Using Trello to Organize Teaching

Trello is my favorite digital organization tool, and I use it to organize basically everything in my life.  It essentially consists of “cards” that you put into “lists” on a “board”.  I make a board for each class I teach where the lists are the weeks of the semester (including the week before and after) and the cards are things I need to do for my class each week.  There’s also a “Done” list that cards get moved to as they are completed.  

Screenshot 2018-09-05 08.40.59.jpg

In this post, I thought I would share how I use it to organize my teaching.  For me, Trello solves four major productivity challenges related to teaching:

  1. Keeping track of all the little details
  2. Keeping track of beginning and end of semester events
  3. Giving myself enough prep time and grading time for major assignments
  4. Coordinating with my co-teachers

Keeping track of all the little details

Teaching language classes in particular seems to be full of so many little details for each class, especially since daily attendance and homework grades are the norm.  Did I grade that homework? Did I cut up papers for the game I made or just design it? Did I log the attendance? Did I make reflection notes on my lesson plan? Did I post the schedule or just make it? None of these are particularly complicated, but I found myself wasting valuable time and mental energy (things that are at an especially high premium when you have little kids that don’t sleep through the night) trying to remember if I had done these things, or checking our learning management system to figure out if I had done them.  I solved this problem by making three checklists, one for “class prep”, one for “after class”, and one for the “weekly schedule”.  Each weekly list contains one weekly schedule card, and “class prep” and “after class” for each lesson.  Here are pictures of a translation of each checklist (my actual one is in Arabic):

As you can see, the items on these checklists are pretty basic, and when I tell people about this system, a common question is can’t you just remember that? For me, while I can remember it, and usually do, I don’t always, and then I’ll have the wrong dates on the schedule, or lost a homework assignment.  Almost every item on this checklist has ended up on it because I’ve forgotten it at least once! I might also forget to log attendance or make reflection notes, and if more than a day or so passes the chances of me recalling that information are pretty slim.  While I try to do all of the after class activities immediately after class, sometimes I have other commitments, or, as is the case currently, a major paper deadline I’m prioritizing over grading homework.  When I get behind, and it’s time to catch up, I can just look at my Trello board and see where I need to catch up, rather than trying to figure it out be searching the schedule and learning management system, which is what I used to do.  

Semester set-up and conclusion

There are also a number of teaching tasks that just need to be completed at the beginning and end of the semester, like making the syllabus or submitting assessment charts.  While I’ve never forgotten to make a syllabus, setting up our learning management system requires a series of steps that I always forgot one of when I went to set up classes 5-7 months after the previous time.  I’d forget to web enhance my class, or make a section group, or set up the textbook site, or something.  So, I finally made checklists for these items too, and I put each item as it’s own Trello card in two lists, “Pre-term” and “Post-term”.  This way, when I get to the beginning and end of the semester, I don’t have to try to remember all of the things I need to set up the course site, I can just go through my Trello board. Here are more pictures:

Prep and grading time for major assignments

A third challenge was setting aside enough time for me to prep and grade major assignments (beyond daily homework and attendance).  Too often, I would look at the schedule and think, oh, my students need to turn that in in a few days but I haven’t even made the assignment yet! Now, when I make the weekly schedule for the following week, one of the checklist items is to put a prep card and a grading card for any major assignments on my Trello board.  I usually put the prep card in the week before the assignment is due, and the grading card in the week it’s due.  Then, when I plan out my week (a topic for another blog post) I can make sure to incorporate prep and grading time as needed.  

Coordinating with co-teachers

All of the language classes I teach are co-taught, where for example I’ll teach the Tuesday/Thursday sessions and another teacher will teach the Monday/Wednesday/Friday sessions.  While my co-teachers are not quite as fanatical about Trello as I am, we do have a shared Trello board, and they have concurred that it is useful :-).  You can assign cards to different people, so for example I would be assigned the “class prep” and “after class” for Tuesday, and my co-teacher the same cards for Wednesday.  This also helps us share the prep and grading of major assignments.  

Benefits of Trello

 So, that is how I organize my courses with Trello! For me, the primary benefit is freeing up mental energy to spend my teaching time on more creative things, like designing lesson plans or implementing genre-based approaches or translanguaging pedagogy.  It also lets me prioritize research (necessary in a tenure-track position) by letting me know that if I get behind on the details, it’s easy to be reminded of what I missed.  Perhaps someday when my kids sleep through the night I’ll no longer need such a detailed system, but for now, it’s keeping me on track! Do you have a system you use to keep track of teaching details? If so, what is it?

Learning from African examples of translanguaging as a pedagogical and social practice


Picture by qimono on pixabay

Translanguaging as a concept and translanguaging as a pedagogical practice are hot topics in the field of Applied Linguistics these days (or at least the circles I’m in).  As I’ve written earlier on this blog, I find translanguaging pedagogy a compelling approach for language classrooms, including Teaching English Speakers Other Languages (my version of TESOL :-)).  However, while translanguaging pedagogy is certainly a new mindset for those of us raised with and trained in monolingual ideologies of language, it is worth emphasizing that these practices, including their pedagogical applications, are not new at all.  In this post I’m going to highlight work on translanguaging in a few different African contexts.  I think these are examples from which those of us who are less familiar with translanguaging can learn about translanguaging as a social and pedagogical practice and begin to adapt these practices to our own classrooms.  

Translanguaging as a way of being

For those of us who grew up in monolingual environments*, and experienced language learning as learning a separate and distinct language, ideally in a monolingual environment, the idea of participating in social environments where multiple languages are used at the same time, by speakers who are not necessarily “fluent” in all of them seems impossible.  After all, how can you have a conversation if people are using a language you don’t understand? And how do you respond?

As it turns out, this is not only possible, but entirely commonplace in different African contexts (as well as other parts of the world).  In her book, Racialized Identities in Second Language Learning: Speaking Blackness in Brazil**, Uju Anya describes the language practices she experienced growing up in Nigeria as follows:

As a child in my multinational home, I remember relatives and domestic staff communicating across language and cultural boundaries fluidly in conversations throughout the home, speaking in northern and southern varieties of Igbo and British, Caribbean, Nigerian, and pidgin Englishes. 

Although we could all  understand them, none of us spoke every one of these languages.  Some just spoke two or three very well, some also spoke entirely different languages elsewhere with other people, and some like me were still young and emerging in expertise.  But we all contributed and participated according to individual ability, using whatever resources were available to make ourselves understood and to follow along with others.  This was who were were and how we did language based on what needed to be said to whom anyhow best, most easily, stylishly, appropriately, and comprehensibly it could all be achieved.  

While Anya is an applied linguist and translanguaging expert, I would not expect comedian Trevor Noah to spend a lot of time reading the academic translanguaging literature (but maybe he does). However, he gives an excellent description of this practice in his memoir, Born a Crime:

You'll be at a party with a dozen people where bits of conversation are flying by in two or three different languages.  You'll miss part of it, someone might translate on the fly to give you the gist, you pick up the rest from the context, and you just figure it out.  The crazy thing is that, somehow, it works.  Society functions.  Except when it doesn’t.

Also in South Africa, Leketi Makalela describes training student teachers from Johannesburg townships to use translanguaging pedagogy.  In contrast to a setting like the language classroom in the United States, the student teachers were not surprised at the idea of translanguaging to communicate or to learn new languages.  In fact, they referred to translanguaging as “the way we talk ko kasi [in the location]”***.  That is, it was their standard way of communicating.  Their surprise came from the acceptability of this way of being in a academic setting, which until then they had experienced as preferring monolingualism, or a monolingual view of multilingualism with separate and distinct languages.  

Translanguaging Pedagogy

In addition to helping us learn translanguaging as a way of being in the world, African contexts also provide examples of how we can use translanguaging pedagogy in our classrooms.  As described above, Makalela uses Ubuntu Translanguaging Pedagogy, rooted in concept of ubuntu, summarized as I am because you are, you are because we are. This pedagogy resists the monolingual ideology of “linguistic boxes”, and involves multilingual lexical contrasts in 3-5 languages, mixing language skills by reading or listening in one language and speaking or writing in another, and comparing and contrasting cultural constructs in multiple languages. Makalela emphasizes that he does not need to speak all the languages of his students, but rather facilitates their ability to explore and expand their own linguistic and cultural resources.  He also notes that the comparing and contrasting of vocabulary, linguistic structures, and cultural constructs differed from the monolingual grammar-translation approach by focusing on what students do with language, rather than languages as separate systems.  

