting, native, clipped, funny, strange, different, good, charming and sexy.  Notice how value-laden many of these adjectives are. This fact serves to remind us that – for the ‘person in the street’ at least – there is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ accent, in the sense of an accent that is value-free.

This was driven home this week by the appearance of a video on the BBC Website in which  a young Polish woman living in the UK is reduced, literally, to tears by the negative reaction her accent supposedly evokes among Britons – an accent that is hardly thick, heavy or funny, incidentally. Accordingly, she enlists the services of an elocution teacher, who promises to rid her of her accent once and for all. (The teacher’s exaggerated RP vowels and her manner of drilling them is reminiscent of Professor Henry Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion, and the way he successfully erases the Cockney accent of Eliza Doolittle, and, in so doing, effectively erases her identity).

my fair lady 02

Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins, Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in the film of the musical ‘My Fair Lady’

 

What the Polish woman is seeking is what is marketed as ‘accent reduction’, which, as Jennifer Jenkins (2000, p. 208) points out, is predicated on a misunderstanding of what second language acquisition means, i.e. not subtraction, but addition: ‘An L2 accent is not an accent reduced but an accent gained: a facility which increases learners’ choices by expanding their phonological repertoires.’ And she adds, ‘Interestingly, we never hear references to “grammar reduction” or “vocabulary reduction”. No writer of L2 pedagogic grammars or vocabulary courses would entertain the notion that learners need to reduce their L1 grammar or vocabulary in order to acquire the L2.’

Of course, such arguments will probably not appease the Polish woman who desperately wants to achieve a kind of social invisibility. Nevertheless, they serve to remind us that our choices – as teachers, curriculum designers and materials writers – have a strong ethical component, as Bill Johnston (2003, pp 39-40) argues:

It is commonly known in our field that the English language includes a bewildering diversity of varieties, especially accents… The problem in the field of ELT is to know which of these varieties to teach. My contention that this decision is moral in nature– that is, that it is grounded in values — stems from the fact that… language varieties themselves are not value neutral. Quite the opposite, in fact is true: the different varieties of English are highly value laden. Accents are closely linked to the identities of  individuals and groups of people; to value one accent over another is, rather directly, to value one group of people over another.

Accent and idenity are inextricably interconnected. I wonder if ‘accent reduction’ courses would be quite as popular if they were re-branded as ‘identity reduction’ courses?

References

Carter, R. (1995) Key Words in Language and Literacy. London: Routledge.

Davies, Mark. (2008-) The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA): 520 million words, 1990-present. Available online at https://corpus.byu.edu/coca/

Jenkins, J. (2000) The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

 





I is for Idiolect (and Intimate discourse)

24 09 2017

 

hotel el muniria

The Hotel Muniria, Tangier, where Burroughs wrote The Naked Lunch

A weekend in Tangier prompted a re-reading of the letters of William Burroughs (Harris 1993) , the US writer who lived there in the 1960s. Apart from their intrinsic interest, there were a number of linguistic oddities that caught my eye. As well as some idiosyncratic spellings (anyhoo for anyhow, innarested for interested), there were some curious non-standard constructions, including at least two instances of I look forward to see you, and these present perfect ‘simplifications’:

 

A Turkish bath [in London] beats anything I ever see for nightmarish horror.
Tanger is as safe as any town I ever live in.
Venice is perhaps the greatest place I ever see.
See you in Paris which I hope has more innarest than what I see already.

Burroughs was born and brought up in St Louis, Missouri, and these non-standard features might well be characteristic of the local variety. On the other hand, they could also be distinctive features of Burroughs’ own ‘idiolect’, where idiolect is defined as ‘a term used in linguistics to refer to the linguistic system of an individual speaker – one’s personal dialect’ (Crystal, 2003, p.225).   Elsewhere, Crystal (1987, p. 24) elaborates on this definition:

Probably no two people are identical in the way they use language or react to the usage of others. Minor differences in phonology, grammar, and vocabulary are normal, so that everyone has, to a limited extent, a ‘personal dialect’. It is often useful to talk about the linguistic system as found in the single speaker, and this is known as an idiolect. In fact, when we investigate language, we have no alternative but to begin with the speech habits of individual speakers: idiolects  are the first objects of study. Dialects can thus be seen as an abstraction, deriving from an analysis of a number of idiolects; and languages, in turn, are an abstraction deriving from a number of dialects.

