Archive for February, 2009

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What to Teach?

By Tamara Jones

ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

What will Keep Pino Safe?

Okay, I admit I am way behind the curve on this. People have been talking about English as a lingua franca for ages. However, it was not until I started my current job as an English teacher at the SHAPE Language Center on a NATO base in Belgium that the importance of non-native speakers being able to communicate easily in English with each other really hit home. English is the “official” language within NATO, so many of my students use English to communicate with their co-workers from other countries. An interesting example is one of my delightful Italian students, Pino, who wants to perfect his already impressive command of English in order to communicate more precisely with translators when he serves in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whatever my personal opinion about the war might be, I do know that when Pino is “in theater,” as they say, I want him to be as safe as possible.

A Legitimacy of Variation

Somewhat belatedly, I came across an article written by Barbara Seidlhofer in which she argues, if my understanding is correct, that since more non-native speakers than native speakers use English, native speakers don’t “own” English anymore. As a result, there is a “legitimacy of variation” (Steidlhofer, 2004, page 214) in grammar and pronunciation forms. In other words, when Pino is communicating with his German counterpart and an Afghan translator, certain non-standard forms of English are usually not cause for confusion. This begs the question, how important is it really that the speakers always include the final -s on third person singular verbs?

Incidental Errors?

Seidlhofer (2006, page 226) lists several common grammatical “errors” that many English teachers would correct if we heard, but which actually don’t cause any misunderstandings in non-native speaker/non-native speaker conversations.

  • the third person present tense –s (It cost.)
  • the relative pronouns who and which (The man which I know …)
  • definite and indefinite articles (Please pass salt. I went to the Chicago.)
  • tag questions (It will be ready, no?)
  • redundant prepositions (We have to study about … )
  • overusing general verbs, such as do, make, have, put, take
  • infinitives (replacing infinitives with that, as in I want that …)
  • explicitness (black color)

This list reads like an inventory of all the lingering mistakes my students of all levels consistently make. However, if these mistakes don’t cause any misunderstanding in the majority of English interactions should teachers be focusing on teaching and correcting them? Shouldn’t we instead focus on intelligibility rather than accuracy? After all, I have never heard of a conversation screeching to a halt, except in an English class, because the final -s was left off a verb.

Safe and Accurate

For me, the answer is simple. Even though I want my students like Pino to be able to express their thoughts as intelligibly as possible, I cannot let go of the notion of “correct English”. Moreover, I have never had a students ask me not to correct these minor errors because they were more concerned with fluency than accuracy. Usually, in fact, it is quite the opposite. Call me old-fashioned, but I can’t help feeling that, although intelligibility is important, grammatical accuracy is as well. Furthermore, the studies I have read on English as a lingua franca (although I am by no means an expert) have neglected to comment on the perceptions created by inaccurate use of English. The German NATO soldier might not have any trouble understanding Pino, but if his English is better than Pino’s, will he subconsciously form a negative opinion of my student? I would be interested in knowing what others think about this issue. Are you hyper-vigilant in your correction or do you tend not to sweat the little stuff? As English evolves, and non-native speakers increasingly influence the way it changes, do you think the wretched final –s will eventually disappear?

Seidlhofer, B. (2004) Research perspectives on teaching English as a lingua franca, Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, 209-239

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Too Soon Success?

By Maria Spelleri

Instructor, Department of Language and Literature
Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

In an article by Jeanette Corbett, What is Grammar and How Should We Teach It?, there is one point in particular that stopped me dead in my tracks.

It states that “success happens too soon” for students using strictly communicative language learning techniques (from reading the article you can deduce this refers to no explicit grammar instruction at all in a 100% task-based/situation-based learning environment). By this the author means that once students are able to get a point across with some degree of comprehensibility on the part of the listener, the student is less motivated to learn and correct his or her grammar, and in fact, “…any subsequent language input appears secondary and unnecessary to the learner, as they have already communicated their message” (Corbett p. 1).

Wow! How true is that for those of us teaching in English speaking countries? Many immigrants don’t have the chance to take formal English lessons until they have been in the new country for several years, meanwhile learning English “off the street.” Or sometimes students have attended conversation based classes that focus on fluency and have rarely or never had their grammar corrected. These students are the most challenging to me because of, ironically, their success as English language users! When they get to a place in their lives when they register for formal classes, it is very hard for an instructor to “undo” what has worked all right for the student over the years.