Moving to East Africa, in a presentation at the American Association of Applied Linguistics Conference,  Jamie Thomas documented the translanguaging strategies of a Swahili teacher instructing learners from diverse language backgrounds in Tanzania.  For example, in teaching Swahili story-telling practices, the teacher first drew upon story-telling knowledge in students’ background languages, using them as resources for developing their Swahili knowledge.  When she realized that her Ghanaian Akan/Twi-speaking learners had a similar call and response pattern in their story-telling tradition, she encouraged them to present this pattern, aiding not only their language acquisition, but that of others in the classroom.  This is a good example of treating students’ existing linguistic resources as a way of building new ones.  

Translanguaging to engage during study abroad

Research on U.S. Students abroad in Africa is a context that brings us closer to the context of U.S. language learning. Mori and Sanuth describe the language learning experiences of three U.S. learners of Yoruba studying abroad in Nigeria.  Two of the learners expressed frustration with the lack of an immersion experience, having expected a monolingual Yoruba environment (likely a result of the dominance of monolingual ideologies of language in the United States generally and language teaching in particular).  This caused them to feel that they couldn’t integrate locally or that Yoruba was in need of preservation.  In contrast, the third learner, a heritage speaker of Yoruba familiar with transnational experiences, modified her expectations to meet the translanguaging practices of her location, and emphasized how using not just English or Yoruba, but also translanguaging practices involving elements of both, would help her career.   

Finally, I’ll focus on North Africa, and my own personal experience as a language learner and study abroad researcher in Egypt. Egypt is certainly a different context from South Africa, Tanzania, and Nigeria (and I’m sure there are also differences between those contexts that I miss not being familiar with them), but my experiences and observations there are I think one reason why I find translanguaging pedagogy so compelling.  Initially, like the students descried by Mori and Sanuth, I felt quite frustrated that Egypt was not a monolingual environment, and that there was so much English, which was of course preventing me from learning Arabic! Yet as I returned again and again, and long before I had ever heard of translanguaging as a concept, I began to realize that the key to developing relationships and using more Arabic was to actually use Arabic and English together, not just with Egyptians, but also with other study abroad students.  

While I still have a lot to learn about translanguaging as pedagogy and practice, it is clear to me that African contexts are among those where those of us who are less familiar with translanguaging pedagogy and practice can learn from those for whom this is simply a way of being and a natural pedagogical practice.  The work I’ve described here is not an exhaustive list, and if you have more recommendations, let me know so I can add them to my reading list!


*Or at least environments interpreted as monolingual—this is a post for another day, but I think the idea of a truly monolingual environment is questionable, we just categorize them as such, which is part of monolingual ideologies in the first place!  

**An amazing book on race and translanguaging and study abroad generally that I should also do a separate post on, but just read it in the meantime!

*** See Makalela's chapter in this book

Curriculum Development Part 2: Finding Texts


Image by stevepb on

This post is part of an ongoing series as I document our process for developing curricular units inspired by genre-based approaches to language learning and translanguaging pedagogy.  Previous posts in the series include a background post and choosing tasks (Part 1).  

After choosing our tasks as the first stage in curriculum development, our next step is choosing texts that serve as examples of people doing these tasks in Arabic.  This (for me at least) is the most challenging part of developing this type of curriculum, for a variety of reasons I’ll describe below.  However, I think making connections between the language functions, or Can-Do statements we’re trying to do, and example texts is essential.  It’s also worth noting that here, and in genre-based approaches generally, texts are not limited to written documents—they can be written, but they can also be audio, video, or multi-modal.  With that as background, here are some considerations for selecting texts and processes for finding them.  

Considerations for selecting texts:

1) Text as example or text as information: In the paragraph above, I described finding texts that were examples of people doing the can-do statements.  In the party planning unit, this includes videos of end of the school year parties, which show introductions, class presentations, and awards, and so on.  However, there are also texts that can be used for information.  For example, I found an article online that describes the steps and recommendations for planning a party celebrating someone’s success.  While I will not ask my students to write an article using this text as a model, they can use it to make sure they are following the necessary steps in planning their party, and getting ideas of what to do.  

2) Language level: This is where I have given up on texts in the past, as the texts I would find on the internet just seemed so far above the level of my beginning and intermediate students that it wasn’t clear to me how they would be useful examples of people doing our targeted Can-Do statement.  However, the more I do this, the more this become less of an issue.  First of all, if the example text is way above the students’ level, but is an example of a language function I’m expecting them to do, perhaps this is an indicator that this whole language function is above their proficiency level.  If it seems just a little out of reach, this may be because there’s a mismatch between the language needed to perform the language function this text is an example of, and what I’m actually teaching in class (because I’m using a textbook that is based on different texts).  In this case, I just need to change my teaching to focus on what is in the example texts I want to use, rather than what is in the textbook.  After all, the reason the textbook texts are more accessible (perhaps) is that they come with vocabulary lists, and grammar explanations, and cultural information, and written transcripts, etc.  So rather than ask myself will my students understand this text right now, I ask can I lead them up to understanding these example or informational texts? Finally, I don’t have to use the entire text.  In my party planning example, I’m not going to expect that my students watch and understand several hour long videos of end of the year parties.  Within the party, there are several different functions, so I’ll group those together (introductions, introducing people, performing, awarding prices, thanking people, etc.) and just assign those parts of the text initially.  This also has the benefit of steering what I teach to the language function, rather than looking for intriguing texts that “activate” certain vocabulary or grammatical structures assumed to be the starting point of language learning (see formal approaches).  This looking for texts to activate vocabulary or grammar seems to be a fairly common approach in language teaching, and while I support including interesting texts, I think we need to start with texts as examples of functions, not linguistic elements.  

Processes for finding texts: 

In professional development workshops and readings on using texts in the language classroom, I have found that there is a lot of emphasize on why we should use authentic* texts, and how to use them in different ways, across different language levels.  However, HOW to find these texts is not usually discussed, even though this is in my experience the most challenging and time-consuming part of using texts.  I basically find texts in three places: the internet, existing textbooks, and making my own.  

1) The Internet: This is perhaps the most obvious place to find texts, especially given the proliferation of videos, articles, and social media interactions today.  It is also usually where I start.  However, there is also so much information, it can be overwhelming—who has time to sift through the entire internet looking for the perfect video of an end of the year party? To remedy this, here are some strategies I use in looking for texts:

A) Set a time limit: Depending on the size of the project, I’ll usually give myself 2-6 hours (not necessarily at once) and commit to using whatever I’ve found at the end of that period or moving on to another method of finding texts (see below).  

B) Searching by medium: While I might start with a general google search, I’ll then narrow it down by medium (YouTube for end of the year party recordings or Google Images for examples of invitations).  

C) Using suggested results:  This can include suggested search results by google, and also recommendations based on the text I’m looking at.  For example, if I look at a few end of the year party videos, YouTube will start recommending more.  The first article I read on (found via google) was about birthday party planning, but then in the recommended articles section, I found the article on planning a party to celebrate someone’s success, which was more relevant to my unit.  

2) The textbook: As detailed in our background post, this is a strategy we’ve used to save time as we develop our curriculum.  It simply requires viewing the textbook not as a sequence in itself (usually vocabulary to grammar to text) but as a collection of texts from which you can pull to address certain language functions (and that usually have accompanying vocab lists!).  Using this strategy, rather than following the sequential order of the textbook, you just pull the texts that address the language functions you’re targeting.  For example in our housing unit, we’re using some (but not all) of the videos from Al-Kitaab 2 where Khaled discusses repairs in his apartment, or Ustaaza Kristen searches for an apartment.  

3) Making our own: If we can’t find something on the internet or in the textbook, we make our own, either recording a video or writing a text.  This is also time-consuming, but has an end product, as opposed to spending that same amount of time searching more and possibly not finding a result.  

So, that is step 2 in our curriculum development, finding tasks.  I hope this is a helpful description of how we find texts to address the tasks, or language functions, we’re choosing to address, and what we take into consideration in choosing them.  Do you have favorite ways of finding or selecting texts for class according to language function? Let me know!


*In language teaching this usually means “by native speakers for native speakers” a highly problematic definition I’ll come back to at some point.  For now though this would include the texts I find on the internet (e.g. a recording of the end of the year party in a school in Morocco), but not the ones from the textbook or the ones I make.  

Making a semester plan


This semester, in addition to posts about teaching and research, I’m planning to write some on planning.  For me, this is key to having the mental space to spend a lot of time thinking about learning and the time to actually act on those thoughts.  First up is my semester plan!

