Monday, August 11, 2008

Our ESL video podcast--First Day of School

Hello, ESL students and teachers.

This is fun news! The ESL video podcast that Max, Rosario, and I created has been getting some comments from ESL teachers in the field. Recently, I received the following e-mail from Fiona King, one of the content creators at the website below:

We just posted an article, "100 Best Resources and Guides for ESL Teachers" ( I thought I'd bring it to your attention in case you think your readers would find it interesting.

I am happy to let you know that your site has been included in this list.

It is fun and exciting to be recognized by a peer. You can see this podcast on my blog, under archives for May 2007, or you can now see it on the "100 Best Resources and Guides for ESL Teachers" at this Teaching Tips website. Click on the hyperlink here, then scroll down to the podcast section, then click on #69 to see our podcast.

I really like Ms. King's website--it provides a number of good resources for teachers. In other areas of the website, they have various tools and information/articles that would be very useful for an ESL professional. So, go check it out--and check out our podcast while you are at it. I welcome any comments you may have.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

One laptop per child

Please look at this incredible opportunity to buy and donate an amazing xo laptop. We did a presentation on this in our Language Learning and Technology class a few months ago, and now there is an amazing offer for anyone in the U.S. and Canada with the means to buy their children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, etc. a laptop. For only $400.00, you can get a practically indestructible, innovative laptop for your child and simultaneously donate one to a child in a developing nation, thus enabling him or her to access resources and information otherwise unavailable to that child. In the U.S., you also get a $200.00 tax deduction for the charitable contribution, and a year of free internet service through T-Mobile! You really can't beat that. Check it out!

With these types of programs and the tools on Web 2.0, there is an amazing potential to bring about change in the world. I am very hopeful about this! Also, please check out for an idea of some of the resources that innovative and caring people around the world are collaborating on to empower those who have traditionally held little or nor power, and who have been equally helpless to bring about positive, lasting change in their lives.

What do you think the benefits of these types of programs may be? Do they fill you with as much as hope as they do me??

Update: It appears that this was a holiday season offering only. Now you may donate a computer (or several), but you cannot buy one. Look for it around next holiday season, though! My niece loves hers, and she figured out most of the features right away--the computer is very user friendly, the features are simple to figure out. It looks cool, and she carries it around with her.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Emotions and language

Question from reading: Discuss the role of emotional language in your L1 and L2. Which language is emotionally richer? As your learners acquire (participate in) their new speech communities do you see a change in their emotional language behavior? Reflect on the notion of (re)construction of self in your own L2 or L3 learning experiences.

Emotional language appears to be most closely tied to L1; the reasons for this could be because we experienced most of our emotions for the first time in our L1 and/or that our expressive ability, in terms of detail, nuances, and simple vocabulary is usually much richer in our L1. I found the story of Eva/Ewa Hoffman heartbreaking at times in this article. It is interesting that she transitioned so strongly, so firmly, that she lost her inner voice for while. We language teachers (as language learners) can all relate to the experience of being in an L2 environment, feeling something very strongly, and being frustrated because we were at a loss to express how we felt on more than a superficial level.

In Korea, I felt this way once when a taxi driver was overcharging me by a ridiculous amount. He knew it; I knew it. I made my friend (who'd just come to visit me) get her bags out of the car and wait on the curb while I had it out with this driver. My Korean vocabulary was so limited at this point that I could just say--in a very Tarzanesque fashion, "Me, live Korea, airport 16,000 won. 26,000 won--no! Bad man bad man!!! You bad man! 16,000 won, me airport every day. 16,000 won, bad man!!!" Saram Nabayo is the phrase bad man, by the way. I don't think I'll forget that anytime soon! I was so upset that I couldn't argue/reason with this guy properly! In any case, I paid him 20,000 won and called him "bad man" one last time. The funny part is that I had just told my friend that Korea wouldn't be like when she visited me in Mexico, where I could communicate, because I could barely speak Korean at all. And of course, she was just standing on the curb, shaking her head and laughing hysterically, because here I was, having a "fight" in Korean. I guess it sounded more impressive if you had no idea what I was saying!

