Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Should language learning be fun?

Earlier this month I went along, with my good friend Rob of Spanish Obsessed, to find out if drugs could be the answer to language learning. The argument, it seems, ultimately boils down to whether you believe language learning should necessarily be a joyous and life affirming task, or whether you're more in the 'means to an end' kind of camp.

The evening, put on by the Royal Institute, in association with the Guardian, started with me having to practically down a glass of wine, as no drinks were allowed in the lecture theatre where the event was to take place. Maybe that was part of the reason I enjoyed it so much.

The event was set up as a debate, with panel members each given 5 minutes to state their own opinion. But it all seemed a little imbalanced as there was only really one member who supported the motion that drugs were beneficial and should be thought of as a potential aide to language acquisition. That lady was Professor Barbara Sahakian, who is, amongst many, many other things, President of the British Association for Psychopharmacology. Her argument went roughly along these lines:

Drugs such as Ritalin/methylphenidate or Modafinil/Provigil are being used in "well" people for three main reasons. Firstly, to get a competitive edge, secondly to overcome the effects of jetlag, and thirdly, to increase task motivation. Results have been proven in scientific studies with reliable and significant results. So if you could take a drug to help you learn a language, then would you?

Most people in the audience put up their hands.

The counter arguments were based primarily on the notion that this sort of cheat, or hack, of language learning did a disservice to the inherent joys and benefits of learning a language the real way, the hard way.

This idea was most strongly represented by ShaoLan Hsueh, founder of chineasy.org. She talked about how the systems that went into building a language are complex and at times beautiful. To learn them is to understand history, culture and society and is definitely not something to be manipulated or for which a quick fix is desirable.

This sentiment was echoed by DanielTammet, a writer and essayist, who, as someone with high-functioning autistic savant syndrome, is able to easily acquire foreign languages. He told of his love for Icelandic coming from a love of the country and it's people, while his love of a French person means that his home language is French. He felt that this motivation could not and should not be faked, that one must live and love a language they're learning.

The fourth panelist, cognitive neuroscientist Henk Haarmann was not quite so gushing about the inherent joys of language learning, but felt that it was important to exercise caution in terms of potential side effects. We should also take into consideration, he said, whether the effects of these studies transfer into real life and also whether any positive impact persists or dies away quickly. Ultimately, make sure you know what might happen before you jump straight in.

As we moved to questions from the Chair, Robin McKie, to questions from the audience, we heard more bout the virtues of language learning done the right way. There were also very legitimate concerns about the economic impact such drugs might have, and the fact that they would likely exacerbate problems we already have in terms of inequality and the distribution of wealth and power.

The evening ended without a definitive answer, we all clapped and left. Only now, coming back to my notes to write up this post have I got my own opinions on the matter a little more clear:

It seems that we're all trying to hack language learning. Either through expensive immersion courses in countries that speak the language we wish to acquire, or through new apps and websites promising us the quickest and easiest route to mastering a new language. It may well be the case that the ones that love it the most get along the best, that integrative motivation trumps extrinsic reward, but we might not all be that lucky. I might hate my Icelandic boss, but still need to speak to her in Icelandic. The French members of my family could well be thoroughly objectionable, but if they're all speaking French, what am I going to do? There are many countries in the world where English proficiency is required for a job interview, but not used at all in the job. So I think that the rose tinted glasses view of what it should be like to learn a language is an ideal that not everyone has the luxury of of enjoying.

In which case, who are we to judge the desire for a quick fix? In fact, all of my career has been spent basically trying to speed along language learning. Yes, it's better if they enjoy it, but if people had the option, I'm sure that 'fast' would trump 'fun' in most cases. And besides which, with these drugs proven to increase on-task motivation, maybe it's a win win.

The most interesting thing though is what that says about the society in which we live. People would choose fast over fun; or as Daniel Tammet pointed out, surgeons are forced to choose drugs that help them concentrate over the option of going to sleep for a long enough time not to need them. It seems kind of arbitrary to draw the line as to what sort of a hack is appropriate or not. But maybe it's worth thinking about whether a hack is what we need in the first place.

