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Factors affecting the success of young L2/FL learners

Factors affecting the success of young L2/FL learnersAge is often considered the critical variable in determining the success of L2 learning. In this post Victoria Murphy, Professor of Applied Linguistics and author of Second language learning in the early school years: Trends and Contexts, introduces her forthcoming webinar on the subject and looks at other factors that influence L2 learning in classroom-based contexts.

For the past few decades there has been a growing interest in child second language (L2) learning, particularly evidenced by the fact that increasingly around the world children are required to learn a second language in the primary school classroom.  For example, Qiang (2002) reports that as of 2001 English language became a formal taught subject in the Chinese primary curriculum beginning at age 8 (grade 3) in order to increase the English language skills of China’s population.  Similarly in the UK, Modern Foreign Language (MFL) learning has been re-introduced into the English primary curriculum after a long absence.   As of 2014, native English-speaking children at Key Stage 2 (starting at 7 years old) are entitled to learn a MFL.   These two examples illustrate that governments are showing a greater commitment to learning a (second) language during the primary school years.  What has led to this decision?

Is age a critical factor?

One issue that appears in many of the reports available from the UK government highlights the ease with which children in primary school are able to pick up foreign language learning.  For example the DCSF report ‘Languages for all, Languages for Life’ states that If a child’s talent and natural interest in languages is to flourish, early language learning opportunities need to be provided, and their aptitude needs to be tapped into at the earliest opportunity when they are most receptive.” (DCSF, 2002).   Another example of this prevalent view is found in the text of the Romanes lecture given by the then Prime Minister of England, Tony Blair, in 1999 at the University of Oxford.  In his lecture Mr. Blair talked about the importance of learning languages in childhood (in discussing the National Curriculum) and at one point said “Everyone knows that with languages the earlier you start, the easier they are”.

Statements such as these underscore a widespread view that learning a second language in childhood is far easier than for older learners, presumably in part due to the research suggesting there is a critical period for language learning (e.g., Moyer, 2004).

The classroom context

Importantly however, the research that has led to this generalisation that ‘younger is better’ is based on research that was NOT carried out within the primary classroom context.  It is therefore an empirical question whether this same assertion about ‘younger is better’ is relevant to young learners in an L2 classroom context.   Indeed, the few studies that have been systematically focussed on this question indicate that when it comes to learning a second language within the primary school curriculum, older is actually better (Muñoz, 2006). Furthermore, whether the L2 is being taught in a language minority vs. language majority context can have a significant influence over the outcomes and success of an L2 program, whether a child is learning an MFL as part of an immersion curriculum or as part of a foreign language curriculum with only 1 hour a week of instruction in the L2 can have a significant impact on the extent and success with which the child learns the L2, and so on.

The focus of this webinar is to highlight the fact that the age of the L2 learner is arguably not as informative as other factors that relate to the context in which the learner is developing their L2 knowledge.  Some of these other factors will be identified and discussed.

Join Victoria for her webinar on 10th December at 15:30 – 17:00. Register here.


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Webinar: Reasons to use literature in English language teaching

Young woman readingGuy Cook, author of the award-winning applied linguistics book Translation in Language Teaching, considers why using literature to teach English is still worth doing. Guy will discuss this topic in more detail in his upcoming webinar on 14th and 17th January.

Let’s face it. Teaching literature to language learners can be a tough challenge!

  • The language can be difficult, unusual or just old-fashioned (you wouldn’t want your learners saying ‘Wherefore art thou Romeo?”).
  • It can demand a lot of background knowledge – from an unfamiliar time and place.
  • It deals with controversial topics, which may be very personal, embarrassing or culturally divisive.
  • It needs a close focus on written text, which may be alien to the ‘internet generation’.
  • Lastly it is supremely useless! There are not many jobs demanding an understanding of poetry!

To make matters worse, an inappropriate choice of texts may be forced upon you by an exam syllabus. Or, if you can choose your own, you may end up teaching a text that you love but the students hate – an excruciating experience.

HOWEVER, if  you still feel strongly, as I do, that despite all these problems and pitfalls, literature remains supremely worth teaching, and can be very successful in the classroom, then this is a webinar for you.

First, we shall discuss ways of presenting a poem, dealing with its difficulties and subleties, and getting learners to engage with its sound, language and meaning. Next we shall consider what kind of literature is best for the language learner, depending on age, stage, and context. Finally we shall debate some of the cultural and personal issues which arise.

Literature is inspiring, beautiful, eloquent, and memorable. It deals with the big universal experiences of human life: love, death, sexuality, sickness, religion, childhood, friendship, and so forth. As such, it is certainly more interesting than the bland inoffensive materials favoured in ELT classes and textbooks!

