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.

Things students say that break my heart Part 2

This is a post I wrote for ELT Knowledge a month ago.

Click here for Part 3 of the series.

Photo from ELTpics by @vale360
http://www.flickr.com/photos/eltpics

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The learners who come to our classroom are most likely to have been students before at some point in their lives, and therefore have observed and evaluated other teaching professionals in action, formulating their own views of how learning should take place. After all, the average student would have spent around 13,000 hours in direct contact with their classroom teachers by the time they finish high school (Lortie, 1975).

Such a phenomenon, known as ‘The Apprenticeship of Observation’, suggests that most students watch their teachers ‘frontstage and centre’, like an audience watching a play, and are not privy to the thought processes and the justifications for the classroom decisions that the teacher makes (ibid).

Although, the Apprenticeship of Observation is often a term used in teacher training to describe teachers who teach the way they have been taught, I believe that it also clearly demonstrates why students often have fixed views about the language learning process and the reasons behind their expectations of themselves and their teachers.

The learner’s views on learning and teaching would without doubt also be influenced by cultural conventions and expectations as education systems round the world differ. Some might place more focus on information transmission and memorisation, while others might place focus on the importance of analysis and exploration. Education cultures and conventions aside, the 13,000 hours of contact with teachers of course also include the observation of how subjects other than languages are taught. A lack of understanding of the processes of language acquisition might lead them to think that learning a language is like learning Mathematics or Chemistry, and therefore, end up judging their own abilities and their progress too harshly.

In my last blogpost, I wrote about four things that students say that break my heart, and looked into the probable reasons behind these statements, in an attempt to better understand and help students be aware of language learning processes.

In this blogpost, I hope to look at a few more heartbreakers, and explore the things we can say to help students understand the reasons for the classroom decisions that their teachers make.

 

Photo from ELTpics by @JosetteLB
http://www.flickr.com/photos/eltpics

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What they say: I can’t produce the language my teacher has taught me even after we’ve practised it in class.

What’s really happening: The learner is thinking of language acquisition as a linear process, not unlike the way we’d practise the use of a mathematical equation until we can solve mathematical problems with ease. The typical PPP (Present, Practice, Produce) lesson shape seen in many coursebooks and classrooms seems to cement the idea that language can be broken down into pieces which are then presented, learnt, practised and incorporated in the brain, ready to be produced.

We did the first conditional today. Now, you’ll practise it, and go forth and use it. Because tomorrow we’re doing the second conditional.  So you’d better be ready.’

Is that what learners think their teachers are thinking?

Perhaps the last ‘P’ (Produce), by nature of its label, has had a lot of bad press.

Perhaps we don’t really expect learners to master and produce the language point by the end of the lesson.

Then why is the final section of every chapter in Face-to-Face called ‘Get ready…Get it right’?

It is no wonder that the student thinks that they are expected to readily assimilate and use a language point covered in class that day, even though most language acquisition theories would tell you that that just isn’t how the brain works.

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What they say: Everyone in the class is better than me.

What’s happening: In a communicative classroom, not only the teacher is in a ‘frontstage and centre’ position. Some students, especially the more outgoing and chatty ones, often get to be under the spotlight, and spoken fluency is often the quality that gets held up as being most celebrated, and therefore most desirable. From the point of view of the shy or less extroverted students, this might seem an impossible goal to try and achieve.

But spoken fluency is not the be all and end all. Students need to be made aware that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and some strengths are simply get more ‘air time’ in a communicative classroom than others.

While some students might not be good at speaking confidently and fluently in open class, their language abilities in other areas such as their communicative competence in smaller groups or pairs, their lexico-grammatical range and/or accuracy, their written fluency or their cultural sensitivity, might prove to be better.

 

In pairs, discuss…

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What they say: Why do I want to talk in pairs/groups? I don’t want to learn my partner’s mistakes. I want to talk to the teacher/a native speaker.

What’s really happening: The student here is focused only on the end product (the bits of language he/she might acquire from talking to their partner) and the cognitive functions that will have been developed (e.g. a brain that can think in English, or use certain lexico-grammatical items with ease).

Yet, it is a focus on the process (and not the end product) that would aid language acquisition.

Pair/group work provides conditions that are conducive to the language learning process, and it is through the dynamic interactions and collaborations with other students that one activates the skills of meaning negotiation (paraphrasing, meaning clarification, and drawing upon all the lexico-grammatical resources that are available to communicate effectively).

There is plenty of theory to back this up. While Long (1996) was the one who articulated the Interaction Hypothesis, saying that interaction and communication are key to language acquisition, Krashen (1985) stated that the comprehensible input could be more effective when meaning negotiation is being practised. But it is probably Vygotsky (1978) who first suggested, in his theories of ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development), that such organised learning could speed up cognitive development through interaction and socialization, and help provide the scaffolding that facilitates language acquisition.

So, to these learners, I say:
Lots of scientific (soft science, nevertheless) research has proven that you can still improve in your English, whether you are practising your English with your partner or your teacher.

When you are trying to explain what you mean to your partner, language learning is happening.

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What they say: I wrote my email by looking at a writing sample and copying the phrases. I think I am cheating.

What’s happening: The natural instinct of a learner is to go ‘bottom-up’ and attempt to understand individual words strung together to form phrases and sentences, both when reading and listening. We spend time ‘activating their schema’ by doing lead-ins and prediction tasks, we get them to notice collocations, we provide opportunities for skimming and scanning before any reading for detailed understanding…and we do all this in hope that they will process texts in a top-down fashion. But how much of this do we apply to productive activities like writing?

Evidently, the terms ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ processing are often applied to receptive skills like listening or reading, but using each and every word as individual building blocks to form sentences in production can also be taken to be a ‘bottom-up’ strategy. The Lexical Approach (1993) gives legitimacy to a grammaticalised lexis where phrases, both fixed and semi-fixed, and language chunks are seen as not only valid, but an effective way of producing language.

Perhaps what’s most important for the teacher is to let students in on how decisions are made in the classroom, inviting them to see what happens ‘backstage’. What’s important is not just the setting up the classroom activities themselves, but showing learners how these are judicious decisions based on sound reasoning, rather than going about in a mysterious ‘teacher-knows-best’ kind of way.

Perhaps then, students, as the Apprentices of Observation, would be better able to understand the approaches they can take to learn more effectively.

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Bibliography

Krashen, S.D. (1985), The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications, New York: Longman

Lewis, Michael (1993) The Lexical Approach.

Long, M. (1996) “The role of the linguistic environment in second language acquisition”. In Ritchie, William; Bhatia, Tej. Handbook of second language acquisition. San Diego: Academic Press. pp. 413–468.

Lortie, D. (1975) Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study. London: University of Chicago Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, and E. Souberman (eds.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 

 

 

Not Ready to Make Nice

Bullying is seen across all cultures;

Bullying is omnipresent;

Bullying is prevalent in all walks of life and is not limited to school settings.

While some are targets of physical violence or threatening words, others are face the possibility of being ex-communicated from social groups.

Bullying is a topic that is familiar to people of all nationalities and can be a springboard to many a meaningful discussion in the language classroom.

The American country band Dixie Chicks made a comment at a concert in London in 2003, and quickly became the target of bullies in their home country. The bullies started acting as a mob, as they often do, and soon, Dixie Chicks were receiving death threats in the mail and were banned from country music radio stations.

