Friday, 26 June 2009

Communication styles and EFL

Last year we organised yet another student exchange, this time with a Spanish school in connection with an EU project. While the Spanish students visited our school, I eagerly invited them to come to my English lessons to bring some life and authentic language practice to my students (the only common language for the students being English). Here is a picture of one such lesson - a Spanish girl on the right with two Finnish students.

What is wrong with this picture?

As a helpful language teacher I had prepared a board game with questions about the two countries and cultures and young people's everyday lives. I thought this would help them break the ice and get to know each other more easily. Up to a point it did. Students perfunctorily asked the questions and politely provided short, matter-of-fact answers, as is expected of them in a Finnish classroom at least. On the whole, our students tend to be rather reluctant to volunteer any information, especially in a foreign language - as many Finns in general, I must admit. But look at them! The Spanish girl is at least looking at the others, while my students keep staring at the piece of paper in front of them, too terrified to look at the person they are supposed to have a conversation with.

This is one of the big problems with foreign language classes. There is always the book, or at least a piece of paper, to hide behind. Ready-made questions to routinely go through, over and done with as quickly as possible. Again and again I keep reminding students to talk to each other and not to the piece of paper in front of them, but do they?

I started thinking about this when I came across Chris Cotter's guide to determine how advanced our students are. About participating in a conversation he writes:
At lower levels, students react to the conversation rather than fully join it. How many conversations have you had, or overheard, that progressed like an interview? One side asks a question, the other answers it, and if no further questions are asked, the conversation ends. What about the fillers? redundancies? stories? experiences? body language?
According to this, even many of my most advanced students are not really that advanced. But actually it is me, the teacher, who keeps perpetuating exactly this scenario in class too often. Fearing awkward silences and trying to make the spoken exercises easier for the students, I do too much of the work for them. No wonder students never get very fluent or natural, since they never get the chance to practise by being exposed to real language use situations, where you don't have pre-written question-and-answer scripts to follow.

In the case of Finnish learners of English, they are further challenged by our peculiar conversation culture, which is based on long monologues that others listen to in total silence, and a much higher tolerance of silence in the company of others than in many other communication cultures. I have experienced situations in class, where students simply sit together, eyes wandering around the walls and ceiling of the classroom to avoid eye contact with their partner, not uttering a single word. Partly due to the natural teenage awkwardness, but I have seen this happen even with students who are quite sociable in their own language. Southern European students, not so used to silence, start shouting out to their friends across the room in their own language, but Finnish students just mope in complete silence. This sounds very stereotypical, but these are tendencies based on observations in many real life occasions. I wouldn't say the Finnish students feel comfortable with these silent encounters, but they are unable - or unwilling? - to do anything about it.

Regrettably, at least in Finland, conversational strategies in intercultural communication are a largely neglected domain in language classes at school. Maybe it is because we non-native teachers of English aren't qualified to teach them. Even many of us feel at a loss in authentic communication situations. In class, with a non-native teacher and students, most of whom share the same communication culture, we are simply translating the culture of our mother tongue into a foreign language without ever realising it is unlikely to be the best strategy in real life. In addition, there is not much incentive to focus on spoken skills, since our national final exams only test written skills, so passive mastery of a wide vocabulary and perfecting grammar become the priorities.

How do you guide students then to confidently express themselves and who they really are in a foreign language? I sometimes get students defiantly asking why they can't proudly express their linguistic and cultural roots in a foreign language - ie. retain their accent and communication style, strongly influenced by their mother tongue. I usually tell them to by all means stick to them if they insist, at the same time warning them, though, not to be surprised if it doesn't always elicit the most positive reactions from their conversation partners. In short, being advanced in a foreign language is also, to a large extent, a question of attitude and awareness of different communication cultures.

Of course, you could also argue that what is wrong with the above photo, is that the whole situation is unnatural and orchestrated by the teacher. Did the students really want to get to know the foreign guests or vice versa? Or maybe the way they were grouped didn't match their individual chemistries. Students might protest that the conversation would have been totally different if they had met somebody interesting in real life, and voluntarily engaged in a conversation with them. Then again, you can't always pick and choose who you need to talk to, in whatever language, and you should still be able to create a positive atmosphere and take an interest.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

The generation gap

This spring I finally saw my first 3D animated films. I wouldn't probably have chosen to go myself, but luckily my family dragged me along, and I agreed with them that, as a teacher, I need to experience this first-hand. It was fascinating, but enough to make me feel dizzy at times. I'm beginning to suspect that my brain is wired so differently from today's young people that the generation gap between me and my students is getting wider by the second. Will it one day soon be too wide for me to reach any of my students any more?