The opposite situation occurred in Mexico, where I grew very comfortable speaking, emotionally or otherwise, in Spanish. I partially attribute that to the fact that Spanish is such an emotional language for me that, outside of the language classroom in real interactions, I picked up on the language and expressiveness as I would have picked up on any other sociolinguistic characteristic, such as the gestures. I found out that my Spanish-speaking self was much girlier than my English-speaking self, though I've always been animated in either language.

I can empathize with the writers in the Pavlenko article, though. There were some cultural differences between where I lived in Mexico and where I grew up, and this of course was reflected in the language. Maybe not everyone would pick up on it, but language and interactions between people have always been on my radar. After a year in Mexico, I decided, very clearly, that there were too many of these cultural differences I would have to adopt/adapt in order to live there long term and not be constantly frustrated or miscommunicating. That's when I decided to come back to the U.S. (at least for a while).

Don't get me wrong, I loved living in Mexico, and I truly appreciate gaining a deeper understanding of the vibrant, passionate, and colorful culture of Mexico and of the Mexican people. I felt the same way after living in London, Seoul, and Taipei. I wouldn't trade those experiences fo anything, really. Every experience has helped shaped my world view and has made me a stronger and more empathetic ESL teacher.

Living in different countries has always been a remarkable, vivid, exciting, and educational experience that I have relished, but no matter what the problems or issues the U.S. has or may have, it ultimately feels like home to me. That's why I am here now, but I still harbor thoughts of packing my suitcase and taking off for more adventures and learning!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Reflection 8: Best Practices

Okay. What is it going to be: form-focused or communicative or a combination of both? Back up your thoughts with some of the studies in LS Ch. 6.

Based on the research I have read, here in Lightbown and Spada and several other sources, and in my own personal experiences as a language learner and a language teacher, the best approach would have to be somewhere in the middle, combining plenty of comprehensible input (go, Krashen) in the students' Zone of Proximal Development (shout to Vygotsky) with plenty of opportunities to speak in meaningful interactions. Grammar/structure has to be addressed as well, and it seems most effective to introduce this explicitly, then have students practice in meaning-based, communicative tasks. My favorite book that supports this is James F. Lee & Bill Van Patten (1995). Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen, which focuses on providing opportunities for both structured input and structured output, with concrete examples we can use to create. Lee and Van Patten's book is excellent in terms of classroom applications that can be immediately implemented. In this chapter of L&S, studies 31, 35, 37 and 38 lend further credibility to the idea of varying instruction and using a combination approach.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Affective Filter and Motivation: Reflection 7

From your experience, what are some of the affective factors that you encounter in your classrooms? How do they interfere in learning?How do lower the affective filter?

There are a number of reasons why one's affective filter may be raised at any given point. I have seen students who are simply shy and students who are from a more reserved cultural background, for example, struggle to participate in class, and I have seen students (adults) who may have difficulty expressing themselves because they are so concerned about speaking less eloquently in their L2 than their L1. It is hard to work for years to achieve a certain level--of knowledge, of education, of wit, of status or prestige in your job and community--and then go to language classes and practice basic language skills and participate in activities or tasks that are beneath your cognitive levels in other ways. How many times can you talk about the red table or ask about the weather before you get frustrated? These are just basic examples, but they are all true, particularly for beginners. It is hard to put yourself on a level with your peers in the language classroom, even harder when cultural beliefs are called into play.

Living in Korea, I got to see this first hand, where businessmen could be in class with college students. There was a level of respect that the younger students gave the older students, respect that (for the ESL teachers) would throw a wrench in the works at times. Most often, my students were willing participants in their own language learning experience. However, there was the occasional "situation," where perhaps a younger (and/or female) student would forgo speaking or responding in order to let the older (often male) student speak. In these cases, it was difficult to have the students each practice or speak. To all of the students' credit, they each opted to sign up for this class knowing there was a mixed group (age and gender), and they enjoyed and looked forward to the interaction with students of a social group they may rarely have an opportunity to spend time with outside of their own families. I also admired the younger students who felt it most respectful to offer up the floor to the other students, even if it inhibited their own opportunities to speak.

