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.


HollySueL said...

Thanks! This was a great article. Having lived and taught English in Finland since 1998, I find your insights very accurate. Am looking forward to learning more about teaching in Finland through this posting.

sinikka said...

Thank you Holly for your comment. As a native speaker of English, you probably have a slightly different take on this, but I find it inescapable that different communication styles play a significant role in language learning.

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