Following on from my earlier reflections on the importance of adult literacy, I would like to draw your attention to a project taking place in Northern Uganda teaching women to read. While in France and New Zealand we have adult literacy rates of 99%, Uganda has only 73% with women being highly over-represented in this statistic. Owing to conflict, these women were not given the opportunity to learn to read as children. You can find out more here.
George Chilton has an excellent post (with some equally excellent feedback) that can be found here. A key criticism of the use of coursebooks is that they are designed to compensate for the fact that many ESL teachers are undertrained and underqualified, and are not capable of designing their own curriculum and preparing the relevant materials. I agree with this point, as when I first began teaching I had no training whatsoever in TESOL and had absolutely no idea where to begin. My first project was in English for special purposes, and there was no textbook. I had a tendency to teach too much too quickly, and expect content to be absorbed without giving the students enough practice. I also had a heavy grammar focus,which was completely inappropriate for students on a short course in need of functional English for their work.
So would I have been more comfortable and taught more satisfactorily should I have had an appropriate text to help me along the way? Most definitely! I think it would have allowed me to create a plan for the course as a whole, the points that we would focus on and examples and practice that I could provide to students.
In my second year of university, I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to spend my summer studying French at the University of New Caledonia. The trip was great, but the teaching and learning wasn’t. At the time, I felt completely uninspired by what was happening in the classroom. We were in such a culturally rich and vibrant country, and we were spending far too much time in the classroom, doing lessons on translation, (of nineteenth century English texts that I didn’t understand, into French of course), watching long lectures on various subjects and – my worst experience – the speaking class.
Highlights of the class (taught in two-hour sessions, in a classroom filled with hot computers, and no air-conditioning) included learning the the phonetic alphabet, reading tongue-twisters such as the one I photographed below and looking at diagrams of where our tongue should be when making sounds.
So what did I learn from this class? At the time, not very much. I could already pronounce all the sounds the teacher asked us to when we began. I struggled with phonetics when I started, and I struggled equally as much when I was tested on it at the end. I simply was not invested in the class. In retrospect, however, it gives me an image of how I don’t want to teach. I learnt that it is not very interesting to learning pronunciation in isolation. The fact that there is no context also means that students find anything they might learn more difficult to remember. I also learnt that, like in all things, not all language learners are created equal.
I have met very few people who have absolutely no accent when they speak a second language. Sometimes people can get away with saying short utterances without being noticed, but after awhile something usually gives them up. But obviously, some find it easier than others. A student of mine has shared the theory with me that people’s ability to produce native-like pronunciation in a second language, follows their ability to learn music. For more information on this, check out Lorraine Gilleece’s thesis on the correlation between attitudes for music and foreign languages here.
As well as being unable to hear the different sounds produced in a second language, I believe that a fear of sounding ridiculous while producing unfamiliar sounds prevents students from having a more native-sounding pronunciation. While I’m not sure that this was the case when I was teaching multilingual groups in New Zealand, (made up of Chinese and Spanish speakers), I feel that this is definitely the case in France. This suspicion increased when I heard some of my students doing ‘Speedlingua ‘ lessons (online individual learning, focussing on natural pronunciation and intonation. Their pronunciation sounded much more natural than it did in class, and they were speaking louder than they usually would. Perhaps this was because they thought nobody was watching.
But at the end of the day, is accent really that important? Yes and no. Yes, because people need to understand you. Language is a means of communication, so it is useless to speak a language if others can’t understand you. As an English language speaker, (and I’m sure that others out there feel the same), I find it much easier to listen to someone who has less of an accent. So there could also be some interest in ‘improving’ your accent if you’d like people to be more attentive when you’re speaking. However, variety is the spice of life. Our accents are showcases of where we’re from, and give us a bit of individuality. They make us interesting, and give us a talking point when someone asks us where we’re from (I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard “Vous avez un petit accent mademoiselle. Vous êtes de quelle origine?‘. So to ahead and do some pronunciation work, but don’t get in a pickle because it’s not the end of the world if you still have an accent!
Larry Ferlazzo has blogged on a study, which found that people were unlikely to donate to a charity for a second time if the said charity threw in a sweetener for their first donation. The post can be found here.
I think that this behavior is definitely reflected in the classroom. Once last year I gave away a tote-bag as a prize, and during my CELTA, I tested a little bit of bribery with a chocolate fish. Both of these lessons worked just fine, and the students were very motivated. Although the tote-bag lesson was a one-off, I had the interesting experience of sitting in on some lessons with the class that had been competing for the chocolate fish. They were disappointed with other teachers that weren’t offering prizes, and were even more disappointed when I arrived the next day to teach them empty-handed.
So, in my experience, bringing one chocolate fish to class means setting a precedent, and making a commitment to bringing one every lesson from then on. It would be interesting to hear if any other teachers have had any different experiences.
I spent my weekend in the beautiful Burgundian village called ‘Pommard’ where my husband is from, and where his family lives. This weekend it was a time for a family reunion, celebrating a new addition to the family and a milestone birthday. Needless to say, there was excellent wine, a lot of delicious food and – the inspiration for my post today – endless amounts of conversation. Relatives and friends, people who are very close and care about one another, get together and speak as much and for as long as they can. Topics can range from the weather, to politics, to the latest tractor breakdown – always with a lot of humour mixed in. And admittedly, I didn’t understand everything.
But this is what I would call ‘complete immersion’. I would like to mention that just because you live in a country, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you will be immersed in its language sufficiently for you to learn it. Unfortunately for my language skills, my new living arrangements mean that I don’t have to speak French all the time. I no longer have to speak only French at home, as my husband understands if I speak to him in English. Also, being an English teacher rather than working in a restaurant with French colleagues and customers, I speak a lot of English at work. And being in Dijon, a city, I’ve been able to find English-speaking friends who I spend more time with than the French.
Admittedly, if I really wanted to ‘integrate’ more into French society I could. But I believe that human beings are linguistically lazy, and will (consciously and subconsciously) try to speak their mother tongue whenever I could. I first noticed this with the French community in Wellington, New Zealand. Many of them would share a flat with a group of other French people, work in a French restaurant with French managers and colleagues and only go out with other French speakers. As a result, some of those who had been there the longest didn’t necessarily have very high levels of English.
Another eye-opener was teaching some of the elementary-level students in Wellington, at the Campbell Institute during my CELTA course. The majority came either from Chile or from China, and had been in New Zealand for different lengths of time (from 6 months to 10 years) and were aged from 23 to 72. I was initially surprised that some of the students had such a basic knowledge of English, but when I got to know particularly two Chilean students, I had a much clearer picture of why they had effectively avoided learning English. Similarly to the French ex-patriates that I spoke about, these Chilean students were very established in the Wellington Latino community. Neither had yet found work, so they spent all of their time with their Chilean flatmates and socializing with other Spanish speakers.
So how can we maximise these opportunities for total language immersion, such as my social family weekend? I think it’s important to make friends who speak the language, and who ideally won’t speak your mother tongue. And the more the better – don’t just make one friend, but make lots of friends and have them speak to each other at a natural pace while you try to follow. This is the principle. But my English-speaking bubble is very comfortable, so it will take some motivation to put the plan into action.