Instances of class Noun

I sometimes find my background in computer science helpful for understanding language – ironically, since computer science often uses language as a metaphor for computing functions. One case where this is true is in understanding the various ways that nouns work in world languages and the difficulties that English learners face in adapting to our particular system.

Let’s say both our learner’s L1 and English both have a similar definition of a “tiger”:

public class Tiger {

//assume I put the necessary constructors etc. here

public static int eyes=2; //static because each Tiger has the same # of eyes

public static int legs=4;

public String name;

boolean hunt(Animal prey) {

//do something

return true;

}

}

ESL teachers can probably predict what would happen if this student were called upon to write an essay on these Tigers: lots of sentences like “Tiger is the largest cat in the world” or “Tiger does not live in Africa”. It is a mistake to conclude that this student doesn’t realize that there are many tigers in the world, not just one.

English forces you to declare an instance of class Tiger before you make any reference to its number of eyes or call its hunt() function.

Tiger a_tiger = new Tiger();  //declaring an instance of class Tiger

System.out.println(a_tiger.eyes);  //printing a_tiger’s number of eyes

I know – this isn’t good coding style. At least I can take comfort in the fact that not too many people are interested in both Java and semantics. Saved from criticism by my small audience!

Still, I hope you take my point about English nouns: they refer to instances, rather than classes, by default. We demand that references to Tigers in general need to be plural, because there are many instances of Tigers (I’m just going to keep capitalizing this word) in the world, or that they be marked and elevated with the definite article the, singling out one instance of Tiger to stand for the rest. Both of these are ways of signalling to listeners that we mean something other than actual instances of Tigers, although that is what their form implies. So in English, this would cause an error:

System.out.println(Tiger.eyes);

because you can’t refer to the class itself. As in the above examples, you need to (at least appear to) talk about actual Tigers, not just the abstract idea of one.

Meanwhile, in Japanese, the same line produces no error:

System.out.println(Tiger.eyes);

It just prints “2”, as one would expect, because Japanese, unlike English, treats nouns as class references by default, as do many other languages. In fact, you can talk quite a lot about classes in Japanese without making any implied reference to actual instances of those classes.

if (Tiger.legs == Human.legs) {

System.out.println(“それはおかしいでしょう”);

}

if (Tiger.hunt(Human)) {

Human.run();

}

None of this requires us to posit that Tigers or Humans are even real. We can comfortably refer to them as classes and talk about those classes’ features, even imagining interactions between one class and another, without ever letting the wheels touch the ground, so to speak, on actual, flesh-and-blood Tigers.

This requirement of English for instantiation of nouns is unintuitive for many learners. Countable nouns in English must be referred to as if they were either solitary or in groups, a distinction which we call singular/plural, even when the distinction doesn’t matter (e.g. everybody has “their” own problems). There are uncountable nouns, of course, but as any learner who’s ever gone shopping for “furniture” or “equipment” can tell you, the rules for their deployment are not prima facie clear, nor are there reliable rules for making countable nouns uncountable or vice versa as communication requires (one can refer to breads to mean “many kinds of bread”, but not equipments to mean “many types of equipment”).

This is by no means universal, and our approaches to learners shouldn’t make the naïve assumption that mistakes in English countability or plurals indicate some kind of lack of comprehension that more than one Tiger exists in the world. In many languages, class reference is the default (or definite reference, which I was surprised to find is the case with Farsi), and even in the ones where it isn’t, not all share the particular plural/the cheat code for class reference found in English.

Different languages can treat “reality” differently, or sometimes just appear to. This is a major lesson from learning another language – even if that language is a programming language.

A Taxonomy of Untranslatability

I started this post after hearing Lingthusiasm’s excellent podcast episode (referred by my colleague and work döppelganger Heidi) on this topic, wrote about 800 words before finishing the podcast and realizing that they said pretty much everything I was going to say but with much more finesse. Anyway, I changed the focus a bit and here it is.

