My IATEFL Glasgow Diary Part 11 – Steven Thorne’s Plenary

Wednesday, 21st March 2012, Glasgow Conference Centre.

The IATEFL Day 3 Plenary Speech by Steven Thorne

Day 3 started with IATEFL President Eric Baber giving us some important facts about this year’s conference. In addition to the acre of tree that were planted to offset IATEFL Glasgow’s carbon footprint, there were 2300 delegates, 100,000 online attendees, 26 scholarships, 5 plenaries, 14 evening events, 500 presentations, and 650 presenters in IATEFL 2012. We can only be in awe of the IATEFL organizing committee for being able to not only find a venue that could accommodate us all, but for being able to organise and run the conference so smoothly.

Like many other decisions the organizing committee made this conference, the choice of the Day 3 plenary speaker was absolutely spot-on. Steven Thorne was energetic, inspirational and had the type of enthusiasm that was catching – qualities that were clearly needed on a day when the strain of absorbing a non-stop flow of information and knowledge combined with non-stop networking and socializing only meant that most conference delegates were starting to ‘fade’.

As Steven Thorne shared with us his knowledge and research on pedagogical experimentation with technology use, such as social media, fan fiction communities, and online gaming, I realized that I was extremely honoured to be sitting beside Graham Stanley, author of the recently ELTon-nominated book, Digital Play, an excellent resource book for teachers about the use of computer games to promote ‘stealth learning’ (When learning takes place without the learner realizing it…perhaps because they were having too much fun doing so.)

Presenting under the title of ‘Awareness, Appropriacy, and Living Language Use’, Steven poses the question ‘How can we make good use of the online options available to us while being critical of its use and appropriacy?’ A tremendous amount of life learning happens in non-instructional informal organic contexts (see: stealth learning above) as humans continue to learn, change, adapt and develop throughout their lifespan. How can we incorporate this kind of learning as teachers?

As linguists, we tend to dip a ladle into the sea of language that we use and take out a bit to examine the micro-processes that help us to mean, and quoting Tomasello, Steven states that all linguistic knowledge derives from comprehension and production of specific utterances on specific occasions of use.

If the above does not convince you that Steven Thorne has Hallidayan tendencies towards Systemic Functional Linguistics, his following remark about how explicit representations and models of the world simply get in the way could leave one wondering if he is making a snide remark at the Chomskyan representation of the idealized native speaker.

However, regardless of his affiliations, one could not help but agree that it is better to use the world and authentic materials as its own model of language use. And the availability of such authentic materials for English teachers and learners with the development of the internet could only be expanding. We are in a golden age for language teaching, especially for those who teach English. Let’s consider some out-of-classroom activities and consider how we can re-mediate them for classroom use.

There are now:

  • 2.1 billion internet users worldwide;
  • 156  million accounts on Runescape;
  • 14+ million played World of Warcraft at peak;
  • Approaching 1 billion on Facebook, 800 million visits per month, 400 million visitors visit daily;
  • 200 million Twitter accounts;
  • Users of social media ‘curate’ online personas (Clive Thomson, NY Times, 2008);
  • Technology use starts early.

These numbers clearly show us how online gaming and use of online social networking is emerging. It has never been easier to communicate synchronously: text, skype, video, virtual environments, etc.

While some purport that the Internet is creating a generation of ignoramuses with tiny attention span (Andrew Keen, The Independent), others might say that it provides more opportunities for learning and cognitive development, engages players/users in settings where their collaborations matter and creates qualities in the user that are highly-esteemed in the workplace. In a clever comparison, Steven shows us how the gamer disposition matches the desirable qualities listed by the Harvard Business Review. ‘Wanna find a CEO? Find someone who manages a guild, called a guild master!’ (Knobel)

In a related dichotomy, the traditional emphases in schools tended towards analytic rigor (I am guessing they are not referring to most education systems in Asia then), epistemological and linguistic prescriptivism (high stakes tesing, written language bias). This creates a tension with the ‘open source epistemology’ of Web 2.0 (Lankshear and Knobel, 2007).

In another double-bind contraction, Steven talks about the frustration of every sociolinguist. While high stakes power genres (or what we TEFLers might call formal registers) are needed for communicating e.g. writing reports and letters, at the workplace, we also have high frequency vernaculars which are useful but often considered highly stigmatized varieties especially in schools. This includes the emergent digital vernaculars used in writing e.g. in chatrooms or online games.  Sociolinguists like Labov and Bourdieu have clearly shown how our use of language (including our accents) is a basis of being judged by others, and carries a kind of social and cultural capital upon which our ‘worth’ is determined by those around us.

Not unlike David Crystal’s ‘The Gr8 Deb8’ where he argues that contrary to what many seem to believe, text messaging language requires a kind of creativity and understanding of how language works in order to manipulate the language to produce text speak, Steven Thorne highlights the following utterance (on which a whole 10,000-word academic article has been written on) and asks for our interpretation of it.

‘afk g2g too fe to regen no poms’

Meaning ‘Away from keys, got to go to Elven Forest to regenerate, no mana potions’,

i.e. ‘Just a minute, I have to go the Elven Forest to regenerate. I’m out of mana potions.’

Referring to Malinowski, and establishing that Malinowski trained Firth, who then trained Halliday, the founder of Systemic Functional Linguistics (I knew it!), Steven Thorne states that you cannot really know what’s happening in discourse unless you are actually there present or share a cultural knowledge. You cannot really interpret things like vague language, deictic references that aren’t clarified or explicated, and yet, this is the kind of language we use in everyday life, this is kind of talk that is the quotidian, and we make sense of each other like this all the time. After all, quotidian utterances reveal ‘forms of life’ (Wittgenstein) and the context of culture and context of situation is everything when it comes to trying to understand and trying to mean (Malinowski).

Yet, this kind of language is never privileged in a classroom, partly because it’s hard to reconstruct for the classroom such situations and conditions in which the everyday forms of discourse is found.

Okay, try and think about something you know about together, and then underrepresent it in the talk you use. Go!’ is simply not an instruction that we can give to students.

However, what we can do is to expose students and help them notice (Schmidt, 1992) and make salient the features of language and discourse. And gaming environments are perfect for this.

At this point, Steven turns to his research regarding the complexity of the language found in gamers’ utterances both in online gaming and fan fiction communities. First showing us the ways of assessing linguistic complexity and then revealing that empirical data showed a right-skewed ‘U’, where there was evidence of some simple sentences but the majority of utterances were very complex. These users were using scientific method to better recreate.

Hammering in his point, Steven Thorne summarises the reasons why teachers should expose our learners to gaming to aid language acquisition.

He then suggests the following bridging activities for teachers to use with students…

…and the ways we can help students not just with the lexico-grammar in the texts but the questions we can asks to increase saliency of the discourse…

…showing the way critical and experiential awareness in using gaming can work with each other.

An invigorating talk that established credibility of the speaker and subject in question, providing reason for us teachers to listen, providing empirical evidence to show the complexity of the texts seen online, and finally relating it to the practice of the language teacher. A tall order to fulfill in an hour, and only made possible by Steven Thorne’s contagiously energetic style…

And as several tweets said at the end of his talk… ‘Now breathe…’

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