Why a semester plan? A semester plan essentially lets me see everything I have going on that semester all at once.  While this can be overwhelming, taking it in all at once lets me plan ahead for deadlines, not let things accidentally fall through the cracks, make time for my goals (like curriculum development!), and only do the things I really care about (at least in theory). 

Making a semester plan.  I use my own planning sheet, as you can see in the picture (some personal items are blocked out).  My steps are:

1) Dates: These are all the relevant dates in my life, including work, dance, and family events and deadlines, and they are all color-coded.  Laying it all out at once allows me to get a sense of when there is space in my schedule and when there’s not, which gives me more realistic expectations for what I can do during the semester.  

2) Focus: I also choose a specific thing I want to focus on for the semester, usually one very general word.  This Fall, it is space—I would like my physical, digital, mental, and time environments to have more space in them—wish me luck!

3) Habits, tasks, goals, and projects: These are the things that I always try to do too many of, and laying them out with my calendar helps me be more realistic about what will actually happen (still a work in progress).  I basically define them as follows:

Habits: Ongoing things I want to do to improve my life that don’t really have an end date.  For example, attending Crossfit three days a week and following a good family evening routine are my current habit projects.  

Tasks: Things that can be completed in one block of time that aren’t linked to a larger project or goal.  For example, my continuing professional development paperwork for being a dance judge, or an article review.  

Goals: These are things that I want to do to improve my life that can be completed, such as submitting a journal article or developing a curriculum unit.  However, they can’t be completed in a single time block.  So while they may have a specific deadline, I have to plan pretty far out ahead to make sure I spend enough time on them to accomplish them by that deadline.  

Projects:  For me, the difference between a project and a goal is whether it’s a stretch to do it.  For example, teaching my classes is a project, but developing new research-based curricular units for them are a goal.  

To choose what goes in these categories, each semester, I balance between what I’ve already committed to (such as conferences or paper deadlines) and what I’d like to add (so many things!).  Once I generate this list, I try to decide what will be realistic, and select only those things to go on my actual plan, making sure to also leave space for things that will come up.  Then, I try to balance them across the different months of the semester, rather than trying to work on everything at once.  Each month, I evaluate what’s happened, and adjust my plan from there.  

Do you make a semester plan? If so, how? Let me know—as you might imagine, I also love reading about other people’s plans . . .

Genre-based approaches in the language classroom: the appeal and the challenges


Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

It's back to school time, so time for this blog to resume as well! Onto the topic . . . 

I first learned about genre-based approaches to language teaching in a pedagogy class in graduate school, where we read two articles describing various aspects of the Georgetown German Curriculum.  I was immediately attracted to this approach, and have been working to implement this type of curriculum for the last six years in our Arabic classes (it’s been a long process!).  In this post, I want to focus on the reasons I find this approach so appealing, and why I keep coming back to it despite the challenges I’ll discuss, and also how I hope to expand it in the future.  

The Appeal

1) Functional texts as the source of language to be learned.  This is probably the reason I find genre-based approaches most appealing or language learning: they start with examples of people doing things with language and choose the linguistic elements to teach based on what actually happens in these examples.  While this may seem obvious, it’s almost never how academic “language learning” is done, where there is a tendency to start with a linguistic element (e.g. present tense) or vocabulary groups that you would almost never use all of at one time (unless you are in kindergarten, e.g. colors, numbers, family members) or imagined dialogues (at the restaurant, at the doctor, an improvement but often via an imagined dialogue rather than actual people doing these things).  Sociolinguistics research shows us time and time again that the way we think we talk is rarely the way we actually talk, so starting from actual examples rather then created ones is key (though at times very difficult, a point I’ll get to below).  

2) Cultural constructions are inherent.  Too often in language classrooms, culture is relegated to a “culture” box in the textbook, or a “cultural discussion”, or a focus on cultural products, rather than how we construct and maintain culture in interaction (including with texts).  A key tenet of genre-based approaches is that the steps we take to effectively do something with language are culturally determined.  Although we tend to focus on (pan) nation-state definitions of culture in the language classroom (e.g. American v. Arab or French culture), there are many other overlapping ways of defining cultures that are also relevant for doing things with language, including race, ethnicity, class, geographic region, generation, workplace, activity, and more.  While genre-based approaches have been critiqued for being too deterministic (e.g. you must behave this way in this culture), I don’t think being aware of the culturally constructed nature of doing things with language has to lead to deterministic behavior.  Instead, it leads to informed choices—do I want to do learn to do it this way because that is what is expected in this context? Or do I want to resist? Most importantly, why? 

3) Pragmatic and sociolinguistic elements are essential, rather than advanced or extra. I’ve written before about how we tend to ignore social practices in the beginning language classroom especially for a focus on basic vocabulary and grammar (perhaps because these also feel easier to teach!).   If we use examples of people actually doing things with language, these will be present, and it’s important to understand how they work, rather than ignore them to get to the “basic meaning” of the interaction.  In Arabic of course, there is the additional benefit of looking at how people actually use dialects and MSA, rather than assuming that these are separate, or completely determined by medium (e.g. writing or speaking) or social context (e.g. social or academic).  

The Challenges

While I hope I’ve made genre-based approaches sound fairly appealing, if you are a teacher, you are probably also thinking . . . yeah, but how does this work in reality? That is an excellent question, one that I struggle with myself, and something that I think is really not addressed well in the research literature.  Especially in research articles, there is a tendency to gloss over or actively hide the challenges that occur while trying to implement research practices in the classroom.  I personally think this misrepresents the ease with which you can implement research in the classroom, but will admit I have also given into reviewers’ request to remove this “irrelevant” information (though I had more success with my recent chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Arabic Second Language Acquisition, I did have to argue to keep this information in!).  So, here are some of the things I’ve found most challenging in implementing this approach.  

1) Finding example texts of people doing things with language.  This is far and away the greatest challenge.  While the internet is amazing, I have limited time to search for texts on the internet, and I’m not always able to find multiple examples of the language functions I want.  This is why in the past we have used texts from the textbook or made our own, but these suffer from the limitations discussed in point three above, where the pragmatic and sociolinguistic elements are not exactly like we might find in more authentic texts (although authenticity itself is definitely another post!)

2) Analyzing texts.  In addition to taking time to find texts, I also have to take the time to analyze the text.  In addition to time constraints, this is also a challenge because analyzing texts according to systemic functional linguistics (SFL) is not something I was trained in, and the other teachers I work with have no training in any type of linguistic textual analysis.  So, this is intimidating and causes us to wonder if we are doing it correctly.  However, we decided to just start, hoping that any analysis that was trying to point out the different steps to “doing” the can-do and the crucial linguistic elements would be better than no analysis.  We’ve also tried to work on distinguishing between larger functions or genres (recounts, narratives, etc.) and the specific topics that can fill those genres (a daily routine, a trip, etc.).  We have not quite made it up to using all of the SFL terminology, but even our basic attempts are an improvement over what we did previously.  

3) Focus on writing.  Most of the research on genre-based pedagogies in the language classroom focuses on writing, and becoming aware of the steps and linguistic conventions to produce certain types of genres (not to be confused with literary genres such as a novel).  Yet writing is only one way we do things with language, so I would like to see this expanded to other mediums, including establishing and maintaining social relationships, or requesting information, or so on.  So, if you are aware of any research on genre-based approaches in the language classroom that doesn’t focus on writing, please let me know!

So, this is an overview of why I find genre-based approaches so appealing and also so challenging to implement in the the classroom.  If you are a language teacher, have you tried this? Would you? Why or why not? Any suggestions for overcoming my challenges?

Bringing emotions and ideology into the MSA/dialects debate


Meme found here

The meme above seems to be making the rounds for everything these days, and the image above popped up in my Facebook feed the other day.  I smiled, because it my experience it captures a common conundrum in Arabic teaching—we usually focus on Modern Standard Arabic, MSA, الفصحى in the classroom, much to the dismay of many Arabic students, especially those who go abroad.  In my own research on Arabic study abroad students, many of them complain about the “uselessness” of fus7a, and support studying Arabic dialects prior to study abroad, so they don’t lose time learning 3ammiyya (although my research also shows they pick up major dialect features quite quickly, sometimes within a few weeks of going abroad).  Students and teachers that oppose dialect teaching typically point to the regional variations in dialects, and that students travel to different locations and teachers in the same program may be familiar with varying regional dialects.  In this perspective, MSA is seen as being a “neutral” variety because it is used across geographical regions (although research also shows that there is geographical variation in MSA, and speakers of different regional varieties do not necessarily switch into MSA to speak to each other).  Thus, whether to teach dialects or not is a seemingly never-ending debate with strong feelings (and not much research) on both sides.  

