Raising Multilingual Children

Last week I had the pleasure to attend the book launch for Raising Multilingual Children by Julia Festman, Gregory J. Poarch and Jean-Marc Dewaele published by Multilingual Matters, introduced by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele at Birkberk College. Here are some of my thoughts on the talk and the book.

raising multilingual children cover

Jean-Marc is an entertainer. He started by giving us a run down on how the book came about, over coffee breaks and drinks at conferences among several academics who are multilinguals raising multilingual children. He then launched into exploring why bilingualism might have had a bad press: parental fears of children growing up ‘semi-lingual’ with identity and cultural crisis as well as the continual societal skepticism of bilinguals/multilinguals from a political-ideological stance.

IMG_5294.JPG

Reassurance came in the form of ten reasons for raising multilingual children in light of new and growing evidence of its advantages. My personal favourite has got to be multilinguals are found to have ‘fewer essentialist beliefs‘, meaning that when you asked a group of bilingual children if ducklings raised by dogs would bark instead of quack, they were more likely to believe it possible as compared to monolinguals. In other words, multilinguals tend to be more open-minded and flexible thinkers. Also on top of my list are raising multilingual children being potentially a massive cost-saver (think of all the language lessons you might have to pay for!) and ‘why-not-if-you-can’!

Multilinguals tend to be more open-minded and flexible thinkers.

We were shown videos of language moments of Jean-Marc’s daughter (Livia, a budding linguist studying at Oxford) when she was displaying all sorts of linguistic sensitivity as a toddler, such as protesting the French pronunciation of ‘cowboy’ knowing that it’s an ‘English’ word. (You can read Livia’s own account ‘still trilingual at sixteen, almost quadralingual’ here.) Without spoiling any more amusing anecdotes Professor Dewaele also shared on his journey of raising her daughter trilingually (French, Dutch and English in London) using OPOL (one-parent-one-language), most of which can be found in the book, I’ll just write about what stuck out for me in his talk. I’m raising my two-year-old in Cantonese and English and potentially a bit of Spanish, French, Japanese and I’ve read the book before the talk.

Multilingual children are born and raised linguists.

Even Professor Dewaele had his initial doubts on whether multiple languages such as introducing a fourth language (Urdu spoken by the child minder) would overwhelm the young mind. But he went ahead and discovered that, at least in his case, there’s no adverse effect whatsoever. In fact, we now know from research that babies have the amazing innate capacity to distinguish among languages from the start (even before they can babble). Basically there is no danger of brain overloading because of exposure to too many languages. The issue has always been how to encourage production (speaking and writing) and maintenance of those languages as a child grows up.

There is no danger of brain overloading because of exposure to too many languages.

Another point raised by the audience is whether ‘bad grammar’ will be learnt if the parent speaking the language is not a ‘native’ speaker. The current evidence says it shouldn’t be a worry. Children exposed to a language early on are able to filter out grammatical mistakes given sufficient exposure to the language. It is also worth remembering that multilingual children would make similar errors as monolingual children as their languages are developing.

Children can filter out bad grammar given sufficient exposure.

On encouraging children to speak the minority language (language not spoken in the community), Jean-Marc describes it as ‘a psychological manipulation to use your language‘. For young children, it’s all about making it fun and cool to use the language through play, songs and games to set the language foundation and sow the emotional seed. As they grow older, it’s about continually nurturing and consolidating that emotional attachment associated with the language while recognising that there might be phases when teenagers are simply being teenagers and just want to fit in and rebel.

A psychological manipulation to use your language: Is it fun? Is it cool? Is it a secret language? Is it emotionally engaging?

Having built a strong foundation to the minority languages and being consistent with their language policy from the start, Professor Dewaele spoke about becoming gradually more ‘relaxed’ in their household language policy as Livia started school, allowing the community language to creep in on occasions when there is a clear vocabulary gap and for emotional expression.

The take-home-message is that rejection of a language or the refusal to speak it might be temporary. A trip to the country where the language is spoken can often motivate and renew interest. Parents might want to take a flexible approach as well as involving the child in the decision making process of what language is to be spoken when as they grow older.

Once the foundation is laid, rejection of a language or the refusal to speak it might be temporary.

An activity that Jean-Marc mentioned was his practice of asking Livia to write her own thoughts on being raised multilingually from time to time. I love this idea of self introspection on the child’s part. It’s a positive practice to encourage the child to think about the way in which a multilingual upbringing might have impacted on his/her identity formation. It is a window through which the family can reflect together on the child’s own perception of the actual pluses and/or minuses or even indifference about being raised multilingually. I believe this can enhance a child’s self-confidence and contributes towards the building of a positive self-image because there is a dialogue (both self and with others) on the subject.

Get the child to regularly write about his/her own thoughts on being raised multilingually.

A name that popped up in the talk is Dr Xiao-lei Wang, who documented in three books her own journey of raising her two sons trilingually in Mandarin Chinese, French and English in the US. In her latest book Maintaining Three Languages: The Teenage Years, she discussed some difficulties she encountered during these rebellious years (You can read about this book here).  Incidentally, I also found her first book, Growing Up with Three Languages: Birth to Eleven, useful with practical strategies for laying that initial foundation.