Picture taken from dixiechicks.com

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In response to the bullying, the band started to write an album. However, when it was suggested to Natalie Maines, the lead singer, that perhaps the songs should be about how everyone ought to just get along, she found herself unwilling to back down and instead produced the hit single Not Ready to Make Nice.

The song went on to win 3 Grammy Awards, and the album Taking the Long Way ended up winning 5 Grammys, perhaps all a sign of support for the girls who have been the target of bullying.

Being a song very close to my heart, I have felt it appropriate to create a lesson around it. However, unlike most receptive skills procedures seen in more recent approaches, this lesson takes a more bottom-up approach to listening, allowing students to use their linguistic knowledge to piece together the lyrics of the song.

In what way do you think a bottom-up approach to this lesson could make a difference to the usual top-down approaches?

(Notes for teachers are in brackets.)

Lead-in:

Picture taken from http://www.safenetwork.org
Click on picture to read more about bullying.

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(Elicit lexis: Bullying, a bully.)

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Discussion questions:

  1. Why do people bully others?
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    (Possible Answers: insecurity, jealousy, prejudice, etc.)
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  2. Where can bullying occur?
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    (Possible Answers: at school, at the office, online, etc.)

    .
  3. What kind of things might a bully do?
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  4. What can we do if we are being bullied?
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Pre-listening

(Hand-out)

Fill in the gaps with the appropriate word. Use your knowledge of language and rhyming words to help you.

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Forgive, sounds good

Forget, I’m not sure I c_____

They say time heals e_______

But I’m still waiting

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I’m through with doubt

There’s nothing left for me to figure o___

I’ve paid a price

And I’ll keep paying

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Chorus:

I’m not ready to make nice

I’m not ready to back d____

I’m still mad as hell and

I don’t have time to go round and round and round

It’s too late to make it r_____

I probably wouldn’t if I could

‘Cause I’m mad as hell

Can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I s_____

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I know you said

Can’t you just get o____ it

It turned my whole world a______

And I kind of like it

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Bridge:

I made my bed and I sleep like a b____

With no regrets and I don’t mind sayin’

It’s a sad sad story when a mother will teach her

daughter that she ought to hate a perfect st________

And how in the w______ can the words that I said

Send somebody so over the e_____

That they’d write me a l______

Sayin’ that I’d better shut u__ and sing

Or my life will be o____

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Chorus (x2):

I’m not ready to make nice

I’m not ready to back d____

I’m still mad as hell and

I don’t have time to go round and round and round

It’s too late to make it r____

I probably wouldn’t if I could

‘Cause I’m mad as hell

Can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I s_____

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Forgive, sounds good

Forget, I’m not sure I c_____

They say time heals e_______

But I’m still waiting

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Listening for specific information

Listen to the song and check your answers.

(Note: the teacher might use the feedback stage to clarify some of the more useful or crucial lexical items)

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Forgive, sounds good

Forget, I’m not sure I could

They say time heals everything

But I’m still waiting

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I’m through with doubt

There’s nothing left for me to figure out

I’ve paid a price

And I’ll keep paying

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Chorus:

I’m not ready to make nice

I’m not ready to back down

I’m still mad as hell and

I don’t have time to go round and round and round

It’s too late to make it right

I probably wouldn’t if I could

‘Cause I’m mad as hell

Can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I should

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I know you said

Can’t you just get over it

It turned my whole world around

And I kind of like it

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Bridge:

I made my bed and I sleep like a baby

With no regrets and I don’t mind sayin’

It’s a sad sad story when a mother will teach her

daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger

And how in the world can the words that I said

Send somebody so over the edge

That they’d write me a letter

Sayin’ that I better shut up and sing

Or my life will be over

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Chorus (2x):

I’m not ready to make nice

I’m not ready to back down

I’m still mad as hell and

I don’t have time to go round and round and round

It’s too late to make it right

I probably wouldn’t if I could

‘Cause I’m mad as hell

Can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I should

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Forgive, sounds good

Forget, I’m not sure I could

They say time heals everything

But I’m still waiting

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Reading for Detailed Understanding

Read the lyrics again, and answer the following questions

(Note: There are no right and wrong answers here. Every question offers a chance for the student’s own interpretation to come through.)

  1. How does the singer feel about being bullied?
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    (Possible Answers with song lyrics in quotations: Angry, ‘mad as hell’, and not ready to forget. But she feels that her conscience is clear and she knows she has not done anything wrong because she says ‘she sleeps like a baby’.)
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  2. What kind of things do you think the bullies did?
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    (Possible Answers with song lyrics in quotations: They wrote her a letter to tell her to ‘shut up and sing’ or they’d kill her.)
    .
  3. Why do you think the bullies did that?
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    (Possible Answers with song lyrics in quotations: She said something the bullies didn’t like. ‘And how in the world can the words that I said send somebody so over the edge’)
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  4. Does she blame the bullies?
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    (Possible Answers with song lyrics in quotations: No, she blames society. ‘It’s a sad sad world when a mother would teach her daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger’)
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  5. What is she going to do?
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    (Possible Answers with song lyrics in quotations: She is not going to blame herself but she is not going to give up fighting against the bullies. ‘I’m through with doubt. There’s nothing left for me to figure out’; ‘I’m not ready to back down’)
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  6. What do you think the mood of this song is?
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    (Possible Answers: Angry? Sad?)

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Follow-up Productive Task

(This follow-up task requires students to have access to the internet. They could either make use of their mobile devices, i.e. smartphones or tablets, or this could be conducted in the Self-Access Centre, where students have at least one computer per group)

In groups of 3, use of the internet to find out more about this song and the band, Dixie Chicks.

Answer the following questions.

Report your findings back to the rest of the class.

(Note: the answers can be found on Wikipedia pages on ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’ and the lead singer ‘Natalie Maines’)

  1. Is this song based on a true story?
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    (Answer: Yes)
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  2. Why were the band targeted by bullies in the 2003?
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    (Answer: The vocalist made a comment at a concert in London, UK, on the eve of the Iraq invasion that they were ashamed that their President George Bush was from Texas, where they are from. This angered a lot of Americans.)
    .
  3. Why did the band write the song?
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    (Answer: They wanted to write their reaction to the bullying mob.)
    .
  4. What kind of things did the American public do to the band?
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    (Answer: They were banned from many country music radio stations and received death threats in the mail.)
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  5. How did the lead singer Natalie feel after writing this song and the album?
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    (Answer: She felt that the album was like therapy and helped her to find peace with everything and move on.)

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When presented with a reading or listening text, students can either utilize a bottom-up processing approach and use their knowledge of words and grammar to build up an understanding of the text, or attempt a top-down approach where they make use of their knowledge of the genre, the situational and cultural context, and the background knowledge about the topic as clues to comprehension (Thornbury, 2006).

Many argue that the tendency for students when reading in a foreign language is to cling on to the individual words of the text and try to decipher its meaning, and therefore it is the responsibility of the teacher to encourage top-down processes through the use of activities that activate content schema, such as prediction and gist reading tasks.

Upon examining the current approaches to teaching reading and listening in ELT, from CELTAs to the design of activities in coursebooks, there is perhaps enough evidence to show that the focus is largely on using top-down approaches, before integrating bottom-up approaches for detailed understanding.
Have a look at the following ‘receptive skills procedure’ that is often seen on CELTA courses and in coursebooks.