This post is dedicated to all those who have been killed recently in Gaza. It seems wrong to be writing about such relative trivialities when so many Palestinians are going through such terrible times there.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

IATEFL 2014 Roundup + Predictions

IATEFL roundups will be falling out of our ears this week; here's mine to add to the pile:

There are a lot of things to think about:
Russell Mayne (@ebefl) took the roof off with his critique of pseudo-science in ELT, cutting down some high-profile industry pros in the process. Hugh Dellar's (@hughdellar) socialist outbursts were at once amusing and poignant. ELTjam (@eltjam) advised us all to have a massive big edtech lovehug. Talks advocating the the demise of all teachers saw standing ovations and fist pumps from a group of predominantly teachers. There was the usual evangelical publicisation of ipad apps, tech lessons and the flipped classroom, and the obligatory standing up for teachers against the onslaught of Big Business, Big Data and Big Profit; with both camps seeming to miss the point somewhat. MaWSIG (@MaWSIG) gained around 2,500 fans, with blockbuster PCE and SIG days. Plus there was the question of whether or not anyone saw a real life version of the T-shirt in the picture here.

But what does this mean for ELT for the year ahead? Here are a few of my semi-tech-related predictions:

It's finally time for a lexical focus: 
It's seemed for ages that a lexical focus is gonna smash grammar's face in any day now. But this year, with Michael Hoey's plenary, and the evidence mounting, we're all sure to realise that our learners don't need tenses, they need collocations, and lots and lots of them.

Grammar translation will become all the rage:
Talking of collocations, there's a pretty strong association in ELT between the word 'translation' and the word 'grammar'. But there's a shift going on. Big EdTech companies are using translation, more and more people in the industry seem to be talking about translation as a tool rather than as a  punishable offense, and teachers are starting to realise that we can't really stop people translating words. Students loving grammar + people hating translation less = people talking about grammar translation more. Profound.

We'll start to realise that EdTech knows what it's talking about:
Seriously, these companies do have a pretty effective way of working. They haven't a clue about how to educate people, or at least it's not their main aim, but they do have skills. And those skills will start to filter into ELT as we know it. Expect the word 'iterative' to make it into A1 coursebooks and ESP course providers to be falling over themselves for the 'agile dollar'.

EdTech will start to realise that ELT knows what it's talking about:
There are reasons what some teachers are better than others. It's because.... actually nobody really knows why certain things work. But we know what doesn't work, and what's just plain silly, and we've spent time really thinking about it. And soon EdTech will start asking us for advice on that.

The old guard will continue to influence: 
Check out Nicola Prentis's post for a lovely dis of the redundant Scott Thornbury and Jeremy Harmer ELT conversation at IATEFL this year. But also check out the reverence for the ELT greats there and everywhere else. This is only going to get more pronounced in 2014/2015. Just you wait and see.

There will be a rush for new, savvy materials writers:
One of the principles of more efficient and cost effective ways of working is not to pay people massive sums of money for something that someone else could do just as well for less massive sums of money. For that reason, unless the big names offer real value, publishers will be better off with new names who are making big impacts. Expect a new breed.

IATEFL will be more forward thinking:
It really should be in order to keep up with the changes...

IATEFL will stay exactly the same:
Because it's just so bloody good as it is.

Friday, 28 March 2014

IATEFL next week

A quick post to say that I’ll be at IATEFL conference in Harrogate all next week and speaking at a couple of events.

My conference talk is on the Thursday at 3.05 in hall Qd. I’ll be talking about some of the challenges related to motivating learners in online and blended learning environments and then offering some suggestions for how to overcome these challenges.

I’ll also be involved in the ELTjam Session on the Thursday evening, talking about my thoughts on the future of ELT.

