Nudgework

With my teacherly black robes in mind, I’ve been giving my students a particular type of assignment recently that maximizes use of the teacher’s ability to give orders. This type of homework, which I think is worth exploring as a new teacher- and student-friendly homework paradigm, has a few qualities in common:

  • It places students in situations where input is likely.
  • It does so with directions that on the surface have little to do with language learning.
  • It involves minimal paperwork.
  • It requires little or no reporting or reflecting.

This kind of homework is ideal for low-intermediate students, particularly in a place like Southern California where it is very easy to spend one’s entire life surrounded by L1 speakers (of Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Arabic, Farsi, or what have you), and a little nudge is all that might be needed to gain practically unlimited meaningful input or interaction. The goals are increasing input, building confidence, and setting up habits which will facilitate language learning throughout the students’ lives.

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As an example, one of my recent homework assignments requires students to get a tutor’s signature and then draw (not take) the tutor’s picture (our college offers a variety of tutoring services). There is nothing in the homework assignment that requires them to seek a specific lesson from the tutor or even to ask a question. The point of the homework is just to put the student in a situation (talking to a tutor face-to-face) where their instincts will lead them to inevitably have some kind of interaction, as well as give them the experience of having talked to a tutor and thus taking away some of their reticence to do so in the future.

This kind of homework tends to rely on human instincts to interact or to latch on to things that are interesting to them in any given situation to be effective for language learning. If a nudgework assignment is to “sit at a café for 30 minutes without your smartphone”, it’s very likely that their trip will include a conversation with a barista and incidental input from Auto Trader or Healthy Living magazines. It’s the kind of thing students could feasibly do anytime, but a directive from someone standing in front of the white board makes much more likely.

The downside is that input is simply likely with this type of assignment, not guaranteed. A much more straightforward language assignment, along the lines of “read this and then prove you read it with a detailed report”, makes input practically inescapable (and makes it much easier to talk about it as a class if everyone read the same thing). The downside of a traditional assignment is that the input will probably be of less interest to the students, and a large part of the time taken for the assignment will be devoted to proving to the teacher that the input happened rather than getting more input. Krashen isn’t the last word on these things anymore, but I still tend to think input is superior to reporting when it comes to moving the interlanguage ball forward.

In my teaching career, this nudgework idea evolved out of my Language Logs, which are a regular type of assignment I give that follow the format: “Find examples of grammar point X on the Internet or in real life. Copy and paste/post a photo on the discussion board and describe the grammatical form.” The Language Logs are still a regular part of all of my classes, but particularly in my lower intermediate classes, I wanted a kind of assignment that would facilitate more natural interaction/input and have less emphasis on metalinguistic analysis.

As a last perk, there isn’t much to grade.

input-reporting

Stereotype threat and ELT

When they speak their L2, our language students are undertaking something mentally taxing while monitoring themselves for mistakes and in the presence of people who expect them to struggle. This is almost a perfect recipe for stereotype threat.

What is stereotype threat?

In case you’re behind on your liberal intelligentsia required reading, stereotype threat (ST) is “subtle reminders of stereotypes that presume the incompetence of certain groups. This ‘threat in the air’ can cue a concern with confirming these stereotypes that can impair the ability to perform up to one’s potential” (Schmader, 2010, p. 14). In short, fear of confirming negative stereotypes about one’s group takes up mental overhead and reliably and demonstrably hurts performance, and triggering this effect is as simple as reminding people of the stereotype before giving the test. This effect is real and has been replicated many times with many different groups – men and women most often (Johns et al, 2005) , but also White men and Asian men (Aronson et al, 1999) – even tracking implicit bias scores on a national scale in a study with hundreds of thousands of subjects (citation too long – click here).

The precise psychological mechanism behind this is apparently under dispute, but general anxiety along the lines of an affective filter (I don’t think I need a citation for this) seems not to be it. Rather, mental resources seem to be taken up imagining ways to fail. Working memory available for the task is reduced in favor of monitoring oneself for mistakes and spontaneous, intrusive negative thoughts (Cadinu et al., 2005; Schmader, 2010).

What’s it got to do with ELT?

I think it should be clear that our students, to varying degrees, are under ST almost all the time. Less obvious is the fact that many teachers are, too. Learners and teachers alike may be facing a penalty to their language use that has a cause besides incomplete knowledge or acquisition.