Returning to Professor Dewaele, another message is raising multilingual children is certainly no easy ride (surprise!). It requires ‘constant unrelenting effort’. He agrees with Dr Wang that our goals as parents have to be raising happy children, prioritising communication and taking care of ourselves as parents.

So what might be missing from the book? When looking at any multilingual families and their experiences, we must not forget the contexts. One aspect less discussed in the book is how the particular language dynamics of the household can affect the emotional bonding of the family as a unit. In Jean-Marc’s case, his family happens to be all trilingual in the three languages of their household. So there is not really the feeling of isolation or exclusion a parent can sometimes experience over family conversation if one of the parents does not understand or speak the other’s language well enough. It also happens that the three languages involved are considered ‘prestige’ languages, so it is less likely for the family, especially the child, to feel ’embarrassed’ to be using any one of those languages in public. Another point is that Livia being the only daughter, there is no sibling effect, where the community language can become even more dominant as it is usually the language of communication among siblings. Although in the book, you will also read about Julia, the other contributor of the book, describing her experience of raising her two children.

Raising Multilingual Children has five chapters:

  1. Ten reasons for raising a child multilingually before school
  2. The multilingual children of the three authors
  3. Learning methods and language policies for early success multilingual acquisition
  4. Developing a good language policy for the family
  5. Fostering a multilingual home and dealing with concerns

Overall, I find the book does a fantastic job of fulfilling being ‘rigorous but not academic in tone’. The last three chapters are particularly useful if you are looking for hands-on practical tips. You can read a more comprehensive review of the book itself on Chontelle Bonfiglio’s blog bilingualkidspot.

Good luck on your multilingual parenting journey!

Here is an interview with Professor Dewaele in 2015 on early multilingualism which reinforces some of the messages above.

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Raising Multilingual Children

Last week I had the pleasure to attend the book launch for Raising Multilingual Children by Julia Festman, Gregory J. Poarch and Jean-Marc Dewaele published by Multilingual Matters, introduced by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele at Birkberk College. Here are some of my thoughts on the talk and the book.

raising multilingual children cover

Professor Dewaele is an entertainer. He started by giving us a run down on how the book came about, over coffee breaks and drinks at conferences among several linguists who are multilinguals raising multilingual children. He then launched into exploring why bilingualism might have had a bad press: parental fears of children growing up ‘semi-lingual’ with identity and cultural crisis as well as the continual societal skepticism of bilinguals/multilinguals from a political-ideological stance. He then reassured us with ten reasons for raising multilingual children in light of new and growing evidence of its advantages. My personal favourite has got to be multilinguals are found to have ‘fewer essentialist beliefs‘, meaning that when you asked a group of bilingual children if ducklings raised by dogs would bark instead of quack, they were more likely to believe it possible as compared to monolinguals. In other words, multilinguals tend to be more open-minded and flexible thinkers. Also on top of my list are raising multilingual children being potentially a massive cost-saver (think of all the language lessons you might have to pay for!) and ‘why-not-if-you-can’!

IMG_5294.JPG

Multilinguals tend to be more open-minded and flexible thinkers.

We were shown videos of language moments of Jean-Marc’s daughter (Livia, a budding linguist studying at Oxford) when she was displaying all sorts of linguistic sensitivity as a toddler, such as protesting the French pronunciation of ‘cowboy’ knowing that it’s an ‘English’ word. (You can read Livia’s own account ‘still trilingual at sixteen, almost quadralingual’ here.) Without spoiling any more amusing anecdotes Professor Jean-Marc also shared on his journey of raising her daughter trilingually (French, Dutch and English in London) using OPOL (one-parent-one-language), most of which can be found in the book, I’ll just write about what stuck out for me in his talk. I’m raising my two-year-old in Cantonese and English and potentially a bit of Spanish, French, Japanese and I’ve read the book before the talk.

Multilingual children are born and raised linguists.

Even Professor Dewaele had his initial doubts on whether multiple languages such as introducing a fourth language (spoken by the daughter’s child minder) would overwhelm the young mind. But he went ahead and discovered that, at least in his case, there’s no adverse effect whatsoever. In fact, we now know from research that babies have the amazing innate capacity to distinguish among languages from the start (even before they can babble). Basically there is no danger of brain overloading because of exposure to too many languages. The issue has always been how to encourage production (speaking and writing) and maintenance of those languages as a child grows up.

There is no danger of brain overloading because of exposure to too many languages.

Another point raised by the audience is whether ‘bad grammar’ will be learnt if the parent speaking the language is not a ‘native’ speaker. The current evidence says it shouldn’t be a worry. Children exposed to a language early on are able to filter out grammatical mistakes given sufficient exposure to the language. It is also worth remembering that multilingual children would make similar errors as monolingual children as their languages are developing.

Children can filter out bad grammar given sufficient exposure.