Would be great to catch up/meet up if you are there too. Come say hi.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Bringing Translation Back

Recent years have seen a rise in translation within language learning in the online space. The likes of busuu and duolingo base their whole language learning process around the need or ability to translate words, phrases and texts to and from your native language. It seems clear that this has the main benefit of scalability (in the case of most online language courses) and monetisation (in the case of Duolingo). But maybe the ELT community should have brought translation in from the cold years ago. And maybe these online providers are leading the way, albeit unintentionally, to new approaches in ELT that don’t shy away from translation but actually embrace it as a useful tool in the language learning toolbox.

The excellent book, Translation in Language Teaching by Guy Cook states some of the reasons why Grammar Translation (with it's focus on written forms, grammar rules and academic value), and by extension translation itself, was shunned within certain sectors of the ELT community. One of these reasons is the Reform Movement: An idea within linguistics and ELT at the end of the 19th century that speaking should take precedence over written and academic study of a language. The idea that learning was a process of making connections and learning through exposure to language as it’s used. Another main factor was the Direct Method, populised by Berlitz around the same time: Firmly a money making venture, setting out to disrupt the stuffy ELT industry of the time, with a focus on what the adult learner needs, and when they need it, rather than on the academic rigour of language study.

And in need of a shake up the industry may well have been, but the shunning of the use of translation in language learning was absolute in many sectors of the industry. It was discredited in a way that it has not really been able to come back from, and the idea of letting learners speak L1 in class even today is at best grudgingly tolerated and at worst punished in a way that must do nothing whatsoever to lower the affective filter!

Today, as we move to a new period in language learning, maybe even a new shakeup of a stuffy industry, we are in a position to look at some of the advantages of translation, and try to rid it off it’s associations with the Grammar Translation method of old. There are many things in favour of the use of bilingualism in language learning and many examples of where it can be (and is, and always has been) used both in and out of the classroom to speed up and enhance a learner’s acquisition of a new language.

But maybe even more importantly, translation, and specifically code-switching (the act of switching from one language to another internally and externally) is playing a more prominent role in the everyday lives of an increasing number of people around the world. Due to globalisation, more people are having to live, work and socialise in various languages at the same time. The idea that we should artificially exclude this switching from the language acquisition process is becoming ever harder to defend.

So I think the online language learning giants could inadvertently be helping to change the attitude of the industry towards translation. And this opens up a whole load of new options for ELT. After all, translation is only what we all do in our heads anyway!

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Getting involved in #flashmobELT

I've seen a flashmob video before (awkward, embarrassed dancing etc. etc.), so was intrigued when I saw a tweet by Ann Loseva talking about having joined the #flashmobELT movement. Ann's post explains the concept in more detail, but basically the idea is to share classroom activities with other teachers via a Lino board, other teachers 'do' your activity and share their own. This can help with a last minute planning emergency, but also allows teachers to share ideas and contribute to others' professional development.

Here was my contribution to the board, inspired somewhat my Nik Peachey's IATEFL talk from last year. The idea is that through a backchannel students can easily and instantly share information with all other people in the room (or outside the room) and that this information can then be used for further activities. This activity does require students and teacher to have access to a web enabled device.

Aims of the activity: empower users, share ideas, record information, help with summarisation

1. Quickly set up a backchannel with https://todaysmeet.com/. Give the URL (e.g. https://todaysmeet.com/flashmobELT) and get students to join the chat.

2. Use this to encourage students to share their thoughts and ideas about the class (either freely or within parameters chosen by you/them). e.g. to keep a record of useful vocab from the lesson, to give opinions about a text, to suggest functional language chunks etc. etc.

3. At the end of the lesson get students to summarise/synthesise the information from the backchannel. And then maybe share them in a googledoc so that there is an ongoing record for them (and you) to access.

I haven't tried this out as I don't have a class of learners, so I would be interested to hear if anyone does use a backchannel in their classroom and how is goes down.

eLearning Interview - Desktop English

Desktop English are Online Language Training Specialists teaching individuals and small classes online. The main focus is exam preparation and business courses, and they also keep an interesting and informative blog. I caught up with Desktop English for an eLearning Interview ahead of their new site launch for 2014.

