My IATEFL Glasgow Diary Part 1

Saturday the 24th March. Just a week ago, I was just arriving in Glasgow for the annual IATEFL conference. And before you can say ‘Twitteratti’s tweetup’, the week was over.

Being one of the official IATEFL Glasgow bloggers (as evidenced by the lovely badge given to me), I must start by explaining why it has taken me this long to write my first IATEFL blog. The excuses are as follows: I had issues with getting on to wifi, especially with my laptop and the conference hotel certainly wasn’t very wifi-friendly; the sessions I went to were so impressive that I was busy tweeting the sessions (usually with my iPad, but when wifi failed, I had to resort to the 3G on my iPhone); the evenings were jam-packed with exciting social activities and often involved drinking with the wonderful TEFLers, going on till the wee hours of the morning. I am sure by now you fully sympathise with how hard life was this week and will generously accept a series of reflective blogposts in the style of a backdated journal entry instead.

As I said, I arrived last Saturday, and after a lovely dinner at Café Gandolfi (thanks Andy Cowle for suggesting it on the IATEFL Facebook page – who says social media is a waste of time?), we proceeded to attempt a St Patrick’s Day celebration at the nearby O’Neil’s. The pub was packed with punters dressed like sexy Leprechauns, but the bouncers weren’t quite so attractive. They wouldn’t let anyone else in and were downright rude, even going to the extent of not letting some of the TEFLers who had already been drinking there for a few hours back into the pub. But thanks to Adam Beale’s (@bealer81) friend, a Glaswegian local, Ben (Hi Gary!), the night was saved as he took us to a couple of other bars for lengthy chats till 3am.

Adam Beale and friend Ben, Mike Hogan and myself (not in pic) celebrating St Patrick's Day just before the conference kicks off.

The following day, a wasted trip was made to the Apple Store only to find out that they had sold out on the adaptor I needed for my presentation. A spate of panic on Twitter resulted in lots of lovely Samaritans coming to the rescue and offering solutions that ranged from lending me their adaptors to buying one for me from the Duty Free store at the airport on their way into Glasgow (Special Thanks to Marisa Constantinides, Anthony Gaughan, Martin Sketchley and especially Shaun Wilden). The problem was eventually solved by the wonderful Carl Dowse of the BESIG Online Team who managed to obtain a variety of adaptors for MacBooks to ensure that my laptop would definitely be connected to the projector (And thank you to Cornelia Kreis-Meyer for lending Carl and me your adaptor!)

Outside the Apple store, we bumped into Burçu Akyol (@burcuakyol) and Hakan Senturk (@hakan_sentrk) who were looking for the right Starbucks where an apparent tweetup was taking place. We ended having a mini-tweet up of our own over a couple of mochas, much to the disappointed of several Twitterers who couldn’t for the life of them understand why we were donating money to one of the biggest coffee conglomerates in the world instead of finding a traditional local café instead…

(Sorry @phil3wade and @kenwilsonlondon !)

That evening, while the IATEFL organizing committee enjoyed bagpipers and gourmet Scottish food at the welcome dinner, the BESIG gang was led through the Glaswegian underground system by Candy Van Olst and Akos back to Café Gandolfi (Note: this is my 2nd trip to Gandolfi in 2 days) for some Cullen Skink, haggis, neeps and tatties, while discussing the ins and outs of the Pre-Conference Event (PCE) that was to take place the following day.  The night ended with drinks at the hotel bar with Carl and Vicki Hollett as we readied ourselves for the start of IATEFL Glasgow’s Pre-Conference Event for BESIG…and my opening talk…

The BESIG PCE gang meeting for a Pre-Pre-Conference Event

To be continued…

Devil’s Advocate vs Vicki Hollett on ELF

This series is inspired by a conversation between Mike Hogan and myself about examining the controversies in ELT. We wanted to consider the different positions taken by different members of the industry. However, to do so, we’d need a debate, a disagreement of sorts. And it became apparent that we either tend to agree with members of our PLN (flying creatures of the same feathers and all that), or would keep an open mind and be fairly polite and supportive of one another (that is why we tweet and blog). Seeing that, the only way to get a real debate going was to actively play Devil’s Advocate (DA).

The following debate took place as an Instant-Messaging Chat on Skype. The statements of here are of the DA and in no way represent my beliefs about teaching. This is merely a tool to spark a dialogue between you, the reader, and all those involved in this project. You can find previous instalments of DA here.