Once in a while you’ll come across a listicle like this that tries to convey some of the majesty of world culture through “untranslatable” words. Notably, no list of this type is ever just a list of words in foreign languages without translations… that would be extremely boring. Instead, they usually have English translations for each word with accompanying explanations for why those translations are inadequate, usually something about the unique piquance of the origin language (henceforth OL) missing or some other woo-woo. Of course, nuance often goes missing when one speaker has less information about a word than another; one could argue that adults talking to children or experts talking to non-experts always results in nuance being lost. This could be why talking to children often has the same feeling as cross-cultural communication. When I explain metal to non-metal fans, I get the feeling that only about 60% of my words are being received with their intended meanings. If I were to make a list of words which are untranslatable from my head to the head of someone who actively listens to Justin Timberlake, it would include “Maidenesque”, “djenteel”, and “filth” (as a good thing).

Not just words in other languages, but all words exist differently in the minds of other speakers – even speakers of the same language. Since all communication is a matter of messages being sent and received by people with different lives and therefore different mental representations of words and worlds, one could argue that all language is untranslatable, if our bar for perfect translation is putting the exact same idea in the listener’s head as was in the speaker’s. For example, for a long time my prototype of a “dog” was a friendly but mischievous toy breed, because I grew up with pugs. Obviously, someone who grew up around Golden Retrievers will have a different idea about typical dog qualities, and someone who grew up in hell will have different ideas from both of us based on their long experience with Chihuahuas. When I used the word “dog” with one of these people, I’m not exactly putting into their minds what is in mine, because our experiences have built different conceptions of “dogs”. Instead of circling off certains words as “untranslatable”, we might do better to call all words “imperfectly translatable”, including among native speakers of the same language. This definition doesn’t respect the commonsense view of “translation” as a matter of crossing linguistic/national boundaries, but it does change the unhelpful “translatable or not” dichotomy into a spectrum of difficulty that includes issues of nuance, grammar, and culturally unique concepts. At one end are unique people who have the same denotation of the word “dog” as referring to a 4-legged furry companion animal but necessarily different personal experiences with dogs, and at the other end citizens of different planets whose languages either are dance-based or feature non-linear conceptions of time, and neither of which has carbon-based life (or by extension, dogs). They would probably write (or dance) some very interesting listicles.

We should also keep in mind that words “not existing in (language)” is a readily fixable problem: when speakers of that language start using those words, then they are words in that language. In that sense, “schadenfreude” is as much a word in English as “skirt” or “scaffold” (although marked for the time being as foreign in origin, while the others have lost that distinction). Lists of foreign words can easily become lists of English words if English speakers pick up on them and start using them – every nam pla is a potential future ketchup, and every ikigai is a possible candidate for kaizen.

uncaptioned image
Source. Note that they get the pronunciation wrong – why not just ask someone on Twitter?

Now, you should listen to the podcast episode linked at the top of this post to get some more nuts-and-bolts reasons that translation is difficult, but if you’re interested in why people persist in using the label “untranslatable” for socio-cultural reasons, I think I have a decent taxonomy of reasons below.

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Justified adjectivization

This post springs from, but then quickly digresses thoughtlessly from, a question from a student about the difference between the adjectives “justifiable” and “justified”.

My answer at the time, that the difference was whether the process was capable of being applied or had been applied, was probably too first-principlesy to be useful. I probably should have directed her to COCA and let her work back to that conclusion from examples. Incidentally, after doing so myself, it turns out that “justified” is much more common overall, and especially more common in post-hoc rationalizing. That squares with what I said, but I could have found a more brain-friendly way of putting it.

(I find I have to force myself not to correct dangling modifiers these days, perhaps out of some misplaced notion of descriptivism – did you notice the one in the last paragraph? To me, it’s like an ingrown hair that the doctor has ordered me to leave be.)

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ESL Students’ Ought-to Selves

Part 2 of a 3-part series. In case you missed the last one:

As an end-of-semester assignment, I had my summer and fall classes (4 total; 2 intermediate multi-skill and 2 advanced academic writing) write about their ideal, ought-to, and feared selves. Besides being a recent buzzword in ELT, possible selves make an interesting writing assignment for both the teacher, who gets to find out his students’ motivations in a bit more detail, and the students, who get to describe their (hopeful) future lives. Now, in fairness to you, I should point out right at the start that I won’t be excerpting their writing here; I didn’t warn them that I’d be using this assignment for my blog and I am one of those teachers who doesn’t even share pictures with his students’ faces in them without asking each one of them individually. Instead of showing you what they actually wrote, I will be analyzing each of their answers for the prevalences of certain topics and concerns and then doing some basic statistics with these. As it turns out, this takes a lot longer.