If placed in a context where stereotypes are known and especially when ELLs are implicitly being compared to NSs, we can expect ELLs to perform worse than otherwise at language-mediated tasks (I’m reminded of this article in which the author recounts having found solace in the relatively language-free world of math in her teenage ESL years – the Asian math stereotype probably didn’t hurt either). We can expect NNS teachers also to make more errors when they know they are being evaluated by NS teachers. Performance is likely to be worse both for input and for output in both cases. As Rydell et al (2010) write, “At least in the present task setting, we see that overt emphasis on the existence of the stereotype both prevents learning … and, to a significant degree, prevents expression of learning that has already occurred” (p. 14046) (Yes, that is the real page number). ST is likely to affect students in the ELT classroom as well – an ESL class in the USA where everyone thinks “Asian students don’t talk” is probably worse for Asian students, all other things held equal, than an EFL class in Asia taught by a NNS.

These conditions follow NNSs outside the classroom, too. Even well-known ELLs like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Melania Trump have jokes made at the expense of their intelligence – mostly based on accent, the hardest part of NS speech to adopt. It doesn’t seem to have discouraged Arnold, but whenever he speaks in public he is one error away from confirming everyone’s perception of him. I have certainly experienced this feeling myself, and I didn’t have Arnold’s fortitude. Our students’ lives are replete with conditions in which they will be judged on their language use and stereotypes about their national group or ESL students in general are known.

The mechanisms of ST appear especially designed to vitiate SLA. Working memory is probably as relevant as a danger to language acquisition as it is to math, but hyperconsciousness of mistakes is clearly more relevant to language use than many other subjects. Teachers may be instructing students to do exactly that as an effort to encourage noticing (Schmidt, 1993), usually thought of as a good thing, while ST holds self-monitoring to be an inhibitor of performance (Schmader, 2010). It is possible that while noticing facilitates acquisition in the long run, it distracts from other essential processes (e.g. understanding the intentions of one’s conversation partner) in the short run.

In fact, one effect of ST has been described as reduced ability to sort relevant information from noise, which would clearly hurt students’ ability to notice and turn input to intake. One such experiment used Chinese characters to test women’s “visual processing”, and found a ST effect of clear relevance for language teachers (Rydell et al, 2010).

Questions for study

If you haven’t noticed yet, I haven’t done any research to back up my suspicions that ST is an extremely important future topic for SLA. I do have a few ideas for research questions:

  • Assuming ST for SLA is real, how will we know? Grammaticality judgment tests seem the most analogous to the mathematics-based research on ST that has been the most common so far, but wouldn’t real-time processing skills (like participating in a conversation) show a larger effect?
  • What constitutes a “trigger” for ST? Is the presence of NSs enough, or the possibility that NSs will read/see the students’ output, or just a box for “nationality” at the top of the test?
  • For that matter, how would you avoid triggering ST or creating a control group? ST-inducing instructions often look something like Candinu et al’s: “recent research has shown that there are clear differences in the scores obtained by men and women in logical-mathematical tasks” (2005 p. 574) (Interestingly, they left it to the test-takers to infer that women did worse, not just different, on these tests.) Non-ST instructions either simply leave that part out or explicitly negate it, along the lines of “… that there are no differences in the scores…”. How would this condition be accomplished plausibly on a language test of NNSs? Would it be believable to preface a test with, “This grammar topc shows no measurable differences between American and Chinese test-takers”?
  • What groups have relevant stereotypes that could trigger ST? Is “ESL student” enough of a stigma? (Many students act as if it were.)
  • Are different ELT classes more threatening than others? Can interventions by the teacher mitigate ST, for example by making explicit the fact that students will not be judged by NS norms?

References

Aronson, J., Lustina, M. J., Good, C., Keough, K., Steele, C. M., & Brown, J. (1999). When white men can’t do math: Necessary and sufficient factors in stereotype threat. Journal of experimental social psychology 35/1, pp. 29-46.

Cadinu, M., Maass, A., Rosabianca, A., and Kiesner, J. (2005). Why Do Women Underperform under Stereotype Threat? Evidence for the Role of Negative Thinking. Psychological Science 16/7 pp. 572-578. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40064271

Johns, M., Schmader, T., & Martens, A. (2005). Knowing is half the battle: Teaching stereotype threat as a means of improving women’s math performance. Psychological Science 16/3, pp. 175-179.

Rydell, R. J., Shiffrin, R. M., Boucher, K. L., Van Loo, K., Rydell, M. T., & Steele, C. M. (2010). Stereotype threat prevents perceptual learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107/32 pp. 14042-14047. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25708852

Schmader, T. (2010). Stereotype Threat Deconstructed. Current Directions in Psychological Science 19/1 pp. 14-18. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41038531

Schmidt, R. (1993). Awareness and Second Language Acquisition. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 13, pp. 206-26.

Correlations with final grades, spring 2018 edition

Every semester I throw a bunch of survey data, biographical data, and assignment scores from my classes into an Excel sheet and see what pops up.  This semester, like the last one, yielded some interesting information.