Naturally, we may question whether we really want to or need to “undo” anything at all. After all, we can understand the meaning of “I going now” or “I no like this” or “You want?”, so if the learners are getting their needs met using this level of English, who are we teachers to tell them they are wrong?

The key here, I believe, is the condition “getting their needs met.” If everything was peachy for the students, they wouldn’t now be sitting in our classes. Clearly they recognize something is lacking in their self-learned or wholly communicative approach. This dawning may come after not getting a promotion at work, or not being able to get a better, non-physical job. Or perhaps the learner’s child needs more from the parent in the English speaking world than the parent can currently provide.

However, just because these students are now in our classroom doesn’t mean they truly believe they need to be there. Some students may feel vaguely insulted and defensive like their success hasn’t been recognized, and after all, their English has served them well so far, so the problem must be with their instructor, their boss, or the English speakers they need to interact with- you know the kind of student that elicits this exchange:

Student: My son has twenty years.
Teacher: Oh, your son is twenty years old?
Student: That’s what I say. (slight roll of eyes) My son he has twenty years.

In my experience, to help these students rev up a burning desire to improve, I need to rather directly demonstrate to them how far their actual speech is from the English required to get to the next level in their lives. Including direct grammar instruction in my lessons – with rules, drills, and guided practice – has given me modest success with many fossilized adult learners.

Maybe this sounds a little harsh, but direct grammar instruction shows the students what they don’t know, and this bit of cold water in the face proves to them they are not wasting their time in class, that there is indeed room for improvement. Combined with recording or transcribing students so they can hear themselves, direct grammar instruction gives the students tangible structure and schema on which to base and note their progress – unlike when they learned “from the street” or in a strictly communicative setting.

And while it can be a challenge to loosen up the fossilized language mechanisms of these learners, it is a great advantage to have at least one in every class. Because of their heightened fluency, they can be counted on to explain new vocabulary to others and generally to get any discussion off to a great start!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Use of Terminology in Grammar Teaching, Part II

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series

It’s fascinating for me, as a language teacher, to compare the use of terminology in the teaching of music with the teaching of language. The goal in both types of teaching is a kind of automaticity, with labels extraneous to actual performance ability. And both can be “acquired” without a learner knowing any terminology at all.

I’m an adult student of the piano. So why does my piano teacher teach me that a certain configuration of notes is called a mordant? Knowing the term has no automatic effect on my ability to play those notes fluently and accurately. Yet it’s through shared terminology that my teacher and I are able to communicate easily as I develop my “intermusic” — the music I play before a Bach Invention would, theoretically, become second nature, become fluent, accurate, and unconsciously produced output. (I say “theoretically” because that’s still a goal, but I’m getting closer!)

So, again, using mordant as an example — now that I know the term, my teacher can say, “Let’s work on the timing of the mordant.” Our communication is quick and easy. She could, of course, just keep correcting me by showing me how to do it (no labels), or calling the mordant “those little notes there.” The labels are not requisite. But in my experience, they are very helpful to me as an adult student and efficient for my teacher to use. There are all sorts of terms that help the two of us pedagogically, from the basic terms (measure, key, quarter rest, staccato, etc.) to the more specialized, such as mordant.

It is, of course, obvious that knowing the terms does not ever, in and of itself, translate into usage ability. (Exactly the same is true of grammar terminology.) But the terms have value as a communication tool during my “pre-acquisition” (or “interlanguage”) phase of gaining “music usage ability” as I engage in repeated practice. It seems to me there is similar pedagogical value in being able to use grammar terms with adult students in their interlanguage phase — not simply for teacher-student communication, but value in students’ cognitive understanding of the concepts (represented by terminology) of singular, plural, subject, verb, sentence, modifier, agreement, clause, subordination, coordination, to name a few examples.

What do you think? Is there a valid analogy in the pedagogical use of terminology in the teaching of music and language?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Use of Terminology in Grammar Teaching- Part I

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series

Does it help a student to be able to identify subjects and verbs? To know what a clause is? To have names for verb forms, such as infinitive or modal auxiliary?

I believe that grammar terminology and grammatical analysis in the ESL/EFL classroom are only means to an end, never ends in themselves. Often the teacher finds it useful to have temporary labels (simplified grammar terminology) in order to answer students’ many questions and show students how English works.