So the fifth victim on the hot seat is the lovely Vicki Hollett. 

Vicki Hollett is a business and technical English teacher, teacher trainer and author. British by birth, she now lives in the US where she is learning to speak ’merican and blogging about it here. Her friends at work say she’s now reached intermediate. Yay! She hopes ELF will be easier to learn.

Chia:  Hi Vicki! It’s a real pleasure to have you as our guest on DA today!

Vicki:  Pleasure’s all mine

Chia:  I’ve been told that you are the organiser of the BESIG pre-conference event at the IATEFL Glasgow conference this year, and the theme of the event is ELF (English as a Lingua Franca)?

Vicki: Yes, in fact I’m relying on you to come and be one of our speakers.

Chia:  Shh…I’m pretending to be DA now, so let’s keep my other identity under wraps for now…(hear the Batman theme tune in the background?) hee hee *wink*

So many people have been talking about ELF ad nauseum over the past few years, but just in case our readers don’t know what it is, would you care to explain briefly?

Vicki:  ELF stands for English as a Lingua Franca, and it’s generally used to talk about the English that’s used in communications between NNSs, because it happens to be their shared language. (It’s often used to describe conversations where NSs are present too though.)

Chia:  But whether it’s English used to chat to NSs or NNSs, it is still English, isn’t it? Why are we making such a big deal about it?

Vicki:  It raises many important questions. For example, are NS standards always the best ones to use to assess our students’ output?

And are we working smart and using precious classroom time in the most helpful ways?

Chia:  Wait…are you suggesting that there are other standards by which to assess our students’ output?

Vicki:  Well yes, I think “success” should be the standard. As in ‘Can they get the job done?’

Chia:  Surely, getting the job done means being able to speak English? And we have to teach some kind of English as an end-point, don’t we? Since English belongs to the English, isn’t it only sensible to use proper English as a standard? Plus, in order for successful communication to take place, doesn’t the learner have to speak accurately? If I say, ‘I went to the cinema tomorrow’, you would have no clue what I am saying…

Vicki: English is a means to an end for most students. The bigger goal is being able to communicate successfully with international contacts. Languages are shaped by people using them and there are more NNs in the world than NSs. But the key point here is that no, English doesn’t have to be accurate for successful communication to take place. That’s why the ELF research is so interesting.

 

Chia:  I am finding it hard to separate the use of the English language from ‘successful communication’.

People learn English so that they can communicate successfully.

We teachers are here to teach them English to enable them to do so.

How does ELF change anything?

What are you suggesting we teach to aid successful communication?

Vicki:  I think we should be trying to develop capabilities that will help them cope in very diverse settings. For example, language for building relationships and rapport, the flexibility of mind to employ empathy and see things from different points of view, and importantly the ability to accommodate and negotiate meanings…

I can’t go into much detail, but for example, raising awareness of different turn taking styles and ways in which linguistic politeness vary, checking and clarifying activities, more work at discourse rather than at sentence level, getting students to adapt messages for different audiences.

Chia:  That all sounds good. But to be honest, it’s what a good Business English trainer/Communications Coach already does. How does ELF change anything?

Vicki:  Well actually, I think we have been doing a lot that’s helpful in business English. (And there are a heck of a lot of successful ELF speakers out there, so there’s proof in a way.)

But I think some areas are lacking. Take relationship building – speech acts and functional phrases are important for that but I think they’re still often taught without context. And then there’s the issue of assessment by NS standards.

Chia:  But I think a lot of what you say really boils down to the English teacher having good idea of what enables successful communication and being able to help students with that, rather than having any knowledge of ELF and its research findings, isn’t it? What was that about letting learners drop the third person ‘s’ and dependent prepositions, and not teaching them to use weakening with the schwa? Surely that’s just bad English???

Vicki:  Not many teachers get the chance to follow their students around and see them in action using English at work, hence research is invaluable…

Re: letting the third person ‘s’ and dependent prepositions go by, it goes back to working smarter. We need to prioritise things that are going to give the biggest bang for our student’s buck. Not weakening with the schwa is interesting because it may sometimes make someone more intelligible to a NNS.

Chia:  Are you therefore saying that if dumbing down enables one to be more intelligible to other NNSs, we should be teaching a dumbed down version of English? Would it not result in ELF becoming a pidgin version of English though?

