Is it true that learners of English in EFL context don’t have enough exposure to English?

True or False?

The idea that EFL learners have limited amount of exposure to English may not be true anymore. If you teach in a context where internet access is limited or too expensive and you don’t have enough books, magazines, audios, films or other resources in English which cater to your students’ level and interests, then the answer may be: true. Otherwise, the answer is: False.

Ten years ago, I started to get interested in High school students whose high level of English could not be explained by the time they had been studying English either at school or with private tutors. I realized these students used English just for pleasure through activities they found interesting: listening to songs or reading whatever book in English they could get.

The world has changed a lot since then, now the accessibility to material and technological resources in English is much easier and cheaper. Two years ago I Types of textsdecided to research the topic for my master thesis (that will be available to be shared in a few months). You can see a poster with some data from my research at Research Gate.

One of the aims of my investigation was to analyse the uses of English outside of the school of 122 High School students (16-18 years old) in an EFL context (Uruguay) and these were the main results:

N/S: not specified
N/I: not identified
No private lessons: students who do not attend private English lessons outside of school.

The most common practice in English carried out by students beyond the classroom is watching films and series, followed by watching videos online.

Surprisingly, the students who get more involved in English-based activities autonomously do not attend English private lessons.

More girls than boys get involved in out-of-class activities in all modes except for online games.

Therefore, students are exposed to different types of English input outside of school, so teachers may take advantage of these affordances (Menezes, 2011) and integrate them into their classrooms. Below, you will see some ideas:

How to take advantage of students’ beyond the class modes of  learning English

  • Setting class time to discuss which activities they have performed using English, what they have learnt and what strategies they have used to cope with difficulties. students

  • Checking what activities in English they engage in and bring them to the classroom, for example watching an episode from one of their favourite TV series or watching a music video of their favourite singer/group. You may also ask for volunteer students to prepare a lesson based on it.

  • Another alternative is to provide activities to be performed as homework to foster loglanguage awareness. However, teachers should refrain from focusing too much on grammar or vocabulary activities out of context (i.e.: focusing on isolated items without considering the context of use). As each student may engage in a particular activity and it’s likely that you can’t design an individual piece of homework for each of them, a good idea is to ask them to keep a learning log where they record the activity they have done, what they have learnt by doing it and again the strategies they have used to cope with unknown language. 

Whatever option you choose, remember to take into account your students’ interests, as it is this personal interest and the student’ s capacity for autonomy which make these affordances so powerful for language learning.

Also, try to encourage these kinds of engagement by valuing them, offering suggestions and helping less motivated students to try out new ways of being in contact with the English language.

Reference

Menezes V. (2011) Affordances for Language Learning Beyond the Classroom. In: Benson P., Reinders H. (eds) Beyond the Language Classroom. Palgrave Macmillan, London

 

 

Pardon my bad English, but I have something to say.

If you are not a native English speaker, you’ll probably find your English being corrected more often than you’d want or need.

This is especially common in social networks where people feel free to give opinions without much consideration for others or the consequences that such opinions may have on other people’s lives. Online forums, Facebook groups and pages, even personal profiles can be the arenas for unsolicited corrections.

Don’t get me wrong. I know my English is not perfect and I still have a lot to learn, but believe me it won’t help that you correct me in public.

I don’t know if it is an occupational habit, but many ESL teachers are very prone to doing that. There are students who want to be constantly corrected, it is their way of learning, but for the rest of the mortals it is disrespectful.

Language is not a neutral medium of communication, it is a site for struggle where voices fight to be heard (Heller, 1987) and I fight with my bad English because I know you can understand me.

I write (or speak) to express my opinions, to share my knowledge and experience, to connect with other people, I don’t write to be exposed by the ‘deficiency’ of my language. I write because, in spite of not being a native speaker or a highly proficient English speaker, I have something to say.