I hope you will leave the webinar agreeing with me that, despite its difficulties, literature in the language classroom:

  • has a unique educational value;
  • is relevant to student contemporary lives and experiences;
  • can improve English language knowledge and use;
  • is enjoyable and stimulating for both teacher and students.

In short, my webinar argues strongly for the teaching of literature in ELT, but also candidly address the problems that come with it. I look forward to seeing you there, hearing your comments and opinions, and to benefitting from your own insights and experiences, too.

To find out more about using literature in English language teaching, register for Guy’s webinar on 14th or 17th January.


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Ten things you might not have known about the English language

Mystery boxAlex Hammond writes for ESL – Language Travel. In this guest post, he reveals a few little-known facts about the origins of the English language.

Hey, English speaker! Congratulations. You speak a language that straddles the globe like nothing before. Statistically, English is unlikely to be your first language and you are likely to be from an educated background. Again, congratulations.

Here are ten things that you may not have known about this wonderful language of ours:

1. It is the only major language without an academy to guide it

L’Académie française, based in Paris, is in charge of overseeing the French language. Part of its job is suggesting alternatives for the English words that are pouring into French. That’s how email became courriel, for example (although you will still hear it called e-mail in French).

For Spanish there is the Real Academia Española. German has the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung. There is no equivalent to L’Académie for English. Of the 10 most-widely spoken languages in the world, only English has no academy guiding it.

There are political reasons for this. The closest Britain ever came to having a language academy was at the start of the eighteenth century, when Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathan Swift was lobbying hard for an academy because “our Language is extremely imperfect… its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions (and) in many Instances it offends against every Part of Grammar.” Queen Anne supported the idea but died before a decision could be made, and the issue was largely forgotten.

In the USA, a bill for the incorporation of a national academy was unsuccessfully introduced into congress in 1806. Fourteen years later, an American Academy of Language and Belles Lettres was launched with John Quincy Adams as president, but broke up after two years after receiving little political or public support.

Nowadays, the only English-speaking country to have a language academy is South Africa. Because the English language has become so ubiquitous without any guidance, there is little prospect of anyone starting an academy any time soon. Where would it be? In Britain, the home of the language? Or the USA, where the largest English-speaking population lives?

2. More than 1 billion people are learning English as you read this

According to the British Council, around 1 billion people around the world were learning English in 2000. This figure is now likely to be significantly higher.

3. 96 of the 100 most common English words are Germanic

Of the hundred most frequently used words in English, 96 have Germanic roots. Together, those 100 words make up more than 50% of the Oxford English Corpus, which currently contains over 2 billion words found in writing around the world.

Surprised? The most frequently used words are the meat and bones of the language, the essentials that make communication work, including I, you, go, eat, and so on. Old English developed from various Germanic languages that came to the British Isles in the second half of the first millennium AD.

Whereas the language has changed almost unrecognisably since then, including the grammar, the basic words have remained.

4. …but most words that have entered the language since 1066 have Latin origins

If English is your first language but you find French or Spanish easier to understand than German, you are not alone. This may seem strange when English and German are on the same branch of the Indo-European language tree.

The Renaissance, which started in Italy and reached England via France, was a massive source of new vocabulary. New ideas, or old ideas rediscovered, started flooding out of the southern cities but there were no words to describe them in English. So the language adopted or adapted the Latin words. During the Renaissance, the English lexicon roughly doubled in size.

The shift away from the Germanic languages, however, had started much earlier, because…
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“I’m bad with names”: How words are like people

Woman shrugging her shouldersRon Martinez has been a TESOL practitioner for over 20 years, with extensive and diverse experience as a teacher, trainer of teachers, materials developer, and academic researcher. In this post, he draws parallels between remembering people’s names and remembering foreign language vocabulary.

I recently had back surgery, which forced me to miss the first three months of this semester at the university where I teach on an MA TESOL program. Right before I was to finally return to duty, I was invited to a special dinner that would be attended by faculty and students from the school. When I got to the restaurant, a number of former students approached me – most of whom I had not seen for over four months – and I found myself doing a lot of “Hi!  It’s… you!” and “Hi… guy!” I, of course, recognized their faces, but I couldn’t remember many of their names. (And I’m sure they could tell!)

And then there was today. I returned to campus for my first day back, and I ran into a person who works in our English Department office – we’ll call her “Linda.” Linda smiled and waved, but I didn’t recognize her. “Out of context, right?” she said, kindly trying to assuage my embarrassment. And then I realized who it was. And Linda was right: I had never seen her anywhere outside that office, and that coupled with the extended time off also threw me off. (But at least I remembered her name.)