As with dialect, the notion of idiolect is suggestive since it challenges the perception that there is one, monolithic, immutable and standard version of a language.

Equally interesting are the other kinds of ‘lect’ that develop in small speech communities, such as the under-researched language spoken within families (a ‘famililect’?). In her 1963 novel, appropriately titled The Family Lexicon, the Italian novelist Natalia Ginzburg captures this familiar phenomenon (cited in Parks 2017):

My parents had five children. We now live in different cities, some of us in foreign countries, and we don’t write to each other often. When we do meet up with one another we can be indifferent or distracted. But for us it takes just one word. It takes one word, one sentence, one of the old ones from our childhood, heard and repeated countless times… If my siblings and I were to find ourselves in a dark cave or among millions of people, just one of those phrases or words would immediately allow us to recognise each other.

Ginzburg’s mention of the countless repetitions that established this mini-variety reminds me of Guy Cook’s (1994) description of what he called ‘intimate discourse’, defined as ‘discourse between people in a minimal power relations which they would not wish to share with outsiders’ (p.134). This includes what Barthes (2010, p. 1) calls ‘a lover’s discourse’:

This discourse is spoken, perhaps, by thousands of subjects (who knows?), But warranted by no one; it is completely forsaken by the surrounding languages: ignored, disparaged, or derided by them, severed not only from authorities but also from the mechanisms of authority (sciences, techniques, arts).

Cook characterizes such discourse as being – among other things – repetitive and highly redundant, neologistic (i.e. it involves the creation of completely new words), nonsensical, figurative and ‘oriented towards form rather than meaning’ (1994, p. 135).  I would also add – from my own experience – that it is frequently macaronic, i.e. it incorporates the playful mixing of different languages.

the tangerinn

Former ‘beat’ bar in Hotel Muniria

 

I’ll spare you cringe-inducing examples of my own, but this example from a letter by the writer Christopher Isherwood (‘Kitty’) to his partner Don Bachardy (‘Dobbin’), gives a flavor (Bucknell 2013, p. 17):

Dearest Angel –

I miss you so much. I think of you all the time and long so to be back in my basket, close to Dobbin.… I just want to work. That and being with Dobbin are all that matters to Kitty, and being with Dobbin matters more than anything….

Cook argues that ‘intimate discourse’ is under-researched (by definition, it’s almost impossible to collect), but that it has a lot to teach us about how language is used – and learned – not least in the way that such frequently occurring discourse is form-focused, non-transactional, ritualized and highly repetitive. Shouldn’t we therefore be including more repetition and rote-learning in our methodology? asks Cook.

I have another question: if Burroughs’ idiolect includes non-standard forms – but was presumably understood and tolerated by his interlocutors  – shouldn’t we also consider the learner’s developing interlanguage (frequently non-standard) an idiolect in its own right, and be equally tolerant?

tangiers view rooftop

‘There is no town like Tanger town’ (Burroughs)

 

References

Barthes, R. (2010) A lover’s discourse: Fragments. New York: Hill and Wang.

Bucknell, K. (ed.) (2013) The Animals: Love letters between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Cook, G. (1994) ‘Repetition and learning by heart: an aspect of intimate discourse and its implications’. ELT Journal, 48/2.

Crystal, D. (1987) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crystal, D. (2003) A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (5th edition). Oxford: Blackwell.

Harris, O. (ed.) (1993) The letters of William S. Burroughs: 1945 to 1959. London: Picador.