The tl;dr version is:

  1. Work is a huge predictor of low grades
  2. I should continue to push the importance of drafts in writing
  3. I need to be careful not to evaluate students too much on their familiarity with my style of class
  4. Perhaps I need to design better questionnaires

Read on for the details.

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The Holliday Trap in ESL

Holliday’s Appropriate Methodology and Social Context has stuck with me mostly in the form of a single anecdote: A PhD teacher in an Egyptian university tries to implement current communicative methods, which to him are the fruits of his advanced degree, but is stymied when students, feeling honored to have a teacher with such a glittering CV, do their utmost to sit and listen to the transmitted wisdom that they feel should be forthcoming.

I have elected to call this the Holliday Trap, not because Holliday himself experienced it (although he probably has, because I think most language teachers have), but just because it appears in his book.

The trap is that teacher education tends to focus more and more on inter-student communication as it gets more advanced, and teachers with more credentials tend to be more immersed in the communicative norms that currently animate ELT.  At the same time, students tend to value the class and value the teacher more when the teacher is highly credentialed, and show it by adopting a respectful, deferential student role.

The details of the student role vary from culture from culture, but it rarely aligns with the degree of student-centered, student-led communication that a modern language teacher is likely to believe in.  In the country where I taught for 12 years, Japan, the default student posture is silent downward gazing, and the deferential version of that is silent manic scribbling.  In the US some degree of speaking is polite and shows interest, but students in foreign language classes still much prefer the abstraction of talking about the TL rather than in it.  In neither case does the “student role” coincide with ELT best practices.

To illustrate, let me walk you through some familiar cases.  A neophyte, diploma-still-warm teacher in a private language school (eikaiwa, hagwon, etc.) will find plenty of opportunity to apply a communicative curriculum, such as he understands it to be a curriculum at all.  He will likely find students who see the teacher as their equal (or inferior) and are willing to converse and engage in meaning-focused communication.  Conversely, attempts to break out the grammar terms that he remembers from grade school may be met with some disappointment or bemusement.  Meanwhile, a colleague in the middle of her MA may find theoretical justification for much of the classroom give-and-take.  She may develop a repertoire of conversation-based activities to scaffold the particular skills that she is becoming more aware of, and find students refreshed by the additional rigor in her classes.  She may miss the easy exchange of views and camaraderie when she moves on to college-level EFL, where students are inexperienced with communication, in numbers and in seating that make egalitarian rapport harder, and in thrall to the abstract and academic rather than the applied.  She finds that lectures on grammar are the smoothest parts of lessons, as everyone knows what to do or at least pretend to do.  Her department head, who occasionally receives complaints that the young lecturers ask students to use grammar without teaching it first, has a PhD and a research focus on “teachability of pragmatics and strategic competence”.  She rarely takes non-major courses anymore, preferring to skim the cream by taking upper division electives.  She is comfortable lecturing in CLIL-style classes to students capable of benefiting from that class style.  She has been frustrated when trying to apply a similar class style in non-major classes.

In ESL, we have many similar rungs of the ladder of prestige I have out outlined above, from private ESL (often perfunctory exchangers of tuition for visas) to Harvard University’s ELP and other programs designed to prepare students for undergraduate and graduate programs.  At community colleges, a single classroom may be used for both purposes on the same day: tuition-free, 0-unit adult ESL in the morning followed by academic writing for international or transfer students in the afternoon.  At the beginning and intermediate levels, adult ESL and credit ESL may even share most of their student base.  Where they differ most significantly within those levels is often in prestige.

(To set the stage more completely, let me say that the teachers in both the non-credit and credit programs have the same minimum qualifications and the two programs often share materials as well.  Credit classes, however, cost money, have closed enrollment (students can only add for the first few weeks), and have explicit matriculation goals in their course descriptions.  Adult ESL, being free, fills up faster, leading many students to take credit ESL although they do not intend to matriculate.)

Broadly, adult ESL is meant to serve integrative goals and credit ESL to serve instrumental goals, although both purport to be working toward long-term life goals such as employment and acculturation in a broad sense.  That said, it’s not unusual for students to take credit ESL to its highest level (or even highest non-writing level) and then stop before transferring, indicating to me at least that not a few see credit ESL at beginning and intermediate levels as a more expensive, more rigorous, “premium” version of adult ESL.  This has interesting implications in light of the Holliday Trap.

First, students are more likely to adopt a “traditional” listening-and-notetaking student role in credit ESL.  If I am right that they see it as basically a more “serious” version of adult ESL, they will prefer lectures to tasks and tasks to conversation.  It has certainly been my experience that it is much easier to get everyone in class to look at a projector screen than to talk amongst themselves, although talking with peers is the more intuitive human activity.  Students might expect to “receive” more knowledge rather than explore or co-construct it in a program that they perceive as more prestigious.

