Sunday, July 27, 2008

Thoughts on Grammar Teaching by Azar, Folse and Swan

I decided to check out Betty Azar's site since I haven't visited for a while, and to my delight, I found videos of the panel discussion presented at this year's national TESOL meetings in New York. You'll need some time to view the two videos (Part 1 and Part 2), but if you have questions about how to and why to teach grammar to your ESL students, here are some answers from the experts.

"The World in Words"

If you are interested in language, in general, along with the many Englishes spoken around the world, then you'll want to sign up for the 'World in Words' podcasts with Patrick Cox, brought to you by PRI's 'The World.' For ESL students/teachers, this podcast would be great for advanced level listening practice. There is a brief summary of the topics covered to serve as a guide to what's being talked about. Enjoy!

International Year of Languages?

I have been waiting for months to hear some mention of the
2008 International Year of Languages, but apparently it's just one of many events that has gotten lost in the more 'dramatic' news of politics and economics. Still I don't quite understand why this UN-sponsored event hasn't gotten more publicity since what language we speak and in what contexts we speak it does affect our daily and global lives.

Since I teach English to non-native speakers, I am daily confronted with other languages, both inside and outside the classroom. Personally, I love learning foreign languages, but at our ESL school, we stress the importance of 'English only.' This means that teachers should not practice or show off their other language skills with their students while in the school. On the other hand, how can we acknowledge the value of other languages without occasionally using them to communicate with our non-native English speakers? To get around this, I often point out some of the foreign words that English has adopted into its dictionary (from German, French, Italian, Japanese, Korean, etc.), but it would certainly be nice if more public figures could give some lip-service to the fact that all languages and accents enrich our society. By officially celebrating the International Year of Languages, Americans could send a message to our own immigrants and to immigrants around the world that diversity is beautiful. There's still time.

Partly in response to the the 9-11 attack, several years ago, our President established the Office of Global Communication. I like the name even though I'm usually not in favor of creating more government departments. Its mission is to provide a "means for the United States Government to ensure consistency in messages that will promote the interests of the United States abroad, prevent misunderstanding, build support for and among coalition partners of the United States, and inform international audiences." However, how can we accomplish this mission without placing a value on sociolinguistic, linguistic, and communicative competence? (Of course, many people view the Office of Global Communication as an organ for propaganda for the USA. I like to think that building communication lines, however tenuous, is important.) Again, why has there been so little news about the International Year of Languages?

There is a site that caught my attention which addresses intercultural exchange and what is contained there is what I was hoping to see at the UN site for the International Year of Languages. For some Europeans, 2008 is the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. What is fascinating is that in the video clip above, you have speakers from all over the world addressing their audience in English. (It appears, however, that the event is taking place in Belgium.)

On the other hand, the next video is reminiscent of an old Coca Cola commercial that I used to enjoy that has people from all over the world joining hands in song. (Yeah, it was about the globalization of the world by Coca Cola, but it worked because it focused on something that all people could understand and share - a coke.)

One of the messages of Euro 2008 is 'Different languages - one goal. No to racism.' Besides color, religion, sexual orientation, and culture, language can also divide people. English has played a unifying role for the most part, but I think we native English speakers must be open to the idea that bi- or tri-lingualism is another path to forging strong global ties.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Lessons from the Field

Many ESL instructors whom I've met over the past decade taught English abroad before teaching here in San Diego. However, when I started taking classes to get my TESOL Certificate at UCSD, I found that my 'field' experience was quite different from most others'. While I was a foreign language major in high school (4 years of Spanish, two years of French), I had had only three months of travel outside the USA when I went abroad as a graduate student in anthropology.

My real language immersion experience took place while I was in the former Zaire (Democratic Republic of the Congo) in Central Africa studying bonobos/pygmy chimpanzees. This research necessitated language immersion in Lingala while simultaneously making field observations and collecting data on non-human primate subjects. That experience and subsequent returns to Africa greatly influenced my views on adult second language acquisition.

One of my first courses in TESOL was "Theories of Second Language Acquisition." There I was introduced to Krashen's concept of 'affective filter.' What is an affective filter? The concept can perhaps best be understood by an example. When a student is stressed out in the classroom, s/he will put up a protective filter which ironically can also block out the very language s/he's trying to learn. Thus, it is the job of the instructor to provide a safe or sheltered environment in which students can practice the target language, reducing the 'affective filter' effects.

On the other hand, an instructor could consciously ignore the likelihood of anxiety in the foreign language classroom and increase the stress level in order to force production of the target language. What I found in my Lingala immersion in the field is that when I had to depend on the language to communicate my every day needs and wants, my mind, despite the stress, learned relatively quickly how to break the linguistic code. Many people including locals were surprised that, one fine day, I was able to go from cluelessness and sign language to expressing complete thoughts, invent hypothetical situations and argue and defend my need to follow chimps everywhere, even into the swamp forest. For me, it was a lack of consideration on the part of my language 'mentors', rather than a consideration of 'affective filter effects', that pushed me forward into communicativeness in a month's time. I've found in teaching, too, that when students brave the classroom and are put on the spot and say anything that gets a reaction (i.e., makes their classmates nod in understanding, elicits comments or even laughter), these risktakers feel pretty motivated to speak again. If you have a very limited amount of time (i.e., a few weeks) to become productive in the target language, a teacher can create a level of stress through competition.

Games, such as 'Hot Seat,' 'Taboo' with student-made cards, and 'Pictionary', put students under extreme time pressure to speak English so that their team has an opportunity to earn points. Surprisingly, even extremely shy Asian students have blossomed under these pressure circumstances rather than cracked, as some teachers predicted they might.

The bottom line is that if you give people too much time to think about their fear of embarrassment or their shyness, they often give into it. It depends on your objectives as a teacher and the goals of individual students. In the 'real' world, outside the classroom, people need to communicate their wants and needs spontaneously (e.g., in Germany, I went to a pharmacist to get something to stop my daughter's case of the runs, with only one primitive German sentence under control - 'Meine Tochter hat Durchfall', which caused the pharmacist to ask, 'Wie alt?', forcing me to infer from my limited vocabulary - 'Altstadt'- that he was asking how old she was; as I talked to my husband and we realized we didn't know how to say '18' in German, the pharmacist overheard us and shook his head that he understood the number in English; we got the medicine in the correct dose, and 'danke'd the man. This whole episode took less than three minutes, but it definitely raised my confidence in my limited German and proved to me that I could communicate in that language).

Forcing students into a 'spontaneous' situation in the classroom is something that allows them to simulate the real life tension or stress in a safer environment than the 'streets' of a foreign city. My approach to foreign language teaching, consequently, is usually not to lower the 'affective filter' in the classroom, but to use the energy from students' anxiety to 'force' production of English. Accuracy may be sacrificed to some extent, but communicativeness is most students' primary goal.