Parks, T. (2017) ‘Keep the ball rolling’: A review of The Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg, trans. by Jenny McPhee, NYRB 2017, in London Review of Books, 39/13.





W is for (language learning in) the Wild

17 09 2017

japanese hitchhikerYears ago, driving from the west to the east coast in New Zealand’s South Island, we picked up a Japanese hitch-hiker (pictured in the centre above) who, once settled in the back seat, proceeded to ply us with questions from a notebook he carried. ‘What’s your favourite snack?’ ‘When did you last go to the movies?’ Even: ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ It transpired that he had been studying at a language school in Christchurch and these were questions that his (prescient) teacher had encouraged him to formulate, in order to pursue his language learning experience ‘in the wild’.

The term ‘in the wild’ has recently been co-opted from cognitive science (e.g. Hutchins 1995) to apply to a series of projects in which a number of Nordic countries are participating. As their website describes it,

Language learning in the wild is about using the resources available in the second language life world of the newcomers to a language[i].

This, of course, is not an entirely new idea. As long ago as 1956, Peter Strevens argued that ‘language is not a sterile subject to be confined to the classroom. One of two things must be done: either life must be brought to the classroom or the class must be taken to life’ (1956: 69).

Arthurs Pass

The call of the wild

What is perhaps new in the way that this principle is being applied in places like Sweden and Iceland is that, not only are learners (or ‘newcomers’ as they are termed) being sent outside the classroom to perform certain routine tasks ‘in the wild’, but that they are encouraged to use their smartphones to record the interactions they have, as well as to collect any other linguistic data, such as signs, menus, etc, and bring these back to the classroom for analysis, discussion and strategizing for future encounters.

Moreover, many of their potential interlocutors (e.g. shopkeepers) have been primed in ways to ensure that these interactions provide optimal opportunities for learning. For example, they are encouraged not to switch straight into (global) English when interacting with the newcomer but to persist with the (local) target language. They also allow the newcomers to ‘hang out’ and watch the way the locals negotiate basic transactions.  In this way, learners learn to cope with the unpredictability of even quite routine operations, such as ordering a coffee. As Wagner (2015) explains,  ‘this means… that language experiences often are memorable and tellable, in a negative or positive sense’, such that, ‘in language encounters in the wild, newcomers create their own history of the second language and that history may linger for a while with new words and constructions’ (p.85). As Eskildsen and Theodórsdóttir (2017: 160) argue,

This, in effect, breaks with a long tradition of teaching language as a decontextualised object in classrooms and instead entails a mutually constitutive relationship between L2 speakers’ everyday practices and the classroom which then comes to be a pedagogically enhanced world in which a view of language as situated and locally contextualised is propagated.

Nevertheless, ‘long-term language learning in the wild is understudied’ (Esklidsen & Theodórsdóttir 2017, p. 160). One small study that does attempt to track the language development of such a learner over time (Barraja-Rohan 2015) reports how a Japanese-speaking university student in Australia improved her story-telling skills through repeated interactions with an English speaking fellow student. The researcher calls such interactions ‘conversations-for-practising’, which, essentially, is what our Japanese hitch-hiker was also doing. Barraja-Rohan (2015, p. 299) concludes:

Conversations-for-practising, centred on the participants’ needs to build social relationships rather than on curricular considerations, seem to be a valuable arrangement to bring the L2 speakers into situations of authentic, everyday social interaction and language use, i.e., into the wild.

She adds that such conversational  ‘affordances’ don’t normally occur in conventional classrooms. A pedagogy based on the conversations that emerge in meaning-focused activity might redress this lack. And especially if it was a pedagogy that – like my Japanese hitchhiker’s teacher in New Zealand – equipped ‘newcomers’ to become legitimate users of the local language.

Even so, I guess the question is: how do you provide ‘in the wild’ experiences – including socialization into an English-speaking community – for EFL-type learners studying in their home country and hence lacking the direct contact my Japanese hitch-hiker was able to exploit?

sea scouts oamaru

Where the wild things are

References

Barraja-Rohan, A-M., (2015) ‘“I told you”: storytelling development of a Japanese learning English as a second language.’ In Cadierno, T. & Eskildsen, S. W. (eds) Usage-based perspectives on second language learning. Mouton: De Gruyter.