I realized that there are some parallels to be drawn between those rather awkward experiences and memory for vocabulary:

  • we tend to forget names, not faces; with vocabulary, we tend to forget the form of a word, not the concept;
  • even after repeated contact over months with people, it’s possible to forget their names after a while if you don’t interact with them somehow;  with vocabulary, the same will happen if you don’t refresh newish lexis on occasion;
  • when you only see people in a certain context, you might not immediately recognize them in other contexts; with vocabulary, you’re less likely to readily retrieve a lexical item from memory that’s only been encountered in one context/genre (e.g. in a coursebook) when meeting that same item in a different context/genre.

All of the above are echoed in one way or another in language acquisition theory. Vocabulary expert Paul Nation, for example, believes keys to vocabulary staying remembered include noticing the word in context, retrieving the meaning of that word from memory, and, ideally, using the word (what he calls “generative use”). So perhaps I was able to remember Linda’s name more easily than my former students’ simply because I’d used her name before. But there’s probably more to it that that. On reflection, I’d not only said her name when speaking to her, but I’d also seen her name in my inbox just about every other day during the semester in her email announcements to faculty. Another authority on vocabulary, Robert Waring, has shown in different studies that a newly-learned word that is met only once in a text will stay remembered for just so long. It needs to be encountered a number of times in order to reach long-term memory.

But just how many times is “a number of times”? It’s not really a hard-and-fast science, but what the research shows is that encountering or even repeating a word over and over again in a short period of time (for example, in just one class) really is an investment with diminishing returns. (Think of trying to do too many “reps” of one exercise at the gym.)  What studies show is that it’s encountering and/or using vocabulary again and again (and having to remember what that vocabulary means) over a long period of time, in various contexts, that helps ensure that a lexical item does not just fade away.

Indeed, as I learned the hard way today with Linda, the “various contexts” part seems to be really important. Michael Hoey has hypothesized that when we come across a word or phrase, we not only notice and retrieve its meaning as Nation would assert, but on each encounter we also retain some information about where that word was found (e.g. its genre), the context in which it was met, the co-text (words before and after the word), and even where in the discourse it was (e.g. the introduction, the body, or the conclusion). This is the theory of “lexical priming,” which suggests that the real key to gaining vocabulary “depth” of knowledge (e.g. collocation) is meeting a word in various contexts over time.

So, maybe if I had kept in touch with some of those students  – even just an email or two – while I was convalescing, remembering their names wouldn’t have been so elusive. And that might explain why I didn’t forget the names of fellow faculty at that same dinner, with whom I of course have had longer and more regular contact in varied contexts. But it wouldn’t explain it fully.

You see, I did not forget all my former students’ names at that dinner. There was one, for example – let’s call him “James” – whose name I remembered right away. What was different about James?

Unlike most of the students in James’s class, I had had contact with him outside of class as well. For example, last semester after a special seminar, snacks and drinks were served and we spoke for several minutes and we realized that we actually had some mutual friends. It is also worth noting that James was exceptional among his classmates, and regularly sent me emails asking questions and asking for suggestions on papers and so on. He even sent me a “get well” email while I was out with the back injury. Moreover, on most if not all those diverse occasions, I actually said (or wrote) his name.

Put another way, it was the combination of the relative frequency, variety and depth (i.e. non-superficiality) of my interaction with James, in addition to also using his name in diverse contexts, that made remembering “James” a lot easier. This concept is also echoed in the literature on vocabulary retention, encapsulated in Norbert Schmitt’s notion of “engagement,” the idea that the deeper the personal and cognitive involvement a learner has with lexis, the better.

So what might all this mean for you, the teacher? Get students to treat vocabulary as they would their friends!  People don’t forget their friends’ names because they see them often, or at least think of them often. Moreover, usually your friends are involved in a network of friends of some kind, and it’s harder to forget a friend’s name when her/his name is being mentioned (or gossiped about) over coffee every so often. And people like to do stuff with their friends, and not the same stuff all the time. You build memories, deep and meaningful memories with those friends, and maybe their names will therefore become engraved in your memory for the rest of your life.

Well, OK, I know that students will not want to start adding lexical items as Facebook pals or anything, but what matters is that students experience (at least) the noticing and retrieval that Nation suggests, repeatedly over a period of time as Waring has recommended, and with the engagement that Schmitt advocates. But what about the variety of contexts?