However, the reason this image captured my attention is that it points to some things I think are often overlooked in this debate, namely ideology and emotion and how these intersect.  I wrote before about how the language classroom tends to ignore the social to focus on academic or transactional language, and I think this is actually at the heart of the فصحى\عامية debate in Arabic language teaching.  In this image “طلاب العربية” clearly wants a relationship with “العامية” much to the dismay of ““الفصحى”.  Similarly, although we tend to argue that طلاب العربية need to learn العامية to engage in basic everyday transactions during study abroad, the real reason I think they care so much is that العامية is (usually) the language of establishing relationships, and this much more important to many study abroad students than using Arabic in academic contexts. So while they may not be after the type of romantic relationship pictured in this image (although research on study abroad does note that this is an important, though overlooked, component of study abroad), they almost certainly desire relationships with Arabic speakers, and it is clear to them from the beginning of their experience that 3ammiyya is the language of these social relationships*.  Thus, the ability to access social relationships is at the heart of Arabic students’ desire to learn 3ammiyya, much more than the ability to order food or take a taxi or do any other basic service encounter that could probably be done with gestures and/or English.  In this way, not teaching 3ammiyya can be interpreted as preventing students from accessing these social relationships.   Although I don’t think this is ever the intention of those who promote only teaching MSA, I think it is the source of the emotionally-laden frustration students express in response to this policy.

The next reason this meme is particularly compelling is the look of disappointment on الفصحى’s face.  Language ideology usually comes up in the 3ammiyya/fus7a debate in terms of fus7a being perceived as the “correct” version of Arabic.  However, I think the ideological issue is actually less about what is the “correct” version for non-Arab learners to learn, and more about how those who grow up speaking Arabic (especially in an Arabic school system) perceive the relationship between 3ammiyya and fus7a.  While the word “Arabic” could conceivably include both MSA and dialects, اللغة العربية tends to only refer to الفصحى.  I have met countless Arabs who tell me (in Arabic) how bad their Arabic is and how they failed all their Arabic classes—they mean fus7a, without even considering what they are doing as speaking اللغة العربية.  In contrast, those who speak fus7a well are understandably proud of the years of effort they have put into developing their abilities, and want to convey this knowledge to Arabic learners . . . who promptly ignore it to go after 3ammiyya for social relationships! So here, there is also an underlying emotional response, as students (again unintentionally) devalue the knowledge speakers of fus7a have worked so hard to become experts in. 

This tendency to focus on academic and transactional language, and ignore the social and emotional is of course not limited to Arabic, it just happens to map well onto the ideology of Arabic diglossia and be the case I am most familiar with.  Yet what would happen if we recognized the value we should place on social language and emotions in academic language learning settings?  

*Yes, there are people who form social relationships in الفصحى.  However, in my experience people who do this also remark upon it, as in “my friend and I always speak فصحى together” or “I like hanging out with study abroad students because I can speak فصحى”.  

Curriculum Development Part 1: Choosing Assessment Tasks


Image by monicore on Pixabay

As I mentioned last week, the current stage of our curriculum development is creating our own curriculum and materials.  Given time constraints (a constant in teaching!) we are focusing on doing this only in our second year class in the upcoming academic year, and making only minor modifications to the other classes.  With the permission of my colleagues (and yes, they read this blog) I’m going to try to document this process here as we go.  يالله بينا!

Step 1: Choosing topics/tasks: We knew that we wanted to basically have our entire curriculum be a sequence of Can-Do Statements, with periodic formal assessments of our students abilities to do this activity.  In our end of the semester reflection meeting, we reviewed the Can-Do Statements we had targeted last year in Arabic 211, looking for shared themes.  A key in our development of the curriculum so far has been a distinction between Can-Do Statements as language functions (e.g. I can ask and answer simple questions) and Can-Do Statements related to a particular topic (e.g. I can ask and answer simple questions about an apartment I want to rent).  This may seem obvious, but it took us several years to make this realization/distinction!  Based on the topics we had covered last semester, we brainstormed the following main topics in our reflection meeting (this is a screenshot of part of our google doc):

Screenshot 2018-05-30 17.43.23.png

We also discussed our next steps, and came up with the following.  Notably, we want to incorporate news (a student interest) and emotional responses (something that is generally lacking in our academic-focused classrooms) in all topics:

Screenshot 2018-05-30 17.44.46.png

At our next meeting, we focused on designing assessment tasks related to these topics, specifically ones that we could implement in our actual classroom (possibly with the help of higher level Arabic students, so students aren’t waiting to role-play a simsaar situation with a teacher).  Here is a screenshot of our brainstorming of tasks related to housing:

Screenshot 2018-05-30 17.48.20.png

As you can see, this is fairly complicated.  So was our other task (organizing an end of the semester party for language students), so at this point we decided we could probably drop the jobs topic entirely, especially as intermediate level students are unlikely to apply for jobs in Arabic (they might use Arabic, but would apply in English or another language they are more fluent in).  To be sure, we made a semester chart (I love charts! But apparently I’ve converted my colleague because she suggested it first :-)).  The semester chart basically involves making a chart of all 17 weeks of the semester, adding in holidays and days we’ll be at conferences, and then putting in our units.  Once we looked at the time we had to finish the first year textbook and  fit in the housing and party units, it was pretty clear we could drop jobs.  Here is the part of the semester chart related to housing (the first column is the week of the semester, the rest are Monday-Friday):

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For each unit, we also made a list of texts (e.g. related listening or reading items) we’ve used in the past.  We may or may not use these, but at least we know we have them! We also brainstormed cultural information related to the topic we’d need to cover, as a key part of our curriculum redesign will be incorporating this in a meaningful way.  

We also thought about ways in which these topics are multilingual.  For example, while students could negotiate renting an apartment in Arabic, if they read an ad for it, it is likely to be in English, because it will be an apartment targeting rental by foreigners, not locals.  In previous years, we’ve used rental ads for villas in Arabic, which were interesting and fun, but also contribute to a monolingual ideology that is unlikely to match the reality of abroad (although if you are a foreigner who has rented an apartment in the Arab world using a housing ad in Arabic, please let me know!).  In terms of our end of the year party, we thought it would be fun to have our students (who all speak languages besides English and Arabic) design invitations in these languages as well and we could invite all the languages students to the actual event.  

Next Steps: Our next steps (to be continued after we finish with our summer program) will be to look for reading and listening texts that can be considered examples of the Can-Dos we want our students to do, or of subtasks leading up to them.  This (in our experience) is by far the most difficult part of our curriculum development, as hours of scouring the internet for texts accessible at the intermediate level and related to our Can-Dos can still leave us short  (So if you know of any Arabic texts related to housing or party organizing, send them to me!).  We’ll also analyze these texts for the grammar, vocabulary, pragmatic, sociolinguistic, and cultural information students need to complete the task, and then incorporate all of this into our lesson plans. 

So, stay tuned (later this Summer) for our next steps in curriculum development! If you have questions or comments, let me know!


Curriculum Development: The Background


Image from Comfreak on  

Last week, I discussed ways to make time and space for reflection as a language teacher, a practice I think is generally overlooked in teaching.  For me, an outcome of reflection is a plan for the future, and this is how we work to make our courses and curriculum better over time.  Now that I have this blog, I thought it would be interesting to document this process, especially as this upcoming Fall is the first one where we will be ditching our textbook entirely for the second year class. 

The more I teach, the more I become interested in the process, and the complex interplays between theories of language, theories of pedagogy, context and practice.  When I first started teaching, I would become frustrated when I couldn’t match what I envisioned as the “ideal” theory or practice to the classroom.  Yet as I gain more experience, I find these interactions between theory, practice, and context to be the most fascinating, and I think my teaching is the better for it.  But, before I get into our current plans, I thought it would be useful to provide some background on the phases our Arabic curriculum has gone through since I’ve been involved with it.

1) Textbook as curriculum: This is probably my least favorite curriculum model, but it is easy, especially when you are starting a new job, or developing multiple courses at once.  Essentially, in this phase, we just followed the activities in our textbook, which was based in communicative language teaching using a folklinguistic theory of language.  So, students would learn some vocabulary, then practice it in various interactive activities, then listen to a textbook story using it, then learn some grammar, practice that, listen/read another textbook text, and so on.  Homework and classwork was mostly based on activities in the book.  The issue with this, of course, is that I prefer functional theories of language to folk linguistic ones.