On encouraging children to speak the minority language (language not spoken in the community), Jean-Marc describes it as ‘a psychological manipulation to use your language‘. For young children, it’s all about making it fun and cool to use the language through play, songs and games to set the language foundation and sow the emotional seed. As they grow older, it’s about continually nurturing and consolidating that emotional attachment associated with the language while recognising that there might be phases when teenagers are simply being teenagers and just want to fit in and rebel. Having built a strong foundation to the minority languages and being consistent with their language policy from the start, Professor Jean-Marc spoke about becoming gradually more ‘relaxed’ in their household language policy as Livia started school, allowing the community language to creep in on occasions when there is a clear vocabulary gap and for emotional expression.

A psychological manipulation to use your language: Is it fun? Is it cool? Is it a secret language? Is it emotionally engaging?

The take-home-message is that rejection of a language or the refusal to speak it might be temporary. Parents might want to take a flexible approach as well as involving the child in the decision making process of what language is to be spoken when as they grow older.

If the foundation is laid, rejection of a language or the refusal to speak it might be temporary.

A name that popped up in the talk is Dr Xiao-lei Wang, who documented in three books her own journey of raising her two sons trilingually in Mandarin Chinese, French and English in the US. In her latest book Maintaining Three Languages: The Teenage Years, she discussed some difficulties she encountered during these rebellious years (You can read about this book here).  Incidentally, I also found her first book, Growing Up with Three Languages: Birth to Eleven, useful with practical strategies for laying that initial foundation.

Returning to Professor Jean-Marc, another key message is that raising multilingual children is certainly no easy ride. It requires ‘constant unrelenting effort’. He agrees with Dr Wang that our goals as parents have to be raising happy children, prioritising communication and taking care of ourselves as parents.

So what might be missing from the book? When looking at any multilingual families and their experiences, we must not forget the contexts. One aspect less discussed in the book is how the particular language dynamics of the household can affect the emotional bonding of the family as a unit. In Professor Dewaele’s case, his family happens to be all trilingual in the three languages of their household. So there is not really the feeling of isolation or exclusion a parent can sometimes experience over family conversation if one of the parents does not understand or speak the other’s language well enough. It also happens that the three languages involved are considered ‘prestige’ languages, meaning that it is less likely for the family, especially the child, to feel ’embarrassed’ to be using any one of those languages in public. Another point to remember is Jean-Marc has an only daughter so there is no sibling effect, where the community language is likely to become even more dominant as it usually becomes the language of communication among siblings. Although in the book, you will also read about Julia, the other contributor of the book, describing her experience of raising her two children.

Raising Multilingual Children has five chapters:

  1. Ten reasons for raising a child multilingually before school
  2. The multilingual children of the three authors
  3. Learning methods and language policies for early success multilingual acquisition
  4. Developing a good language policy for the family
  5. Fostering a multilingual home and dealing with concerns

Overall, I find the book does a fantastic job of fulfilling being ‘rigorous but not academic in tone’. The last three chapters are particularly useful if you are looking for hands-on practical tips.

Good luck on your multilingual parenting journey!

Here is an interview with Professor Dewaele in 2015 on early multilingualism which reinforces some of the messages above.

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Delta: a path from ‘teaching doings’ to ‘teaching beings’

‘It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life!’

Nine out of ten times, this is what I heard when people described their Delta experience. Undeterred, I remain skeptical but open to this ‘take’ of the ‘next big step’ in an EFL teacher’s life.

‘How hard could it possibly be?’

As I negotiated my way through my Modules 1 and 3, I struggled to understand exactly why it is so challenging?

Could it be its backwash and impact on our own beliefs as a teacher? I wonder if the process of doing the Delta is like adding a catalyst to a teacher’s evolution – that our evolutionary wheel has suddenly been put into focus and shifted to an unfamiliar gear.

During my own ‘evolution’, I was bombarded by a constant stream of thoughts that emerged and challenged my role and actions in the classroom before, during and after each lesson. Perhaps too frequently, I would feel overwhelmed, crippled and paralyzed when imagining, thinking and reflecting what should (and perhaps shouldn’t) be happening in a class. It forced me to confront the question of what kind of teacher I am (not) and still to be.

So far, what the Delta process has taught me is how to articulate, question and reflect on my actions and beliefs as a teacher based on principles, having examined, assessed and evaluated my current stance. Before the Delta, I might have been doing an exercise because I have an inkling that it was the right thing to do but now it is there AND I can justify and articulate its purpose based on theories and principles. In other words, it has catalysed my transformation from a ‘teaching doing’ to a ‘teaching being’ as I became aware of being aware* – becoming ‘human’.

Is it a journey worth taking? If you believe its purpose to be Socratic, that is, with the intention ‘to encourage thinking, guide discovery, challenge assumptions or uncover new learning‘ (Scrivener 2012:142), then yes!

I might not be standing as straight as the modern man quite yet but my field of vision has certainly been elevated and broadened. My next evolutionary leap seems to be just around the corner:

  • Can I pass the Module 2?
  • Am I ready to do a Master’s in TESOL?