I addressed this in a couple of ways. I established the classroom as an informal environment, based on the target language and culture (which was U.S. culture in this particular case), but explained to them that everyone would have to speak and participate, and that I would ask each student to speak, either in turn or as the other students or I addressed them. This was a conversation class, after all. I approached the students with empathy and humor as much as possible, remembering their names from the first day and asking them about details they had mentioned earlier. I got them to share their opinions and stories as much as possible.

These student groups almost always had a stellar rapport with each other. After a while, the students warmed up to each other and began to participate more evenly, asking each other questions and talking about each other's lives and interests. Working within the structured curriculum I had, with students who were violently opposed to homework and who often had few or no chances to speak outside of the class, breaking through the affective filter early was vital to helping these students begin to use the language. In most classes, and with most of my lovely students, I learned to draw them out to begin interacting with each other. I also admitted to any mistakes I made in class or let them know that I had to go home or talk to another teacher to get answers or ideas for class. I hope this helped them see that, as Polo brought up in class, we are all lifelong language learners.

We have been discussing this issue in class. and I know there are many teachers and researchers who emphasize letting students go through their silent period or work quietly by themselves, but in this situation, they were paying for me to get them talking, so I quickly became the dancing bear and the empathizer. The students generally seemed to be waiting for someone to come help them tear down those walls so we could get the (English) party started.

It is different with K-12 ESL than overseas EFL, however. I think it is crucial with kids and adults living in the L2 culture to learn as much about their lives, their interests, and their unique cultures, so we can be delicate when delicacy is required and firm/lively/detailed/etc., when our students need us to be, and so we can incorporate something they know (from their own cultures) or like (soccer, music, seafood, whatever) into the lessons and into our conversations with these students. This should help them feel more at ease with the classes and with the L2.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Whorfian Hypothesis and Cultural Resources in the Classroom: prompt 6

Re. the Whorfian hypothesis: Are there concepts or ways of saying things in one of the languages that you speak that can not be said or expressed or the meaning changes in another of your languages? How do you address culture in your classrooms? Do you go beyond the "holiday" model of culture?

Part 1: There are things that can only be expressed in one language, because so much of the language we get is built around the culture of the community in which it is spoken. When I began to truly understand (not just memorize) certain idiomatic expressions or deeply felt adages in Spanish that would only be relevant, say, in that part of Mexico, I was sooooo thrilled--it felt like I had arrived. It really spurred on my motivation and eagerness to learn Spanish even more. A classic example of this is the expression you hear all over Mexico (and other Spanish-speaking countries) of "Si Dios quiere..., which can be literally translated as "If God wishes." However, in the cultural context, it represents the religiosity and the fatalism inherent in the culture, so the literal translation loses its power and its intent to some degree if interpreted with a U.S. mindset.

Another one is one we've all probably heard, about how many (MANY! MANY!!!) words the Alaskan natives (Inuits? Aleuts?) have for snow. It would make absolutely no sense to someone from South Texas, who may have never even seen snow, but if you look at snow all day, nearly very day for most of the year, in every size, shape, different strengths of storm or flurry, well, of course you would have a lot of words to distinguish each type of snow/snowflake/snowstorm, yes?

Part 2: I am always looking for cultural activities for the classroom, ways to allow students to make the most of their natural resources of language and culture, and ways they can share these ideas. It helps when students come from different cultures within one class group to have them learn about each other, so each student feels valued and respected, and so they begin to understand each other better.

One thing it took me a while to learn to respect (as I have seen with other teachers, too) is the concept of a wait time before speaking that is prevalent in many Asian cultures (for example). Although to communicate effectively with, say, a U.S. businessman, you must eventually learn to speak up and reduce the "dead air" between utterances, these students have numerous reasons for waiting, all of which sound really good. Instead of just filling the empty space with nonsense words, unnecessary repetitions, or chit chat, many ELLs come from a culture of listening, then thinking, then speaking. And when you add the time for students to formulate a grammatically correct sentence to get their point across, well, we are looking at some serious wait time.