This reminded me of a recent report on a research study at the Centre of Applied Language Studies at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. In the research, fifteen-year-old students and teachers of Finnish or foreign languages were interviewed about their media consumption at school and in their freetime. What media do they use, with whom and for what purposes and what types of texts do they read? One of the interesting questions was how well school had managed to respond to young students' changing media preferences. The report, called 'Maailma muuttuu - mitä koulu tekee?' (freely in English: 'The world changes - how about school?'), was published last December.

The gist of the findings was quite predictable: students use many different media (mostly the internet), but read mainly short, visual and story-based texts, whereas teachers focus on traditional, more in-depth, printed media. At school students are expected to produce linear essays and read fiction and newspaper articles, although in their freetime they mainly read comic strips, short magazine articles or various texts on the internet. Unsurprisingly, the most important tool for teachers at school was the textbook, and even in their freetime tha majority of teachers preferred printed books (fiction or nonfiction) and the traditional press. Where is the dialogue, where is the process-nature that is inherent in the new online media? This video, embedded in Chris Betcher's blog some time ago, is very apt here.

All this, of course, raises the eternal dilemma of the school system seemingly preparing students for meeting school requirements only with little transfer of skills or knowledge to life outside school. Nothing new, but maybe in the case of the new media more teachers will start taking it seriously now that there is some academic research (printed inside the covers of a book!) to back these views up.

It shouldn't all be black and white, though. I, for one, enjoy good novels - in a paperback, not on the screen! - and my morning paper, too. At the same time, though, I am keen on different online environments and conventions to keep learning. Similarly, I know young students who are avid fiction readers. In the end, many types of media and texts have their place and serve different purposes - exclusiveness is the problem.

Photo: Generation Gap by Joi on Flickr

Monday, 22 June 2009

Hovering between languages and cultures

The title of this post comes from one of my comments to Silvia Tolisano's recent post in her Langwitches blog. The post really resonated with me and made me think of where I exactly fit in in this global educational conversation - if anywhere?

I've been blogging on and off for a little over two years. I started out of curiosity, and the desire to get familiar with social media and the related tools before introducing any of them to my students. I reckoned that to have any credibility in integrating technology in my course plans, I should at least have some digital footprint myself. When it comes to using technology, my mantra is learning by doing, and getting motivated on a needs' basis. At least it has worked that way for me. I have kept learning new things to meet a particular need - find better and more suitable platforms for online intercultural school projects, for example.

Blogging urged me to read edubloggers around the world to learn from the more experienced. I am so grateful to all the marvellous teachers whose wisdom I have had the chance of benefiting from online. In these two years I have learned far more than I would have done in any in-service or other training course, simply because I have been able to find the guidance and answers exactly the moment I needed them. In addition, my net surfing has serendipitously led me to many unexpected wells of inspiration, too.

All this time, though, I have been rather hesitant about commenting on other people's blogs, nor have my ramblings in this blog attracted many comments from others. Two sides of the same coin, I'm sure. It is active participation and reciprocity that are called for in an attempt to build a lasting online learning network. Mine is still heavily under construction. Even though, over the years, I have managed to form quite a wide network of foreign colleagues through organising face-to-face student exchanges, unfortunately, hardly any of these teachers happen to be very active online, so I am starting my online PLN from scratch.

One of my problems all along has been the need to keep explaining my particular circumstances and background in a marginal (from an English-speaking perspective), rather unknown nation and culture. I keep wondering how many cues are totally misinterpreted in global educational discussions, due to linguistic and cultural differences. Speaking the lingua franca English easily creates a false sense of understanding, but as many nationally/culturally/linguistically-bound concepts and ideas are thrown in, are people really talking about the same issues?

Let me give you an example. Just recently I have been looking for people to follow on Twitter. People might mention 'my yr10 students' or 'K3 students'- which, for me, don't automatically give any indication of the type of school these students go to or how old they might be. If I was to take part in that conversation, I would find it essential to first explain how schools are organised in my country to make my viewpoint clear. This would probably make me sound like a hopelessly uninteresting babbler. Should it be taken for granted then that, if you want to participate in educational dialogue in English, you should also familiarize yourself with the school systems of the major English-speaking nations in the world? Possibly. But still, where would I fit in in that discussion, if the English-speaking world didn't see any relevance in where I was coming from? I'm even beginning to doubt whether I, a non-native English teacher, had better not butt in on native-English teachers' discussions, no matter how interesting they might appear.

On second thoughts, even when teachers from different cultures simply talk about 'students', they are not really talking the same language, are they? I am referring to my 16-19-year-old students here in my country, in a school system that is based on almost solely state schooling (ie. no private school system), learning English as a foreign language and speaking a structurally totally different mother tongue that, to a considerable extent, affects their learning and my teaching practices, plus living in a culture where TV programmes and films are not dubbed but subtitled, which means that they are exposed to authentic English and American every day. Plus add to all that the average number of English classes a week and the fact that I can only teach each group for 7 weeks, before the students are reshuffled again, because in our senior high school system they make their own timetables and change from teacher to teacher five times a school year... You see, here I go again! If colleagues, say from Germany or South Korea, talk to me about 'students' it becomes a drastically different word and concept.

