Tuesday, 30 July 2013

EBEFL asks!

Hey guys I quit twitter (for now)! productivity here I come!

I'm really snowed under right now but just wanted to post a little something so here goes (without twitter, will anyone read this?)


I have some questions and so I'm hoping you readers out there will do the work this time. There are a couple of things I don't get and so I'm hoping you can explain them to me.

1. democratic appeals

English as a Lingua Franca articles always begin with the assertion that there are way more NNS of English than NS, so who are we to tell them how to speak?! This argument seems to make a lot of sense, and I'm always one to argue that common usage usually wins, but something doesn't add up here.

If we accept this numerical logic then wouldn't that lead to 'global English' being some kind of mix between Indian English and Chinese English? After all, they have far and away the most English speakers.

If that's not what it means, then what am I missing?


2. "native speaker" bashing.

You can't say "native speaker" anymore. Well, if you enclose it in scare quotes to stop it escaping onto the page you can, -otherwise no one in the TEFL world will take you seriously. I've read a ton of books and been to conferences lately where a fair bit of native speaker bashing has gone on.

I heard things like "so-called native speaker" and "native speaker -whatever that means". All of this was all well-intentioned I might add, and seemingly an attempt to be inclusive, but I get confused because I think I do have an idea what a native speaker is.

the argument seems to go that people have varying levels of proficiency within the language and some NNS clearly know more vocab or can even speak better than supposed NS so how can we sensibly talk about "native speakers" when a clear distinction can't even be drawn?
Well that's true, but then I think I know what red and orange look like and I think I could point at something and tell you if it were one or the other. Now anyone who has used a posh art program on a computer has seen that huge range of colours going from orange to red to the point where you're not quite sure which side of the colour divide they land on. But despite this, I've never heard of anyone claiming that we shouldn't talk about "so called red" or "orange whatever that means".

Is this a bad analogy? What am I missing?

Comments below please -help to educate me!

Monday, 15 July 2013

BALEAP talk

I gave this talk at the 2013 BALEAP and was kindly invited by UCL to present it again. This is an edited version of that. Thanks to UCL for the warm welcome and the DVD.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DKEGoeuUw7Q



Wednesday, 3 July 2013

KKCL ELT podcast or why LS is so popular

Trying to explain something is never as effective as seeing the actual thing you're trying to explain. With that in mind I recommend everyone rush over and listen to  KKCL's new TEFL podcast in particular their latest episode in which they decided to tackle, -yes you guessed it, -learning styles. I recommend it not for the high production quality, friendly style and soothing tone of host Phil Keegan, but rather as a fantastic insight into why learning styles are so popular.

Me me me!

One reason for its popularity  is that it's about our favourite topic,  namely us. Everyone likes to think they are unique and special, when the truth is, we share a lot of characteristics. However, subjective validation means it's possible to see something personally meaningful and accurate in statements which are neither. Nowhere is this clearer than in episode 5 of KKCL's podcast.

Guest Marjorie Rosenberg starts off with an anecdote about her learning experiences and how teachers in high school French class destroyed her motivation by not letting her visualise vocab. she then talks about how learning German was aided by carrying a dictionary around and looking at the words.
Next host Phil jumps in to let us know he's a auditory learner and is very excited to learn it's the minority 'style'. He then tell us about how his students used to complain because he didn't write vocab on the board, as he was an auditory learner and so didn't need to see the words.

When Marjorie tells us about a further four styles of learner (in total she lists 2x4x4 possible types), and describes one of them as being someone who hates reading instruction manuals, to which Phil excitedly notes "that's like me!"

Later the hosts of the podcast talk about what kind of learner they are and one recounts his experience learning Japanese with a book which showed the characters being related to pictures.

Finally although not strictly in the podcast, commentator Anna perfectly exemplifies how learning styles can have an attractive personal significance. After thanking Phil and his crew for the podcast she notes "I’m personally visual, analytic and definitely paying lots of attention to emotions and raport in the classroom". 

Confirmation

Subjective validation goes hand in hand with confirmation bias which leads us to look for evidence that backs up our beliefs and dismiss evidence which contradicts them. Every single human being instinctively does this and it's why the scientific method, which seeks to falsify things, is so valuable. In the examples above we can see Phil and Marjorie finding confirmation of their beliefs in learning styles, but then they're not looking to disprove them.

