Things students say that break my heart Part 3

This was first published on the ELT Knowledge website.

In the last two blogposts, I looked at some of the statements that I have heard students say, and the reasons and beliefs about language learning that lie behind these statements.

In the process of writing up these posts, I started to ask the questions, “How much time do we devote to exploring learner attitudes towards language learning in the classroom?” How much do we know about their beliefs? Do we know enough about the language acquisition process ourselves to help our learners become better learners?

I was then reminded of these heartbreakers:

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What students say: They say I have an accent. They say I need to get rid of my accent.

What’s really happening: The ‘they’ in the above statements could be previous teachers, native speakers that they have encountered, or even fellow non-native speakers who speak English better than the student does.

‘Accent-less English’ does not exist. Everyone has an accent. What ‘they’ mean is ‘You have an accent that is not like that of the standard native speaker’.  But this opens up a new can of worms. Who is the standard native speaker? Even BBC newscasters can be seen speaking in a variety of accents, ranging from Scottish to Mancunian to Estuary English from the South East parts of England.

‘But what about RP?’ I hear you say. RP, or Received Pronunciation, characterised the BBC’s programmes in the 1970s, and was considered by actors and broadcasters as the most ‘colourless’ and ‘stripped of regional influences’, and therefore the most ‘standard’ of all British accents. But search for any BBC clip from the 1970s and listen to the presenter speaking RP, and I am sure you would agree with me that it is hardly ‘colourless’.

So, is there such a thing as a neutral accent? I’m afraid not. What ‘they’ really mean is ‘You have an accent that is not the norm to me,’

An accent often denotes one’s geographical and family background, and even one’s social class, and is inextricably tied to one’s identity.

Telling someone to get rid of their accent is as prejudiced as telling someone to change their skin colour, yet it is still considered acceptable when under the guise of helping someone improve their language skills.

A focus on being intelligible, however, can help our students become more communicatively competent. Robin Walker’s book ‘Teaching the pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca’ highlights the pronunciation features that teachers can help students to work on in order to improve mutual intelligibility in a world where English is now a global language.

 

What students say: I feel afraid that people would laugh at me when I make mistakes.

What’s really happening: Speaking in a foreign language often leaves one feeling like a child again, defenceless and susceptible to criticism. For those who are used to being secure in their own language or those who are intolerant of ambiguity, being plunged into an environment where one is stripped of control of the ability to express oneself can be confusing and frightening, leaving one feeling vulnerable.

The teacher has the capability of making the classroom a safe and friendly environment where everyone in the learning process feels comfortable making mistakes and therefore less likely to judge each other’s language errors.

I often tell my students this:

Mistakes are good. Mistakes are important. Mistakes help you learn.

But most importantly, if you don’t make mistakes, I don’t have a job.

 

What students say: How long does it take to learn English?

What’s really happening: The student is seeing the process of language learning like that of learning to drive a car: where there is a definite end point – the moment where you say ‘I can drive’. And in order to arrive at this end point, the learner must master different skills e.g. learning to use the clutch and coordinate that with the use of the accelerator, learning to brake, learning to reverse park, etc. An accumulation of these separate skills collectively results in the ability to drive.

So it seems that many students (and some teachers) think that if they are able to master each grammar point and learn all the words, it would collectively result in the ability to ‘know’ English.

Although the use of language does include the automatic motor skills that are similar to those of driving a car or playing a piano, it doesn’t stop there. The acts of listening, understanding, formulating responses, and taking part in the fluid and dynamic process of conversation involve social and intellectual skills that go beyond the repetition of mindless formulae, and can vary from interaction to interaction.

A similar question I sometimes get from students is ‘How many words are there in English?’ When I tell them that it depends on how we define a ‘word’, and how if we included phrases and collocations, we would then have quite a large number, the student sighs and says, ‘How can I ever learn them all?

So I tell my students that learning a language is not like learning to drive a car, and that one never stops learning. I remind them that there are many words in their language that they don’t know, and probably do not need to know. I emphasize the fact that language is a tool for communication, and they will need the language to effectively communicate in the situations they will encounter.

Most importantly, I remind them that learning a language is not like running a race. There is no goal of reaching a fixed finish line, as such. Just the goal of becoming better communicators with every single day.

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The first day of my courses have always focused on conducting a detailed needs analysis and a negotiation of the course syllabus. On my recent courses, included in the needs analysis is now a chance to discover the learners’ beliefs about second language acquisition through discussions about their learning preferences and an exploration of how languages are best learnt.

For learner training and the promotion of learner autonomy is as much about giving learners the tools that can facilitate better language learning, as it is about providing them with a better framework through which they can better understand their learning process.

Their beliefs and attitudes is what will affect their intrinsic motivations, and after all, motivation is crucial to successful language learning.

TESOL Greece Blog Challenge : Playing the Devil’s Advocate

TESOL Greece Blog Challenge

As a celebration of the launch of the TESOL Greece blog, a blog challenge was launched.

We were asked to answer the following question:

‘During an economic crisis, resources (books, budgets, infrastructure) are limited, but high standards and qualifications are required so that learners can survive on the job market. Can the use of technology help learners and teachers overcome this problem? If so, how?’