There’s only so much we can do in class. The variety of contexts and co-texts that Hoey says are necessary for lexical priming to have a positive effect on depth of vocabulary knowledge really are not likely to be had in class alone, which means investing in learning out of class, too. Naturally, a lot depends on students’ motivation, and how we get students motivated…  Well, that’s something for another blog entry, I’m afraid. There are some great authorities on the subject you can read, though. Now, if I could just remember their names…


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Writing for an academic Journal

JournalsDo you want to write an article for an academic journal? Don’t know how to get started? Graham Hall, editor of ELT Journal, offers some advice.

What’s your view of ‘theory’ and ‘research’ in English language teaching? Have you ever heard another teacher say ‘that’s fine in theory, but it’s just not relevant to me’, or even ‘I’m too busy actually teaching to look at research’ (maybe you think this yourself)? Well, in some ways, your colleagues might have a point – teachers are busy and research can seem very remote from what happens in our classrooms.

But, in the end, everything we do as teachers is informed by some kind of theory – whether the ideas of researchers in our field investigating how languages might be learned, or the methodological approaches embedded in our textbooks, or our own personal theories about what constitutes a ‘good’ classroom activity, or why learners respond to certain learning tasks but not others.

And many teachers, at some point in their career, want to move beyond reflecting upon their own professional practice and ‘just’ reading the insights of others, to share their own informed insights about teaching and learning with the wider profession. One way of doing this to write for an academic journal. But how might you get started?

First, make sure you have something interesting to say! There are two elements to this, of course – that what you write about is interesting to you, and that it is also interesting to potential readers (sorry for stating the obvious). So, as you prepare and write your article, have a specific journal in mind, and study articles in that journal closely. What kind of topics are covered in the journal, what is the typical style of articles in the journal, how are authors’ own ideas balanced with background literature, what is the balance of theory/research and practice and so on? Additionally, all journals have ‘Author guidelines’ or ‘Instructions to authors’ which summarise the answers to many of these questions (usually on their websites) – try to get hold of them.

Writing an article isn’t always very straightforward. Finding the words to express yourself clearly and concisely whilst covering everything that you need to say within the word limit is often a challenge. And, the first time a teacher tries to write for an academic journal, writing in what is often a new style of language, and writing about both theory/research and practice can be a challenge – certainly, this was the case when I was preparing the first article I was fortunate enough to have published. So, don’t give up – I suspect that everyone who has published an academic journal article has struggled at some point!

Having prepared an article which you think is suitable for a particular journal, give it a final check through. Does it meet the criteria the journal lists for publication, both in terms of focus and interest, but also in terms of, for example, the word limit and language accuracy? If so, submit it.

What usually happens next is as follows. Authors receive an acknowledgement that the journal has received their paper. Editors then take an immediate decision about articles – should they be rejected immediately or should they be sent for ‘peer review’? When papers are rejected immediately, it is often because writers have not thought clearly enough about the way in which their article meets the aims and objectives of a journal, or have ignored ‘the basics’ such writing an article of an appropriate length.

Peer review means just that – articles are sent to members of an editorial panel who work in the same field and have experience of both writing for publication, usually in that journal, and reading and reflecting on journal articles. Papers are read by two reviewers, and are anonymized throughout this process – reviewers do not know who the authors of a paper are.

As they read, peer reviewers look for the following: that articles are relevant and interesting to the journal readership, and are clearly and coherently written with no flaws in their internal logic. In the case of ELT Journal, reviewers specifically look for an appropriate balance between theory and practice, and that practice relates to theoretical principles whilst theoretical concepts are clarified by reference to their practical applications. Accounts of specific contexts should have clear implications for other contexts whilst there also needs to be an awareness of recent / other work in the field. Most journals have similar criteria, dependent on their aims and readership.

The reviews are returned to the editor who then considers the feedback and prepares a follow-up response to the original author. This usually takes the form of one of four possible decisions – a paper might be Rejected; substantial Revisions might be requested prior to resubmission and further peer review; the paper might be Conditional Accepted, dependent on a few minor changes being made by the author; or the decision may be a straightforward Acceptance. And clearly, this all takes a little time.

So, what’s in it for you – why try to publish in an academic journal, especially if there’s a possibility that your article may be rejected after so much hard work? Well, it is a great form of professional development. Authors focus on one key issue which is important to them and learn even more about it through the process of researching and writing an article; first time authors also learn a new set of skills – researching and writing for publication. If successful, your findings and perspectives become known to the wider ELT profession which develops as a consequence. You may be able to develop your paper into a talk which you can present at a conference. Readers may get in touch to find out more about your ideas.

So, is writing for an academic journal worth the hard work required? Definitely, but you will have a huge sense of satisfaction when you see your article in print.

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