Second, students will approach even similar topics a more orthodox way.  My experience is that it takes much more prefacing and justification before introducing input-heavy methods in intermediate credit ESL than in either ESL writing (also credit) or especially in eikaiwa.  Students quite often see conversation tasks as a break rather than a task, and that is after a first-day PowerPoint and frequent reminders throughout the semester that, as Thornbury put it, “conversation is language at work”.  Not 100% of the class rejects communicative or input-focused methods, of course, but some pushback from most students and a lot from a few students is normal.

Third, students will regard the teacher as more of a source of knowledge and less of a peer. I’ve heard students’ opinions on other teachers in the credit program, and they tend to focus on the clarity of their grammar explanations rather than their rapport with the class or the chances for communication that they offer.  I’m not sure what students say about adult ESL teachers, but the few times I’ve seen them interact they’ve seemed much more egalitarian than what I’ve seen of credit ESL teachers (I’ve seen many, many more credit ESL teachers, as an assistant, as a sub, and at meetings).

The irony of this increased seriousness is that it doesn’t help credit ESL teachers to achieve their arguably more difficult goals.  As the Holliday Trap would imply, teachers tend to adopt more communicative and less pedantic methods as they accrue more education because these methods are supported by research.  An adult ESL teacher freed from the expectation to “teach” in the traditional sense is probably a more effective teacher overall as his or her modern methods have to wade through less of the tall grass of student expectations.

I suppose the ideal position is for the students to be in a rigorous, demanding course but not to realize it.

Success under/over coopted ELT

Geoff’s recent post got me thinking about my time in Japan trying to teach against or around a system that saw English as one of many quantified and commodified skills to sell.  Like a lot of discussions involving Japan, it triggered some vestigial indignation somewhere in my gut which had to be purged.

The process of quantification of the skill we call “English” for the purpose of rational allocation of workers to jobs has proceeded to an extreme level in Korea and Japan, who may represent the high-water mark among numerous other societies where English skill as represented by a single number or a blank space on a resumé is a matter of life and death for millions of test takers and job seekers.

As you might expect given the overwhelming importance of that blank space, the skill that it is supposed to represent often gets relegated to the background in favor of easily understood and common-currency heuristics like a TOEIC score or a university degree.  Tricks for gaming that number or raising it through brute force proliferate. “English teaching” at least in Japan and Korea is widely understood to be synonymous with standardized test preparation, and “washback” with connotations of dutiful responsibility rather than regrettable side effect.  Because the blank space for “English skill” is of extreme importance while there are no corresponding spaces for “average hours of sleep” or “happy childhood”, young people spend much of their adolescence in classrooms preparing to give the market what it wants.  This video brought back a lot of memories for me, including the sight of bicycles outside cram schools that I passed on my way home from work at 10:30 pm.

Geoff winds up concluding that because English teachers will find themselves serving this inhumane system, they should not go to work in Korea.  I disagreed with this point at first, mostly because it’s exactly the countries with these hegemonic, neo-liberal (two words I never thought I’d use after finishing my BA) English testing regimes that seem to have jobs for English teachers without MAs; that is, a lot of good teachers’ careers wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t gone to work in one of these countries in their 20s.  Therefore, I thought, these systems actually end up contributing a lot indirectly to global ELT.  Also, I believed that good teachers doing honest work within those systems could still have positive effects on students’ lives beyond tests.  My conspiratorial brain and my fondly-remembering brain disagree on this point.

A decent metaphor for the role of an anti-establishment English teacher in such a system is Daniel Kaluuya’s character from the 2nd episode of Black Mirror.  This character similarly feels righteously indignant and rebellious in an inhuman system, but sees that rebellious energy coopted and ultimately used as a piece of the same system.  If you haven’t seen it or don’t remember, Kaluuya’s character Bing has a musically gifted coworker at their grind of a job (hilariously, pedalling stationary bikes) in a vaguely dystopia future society where intrusive attention merchant-style media is omnipresent.  This coworker takes a chance at using her genuine, pristine vocal talent to audition for a TV talent show.  At her audition, instead of being made a popstar, she is coercively recruited to act in adult films instead, in a grotesque example of matching talent to market.  Bing, distraught, returns to the talent show later under the pretense of auditioning, and in the midst of a seeming dance routine he suddenly holds a shard of glass to his own throat and uses the captive TV cameras to deliver a searing, authentically emotional speech into the TV cameras.  The judges, suitably moved, declare his performance extraordinary and proceed to give him his own show where he delivers regular similar speeches, always with his signature shard of glass, for a devoted fanbase (still pedalling their bikes).  The episode ends with Bing living the high life thanks to having found a market for his talent due to his successful “audition”.

