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Is Language More Like a Meal or a Shake?

ClassroomChris Franek takes a look at why people want to learn a language and who make the best students…

I once knew of a young guy in his mid-twenties who was a former college baseball pitcher. He was obsessed with being fit and was always working out. As an outgrowth of his obsession with being fit, he eventually came to the conclusion that what was most efficient and convenient for him diet-wise was to treat the necessity of eating more as a problem to be solved rather than something to be enjoyed. In his final analysis, he concluded that not only was cooking a waste of time, but eating in general was a waste of time. Why, he reasoned, should one waste his time eating when science had evolved to a place where there existed an abundant supply of meal replacement shakes that were precisely formulated with all of the nutrients the body needs to function physiologically? Not only was it more efficient but it was much more convenient. I suppose my question is, do we really want to reduce eating to being nothing more than nutrient intake?

I am a foodie and an epicurean in that I truly love food. Eating great food is almost a therapeutic experience for me. I enjoy not only the eating aspect of it but I love preparing and cooking it. I love the subtly of flavors and textures that come with not only the immense variety of food but the innumerable ways it can be prepared. To subsist on a diet of shakes is unfathomable to me. Subsisting on not merely shakes, but any type of ‘diet’ based form of eating transforms our relationship with food from one that is incredibly substantive and deeply enjoyable into something that quite the opposite. Our relationship with food has devolved into something that is decidedly unenjoyable, unsustainable, and outright combative in some cases.

I wonder if our relationship and typical experience with learning language has perhaps de-evolved in a similar fashion. It’s very interesting to me to observe what seems to have become a really common approach to teaching language. Many teach it from the premise of reducing language down to being just a collection of dry grammar rules and vocabulary words. As a result, the language student’s experience learning language is often incredibly dry, tasteless, and unstimulating in terms of both the standard classroom experience and even more so with the proliferation of computer-based language learning platforms like Rosetta Stone. The reality is that language is much more than a collection of words and grammar rules. It is tethered to a culture and culture is the collective expression of a group of people. Language is that binding agent by which we can connect to one another and connecting to each other is an innate drive within all of us.

Reducing eating to being nothing more than a problem in need of a solution essentially strips the joy out of eating. It takes something that should be a special time to commune with our food and dismisses it as nothing more than a nuisance to be avoided. In like manner, by stripping cultural context out of the language learning process, we are arguably removing the joy and the life essence out of the learning experience. What is the difference between a person and a corpse? The breath. If a person has no breath, he has no life. He is a corpse. If language has no cultural reference, it has no life—no breath. It is dead.

I think in considering just how valuable and essential culture is to a language, I think we can simply consider what inspires someone to learn a language to begin with. Of course, there are the legions of people who learn English because they feel it necessary to do so in order to create better career opportunities for themselves. While I dare not argue against such motivations, I also don’t feel that necessity is synonymous with inspiration and true desire. People rarely do anything well when they are doing so out of obligation. However, people can do things remarkably well when motivated out of a sense of genuine desire and inspiration. Over the 16 years I have taught ESL, the best students I have encountered were not necessarily those who had the highest IQ or aptitude but rather those who had the strongest desire. Therefore, I would like to, for the sake of argument, toss out necessity as being what I would consider an authentic source of inspiration.

So why would someone WANT to learn a language? Usually, people choose to do things when they are caught by it. In the case of choosing a language to learn, most people don’t throw a dart at a board and randomly select whatever language it lands on. Ironically, however, if you look at the way language is typically taught, you would probably conclude just that. Honestly, what would separate one collection of grammar rules and words from looking any more appealing than another collection of grammar rules and words? Not much really. The reality is that people likely do not randomly choose a language to learn. Rather, they choose a culture to learn. Or to put it more accurately, they are caught by a culture. Why are French and Spanish among the most popular languages to learn? They are popular because people are fascinated and caught by the appeal of the cultures those languages represent. They are caught by the people those languages represent. They are caught by the customs those languages represent. They are caught by the food and the music those languages represent. No one is caught by a collection of grammar rules and words.

In a future article, I’ll comment on what my observations are about how we can kineticize (to coin a new phrase) the idea of including cultural context in language learning. It’s one thing to say that culture should be included while it is another thing entirely to offer suggestion for how to do so.


