Tag Archives: EFL

Conversations with a purpose: Reflecting on interviewing in EFL research (IATEFL ReSIG Pre-Conference Event)

The IATEFL conference in Birmingham is coming up, and those of you who have an interest in classroom-based research may want to attend the Research SIG Pre-Conference Event, which will take place on Tuesday 12th April 2016 (10:00-17:00).

In the event, Dr Steve Mann (University of Warwick) will lead a workshop that aims to help participants understand how interviews might be used in EFL research projects, and to provide practical hands-on experience about various alternatives in interview-based research. Some of the questions that will be explored are the following:

  • Do you use interviews in your research?
  • What challenges have you faced planning for and managing interview interaction?
  • What different approaches are possible within EFL research interviews?
  • How many interviews do I need to undertake and do I have to transcribe them all?

Participants will have the opportunity to raise and discuss any issues they have regarding the use of interviews in their research projects. With Steve’s help, participants will work towards developing an interview approach. They will also produce a set of questions, which will then be used for a live interview with Graham Hall, the editor of ELT Journal.

If you are involved in a project that uses interviews, whether it’s in the context of a study programme or motivated by a wish to better understand your practice, I think this is well worth your time!

Featured Image: ‘Interview’ by eelco @ Flickr CC-BY-NC

Call for Papers: Teaching English as a Lingua Franca in Japan

An edited collection is being planned, which will focus on English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) in Japan, and submissions are invited from researchers in a variety of settings, including universities, senmon gakko, eikawa schools, primary/secondary schools & colleges or business settings.

Prospective authors are asked to submit a single page abstract or outline of their proposed chapter (A4, double-spaced), as well as a brief biodata statement, including research interests, teaching background and affiliation. The deadline for submitting this abstract is 20th December 2014.

Notification of acceptance will be given by 20th January 2015. Authors whose papers have been accepted will be invited to submit a complete chapter (20-25 pages, incl. references and appendices) by 28th February 2015. It is expected that the volume will be published in Autumn 2015 or Spring 2016.

Timeline, at a glance
  • 20 December 2014: Deadline for abstracts
  • 20 January 2015: Notification of acceptance
  • 28 February 2015: Deadline for chapters
  • Autumn 2015/Spring 2016: Publication (publisher: TBC)
Additional information

Questions and submissions should be directed to James Essex (thesociolinguist[at]thesociolinguist[dot]com), including as the subject line ‘Book Query’ for queries, and ‘Book Proposal’ for proposals.

Image Credit: eye/see @ flickr | CC BY-NC-ND

English Education Policy in Asia and the Middle East [Call for Papers]

A new volume of the Springer Language Policy series is scheduled for publication in early 2014, with a focus on English Education Policy in Asia and the Middle East. According to information provided by the editor, Dr. Robert Kirkpatrick:

This volume includes comprehensive state-of-the-art reviews of Asian and Middle Eastern countries’ English education policies, giving clear assessments of the current policies and likely future trends. The book gives a general description of English education policies in the respective countries, and then delves into the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the English education practice in the education system as a whole, in the schools, in the curriculum and in teaching. Essays cover issues such as the balance between English learning and the acquisition of the national language, as well as political, cultural, economic and technical aspects that strengthen or weaken the learning of English.

It is envisaged that each essay should focus on a single country in Asia and the Middle East, and provide a critical assessment of past, present and future English education policies. Prospective authors are encouraged to discuss the challenges, limitations, advantages and disadvantages of the policies they describe, with reference to the political, economic and cultural elements that relate to the English language education. Comparisons with other countries in the region are also considered useful.

The editor may be contacted at ltaeditor[at]gmail[dot]com.

“What is easy and what is hard to acquire in a second language?”

What is easy and what is hard to learn in a foreign language? I just read a chapter in an edited volume on this very question, and this post aims to provide both a synopsis of the chapter and a critical reaction to it.

To answer the question, Slabakova (2013) draws on Universal Grammar theory (UG), to develop what she calls the Bottleneck Hypothesis. In brief, UG postulates that, of all the features that make up a language (e.g. word order, semantic relations, verb inflections etc.), some are hard-wired to the brain, and therefore shared across all human languages (i.e., they are linguistic universals), whereas others differ from language to language (or, to be technical, they are subject to parametric variation). In her chapter, Slabakova presents readers with a robust set of empirical data, drawn from several experimental studies, and makes a compelling argument that what challenges learners most is functional morphology (roughly speaking, functional morphology refers to these parts of words which denote tense, person, aspect etc.). She argues that once functional morphology is mastered, it is easy to acquire other aspects of language, such as syntactic structures or semantic notions. Hence, functional morphology constitutes a ‘bottleneck’ of sorts in the process of second language acquisition.