Eskildsen, S.W. and Theodórsdóttir G. 2017. ‘Constructing L2 learning spaces: ways to achieve learning inside and outside the classroom.’ Applied Linguistics. 38/2.

Hutchins, E. (1995) Cognition in the wild. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Strevens, P. (1956) Spoken language: an introduction for teachers and students in Africa. London: Longmans, Green and Co.

Wagner, J. (2015) ‘Designing for language learning in the wild: creating social infrastructures for second language learning.’ In Cadierno, T. & Eskildsen, S. W. (eds) Usage-based perspectives on second language learning. Mouton: De Gruyter.

 

[i] http://languagelearninginthewild.com/

 





P is for Predictions (part 2)

10 09 2017

fortune teller 02In last week’s post I identified some of the tensions that characterize the current state of ELT, the resolution of which may determine the shape that the profession takes in the next decade or two.  Without daring to commit to an outcome, one way or the other, let me suggest two more dimensions along which the future of ELT may be inscribed.

  1. The tension between public and private

Most English language teaching, and specifically EFL, takes place in public institutions, such as state-funded schools or universities. In these contexts, ELT methodology is typically (but not always) constrained by such factors as class size, i.e. large numbers of learners often seated in rows; limited contact with the target language; teachers who are less that fully confident in their own command of English (even if they are expected to use it as the vehicular language in their classes); a lack of motivation on the part of the learners; and mandated curricula that are driven by exams whose focus is primarily on accuracy. Under such conditions it is not surprising that the favoured methodology is form-focused, teacher-fronted, choral, and bilingual – a variant, in other words, of grammar-translation.

In the private (or fee-paying) sector, however, things tend to be very different: with smaller class-sizes and (often) native-speaker teachers – or, even, only native-speaker teachers – albeit with minimal training. Learners may be there of their own volition, motivated by work, study, or leisure-related needs. Such an ‘ecology’ favours a more learner-centred, English-only and activity-based methodology – a variant, in other words, of communicative language teaching.

fortune teller 03It’s likely that this division will persist for the foreseeable future, particularly in developing countries, which do not have the means to support ongoing professional development of state-school teachers, but where the necessity of having ‘English’ somewhere on the curriculum will long outlive its utility. Meanwhile, attempts to redress the generally poor results in the public sector by introducing English-medium instruction (e.g. in the form of CLIL) will work only when both teachers and learners have a ‘critical mass’ of English language proficiency to support content-based learning without prejudicing the learning of the subject matter. In some contexts, this may still be generations away. Until then, any form of immersion is likely to be associated with the elite, private sector.

Indeed, the public-private polarity both reflects and intensifies existing inequalities and does not look like improving any time soon. As Bruthiaux (2002, p. 190) comments, ‘In most markets, the consumers of English language education are the relatively well-off, already far beyond the stage of mere survival. To the extent that the severely poor are aware of it at all, the global spread of English is a sideshow compared with the issue of basic economic development and poverty reduction.’

  1. The tension between ‘standard English’ and English as a lingua franca

For the original proponents of the communicative approach it was axiomatic that native-like competence was a less urgent and less realistic goal than communicative efficiency, particularly with regard to pronunciation. In theory, at least, a first language accent was tolerable so long as it was intelligible. Such generosity did not readily extend to other systems, such as grammar, which were still taught and tested according to some idealized notion of what a native-speaker might say or write. This ‘native speakerism’ was reinforced by the prestige still being bestowed on native speaker teachers, especially in the private sector (see above).  As long ago as 1999, Vivian Cook railed against this deficit model of instruction, arguing that ‘L2 users have to be looked at in their own right as genuine L2 users, not as imitation native speakers’ (1999, p. 195).