  1. Lead-in and/or Prediction Activity (Activating the Schema)
  2. Skimming (Gist) and/or Scanning Tasks (Extensive Reading)
  3. Reading for Detailed Understanding (Intensive Reading)
  4. Follow-up Productive Task

It becomes apparent that the Extensive-to-Intensive, Big-Picture-to-Detailed-Information, Top-Down-to-Bottom-Up approach to reading and listening has not only gained a strong foothold in ELT, but has also been taken for granted by some in our field as the best way of integrating the top-down ‘higher level’ skills with the bottom-up ‘lower level’ skills to form an integrated approach.

But is this necessarily always the best way of integrating the two?

While the use of top-down processing approaches is certainly a valid and useful way of integrating the two, it is also perhaps important to occasionally offer practice of bottom-up processes where learners are able to practise making use of their existing linguistic knowledge to try and make sense of a text.

In this sample lesson, I took the song, Not Ready to Make Nice, and get students to use their linguistic knowledge (bottom-up data-driven text-based processing) to fill in the gaps in the lyrics, after a short lead-in to contextualize the general topic.

Through piecing together the lyrics (and learning some new collocations and phrases along the way), they start to gain a detailed understanding. This understanding would hopefully generate interest in getting more information about the interesting background story to the song.

In a song like this one, the focus on bottom-up processing could create suspense and perhaps be more interesting for students when the story reveals itself as they re-construct the text.

Are there any other times you would choose to use such a bottom-up approach to reading or listening?

References

Thornbury, S. An A-Z of ELT. Oxford: Macmillan.

Further Reading:
Nuttall, C. (2005) Teaching Reading Skills in a foreign language. Oxford: Macmillan.

Silbersteing, S. (1994) Techniques and Resources in Teaching Reading. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Things students say that break my heart

This is a post that I wrote for the ELT Knowledge website a  month ago.

Click here for part two of this post.

 

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Learning a language is hard work and requires copious amounts of patience and determination. Its process is a complex one that, despite prevailing research into SLA (Second Language Acquisition) and Psycholinguistics, most still struggle to fully understand.

Yet many have fixed ideas about the language learning process and judge themselves harshly when it comes to their language experiences and expectations.

Undoubtedly, learning to speak a foreign language is an emotional experience that at times can be daunting and make one feel like a child, void of control over the simplest forms of communication.

And such emotions can be overwhelming at times.

I have heard different learners say similar things prompted by such emotions, and I feel for them each and every time. And perhaps the best thing is to understand why they are saying these things, and to make them better aware of the processes involved.

Here are some of the heart-breakers:

What they say: I feel stupid when I have to think and hesitate when I answer a question.

What’s really happening: When asked questions like ‘What’s your name?’ or ‘Where are you from?’, students are less likely to hesitate when answering. That’s only because they have been asked these questions a million times and no longer need to think before they answer. This also means that there is no thinking or complicated mental process needed to formulate these answers. The needed language has already been learnt and no more language learning is taking place.

When students have to think and hesitate, this indicates that they are finding ways to construct the sentence by drawing on all the lexicogrammatical and discoursal resources they have, paraphrasing, looking for synonyms and antonyms, making use of cohesive devices and trying anything to get their meaning across. Complex mental processes are activated while meaning negotiation and accuracy and fluency practice are being carried out.

I love it when students hum and haw. That’s language acquisition happening right before your eyes!

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What they say: I feel embarrassed and insecure when I have to speak English in front of native speakers.

What’s really happening: Native speakers are often seen as target role models that students would like to emulate, and this no doubt comes from the fact that people traditionally learnt foreign languages in order to speak to native speakers and to get to know the target culture.

But in an era where English is now the lingua franca, and more and more are learning the language to further their career prospects and to travel, the target interlocutors and target culture are no longer simply those from the UK and the US.

Furthermore, the fact that one is biologically a native speaker is no guarantee of their abilities to speak eloquently or write clearly, and definitely no indication of adeptness at effective communication with other non-native speakers. In fact, it is not uncommon to find UK businesses employing trainers to give their British employees English workshops so as to enable them to successfully communicate in a global environment.

Alternatively, students might say the above because they have had a bad encounter with a rude or impatient native speaker. If this was the case, I just tell them this: They can’t sympathise with your position because you speak two languages (or more), and they probably speak one. You should feel sorry for them.

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What they say: My last teacher said ‘I need more grammar’.

What’s really happening: There is a traditional belief, rooted in the tradition of the way Latin and Greek were taught, whereby learning a language was equated to the learning of grammar. One could even go so far as to argue that with most European languages, morphology and verb inflections make up the foundations on which the languages are based. While vocabulary acquisition has always been thought to be a simplistic matter of memorization, the ability to string the lexis into a syntactically correct and coherent sentence is a mental process that few understand.

So, telling a student ‘You need more grammar’ is more like saying ‘You need to know more about the English language’.

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What they say: I felt like I was improving at first, but now I feel like I am deteriorating.

What’s really happening: For students on an intensive course, what might be happening is that they started out feeling motivated and were taking on all the learning opportunities offered to them, and therefore felt like they were improving.

However, this also means that they have started to notice the gaps in their knowledge and become more aware of their mistakes and the things they can’t do. Unlike before the course, the student is now paying extra attention to his/her language use and feeling self-conscious about it. This naturally leads to a feeling that they are deteriorating.

In actual fact, they are improving.

Because awareness is the mother of all progress.

For students on a long-term programme, this issue might simply be a lack of motivation and a feeling that they would never arrive at their destination.

The novelty of learning a new language has worn off and ‘Mid-Int-initis’ has set in. Their improvement curve seems to have stagnated. And there is still so much more they don’t know.

If this is the case, perhaps it is time to review their goals. Set specific performance-related mini-goals that could be met in shorter time frames and flag up the fact that no one knows everything and every word in a language. It is being able to do the things one wants to do with the language that counts.
Besides, we know that embracing the journey is sometimes more important than the destination. And we as teachers are at liberty to make that journey all the more enjoyable.

Perhaps hearing students say these things might break my heart, but if I can give them the confidence to never need to say them again, I’d consider my job half done, don’t you think?

‘Where are you from?’ and the issue of diaspora

Yesterday was the American Independence Day…which to me meant only one thing, it’s my London anniversary!

12 years ago, I came into this city by Eurostar from Paris and was struck by how at home the city made me feel.

Now, I am at home.

Last year, I wrote this 11th anniversary post about the 11 things I learnt in London…but the truth of the matter is, when I think of home, I think of London.

When England plays in the Eurocup, I get my St George’s flag out and shout ‘Come on England!’ at the top of my lungs.

When the UK wins a medal in the Olympics, I beam with pride as the national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’ plays.

I identify myself as a Londoner, and I know for sure that I feel more at home here than anywhere else in the world.

Yet, perhaps because I don’t look typically British, a common opening line when people meet me for the first time is to ask, ‘Where are you from?’

Whether it be a business associate I have just been introduced to or a pickup line at a pub, I have always found this opening line rather disconcerting.

I know that those who choose to use this line do not mean any harm, and are probably doing nothing more than making conversation, but I find ‘Where are you from?’ extremely exclusive and divisive…

Let me put it this way,

If a fat person walked into the pub, would you open the conversation with, ‘What on earth have you been eating?’

If a person came in on a wheelchair, would you start by saying, ‘So, pray tell, what happened to you?’

