language teaching

Curriculum Development Part 8: Week 6 Recap, and Final Thoughts

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

In my last post, I described Weeks 3, 4, and 5.  In this post, I’m back with a recap of Week 6 and some final thoughts on the project.  I’ve also placed links to all of the curriculum development posts leading up to this unit at the end of this post if you want to follow the story from the beginning!

Week 6 Recap

There were only two days in this week before review/finals, and overall they went well.  On Monday, students’ assignments was to describe what they did at the party, and then in class they read each other’s descriptions and asked questions while my co-teacher worked on correcting their drafts.  On Tuesday, their homework was to reflect upon their party planning experience with my favorite set of reflection questions (What did you accomplish? How can you magnify this? What can be improved next year? How?).  They then discussed their answers in their committees, before I led them in a full class discussion.  This took much longer than I anticipated (the entire 75 minute class!) but was a fruitful discussion, as students realized that despite their frustrations, they did pull off the party, and they also had some excellent ideas about how to improve the planning experience next time, or at least feel less frustrated with the combination of bureaucracy and many moving parts (truly a valuable life skill!).  They also noted that when they felt frustrated, they were less likely to use Arabic as they didn’t have the words to express themselves—another reason I think it’s important to incorporate social and emotional language into the language classroom.  

In week 7, my co-teachers and I had our end of semester reflection meeting, and our thoughts were similar to the students in terms of the overall success (we had a party!) and the improvements (wow that was more stressful than we thought for planning, bureaucratic, and communication reasons!).  Many of the students seemed invested in the party, and far more attended than has happened with other events.  It was also a fun way to end the semester.  We also made specific plans for improvement (focusing on breaking tasks into their component parts, written agreements of what the class and Arabic club will take care of) that we noted in our shared google drive*.  

So, that concludes our curriculum development for this semester, where we used genre-based approaches to language learning and Can-Do Statements to ditch the textbook to learn about renting apartments and plan a party.  If you’d like to follow this series from the beginning, here are links to all of the posts:

Background

Part 1: Choosing Assessment Tasks

Part 2: Finding Texts

Part 3: Introducing Intentional Translanguaging Pedagogy

Part 4: Unit Plan and Week 1 of Party Planning

Part 5: Week 1 Recap, Planning Week 2

Part 6: Week 2 Review, Planning Week 3

Part 7: Week 3 Recap, Weeks 4 and 5, Planning Week 6

Part 8: Week 6 Recap and Final Thoughts (this post!)

*This practice bore amazing fruit toward the end of our reflection meeting, when we needed to choose topics for the Spring fourth semester class—and lo and behold when we looked in the curriculum development folder, we had already done this at the end of the Spring semester when the class was fresh in our minds! Neither I nor my co-teacher had any memory of this, but there they were and it was just a matter of going from our four suggestions to three actual topics (five weeks per topic seemed to be a good fit in the Fall).  So yes, planning and reflecting takes time, but it also saves a lot of time!

What is language? Functional theories

Like formal theories of language, functional theories of language come from the field of linguistics, although this type of linguistics is less commonly found in the U.S..  The type of functional linguistics I am most familiar with is Systemic Functional Linguistics, based on the work of Michael Halliday, and practiced predominantly in Australia.  While I am also far from an expert in functional linguistics, a key tenet of functional linguistics is that language cannot be separated from social function, or what humans do with language.  This means that in contrast to formal linguistics, there is not a linguistic system that can be analyzed independently of the way it is deployed.  In terms of language learning and teaching, this means that:

1) Language learning occurs through repeated performance of language functions.  In contrast to formal linguistics, there is no internal language learning mechanism, but simply repeated exposure to language in a social function.  This appears to me to be in many ways similar to usage-based approaches of language acquisition, although I’m sure there are nuances I am unfamiliar with here.   The key to learning is contextualized use of the language in social functions, rather than learning individual vocabulary items or grammatical concepts.  

2) Linguistic elements cannot be taught separately from social functions. This principle places pragmatic, sociolinguistic, and grammatical features, as well as vocabulary, all at the same level, rather than viewing pragmatic and sociolinguistic features as extra or advanced, or calling for a buildup from vocabulary, to grammar, to pragmatics and sociolinguistics.  The implication of this is that it is essential to address all linguistic features from the earliest stages of language learning, rather than focusing on vocabulary and grammar in beginning classes, and pragmatic and sociolinguistic features in advanced ones.  