2) Integrating Can-Do Statements: To move from a curriculum informed by folk linguistic theories to functional ones, our first step was to integrate Can-Do Statements, using those developed by NCSSFL-ACTFL.  However, we also weren’t ready to ditch the textbook, so we matched those Can-Do Statements to the chapters in our textbook, and those became the goals of our lessons.  So, for example, a chapter where the textbook character describes her family would include the statement “I can describe my family.”  With these as our lesson goals, we moved away from using the textbook activities in class, but still assigning related ones as homework.  This allowed us to align our curriculum to things people do with language, rather than the activities in the textbook.  The challenge was that there was not always much of a relationship between the activities students would do at home, and what we would do in class.  

3) Integrating texts to use Genre-Based Approaches: To integrate our homework and classwork activities, we also started drawing more from genre-based approaches, which I talk about more on this page of my site.  The first step was starting with texts, where texts are oral, written, or multimodal, but essentially provide examples of people doing our target Can-Do statements.  We used texts from the textbook, scoured the internet, and also recorded or wrote some of our own.  As you might guess, this was extremely time-consuming, but did seem effective.  

The challenge, after implementing steps 2 and 3 (in addition to the time spent finding and making materials) was that we were still following the sequence of the textbook, so our sequence of Can-Dos was rather random.  One day might be “I can describe my family” and the next “I can make a purchase”.  In addition, we found that some of the Can-Dos developed by NCSSFL-ACTFL were very broad, such as “I can understand a YouTube video” while some were oddly specific “I can understand a voice mail from an exchange student about why she is late”.  For this reason, while our individual lessons seemed successful, the overall sequence of the curriculum seemed off. 

4) Sequencing according to Can-Do, rather than textbook:  To improve the overall sequence of our curriculum, we stopped grouping Can-Dos (and their example texts) according to their place in the textbook, and tried to group them based on their relation to each other.  This meant spending a week or so on a particular Can-Do with several example texts, rather than jumping from Can-Do to Can-Do because that was how the texts were sequenced in the book.  At this point, the textbook became simply a source for texts, rather than something we followed in sequential order or used  activities from (although we did keep to the overall unit structure, for the most part). 

5) Can-Dos as the curriculum: Our final step (thus far) and the one I’ll be talking about on this blog is our decision to get rid of the textbook entirely and have our entire curriculum be formed around Can-Do statements.  Stay tuned for more details as we implement this in our second year class in the upcoming academic year! 


Making time and space for reflection as a language teacher


Photo by Paul Gilmore on Unsplash

In my very first post, I noted the importance of reflection for intercultural learning during study abroad—that is, it’s not enough to simply have intercultural contact, but it’s also necessary to reflect upon this contact.  This is also true for teaching—it’s not enough to receive training, and design curricula, and implement lessons, we also need to reflect upon our practices in order to learn from them.  Yet oddly enough, it is this step that is rarely built into our jobs as language teachers—we attend conferences and professional development, we make curricula, we design lessons, we teach classes, we grade, and all of these have specific times and places assigned to them.  Sure, we can get behind on grading, but we’ll still finish it by the end of the term, and we’re unlikely to show up to class without some sort of plan (hopefully).  Yet despite the importance of reflecting upon what we do and how we teach, there’s rarely scheduled time or space for this, and even when we recognize its importance, it’s the first thing to go in the crunch of grading and prepping (at least in my experience).  So, in honor of the end of the semester, I thought I’d share some ways that I’ve built reflective practice into my own language teaching (and our Arabic section as a whole).  

These reflective practices can basically be divided into two times/spaces:

1) During the semester (quick notes after class)

2) The end of the semester  (a meeting during finals week)

During the semester: Here, the emphasis is on quickly capturing thoughts and ideas, because the rush of prepping, teaching and grading means there’s not really time to reflect upon what these thoughts and ideas mean.    

1) Lesson Plan Notes: Many people I meet (who teach in higher ed) are surprised that I write lesson plans for teach class that I save with the materials for this class session.  It’s true that this takes a little more prep time, but I have found it absolutely invaluable when returning to the same lessons after a year or more.  Maybe I’d remember exactly what I did with those materials anyway, but I remember a lot faster when it’s written out in front of me! Even more importantly, my lesson plan template is set up as a chart (I love graphic organizers) and the last column is called الملاحظات فيما بعد (notes afterwards).  After class, generally when I’m entering the attendance, I put a few notes in this column, such as whether an activity went well, or took more or less time than I expected, or was too easy, or too hard, and so on.  This only takes a minute or two, and saves me so much time when I next teach the lesson and don’t have to remember how it went (unlikely to happen anyway) and can just immediately address those concerns.  Since our Arabic team shares all lesson plans, this also comes in handy if we are teaching a lesson developed by another teacher, as we have their notes to improve our lesson!

2) Curriculum Chart: In an ideal world, all of our lesson plans are united by a curriculum, but I’ve found that this is not always a reality, especially under the (unfortunate) textbook as curriculum model or (in our case) as we move away from the textbook towards our own Can-Do Statement based curriculum.  We use Google Drive to list all of our lesson plans for a class in a chart, which gives us a good overview of how they fit together as a unit (or don’t, as the case may be).  Using the comment function, we can also comment on a particular lesson plan, either based on the lesson plan notes above, or on how it fit in with the other lessons that week/unit/semester, etc.  I usually enter this right after the lesson plan notes above, again when I’m entering the attendance grades for the class, and it usually takes less than a minute.  

3) General Notes: In addition to notes on specific lessons, we also share a google doc that lets us write general notes on how the class is going, like “we need to address pragmatics” or “link culture to Can-Do” etc.  We enter notes in this throughout the semester as we think of them, and it basically acts as a receptacle to hold all of these thoughts until our reflection meeting.  In my experience, if I don’t make notes of these as I think of them, I won’t remember them at all!

Reflection Meeting:  At the end of the semester, we (myself and the other two Arabic professors) schedule two meetings, each 3-4 hours long: one for grading exams, and one for reflection.  This reflection meeting allows us to give some time and space to reflection, and to go through the information we’ve collected during the semester and use it to plan for future semesters. At this meeting, we discuss each class following (more or less) the steps below:

1) Reflection Questions: For each class, we ask the following questions (which I record in, you guessed it, a chart in a google doc):

—What were our accomplishments? How can we magnify these accomplishments?

—What can we improve? How can we improve this?

In answering these questions, we draw from our memories, but also from the notes we’ve made in the shared google doc.  

2) Curriculum Analysis: In this step, we look through our curriculum chart (step two above) as a whole, noting anything that seems particularly problematic or out of place.  We are currently moving from sequencing our Can-Do Goals according to the textbook, to using the textbook as a resource for texts related to the Can-Dos, to ditching the textbook entirely and using our own materials, so this step is useful in letting us see how streamlined our curriculum is, or if all of our lessons are leading to our overall Can-Do Statement targets.  When we identify ones that don’t fit, we can decide how to fix them, or if they should be dropped entirely.  

3) Plan for next semester: After asking the reflection questions and analyzing the curriculum chart, we have a pretty good idea of what changes to target for the upcoming semester, and which classes to focus on the most.  This lets us make gradual changes (because, again, time is pretty limited during the semester), but also make sure that these changes are the most important ones to us.  

Sometimes, when I describe this system to people (especially other language teachers in higher ed) they are surprised at the amount of time and space we dedicate to reflection, especially the detailed lesson and curriculum notes, and the reflection meeting itself.  It’s true that it is easy to skip reflection, especially when there is not time and space dedicated to it.  Yet this is also why I find it so important to make time and space for it, so we don’t lose out on our own learning opportunities.  

What do you think? If you’re a (language) teacher, how do you make time and space for reflection?

Ideologies of Language and the Beginning Language Class: Part 2


Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

Last week, I discussed several popular methods of organizing beginning language classes under the overarching critique of focusing on either decontextualized sets of language or prioritizing transactions over social relationships.  This week, I’m focusing on what I am interested in implementing in my classroom, drawing from both functional theories of language and translanguaging pedagogy.  Language teaching contexts and preferred ideologies vary, so I want to be clear that I don't think there is a one size fits all for the beginning language classroom.  However, I do think that too often we don’t even think about what ideologies are informing our practice, and if these are ideologies we even agree with!  So, here are some things that my colleagues and I are working on or plan to implement in our classes:

1) Sequencing according to Can-Do Tasks: This is something we have been working on this year in our second year class, choosing a particular language function and topic, such as expressing an opinion by writing a letter explaining the importance of language education, or by participating in a discussion of appropriate use of social media for different age groups.  While this is certainly an improvement over following the textbook, it does present challenges, particularly in terms of finding example texts to analyze for what students need to be able to do.  