We wouldn’t dream of pointing out the differences between us and them in those situations.

It would definitely be considered a social faux pas.

Yet, it seems okay to most to start a conversation pointing out the difference between me and you because of the colour of my skin and my ethnic origin?

And the irony of it all is that, when asked, many would simply say, ‘We asked you that question only to try and achieve common ground between us!’

Of course, this might be due to our human need to put things in boxes and categorise everything into simple generalisations. The ability to siphon things into neat categories somehow feels comforting…and even necessary in facilitating how we go about our day-to-day activities. Our ‘assumed normality of the world’ is what tells us which conventions to apply to the situations we encounter.

We walk into a pub and order a beer in English because (a) we assume that pubs sell beer, and (b) we assume the bartender speaks English.

We say ‘Awful weather today, isn’t it?’ to our colleagues in the morning because (a) we assume that they hate the cold weather too, and (b) they know that talking about weather is merely a way making small talk and we do not intend to get into a full conversation about the weather.

We make assumptions (some universal, some cultural) everyday and this enables us to have relationships with people…

But does my oriental appearance or me being from a country in South East Asia really help you to know more about me? What does it help you to know?

So, sometimes, when confronted with the conversation opener, ‘Where are you from?’, I answer, ‘London’.

More often than not, I get this response – ‘No! Really! Where are you from?’

Even those who think I am born in London insist on asking that question, hoping I would leave them a clue as to my ethnic origins.

But what does ‘Where are you from?’ really mean?

Does it mean, ‘Where were you born?’

It can’t possibly mean this because I have a colleague who was born to British parents and went to primary school in Singapore, but lived most of his adult life in Manchester. When asked ‘Where are you from?’, his answer is always ‘Manchester’…and no one ever questions him with a ‘No…really! Where are you from?’

Or does it mean, ‘Where were you brought up and educated?’

It can’t possibly mean this either because I have another colleague who was born, brought up and educated in Glasgow but moved to Manchester for his university education and stayed for quite a long time. His accent is much more Mancunian than Glaswegian. And when asked ‘Where are you from?’, his answer tends to be ‘England’ or ‘Manchester’. Again, no one ever challenges that answer.

Or does it mean, ‘Where were your parents from?’

Ah…I have a friend whose parents are from the West Indies but he was born and brought up in London. Should he answer the question with ‘Jamaica’? Why is it that when he says ‘London’, no one raises any eyebrows?

To me, ‘Where are you from?’ means all of those things, but above all, it means, ‘Where do you feel you belong to in your heart?’.

Identity is a complex issue and diaspora and the lack of belonging can make one feel left out, excluded, and ostracised.

My ‘born-in-Singapore’ colleague feels Mancunian, and so does my colleague who was born in Glasgow. Because in their hearts, Manchester is where they belong.

I feel like a Londoner, and London is where I belong.

Happy 12th birthday to me…

The BESIG Paris Summer Symposium 2012

The BESIG Paris Summer Symposium (in association with TESOL France) might have only been a day long, but it was certainly one of the best conferences I had ever attended.

It was well-organised. – From the moment the speakers’ proposals were accepted to the day of the conference, key information was disseminated in good time, queries were answered before they were even asked, and the speakers were even sent photos of the rooms that they would be presenting in.

It was well-programmed. – Like many conference goers, I had become used to attending conferences where inevitably there would be talks that might make one feel like the opportunity cost was little high, to put it diplomatically. This conference had no such talks. Every single session I went to either gave me useful ideas to implement in my teaching or brought up certain issues that made me think. And from what I heard, the sessions that I was unable to attend due as they clashed with the sessions I went to were just as good (Eric Halvorsen, Vicky Loras, Michelle Hunter, Adrian Pilbeam, Nick Robinson, Ian McMaster & Deborah Capras: Sorry I couldn’t come to your sessions, but I have been hearing so many positive things about your sessions!) So kudos to the selection committee and to the presenters for that.

It was well-attended.– There were about 160 delegates at the conference venue attending the talks, but there were also some 70 delegates that had congregated in Argentina, Serbia, and Croatia, watching some of the talks simulcasted live into their conference rooms. On top of that, there were those who were watching the talks live from the comfort of their own homes through the Adobe Connect rooms. This meant that talks like mine which had the privilege of being simulcasted were able to engage not just the live audience in the room but also the audience in Argentina, Serbia, Croatis, and those online, involving them in the workshops and the discussions.

However, by well-attended, I’m not simply talking about the large numbers in the audience. I’m also talking about the ‘quality’ of the conference delegates. The BESIG Summer Symposium was attended by some of the most influential people in the TEFL industry, from the iconic Business English book writers and speakers like Evan Frendo, Pete Sharma, Marjorie Rosenberg, to the intercultural experts like Barry Tomalin and Adrian Pilbeam, to the online celebrities like Brad Patterson and Vicky Loras and the new generation of TEFL movers and shakers like Nick Robinson, Mike Hogan, and Bethany Cagnol (conference organizer and speaker).

Kudos to the BESIG committee…
– photo by Mike Hogan
…and the folks of TESOL France!
– photo by Mike Hogan

For me, this conference was also about finally getting to meet up with some of the Twitter PLNers and Twitteratti in person (Christina @RebuffetBroadus, Eric @ESHalvorsen, Sue @SueAnnan, Vicky Loras @vickyloras, Brad Patterson @Brad5Patterson, Mieke @mkofab, and Carolyn @kerrcarolyn) and they are as marvellous if not more than their online presence!

The BESIG and Twitter PLN combined!

On the 16th June, the day of the conference, I walked from the hotel to Télécom ParisTech, where the conference was held. After an efficient registration process by the friendly TESOL France volunteers and committee members, and some early morning coffee with members of the PLN, I then headed to my first session, Barry Tomalin’s Teaching International Culture in Business – The Framework Approach ©.

Adding his own take to a mix of the dimensions and frameworks of Hofstede, Trompenaars and Richard Lewis, Barry creates the RADAR profile that helps us to learn about ourselves, before comparing our styles to others. Following some effective explanations and relevant examples, Barry had the audience first measure their expectations of business relationships by reflecting upon the following dimensions:

1. Are you more quality driven or cost/finance driven?

2. Are you more risk embracing or risk averse?

3. Do you prefer close contact or distance?

4. Are you more relationship driven or task driven?

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We then measured our communication styles through the following:

1. Do you tend to be direct or indirect?

2. Do you often state your objectives before the reason or the background to a task before the objectives?

3. Do you tend to be formal or informal?

4. Are you more likely to be emotional or neutral?

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Our organisational styles were measured according to the following:

1. Do you prioritise efficiency or effectiveness more?

2. Are you more time tight or time loose?

3. Do you tend to prefer top down or delegation?

4. Do you prefer individual decisions or team decisions?

Photo by Chia Suan Chong

Using framework provided by Barry, we marked out our answers to the above questions and then mapped it against the perceived styles of someone we work with, and considered the areas in which most gap was seen. Giving us the useful tip ‘Change 20% of your behaviour to get 80% of a change in the attitude towards you!’, Barry ended the session by encouraging us to think of a problem that we might have with another culture by going through the procedure he had taught us:

  • Identify your style;
  • Compare your style;
  • Empathise;
  • Manage your skills;
  • Reflect.