This view was given extra impetus by the realization that, for many users, English is a contact language between other English-as-an-L2 users, and that, therefore, different standards apply. The notion of English as a lingua franca (ELF) as promulgated by Jennifer Jenkins (2000) – initially in relation to phonology –  had the effect  (or should have had the effect) of moving the goalposts in the direction of the learner-user. Nevertheless, years of (often bitter) debate have not resolved the issue as to what the goalposts actually look like. Is there an emergent codifiable variety called ELF? Or is it simply an elusive social practice – a spontaneously negotiated communicative ‘dance’ involving a creative mix of pragmatics, paralinguistics, accommodation, code-switching, repair strategies and interlanguage?

fortune teller 01Either way, the effect has been to challenge, even subvert, the supremacy of the native-speaker ‘gold standard’. Will the steady penetration of English into all corners of the globe and at most levels of society, mediated by ever swifter, cheaper and more accessible technologies, do the rest?  Or will the need for some mutually intelligible ‘common core’ tip the argument in favour of retaining the Queen’s English (or a version thereof)? The jury is out.

I had promised to discuss three ‘tensions’ today, but I am already out of time. Will there be more Predictions? Place your bets!

References

Bruthiaux, P. (2002) ‘Hold your courses: language education, language choice, and economic development.’ TESOL Quarterly, 36/3.

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

Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an international language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.





P is for Predictions (part 1)

3 09 2017

I’m regularly asked to make predictions about the future of ELT: it’s one of the liabilities of being on a conference panel, for starters. I seldom feel comfortable in the role. Perhaps the safest prediction is of the order:  Any prediction that I make now about ELT in X years’ time will be laughably wrong when the time comes.

It came up again when I was guesting on a DELTA course recently: the teachers were understandably  anxious about the future of their chosen career. However, I decided to re-frame the question – not in terms of predictions (‘What will ELT be like in 10 years?), but in terms of identifying some of the on-going tensions in ELT, the outcomes of which (following a dialectic mode of thinking) will surely determine the shape of ELT in 5 or 10 or however many years’ time.

delta course

The IH Barcelona DELTA class: Teachers with a  future! (courtesy @sanchiadanielle)

These are some of the tensions I discussed:

  1. The tension between the local and the global

Incontestably, English is a global language (although its reputation may have taken some knocks recently – see E is for English). It therefore lends itself to the kind of commodification and marketization that we associate with other items of mass consumption – such as fast foods, trainers, and cell-phones. These processes of ‘McDonaldization’ (Ritzer 1998) are evidenced in the way textbooks are produced, marketed and distributed globally, and in the ‘branding’ of high-stakes exams – such that an English class in Thailand is likely to be using the same materials to prepare for the same exam as is a class in Chile.  Or Armenia. Or anywhere.

Countering this ethos of ‘one-size-fits-all’ is what Kumaravadivelu (2001, p. 538) calls ‘a pedagogy of particularity’, i.e. one that is ‘sensitive to a particular group of teachers teaching a particular group of learners pursuing a particular set of goals within a particular institutional context embedded in a particular sociocultural milieu.’ Because, as Pennycook insistently reminds us, English is a global language used locally: ‘Everything happens locally. However global a practice may be, it still always happens locally’ (2010, p.128).

Attempts to ‘particularize’ English teaching include the production of locally-authored, culturally-specific curricula and materials, implemented by means of an ‘appropriate methodology’ (Holliday 1994). Arguably, digital technologies have made the production of such home-grown materials a lot easier, while resistance to the uncritical importation of ‘Western’ methodologies is voiced frequently (e.g. Burnaby & Sun 1989; Li 1998). But it is not clear how the global vs local tension will play out.

  1. The tension between teaching and testing

Driven by the aforementioned globalizing forces, but also fuelled by the neo-liberal obsession with accountability and standardization, and lubricated by ever more sophisticated data-gathering mechanisms, high-stakes testing now dominates many educational contexts, English language teaching not the least. The numbers speak for themselves: the IELTS test, for example, was taken by nearly 3 million candidates in 2016 – at around $200 a go, this is big business. It is also a nice little earner for language schools, with the result that many teachers feel that they are now simply in the business of test preparation.