Scrivener, J (2012:142). Classroom Management Techniques. Cambridge University Press.

* ‘Being aware of being aware – It’s what distinguishes us from other animals. We are, after all, human beings, not human doings‘ Jon Kabat-Zinn on mindfulness.

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Progress check

After the initial needs analysis, how do you make sure you have been doing what the learners really want in the way they want?

Apart from informal chats and observations, I made a progress check document to discuss with my learners. The purpose was to ask my learners to reflect on their own learning and produce some useful information for me to plan ahead.

The questions included several elements about content, methodology and the teacher’s role. Here are what the questions cover:

1. Learners reflect the conversations they had with their classmates, recall the one they enjoyed the most and gave a reason.
2. Learners recall a few facts they have learn about their classmates.
3. Learners read through the lesson commentaries and write down some new language they have learnt or found useful.
4. Learners were given a list of activities they have done in the lesson and tick the ones they enjoyed.
5. Learners were asked to give opinions on how these activities could help them with their English skills.
6. Learners were also asked if there were any activities they did not like.
7. Learners were asked to write down what they liked and didn’t like about the lessons. This could be on the content, activities, teacher involvement and input.
8. Learners were asked to tick from a list on what they find difficult in learning English.
9. Learners were asked to suggest topics for future lessons.
10. Learners were asked what kind of activities they would like to do more in the lessons.

I asked my group to read the questions before the following lesson and write down some answers. We spent the first half of the lesson discussing them in the following lesson.

On the whole, the students were positive about the lessons. Everyone really likes the fact that they have been able to learn so much about their classmates from the conversations they had in the class. They were also able to recall some new things they have learnt in terms of language and personal facts about their classmates.

Talking about how each activity helps them develop their English skills was important as it validates what we do in the class. It is empowering for both the teacher and the students to verbalise this. The students find the lesson commentaries useful, as these were resources that they had contributed to build. These were their own conversations with the language touched up. I kept wondering if I should ask them to act out some of these dialogues again.

It also helps boost my own confidence as their teacher to know my learners really do enjoy their classes with me. The knowledge of that motivates me. I also have a lot of fun whenever I write up these conversations, I relive the laughters we had in the class.

Recently, I have noticed that it is true that we are always laughing a lot in the class, both my students and I. I didn’t think much of that until a colleague pointed out to me that it was remarkable that after teaching a whole day of teaching kids, I still managed to keep my adults cheerful.

After that comment, I started to think about how it might affect my students in their learning. The students who used to be really quiet have now opened up and often proactively contribute to the conversations. I feel proud of that. The kinds of conversation we have are growing, but always linked to positive and real emotions. This is almost my ideal class in terms of classroom conditions conducive to learning. What I wish to work on now is to boost learning and to improve the quality of my input. Learning takes time, but now the conditions are right, I really hope to help speed things up. Am I just being impatient?

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Shapes and relationships

Level: (Pre)Intermediate
Length: 90-min twice a week
Group size: 5
Topic from book: People we know
Language practice: Asking questions, telling anecdote

Running order:
1. ‘Back to the board’ to review expressions with ‘have’ (from previous lesson)
2. Introduce/review ‘shapes’
3. On a blank piece of paper, listen to the teacher and draw the shape anywhere they like on the paper but big enough to write something inside
4. Within each of the shapes, write down one of the following categories: family, friend, work, school, other
5. In groups, brainstorm people we know in those categories (not their names but our relationships with them, what we call them, eg relatives, best friend)
[6. Listen to a list read out by the teacher, add them to the appropriate category – used to include particular vocabulary item, to review classroom language and if students have trouble coming up with terms, especially those outside of family]
7. In pairs, ask each other about someone on the partner’s page starting with something like: “Can you tell me about your best friend?” Ask as many follow up questions as one can.
8. Students rotate. Teacher gives feedback and feeds in language
9. Final rotation in two groups (previously not partnered in pairs)
10. Class feedback of the most interesting person they talked or heard about. Language feedback.
11. Next class, teacher gives out lesson commentary (teacher’s write up of the lesson conversation with tasks as homework, review language at the beginning of the following lesson)

What kind of conversations would be generated with your classes?

Commentary:
Recently, I tend to start my adult classes with a review using ‘back to the board‘. My reason is that we all get tired of the usual greeting ‘How was you day?” type questions sometimes. Let’s face it, most of the time, our days are pretty uninteresting. I also see it as a good way to help my learners be more creative with their language and hope that it can encourage them to use more communication strategies. This seems to work well to get them warmed up and even a bit psyched up. After the ‘match’, everyone tends to get more relaxed and open. I also find that revision and recycling is very important for this group.

Last Friday, in our class, we talked about:
1. How young some of our parents were
2. Our varied views on
marriage and having children (“I don’t like children because they squeak!”)
3. Surprising facts about our parents (he used to have a shaved head, he looks a bit like a sumo wrestler…)
4. Great stories about strangers (the creepy guy who flashed junior high school girls, the man that was watching porn in a MacDonald on his laptop…)

What I have been wanting to achieve in my class is to have lots of Dogme moments while generating conversations in which the themes and the language focus from the book should naturally emerge. I have one worry with this, have I worked on the language enough for intake? How much of the meaningful conversations become useful input that my learners take up to modify their interlanguage?