To give my Black Mirror-like take first, even with the most stridently anti-test, integrative, teaching-the-whole-person way it can possibly be practiced, ELT in Japan or Korea ends up feeding the system of commodification, just stuffing it with ever-more-valuable commodities.  Any attempts to break out of that single space just end up putting something all the more precious in it, as truly sincere and irreplaceable things are, like Bing’s speech, ultimately just rarer and accordingly more valuable products.  Those “genuine articles” in our case can include communicative competence, international perspective, study abroad experience, and above all, a real feel for English not only as an academic subject but as a living tool of communication.  All of these signify a truly high-quality English education, and to an HR office, a superior version of an in-demand skill.  A sincere and genuine English education also raises the mean on everyone else, making still more inhuman grinding necessary from those not lucky enough to have a truly outstanding, break-the-mold teacher or opportunities for international education.  A worldly, proactive, SKY’s-the-limit English learner represents inflation from the perspective of hiring or college admission boards.  As Bing’s judges declare, That is, without a doubt, the most heartfelt thing I’ve seen on a resumé since ELT began.

That is what I fear my legacy of 12 years of English school ownership will be: a few  former students with outstanding enough scores in a saleable skill to get salaries and bonuses 3% higher alongside hundreds more with only a vague memory that they once went to eikaiwa. Premonitions of this fate were common throughout the life of our school, as some of our star students reliably quit every year to devote more time to Center Test studies (our Suneung), made clear their intentions to drop English after getting into college almost as a rite of passage, or visibly stopped caring about any classroom pursuit that didn’t have a clear test payoff.  Mind you, it wasn’t every student who gave us this feeling, and we always had enough students to live, but once 2 or 3 of the students that you’d really been seeing bright things in the future for tell you that they’re quitting because their juku (cram school) teacher told them eikaiwa is a waste of time, a bit of the shine starts to come off of every student.  Parents even in some of the best cases tended to cement the impression that everything led back to tests – the most heartfelt thanks we usually got from parents was that they really appreciated how our passion and genuine connection to their kids had helped them increase their test scores.  The students themselves sometimes echoed these sentiments, which didn’t please us as much as they seemed to think it would.  Trying to beat the test or go above and beyond it only made us more successful at teaching the test.

That’s the dark take, and when I need some reason to feel better about my move to the US, it gives me some comfort, grass-isn’t-greener style.  On the other hand, if I need to remove the shadow that that view casts over my time in Japan and the genuinely warm memories I have of my students, I need to accept that not everything that is part of a “system” is inhuman or corrupt.  My former students making 3% more money doesn’t stop them from being complete individuals or having the same warm memories that I have.  In many other circumstances, I would view the reduction of a complicated construct to a single value to be very useful, given of course that no such value will ever be free from questions of validity.  A society-wide preference for quantifiable skills to an extent reflects a need to fairly and quickly evaluate millions of people a year, which isn’t a sin in itself.  Maybe what is needed is not an end to commodification but more commodification – a line on college applications for “average time spent on non-school pursuits” to be weighed alongside TOEIC scores.

The simple present, unsimplified

Since I started my hobby/rigorous research pursuit of conducting Google Forms surveys on grammar, I have been thinking about the big one.  The one that combines the most assumptions and nuance and the simplest form into a wad of meaning with white dwarf-like density, which is maximally unbalanced in its complexity and the earliness and brevity with which it is treated in grammar textbooks.  The big one is, of course, the present simple.

This is going to be a long post.

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My black robes, pt. 2

Whatever a teacher’s job is now, it’s not knowing a bunch of things.  Everyone carries a device that immediately connects them to almost all human knowledge in his or her pocket.  Given that everyone also knows that this is true, why do people still show up in classes?  It may be that hearing a teacher talk vs. reading a Wikipedia page or watching an instructional video may be analogous to seeing a concert vs. watching on on YouTube.  I think it is also because listening to a teacher motivates you to do things that you wouldn’t do otherwise, even if they were still available.

In the last post under this title I posited that a major role of language teachers may be facilitating learning by simply stepping into the teacher role and using its authority to make students seek and attend to language input that is already all around them.  In this sense it was similar to the ability of judges to coerce (convince? cause? I’m not sure how relevant volition is to this effect) their charges to follow treatment programs, take medications, or enact behaviors that are available without the judge’s involvement but are more likely to be used with it.  In this post I mean to look into what exactly might be comprised in a teacher’s black robes, accepting for the sake of argument that we do indeed wear them.  What gives us our unique ability to influence students’ actions?