Judging from impressive attendance and the high levels of engagement, this session was certainly a resounding success. After a 15-minute coffee break, I managed to get a seat next to Christina Rebuffet-Broadus in one of the simulcasted talks, Pete SharmaApp-tivities for Business English’. Pete began by alerting us to several basic questions that we should ask ourselves about apps. Are they for the right platform? (Apple iPhone? Android? etc) Are they ELT apps or authentic apps? Do we need to pay for them? Is the app free-standing or does it need an internet connection to work?

Photo by Mike Hogan

He then went on to give us plenty of useful and exciting suggestions for teachers who own smart phones and iPads and would like to exploit their use more in the classroom. Here are some of them:

  • For listening practice, TED or BBC iPlayer.
  • For reading practice, newspaper apps can come in handy.
  • For pronunciation and familiarizing one with the IPE chart is Macmillan Sounds. The paid version comes with multiple activities for students.
  • Presentation tools like Brainshark or Prezi can be useful for the Business English Classroom
  • Prezi Viewer can help students to organise complex subjects like ‘culture’, ‘online learning’ or ‘the environment’.
  • Camera apps like Acrossair for geo-tagging, or Android apps like Google Goggles can provide information of one’s surroundings.
  • Screenchomp can turn our iPads into IWBs (Interactive White Boards)
  • Mindmapping software like Simple Mind can help our business clients with their tasks.
  • Fun and games like the British Council apps can motivate our learners.
  • Flashcode Reader reads QR codes. Using a QR code writer, a teacher can make treasure hunt clues, web quests, or simply send a students to an IELTS practice website.
  • Flashcard apps are widely available and can be used for vocab review

Pete’s book App-tivities is now in the labs of The Round, so we can go to www.theround/labs for a free sneak preview! Next up was Mike Hogan and Bethany Cagnol’s ‘Managing Your Brand as a Trainer’, where the freelancers and school owners in the audience were made to seriously think about their business plans and how much they invested in themselves and their brand. Asking the key question, ‘When people hear your name, what do they say? What does your brand say about you?’, Mike and Beth takes the audience through the different aspects of managing one’s brand, from professionalizing oneself by thinking about our niche markets and how we appear to our clients, to considering our online presence when a client or employer ‘Googles’ our name, to taking part in our clients’ conferences and courses/workshops, and even specialized training, so as to understand the environment our clients operate in.

Photo by Chia Suan Chong

Reflection clearly has a huge part to play when examining our brand. Amongst many other useful tips, the audience left the talk with the following questions resonating in their heads:

  • Are we able to present and negotiate our services with our clients?
  • Are we adapting to the changes in the market?
  • Are we investing in ways to boost the quality of what we offer?
  • Are we getting referred by our clients? If not, why not?

My talk was scheduled for the slot straight after lunch, so a few of us went to the nearby sandwich shop and I bought myself a ‘Skipper Sandwich’ with a chopped-up beef patty and fries between two chunks of bread, just to ensure that I would be as sleepy as my audience during my presentation.

Photo by Mike Hogan

As I often feel uncomfortable summarizing my own talks and presentations, let’s just simply say that my ‘Myths and Controversies in BE Teaching’ was largely based on the discussions that were had on the Devil’s Advocate interview here on chiasuanchong.com (see I’m trying to manage my brand! Mike and Beth would be so proud!). Polls were conducted both with the ‘studio audience’ and those watching from Argentina, Serbia and Croatia, and those at home, and we were able to get some very interesting discussions going. Thanks for participating, everyone!

The video of the talk will be up on besig.org soon! Another talk that was also simulcasted was Evan Frendo’s ‘Using Corpora in Materials Development’. Introducing the Hong Kong Corpus of Spoken English and the Enronsent Corpus for written corporate communication, Evan encourages us to get Wordsmith Tools, a concordancing tool that will enable us to analyse the corpora data using word lists and frequency lists. Keyword lists can also be another useful tool for ESP teachers as it helps us to find words that are significantly more frequent in a corpus when compared to another corpus. Demonstrating some possible uses of the corpora, Evan shows us the common collocates used when discussing a CNC machine, something guaranteed to be quite foreign to the lay person, highlighting the usefulness of a corpora to help us teachers become more familiar with the language our students’ need.

Photo by Chia Suan Chong

But using the corpora is not just for ESP teachers. The answer to the question “What is the difference between ‘going forward’ and ‘looking forward’?” can be found by simply looking up examples of use in the corpus data, therefore avoiding precarious situations that might arise from teachers guessing the use of certain lexis by using their instinct. Evan then ends his talk with an optimistic ‘Isn’t this what we do as Business English teachers? We analyse the language, and then we teach it.’ If only all BE teachers were this conscientious, Evan… Just before the closing plenary, Divya Brochier and Brad Patterson provided the audience with an interesting and useful way of encouraging speaking in the classroom with their presentation ‘Using Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats to Boost Conversation Classes’.

Photo by Chia Suan Chong

Illustrating the fact that some students are simply not very motivated to talk through a hilarious roleplay with Brad and Rakesh Bhanot playing bored business students (Bravo for that French accent! It was so real I almost forgot that you both weren’t French!), Divya and Brad that goes on to show us how the use of the Six Thinking Hats could solve this problem.

The White Hat: Unbiased fact

The Green Hat: Creativity and Growth

The Red Hat: Emotions

The Black Hat: Problems. The Devil’s Advocate.

The Yellow Hat: Optimism and solutions.

The Blue Hat: Organisation

So the next time your student says something to the tune of ‘I don’t know’ when you ask them to comment on Global Warming or some topic in a reading text, try move around the six hats instead: What are the facts? (White) How do you feel about it? (Red) What are some of the problems with this? (Black) What are some of the advantages/benefits? (Yellow) How can we move forward from here? (Green) How would you summarise what’s been said? (Blue)

The fantastic conference then came to an end with David Crystal’s closing plenary ‘Language and the Internet’. David sets the tongue-in-cheek tone of the plenary by asking if we were addicted to the Internet and whether we check our emails when we wake up at night to go to the toilet? Surveying the audience with the questions, ‘How many of you here blog?’, ‘How many of you here tweet?’, and ‘How many of you here are tweeting right now?’ (I had my hand up to all three questions), David jokes about the fact that there now exists Twitter Scores that indicate how many people are tweeting in your talk. Clearly, the more people who tweet, the more important you must be!

How many of you tweet?
– photo by Mike Hogan

What was known as Computer Mediated Communication in the 1990s no longer seems to be an appropriate term as the distinction between phones and computers blur. We now talk about Electronic Digital Communication. In fact, the mobilization of the internet means that by 2020, 80% of access to the internet will be through mobile phones.

While adults criticize text messaging and text speak as the way young people are harming our language through abbreviations, David Crystal debunks this myth, stating that text messages are NOT full of abbreviations as only 10% of texts are abbreviated, and we are now seeing abbreviations die away in text-messaging perhaps due to the fact that the novelty has worn out. (One Twitterer tweeted as a response to this, saying that this could be due to the dominance of predictive texts…but I’m not sure if this applies to smartphone users).

Interestingly, using ‘U’ for ‘you’ and ‘c’ for ‘see’ have been around for at least two centuries, and the very parents that criticize today’s teenagers for abbreviating were probably just as guilty doing the same with acronyms like ‘SWALK’ (Sealed with a loving kiss) at the back of envelopes. More interestingly, the earlier one gets their mobile phone, the better a speller one turns out to be. Text messaging is upping our literacy and not harming it.