To reconcile this insecurity, I started writing a lesson commentary, with a page for useful language and a page for lexis (to be recorded like a lexical notebook). For the last few lessons, I gradually modify it so that now the students are responsible to fill in the lexis part after having chosen items from the lesson commentary themselves. Before and after the lesson commentary, there are a few tasks to help the learners focus on language. As it’s a nine-week course of 18 sessions, I thought we could do a roundup at the sixth sessions, so learners can measure, reflect and monitor their own progress by going through the conversations we have had. Let’s see how it goes.

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(The lack of) Dogme moments with my Japanese teachers

Today I had my third Japanese lesson. Just before we started, I had a brief chat with my other two classmates. Not surprisingly, none of us had had the chance to go over the materials we did in the previous week. That’s the reality of the classroom. Most teachers are faced with lazy students or those who claim to have other things “further up” on their Must-Do list. Guilty as charged. This is why dealing with emergent language properly is perhaps the single most important thing a teacher can do in the classroom no matter how insignificant it may seem to the teacher.

Having just commented on a learner and a teacher’s perspective on class feedback following an activity, I thought it would be the perfect time to talk about my two Japanese teachers and how they deal with feedback. Here I want to focus on their attitude and their feedback on emergent language. What makes a “preferable” or a “better” teacher from my point of view as the learner?

Let’s call them Teacher A (A) and Teacher B (B) with students (ss C, ss N and ss T).

Last Saturday, we had Teacher A. We did the usual greetings. Two lines. By the book. We went through stacks of flashcards. Fragmented links between activities. When I tried to shout out what I knew about certain adjectives, what did Teacher A do? She signalled me to keep quiet. I thought that was fair enough, perhaps she was worried I would confuse the others. I was fine with that. Later, I tried a few more times to ask her questions about something that came up within the context, she would quickly go through them but wouldn’t bother to involve the other students. It was as if what I asked was totally irrelevant. I thought, well, she sort of responded. I was tired last week, so with my repeated attempts being half-ignored and half-dealt with, she had lost me. I wasn’t particularly happy.

Throughout the whole lesson, I felt that she was trying too hard to go through everything in her plan, she was clearly just teaching the plan, not the students. I could see her freaking out when the flashcards she had expected to be there weren’t actually there. She was rushing. The way she introduced the lexis and how she modelled and drilled the pronunciation were shaky.

To be fair, towards the later part of the lesson, she finally calmed down a bit and started responding to some of our questions as the other two were also trying to get something out from her. She caved in and from that point onwards, she instantly became a better teacher (well, at least to my mind), the teacher I had signed up for. At that moment I figured out why I did sign up. I thought she had the potential and willingness to deal with emergent language. But after the class, I wondered if she was only able to do that during the demo lesson because it had happened to be something that coincided exactly with what she had on her plan.

I guess her lesson could be a reflection on her lack of experience. Watching her makes me feel very alarmed, I could tell that I could easily be making the same kinds of mistakes in my lessons due to my relative inexperience. I really hope that it doesn’t happen often to me or to her. I am praying that it was just one of her bad days.

This week we had Teacher B. She started with greetings:

B: 皆なさん、おげんきですか。

With this, Teacher A was trying to elicit a standard reply, hoping the students would say:

Ss: はい、おかげさまで。

Initial silence… ss T tried to look it up from the book but struggled to break it out. While during all that time I was preoccupied with how I could say, “I don’t feel that well. I’ve got a cold.

So when Teacher B turned to me, hoping I would have picked it up from ss T, I went:

C:  ええと、がぜをひ…ました。

B:  あ、かぜをひきました。

C:  はい、そうです。

Teacher B not only didn’t ignore me, she helped me. She wrote that out on the board, demonstrated its meaning with mimes, and drilled the pronunciation with everyone. At this point, ss N jumped in, “What about if I didn’t have a cold and I just wanted to say ‘I don’t feel that well‘?”

A: あ、”ちょうしがわるいです。”

Another round of practice. She tried to elicit what the others might say to me after hearing that I got a cold. She helped us extend the dialogue.

B: コン二さん、おげんきですか。(Connie, how are you?)

C: かぜをひきました。(I’ve got a cold.)

B: だいじょうぶうですか。(Are you OK?)

C: はい、だいじょうぶうです。(Yes, I’m OK.)

B: おだいじに。(Please take care.)

C: ありがとうございます。(Thanks.)

They were Dogme moments! Two of the three students got something immediately relevant to them, something they wanted to know then and there. It is very likely that the third student would have benefited too. This wasn’t in the book but it’s a situation we face every day, something one could use straightaway.

