Archives for posts with tag: Language

My university is on a quarter system, and since the start of the new quarter three weeks ago I have had one goal: to get them off my back to foster learner independence.

I’ve had some successes and some failures (as you can imagine). In the first week, I did a mock-up sheet of how to use COCA. It was step-by-step and included screen grabs and arrows on the sheet. Then we marched down to the computer lab and I turned them loose.

And you know what? Students are impossible to predict, because they followed that sheet and used COCA flawlessly, but nearly every single one of them needed one-on-one help logging in to the computer (username: student/ password: student).

I asked the students to rate the usefulness of this tool, and out of fifty students only two said they didn’t see the use. The other 48 gave responses along the lines of that this would help them study by themselves.

This leads me to believe that although they can be intensely needy, these students actually want to study on their own. Now that I think about it, maybe it’s more about developing trust than an actual need for hand-holding.

What I’ve been doing these days is preparing sheets at the beginning of each lesson that walk them step-by-step through the pages they should look at in their book and the information they should note (open your book to page 61. Look at number 2, part b. Find the word “remember”. What does it say?)

These lessons seem to be a general success. By the time I come in to explain, they don’t really need much explaining. So far, activities like this really seem to till the soil of their minds and help things stick–something I can see reflected quite strongly in their actual use of the grammar points this quarter versus last quarter. In my class, we are required to give speaking and writing grades in addition to quizzes. So far, quiz grades have been steady, remarkable only in that the quizzes I give are much more detailed than they were last quarter.

To me, however, the real sign that whatever I’m doing is making an impact lies in their actual use of the grammar points. Last quarter my poor students (bless their hearts) couldn’t actually use the grammar, no matter how hard they tried. This year, when students speak to me, a lot of them are putting “didn’t” in the right place and tense. This is something they don’t notice–but I do. Their writing, too, is inspiring to me. Last week we did past simple versus past continuous, and I got an overwhelming majority of writing that was done in class and used those tenses correctly. This week it was used to, and the same thing. Whether or not they know it, these girls are actually teaching themselves how to use these tenses.

There are more than a few articles that touch on this concept–teaching students to teach themselves. Sometimes, as Maryellen Weimer wrote in Faculty Focus, students respond quite negatively–they don’t realize that there is a method to our madness.

Because of this, I try to keep the lines of communication clear with my students. “I’m doing this for the same reason I don’t let you tell me your name if I forget–because if I figure it out for myself, I’ll remember. If you tell me, I’ll forget immediately again.”

They seem to understand this, and most of them seem to like this style of working. (I can tell because mobiles are away and the conversation really is about grammar!). I explain to them that there is a hierarchy of figuring this stuff out for themselves in my classroom: first, read the directions. Second, think about it. Ask yourself does it sound right? You know enough English for this! Third, ask your friend. Fourth, check your book and notes (usually included in the first step of read the directions!). Fifth, ask me. But if you ask me, I’m going to just point to where it is in the book.

I’m not doing this to be lazy, I tell them. I’m doing this because I can’t take the exam for them, so they have to know that they know the material.

Still, most of my students seem to view me as the be-all, end-all source of knowledge in my grammar classroom. To that end, TESOL Connections has a few recommendations for building learner trust and autonomy that I think I might use before my next quiz.

First, I think I will have students make a yes-no chart, where they can write down and see the things they know well and don’t know well. Then they can compare it to their friends so they can better assess each others’ strengths and weaknesses.

Next, I really think I could adapt the jigsaw activity to the upcoming unit. In this activity, I give students a piece of the knowledge, and they put it together like a jigsaw puzzle. This is kind of perfect for future and future time clauses, because these units contain multiple components. If everyone focuses on one part of the big whole, though, I think they could put it together.

These activities could improve my classroom collaboration, foster trust among learners, and increase learner autonomy. That would be a win win win for me!




the brainHello all,

Well it’s been a solid eight months since I’ve updated this thing. In those eight months, I’ve graduated and moved to South Korea, where I’m now working as a Native English Teacher at the top high school in my province.

Korean High Schools are no joke.

But I didn’t log in to post about that.

Actually, I logged in to posit a theory to y’all.

It’s about whether or not Jamaican Patois is a dialect or a separate language.

I did a couple final projects on the phonology and syntax of Jamaican Patois, and before now, I’d kind of thought Patois (and creoles in general, I guess), could be counted as their own distinct language categories, as opposed to simply dialects of an umbrella language (for example, Patois being a dialect of English).

Today, however, I am reconsidering this theory.

For many of my friends and I, Korean is not our second language. It is our third, or maybe even our fourth. One conversation we seem to have over and over regarding our Korean language acquisition is the conversation of transfer: how our L2s pop up to fill in the blank spaces of our L3s.

And how it’s never English that pops up to fill in those blank spaces.

I think it’s really significant that for us, it’s always the L2 that pops up to fill in those blank spaces and never English.

When I was studying for my M.A., I did just a teensie amount of research about L2-L3 transfer and whether or not it really exists. I would have to read about it a LOT more before I could actually comment on it intelligently, but I guess I did enough reading to have the vocabulary to posit this theory:

If Jamaican Patois is a separate language, then howcome I’m not experiencing any Patois transfer?