Insider status.  A teacher is more intimately acquainted with the culture that speaks the target language, with the school system, and with the educational culture than the students are.  If not, he/she knows how to fake it.  Seen through a Communities of Practice lens, a teacher is a knowledgeable insider that it behooves outsiders to listen to and adopt the practices of.  This overlaps somewhat with a judge’s insider status in the criminal justice system, although it should be said that a teacher’s black robes could depend more on students wanting to join a group that the teacher represents than drug users want to join a clique of criminal justice elites alongside their judge.

Positioning.  A judge sits apart and higher from everyone else.  A teacher is not usually different in this respect – even if the teacher isn’t always physically in his/her seat, that seat is usually at the front of the room, ready to be occupied.  The teacher also has the only desk with a computer provided by the school (sometimes) and the projector controls at his/her fingertips.  All of this says to students “we have to listen to this person”.  Something about the teacher facing the opposite way as everyone else cements this impression.

 

Timing.  The teacher is often the first and last person that students see on their way in and out of the classroom.  More than anyone else, a teacher seems to be a permanent fixture in the classroom.  I’m sure many of my students think I pull a futon out of the supply cabinet after they leave.  This may enhance the teacher’s ability to represent the institution whose classroom it is and may dovetail with the teacher’s status as a target culture insider.

Age.  Some of us are lucky enough to “look the part” naturally.  While this certainly isn’t fair and to an extent is a phenomenon that we should actively try to fight, looking like stereotypical conceptions of a “teacher” or just an “authority figure” can help make students listen to you.  Much like black robes incline people to listen to a judge, a paternal or matronly appearance might help give a teacher’s words some extra weight.  Extra weight itself might also help in this regard.

In the same vein…

Clothes.  Teachers may facilitate students’ dedication to studying simply by dressing like someone who is in charge.  Like the black robes that a judge’s authority metaphorically and perhaps literally derives from, a teacher’s clothes might give his/her words greater power.  Unfortunately, this is not simply a matter of moving a slider of formality more towards the funerary end, but means wearing a costume which may only be available in a Men’s L or XL.  Consider how much easier it must have been for Donald Trump to choose clothes that looked authoritative than it was for Hillary Clinton (and how her team but not his might have dwelled on whether “authoritative” was even a good look for her).

I have made recent modifications in my wardrobe partly for pedagogical reasons.  Because I used to work in a context where a paramount concern was getting students to relax enough to speak, I deliberately chose shirts and ties that defused any spark of threatening masculinity. Towards the end of my time in Japan you might have termed my style of dress “technicolor dandy” or “waiter at an upscale clown-themed restaurant”.  I have muted the colors because, as it turns out, students here could sometimes stand to be a little more respectful of the teacher’s authority.

Being male.  Here’s where it gets officially unfair.  In ESL or EFL, part of the rich melange of cultures present in the classroom may be some unreformed chauvinism.  Students are, broadly speaking, doing a very brave thing by living in a new country with a foreign culture and language, and even those who sometimes express opinions you would politely call “parochial” are clearly open to some new experiences and ideas – they’re here, after all.  Still, some resist suggestions, commands, and even assignments from teachers that they somehow don’t feel look the part, and a sizable chunk of looking the part is looking more like their dad than their mom.  There are disadvantages to being stereotyped “a male teacher”, sure, but getting students to give weight to your words is not usually one of them.

(Side note: There is an argument sometimes made against the effects of systemic oppression and in favor of individualism that really strong people can always succeed and do as well as anyone else.  It goes like this: Sure, life is hard and unfair, but that’s why you gotta tough it out, and if you don’t make it, it’s your own fault.  It’s usually true that especially strong people can find success when average people don’t, but the point is that non-oppressed people don’t have to pass that inner strength test or even think about it.  As it turns out, having to spend time and energy thinking about whether everyone thinks you’re legitimate creates significant drag.  Not having to even entertain the thought that anyone might consider you illegitimate in your position is a privilege.)

Being NS.  The conventional argument against native-speakerist hiring practices is that asking NSs to teach their language is like asking a fish to teach you how to swim.  That argument is persuasive to many people (mostly other English teachers), but neglects a major reason that students become interested to learn languages in the first place – they have some idea of what the target language community looks like, and they want to be part of it.  Failing to match the NS stereotype, even if the stereotype is incorrect or unjust, may make getting them to listen to you harder.  Yes, students can be brought around to accepting a NNS teacher, and some of them know the advantages and actively seek them out.  The point is, more of them will listen to a NS teacher and not need any convincing to do so.