At one point of the lesson, we were supposed to practise using the cues from a page on the book. It was about shopping. The dialogue goes something like “Oh, these shoes are too big. Do you have smaller ones?”. Teacher B asked ss N to try but he didn’t want to say it the way it was cued. For him, the problem is often reversed. After figuring out that was his intention, Teacher B was happy going along with that.

Throughout the lesson, Teacher B did not let these language moments past but gave us what we needed and turned them into Dogme moments. For a beginner’s class, that was just enough.

Apart from the ability to deal with emergent language, Teacher B elicits language, demonstrates meaning with mimes, asks us to give examples relevant to us, models and drills pronunciation properly, presents a logical progression to link different activities together, gives clear instructions and grades her language to match the student’s level of readiness when she is the interlocutor. What a great teacher! I want to get Teacher B every week.

So what makes a “better” teacher? From a learner’s perspective, it’s always more meaningful to learn a little something that she can relate to properly than trying to half-learn a bag of “stuff” picked out by the teacher.

Posted in English teaching, Language learning, Teacher development | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Why feedback after task?

I was reading Ken Wilson’s post on his second German lesson on a crowded Tokyo train on my way home, like most of his readers, I found it difficult to contain my chuckles. I cannot emphasise how useful it is for a language teacher to be learning a language in a classroom. One can gain so much practical insight about teaching by being a proper learner.

What really caught my attention was his comment about feedback. He was not so happy that he did not get any whole class feedback after the pair work. I immediately think of my own classrooms. When I first started with my twice-weekly adult class (7 learners, pre-intermediate), I clearly remember how nervous I felt whenever I did a round of feedback after any pair or group work. I would often worry that it would go on for too long as I tried to give all the learners an equal chance to report. Some of my learner’s feedback has confirmed my suspicion that it could indeed be too time-consuming and make them feel they are being deprived of practice time as they listen to their peer’s reports. On the other hand, some of my learners have said that they found this reporting and feedback slot to be extremely useful. For one thing, summarising is not an easy skill to master.

This really made me think and I finally realised that what I needed to do is to change the way the feedback was done and to make sure my learners understand why this reporting and feedback slot is important and how it can help with their learning. I need to be better at starting the aim of the exercise, something I’ve always struggled with, i.e., how explicit and on the plate does it have to be? My conclusion is one can never be too explicit.

What I started to do was to make sure I spread my time equally among the different groups/pairs to give timely feedback as they are doing the task, so when they change partners, the learners would get a chance to use the new lexis they just got from me. At the end of the task, I would ask only a few students to do a class report, usually those who have come up with some interesting lexis. After the report, I would deal with the language most people were struggling with during the task. This is particularly important with large classes. Often it would be more advantageous that such whole class feedback is given in the middle of the task if there were some very common errors. To raise the learner’s awareness of the importance of the activity, I had a chat with them about the purpose of the reporting and feedback stage. Now I feel much more comfortable including this stage in my lessons.

I was doing a level check the other day, the potential student strongly hoped to get into a small class so he could get enough attention and personal feedback from his teacher. He also emphasised the importance of having real conversations with his teacher but showed a clear dislike of chatting with his peers. He seemed to think that it’s rather pointless. It’s very dangerous for a learner to think that chatting with other learners are not beneficial to their own learning. For my own Japanese studies, I found that being able to help my fellow classmate during a task gives me an insight on the source of common errors as well as making myself more aware of what I know and don’t know. Like Ken, I’m learning while I’m helping.

From this, it shows that it is possible for both the teacher and the learners to underestimate or not fully understand the importance of a feedback stage, especially for those learners who didn’t get that far with the task (as in Ken’s case) and were not able to get any of the teacher’s time during the task. So of course, feedback should always be there. Just don’t forget to make sure your learners know why.

 

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The future of language teaching

In my last post a talk by Professor Richard Johnstone got me all worked up about the whole identity issue. What do we know about current modern language teaching around the world? How does that knowledge help us plan for the future?

Professor Johnstone started with a clarification of his title, ‘Modern Languages in Education: Moving forward with purpose in an era of uncertainty”. His idea of ‘moving forward’ does not imply a definite or even any particular single direction. In his words, he likened it to when one was lost in the wood, the best chance one could have was to go forward in one direction. That way, things kept moving. I like that idea, the way I interpret it is that it allows progress to be continuously measured, evaluated and reflected against what we currently know so things could improve, much like what happens in science.

We began our journey with the Professor’s own experience as a language learner of Latin and French. With the prominence of grammar translation in Scotland at that time, they were thought rules, including those of pronunciation. The twelve year-old found it pretty amusing that he was able to make all those funny sounds and to read relatively complicated poems just after one year. But the reality check came when he was asked to go and chat to a sports player on the field at an international match a couple of years later, he was lost for words, function was completely ignored. I am sure many of us has experienced that, in fact, I am having this problem every day with my Japanese. How could we break away from this?

Professor Johnstone went on to take us through a series of studies he and others had carried out on the evaluation of the language teaching projects around the world. There were all kind of models, local contexts and varied outcomes.