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CLIL: just a fad, or still rad? (Part 2)

Students in biology classIn the second of two posts to celebrate the launch of Project fourth edition, Tim Herdon writes about some of the practical implications of CLIL programmes and considers where we are going with CLIL (or where CLIL is taking us). Tim is a Senior Teacher Trainer at OUP, and has been involved in CLIL for six years. Read the first post here.

When I worked as a freelance CLIL trainer in Spain for five years, I noticed that the type of question teachers asked me about CLIL gradually changed during that period. In the first couple of years it was all about what, and why. What is CLIL exactly?  And why is it good for schools and for students’ education? Towards the end of that period, the answers to those questions seemed to be more or less givens, and the focus shifted to how: How do we go about implementing a CLIL programme?  How do we deal with the practical issues?

The second part of this article takes some of the more frequent ‘how’ questions and has a brief stab at answering them. On the assumption that one day in the not too distant future a much larger number of teachers will be directly or indirectly involved in CLIL in some way (see part 1 of this article), I hope that this shines a little light on some of the darker CLIL implementation challenges.

1) Are CLIL programmes common in other countries, and do all countries adopt a similar approach to implementation?  

Until recently CLIL has been a European initiative. Now however it is becoming increasingly common in other parts of the globe. Each country has adapted CLIL to meet its own specific needs. For this reason it is felt that there is not a single ‘correct’ way of implementing CLIL.

2) Does the CLIL subject teacher have to ‘teach’ language? What happens when this teacher encounters a language problem that s/he can’t explain?

CLIL teachers generally do not teach language in the way that language teachers do, although parts of their lessons will involve teaching or recycling key vocabulary. One of the aims of coordination between language and subject teachers is to identify language problems in the topic in advance so that they can be dealt with effectively.

3) What is the balance of the teaching focus between content and language?

A thorny issue, on which much has been written. But common sense dictates that content is the main focus. The L2 supplies the medium of delivery and communication. The CLIL teacher focuses on language only in the sense of enhancing the effectiveness of this role; he or she doesn’t venture into delights such as the difference between the past simple and present perfect.

4) What kind of support does a CLIL teacher need if his or her background is not language teaching?

For a CLIL programme to be successful it is very important for the CLIL teacher(s) to coordinate regularly with the L2 teacher(s) in order to plan strategies and activities for coming lessons, and to clarify any questions about language that the teacher him/herself might have.

5) What strategies can the CLIL teacher use to help students understand the subject in L2?

Using more visual materials, speaking in shorter sentences, checking comprehension frequently and using an interactive methodological approach are some of the ways in which teachers can tackle this challenge. This is of course a very short answer to an issue that is often dealt with in training courses ranging from several hours to several months.

6) Is a successful CLIL programme mainly a question of the teacher having a good level of English?

More important than the teacher’s command of English, is his/her ability to communicate in L2, and to find ways of getting students to do the same. CLIL tends to emphasise the importance of effective communication rather than correct language usage.

7) Is it right or wrong to occasionally explain things in L1?

Finding other ways to explain ideas and concepts using all linguistic and non-linguistic resources available is one of the most interesting challenges of CLIL. However in the interests of economy, it may occasionally be desirable to clarify a point in L1 – this is acceptable as long as students do not gradually come to rely on L1 as a crutch for solving language comprehension difficulties.

8) What about the English language teacher? Will his/her role change in the English language lessons?

A CLIL programme does not change the necessity for language lessons given by a specialized language teacher. In fact it can create opportunities for cooperation between subject and language teachers that are highly beneficial for students.

What’s your opinion?  Let me know what you think of these questions and answers – CLIL is many different things to many different people, so it’s always interesting to hear a range of viewpoints.

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CLIL: just a fad, or still rad?

To celebrate the launch of Project fourth edition, Tim Herdon writes about some of the practical implications of CLIL programmes and considers where we are going with CLIL (or where CLIL is taking us).  Tim Herdon is a Senior Teacher Trainer at OUP, and has been involved in CLIL for six years. 

For a number of years we’ve been hearing and reading about CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning).  CLIL programmes, in which a subject from the mainstream school curriculum is taught in a second language, have become increasingly common in both primary and secondary, especially in the last decade.  In the mid-90s, when CLIL was a new initiative, there was a certain amount of scepticism about this approach, which was natural and probably quite healthy – it would be chaotic if we jumped on every new bandwagon that came along.  However CLIL now looks set to stay and in many countries it has strong government support with funds allocated towards teacher training and syllabus and materials development.