Vicki:  Actually I’m saying our students need to attain a *higher* level of skill in English. Depending on who they are communicating with, they may need to weaken that schwa or not. It’s a skill we need to be pay more attention to: callibrating for the competence of your interlocutor – so the ability to adapt your message in real time as you gather more information about your interlocutor’s knowledge of the subject and linguistic competence.

Chia:  So this ‘callibrating’ includes dumbing down one’s English then?

Vicki:  Ha! Why yes! It’s an unusual way to state it, because it’s a high level skill. For example, new English teachers often struggle with it. But the ability to grade your language so you can be understood by the person you’re talking to is a key ‘ELF’ skill.

Chia:  How can language teachers teach this though? Surely it’s a skill that one picks up through experience. I mean, some people are just naturally more sensitive to others and adapt more to them. Others just don’t listen and can’t be taught to. Is it really part of our job to teach such skills?

Vicki:  I think it poses particular challenges for teachers working with monolingual classes, but there’s still lots that can be done. Eg. performing a task once, then changing it slightly and doing it again. How did you need to adjust what you said to the new circumstance/interlocutor/context. …

Some people are better at adjusting and accommodating than others. By drawing attention to what they’re doing and offering opportunities to practise it, we can help others get better too.

And yes, absolutely it’s part of our job.

Chia:  All this skills work is probably great. But my students come to me to learn English. And by learning English, they mean they want to be taught the grammar, the lexis and the pronunciation of the English language. They say they want to learn to speak like a NS. And they often don’t feel like they are learning anything unless they are put through grammar exercises and lots of corrections. Are you then saying we should ignore what our students expect of our classes and what they want?

Vicki:  No. I think the customer is king and we should deliver what they want. …

Not only do our students have to invest money, but they also have to invest effort to learn English. It’s foolish to imagine that what we teach will necessarily be learnt. They will weigh the effort required against what they think will be most useful and be selective….

Hey, maybe that’s why so many ELF speakers leave off the third person ‘s’.

Chia:  I get that leaving out the third person ‘s’ may not be detrimental to meaning creation, but what kind of impression is that creating in the fellow interlocutor though?

If an NNS goes for a job interview, or goes on CNBC to be interviewed about their expertise, and they make a seemingly tiny error that does not affect their intelligibility, e.g ‘The government want that the economy recover more’. Although we understand what they mean, but we might not have a very good impression of them…

As much as the liberal ELF proponents would like to seek justice for the NNSs who have been discriminated against for decades, the fact of the matter is the real world is cruel, and it judges you by the kind of English you speak. Even if you are perfectly intelligible, but saying something like ‘He want that I go’ could very well cost you a job.

Vicki:  Sure, impressions can be damaged by poor English. (Particularly so with writing). But there are very proficient NNSs who can sail through a job interview or ace an advanced examination in English and never drop a third person ‘s’. But when they are mixing with other ELF speakers at an international conference, they drop it. They know the rule perfectly well. But in many contexts, the content of the discussion is what matters and adding an ‘s’ or not becomes irrelevant.

Mostly our students want to be known as decent, trustworthy and likable people – the sort you’d like to do business with. Speaking English correctly contributes to that, but some of the other things we’ve mentioned contribute more.

Chia:  So you are saying that there are times when the NNS would need to use NS-normative accurate English, and at other times, they would need to adapt and accommodate other ELF speakers. There was some research done in the field of ELF that found NNSs using the article ‘the’ in a slightly different way from NSs. It was found that ‘the’ was used in expressions like ‘the life is good’ to emphasize the noun ‘life’. But which rule of ‘the’ should the English teacher be teaching? Both? Neither? We need to teach something. And at the moment ELF research looks very much like descriptive linguistics that do not have much pedagogic implications in prescribing what we teach.

Vicki:  Oh I haven’t heard of that research, but it sounds interesting. Researchers have found NSs and NNSs using quite a few bits of language differently. “You know” is another one and ‘disagree’ and a lot of other performative verbs like ‘suggest’, ‘recommend’, ‘propose’ etc.

I think we should be teaching the usages we follow and learning about the new usages that are emerging as fast as we can.

We need to be able to provide our learners with more information so they can make informed decisions.

Chia:  I think you have offered a very fair view of the issue so far, Vicki. Teaching English is not just about discrete items of lexis or grammar, but about helping our learners to become better communicators. And to do this, we have to teach them the skills needed in interacting with our NNSs of different levels of proficiency who might come from different cultures in different contexts. Sounds like teaching ELF is in fact quite the contrary to dumbing down language. What is the opposing of ‘dumbing down’?  Hmm… Are we over-complicating the matter here?