Some of you might say teaching key grammatical concepts and metalanguage is a waste of time for very young children. In Croatia, they found that the knowledge of key grammatical concepts in L1 introduced as early as aged 6 (Year 1), could be progressively transferred to the learning of the additional language (AL). By Year 3, the students on this project were confident, accurate and creative users of their AL while the teachers felt satisfied and motivated. So it appears that children can certainly deal with metalanguage and do benefit from knowing about it especially when it was introduced through L1 allowing transfer and contrast.

The other thing that really stands out is the ‘power’ of CLIL. In Finland, the CLIL students showed much quicker language development than non-CLIL students. In a matter of two years of 1-word phrase, the CLIL students were suddenly able to produce full-blown sentences by Grade 3 while their mainstream classmates were still stuck at the prefabricated expressions stage unable to produce full-blown sentences by the end of Grade 5. It seems to suggest that CLIL provides that extra opportunity for the fiddling with the AL and after three years of that, fine tuning activities could follow. The implication is that CLIL can trigger L2 acquisition.

For lower graders, the sound and sight of the AL alone might just keep the students’ motivated or curious enough to study the AL. For teenagers, without an immediate relevance to their lives or some kind of cool factors, there are few reasons to study a language or more importantly, to play with it, not including those who are born linguists. He showed us a project in Scotland and how one could try to sustain the motivation for continuous learning for a group particularly prone to drop-out. This involved creating real as well as virtual communities of 29 schools, with film making weekends, annual gala dinners, blogs, podcasting, a language surgery…. The success of this project was reflected in the higher levels of performance in national examinations, of uptake of the ALs in sixth forms and of motivations for further study. Language can indeed be cool, fun and relevant. How often do we forget about this while going through the system?

Another remarkable project was the early partial immersion model in Spain, commissioned by the Ministry of Education there over 16 years ago and carried out in collaboration with the British Council. It started with students as young as three in state schools. The proficiency of the children are remarkable in terms of their range and complexity of language use. The key to success seems to lie in the consistency of the project implementation despite regime changes and the involvement and support from parents and school administrators. It is also instrumental that the project runs through from the age of 3 to high school. The criteria were strictly no secondary school participation, no entry into the project for the primary school. Everyone is onboard! The other seems to be the high level of training the teachers received, especially during the early phases of the school participation. The learners’ proficiency, not only evaluated by classroom observations, is also validated by an international examination (the IGCSEs). What’s more is the high attainment of the students’ mother tongue, Spanish. At an annual dinner where participants of the projects gathered, including the learners, the Professor was approached by a young man. He was a learner from the project. When asked if he felt more or less Spanish, he laughed at the suggestion, “More Spanish of course! I could go anywhere in the world and tell someone about my country in English!” The proof is in the pudding.

Before closing, we briefly touched on the idea of identity. The success of the Scottish and Spanish projects has something to do with the exploration and the establishment of sometimes new or additional identities in the learners. I found it assuring that evidence is mounting for the benefit of bilingual education and the importance of CLIL as a way to enhance language development with clearly demonstrable and tangible results.

To look ahead, he calls for evaluation framework based on what the learners can do rather than what the teacher does. Take notes on the learners and then try to find the associated teacher behaviour. Also don’t just go in once. Make multiple visits.

When I asked the Professor what ultimately determined the success or the failure of a project given all the varied contexts he has observed, he replied, “The quality of the teachers.” It is still down to us.

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Being bilingual

What is the future of language teaching? How do you feel about bilingual education? What is your own experience of learning a language?

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a talk by Professor Richard Johnstone on modern language teaching. Incidentally I had a discussion with someone on some scholars’ concern on English becoming the lingua franca and how as teachers, we could be acting as agents of some kind of language colonisation by the English speaking organisations we represent on the premises that a large proportion of learners aspire to acquiring a ‘native accent’. For argument’s sake, I’d say that is a pretty narrow and somewhat western centric view. Given the intimate link between language and culture, it is definitely conceivable that it might be on some policymakers’ hidden agenda to ‘spread one’s value’ on learners of their languages. But how can one claim that would necessarily be the result? As language teachers, we should know that what is taught almost never ever corresponds exactly to what is learnt. I would say that the current tide, as it stands, is a win-win situation for both parties in terms of the teaching of English or other languages in a national curriculum. It is precisely in times like this, worsening domestic economic situations and increasing globalisation, that a complex identity and wider worldview can only benefit the individuals who are given the chance to develop and explore it. The further we look outside, the further we can probe into our inner identity, the more we can get to know ourselves. Definition invariably involves some kind of comparison and contrast. Through that process, we become more aware of who we really are.

My own position is that while I acknowledge the danger on the learners’ desire on acquiring a native-like pronunciation, English’s role remains that of a tool between speakers of different languages. It reinforces the identity of the speaker, enabling the same person to confidently express themselves as a person or as a representative of their own origins in an arbitrary language, much like we do in mathematics.