 

Reference

Heller, M. (1987) The role of language in the formation of ethnic identity. In J. Phinney
and M. Rotheram (eds) Children’s Ethnic Socialization (pp. 180–200). Newbury Park,
CA: Sage

 

Image credits

stock.tookapic.com

 

demanding teacher

My former students say they didn’t learn in my class

Does it ring a bell? Sometimes you end up discovering that your efforts and hard work were not enough for your students. If you are a school teacher, you most probably get to know about the issue through your former students’ new teacher or, because your new students make the same complaint about their former teacher.

teachers

This may happen to school teachers or to teachers who work at language institutions, where students change teachers every year. For private tutors, the issue may arise when the students quit for no clear reason.

You feel disappointed and may even ask yourself, what’s the point? What happened to all the efforts you devoted to:

  • preparing the lessons
  • delivering the lessons
  • preparing the following lesson based on how the last one worked
  • searching for new resources to motivate your students
  • searching for new approaches to teaching the topic to those learners who didn’t get it
  • preparing different types of evaluation and correcting them
  • setting up a good classroom atmosphere where every learner feels secure and appreciated
  • Etc., etc., etc., etc…..?demanding teachers

Well, maybe you are doing too much. Yes! You are doing too much.

How come? Well, last year I researched how high school students learn English as an L2 beyond the class (not published yet) and one of the findings was that:

What most students need in order to learn is to have a demanding teacher.

Does it sound odd? Well, in fact, it is not a new idea. Vygotsky claimed a long time ago that to learn a person must go beyond his/her current level of knowledge/competency/proficiency. If a person is always in his/her ‘comfort zone’ (sort to speak), no learning is possible. Learning occurs when the person is ‘forced’ to go beyond what he/she already knows (Zone of Proximal Development); in any other case, he/she would be just practising with his/her previous learning.

In the field of SLA, Krashen uses the idea of comprehensible input to explain how learning takes place. Learners should be exposed to input which is a bit further from their current level of knowledge to learn.

Your students won’t probably tell you that they want you to be demanding because they feel comfortable doing what they already know, but you may try talking to your former students in an informal setting asking them for their feedback on your teaching.

Besides, as important as learning is that students feel they have learned so they will feel confident about using the L2 and motivated to learn more.

However, how can a student feel that he/she has learned if nothing new is presented to him/her? What is new may be different to different students, so checking their prior knowledge is essential to offer the right challenge for each learner.

learning2

If you teach large classes, what you expect from all the learners may be the starting point, then you can suggest more challenging activities or contents for more advanced students. Let them choose their own learning path offering additional resources as needed.

If you need more ideas, you can watch Jim Scrivener’s talk Demand High

Have you ever been through this experience? Share your thoughts with us!

Younger is better to learn an L2?

How old were you when you started learning English?

Do you think you would be more fluent and accurate in English if you had started earlier?

Did you learn English ‘naturally’ or in a language institution? Is one way better than the other or does it depend on age?

Children, adolescents and adults have neurological, cognitive and psychological differences in the acquisition of L2. Children seem to be intrinsically better learners, while adolescents and adults have cognitive skills and self-discipline which enable them to utilize a larger volume of comprehensible input within the same exposure time period. On the other hand, older learners may be more greatly affected by the other factors in L2 such as motivation, anxiety and identity. The difference in the acquisition process demands different approaches to instructing learners of different age groups.

Age of acquisition: What does research say? Age of L2 acquisition

Age is easier to define and measure than personality, aptitude, or motivation. Nevertheless, the relationship between a learner’s age and his or her potential for success in second language acquisition is under debate.

Children from immigrant families eventually speak the language of their new community with native-like fluency, but the same does not happen to their parents. One explanation is that, as in first language acquisition, there is a critical period for second language acquisition.

Younger is better?

The Critical Period Hypothesis suggests that there is a time in human development (before puberty) when the brain is predisposed to success in language learning. Developmental changes in the brain, it is argued, affect the nature of language acquisition.