Vicki:  I reckon that in some ways teaching ELF is about a very simple switch in thinking. When we measure students against a NS standard, we tend to wind up focusing on errors, deficiencies and pragmatic failures.

But when we flip the switch and think in terms of what works in ELF contexts, the picture get much rosier. There are new priorities and we stand a better chance of going after (and meeting) the best goals.

Chia:  Thanks for painting such a bright picture of the future, Vicki! And I thought that ELF might just mean the end of our teaching careers! Hahaha

Vicki:  Gosh I hope not!

Chia:  I hope I haven’t given you too hard a time.

Vicki:  Not at all.

Chia:  Shall we just remind everyone that the BESIG PCE is on the 19th March at the IATEFL Glasgow conference, and speaking on the topic of ELF are Vicki Hollett, Mark Powell and myself (not as DA).

Vicki:  Look forward to seeing you at the BESIG PCE in Glasgow

Chia:  Thanks so much for your time, Vicki! See you in Glasgow!

Epilogue: Vicki’s opinions are her own and do not represent any organization she is associated with. Chia was just playing DA. Contrary to Chia’s position on this blogpost, she is actually an ELF convert and will be speaking about her 5-year journey with ELF, alongside Vicki Hollett at the BESIG PCE this March at IATEFL Glasgow 2012.

And then my students said…

Many of you read my previous posts about my Advanced Dogme classes:

MLearning, Mini-Whiteboards, and Emergent Stuff

Only in a Dogme Class

All Because I Hoped I Didn’t Fall in Love with You

I Left my Head and Heart on the Dance Floor

Wham! Vroom! And things that jet setters do…

On the last day of their course, we got talking about the differences between English classes in their country and the Dogme classes they had experienced in London. These were some of the things the students said.

‘In the lessons in my country, all the topics are from the book. This can be very boring.’

‘You can’t sleep in these classes. It is more dynamic!’

‘Learning and practising language are often separate in the book and in lessons in our country. Here, we learn new language and practise it all at the same time.’

‘In my country, it is often just about completing the exercises in the book. You can do that at home.’

‘Sometimes the teachers stick to the book and the topics are boring. And the same topic goes on and on for too long.’

 

‘We are advanced students. It’s good to have topics flow from one to another, like in real life conversations.’

‘It is really motivating for us to have videos like Lady Gaga. We would never do that in our country!’

‘Your class is really tiring! We have to speak a lot more than we do in other classes! And the topics keep changing so we have to pay attention!’

More about their coursebooks, here is what they said,

‘Some of the speaking tasks in the coursebooks are awkward, and we don’t know what to say about them.’

‘Many of the speaking tasks are split into different parts. (Students are referring to the different pre-task preparation activities e.g. prediction, listening, vocabulary/lexis pre-teaching, etc.) This is really constricting and annoying. It’s impossible to talk naturally.’

‘The teachers give us a very short period of time to do the task. It is difficult to talk about anything meaningful in that short period of time’

I proceeded to ask them if they knew the famous ‘If you could invite anyone to dinner, who would you invite and why’ task in their coursebooks ‘Cutting Edge’.

They said the teachers would usually give them 5 minutes for such a task. One student said,

‘It takes time to think about these task, and to discuss them with our partners. To do the task in this short time period is impossible, and the teachers don’t exploit the tasks fully.’

It certainly sounds like despite the attempt to include some TBL (Task Based Learning) into language learning, ultimately, teachers seem to give more importance to the preparation activities and the lexico-grammar exercises that come with the tasks. Language learning is clearly still seen as linear, and the true essence of TBLT (Task Based Language Teaching) not fully understood.

Of the topics and nature of these tasks some students said,

‘And these tasks are annoying. The topics are unreal and there is no relevance to real life.’

During this discussion, we started to talk about the way they believed language were learnt, and this resulted in a task whereby they had to come up with the top 10 tips they would give to others who have just started learning English. Here’s what they produced on their mini-white boards.

Silvana and Jacqueline

Sophie and Franshesca

Alejandro, Marco and Johnny

Silvana and Jacqueline

Marco and the best advice yet! (Did Johnny write that?)

Thank you, guys! It’s been a great month! I will miss you dearly!

Best of luck for the future!

xoxoxoxoxo