1. Firstly can you tell me why you started desktopenglish and a bit about the process you went through?

I was living in Italy and mainly teaching one-on-one classes to businesspeople at the time. Very few of them had face-to-face dealings in English at work but they were all anxious to improve their listening and speaking skills so they could communicate better by telephone and in video conferences.

Their next priority was to perfect their reading comprehension and written communication as they tended to send and receive a lot of emails. They frequently commented that it was one thing participating in a conversation when you could see the speaker and verbal communication was complemented by body language and gestures but quite another thing to answer a call to find a native English speaker at the end of the line with typically no patience for their interlocutor’s shortcomings.

When they arrived at class, usually late because traffic and parking was a nightmare, we often spent hours roleplaying telephone conversations, often with our back to each other to reduce the visual clues and better recreate the target situation. It was quite clear that the classroom setting had begun to outlive its relevance for many students, and the inconvenience of attending in person was depriving many busy professionals of valuable time with their families. Starting an online academy seemed a no-brainer.

2. What do you feel are some of the challenges of teaching on the web? And what things seem to work very well?

We can’t teach large groups. We do groups classes of up to 4 students by 5-way video conference but more than that is a technological challenge. We have to make sure all the students in a group class each have an excellent internet connection, as a poor connectivity from one can affect the class for the others.

I suppose the key to success in any field is turning your negatives into positives. Well, who wants to be part of a class of 10 learners with only one teacher. Of course, we nearly all still learn to teach in such a setting, but I have long felt that, for all the groupwork possibilities, large classes suit academies more than students; especially in monolingual settings. We provide a small, usually multilingual, virtual learning space. Our mainstay is still one-on-one classes which, as described before, work very well.

Collaborative document editing in Google Docs, for example, for writing planning and correction is something simple that we take for granted in the online classroom. I don’t know how I ever lived without it. It beats two people hunched over a desk with the occasional presentation on a blackboard. The student and teacher can see the writing, see each other, discuss ideas, even brainstorm collaboratively.

3. To what extent are the online lessons replicas of what you would do in the classroom? Do you think we need new methodologies to deal with the new medium?

Our teachers all have extensive classroom experience from prior to coming to DE. As such, it’s inevitable that we will continue to apply that experience in the new learning environment. However, we talk a lot in our staff meetings and training sessions about the potential of the web and what unique learning opportunities it offers us.

One of the best web tools we use in class is language corpora, such as the British English Corpus, free to access via the Brigham Young University website. We have weened our advanced students off dictionaries and onto corpora databases. It would be hard to use such a tool in a real-world classroom without significant loss of engagement.

But our use of the web is not limited to its reference tools. For example, we incorporate new media into our lessons in ways that would be challenging in your average real-world classroom. We occasionally do reading exercises on emerging Twitter topics, comparing the register of English when limited to 140 characters. Such classes in non-virtual learning spaces too often appear gimicky and of greater novelty value than usefulness. However, addressing this topic in a web class seems almost obvious. Whether the prescriptivists like it or not, these new forms of expression are as relevant to modern students of English as magazine cut-outs were back when I trained. It would be inauthentic to ignore emerging forms of language simply because they frequently fail to conform to our stringent academic criteria.

4. A quote on your site says that the Internet has revolutionised the way we teach languages. What do you see as current and future trends?

The main trend will be the death of the traditional classroom. Many people are in denial about this, which is why you see so many blogs and articles dedicated to harnessing the power of the internet and technology for use in the classroom. But I always feel they are missing the point. The internet is the most relevant means of communication to our modern world, and let’s not forget that it is exactly that: a means of communication. Therefore, it feels that incorporating it into the classroom is a rather topsy turvy way of addressing it. The internet is the elephant in the traditional classroom. We know it’s there, and we know we need to make reference to it somehow. But we don’t quite know how to reconcile the subject with the environment.

Well, quite simply, the internet is going to become the classroom. Virtual learning spaces are going to take the place of their real-world counterparts. The trend that is currently referred to as web 2.0 (although I always think that’s just a term for people who failed to really understand the concept of the web in the first place, thus need to feel part of some collective relaunch so as to justify their having missed the original boat), can be divided into two groups: Those attempting to apply technology in traditional learning spaces, and those attempting to use technology to create new learning spaces. I am under no illusions as to which of these has the most staying power.