There are some scholars who think that the L2 and L1 are stored in different (yet overlapping) parts of the brain. This has been supported by Brocia’s apasia, which affects the L1, and Wernike’s aphasia, which affects the L2, and apparently a number of studies (which, admittedly, I have not read). According to a paper on the brain and language by Sumit Mundhra (2005), in the brains of late bilinguals (those who acquired their second langauge after the Critical Period), the “grammar and motor maps” of the L1 develop in close proximity, whereas they developed in a separate area for the L2. Additionally, data shows an “increased right hemisphere involvement for later-learned L2s in a single language environment” and a “left hemisphere localization of the L2.” Although Mundhra ultimately concluded that organization of the languages in the brain depends highly on the environment in which the language was learned, Wuilleman and Richards (1994) and Vaid (1993) concluded that age of acquisition influences brain organization as well, saying that languages acquired after the Critical Period involve more right brain than those acquired before.

The information in the paragraph above suggests and supports the theory that additional nonnative languages acquired after the critical period are stored differently in the brain than native languages. I think this explains why it is always L2s (for me and my friends) that pop up to fill in our blank spaces in Korean.

I started learning Spanish fairly young–you know, they teach you the days of the week and stuff when you’re in elementary school, and then I made Spanish my language concentration in middle and high school. When I was 18, I started learning some Jamaican Patois (mainly because I had a Jamaican boyfriend and wanted to understand him). In both languages, I got to the point where I could understand (most of ) conversations in real-time and understand the music of both languages, and to where I could express myself in both languages (although I’ve never needed to express myself in Jamaican Patois because everyone I know who speaks it code switches into English pretty much flawlessly).

However, by these events, and I admit I am using my own specific example in this case and would need to have a much less exclusive data sample to say anything conclusively; however, by these events, if Jamaican Patois is a separate language and not a dialect of English, then wouldn’t I be experiencing transfer from Patois as well, in the very least?

Then again, a paper by Ingrid Hendrick (2006) for the Teacher’s College, Columbia University, Hendrick writes that nonnative transfer can be dependent on the recency (which I did not know was a word) of language use and exposure, and in that case, I definitely have used/been exposed to far more Spanish than Patois in my life. Additionally, Hendrick writes that in the case of transfer, language learners most often borrow from the lexicons (vocabulary memory bank) of their nonnative languages, and there too, I have a much wider lexicon of words in Spanish than words in Patois (that are not also shared in English). Finally, Hendrick says that data suggests that language learners often experience nonnative language transfer when they are speaking, but they don’t want to use/sound like they’re using their native language. For my extent of knowledge of Patois, if I were to pull from my knowledge of it to fill in my Korean, I would basically sound like I was speaking Konglish, unless I wanted to adopt the phonology of Jamaican Patois, which would render me unintelligible to Koreans and is generally pretty rare as something that is transferred between nonnative languages.

So in conclusion….there is no conclusion. On the surface, the lack of transfer I’m experiencing could be used to suggest that Patois and English are organized in the same places in my brain, which could in turn suggest that Patois is a dialect of English and not a separate language. However, when explored beyond the surface even a little, there are several things that could explain the lack of transfer without challenging Patois’ language status. Therefore, at this point, the only thing that I can conclude is that I would need to study several folks who are not me but who are speakers of creoles to see if I can find anything more conclusive.

The article that I chose to review is called “Designing and developing a language environment for second language writers.” APA citation:

Knuttson, O., Pargman, T. P., Elundh, K. S., & Westlund, S. (2007). Designing and developing a language environment for second language writers.Computers & Education49(4), 1122-1146

When beginning their discussion, the authors state that it is essential to provide second-language learners with tools that will facilitate their developing an enjoyment and understanding of writing in the target language. They argue that this can be done by developing computer-language tools, specifically, saying that computational linguistics can be expanded. Grammar checkers, verb conjugators, “set-expression translators,” bilingual dictionaries, online grammars, etc. are some examples of computer-based language tools.

The authors make their first point by answering the question of why they chose to focus on errors. To do that, they explained the taxonomy of errors made by language-learners, categorizing them as slips, mistakes, errors and solipsisms. They then address the role of written feedback, ultimately arguing that it can in some cases be largely effective at improving students’ second drafts and that students appear to want the feedback, ultimately tying this back to why the focus on errors in writing instruction.

Next they move to detailing the study itself: they chose participants who are learning Swedish as a second language and focus on the Granska grammar checker. This grammar checker is genre-based but overall more accurate than Microsoft Word. The learners were preparing to take a Swedish TOEFL-equivalent test that would allow them to study in Swedish universities. Ultimately the study is measured through the number of grammatical judgements that the participants made while using Granska.  The results were that users found this tool difficult to use. The authors concluded that the teacher is an important part of the feedback process. The study appeared to reinforce the importance of feedback in second-language writing instruction. They found that students want explanations to accompany their feedback and that both students and instructors had a difficult time trusting Granska.

The authors then took what they learned from the Granska study and applied it in a program titled Grim, where they were able to apply the focus on form approach and add tools that made grammatical categories explicit, as well as focusing on authentic language use. However, they concluded that Grim is not a “pedagogically neutral tool” because teachers must invent their own settings when and if they decide to use the program.

In my brief experience in a second-language writing class, I have seen the importance of human connection in writing instruction. As Downs & Wardle show, the writing student’s feelings about writing in general can influence their performance. I think that a caring instructor who will provide personalized feedback is an integral part of creating a learning environment that is comfortable for students so that they will be receptive to instruction. Having said that, I would recommend this article because I think it is important to have explicit and empirical explanations available for the sake of credibility. As technology expands, it is important to understand when and how its use is appropriate in the classroom, and this article contributes to that larger conversation.