‘Teaching-for-the-test’ has also seen the rise of standards-based, or competency-based teaching (also known as mastery learning), where the syllabus consists of an inventory of bite-sized ‘competencies’, each one taught and tested in isolation, on the assumption that all these bits will magically coalesce into a whole. (These bite-sized learning chunks also lend themselves to [teacher-less] online delivery).  This has led to a culture of testing that is the despair of many educationalists, Diane Ravitch (2010, p. 16) being one of the more vocal: ‘How did testing and accountability become the main levers of school reform?  …  What was once an effort to improve the quality of education turned into an accounting strategy’. And she adds, ‘Tests should follow the curriculum. They should not replace it or precede it.’

Will the tide turn? Will teaching and learning reassert their rightful place in the curriculum? Don’t hold your breath.

  1. The tension between classroom instruction and self-study

Learners have always learned languages through self-study packages, whether by means of books (of the Teach yourself Swahili type); long-playing records, cassettes or CDs; video, in combination with any of the above, and, of course, more recently, online and via apps such as Duolingo. In July this year, for example, Duolingo was boasting an estimated 200 million ‘active’ users[i], although what constitutes ‘active’ is a moot point. Nevertheless, the availability, ease and low cost of many self-study tools (Duolingo is of course free) means that they constitute a real threat to traditional classroom teaching.

Their single biggest drawback is, of course, the lack of any real face-to-face interaction, including personalized instruction and feedback (where ‘personalized’ means ‘mutually intersubjective,’ not ‘individually customized by an algorithm’). That is what classrooms offer – or should. But, of course, such ‘human’ interactions come at a cost. Will language learning in the future be primarily app-mediated, with classroom teaching relegated to a high-end, niche status? And/or will classroom teachers be compelled to migrate en masse to call-centre-type facilities in order to provide the much-needed human interaction that these apps will offer as a premium add-on? Watch this space.

There are at least three other tensions, the outcome of which I suspect will shape our collective futures. But I’ll deal with those next week.

References

Burnaby, B. and Sun, Y. (1989) ‘Chinese teachers’ views of western language teaching: context informs paradigms’. TESOL Quarterly, 23/2.

Holliday, A. (1994) Appropriate Methodology and Social Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Li, D. (1998) ‘”It’s always more difficult than you plan or imagine”: Teachers’ perceived difficulties in introducing the communicative approach in South Korea’. TESOL Quarterly, 32/4.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2001) ‘Towards a post-method pedagogy.’ TESOL Quarterly, 35/4.

Pennycook, A. (2010) Language as a local practice. London: Routledge.

Ravitch, D. (2010) The death and life of the great American school system: how testing and choice are undermining education. New York: Basic Books.

Ritzer, G. (1998) The McDonaldization Thesis: Explorations and extensions. London: Sage.

[I] http://expandedramblings.com/index.php/business-directory/24390/duolingo-stats-facts/





M is for Masters

27 08 2017

 

role play

MA TESOL at The New School

Now that many of us – either as faculty or alumni – are about to embark on the fall semester of a Masters in TESOL (or other closely related discipline), it’s perhaps worth asking why? Not which Masters, or when, or in what mode (e.g. on-site, online, or blended), but why do a Masters at all? What benefits will accrue – professional, academic or financial – that couldn’t be obtained by some other, less costly or time-consuming means? And, crucially, is the teacher with a Masters any better – and hence, more deserving – than one without?