There is also another reason why many learners might want to acquire a native like pronunciation. Let’s take a tonal language like Cantonese as an example, ‘native’ pronunciation is almost the only way to be understood. It would make a very lazy learner to know enough Cantonese and yet speak like a foreigner unless that is intentional. One becomes almost completely incomprehensible if the tone is slightly off. For speakers of languages like this, accuracy directly correlates with intelligibility. On that basis, it is not too much for a language learner to wish sounding ‘native’. Of course, the complexity for English lies on what counts for ‘native’?

As a product of a bilingual education in my early years, I certainly feel that my identity is reinforced and has become more complex than otherwise. I had experienced both bilingual education and total immersion. I cannot speak for others but personally, it has opened up my world exponentially. It has fuelled my desires to see the world in completely different lights. I still remember the day when I was walking alone on a street in North Wales and someone in the car passing by called out some racial comment. I was hurt that day. But then, I thought to myself, hang on a minute, I came thousands of miles away, able to understand what you said, living there, studying alongside students who were born and bred there, that was a pretty remarkable achievement. Why should I get angry? I should be feeling sorry for how ignorant that person was. He knew nothing about me or my culture, yet I was living and breathing the life under their sky, which I have since made my own, I felt powerful. I knew that from that day, everything I did will make me a person more worthwhile than if I had just stayed in the country I was born. I was grateful for the opportunity my parents had given me. I was sent to see the world much earlier than they could have ever done themselves. All I needed to do was to be a sponge, take up and absorb as much as I could and be a better person.

I certainly feel that learning a new language as an adult is quite a different matter but as a child growing up, another language means another avenue to explore one’s, still malleable, identity. Of course, to many, it can empower as much as it can confuse us. Borrowing a metaphor from a Buddhist idea, this ‘key’ opens the door to both heaven and to hell. How we use the ‘key’ is up to us. As educators, this is our responsibility to guide our learners to use it wisely and to let them appreciate the power it has.

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A learner’s perspective

The other day I suddenly realised I was finally ready to study Japanese properly. So I went along to a demo lesson. I am so excited to be a learner again.

It was a 20-minute demo lesson. There were only three of us. With flashcards, we did some choral drilling and then some pairwork.

It was so insightful to be on the other side of the table. The thing I really liked about our teacher was that she did not use the textbook at all. The only time she did was to show us the chapter from the book and to handout a copy of the printout at the beginning. She told us what we would learn before we began. It worked really well as we didn’t waste anytime getting bogged down looking at extraneous information. We just focused on the listening, the drilling and the role play. But the fact that we didn’t concern ourselves with reading could be a manifestation of how we were as learners. The others were from Israel and the Philippines. We wanted to speak, not to read. We wanted to stay focused on the moment, the real-time interaction, on people’s faces!

What was really interesting was that I had found myself making the same mistake that got corrected a moment ago. Throughout the lesson, I did that several times. The second time I could hear my mistake. I had become aware of it. On the third time, I was just a fraction too late – it was one of those when you knew you were about to make a mistake but was just too late to fix it before your words came out of your mouth. It was such a clear demonstration of the disconnect between the input and the output under the pressure of real-time communication. It is clear that it takes time for one’s interlanguage to be readjusted and realigned. For my own practice, I tend not to correct my learner’s error on the spot so much unless it was the first time it was being introduced or if it had been made repeatedly in quick successions. I tend to wait and see if any self- or peer-correction happens. Judging from my own experience, I would definitely appreciate the chance of self discovery, the time to process, internalise and produce. Of course, signalling that something wasn’t quite right from the teacher’s side would have been a great help.

Looking back at the lesson, I felt I would have liked some more choral practice before diving straight into the pairwork. I felt unprepared and under-practised. My teacher seemed to be rushing through the pronunciation work. I would have preferred her to say it clearly and slowly at least once, repeat, signal and then ask us to try. She appeared too desperate to ‘teach’ us something. She must have been nervous as well. What stroke me was how much I wanted things to be slowed down and to be given more time to prepare and practise.

I paid particular attention on the classroom language she used. I really wanted to learn it so I could use it in my own classroom. An example of the disparity between what the teacher intends to teach and what the learner actually wants to learn.

It is true that most learners have the highest motivation when they start a course, I feel the same. I am nervous but excited. But at the back of my mind, I wonder if I could keep this motivation up. I guess seeing this as a self experiment and a professional development opportunity might help my spirit from sinking too low too soon. But what a difference the teacher and her teaching can make!

As any other teachers might do, I couldn’t help but to dissect my sensei’s teaching techniques and strategies. The way she gave or had sometimes failed to give clear instructions on the tasks made a significant impression on me. The other thing was how unclear the drilling procedure was and the lack of repetition. That’s why we were advised to do things in threes. I wonder how my students would have felt when I was being unclear as a teacher. There was not even a second chance? You missed it once and that’s it? What came to mind was frustration and the temptation to give up if such things persist in class.

So why did I sign up? I hope that by committing to being a proper classroom learner, I can be more aware of the needs of a learner as a teacher.

What I want to get out of it is how to become better at teaching taking the perspective of a classroom learner myself. I can already feel that this journey is going to be extremely fruitful.

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