In fact the impact of CLIL is such that it is even having a backwash effect on the way ELT coursebooks are published.  More and more courses now contain short cross-curricular sections in some or all of the units.  This has come to be called ‘soft CLIL’ – a short excursion into the world of CLIL rather than a full journey.  Predictably, ‘hard CLIL’ is the term used to describe the full journey:  the teaching of a complete subject, or a specific area of a subject, in L2, over a longer period of time.

This raises an interesting question for English teachers:  in the future will we see a gradual shift from soft CLIL to hard CLIL?  I would say that yes, I think we will:  CLIL continues to gain in popularity, and I think its impact on General English course materials will continue to increase.  And the way CLIL is implemented is partly responsible for changing perceptions: in schools the English teacher is often central to the implementation of CLIL programmes, both in terms of teaching and coordination.  In fact the increased contact between English teachers and teachers of other subjects through involvement in CLIL programmes has been one of the biggest benefits, and this has contributed to CLIL’s increasing popularity.

The Lexical Approach has come and gone, Audiolingualism has been dragged screaming from the room and the Silent Way has now fallen, well, silent…  what about CLIL?  Is it just a passing fad, or is it here to stay?  What do you think?

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A Storyline Approach to Language Teaching and Learning

Story on typewriterTom Hutchinson, co-author of Network, talks about the benefits of using storylines in English language teaching.

A prominent feature of the new Oxford American English course, Network, is the use of a storyline. Just as with a TV drama, we see episodes in the lives of a group of characters who frequent Cindy and Ryan’s cafe, Cozy Cup. What’s the idea behind this approach?

A storyline has many advantages in the language classroom:

1. Stories have a natural attraction for us, because they help to make events meaningful. This is such a strong instinct in us, that we even create stories out of otherwise unconnected events. Take these four sentences, for example:

  • The ball sailed through the air.
  • There was a loud crash.
  • Glass flew everywhere.
  • Bob and Marcie looked at each other.

There is, in fact, no link between these sentences – no reference, no connecting words, no repetition of words. And yet, nobody reads them as four separate sentences. You naturally create a story out of them in your own mind. Continue reading


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Why teaching culture is part of teaching Business English

John Hughes looks at how to approach teaching about culture in business English. John hosted a webinar on the topic of Intercultural communication in Business English on 17th October 2012.

I once taught a German student who needed to make regular telephone calls to counterparts in the UK. To help him, I introduced some language for making small talk at the beginning of the call. He accepted what I was suggesting but admitted: “I don’t like making this conversation on the phone. It isn’t efficient.”  Like my student, many of your business English students will also have lots of experience of working with many different cultures so it’s a ripe and useful topic for classroom discussion.

It’s also a crucial area. Many business relationships struggle, not because one person has lower level English but because there are misunderstood cultural differences. For example, take the business person who arrives at the exact time printed on the agenda and is kept waiting by another person who assumes that the time on the agenda is approximate, not rigid. Then, once these two people are in the meeting room, one of them wants to make plenty of small talk but the other wants to get down to business. One of them wants a working lunch with a sandwich while the other would prefer a three-course meal at a good restaurant that will extend through to the middle of the afternoon.

As well as working WITH different cultures, more and more of our business students are working FOR different cultures. In other words, different companies have different company cultures and different ‘ways of working.’ One company might have a top-down structure where people wait for decisions from head office. Other companies reward initiative and decision-making at the local branch level. Like moving from one country to another, there is a kind of culture shock that follows a move from one company to another. These company cultural differences also affect the language used. For example, the internal report written in English at one company might require a much more formal register than a similar report at another.

As teachers, how we approach ‘culture’ can vary. In the past, business English course books tended towards a ‘prescriptive’ approach. They included lists of tips for students that state rules like: ‘In country X it’s polite to use your host’s full title and don’t ask about their family.’ Personally, I’m not convinced by this approach.  It implies that within one country or one company, everyone responds uniformly. But this is not the case. Regions within a country will have different customs and people within companies will have different personalities and expectations.  I think we should take a more ‘descriptive’ approach. Students should be encouraged to describe how cultures vary in their experience and talk about their strategies for coping and dealing with different cultures. Into this, the job of the teacher is then to input the kind of language that will be appropriate for such situations.

I will be looking in more detail in the issues raised in this article and suggesting classroom activities you can use to teach language for intercultural communication in the forthcoming webinar on 17th October.

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