Terminology (e.g., present perfect or noun clause) can be forgotten as soon as students leave the English class with no ill effects. These terms are just temporary teaching tools. Once students leave a program of language instruction, it seems to me they need only enough terminology to help them use a dictionary or reference book, roughly the same grammar terminology an educated native speaker of English benefits from knowing: noun, verb, adjective, sentence, comma, etc. The deeper understandings of structural patterns that help with reading comprehension and the expression of complex ideas will remain–with or without students being able to recall grammar terminology. The terminology is not what is important; what IS important is understanding the structures and the way that form conveys meaning.

The use of simplified grammar terminology in the ESL/EFL classroom is just a tool, a way of helping students understand patterns in the language. In my experience, adult students “get” patterns of form and meaning from understanding examples — how they work, what’s happening, how ideas are put together and interrelated. Explanations, which can come in many forms, are used only as needed. What we’re after is for the students to understand–deductively, inductively, or any mixture of the two–examples of usage, to “see” how they work structurally. Leveraging our adult students’ cognitive skills can be beneficial as they develop their interlanguage, but it’s just one part of a well-balanced classroom. At any rate, mastery of terminology or skill at parsing is never what we’re after.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Language of Language Learning

By Tamara Jones
EFL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

The holidays can be a lonely time to be away from one’s family, so for our first Christmas in Belgium, my husband and I were delighted to host a small dinner party. The guests included a TESOL professional and friend on vacation from the USA, my French instructor, Sandy, and her English partner, Paul. As we finished up the ham, Paul initiated an interesting conversation about the language of language learning.

Voice? Tense? Adverb Phrase? Huh?

Paul had recently started studying in one of Sandy’s classes, and he said that he found her use of grammatical terms intimidating. In a previous blog, I mentioned that Sandy occasionally resorts to English to give precise definitions of vocabulary and for descriptions of complex grammatical concepts. However, for Paul, Sandy’s use of terms like infinitive, passive, and the past progressive actually clouds the issue more than it clarifies it.

I was surprised to learn that, in spite of all I had believed about the traditional nature of the British education system, Paul had never learned to diagram a sentence. In fact, as we went around the table, only Sandy, who had been educated in France, and my husband, a product of the public school system in South Dakota, USA, had ever been exposed in a meaningful way to the nitty gritty of English grammar.

Where IS my verb?

After our conversation, though, I wondered how many of my fellow French students felt the same way as Paul. More importantly, I wondered how many of my EFL students were mystified by my use of grammar terms. When I ask them, Where is your verb? do they wonder what I am talking about? Have we made things much more complicated for our students by forcing them to learn a separate set of vocabulary useful only when dissecting sentences?

Several language teachers believe that, indeed, we should avoid confusing metalanguage. On Debra Garcia’s blog, Teaching ESL to Adults, she cautions us against using metalanguage, suggesting that we “go directly to the target language.” (Garcia, 2008). In an intriguing strand on Dave Sperling’s forum for teachers, several language teachers agree that they prefer to steer clear of grammar terminology so as not to “burden [students] with unnecessary vocabulary and bamboozle them.” Furthermore, at a recent Maryland TESOL conference, a speaker referred to grammar metalanguage as “bombastic and misleading.” (Nelson, J. , Making Grammar a Tool, not a Topic, Presented at the Maryland TESOL Conference, 2007)

Use What Works

However, in my experience teaching both ESL and EFL, most students actually seem to appreciate a quick, metalanguage-heavy explanation to a longer, roundabout one. My students from Asia, South America, and Europe seem to have a much better background in grammar terminology than the average North American or Brit, so why not use what works for them? In fact, recently when working with an Italian couple during their private lesson, I kept referring to the -ing form. The students were totally confused until the wife said, “Oh, you mean the present participle!”

My conclusion, based on nothing more scientific than personal observation, is that most international students are much better equipped to deal with grammar terms than native English speakers. I will continue to do what appears to work best for my students and fling grammar metalangauge about in the classroom. Although I need to pay careful attention for the “deer-caught-in-headlights” stares of students who just aren’t getting it, I don’t want to underestimate my students either.

Having said all of that, I hardly consider myself an expert on this topic. I would be very interested to hear what others’ opinions are. Post a comment to agree, disagree or share your experience.