 

This ‘technology versus anti-technology’ debate has taken place on multiple platforms repeatedly over the last few years, and will again be had at the TESOL France conference this November. Reading the excellent posts written by the bloggers that have responded to TESOL Greece’s blog challenge, I’ve come to realise that it is far easier to think of the advantages that technology can bring to the classroom and to the students’ learning process than to bask in negativitiy.

And I’m sure the very fact that we are bloggers, and therefore eager users of online tools, has nothing to do with it at all.

But seriously, what’s there not to like? One only needs to take a look at the multiple posts on Twitter and in the blogosphere about M-Learning, the Flipped Classroom, Digital Storytelling, and the use of social media, wikis, class blogs, computer games, online corpuses, Youtube videos, etc that could provide the practitioner with hundreds, if not thousands, of new lesson ideas.

To debate against the use of technology in education would be debating against learner autonomy and learner choice.

To debate against the use of technology in education would be debating against having a wide range of free, but well-thought-out and professionally-presented resources.

To debate against the use of technology in education would be debating against ways of helping our learners increase their exposure to the target language and getting involved in communities of practice outside the realm of the classroom.

In short, to argue against technology online would be courting death in the online TEFL arena.

But surely someone needs to play the Devil’s Advocate in this?

Here are some counter arguments against English teachers being expected to use technology in the classroom:

  1. Some teachers feel that they don’t want to have yet another new thing to learn.

    They have spent years learning about the language and dealing with the different designer approaches and fads in ELT. And now, they are being told that all the knowledge and experience they have accrued from teaching English is not enough if they are unable to get to grips with the latest device or online software.

    They feel that the ability to use technology has got nothing to do with learning English per se, and if such high standard and qualification are needed for learners to survive in the job market, then these learners should be taking classes in IT, and not be relying on their English teacher to provide them with such training.
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  2. Teachers are not paid enough to spend all their free time learning to use new digital tools and implementing them.

    It takes hours to moderate a wiki or Moodle account, to respond to comments on a blog, to find appropriate games and video clips, to maintain the students’ interest in class chats on Twitter or Facebook, and to read other teachers’ blogs for more ideas and development.

    And most schools do not pay teachers to do this.

    I constantly get told, ‘You must not have a life outside TEFL. I treasure my private life and I am certainly not sacrificing it to do more work’.

    I don’t blame them for thinking that at all.
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  3. Not all students want to participate in the use of online tools.

    There could be several reasons for this. Some of my teenage learners equate the use of social media and blogging with something that is done with their friends, and not something that is done with their teachers as part of the curriculum. Making them use the same tools for learning might just turn something fun into something repellent. Just like the use of text speak. It’s just no longer cool among teenagers.

    Some learners from less-privileged backgrounds might feel left out and inferior. They might not be as familiar with certain online platforms and styles of games because they do not have easy access to a computer or a game console at home. They might not have a smart phone and have to share a classmate’s.

    Some learners simply don’t have the time to participate outside of classroom hours. This is especially true when teaching Business English or doing cultural training. These clients not only have a busy work schedule, but might not see the teacher any more than once a week, or even once a month. Class participation is extremely hard to maintain under such circumstances.

    So we know that we can’t force students to use or participate in the use of these digital tools. But how then can we cater for those students who choose to opt out?
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  4. Some schools cannot afford to invest in the latest technology.

    The bigger schools and the more profitable chains are keen to invest in this move towards an E-Learning and M-Learning environment by purchasing the latest computers, Interactive White Boards, newest programmes, subscriptions to the fancy online tools, and iPads for every student enrolled. They advertise this fact and this helps their marketing efforts.

    Meanwhile, the smaller schools that offer perfectly student-centred classes that cannot afford such luxuries are seen as not keeping up with the times.

    What are these times we live in? Times where the bigger co-operations drive out the smaller ones?
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  5. Many educators who talk about the use of technology in a classroom often assume easy and available internet access.

    Those who are involved in ‘in-company’ training would identify with the fact that wifi access is often blocked and the use of firewalls is not uncommon so as to protect company secrets.

    Essentially, this means that you can’t bring up a picture on Google images to explain a word away easily. It means that you can’t connect to Youtube or any video streaming sites for your listening activities (unless you download them illegally…and you don’t want to do that). It means that you can’t use social media, chat rooms, or any backchannelling software.

    Of course, there are digital tools that do not require an access to the internet, but your hands are pretty much tied if you are providing training in such a context.
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As many have mentioned (Christina and James, among others), it is not about being anti-technology. It is simply about being judicious in its use and not letting technology dictate what happens in the classroom. And perhaps an awareness of the issues that face teachers who are wary of the exponential increase of technological tools might help us be less evangelical in helping them utilise technology in the best way for their learners and their teaching context.

At the end of the day, perhaps the issue is not whether to use technology in the classroom or not.

That would be like adamantly saying, ‘I’m not going to learn to use the photocopying machine coz it’s just too much hassle.’

Neither is it about whether to help our students use technological tools as part of their learning process.

That would be like stubbornly saying, ‘I’m not going to teach my students how to write emails because I don’t use the internet.’

As modern technology and the internet becomes more and more part of our everyday lives, we ought to move pass the ‘technology versus no-technology’ debate.

For what really matters is the way we use it, the context that we use it in, and the learners who we use it for.