My prompt for the ought-to selves section was:

“What can you, now, do every day to bring yourself closer to that future best version of you? What kind of things should you do? How should you ‘study’ or ‘practice’?”

Basically, I’m trying to get at how students think they should be behaving as ESL students – not what their goals are, but what the little ESL angel on their shoulder is telling them to do every day.

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Construct validity vs. a tight ship

I have a fantasy where I’m one of those hardass disciplinarian teachers, the kind whose students march in synchronized rows to the auditorium where I’m given some kind of award that these kinds of teachers always seem to get. While I’m standing at the podium of my real-life classroom daydreaming like this, one of my students turns in a piece of paper with a coffee stain on it after walking into class 40 minutes late, and while imperfect, the assignment shows clear development in language control and engagement. Suddenly, my “runs a tight ship” fantasy collides with my inner applied linguist, which naturally wants to reward development, even as my inner disciplinarian threatens to complain about me to my inner department head.

Being a strict teacher sometimes works against the construct validity of  grades. That is, enforcing one’s lateness, makeup, and assignment format policies drags the crosshairs of one’s grades away from “English ability” (however one defines that) and toward “not annoying the teacher by making them put out small fires all semester” or more charitably “being a responsible person in general”.

This problem comes to vex me when I’m looking at a well-written paper turned in 30 minutes late without a cover sheet or a proper MLA header. Is the difference between A and C supposed to be the ability to follow abstract rules in principle? Where is that in the course outline, or to take a wider perspective, in any definition of linguistic competence?

I honestly can’t imagine a class where this (taking points away for non-language-related violations) doesn’t happen at all – and I can imagine my colleagues’ frowns of consternation that I would even consider loosening late work policies in favor of some persnickety notion of validity we all last heard about in our MA programs – but I’ve noticed a trend in my work recently of lots of points hinging on things like “finding parking before class” or “understanding the difference between submitting in Google Classroom and submitting on Canvas” which I don’t remember being a prominent part of any theory of SLA. After all, I do have more eggs in the basket of “effective pedagogue” than “well-oiled adjunct faculty cog”.

Below is a partial list of things that have been at times worth more points in my classes than any variety of English competence, hidden point-stealers from beyond the realm of language ability:

  •  “Please read and follow the directions for this assignment” Actually, “being able to read an assignment” is clearly part of the competence that should be tested in an academic English class – but assignmentese tends to have its own idiom and in my view needs to be taught explicitly as its own topic. Ditto for lines like “work must be accomplished without external assistance beyond what is available to all students in the language lab” in the syllabus.
  • “Please turn this assignment in on time” There is a clear relationship between accomplishing a specific language-related task within a time limit and linguistic competence. That said, I don’t think that extends to assignments that took all weekend and are being turned in 15 minutes late on Monday morning.
  • “If you don’t understand the directions, email me instead of waiting for the due date to ask a question in person” There is an unhealthy tendency to run all competences in ESL through the bottleneck of writing on computers, but I don’t really see a way around this particular issue. After a sour experience with a student who abused the ability to contact me, I don’t give students any other ways to reach out.
  • “Write your name” I do give points for people who forgot to write their names after I ask the class who this mysterious person named “Essay 2” is, but I definitely also give them a hard time about it. Some teachers don’t give points for work that is not gradable on time for any reason, and I certainly empathize. Not writing your name is essentially hijacking a few minutes of class time and precious mental resources of the teacher’s that could be going toward his seldom-read blog.
  • “Have friends that you can ask for help for days that you were absent” Given that Canvas, while equally available to everyone and therefore “fair”, is nonetheless intimidating to the point of inaccessibility for some low-intermediate ESL students, a lot of assignments’ scores depend instead on having a friend who will collect homework sheets for you, explain them for you, and sometimes turn them in for you. If you don’t use Canvas and don’t have friends like this in class, your competence as reflected in grades will drop.

Parts of this list make me react the same way my colleagues probably would: “You can’t seriously be talking about accepting…” or “Well, SOME teachers may not want their students to be responsible, but in MY classes…” and I understand this. I just want to point out that being responsible isn’t one of the areas of linguistic competence we all learned in grad school.

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.

banking business checklist commerce

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.