Photo by Mike Hogan

Defining the difference between electronic communication and the spoken language, David Crystal highlights that electronic communication features successive feedback as opposed to simultaneous feedback. But we can be rest assured that there has not been many changes to the lexicogrammar of our language even with the advance of the internet. Perhaps the most noticeable change is in orthography, i.e. spelling and punctuation, but even so, this is a marginal feature.

Moving on to Twitter, David shows how the move from asking ‘What are you doing now?’ to ‘What’s happening?’ has made tweets less introverted and less about ‘I’ and more about ‘they’. Twitter is now used for business and for reporting on the things that are happening around us.

Ending his talk with a bit on blogging, David entertains the audience with a little skit on ‘blue bottles’, demonstrating how the internet and blogging has led to the start of many romantic relationships between the online users who share a common interest. The one and a half hours flew by with David Crystal telling anecdote after anecdote that the audience could engage with and relate to, and making his points loud and clear, all without the help of any slides or notes. It was certainly an impressive and thoroughly enjoyable presentation, and a great way to end the BESIG Summer Symposium.

Here’s a fascinating interview David Crystal himself by the BESIG Online Team.

The Presentation Award winners
– photo by Mike Hogan

All that is left is to congratulate the winners of the BESIG first-time presenters’ Award Vicky Loras, Eric Halvorsen, and Luke Thompson and Andy Johnson, and it’s off to the nearest restaurant for some escargots and frog legs!

(For more photos of the BESIG Paris Summer Symposium by Mike Hogan, go here)

Death by Idioms

This is a blogpost I wrote for ELT Knowledge – home to the journals English Teaching Professional and Modern English Teacher.

As English confirms its position as the global lingua franca and the language of international trade, business and tourism, there has been more and more talk in the English teaching world regarding the necessity of teaching idioms.

Seidlhofer (2004) warned of the dangers of unilateral idiomaticity, whereby the use of idioms by a speaker could result in incomprehension on the part the interlocutor who is less acculturated to native-speaker norms.

In other words, the use of idioms could be to the detriment of mutual intelligibility and serves no purpose except to perpetuate the native-speaker’s target culture, which is usually taken to mean the American or the British culture.

Now, before you get up in arms about this and start bellowing, ‘But my students want to be taught English idioms!’ from the rooftop of the nearest language school, let me reassure you that I am not entirely comfortable with lumping all English idiomatic expressions together and damning them all at one go.

So first of all, let us consider this. What is an idiom?

The online dictionary www.dictionary.com defines ‘idiom’ as ‘an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements’, while the Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary defines it as ‘a group of words whose meaning is different from the meanings of the individual words’.

Both dictionaries then proceed to give examples of idioms such as ‘to kick the bucket’ and ‘to let the cat out of the bag’.

The meanings of these fixed expressions are clearly far from the meanings of the words themselves (‘to die’ and ‘to tell a secret by mistake’, respectively), but are idioms always so easily defined?

Look the following dialogue for example. Can you spot the idioms?

Rachel:           Hey, why are you feeling so down?

Michael:         My pet hamster passed away last night.

Rachel:           Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. I know, how about some retail therapy to cheer yourself up?

Michael:         I can’t. I’m broke. I blew all my money on this tiny hamster coffin. It cost a bomb.

Rachel:           I’ll treat you to something nice. Come on, let’s go.

Michael:         I can’t. I’m knackered. I stayed up all night last night mourning little Lord Nelson.

Rachel:           Look, at the end of the day, you can’t beat yourself up like that. You’ve got to get over it.

Michael:         I can’t. I’m dying inside…

Rachel:           Alright then…whatever.

You could comfortably categorise ‘it cost a bomb’ as the same kind of idiom that ‘to let the cat out of the bag’ is.

But how about ‘passed away’, ‘cheer yourself up’, ‘blew all my money on ~’, ‘stayed up’, beat yourself up’, and ‘get over it’?

 

Are you arguing that these are phrasal verbs?

But don’t most phrasal verbs have meanings that are not derivable from the individual meanings of its constituent parts?

Are phrasal verbs naturally idioms then?

How about ‘feeling down’, ‘retail therapy’, ‘I’m broke’, ‘I’m knackered’, and ‘at the end of the day’?

Arguably, these are expressions that might have started out as idioms, but through common and frequent use, have earned a place in our cognitive processes as directly representing a different meaning to its linguistic origins? Most teachers might not even consider ‘broke’ an idiom, and would take its meaning of ‘without money’ to be simply another homonym of the word ‘broke’.

Another example of this is the above adjectival past participle ‘knackered’ (meaning ‘tired’). Originally meaning ‘to kill’, sending your horse to ‘the Knacker’s Yard’ meant that your horse was due to be slaughtered due to old age. However, even in late 1800s, ‘to knacker’ had already taken on its idiomatic meaning of ‘to tire out’.

But would English speakers from the USA, Jamaica, India or Singapore understand/use the word ‘knackered’ when they want to say that they are ‘tired’?

The online etymology dictionary www.etymonline.com states that the word ‘idiom’ was first seen in French in the late 1500s to mean ‘form of speech peculiar to a people or a place’, and in Latin and Greek to refer to ‘peculiarity in language’ and ‘peculiar phraseology’.

This suggests that the original concept of idiom referred to a type of colloquialism or code used amongst a particular group of people. This code-specific characteristic is clearly seen in the word ‘knackered’, where the target culture is closely tied to the idiomatic expression. The same can be said of the following idioms:

  • to be full of beans’ (‘to be full of energy’ – UK),
  • drinking the Kool-Aid’ (‘people who conform without questioning the belief or argument, displaying a lack of critical examination’ – US),
  • came out of the left field’ (‘unexpected, unusual, irrational’ – US baseball idiom)
  • catch no ball’ (‘didn’t understand a thing, wasn’t able to grasp the concept’ – Singaporean English idiom resulting from a direct translation from the Hokkien dialect)
  • the equation has changed’ (‘the relationship has changed’ – Indian English idiom resulting from a direct translation from Hindi)
  • She’ll be apples’ (‘everything will be alright’ – Australian English)
  • box of fluffy ducks’ (‘everything is going my way’ – New Zealand English)

If the above idioms are used by a particular speech community and is code-specific to those peculiar to a place or country, then should we teach these idioms to our EFL students?

If your answer is yes, which ones? And why?

Would you teach these idioms only for receptive purposes or would you encourage your students to produce them? What are the dangers of this?

How do you decide which idioms to teach?

How about the use of the word ‘Whatever’ in the dialogue above?

It doesn’t really mean ‘anything that…’; nor does it mean ‘no matter what’.

It carries the illocutionary force of ‘I don’t care’ or ‘That’s your problem, man!’ to show indifference or dismissal.

Although it started out as a code-specific slang word, it is now used globally, perhaps due to the dominance of Hollywood.

Could any of the above code- or community- specific idioms gain international recognition too?

Please go here to do my little poll on idioms and share your ideas and beliefs on teaching them.

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Allow me to end this blogpost with this little piece of irony for us all to chew on as we go to bed tonight…

 

When asked, many of my learners say that they want to learn idioms because it makes them sound more native.

But more often than not, idioms are either used inappropriately, inaccurately, or simply overused.