Although UG is primarily concerned with understanding the cognitive processes of language acquisition rather than prescribing pedagogical practice, the chapter includes a discussion of implications for teaching (pp. 24-25). On the basis of her impressive empirical data, Slabakova argues that the communicative approach to language learning does not constitute an optimally effective way to learn a second language. She suggests that it is pedagogically beneficial to engage students in activities that highlight the hard-to-acquire morphological forms, and to provide ample opportunities for practice. In her words:

In a sense, drilling of the functional morphology is inevitable if the form has to […] get sufficiently automatic for easy lexical access. […] Thus, the bottom line of the chapter is: Practice your functional morphology! In ample, clear unambiguous context! As in learning other lexical items, it may be painful, but – no pain, no gain! (p. 25)

It is my view that Slabakova is only partly correct in making this suggestion. Much of her criticism seems to focus on the earliest or ‘strong’ formulations of the communicative approach, which tended to completely exclude the study of formal features of language (Canale & Swain 1980 and Savignon 1983 are explicitly mentioned) In pointing the deficiencies of these approaches, Slabakova makes a valid point, but it is a point that has already been addressed in language education: more recent pedagogical approaches (e.g. Willis and Willis 2007) provide for raising awareness of formal features, and do so in ways that are more compatible with current pedagogical thought than the repetitive drilling activities that Slabakova seems to suggest.

More importantly, I think Slabakova’s criticism of communicative theory brings to the forefront the question of ‘what features of language are to be learnt?” If the goal of second language pedagogy is to help learners to perfectly reproduce linguistic structures in the target language, then it is hard to argue against the kind of approach that Slabakova suggests. Communicative language teaching, however, is not just about learning the rules through which sounds and words come together to produce meaning. Rather, it is about learning to use language (1) in context, (2) in order to do things: it aims, for instance, to help learners understand that “Could you pass me the salt, please?” is not really a question, and that “It’s stuffy in here” might be functionally equivalent to “Open the window!”  Deciding what language is appropriate to different contexts is highly culture-specific, and does not seem to flow easily from the mastery of morphological from. It is therefore hard to see how a pedagogy which is based primarily on mastering morphological variation might be helpful in developing skills necessary to use language effectively.

Coming back to the original question, the point I am trying to make is that Slabakova may well be right in identifying functional morphology as the bottleneck of second language acquisition. However, the cognitive challenges associated with mastering functional morphology do not necessarily promote it to the status of a learning priority. Learning priorities can only be determined on the basis of the learners’ specific needs, and this is a domain which UG is decidedly unsuited to inform.

Works cited

  • Canale, M., & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing, Applied Linguistics, 1(1), 1-47.
  • Savignon, S. (1983). Communicative Competence : Theory and Classroom Practice. Reading: Addison-Wesley.
  • Slabakova, R. (2013). What is easy and what is hard to acquire in a second language: a generative perspective. In del Pilar García Mayo, M., Junkal Gutierrez Mangado, M. & Martínez Adrián, M. (eds.) Contemporary Approaches to Second Language Acquisition. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Willis, D., & Willis, J. R. (2007). Doing task-based teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reading notes: EFL teachers’ language use for classroom discipline

Kang, D.-M (to appear). EFL teachers’ language use for classroom discipline: A look at complex interplay of variables. System. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2013.01.002

This study reports on the implementation of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) in the Korean context, focussing on the question of classroom discipline. Kang notices that communicative activities have the potential to subvert classroom discipline because they ‘encourage students to move more freely in the classroom than traditional form-focused approaches [and] this increase in students’ spatial movement could represent a grave threat to teachers stationed in large-size classes’.

Kang looks specifically into the questions of whether teachers use English (TL) or Korean (L1) for classroom management, and what factors shape their choice of language. This is achieved by comparing the practices of two teachers, one of whom was highly proficient in English and one of whom was challenged by a weak command of the language. Classroom observations were conducted and instances of classroom management discourse were coded according to language, and compared through t-tests (a procedure that assesses whether differences are statistically significant or not). Interview data were used to supplement this quantitative information.

Unsurprisingly, the study revealed that the teacher with high proficiency tended to use the TL more frequently than the one who was less confident in using the language. In addition to the teacher’s linguistic competence, other factors that contributed to her proclivity to use the TL included parental pressure for maximum exposure to English, and a teacher training background that prioritised CLT. More interestingly, it seemed that this teacher seemed to be using the TL in order to underscore her role as an authority figure, and to create a power differential in the classroom: academically stronger students tended to align with her, whereas the psychological distance between the teacher and the weaker students was increased, thus subverting the basic tenets of CLT. It also appears that the teacher whose English language competence was weaker compensated for their perceived lack of authority by using the L1 in ways that were described as “harsher than that used by teachers of other subjects“.

Kang concludes by arguing that current policies to exclusively use English in EFL classes seem to be impractical, inefficient and insensitive to “the realities in large-size, mixed-ability EFL classes”.

[Note: This summary was based on a corrected proof that was made available pre-publication. There was no pagination available at the time of writing these notes.]