2) Choosing topics according to student interest: So far, our topics have more or less followed the text book, which we basically just use as a source for texts now.  However, some of these texts (like describing the history of an Egyptian newspaper) are just not that interesting to our students.  If the language function is explaining your opinion, what is it our students want to explain their opinions on? This year, we asked them for examples at the end of the semester that hopefully we can incorporate into our tasks next year.  Asking them for topics also reveals interesting information about their own language ideologies, which brings me to my next point. 

3) Meta-linguistic activities: Just as teachers need to think about how their language ideologies inform classroom practices, so do students! In fact, I would argue that many of the topics I’ve been discussing on this blog (social practices, native speaker norms, folk linguistic theories) are also relevant for students, who come to language classes with their own ideologies of how languages work and their implications for learning.  These are rarely explicitly addressed in the classroom (in my experience) but if we want students to make intentional sociolinguistic choices, or even understand why these choices are important, addressing what we think language is and the relationships between social and linguistic practices is important. 

Note: By meta-linguistic activities, I don’t mean vocabulary and grammar drills, but rather a focus on sociolinguistics, pragmatics, and language ideologies.  This is something I hope to work on this summer, to try implementing in the fall.  Wish me luck! (or give me ideas . . . )

4) Intercultural Reflection: As I mention in my post on nation-state ideologies of language, I think there is too often a focus in language classes on cultural products and practices of a “target culture” that is then imagined as distinct from the “home culture”.  Following on translanguaging pedagogy’s notion of performative competence, I would rather focus on how culture is performed and negotiated in intercultural encounters rather than what is “authentic” in an imagined “target culture”.  While it is necessary to be aware of different cultural practices, it is also the case that cultures change over time, learners are not necessarily expected to follow certain cultural practices, and members of a particular culture may also be interested in intercultural interactions to try new practices.  Furthermore, developing a greater understanding of how culture is negotiated can help students in new intercultural situations, give them new insights on intercultural situations within national borders, and also help them see the potential to change cultural practices in their own culture that they dislike.  So far, we have focused on culture assignments that help students see diversity in “Arab culture” rather than imagine it as monolithic and separate from U.S. culture, and start with a “What is culture?” assignment.  However, it is clear that like language, students come to class with ideologies of what culture is, and I think we could be more explicit in our development of their critical intercultural reflection abilities.  Another summer project, ideas for implementation welcome! 

But what language? With regards to points three and four, a common concern in beginning classes is the time “taken away” from the target language if these are done in English, or the impossibility of doing these in the target language.  Yet I would argue that following translanguaging pedagogy, this is not a binary choice—there can be examples in the target language and reflection in English, or in mixed language, and this mix can change over time and according to context and student identities.  So the question is not what language we're doing these activities in, but how we're using all of our linguistic resources to develop new language and intercultural skills.      

Overall the challenge is of course in the details of implementing these practices, but I think that is also what makes it interesting.  If you’re a language teacher, have you implemented any of these practices? How or what advice do you have?

Ideologies of Language and the Beginning Language Class: Part 1


Photo by Celia Ortega on Unsplash

Last week, I talked about how the language of social relationships is often overlooked in beginning language classes, and I think this is one reason students use English.   As language teachers, I think we tend to view beginning language classes as the start of a language learning journey, or a step to more advanced classes or study abroad (despite the fact that it’s actually also the end for many students, especially with the way language requirements and offerings are being eliminated these days in the U.S.).  Yet choices about what is taught in beginning language classes are also excellent insights into ideologies of language, that again we rarely think about as teachers.  Here are some examples:

1) Vocabulary sets: colors, numbers, days of the week, etc.  In my experience, this is more popular in elementary and secondary setting than in higher ed, but you never know.  This fits in well with folklinguistic theories where vocabulary is seen as a discrete building block for learning further language.  The issue with this approach, for me, is that we rarely use things in sets.  It’s true that I could tell you what I do every day of the week (although this requires more than just the days of the week), but normally I’d talk about meeting on a particular day, or the cost or color of a particular object, that probably doesn’t require all the numbers or colors to describe.  Yet if you expand to describing multiple things, then you need more vocabulary beyond these sets, so they become insufficient.  

2) A grammar sequence: noun-adjective agreement, present tense, past tense, etc.  This approach basically sequences the curriculum according to grammatical elements, usually with the sense of starting with basic ones and increasing the complexity.  This also matches folklinguistic theories, where learned vocabulary is slotted into the grammar focus, and students are expected to be able to use the grammar in spontaneous activities, such as speaking, after understanding it conceptually.  The issue with this approach is that this expectation is based on an ideology of language that isn’t supported by any actual research on language learning—being able to describe grammar is the field of linguistics, not using language.  Certainly people can do both, but this is not a sequential process.  

3) Transactions abroad: this approach includes things like the dialogue in the airport, at the hotel, at the store, at the museum, etc., basically imagining students as tourists in a country where the target language is spoken.  If the focus is on the function, this corresponds well to functional theories of linguistics, although I do find that many times these dialogues are just broken down into vocabulary and grammar in a way that corresponds more to formal or folklinguistic theories of linguistics.  What bothers me about this approach is that it completely ignores the realities of Global English and tourism—a touristic space that doesn’t cater to English speakers is probably not going to last that long! Sure, it might be nice to order coffee in Arabic, but it’s rarely necessary.  This isn’t to say that I don’t think knowing the local language is useful when you’re traveling (it is!) but I think it is useful for establishing closer relationships, not for basic tourist transactions, so why focus on this? A second issue is that it assumes students will only use the language abroad, which ignores all the potential opportunities for interacting with speakers of that language within the borders of the United States.  It also assumes that students have the financial means and life flexibility to travel abroad, which may also not be the case.  

4) Communicative activities: this is classic communicative teaching, where students complete tasks that require them to share information and negotiate meaning, such as planning what they will need on a deserted island, or figuring out what items to take to a birthday party, or telling a story, or any other such activity.  This fits well with formal theories of language, in the sense that acquisition is seen as something that happens after processing a lot of language in context.  Oftentimes, linguistic elements are broken out to lead up to this task as well, such as learning particular vocabulary items or grammatical elements.  This could also fit with functional theories, depending on the task.  The issue I have with this approach is that while these activities are usually fun and engaging, the classroom is still the primary context—where will students plan for a deserted island trip outside of the classroom? They might plan a birthday party or tell a story, but there will need to be some sort of context leading up to this task, like making friends to throw a birthday party for, or getting into a situation where they want to tell a story to other people.  So while these tasks are certainly more contextualized than something like filling in the blanks on a verb conjugation worksheet, there is still a larger context missing, unless the classroom itself is seen as a complete context.  

5) Can-Do Statements: Can-Do statements are popular in the U.S. these days, and you can find examples from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages here (this approach has also existed in Europe for years).  Can-do statements tend to focus on a particular social function, which connects them to functional theories of language.  Focusing on a particular social function also tends to give a broader context than some of the communicative activities referenced above.  At the same time, these connections may not necessarily be clear—a Can-Do statement like “I can describe my family” assumes that you are in some sort of situation where you need to describe your family, and when is this, exactly? Can-Do statements can also run the risk of limiting themselves to transactions abroad, if only ones like “I can order food in a restaurant” are chosen for the curriculum.  In terms of the ones supplied by ACTFL, which I draw on for my own language classes, I again feel as though there is a focus on transactions and learning or sharing information, but little on developing the social relationships in which you would engage in these activities.  I suppose it’s partly true that you develop the relationships through the activities, but I feel that a lot of the social language tied up in pragmatics and sociolinguistics isn’t captured in this particular set of Can-Do Statements.  To a large degree, this may be because of the strong influence of formal linguistics on the fields of second language acquisition and language teaching in the United States, which as I mentioned in my post on this topic, ignores this type of language in its focus on acquisition.  This influence is seen in Can-Do statements that such as “I can deliver presentations on some concrete academic, social and professional topics of interest, using paragraphs across major time frames”, a sort of thinly veiled reference to different verb tenses.  

Now that I’ve critiqued several common ways of setting up beginning language classes, you might wonder what I do that is so much better . . . The short answer is that I’m currently using the Can-Do Statements approach, but looking to improve it, or at least address my own critiques, especially concerning social relationships.  Look out for what I think would be ideal (at least at this moment in time . . . ) next week!