It is difficult to compare children and adults as second language learners. In addition to the possible biological differences suggested by the Critical Period Hypothesis, the conditions for language learning are often very different.

Younger learners:

  • Younger learners in informal language learning environments usually have more time to devote to learning language.
  • They often have more opportunities to hear and use the language in environments where they do not experience strong pressure to speak fluently and accurately from the very beginning.
  • Their early imperfect efforts are often praised or, at least, accepted.Younger is better?

Older learners:

  • They are often in situations which demand much more complex language and the expression of much more complicated ideas.
  • They often get embarrassed by their lack of mastery of the language and they may develop a sense of inadequacy after experiences of frustration in trying to say exactly what they mean.

Critique of the Critical Period Hypothesis

The Critical Period Hypothesis has been challenged in recent years from several different points of view:

  • At least in the early stages of second language development, older learners are more efficient than younger learners.
  • Learners who began learning a second language at the primary school level did not fare better in the long run than those who began in early adolescence.
  • There are countless anecdotes about older learners (adolescents and adults) who have reached high levels of proficiency in a second language.

Does this mean that there is no critical period for second language acquisition?Is there a critical period in L2 learning?

Patkowski (1980) found that age of acquisition is a very important factor in setting limits on the development of native-like mastery of a second language and that this limitation does not apply only to accent. These results gave added support to the Critical Period Hypothesis for second language acquisition.

Experience and research have shown that native-like mastery of the spoken language is difficult to attain by older learners. Nevertheless, there is some research which suggests that older learners may have an advantage, at least in the early stages of second language learning.

In the Snow and Hoefnagel-Hohle study (1982), it was found that adolescents and adults learned faster than children in the first few months of exposure to L2. By the end of the year, the children were catching up or had surpassed the adults on several measures. Nevertheless, it was the adolescents who retained the highest levels of performance overall.

Snow and Hoefnagel-Hohle concluded that their results provide evidence that there is no critical period for language acquisition. However, we should also consider that some of the tasks in the study (for example, sentence judgement or translation) were too hard for young learners.

Adults and adolescents may learn faster in the early stages of second language development (especially if they are learning a language which is similar to their first language) but young children eventually catch up and even surpass them if they are surrounded by the language on a daily basis.

young and old 1

Adults and adolescents can also make considerable and rapid progress towards mastery of a second language in contexts where they can make use of the language on a daily basis in social, personal, professional, or academic interaction.

The role of the critical period in second language acquisition is still much debated. Some researchers conclude that there are maturational constraints on language acquisition, but there are also others who consider that the age factor cannot be separated from factors such as motivation, social identity, and the conditions for learning. They argue that older learners may well speak with an accent because they want to continue being identified with their first language cultural group, and adults rarely get access to the same quantity and quality of language input that children receive in play settings.

Many people conclude on the basis of studies that it is better to begin second language instruction as early as possible if we seek the highest possible level of second language skills, the level at which a second language speaker is indistinguishable from a native speaker. But achieving a native-like mastery of the second language is not a goal for all second language learning, in all contexts.

What are the implications for educational settings? Implications of age and L2 learning in educational settings

In the chart below you will find a summary of the most important issues to consider when deciding on the most appropriate age to start learning an L2 in educational settings. These ideas apply to both formal and informal educational contexts (i.e.: school education and private L2 classes).

Younger is better to learn an L2?

Conclusions

There is strong evidence of the existence of a Critical Period for L2 demonstrating the value of early exposure to the second language.

However, the initial point of learning cannot play the same role in a naturalistic and in a classroom context; the earlier may be the better but provided that it is associated with enough significant exposure, other important conditions include that exposure to young learners should be intensively distributed giving learners opportunities to participate in a variety of L2 social contexts.

In the end, more important than the starting age of acquisition is the amount and frequency of exposure to the L2.