 

Case in point: When John McClane in Die Hard 3 hears the building supervisor saying that it was raining ‘dogs and cats’, he immediately susses out that the building supervisor was not Amercian, thus leading him to conclude that he was German and belonged to the villain’s gang.

 

In trying to sound more native, learners end up sounding less native.

What a dilemma!

 

References

Seidlhofer, B. (2004) ‘Research Perspectives on Teaching English as a Lingua Franca’. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, pp:209-239.

My Hairstory

I had a haircut recently.

BEFORE

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AFTER

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I hadn’t planned for something quite so radical.

I had made an appointment at the hairdresser’s and was going for a trim.

That afternoon, I asked some of my colleagues what they thought I should do with my hair and how short I should go.

Unanimously, they told me that I was to cut no more than 2 inches off my very long hair. Long hair suits me, they said.

It was not until the moment I was seated in the hairdressing salon that I was going to take it all off.

It was pretty dramatic, especially considering the fact that I have had long hair for years.

That night, I posted a photo of my new haircut (see above pic) on Facebook and a flood of positive comments appeared on my page, some remarking upon how drastic the change was. And that got me thinking…about how much a haircut could mean to us.

Let me take you back to the 1970s.

I am the first born and only child to my Singaporean Chinese parents, and when I was born, I had already disappointed my parents and my grandparents in two major ways.

First of all, I was covered in hair from head to toe. My grandparents thought that my mother had given birth to a monster. Thankfully, I shed most of that hair within days, leaving a thick head of hair. Still, this was rather odd for a baby of Chinese heritage.

The second was not something that could be reversible like the first. The second was a gut-wrenching disappointment for I was not born a boy, and this was made quite clear to me throughout my childhood.

To start off, my grandmother insisted on taking me to the barber and ensured that I had a boy’s haircut, maintaining the illusion for as long as she could.

Why is anyone surprised that I grew up to become a bit of a tom boy?

(insert)

The barber totally freaked me out…
When I became used to being treated like a boy…

For the most of my childhood, my mother decided that I should have my hair kept short, and when I voiced my envy of my classmates who had beautiful plaited hair, she would lecture me on the conveniences of short hair, adding that it was the girls with long hair who got lice. The scare tactic worked because I never complained after that.

Celebrating my 4th birthday with a bob
Looking unhappy – ‘Why can all my classmates have long hair?’
Can you spot me in this picture?

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When I went to college, long hair became my preferred style. I wanted everything I couldn’t have when I was growing up.

Even the pigeons found my long hair more attractive…

And I realized the power of the long hair.

I could put it in a bun and look elegant;

I could tie it into two plaits and look naïve;

I could curl it, let it all down and look seductive.

I could flick it, toss it, and shake it.

I could headbang with it.

I could attract attention with it.

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But I was miserable.

I wasn’t happy with myself and constantly felt insecure.

I was depressed.

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I embarked on a journey of self-exploration.

I took up meditation, I reflected, I faced up to my demons.

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One of the many things I realized was this:

I had based all of my self-confidence on what others thought of me.

I had based my self-worth upon the attention I received.

Yet, I wasn’t willing to love myself or my own company.

And until I could enjoy my own company could I expect others to enjoy mine.

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So, I got a pair of scissors and cut my very long hair off.

I then shaved my hair off.

All of it.

Till I was bald.

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Now, I really looked awful.

I looked like a freak.

I felt less feminine than I had ever felt.

I had sought to be as ugly as I could be.

And if I could find confidence within myself, if I could love myself despite how others looked at me, I knew this time it would be true confidence.

Without any hair, I felt exposed…

The friends I met and got to know would treat me completely differently from the ones I met when I had hair.

The boys who came to chat me up in clubs were certainly of a different type, and expected different things of me, seeing that a bald head on a girl must mean she is daring and wild in some way.

The people I encountered in the shops and in the street regarded me with suspicion, some unsure whether I was a boy or a girl, and some openly expressing disapproval of my unconventional appearance.

After all, if people can’t place you in a box, they try to do so anyway.

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My self-esteem shrank to nothing.

I felt lonely, like no one understood me.

I was really depressed.

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I realized how much I had depended on something as seemingly insignificant as hair to boost my confidence, to create the illusion of being understood, to feel belonged in society.

I realized that I hadn’t been confident all my life after all.

For if it were true confidence, it wouldn’t have been deflated so easily.

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I kept my head shaved for 6 months.

I learnt to explore everything that I was and to find things about myself I loved.

I learnt to feel attractive and feminine in other ways.

I learnt to find true confidence.

Like the story of my hair, the story of my journey in teaching hasn’t been too different.

Placing your confidence upon tools, materials, and even your personality, can only take you this far.

Find your confidence from within, and it will stay with you forever.

Could you see why?

Cringing at Cheese this Christmas?

Christmas is naturally a mushy time…considering the fact that it combines all the ideals of love, giving, family reunions, and bonding.

Like weddings, it is one of those occasions where you really can’t stave off the sentimental moments. Or can we?

Some of us sneer at melancholic Christmas tunes, the twinkling fairy lights or the smell of the Christmas dinner cooking.

Some of us can’t express appreciation for the nostalgia and laughter shared over some mulled wine in front of an open fire.
And they are neither Ebenezer Scrooge nor in serious need of psychotherapy.

They just hate cheese.

Since when has cheese earned such a terrible reputation? We act as if being cheesy is the uncoolest thing to hit the human race since that shoulder-padded jacket we wore at secondary school thinking we were making the biggest fashion statement ever.

Is this our anti-thesis to NKOTB, Westlife, Rick Ashley, and the entire boy band fad of the 80s/90s?

Or a prolonged silent protest against the loving hippie attitudes of the 60s and 70s?

Or our reactions to the every big studio romance film starring Meg Ryan?

Or maybe it’s our acquired distaste for being bombarded by advertisements as our good ol’fashioned emotions are manipulated by marketing firms of mega-conglomerates?

Or is it really that child inside us all that feels a bit betrayed by the happy families portrayed in every cheesy song and film when we discover that real life just isn’t quite so?

Is it the build-up of frustration with having to cope with the family dramas that could only annoy and disturb as much as they do because they are built upon decades of history together?

Is it the frantic preparation followed by the disappointing unappreciation that scares us into realistic apprehension of allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by the significance of the occasion?

Could we let our guard down and demolish the fortress that protects our hearts this Christmas?

After all, it’s the season for forgiveness.

I’d say, why not let yourself go this holiday season?

Merry Christmas one and all, and I pray that the spirit of giving is with you.

11 things I learnt in London – a pseudo-ethnographic exploration of British vs Singaporean culture

How time has flown. As of the 5th July 2011, I’ve been living in London for 11 years. It was 11 years ago when I wrote a ridiculous feature called ‘a Singaporean Bimbo in London’ for a Singaporean newspaper and it still makes me giggle to remember the girl that I was. Looking back, there has been some valuable lessons in those 11 years, somewhere…and perhaps living here both as a participant and an observer could somewhat make me an ethnographer of London pop culture, albeit not a systematic or academic one. On that note, here are the top 11 things I’ve gathered from my past 11 years.

1. Personality

My assumption: Enthusiasm and confidence are clearly positive things.

My experience: I used to greet my fellow housemates with a loud and cheery ‘Good Morning!’ and one day, overheard a conversation between two of my housemates that went something like this, ‘What’s she on? Nobody can be that enthusiastic. I can’t trust her. It seems so insincere’.