Why did I start blogging in English then? It was a natural choice for me for two clear reasons: first, I am an English teacher and have always wanted to meet colleagues from around the world and second, at home I live in a bicultural Finnish-British family, and often feel slightly outside the monocultural, monolingual Finnish contexts - a feeling of 'lost in translation' almost anywhere, which, apart from liking the film by the same name very much, led to the name of my blog, too. And yes, a third reason - most of online communication is in English anyway.

However, just as Sylvia Tolisano, in the above-mentioned post, I am acutely aware of the 'missing voices'. I have tried to find my voice, but what if it keeps falling on deaf ears? It is not only a linguist barrier, but also a cultural one. The largely western, Anglo-American blogo- and twittersphere sometimes excludes not only those who struggle with English, but also many others who are linguistically fairly competent in English, but just fall outside that particular cultural sphere.

Photo: sunflowers by georgia.g on Flickr

Monday, 15 June 2009

Activating heterogeneous groups

Do other teachers of English face the problem of young students believing that they already know English so well that there is absolutely no need to make any further effort to learn more? In the last few years, the number of such students entering senior high school (secondary school) in Finland has steadily increased. They have acquired a fairly good passive knowledge of the language and a reasonable colloquial spoken skill at school, but also increasingly through watching TV, listening to pop music and engaging in various online activities. All well and good, plus their attitude towards English is overwhelmingly positive. However, the next threshold of learning more formal expression appears to be too high for most of them. After effortlessly going through 7 years of English lessons with good grades, basically playing it by ear, they have no concept of how to develop their language skills further - nor do they see any point in it. "I know English perfectly, English is easy!" Consequently, they do nothing in the lessons, nor any homework, and sadly, end up underachieving and not realising their full potential.

To a certain extent, I do understand their viewpoint. Why should a teenager be able to write intelligently about global warming or nuclear power in a foreign language? After all, many of them would struggle with those topics even in their mother tongue! Yet, quite a few of these students are planning to continue into universities, and many for international exchanges during their university years. I certainly would like to help them become aware that the type of everyday chatty language they consider quite sufficient is not going to take them far in academia. How to convince these know-it-all teenagers that, for example 'ain't', 'gonna' or 'stuff like that' are not expressions to use in more formal contexts, let alone smileys or SMS abbreviations?

Many of them insist that we teachers are simply old-fashioned and have no idea of how the language is used today. Yet, they don't recognize the undeniable fact that their active vocabulary is often deplorably limited. They are deluding themselves with their wide passive understanding of English, while the more colourful nuances of the English vocabulary never enter their own English use, despite the text book authors' and us teachers' good intentions of introducing and teaching them. No matter how hard I try, most of them simply refuse to see me as a useful guide, but write my advice off as hopelessly last-century out-of-date drivel.

I am now beginning to ask myself how to efficiently guide students about different registers and persuade them that it will be worth their while later on in life to be able to give a civilised impression in a foreign language. I am toying with ideas of introducing new projects, in which students should really challenge themselves, each starting from their own level, to demonstrate something new they have learned and how their language skills have developed. I despair when I see bright young minds lazing around in class, bored with the textbooks. I want to activate everybody in the group, motivate them to keep learning, help them to make the most of their time. The problem with big heterogeneous groups is that there are those who haven't even managed to grasp any of the basics of the language, and consequently are constantly mostly out of it. Then there are the above mentioned slackers who don't realise that, with English, it's a lifelong endeavour to master even a fraction of its incredibly rich vocabulary, and that there is something for everybody to learn all the time. Finally, in between is the biggest group, the average students, who probably benefit most from traditional school language classes.

What I would like to see happen is for each student to make the foreign language their own. Instead of aiming at mastering the contents in the textbook, ie. everybody learning exactly the same vocabulary, they should each set their own goals by choosing the new words to learn that they find useful in their circumstances and at their level of learning. I believe they could achieve this by being given more open and authentic language use opportunities than the closed and routine-bound gap fills, for example. Also, they should have the chance to do these new tasks in class with the help and guidance of their peers and the teacher as a facilitator, and not as extra homework on top of all the material to be covered in the text book as well. Some units in the textbook will have to be left out or dealt with differently to give space for these new tasks.

This summer holiday I will start to design one such project unit for each course I will teach next year. I will try to be creative and use many different types of tasks (spoken, written, collaboration, cultural, interactive) and embed technology wherever it is possible (restricted access to computer classes, for example) and serves a purpose for learning.

Photo: English learning magazine in Germany by Soctech on Flickr