I’m asking these questions partly in response to a letter I received a few months ago from a teacher in New York City. She had attended a talk I gave at The New School on whose Masters program I teach. She was interested in enrolling in the program but wondered if the outlay in terms of fees and time would ever be recuperable. And, as a teacher of some experience, she was also voicing a sense of injustice at the fact that teachers like her, without a post-graduate degree in TESOL, were being passed over for teachers straight off Masters programs. Here’s what she said:

‘While I naturally respect my colleagues in the teaching field who do posses an MA TESOL, I nevertheless feel quiet resentment towards their getting 30-45 hours a week at $45 an hour, when they are fresh out of an MA program and by their own admission had/have never taught before. … Is it really the be-all and end-all?’

And she adds, ‘I feel quite strongly that an English degree, a teaching degree, a CELTA, a MA in English combined with international experience trumps an MA TESOL with no experience or previous background in English. Naturally, this position may well be construed as professional (or unprofessional) resentment or worse, envy. However, given the chance, I think it is one students would also hold.’

teaching practice group work 02.JPG

Teaching practice, New School

There are a number of assumptions here that might be challenged, e.g. that those taking MAs in TESOL have no previous teaching experience, or that they don’t get lots of practical experience when they are actually doing the course.

On this latter point, a quick trawl around university websites where MA TESOLs are offered, demonstrates how markedly the length of the practicum (if there is one!) varies. For example (from US-based programs only):

  • University of X: TESOL Practicum. This course involves 48-60 hours of student/teaching contact time, regular peer and instructor class observations and coaching sessions, and weekly seminar-style meetings during the semester.
  • University of Y: Third semester requires 3-credit Practicum: “This is a language teaching course that provides students with an opportunity for supervised teaching experience in ESL or foreign language classes. This course can be completed during the school year or the summer.
  • University of Z: Practicum: The Portfolio includes documentation of 70 practice hours, with a minimum of 15 hours in each of the following areas:
    • Tutoring
    • Observing ESOL classes
    • Practice teaching
  • Another University: Practicum: Core courses include ‘TESOL Practice teaching’; plus ‘Culminating Experience’: includes a service project of 30 hours of ESL teaching.
  • Yet Another University: Teaching Internship, (2 months; 6 credits) Two months teaching under supervision in the United States or abroad.
  • And One More University for Good Measure: Elective. Practicum in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Practical teaching experience for preservice teachers of English as a second language. Enrollment limited to AL/ESL graduate students whose schedules permit them to observe and participate in the practicum supervisor’s ESL course.
matching task MA TESOL.JPG

MA TESOL, New School

So, I guess my question is: do MA programs equip inexperienced teachers with the requisite teaching skills any better than, say, a pre-service certificate course would, and, indeed, should they – i.e. should they be accepting inexperienced teachers on to their programs at all? And if they don’t measure up, then should their graduates be given preferential treatment in the job market – if that is, in fact, the case?

 

 

 





F is for Functions

20 08 2017

7th function of languageThere are not many novels whose theme is linguistics but the book I took to read on vacation is one of them. It’s called The Seventh Function of Language, and is by the French writer Laurent Binet (2015; English translation 2017). It’s a sort of whacky thriller that plays with the idea that the death of the French semiotician, linguist and literary theorist Roland Barthes (he was run over by a laundry van only hours after lunching with François Mitterand in 1980) was not an accident. It appears that Barthes had stumbled upon an as yet unidentified function of language – one so powerful that, in the wrong hands, it might wreak havoc.

In order to enlighten the lay reader, Binet recaps the six functions of language as identified by one of Barthes’ most important influences, the Russian-born linguist Roman Jakobson, and spelled out in a lecture Jakobson gave when assuming the presidency of the Linguistic Society of America in 1956.