Lesson learnt: Enthusiasm and overconfidence can be regarded with suspicion (especially coming from a woman)

2. Intonation

My assumption: Coming to a country that speaks the same language, I immediately assumed that what I said would be understood in the same way too. Now, if you are not familiar with the Singaporean accent, imagine putting the word stress on the last syllable of every word, and the last word of every sentence. Now imagine this situation.

My experience: I was living a houseshare and the bins regularly were filled up but not emptied. After taking out the bins for the 11th time, I politely asked a housemate, ‘Could you take the rubbish OUT, PLEASE?’ I later heard rumours that I was very aggressive, and so I tried to change the way I said things, ‘I was wonderING if you could possiBLY take the rubbish OUT, PLEASE?’ to no avail. To them, I was still aggressive.

Many years later, when shown Gumperz’s research that featured two different accents saying ‘That’s the wrong one. It’s the Wembley account,’ to a bank manager and how they were perceived differently, I suddenly realised that the unconscious placement of my sentence stress and intonation had created an impression I had no intention of making.

Lesson learnt: Accents may be part of your identity, but that identity could be misconstrued (so please don’t judge me for changing my accent…)

3. Forming new friendships                                                               

My assumption: The thought of moving overseas almost seems like an adventurous prospect. A chance to start over, to start afresh.

My experience: Most people I have met have close friends they have met at university or at school, and those seem to be the main friends that stay with you for life. Coming to a new environment in my mid-twenties only means that most people already have an established circle of friends, and this makes the task of making friends even more challenging.

Lesson learnt: By starting afresh, this includes the social circles that you’ve built. And if you don’t go to the pub, you might have problems making new friends.

4. Indirectness

My Assumption: People say that the Brits are very indirect and pride politeness.

My experience: I wrote long-winded work emails in the belief that I was being polite and indirect. When asking for time-off, I would write 3 paragraphs explaining why I needed it. When I received what I considered to be curt and abrupt replies, I spent nights worrying that I had offended them.

Lesson learnt: Generalisations can backfire. Context is everything. Regarding emails, it is totally acceptable to get to the point.

5. Perceptions of attractiveness 

My assumption: Being cute and silly is what you do when you flirt. Girliness=Sexiness. When showing affection, hit the member of the opposite sex playfully.

My experience: When I did the very same things that would have worked for me back in Singapore, the guy I was hitting (on) said, ‘What’s up with you? Grow up!’

Many years later, I had a heated discussion with a British friend about what she thought was the ‘infantilisation of women’ in Far Eastern cultures…strangely, we never saw it as infantilisation…just uh…cute?

Lesson learnt: What is considered attractive and flirty can be extremely different culture to culture.

6. Machismo

My assumption: Being romantic, liking romantic comedies and cheesy love songs are not gender-specific characteristics. (Some of my male Korean students will even attest to romantic comedies being their favourite genre of films)

My experience: Countless discussions with British and European men quickly brought light to the fact that it is just not cool for a man to like romantic films and cheesy love songs. This is further affirmed by the phrase ‘chick flicks’. But it is not just the British men who are wary of the Hollywood brand of romance. Several years ago, when I heard someone say, ‘Your eyes are like the stars in the sky’, I instantly responded with a cynical ‘Oh please…’, at which point I thought, ‘Oh my! I’m turning British!’

Lesson learnt: Cliched romantic notions could be considered not just very girly, but rather insincere.

7. The Media

My assumption: In Singapore, there is a relatively heavy-handed censorship of the media. The number of tabloid newspapers and reality TV shows far exceeds those in my country.

My experience: A student pointed out to me that she found it admirable that the mass media in Britain constantly chides celebrities for having cheated on their wives. When I probed further, she said that many women in her culture would not want to talk about their partner’s infidelity as they feel it might be a reflection of their unattractiveness. She added that if such news was in the papers in her country, the men would probably want to pat the celebrity on the back and celebrate his manhood. The open criticism of such behaviour in the media, whether it be on tabloids or the Jeremy Kyle Show leads to a public mentality that cheating is unacceptable, no representation of one’s manliness and definitely not the norm.

Lesson learnt: Tabloid media can serve to uphold certain values in society and reflect the beliefs and the values of a culture (and can be good ‘fry-your-brain’ entertainment too).

8. Studying

My assumption: When I was at school, the popular kids were always the ones who had the straight As, in addition to excelling in other extra curricular activities like the piano, dance, chess. The boys who studied hard were the ones other boys wanted to be, the ones that the girls were drawn to.

My experience: I was never really the hard worker or the star pupil back at school, but perhaps growing up and finding a passion for teaching and Applied Linguistics has propelled me to put quite a bit of effort into my teaching qualifications. But I soon realised that one’s grades or knowledge is not something one should publicise.

Lesson learnt: Studying and the procurement of knowledge is best done quietly (otherwise you’ll be known as a nerd)

9. Class

My assumption: Having money and being upper class are considered desirable qualities. Coming from a country that had moved from third world to first world in such a short period of time, a rat race had developed to push people to compete so as to learn more, produce more and achieve more. The fight for status and the 5 Cs (Cash, Car, Career, Condominium, Credit Card) was what elevated the country’s economic status.

My experience: The rich and upper class are sometimes treated with disdain. Many have a fierce pride in their regional accents. People protest against bankers’ wages. Of course, it is no secret that the TEFL world I work in is populated by liberals in pursuit of fairness, but I would like to think that it is a fair representation of the majority.

Lesson learnt: Being or sounding posh can be detrimental in the UK. Obviously, I frown upon any kind of discrimination, but the citizens of the UK can be proud to be striving towards the values of altruism and meritocracy.

10. Wit 

I could almost write a whole blogpost dedicated to this. But better yet, read pop anthropologist Kate Fox’s ‘Watching the English’ which dedicates a whole chapter to this topic, and a whole section to irony.

My Assumption: There are several things I had taken forgranted in this area. Among these are – humour is important but just one of many character traits that could be nice to have; Mr Bean was a good representation of British humour; winding someone up is usually done with malice. But the examination of different brands of humour deserves much more than just a few throw-away sentences that can hardly summarise the underlying features of what we intrinsically find funny.

Situation: Couple of years ago, I stumbled upon a Singaporean friend’s video on Facebook that was shot during a house party. A boy at the party teases a female friend as being very girly in front of the others, she throws her hands up, stomps her feet in a girly manner and screams, ‘Ai yoh! Don’t sabo (Singaporean English short for sabotage) me! You always like that one!’ (translation: Oh my! Don’t tease me! Why are you always like that?) and the rest of their friends laughs along at her display of ‘cuteness’.  Upon watching this video, I intrinsically found myself laughing adoringly, relating to the scenario. There was a part of myself that understood that brand of humour, despite knowing that there was a stark difference between that and British wit. At that moment, I realised that humour was something deeply entrenched in our upbringing.

Lesson learnt: In Britain, humour is everything. Irony permeates everyday life and best delivered with a dead-pan face. I love the wit of Mock the Week, the self-deprecation of Little Britain, but I probably will never really be able to ‘do it’ the British way. And that’s ok.

Most importantly,

11. Speaking the same language does not mean having the same culture.

The above might seem pretty obvious, but it was something I simply hadn’t considered when I started living here. Basic concepts which I took for granted as universal were clearly not. And these are concepts no book about culture could shed light on.

I’m glad these 11 years have taught me that.