5. Is it hard to encourage peer/class interaction online? How do you get students to use what they’re learning in authentic or communicative situations?

As with any class, it’s hard at first. But I believe its hard for the same reasons: students are unfamiliar with their partners or are shy about their level of English. Providing we can give students a need to communicate with each other, or a problem to resolve cooperatively, they will do it. Perhaps those needs are different because of the setting but our students are usually used to communication online. It is rare for the type of students who sign up for online courses to have little or no experience of online communication, be that professional or personal.

And, in a way, the internet is a pretty extroverted place. Remember chatrooms? Now there’s video chat roulette and other such innovations that allow people to do and say things online that they would never dare to do or say in the real world. We try to tap into that.

6. How important do you believe it is to teach digital literacy, and in your own words, the 'meta language of technology' through online courses?

This is a great question and something we ask ourselves all the time.

Teaching online allows us to plug into the immediacy and reactive nature of the internet. Lessons often involve students navigating the web in order to research ways of self study. We help them to get the most out of that time by refining their “web language”. Good teaching is not about simply providing answers. It’s about providing the tools for students to find the answers themselves.

“The omission of articles in Tweeting”, for example is a lesson theme in itself. New linguistic needs are arising all the time. Getting Google to return the kind of search results you want and skim reading search results to identify relevant information in blogs are all essentially language skills that prepare our students for the modern world. In the 21st century, there is no literacy without digital literacy.

7. In the age where the algorithm is king, what benefits do you believe there still are of student-teacher interaction?

Well, despite the efforts of computational linguists and corpus professors, we have yet to effectively program a computer to pass the Turing test. That matters. Language is still something uniquely human and we learn languages essentially to communicate with other humans. Of course, reading is an important skill that is almost completely receptive and requires no live human-to-human interaction. But ask any student of English where they want to improve the most (as I have done thousands of times) and you will virtually never hear them say “reading”. Speaking comes top and listening (which is essentially part of discourse and can theoretically be grouped with speaking) and writing follow. Therefore, having someone to speak to is key. Having someone to speak to who can help you improve your speaking level and thus better communicate with others is even better.

In short, we are a long way from replacing the teacher when it comes to all-round language learning. Interaction is the basis of language. It was our species’ innate desire to interact more effectively that led to the development of language in the first place, and it is that same desire that drives people to learn other languages. I reiterate that the web and the computer’s greatest benefit is the facilitation of human communication, not the replacement of it.

8. How can we promote effective study skills in online courses?

Paying customers want to learn. That’s motivation, which is half the battle. As in all learning, the setting of targets and the provision of learning tools are also important tools for the teacher to ensure that students are working independently as well as in class. Having a visible, pre-agreed course structure is a must.

We give our students key sentences from each lesson which they take away and put into spaced recognition software such as Anki. This helps them consolidate vocabulary and rehearse new grammar structures (the more laborious aspect of learning). Having that link between the lesson and home study is an important factor in the promotion of study skills. Our teachers regularly ask students about their study skills and use of the tools provided. We help them manage it within the course structure.

9. Could you tell us a bit about your thoughts on motivation and online learning?

Desktop English are one of the very few online language trainers specialising in IELTS and Cambridge exams. In that sense, we are lucky to have students motivated by a very concrete end goal, i.e. passing an exam. This is usually motivation enough and many of our students find us after having already decided to take the exam, and a significant percentage after having already booked registered their candidature. They are highly motivated professional people who recognise the importance of English in terms of their career, studies and lifestyles.

Once they come to us, we try to build even further enthusiasm for the subject of English with engaging courses different to those they have had before in real-world classrooms. We assign them a course tutor who teaches the classes, checks their homework and provides regular feedback on their progress.