At least the above is probably true in many contexts.  I found that in Japan my authority on what people actually said in English was usually considered more valid than any NNS, no matter how qualified (another example of NS privilege – our mistakes are considered features, examples of real-world usage), although students would be more likely to accept directions to study outside from my NNS peers (of course, both the students and NNS teachers were Japanese, which undoubtedly played a part).  I also heard from female teachers that students would accept their directives if they came as “support” rather than instructions.  I’ve seen many more female teachers openly disrespected by students than male, and in one case seen one openly accused of incompetence by a male student, who later seemed unable to understand why other people held her in higher authority than him.  Most teachers in the US seem not to dress up much, and this doesn’t seem to hurt their authority, while teachers in Japan generally wore formal officewear as part of looking the part (in both university and eikaiwa, although I suspect it served different semiotic functions).  I think in my case my demeanor might require some compensatory formality.  It is probably safe to say that what makes students take the teacher’s enjoinders to attend to ambient input and take their medicine varies from teacher to teacher and context to context, but the effect is one that it would behoove most teachers to recognize and use.

Fire alarm effects in ELT

I didn’t expect such a great metaphor for the ESL/EFL classroom to come from a writer on artificial intelligence.

In his article “There’s No Fire Alarm for Artificial Intelligence”, Eliezer Yudkowski uses the metaphor of a fire alarm to explain situations in which people act strangely without it being a faux pas.  His version of a fire alarm is a public messaging system that would give people permission to act with what in his opinion is the correct amount of urgency in the face of dangerously advanced and amoral (at least by our standards) AI.  A fire alarm, he postulates, is not simply an indication that danger exists (the other main indication being smoke), but a signal that it is acceptable to act as if it does in front of other people.  The acceptability comes from the fact that (actual and metaphorical) fire alarms are heard by everyone, and one’s knowledge that others also hear it enables one to take part in behavior like descending the stairs and paying a visit to the parking lot in the middle of a workday knowing that coworkers will not hold it against you.  Like many widely-shared messages, a fire alarm turns insane solo behavior into acceptable, even encouraged, group behavior.

(I heard this for the first time on Sam Harris’s podcast.  Yudkowski sounds exactly as you might expect someone with his job description to.  Incidentally, I have some basic disagreements with a lot of what Harris says, but still enjoy listening to his interviews.  I will be more specific in a future post.)

It’s pretty close to universal knowledge that speaking one’s L2 in front of other people is face-threatening behavior.  Consider the range of situations where reproach or shame are possible results – besides the obvious ones (sitting alone on the bus), you may be considered rude, stupid, foreign, pretentious, or just strange for suddenly bursting into French at your pâtisserie or watching Chinese soap operas on your phone.  Naturally, the number of “safe” contexts to speak your L2 increases if you move to a society where most people speak that language, but it is still not close to 100% of them – at the very least, you will mark yourself as a foreigner by “practicing” in public, and in the worst case, people can just be unbelievable assholes around 2nd language speakers.  Of course, there are learners who don’t feel threatened at all by speaking their L2, and maybe those are the same people who would immediately perform a fire drill alone at the first hint of smoke in the air.  Most people need acknowledgement that they won’t be judged negatively for trying and often failing to make themselves understood in a new code – they need a public signal that legitimizes it for everyone.  Something in the ESL/EFL classroom is necessary to transform society’s gaze from judgmental to facilitative.

This may turn out to be another black robe effect.  That is, the teacher might be the variable that turns language practice from face-threatening to the group norm.  The inverse is clearly true – teachers can definitely act in ways the discourage open practice or make students ashamed of failed attempts at communication (or worse, ashamed of imperfect grammar).  Teachers can also strengthen the norm of practicing English within the class by spelling it out explicitly and practicing it themselves.  I suspect though that a lot of the legitimization of language practice is due to the physical edifice of the classroom and the rituals one must go through to join a class – signing up, visiting the bursar’s office, carrying a bookbag, etc.  You can test this by walking out of your classroom during a task and secretly observing how much of the communication in your absence is still in English, and compare it to what happens when a waiter who shares an L1 with the cook is done taking your order.  As in the experiments that Yudkowski cites to make his case, students’ shared understanding of what behavior is validated is essential for any of that behavior to actually take place. Whatever it is that is acting as a fire alarm in language classes, its effects depend as much on the people as on the signal.

Grammar Mining (and the collected Mark SLA Lexicon)

Many of us agree that teaching “at the point of need” (as I believe Meddings and Thornbury put it) is an ideal context for formal grammar teaching.  Students’ trying to communicate something provides clear evidence that they need the grammar that would facilitate communicating it, and depending on how close they come to natural expression, evidence that their internal representation of English is capable of taking on this additional piece of information.

In interlanguage punting, I conjectured that taking a guess at grammar students may need in the future and organizing a lesson around a particular grammar point was justifiable if the lessons you used to introduce that grammar would be memorable long enough for a “point of need” to be found before the lesson was forgotten.  At the time, I was teaching weekly 1-hour grammar workshops with rotating groups students at different levels, and as I could not teach reactively I had to justify my grammar-first (formS-focused) approach.