Translanguaging Pedagogy: Recognizing social practices in the classroom


Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

In my last post, I discussed some practices where I think translanguaging pedagogy simply gives us a new mindset on practices that already occur in the language classroom  (or at least in my classroom).  In this post, I want to focus on an area of the language classroom where I think we could be more intentional about the use of translanguaging, namely social practices in the classroom.  

In my classroom experience, there is a correspondence between language and social function, where students will use Arabic for classroom tasks, such as skit, or presentation, or discussion, and English for “off-topic” tasks such as phone use or chatting with their friends in class.  Yes, there are exceptions, such as students discussing their process in a mix of English and Arabic before making a monolingual product, or the student who decided to joke with his (non-Arabic speaking) friend by texting him an insult in Arabic, but in general this is a pretty clear pattern. 

Usually, this use of English is dismissed as indicative of a lack of skill in Arabic (they’re not able to have a full discussion of their process in Arabic yet) or students not paying attention (they’re on their phones!).  However, I think it’s actually interesting to take a closer look at these processes, and how translanguaging pedagogy could disrupt these patterns to encourage more language learning.  

When students engage in off-task behavior, why do they tend to use English? After all, they are engaging in this behavior with other students who also know Arabic, so why not use Arabic? Or a mix? I think there are several reasons.  

1) Proficiency—sometimes, students just don’t know how to say these things in Arabic.  This is an obvious explanation, but also one that I think bears a little more attention.  Sure, sometimes they don’t know how to do this in Arabic, but a lot of social talk is pretty basic—we cover where do you live, where did you go, what are you doing this weekend in first year, so in second year students theoretically could do this in Arabic.  So proficiency is not the only reason.  Translanguaging pedagogy could take this even further, by encouraging students to say ask much as they can in Arabic, resorting to English for particularly vocabulary items rather than an entire sentence.  

2) Identity—Arabic is for Arabs (or maybe my Arabic teacher) and English is for my American friends.  This relates back to the nation-state ideology of language of course, and persists in the classroom when students see using Arabic with each other as “inauthentic” or “fake” compared to using it with Arabs.  Of course, since many of the Arabs they are likely to meet at home or abroad also speak English, this leads to future disappointment, when interlocutors with whom the students assume it is natural to speak Arabic want to also use English.  Does this mean that the way students talk to each other in Arabic mimics the behavior of Arabs talking to each other? Probably not, but is being exactly like a native speaker the goal anyway? Translanguaging pedagogy, which emphasizes the resources learners have in Arabic rather than those they do not, would encourage learners to use these resources with each other to the extent possible, rather than holding out for an “authentic” experience.  

3) Sociolinguistic variation and pragmatics: Social relationships, by definition, involve the negotiation of social distance, stance, and emotion.  In language, we accomplish these tasks through sociolinguistic variation and pragmatics.  For example, we use more informal language with our friends, pragmatic markers such as well or um, and emotional expressions such as OMG or swearing.  In my experience, the language of social relationships is rarely taught in lower level language classes, we instead tend to focus on transactional language (e.g. buying something) or decontextualized language (e.g. writing a description just to describe something).  Even in advanced classes, we tend to move on to advanced topics, such as politics or literature, rather than social relationships.  Although we claim to be doing “communicative” language teaching, we are focused on communicating information, rather than social relationships.  One reason is our tradition of drawing from formal theories of language for language teaching, which treat this language as “extra”, making it the subject of the advanced language classroom.  Another reason is that teaching this type of language is much harder than teaching colors or verb conjugations—there is little translation correspondence, and correct usage depends entirely on the context.  Yet translanguaging pedagogy (and functional theories of linguistics) which view language as inseparable from social context, would require us to address these parts of language in the classroom from the beginning, and in more meaningful ways than designating certain forms as categorically formal or informal. In the case of Arabic, this is, of course, a compelling argument for dealing with diglossia and integrating the teaching of Modern Standard Arabic and dialect from the beginning.  Sure, you can accomplish any transaction in MSA that you can in dialect (and arguably you could do this in English as well), but can you establish the same relationships? I think it is the latter that is in fact important to students.  

So perhaps students socialize in English in Arabic class because they are goofing off, and want to be off topic.  Students on study abroad are often criticized for just hanging out with co-nationals, or using too much English.  Yet what would happen if we focused on developing students’ language to establish and maintain social relationships in lower level classes, in addition to following a path from service transactions to discussing academic topics? 

Translanguaging Pedagogy in the Language Classroom: A New Mindset?

Photo by Nathaniel Shuman on Unsplash

As is most likely clear from previous posts on nation-state ideologies of language and the multilingual turn, I find the latter a more appealing ideology for my language classroom, especially when combined with functional approaches to linguistics, that emphasize what learners do with language in actual contexts.  Yet, as usual, the challenge for combining theory and practice is in the implementation—the theory sounds good, but what does it look like?

In this post, I’m going to focus on language use in the classroom that I think in fact looks the same from the outside, but where the mindset shift from the inside makes all of the difference.  I think when U.S. language teachers in particular first hear about translanguaging pedagogy there is a sense of resistance, because we think didn’t we just convince everyone that we should use the target language in the classroom? And now you’re talking about using English as a resource too? How will my students learn the target language if I don’t use it, especially given the power of English as a global language? 

This is a completely legitimate concern, and I think part of the confusion stems from the diverse contexts in which translanguaging pedagogies are used.  For example, a lot of the pioneering work with this has been with the learning of academic content in multilingual education settings.  In these settings, researchers such as Ofelia García have argued that if we want to accurately measure a child’s math ability for example, they need to be able to deploy all of their linguistic resources to demonstrate their ability, rather than being limited to those that correspond to a particular language such as English.  Yet in the language classroom, the goal is learning a particular language*, so how is it helpful to allow other ones? Isn’t this a return to the unsuccessful grammar-translation method?

My argument is no, an intentional translanguaging pedagogy** in the language classroom would deliberately employ all of the linguistic resources available to engage in learning that language.  In fact, I think this often already happens, we just don’t realize it! Here are some examples:

1) Teacher talk in the target language: Research on teacher talk in the language classroom shows that teachers do stay predominantly in the target language.  In my view, this fits with translanguaging pedagogy because the teachers have the linguistic resources to stay in the target language.  Therefore, using translanguaging pedagogy in the language classroom is not a reason for teachers to stop using the target language.  

2) Teacher use of cognates or mixed language: However, teachers are also able to use their linguistic resources in English, or other shared languages, to support the learning of the target language.  For example, if a teacher says “ashrab laban” this means nothing unless you know Arabic (or possibly a related language).  Yet if the teacher says “ashrab coca-cola”, you can probably guess that “ashrab” has to do with drinking.  Drawing upon cognates to create comprehensible input is a strategy used by many teachers already.  Yet rather than framing this as “falling back on English”, or “failing to use only Arabic” translanguaging pedagogy would look at this example as a strategic deployment of the available linguistic resources in the goal of learning Arabic.*

3) Student switches to English: As in the teacher example above, if a student is unable to come up with a particular word in Arabic, they might insert a word in English, and this would also be framed as a failure, or a deficit in their vocabulary.  Yet given that the classroom is at least a bilingual setting where everyone also speaks English, if they accomplish their communicative goal, is this a failure? Or is it a deployment of all linguistic resources to accomplish the communicative goal in a bilingual setting? Taking it even further, using that one English word may have allowed the student to continue with even more Arabic words, supporting their language learning goal, rather than breaking off communication to chide themselves for forgetting or asking the teacher how to say it.  Again, students switching to English is a common occurrence in the language classroom, but translanguaging pedagogy looks at this as an opportunity to employ all linguistic resources to learn the target language, rather than a failure or deficit of the student.  At least for me, this means I get to see my students doing cool things with language when they communicate, rather than failing to be monolingual Arabic speakers.  

4) Processing in English to produce in the target language: A second common example of when students use English in the language classroom is when they are working on preparing a monolingual project, such as a writing assignment or presentation.  As they put it together, it’s common to hear them using both English and the target language. If the expectation is that the classroom should be monolingual, this is again a failure.  Yet from the perspective of translanguaging pedagogy, it makes sense to use all linguistic resources to produce the best monolingual product possible, so this is not a failure, but a way to learn.   