3) The social function, rather than specific linguistic features, are the primary goal of language learning.  Similar to the point above, the goal of a lesson, curriculum, or unit is the ability to perform certain functions in the language, something that fits in well with the “Can-Do Statements” developed by organizations such as the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, and the Common European Framework of Reference.   It is worth noting that depending on the context, certain language functions do not require complete grammatical accuracy.  If I want to rent an apartment, and ask for a شقة كبير instead of a شقة كبيرة ,missing the gender agreement, I will probably still get the apartment.  On the other hand, if I’m presenting at an academic conference, failing to perform gender agreement could make the audience take my message less seriously.  In both situations, the emphasis is on what is necessary to do the social function, rather than the linguistic elements themselves.  

In my experience, despite the introduction of Can-Do Statements by ACTFL in 2013, functional theories of language are rarely the basis of language pedagogy in the United States, it is much more common to see formal or folk linguistic theories of language informing pedagogy.  One exception is work on genre-based approaches to pedagogy, which I personally find quite appealing, and this is why I am working to use them our curriculum.  Yet again, I think the most important thing is to be aware of what our theories of language are, and if these are the theories and ideologies we want to perpetuate.  Once we decide this, we can examine the extent to which our classroom practice reflects and perpetuates various ideologies, and decide what changes we need to make.  

What is language? Formal theories

The term formal theories of language usually refers to linguistic theories that stem from the work of Noam Chomsky on Universal Grammar, or the idea that there is an innate language mechanism in humans that allows us to learn and use language.  These theories are are also referred to as generative grammar, and are prominent in linguistic research in the United States.  As a results, they have informed a great deal of research on second language acquisition, as well as theories of teaching.  When the folk linguistic theories of language learning I discussed previously are contrasted with linguistic theories, these linguistic theories are most often formal theories.  From my perspective, there are three main implications for taking an approach to language learning and teaching informed by formal theories of language, and I discuss these below. 

1) Language learning occurs through the innate language learning mechanism (generative grammar).  Essentially, formal theories say that when we are exposed to language, it is processed by this mechanism, and if there is enough exposure, we will acquire it.  The implications for language teaching are that explicit instruction in grammar or other linguistic features does not lead to acquisition of these features.  Rather, the only way they can be acquired is through extensive exposure.  While some adherents of formal theories would conclude that this means there is no role for the language classroom or instruction, I think it is more common to focus on how the classroom can maximize exposure to the language to enable processing by the language learning mechanism.  This is the source of methods such as comprehensible input, based on the work of Stephen Krashen.  This is also the reasoning behind claims that adult language acquisition is not that different from child language acquisition.  

2) Language as an object of study can be separated from examples of humans using language.  This aspect of formal theories is primarily what distinguishes them from functional theories of language, which I’ll discuss in a future post.  The implication of this is that language has meaning outside of a particular social context, and for this reason an awareness of sociolinguistic or pragmatic features of language is considered additional to an awareness of sounds or grammatical features.  The implication for language teaching is that sociolinguistic or pragmatic awareness is considered an “advanced”, or “extra” skill, while the knowledge of sounds, vocabulary, or grammar is considered to be more basic.  

3) Language as an object of study can be meaningfully broken down into component parts. The implication of this point has more to do with the assessment of learning than learning itself—as noted in point one, following formal theories of language would not support the explicit teaching of these formal parts separately.  However, based on my understanding at least, examining component parts of language, such as vocabulary or grammatical features, can be used to assess the extent to which someone has acquired these features, and thus make claims about their overall proficiency.  A secondary implication is that there is a particular standard (usually that of the monolingual native speaker stemming from the nationalist ideology) against which use of these features can be compared.  

In my experience, like folk linguistic theories or nation state ideologies, the implications of formal theories of language for language learning and teaching are commonly presented in workshops and trainings, but their connections to specific theories or ideologies of languages are rarely made explicit.  In this way, we perpetuate certain theories of language through our language teaching practices without realizing it.  Although I certainly have theories I prefer over others, the most important thing to me is being aware of the connection between our beliefs about language and the way we teach it, and aware that there are multiple theories and ideologies of language from which we can choose.  