These six functions map neatly on to each of the six dimensions of any speech event – the context, the addresser and addressee, the physical and psychological channel (or contact) between them, the language (or code), and the message itself. They are

  1. the referential function, i.e. the way language refers to the context, whether local or global, real or imagined, in which it is used – e.g. ‘It’s 35 degrees in the shade.’
  2. the emotive, or expressive function, i.e. the way that addressers encode their attitude, or their degree of commitment, to the message, e.g. ‘It’s too darned hot!’
  3. the conative function, where the focus is on the addressee, e.g. in the form of a command: ‘Why don’t you turn on the fan?’
  4. the phatic function, where language is being used to lubricate the channel of contact, irrespective of its content, as when we make small talk: ‘Hot enough for you?’
  5. the metalinguistic function, where language itself is the focus, as in ‘How do you say heat-wave in Swedish?’ and
  6. the poetic function, where language draws attention to itself – its form, style, and aesthetics – as in the playful use of rhyme in the line ‘the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.’ Or, more sublimely, the cadences of Shakespeare’s song:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages…

Jakobson himself noted that ‘although we distinguish six basic aspects of language, we could, however, hardly find verbal messages that would fulfill only one function’ (1990, p. 73).  That is to say, any one utterance can encode different functions, just as one function can be realized by various linguistic means.

Laurent BinetThe Binet novel is a useful reminder as to how seminal a figure Jakobson was: arguably the most influential linguist of the 20th century.

Born in Moscow in 1896, he studied philology but, even at a young age, he was frustrated by the failure of linguistics to see beyond the ‘scattered parts’ of language, thereby ignoring how it functions as a whole. In 1920 he moved to Prague and helped form the ‘Prague Circle’ where he was able to pursue his interest in the way that the parts of language – specifically its phonemes – form an interconnected system, whereby the parts can only be described in relation to other parts. Because of this concern for the inherent systematicity of language, Jakobson aligns with the structuralist tradition dating back to Saussure. But it would be wrong to think of Jakobson’s linguistics as purely formal (in the American tradition of Fries and Chomsky) and that he disregarded meaning: his interest in the functions of language – a line of enquiry he further elaborated after moving to the US in 1939 – attests to his ‘bi-focal’ view of language. Indeed, as Waugh and Monville-Burston note, in the introduction to their edition of Jakobson’s works (1990, p. 14):

For the Prague Circle, functionalism and structuralism were inseparable. Jakobson himself described his theory of language as one in which function (language as a tool for communication) and structure (language as a lawful governed whole) are combined…: language is structured so as to be suitable for communication.

The pedagogical implications of this two-pronged view of language continue to reverberate – and to challenge teachers and course designers alike. How do you reconcile the fact that language is a tool for communication while at the same time it is a rule-governed system (of considerable intricacy and complexity)? The pendulum seems to swing both ways without ever finding a point of equilibrium.

Thus, for structuralist-influenced approaches, such as audiolingualism, the syllabus was unapologetically structural and the major focus of instruction was pattern practice – although it would misrepresent audiolingualism to say that it ignored communication entirely. Indeed, a key document in the audiolingual canon observes that ‘probably the best way to practice a foreign language is to use it in communicating with others. Thus, teachers should provide time for meaning-oriented practice’ (Krohn 1971, p. viii).

JakobsonOn the other hand, the communicative approach, in seeking to redress the prevailing structural bias by substituting a syllabus of functions or tasks, may have erred in the opposite direction. Besides, as Brumfit was one of the first to point out, (1978, p. 41), a functional syllabus simply replaces one set of discrete-items with another: ‘No inventory of language items can itself capture the essence of communication.’

The reversion to a grammatical syllabus that now drives most general English programs, although notionally ‘communicative’ in their allegiance, seems to have sent the pendulum swinging back again.

It is testimony to the greatness of Jakobson that he was able to bestride these two poles with enormous intellectual, cultural and linguistic authority. It’s only a pity that he had no advice to give us language teachers.

Meanwhile – is there a seventh function of language? Well, you will have to read Binet to find out!

References

Binet, L. (2017)The 7th Function of Language (translated by S. Taylor). London: Harvill Secker.

Brumfit, C.J. (1978) “‘Communicative” language teaching: an assessment’, in P. Strevens (ed.) In Honour of A.S. Hornby. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Krohn, R. (1971) English sentence structure. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Jakobson, R. (1990) On Language. Edited by Waugh, L. R. & M. Monville-Burston. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.