These are just four examples that come to mind of things that already happen in the language classroom with a pedagogy of monolingual immersion that would still happen with translanguaging pedagogy.  If the practices are the same, a reasonable question to ask is why does it matter if the mindset is different? From my perspective, I would argue that it is important because it allows me to see my students as successful with the linguistic resources they have, and my role as the teacher being one of helping them invest these resources to gain more, rather than focusing on all of the things they can’t do yet (know all the vocabulary, do all the grammar, etc.).  This is a more pleasant classroom for me to participate in than one that is always failing to be monolingual.  But perhaps more importantly, focusing on how students are using their linguistic resources, rather than what language they are using allows us to deploy these resources more wisely in learning the target language.  For example, intentionally using a cognate, or a few words in English to allow students to understand or produce a longer text in the target language in fact leads to more use of this language.  Speaking English because it’s easier will not necessarily have the same effect.  Again, it is clear that students and teachers already translanguage in the classroom, but are we thinking about the ways in which this best supports language learning? If you’re a teacher or student, what do you think? How can you use all of your linguistic resources to learn more languages?


*It’s worth noting here that García also distinguishes between collections of linguistic elements in an individual’s repertoire and the “named languages” they correspond to, with the “named languages” being a social, rather than a linguistic construct.  This is an important distinction, but I’m not going to discuss it here.  

**There are probably differences between what I am calling translanguaging pedagogy and what previous researchers such as García or Li Wei consider it.  This is a result of me trying to figure out what it means in my context, and is not intended to be a critique or misrepresentation of what they advocate.  

What is language? The Multilingual Turn and Translanguaging Pedagogy

The “Multilingual Turn” is a term used to critique the monolingual ideologies originating in the nation-state that have dominated research in Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition in the U.S.  Although multilingual ideologies of language have long existed in highly multilingual contexts, they have recently gained traction in critiques of the fields of Second Language Acquisition, Multilingual education, and TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). However, there is certainly a gap in bringing this ideology to the U.S. language classroom where English speakers are learning other languages. These are my thoughts on the implications of a few key tenets of the multilingual turn for the language classroom.  

1) Multilingualism is not multiple monolingualism.  That is, multilinguals do not simply repeat the behavior of monolinguals across multiple separate linguistic contexts.  Their use of their languages varies by social function and does not always match the linguistic behavior of the monolingual speaker of a language.  For the language classroom, this means that the goal of language learning is not to mimic the exact linguistic behavior of a monolingual speaker of that language by “passing” as native or getting a “perfect” accent.  The goal is to use one’s linguistic resources to perform and negotiate social functions, a view that also fits in well with functional theories of linguistics.  

2) Language (and dialect boundaries) are fluid. While the nation-state required distinct language boundaries and geographic borders to invent itself, and thus there was pressure for linguistic behavior to conform to a national standard, multilingual ideologies point out that these boundaries are arbitrary and imagined, and that mixing between what the nation state imagined as distinct languages is the norm among multilingual speakers.  In the language classroom, which is an inherently multilingual situation, this means that mixed language is the norm, and enforcing a monolingual “target language only” environment is potentially upholding the nation state and missing opportunities for learning (see point 4 below).  

3) Language is a resource to perform and negotiate social functions.  As stated above, performing and negotiating social functions is the goal of using language, rather than mimicking the behavior of a monolingual speaker.  So rather than focusing on whether a learner’s pronunciation is “nativelike” the emphasis is on whether the learner can perform desired social functions.  Crucially, the performance of these functions is also negotiated, which means that the language that may be successful in one context with one interlocutor may not be successful in another one, or with another interlocutor.  This is in fact true for all speakers of a language, even monolinguals, and why monolinguals may also be unsuccessful in performing social functions, whether with other monolinguals or multilinguals.   

4) All speakers have their own individual linguistic repertoire.   Because language boundaries are fluid, it makes more sense to look at linguistic behavior from the perspective of the speaker, rather than focusing on to what extent it conforms to that associated with what bilingual education researcher Ofelia Garcia calls “named languages.”   Individuals have a unique linguistic repertoire that contains elements across languages and dialects, and this becomes a resource they can use in adding to this repertoire or learning other information.  In contrast to the idea that languages “interfere” with each other when learning them, multilingual ideologies consider them resources. Related to the second point above, this also means that it is normal for learners to deploy all of these resources when learning, resulting in what García, Li Wei, and others have termed “translanguaging” behavior.  In the language classroom, this means that hearing learners moving between and mixing Arabic and English for example is not necessarily a failure (because they should only be using Arabic) but potentially an illustration of them deploying all of their linguistic resources to learn Arabic.  When teachers and students work together to use all of their resources for learning, this can become what is called “translanguaging pedagogy”.  

As I said at the beginning of this post, while multilingual ideologies and translanguaging pedagogy seem to be gaining ground in certain fields of language learning, they seem to be less prevalent in the language classroom where English speakers are learning other languages.  I have a lot of thoughts on the value and implementation of translanguaging pedagogy in the language classroom, but that will need to wait for another post.  For now though, I think the key thing is to realize that so many of our current pedagogical practices (target language only, native speaker model, “neutral” varieties, and so on) stem from a nation-state ideology of language, and to ask ourselves if the nation-state is the ideology we want to uphold.  For me, it’s not, and this is the appeal of the multilingual turn and translanguaging pedagogy.  Stay tuned for my thoughts on implementation!

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.  


Does study abroad lead to intercultural learning?

For U.S. students, study abroad has never been more popular—according to the Open Doors data from the U.S. State Department, the number of students studying abroad has more than doubled since the turn of the 21st century, and about 10% of U.S. students will study abroad during their undergraduate career.  As a study abroad researcher, this is both exciting (because more students are getting this opportunity) and disheartening (because there seems to be little attention paid to what happens after students cross that national border and gain the status of a study abroad student).  

If intercultural learning is a goal of study abroad, both intercultural contact and reflection upon that contact are necessary components of the experience.  Although there are many (sometimes conflicting) views of the purpose of study abroad, one assumption in institutions of higher education in particular is that study abroad results in improved intercultural learning, due to the intercultural contact experiences students will have abroad.  Unfortunately, research on study abroad shows that neither intercultural contact nor intercultural learning is a guaranteed result of being placed in geographic proximity to other cultures.  Study abroad students may socialize primarily with co-nationals, engaging with locals only in service encounters.  Even when they are able to join local social networks, intercultural contact alone does not lead to intercultural learning—there must be reflection upon that contact for learning to occur.  

Sustained contact requires doing things together over time.  To make this happen, there generally has to be a shared interest, such as participation in a class, club, sport, job, organization, etc, or a value exchange, such as paying for accommodation, lessons, or engaging in a language exchange.  Yet finding these opportunities, particularly if students are studying abroad for a short period of time with little program support outside of the classroom, is not always easy.  

Then, there is reflection, which is a skill unto itself.  To learn from a contact experience, students must be able to think about that experience, and have the skill to interpret its events from multiple perspectives, and possibly in multiple languages.  This requires mental space that is not always available in programs packed full of classroom and extracurricular activities.  Study abroad is also a highly emotional experience, and experiencing strong emotions can also make reflection more difficult.  

Although I have heard people say that it is on the study abroad students themselves to find opportunities for contact and reflection, and that is what the “good” students do, I strongly believe that programmatic interventions are necessary if we want to make this a reality for the majority of students.  After all, 63% of U.S. students study abroad for 8 weeks or less, a time frame that allows a greater diversity of students to go abroad, but limits their opportunities to develop local connections and reflect upon these experiences.  

Of course, as is usually the case when applying research, there can be conflicts between what the research says is ideal, and the constraints of a particular context, such as student finances or the timing of an academic semester.  Although this used to frustrate me, I now believe it is an opportunity to look for creative solutions that maximize research ideals within these real world constraints.  

For example, in 2016 I developed a two-week faculty led study abroad program in Jordan, where the time frame would seem to severely limit the amount of intercultural contact students could engage in.   To extend this contact, I had the students engage in an 8-week telecollaboration with Jordanian language partners prior to the experience abroad and made activities with these partners the focus of each day abroad.  The telecollaboration built up a sense of anticipation for the trip, and allowed the students have already developed relationships with their partners prior to meeting them in person.  The activities, such as going to a movie, or cooking a meal, or visiting a historic site, allowed them to spend time together.  To encourage students to reflect upon their experiences for their partners, they were required to complete an ethnographic project for study abroad, which required them to think back upon these experiences, and find out possible interpretations of them from their partners.  Although a longer time period abroad would certainly have allowed for more learning, it would also have required a time and financial investment some of my students could not afford.   

So, does study abroad lead to intercultural learning? Sometimes. Let’s see if we can make it all the time!