What is language? Folklinguistic theories

Last week, I described the nation state ideology of language, and its implications for language teaching.  This week, I’m discussing folklinguistic theories of language, and their implications for language learning and teaching.  Generally, “folklinguistic” theories, or the general population’s beliefs about language, are contrasted with “linguistic” theories developed via the scientific study of language, or linguists beliefs about language.  Frequently, these are in conflict.  There are, of course, multiple linguistic theories, indicating that linguists don’t necessarily agree on what language  is either, and I’ll discuss some of those as they relate to learning and teaching languages in upcoming posts.  However, for the moment I’ll focus on folk linguistic beliefs I come across in the field of language teaching that to the best of my knowledge are not supported by scientific theories of language.  

 

1) We learn words, then we learn grammar, then we can put them together to talk/read/listen/write. This seems to be the way a lot of textbooks in particular are set up, with a vocabulary list, then some grammar description and exercises, then some reading or listening texts or speaking or writing activities, and probably a culture blurb thrown in somewhere.  So in a sense, if language learning is viewed as doing well in class with this type of textbook, it does make sense to take this approach.  The issue is that this approach doesn’t transfer well to language learning outside of this particular textbook/classroom context, and this conflicts with the belief of most teachers (I think) that they are preparing students to eventually do things outside of the classroom.  The basic problem is the lack of context—words, and words in grammatical sentences or phrases are always connected to something larger in the real world, and this is how linguistic theories would argue that we learn them.  

 

2) I taught these words in chapter two but the students don’t remember them, so we must need more vocabulary quizzes/activities. Related to the above, “chapter two” is not a meaningful context for vocabulary acquisition, although it could arguably gain some meaning in a classroom where there is a “chapter two unit” or “chapter two test”.  However, remembering that a word was in a list in this chapter isn’t that likely to transfer to other meaningful contexts, like the writing assignment in chapter six.  

 

3) We learned the past tense a year ago, but students are still making mistakes, so we need more grammar activities. Variations on this are things I hear A LOT.  Essentially, I think this comes down to a belief that learning how to describe a grammatical feature should be sufficient for using it in the future.  However, describing grammatical features, by for example filling out a chart of verb conjugations, is really more of a skill relevant to linguistics than actually using these features to do things with language, especially when it happens quickly.  Although linguistic theories differ in their views of what it takes to acquire grammatical features in a way that they can be used spontaneously in speech, they seem to be united in the fact that it takes a lot of exposure to these features and a lot of time.  One way I see this play out with the past tense in my classroom is that students seem to acquire the first person “ana” past tense form a lot more quickly than they do the other forms: probably because they are always talking about themselves, and most of the beginning videos in our textbook are characters talking about themselves! To remedy this (we’re working on it!) we need more videos and activities that aren’t just talking about oneself.  

 

4) It’s best to start with a neutral, standard variety because too much variation will confuse students.  In Arabic, this is a never-ending argument, but of course all languages have what linguistics call sociolinguistic variation, or ways that people use linguistic elements to make social meaning, such as creating the formality of a situation, or indexing belong to a particular social group.  Here, the problem is that the social meaning of this “neutral, standard” variety is rarely addressed.  As I explained last week, it generally stems from the origin of the nation state, and was viewed as key to making speakers of other varieties come together into one nation.  It also typically represents the language of the most powerful social group in a society, and marking the linguistic choices of this social group as “standard” or “correct” and the linguistic choices of other social groups as “non-standard” or “incorrect” allows for discrimination theoretically based on language that is in fact based on social categories such as race or class.  There is also the case of diglossic languages like Arabic, where the “standard” variety is rarely used in many of the everyday situations targeted in beginning languages.  So, yes, it would be overwhelming to teach every variant documented in a language, but this does not absolve us from addressing the social meaning of the variants we teach.  In terms of confusion, we don’t avoid teaching verb conjugations and other grammatical features (which as per point three above can certainly be confusing!) so student confusion should not be an excuse for avoiding teaching the social meanings of language.  While I admit that I haven’t figured out a fully satisfactory way to do this yet, my hope in the end is that if we become aware of the social meanings of language in those we learn, we can also become more aware of them in our own, and do our part to end pervasive linguistic discrimination.