Read on for the last post before the new semester starts.

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The urinal cake principle

Imagine yourself pushing through a crowded train station during rush hour.  As you pass a certain doorway, you detect hints of lavender and hibiscus coming from within.  Do these smells evoke:

  1. just flowers, or
  2. first flowers then toilets based on your prior knowledge and experience regarding the likelihood that lavender is blooming within 100 feet of a subway platform, or
  3. just toilets?

This is the best way for me to understand the principle of dead metaphors.  A dead metaphor is a process of cutting out a semiotic middleman. The process of a metaphor dying is a powerful and inevitable one that affects culture and particularly language in some subtle ways, as I hope to illustrate in as colorful a way as I can.

The process, in dense and unfriendly language, is this: The definition of a symbol over time changes from the first thing (flowers) to the second thing indirectly through the first thing (toilets via floral-scented deodorizing discs), and finally just comes to stand for the second thing (toilets).  This can be true even if the form of the symbol does not change – e.g. if the deodorizer continues to have a floral scent.  The reference stops being indirect and just goes straight for the thing that it was always eventually getting at.

I’ve been trying to think of more real-world examples of this principle in action.  Here are a few more:

A clothing brand (say, Members Only) is associated with rich people.  Poor people start to buy that clothing brand on sale or used because it evokes rich people.  The brand comes to be associated with poor people’s desperation to look rich.  (Louis Vuitton in Japan is rumored to head off this effect by buying back their used bags and burning them to prevent them going to the secondhand market)

“Political correctness” is a recognized phenomenon in polite discourse.  Reactionaries vocally dislike it and use it as a stick with which to beat their cultural enemies.  It comes to be much more widely known for its rhetorical value in reactionary discourse (specifically, their hatred of it) than as a phenomenon within polite discourse.

A famous person with an idiosyncratic name (say, “Zoey”) appears.  People who have kids during the zenith of that person’s career name their kids after him/her.  That name comes to be associated with that generation of kids rather than the famous person.

Taboo concepts have euphemisms invented to avoid direct reference to them while still maintaining the ability to refer to them indirectly if necessary.  Subsequent generations come to think of the euphemisms as simply the names for those taboo concepts, since those are usually the only words for those concepts that they ever hear.  Those generations invent new euphemisms to replace the no-longer-thought-to-be-indirect old ones.

When I was studying Japanese before moving there, we learned 便所 benjo (“convenient place”) as “bathroom”, when practically nobody alive now still uses that word.  Sometime between the 50s and now they were お手洗い otearai (“hand-wash”) or 化粧室 keshoushitsu (“powder room”). Now they are called トイレ toire, presumably until the next generation starts calling them something like ルーム ruumu.

Hipster beards are destined to go from “modern guy” to “guy who still thinks beards are modern” to “guy who doesn’t know that nobody thinks beards are modern” and in 20 or so years “guy who affects not caring that hipster beards are not considered modern” and back to just “modern guy” again.  Believe me; it happened to skinny ties.

Most words unless they were invented very recently are dead metaphors or have changed meanings through some other process.  A word’s history is like the miles of junk DNA we carry around with us in our cells, only using a small portion to form proteins, transmit messages or enjoy an inside joke.  Words like “give up” (my favorite example, a clear dead metaphor), “Wednesday”, or “cranberry” have stories behind their present forms and usages that are very interesting, but also very optional.  Each living word has untold numbers of lost meanings (in addition to its likely numerous current meanings) which we don’t have and don’t need access to in order to use it.  The process by which a word’s meaning changes isn’t always the middleman-eliding of the dead metaphor, but the idea that one doesn’t need all the information about the past referents of a given token to understand it in its current context is the same.

We language teachers often pride ourselves on the elaborate stories and setups that we use to explain usage of one language item or another.  One time I attended a presentation that asked us straightforwardly, “Why do you use on for buses but in for cars?”, to which several teachers laid out the possibly-made-up-but-convincing stories that they give their students.  These stories can definitely be useful for appearing to give students stage-by-stage mastery and “permission” to use a particular language item, things I definitely wanted in my early stages of Japanese learning.  Nowadays, I tend to think of these as a bootstrap or a foot in the door (are those dead metaphors?) than understanding itself, more affective factors than what we would usually call L2 competence.  Naturally, the end goal of most language learning is to have a grasp of the language similar to the fluent speakers in your target community, not to have complete explicit knowledge of the target language (although many learners confuse these two – some teachers as well).  One does not need to know the origin of a word or the logic behind its present form to use it correctly any more than one needs to have smelled fresh lavender as a reference point to know what that same smell means at the train station.

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