We should vary activities so that the more reflective or introverted students or students from a "high culture," where much of the communication is based on non-verbal cues and culturally understood traditions have an equal chance to participate. When we want them to jump in, think quickly, or interrupt each other, we should let them know that this is what is required for that activity, but that there will be other opportunities to communicate in the fashion of their preference and cultural conditioning. Once I realized this and learned to incorporate the wait time, I reminded the teachers that I worked with, trained, and managed not to fill in the spaces between utterances (a very common tendency for English speakers from many western cutlures). It is a struggle for many of us, but it is worth the effort.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Reflection 5: Error Analysis

What is CAH and what are the differences between it and CLI? How can some of the concepts talked about in the Chapter (Brown ch 9) be used in the classroom, e.g., error analysis, CLI, Stages of learner language development, fossilization.

CAH is the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis, or the systematic observation of frequent learner errors, with the idea that all of these errors are based on the contrast between features in L1 and L2. It was developed to begin predicting the specific errors a language learner will make in order to understand the mental processes of the learner and to possibly "cut them off at the pass," in a way, and plan better, more effective L2 instruction based on the type of L1 interference the student would have. CLI, cross-linguistic influence, is what Wardaugh (1970, as cited by Brown) calls a "weak version" of the CAH. So, there is plenty of error analysis, but only as the leaner produces the errors, not BEFORE the errors take place.

CLI also takes into account the fact that L1 interference/transfer/influence is not the only issue going on in language acquisition, and that a number of learner mistakes (self-correctable, like a mental typo) or errors (not self-correctable without help b/c learners do not know these are errors) must, by their very nature, be indicative of some process or stage going on besides L1 influence. There are intralingual (one language) issues as well as interlingual (two or more languages) issues, and the predictions from CAH often fall flat in the face of the errors the students actually make, although both sides (and most language teachers and learners) would agree that it is beneficial to have some familiarity with the L1 to try to support learners well.

I think learner language can be helpful in guiding us to determine where on the continuum of proficiency our learners may be, and perhaps an activity where learners discuss their processes as they develop would be helpful, either through a language survey asking them how they processed the language during a specific task or a think-aloud (while reading) activity. It takes a lot of time that teachers may not have to closely observe these activities, but even if students engage in such activities in pairs or small groups facilitated by the teacher to raise their own metalinguistic awareness, it should help them realize what the sticking points in their learning may be and name the the confusion they are facing in class.

The topic of error analysis is loaded, because it is usually not clear through simple observation what the root cause of the error is, but through such activities as above, we can try to get to the heart of the matter and determine where to go from here. It is important to try to analyze the errors somewhat and to give error feedback, but with most instructional strategies, the best practice is probably to vary the times we give error feedback, the type of error feedback, and the expected response to error feedback so that we may reach all learners, no matter what their learning styles are.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Reflection 4: Critical Period Hypothesis

Why do you think that it is so difficult for researchers to agree on the CPH (Critical Age Hypothesis). Give explicit examples from the readings. Also give examples from your own experience.

It is probably so difficult to reach a consensus because the research we have is not usually generalizable, and the results are contradictory at times. In addition, many researchers who may even believe that the CP exists try to prove it from very different perspectives or approaches. For example, researchers such as Lenneberg (1967)*, Selinger (1978), and Diller (1981) focus on the neurological development, or what happens in the brain as we grow older, from the point of view of how lateralization takes place, localization into the dominant hemisphere, and cell development within the brain, respectively.

Other researchers look at this intuively felt and believed-in phenomena from the perspective of loss of of or changes in one's acces to Universal Grammar as we age (Martohardjono and Flynn, 1995; Cook and Newson, 1996; and Hawkins, 2001), although even among such Nativists there is considerable disagreement over how much one can access at a certain age and how much of these abilities are retained. So, even though they are all proponents of one overriding school of thought, they are nowhere near a unified idea of what may influence the or confine the CPH.

Still a third group, including Krashen (1973 and 1975), Stengel (1939), and Guiora (1972 and 1992) relate the ability of languages to social and affective factors such as identity, attitudes and motivation toward learning the target language, and acculturation.