 

There are certainly more folklinguistic theories of language that effect the way we learn and teach language, but these four are some of the ones I commonly hear from students, teachers, and people that learn I teach Arabic.  In the upcoming weeks, I’ll delve into what to types of linguistic theories, formal and functional, tell us about language and the implications of that for learning and teaching languages.    

What is language? The nation state ideology

In my quest to make language and intercultural learning better, I sometimes feel that just when I start to understand one piece of the puzzle, I discover that the puzzle is in fact much larger than I thought.   Recently, I have been researching ideologies of study abroad, which led me to think about ideologies for language learning, and just how much our beliefs about what language is influence how we teach it, and what we expect our students to do or know.  Yet it is my impression that as teachers, we rarely think about what our ideologies of language are, we just take them for granted. 

One ideology that pervades language teaching in the U.S. is that of the nation-state, or the idea that national boundaries are also linguistic and cultural boundaries.  Indeed, the development of a standardized national language was key to the development of nation-states.  Although this link between national boundaries and language clearly falls apart under close examination, its implications are pervasive in language classes.  

How so? Well, the "target language" of the class is often a "neutral" variety or prestige national standard.  In the classroom, this leads to a focus on making sure linguistic elements such as pronunciation or grammar conform to this variety.  Success in language learning is getting as close as possible to the linguistic behavior of an imagined educated monolingual native speaker of the language, with "passing" as native, if only until a misplaced preposition or differently shaped vowel gives you away, leading to a sense of accomplishment.  The nation state ideology of languages also assumes that the ideal language classroom is monolingual, with only the target language used by both teachers and students.  Language pledges, where students pledge to use only the target language, are also part of this ideology. Finally, nation-states are frequently used to make cultural comparisons, equating variation in cultural practice to national boundaries.    

These assumptions should be familiar to most U.S. language teachers, in fact they are generally considered among the "best practices" of language teaching.  However, as we question the role we want nationalism and the nation-state to play in our lives, I think it is worth questioning the extent to which we want to reflect this ideology in our language classrooms.  Prestige national standards are just as imaginary as the nation-state itself, and insisting on the "correctness" of these varieties perpetuates the ideology of the nation-state--is this what we want? This model also condemns language learners to a deficit model, as short of changing their parents or birthplace, they will never be native speakers.  Do we want our vision of success in language learning to be based on the same criteria used to make judgements of citizenship? Furthermore, the language classroom is inherently a bilingual, if not multilingual environment, with the target language only one linguistic resource among many.  Decades of research in sociolinguistics show that in multilingual environments, multilingual utterances are the norm, rather than the exception.  Enforcing monolingualism, if it is even possible, doesn't prepare students to engage in multilingual settings.  Finally, the nation-state vision of culture obscures cultural variation within national boundaries, cultural similarities across these boundaries, and the fact that cultures change over time.  

Personally, I am not sure the nation-state and nationalism are ideologies I want to promote in my classroom, yet the pervasive nature of these ideologies in language teaching means that it is hard to change these practices.  Teaching multiple varieties is seen as confusing to students, society at large will judge them on their "nativelikeness" regardless of what I do, allowing languages other than the target language will take away from time using the target language and at worst devolve into grammar lectures about the target language, and there's hardly time to discuss all the cultural variation among speakers of the target language.  And yet, I am convinced there has to be a better way than our current, nationalistic, best practices.  Applied linguists pursuing a "multilingual turn" have started to address this issue, though primarily in immersion and dual language contexts.  I think the key is intentional thinking about what this re-envisioning looks like, and deliberately addressing these ideologies with our students.  If success isn't "passing as native", what is it? How can we use all the available linguistic resources to learn the language we're studying? What does variation look like? What is culture, if not defined by national boundaries? Thus far, my attempts to resist the nation-state ideology of language in my classroom have been mostly  limited to off-hand remarks about just saying the word in English and moving on when you get stuck, because that way you will use more Arabic in the end, or encouraging students to make cultural comparisons across generations, and not just nations.  However, as we continue to develop our curriculum, I am thinking about including more assignments that deliberately address these issues, so that it is not just me, but my students thinking about the extent to which our ideologies of language influence classroom practice.