 

References

http://carla.umn.edu/learnerlanguage/ind_diff.html

Lightbown, P; Spada, N. (2001) Factors affecting Second Language Learning in English Language Teaching in its Social Context (pp. 28-43)

Muñoz, C. (2010). On how age affects foreign language learning. Advances in Research on Language Acquisition and Teaching: Selected Papers. Gala

Qin Zhao, A; Morgan C. (n.d.). Consideration of Age in L2 Attainment – Children, Adolescents and Adults. Asian EFL Journal

Is it still possible to make a distinction between ESL and EFL contexts?

Confusing termsimage

Chances are that being a teacher of English whose students are non-native English speakers you have come across one of these acronyms and abbreviations: EFL, ESL, ELL, and so on. The most wide-spread distinction  made between EFL and ESL is based on whether your students live/work in a country whose first, second or even third language is English, in this case, your students would be English as Second Language learners (ESL students), or your students live/work in a country where English is not the first, the second or the third language so, your students would be English as a Foreign Language learners (EFL students).

If you read Tesol.org  website you will find the following definitions:

“EFL: English as a foreign language. English language programs in non-English-speaking countries where English is not used as the lingua franca. It is also used in some U.S. university programs where international students study English and are likely to return to their home countries after graduation or finishing course work

“ESL: English as a second language. English language programs in English-speaking countries where students learn English as a second language”

ELT: English language teaching”

ELL: English language learner. Often used to refer to a student in an ESL or EFL program”

The reasons why a country may or may not have English as a first, second or third language can be found in the history of that country (origins, invasions, wars, cultural bonds) or geographical (proximity), and it is not the intention of this post to deepen in those issues. However, there is a social phenomenon which is now changing our prior ideas about the difference between ESL and EFL and that is, as you have probably guessed, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) including TV.

There may be very few places in the world where technology has not become part of everyday life. Through technology, cultural, social, economic and political ideas spread and change our beliefs and behaviours at a speed never seen before and these changes have an impact on the processes of language learning around the world.

Second language or foreign language?

According to Gabbiani (2012:37), the differences between a second language (L2) and a foreign language (FL) are not related to the language proficiency one may have but to the degree of knowledge and participation in the culture of that language. From this point of view, what defines an L2 or an FL context is the type of relationship the language user establishes with the values of the other culture.

Longcope (2009:304) states that the context is not just the location where language learning happens (for example, class learning vs street learning (Gabbiani: 2012:39)); the context is the relation established by the language learner with the location and the behaviour in which he or she engages in that location. This means that two learners in the same class may respond to the context in very different ways: one learner may interact actively with the other language (ESL learner) while the other may respond only under certain circumstances (EFL learners). So, we could say that context = location + behaviour. 

 What is the answer, then?

If we agree that the context of English language learning is a combination of the location and the learner’s behaviour in that location and that each learner responds in a personal way to a certain language learning situation, it is highly possible that we have both ESL learners and EFL learners in the same class. So, for practical purposes, how should we refer to both types of learners? One possible term would be English Language Learners (ELL), using this term the focus is just on the subject students are learning; English language, without specifying what type of response they have to that language.

Another possibility would be English to Speakers of Other Languages learners (ESOL learners), in this case, the focus is also on the English language as a subject of learning but we are adding a reference to the learner’s native language (ie: a learner whose native languages is other than English).

In both cases, using the terms ELL context or ESOL context we are able to describe and/or investigate in a more precise way the characteristics of this context (location + behaviours) without conditioning its description by using an innapropiate term.

Would you suggest an alternative terminology?

References

Gabbiani, B. (2012). “Formación Continua – (Co)construcción Permanente. Creación de un Espacio para la Reflexión sobre la Educación Lingüística”. En Brasil Irala y Silva (Orgs.) ENSINO NA ÀREA DA LINGUAGEM. Perspectivas a partir da formação continuada pp.35-58 Mercado Letras.

Longcope, P. (2009). Differences between the EFL and the ESL Language Learning Contexts. Language and Culture Studies Vol. 30 Nº 2, 303-320.

Tesol.org