Thursday, 28 August 2014

Keep Calm and Shout Slowly

...aka the English Approach to Talking to Foreigners.
I've been delivering workshops on working with Non-Native English Speakers recently, and of course I've highlighted the above typical behaviour as something we shouldn't do. Someone asked why we shouldn't - he thought speaking loudly and slowly was the best way of getting a message across clearly. But as anyone who has ever experienced this phenomenon in English (or in my case, Turkish) knows, this isn't the case - and it's not necessarily a problem for the language learner, but for the attitude of then speaker.
Here's why - or at least, my take on it.
Let's start with the person speaking loudly and slowly. What do we generally associate a raised voice with? I'd suggest anger, frustration, warning and reproach, or getting someone to do our bidding. Who do we raise our voices at? Well, it may be someone who has angered us. I think the act of raising volume is a deeply engrained evolutionary trait, one that originally served as a way of drawing attention, warning manger, etc.
But who else do we speak loudly and slowly to? Children, the elderly and the infirm - and also foreigners. It's remarkable, actually, that there is a built in tendency to use the same tone of voice to all the aforementioned. It's as if we associate all the above with some kind of infirmity or weakness. In the case of a language learner, it's a linguistic weakness.
Now here's my suggestion: because people tend to talk loudly and slowly to foreigners, and because talking loudly has a deep association with showing strength, being angry, giving warnings etc, there is a tendency in the speaker to assume the listener is in some way inferior. Think about the number of times you've heard the phrase 'stupid bloody foreigner' or similar. I'd suggest that this attitude arises from a simple feedback loop: because the speaker has raised bis or her voice, the or she assumes on some basic mental level that they are angry or irritated , and this colours the speaker's attitude towards the listener.
So, my advice?

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Back to work - in more ways than one

Back once more!
I am making it my mission to engage in a lot more writing between now and December, in any way, shape or form, and this blog has been in hiatus for far too long, thanks to various factors.
Well, I hope all you out there had a restful Summer break. I don't know about you, but I find it difficult to get back into the rhythm of things once the holidays are over. I have this feeling of reluctance, and I really don't want to be back into the same old routines. It's also the fact that I find the first few weeks probably the most stressful: Testing and enrolment, planning, class allocation, dusting down and recycling Schemes of Work etc are hardly the most exciting things in life to do. I'd be happier just getting into class, but my workplace requires me (and my colleagues) to get our hands dirty and get down to all the onerous, tedious pre-teaching tasks - and all the paperwork, blah blah etc.
I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling less than enthralled at the prospect of doing all this.
So, the question is, is there any way possible of getting all the necessaries done without being bored to death?
Answer: probably not. The only solution is to trudge on and get it out of the way so that we can get at the fun bits, namely strutting my funky stuff in the classroom.
In other words, and you're probably way ahead of me here, I'm suffering from a raised affective filter, meaning I have low motivation, thereby leading me to be reluctant to engage in any activity whatsoever.
It shouldn't, of course, be a surprise that we teachers also have to contend with our affective filters but I suspect that we sometimes forget about it, especially when we trudge back into work at the end of August or the beginning of September. But we could, potentially, use this New Term Drag Syndrome (I just invented that phrase. Bit awful) to give us an insight, or a reminder, what learning English can be like for our learners, and, in turn, help ourselves get back into Full Metal TEFL Mode a bit faster.
When we're faced with a dreary task or set of chores so multitudinous that we would rather gnaw our arms off than begin to attempt, it's probably better to start off by looking at the end target rather than what's right in front of our eyes. So, for me, the current end target is having four or so brand shiny new classes, full of bright-eyed, eager-faced and possibly bushy-tailed students ready to learn. For our reluctant learner, on the other hand, it should be some concrete kind of attainment. I don't think it's enough to say 'today, you will learn how to use the first conditional' or whatever. Instead, using the first conditional (or whatever) is a step towards achieving something tangible. This is where it's vital for us to get to know our learners and their needs, and to develop work that will help them reach those needs. Of course, a lot of students will say they are learning English 'to get a job', or 'because English is important', or something along those lines. Unfortunately, these are too vague, and students with vague approaches to language learning are the ones most likely to have poor motivation, to do badly, and to drop out. In my experience, the more concrete a goal a student has for learning English, the more likely they are to achieve it, and to use the language far more fluently
As an example, I came across one of my old students in a restaurant the other day. When I was teaching him, he'd been pootling along with his lessons, more or less going round in circles, and he talked only in the vaguest terms of his future. After one more protracted tutorial, I discovered that he really wanted to study Art, but that he felt he'd never reach a sufficient standard of English to do it. I wrote up a Learning Plan for him, which involved him getting his portfolio of work from Sicily. I nagged him every day for about two weeks until he gave in.
He was immediately accepted onto a Foundation Art course once he produced his work. About a year later, he'd started pootling again, and so I and a colleague once more intervened, and he was taken on to a prestigious course. So, I came across him in a restaurant where he was working. My first thoought was that he'd dropped out.
'No,' he laughed. 'I've just finished the course - this is just a summer job, you know?'
'So how was it?' I asked.
'I'm expecting to get a First,' he told me, proudly. 'Thanks to you.'
It always gives me a thrill to hear good news stories from past students, but we should be aware that they don't always know where they're heading, even the older learners - and sometimes, we don't know where we're heading, either, especially as we walk back through the school gates.
Our motivation has a direct effect on the learners and how successful they'll be. Next time you're eyeing up that unenviable task, take a breath, think of the outcome, and push on through to the other side.


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