One example of confirmation bias is that Phil believes not writing words on the board is evidence he's not a visual learner, but many teachers don't write words up on the board either and this has nothing to do with learning styles -it might just be inexperience or plain laziness. He also thinks not reading instruction manuals makes him a certain type of learner but could it not just be that manuals are dull? After all, research suggests no one reads them.

Phil also manages to find confimation of learning styles in his messy office. He's not visual so he doesn't see the mess. Oddly he later claims he's a bit kinaesthetic as walking around "helps [him] to think".


Similarly Marjorie ascribe her failure to learn French to the teacher not allowing her to visualise words, and similarly her success in learning German to carrying a dictionary around and being able to look at the words. Now call me a dirty old cynic but is living and working in a foreign country really comparable to taking a language class in high school? If I were looking at the possible factors that made a difference, "the right learning style" would be pretty low on my list.

Another example of confirmation bias at work is demonstrated by the commentator Anna. The total lack of evidence supporting learning styles is characterised by her as "supposedly limited scientific evidence of their efficacy". She found the podcast very enjoyable presumably because it reinforced her opinion. If you believe in learning styles, then you can find anecdotal evidence for them everywhere.


Excuses excuses 

Finally Learning styles can be a great way to excuse failure. As with the example above, it wasn't the fact that hardly anyone masters a language in high school that caused the problem but not being allowed to learn in the right way. It would be nice if there was a secret method that could 'unlock' learning and make our students better at languages, but sadly life doesn't work like that.
If someone wants to believe in something they will believe in it, damn the evidence. This was brought home to me again this week by the story of a woman who (it seems) sincerely believes she can live off sunlight. As long as there is Breatharianism the battle against learning styles will be a tough one.


It's clear from the get go that the host Phil and guest Marjorie are friends, so perhaps it's not surprising that there are no tough questions, (like how kinaethetic and audio style teachers are supposed to deal with Marjorie's book which is clearly visual-centric with its words and pictures and stuff, tsk tsk!) . The only time any criticism are broached at all is when Marjorie defends learning styles against the claim that they pigeon-hole students. It's really interesting to me that proponents of learning styles seem so worried by this claim, but not at all worried by their being no research support for LS theory 

The EFL world needs a good podcast so I hope Phil and his crew will deal a bit more critically with topics like this in the future. If you would like to listen a podcast which makes a good job of dealing with learning styles, then try this one.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Likert and .gif

On my favourite podcast recently the host Steve Novella picked up another hosts  pronunciation of 'often'. He noted that the 't' should be silent and strictly speaking he's correct. 'Often' is a funny word as the t fell out of use but then made a come back probably due to an increase in literate people who could see the t and assume it had to be said. 

Another contentious pronunciation also mentioned on the SGU is the word 'nuclear'. Many Americans seem to go crazy if you get this 'wrong' but if I'm honest, I'm not really sure which way is right. I think I say both. 

All of this got me thinking more about description versus prescription. People will often say authoritatively that 'this is the correct pronunciation' and variants are laughable or stupid but where does that authority come from? Is it the same authority that tells us not to use passives or that split infinitives are inelegant? I imagine it is, but it seems to me whereas people are willing, when it comes to grammar rules, to swim against the tide of 'usage' and proclaim that they are right and that (for example -the word 'hopefully') everyone else is wrong, necks are less likely to be stuck out where pronunciation is concerned. 

Sure there are the odd few who will demand foreign words are pronounced in a suitably foreign way but the 'latte' crowd are almost always inconsistent and limited to prestigious European languages. Requesting authentic pronunciations of words would be a hell of a task for a language like English.

So if people like to use language carefully why are the words 'gif' and 'likert' mispronounced by almost everyone and why is almost no one demanding their correction? If we want authoritative pronunciations we can go no better than to talk to the actually creators of these terms. In the case of '.gif' the guy who invented '.gifs' has said categorically that he intended it to be pronounced 'jif' as in 'see you in a jiffy'. Even more compelling the creator of the Likert scale, was a guy called Rensis Likert. His name is categorically pronounced 'lick-ert'. It's his name, you can't really argue with that.

If you are a hardcore prescriptivist, I hope you'll pronounce these words 'properly' from now on. Don't worry that no one understands you -you'll be in the right, and that's all that matters.