I suppose I would summarise my thoughts on motivation in general. It comes from having a clear, well-defined goal and a pre-defined structure by which you expect to achieve it. This, in my opinion, is true of anything in life. An online English course is no different.


It’s clear that Desktop English have a good methodology for online language training and are utilising the medium in some interesting ways. It’s great to see that there is a focus on spaced repetition for vocabulary acquisition, and the fact that learners are given chunks and phrases rather than individual words ties in well with lexical approaches to language learning. I also like that corpora are being used to inform decisions about which lexis to teach and and what level, and the fact that learners themselves are being encouraged to get involved with concordancers and corpora is great.

I’m not sure that we’ll see a complete departure from classroom based learning in all situations any time soon. So many young learners and university students improve their English in classrooms and learn a lot of social and cultural lessons in the process. I think that the idea of incorporating technology into the classroom is therefore a valid endeavour, but I agree that ways of allowing learners to bypass the classroom and get meaningful, exciting and effective tuition online is the really exciting challenge for our industry at the moment.

While it’s true that the Turing test has yet to be passed, there may soon be new chatbots developed which would allow some basic personalised communication between human and computer, but I agree that there is still a great deal of benefit that learners can get from some dedicated human tuition. I think the key for the future is how well we automate what can be automated (vocab, grammar training for example) and then use data about the learner to maximise the benefit of human interaction, whether that be with a tutor or a peer, online or in a classroom.

Thanks to Desktop English for some really interesting answers and good luck to them for  2014 and the new site. You can follow them on twitter @desktopenglish and check out their facebook page.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Move Fast and Break ELT Things

Tonight, at TESOLFrance's annual colloquium, I has the privilege of meeting Karen White, Karen Spiler and Sue Kay, and listening to them talk about their excellent resource ELT Teacher to Writer. The idea is to train teachers in the areas of content writing that the publishers value/need and then put writers and publishers in contact with each other.

As part of the talk we had to attribute a few statements about the ELT publishing industry with the labels 'true' or 'false' (in true ELT style). I got a couple of these very much wrong, and I don't think I should have done (more in a furthering-of-the-industry way than a not-liking-to-be-wrong kind of way). Here's why:

The first statement I got wrong was 'Publishing companies decide what type of materials they are going to publish years in advance.'  There were mentions of publishers' '5 year plans' and the (cosy) prior knowledge of changes to certain exams informing release dates of new publications. But 5 years is the time it takes some language learning companies, such as busuu or duolingo, to be conceptualised, launched and reach millions of users. Things change so fast these days that a 5 year plan could be redundant after 1. That's not to say a long term plan isn't good business practice, but the idea that publishers can predict the market so far in advance is becoming ever less believable. We can learn so much in 5 years, and we can help our learners by using that knowledge now, rather that having such a long lag.

The other statement I got wrong was 'Publishing companies invest heavily in market research and use the results to inform that material they publish'. The word I took umbrage was with 'heavily'. And it turned out to be well-founded umbrage, as the figure of 3 million dollars was mentioned for a coursebook research and development. But what about the time it takes to conduct this research? And what about the market fluxes during this time? The phrase 'agile development' is used widely these days, but basically because it reflects the working practices of an increasing number of players in an increasing number of industries. And one of the tenets of agile is 'fail fast, fail often'. Simply put, a company that invest so much time and money in a product can't possibly fail very often and stay alive, so they had really better hope they don't fail. But if we can get a product (coursebook, exercise, activity, game... however you want to define it) out, then we can gauge reactions to it, implement a back-channel, analyse the results, observe behaviour and make changes where they're needed.  That way we don't need to fear failure, we can embrace it as helping us improve the experience of our learners.

As it is, I feel we're sticking to the same old ways of working, producing similar content for a similar publishing industry, thus confining learners to a similar path. But now we have a chance to do something new, to push things, to break things. I'm not saying we discard theory, quite the opposite; we should test theory, stretch it and make new conclusions about how people learn.

In short I think we should try to adopt another tenet of agile: 'move fast and break things.' It's companies like ELT Teacher 2 Writer that are in a perfect position to help bring about this change.