Because there are so many learning styles and strategies, so many developmental and affective factors, and such a wide range of reasons to learn a second language, individual results in gaining language proficiency in an L2 vary, just as the individual learners vary. There seems to be an age at which learning a language begins to become more difficult for the L2 learner; however, this is not a clearly defined, nor an absolute, truth. Nor has it been proven through research. Many post-adolescent language learners can become proficient in an L2, for many different reasons and within many different environments. The only (near) fact that comes out of CPH research is that younger learners almost always make much greater strides in adopting a native-like or near-native pronunciation, while many fewer adult learners do.

In my own case, I have seen a lot of anecdotal evidence that something like a CP exists, but I have also seen language learners who began learning English as an adult become highly proficient in that language. In the (paraphrased) words of countless other researchers and teachers in our field, I will beg off of making a conclusion and will say that further research is needed, and, most importantly, different people learn differently and there is no one right answer regarding the parameters or causes of a CP.

* All research cited here are citations directly from Singleton (2005)

Friday, June 8, 2007

Learning Styles: reflection 3

What is your learning style? Have you ever taken a learning style inventory? In your classrooms as teachers how have you or do you address the issue of learning styles? Finally discuss your experience with learners' beliefs about language, of either your students or their parents. How has it affected your teaching?

For learning languages, I am an aural learner. I am always walking around, pronouncing things to myself, and when I read in another language, I relish doing so aloud. This is probably related to my highly social nature--communicating is huge for me, so I listen very intently and pick up a lot of language that way. I enjoy kinesthetic and visual aids, but I don't always need them.
It's good for me to keep reminding myself to incorporate DIFFERENT types of activities, especially the ones I wouldn't naturally plan (like a math component or individual work). I have always use a ton of visuals and manipulatives, though. They are fun and wonderful for scaffolding and conversation-starting. Variety is so helpful to our students and is responsive to their needs.

Learners' beliefs about learning language are as diverse and unique as the learners themselves. I still recall one woman from Mexico who was a Spanish professor in Mexico and a restaurant kitchen worker in Dallas. I gave ESL classes there for the kitchen and bus staff, and it was interetsing. She had--no doubt--the strongest educational background and but she hesitated to participate in these free classes because she felt it was a betrayal of sorts to her country, culture, and mother tongue. We would have long talks about why she felt bad, and I empathized and encouraged her, and she did participate and make progress, but I will always remember how hard it was for her to do so. This is exactly what we were discussing yesterday in class.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Reflection 2

Offer some thoughts about what you see as a relationship between behavioral, nativist, and functional approaches to studying first language acquisition and your own experiences in learning or teaching a second language. In a second response, discuss the role of culture in first language aquisition. Many of you speak more than one language and English is your second language. Do you think the child-parent interaction is different in the United States' English speaking population and a non-English speaking population that you are familiar with?

These three approaches all try to determine/decipher the internal and external influences that guide or enable language acquisition. Although they are different at the absolute end of things, they actually do overlap at times. For example, saying that a child has an innate ability to take language and create more complex language from it does, in some measure, point to the fact that they are creating this new language, or these new combinations of language, from what they are hearing, experiencing, etc., including modeling and feedback. And that meshes well with the idea that these children are learning from their environment, a large part of which is the language they hear, the things they see and participate in, and so on.
Culture is a hugely important factor in 1st language acquisition, and it is something that we carry with us throughout our lives. With our unique learning styles and what we are exposed to, we can open up to other ways of thinking and doing things, but the first experiences and the community/culture we grow up in leave an indelible mark. I grew up semi-typical "American," but in a close-knit family with Irish Catholic traditions of extended family that were closer to what you might see in Mexico (as Janette, Erika, and Polo point out) than in a rigid New England family. The only way we got out of grown-up conversations was to leave the room (with cousins and such, off to go play). The dominant culture we grow up in is something we carry with us, but each individual family, school, community, etc. adds to that individual culture and identity that we bring with us to school and wherever else we may wander.