Sunday, November 13, 2005

Oxford Teacher Development Day

Today I attended the Oxford Teacher Development Day at Hanyang University. The fifth annual "Oxford Day" featured Michael Swan and Dr. Henry Widdowson, both world-renowned scholars and authors. Nalin Bahuguna also presented Oxford's Person to Person series. Since I had already attended his presentation at the KOTESOL conference, I chose instead to go on what turned out to be a fruitless errand regarding my cellphone.

Michael Swan's talk, like the third edition of his new book, Practical English Usage, was concerned with the issue of helping teachers help students with "real language problems." Mr. (or is it Dr.?) Swan outlined a number of points, but I felt the best was the one regarding inappropriate sentence exercises. Some good examples:
Birds fly high.
Students were to put the verb into the past tense. But neither sentence corresponds to real English usage. When do we say "Birds fly high"? Many birds fly low, and some don't fly at all.
The oxen are stepping on my feet
was a more humorous example! To be true, that sentence requires that more than one ox are stepping on both my feet. I suppose for very young children it might be suitable for producing laughter.

Mr. Swan dabbled a bit in grammarian history when he touched on the prescriptive/descriptive debate. For example, a grammarian in the eighteenth century by the name of Robert Baker had said people should never say "less people." This rule was accepted by the brothers Fowler for their famous text on proper English usage. It was fortunate for both King Alfred and Shakespeare's Shylock that they used the phrase in question before Baker's birth! These examples were used to show that many "rules" of English usage were invented by elites as prescriptions, not descriptions.

What I really enjoyed most, however, about Mr. Swan's talk, was his opening story of his days as an Oxford student. To help make ends meet, he used to give tours to foreigners. After some time, he found his way to a unit that taught English to foreigners. In response to his query "Have you got a job?" he was told to come back the following Monday. It turned out that one of the depatment's teachers had run off to Scotland with one of the students. The young Mr. Swan was in the right place at the right time. Like me, his first year of English teaching to speakers of other languages was not without its typical first-year "learning opportunities." But, he persevered and improved, and by collecting their questions on file cards he eventually built up a significant database, which he turned into his most famous book.

I chatted briefly with Mr. Swan. He is absolutely delightful and down-to-earth. When he asked me what I did, I told him I was teaching children and adults. He immediately said that his son has had experience as an English teacher in Taiwan, and proceeded to chat with me about teaching very young children.

Dr. Widdowson's talk was fascinating, not least because he was very cautious about the whole-sale acceptance of the current dominant approach: Communicative English teaching. Emphasizing that he was not "recommending," merely "pointing out," he argued that authentic language does not have to be taught all the time in the classroom. For example, here is a snippet of authentic text from one of the major corpora:
"Scalpel - clamp - swab."
This is the language of the operating room. The context of the speaker and listeners provides all the necessary information, reducing the need for, and prominence of, spoken communication. The amount of language required is inversely proportional to the amount of context shared. Another example makes the point in a humorous way:
My mother took hers off at a garden party in front of the vicar.
Dr. Widdowson, a red-skinned man with a penchant for innuendo and laughter was obviously having a great time, and so did we in the audience! What, exactly, was the object denoted by "hers"?! As he pointed out, it could be almost any article of clothing. Again, the context makes the meaning clear, not the language.

Dr. Widdowson emphasized that such language, apart from context and the understanding of the purpose of the language, cannot be the model for instruction: "authentic language needs to be authenticated."

Another interesting point Dr. Widdowson made was that "authentic language" can actually be incredibly difficult for foreign language learners. Consider this example:
Bibbing tipplers who booze-cruise across the Channel in search of revelry and wassail could be in for a rought ride. Itchy-footed quaffers and pre-Christmas holiday-makers are being warned not to travel to France, where widespread disruption continues despite the lifting of the blockade on trapped British lorry drivers.
Now, for even many advanced learners, this text would be very problematic, and even very discouraging, he argued. There are all kinds of alliterative devices, archaisms, and euphemisms being employed to create ironic and humourous effects, which would naturally be lost on many EFL readers.

Actually, I think a text like that would be quite appropriate in small doses. The problem, of course, is that dissection would likely kill the humour. On the other hand, I think advanced students, depending on their level and interests, should be introduced to difficult, authentic texts.

Asking a very brave and unfashionable question, Dr. Widdowson said, rhetorically, "What was wrong with the old structural methods?--They used inauthentic language," for example,
This is a man. He is John Brown; he is Mr. Brown. He is sitting in his chair. This is a woman. She is Mary Brown; she is Mrs. Brown. She is standing by the table. Mr. Brown has a book in his hand.
Dr. Widdowson responded that while this language might be inauthentically used here, the language itself is appropriate to EFL students in certain levels, since "learners appropriate language for themselves." However, in terms of the Korean EFL experience, I think that, perhaps, more learners have to be pushed to appropriate English for themselves. But that's a topic for another time.

As for the so-called inauthentic, "boring" language, consider the following:
This is a man. He is John Brown; he is Mr. Brown. He is sitting in a chair. This is a woman. She is not Mrs. Brown. She is standing by a table. Mr. Brown has a look in his eye.
Wow! The language elements and structures are all the same, but the second example is a highly amusing and gripping little piece of fiction.

To sum up Dr. Widdowson's position: learning is a process of gradual authentication. True authentication occurs when the context of speaker and learner is shared, the the purpose of the speaker understood. Language as used is not identical with language as learned. Speaking personally, my own position would be that there is room for both "authentic," and the so-called "inauthentic" types of language, but Dr. Widdowson raises some valuable concerns about some people's tendency to uncritically accept the dominant approach du jour.

In a way, both of these presentations undercut and complimented each other. Intentional or otherwise, the juxtaposition of these two events at this year's Oxford Day was highly stimulating.

A question and answer session with both authors followed the final presentation. The questions came from the registration webpage that was used to sign up for the event, and were directed to both authors. I thought this was an excellent stroke on the part of the organizers. The Q & A was not too long, and was far from boring. Michael Swan had a little tip for teaching listening and speaking that I liked. He said a sentence to us, and asked us to quickly say how many words he said. He did this several times, pointing out that we should use sentences with unstressed syllables (like the word "a," pronounced often as the so-called "schwa"). The immediate point of the exercise relates to listening, but later those listening skills will translate into better speaking skills, too. I'm going to try this out on both my children and adults. In a way, I was sad that there wasn't more of the nuts-and-bolts variety of teaching questions, especially because Mr. Swan had such a significant stock of experience to draw on.

So that was my third Oxford event this year, counting both the iBT presentation last month, and the KOTESOL conference. It was definitely worth my time, and I will go again next year, although I do hope that there will be no conflict with Cambridge Day next year, the only negative thing I can say about this year's Oxford Day.

Besides listening to interesting and stimulating presentations, I really enjoyed the humility of all three speakers, who took time to chat with me. I also capitalized on the 20% off sale and booksigning event following the presentations. Perhaps one might point out that it was the publishers who capitalized on me, but it was a win-win situation: the fact is that both books will help me in my teaching. Books are to the teacher like tools to a mechanic, as my dad likes to say.

UPDATE: EFL Geek's post on the event is now up. Of course, I recommend it, as opposed to merely "pointing towards" it!


Anonymous Mom said...

Hi Nathan,
What an interesting, informative, humorous and fascinating post! I'm so glad you have these opportunities out there to attend such great conferences. And I loved it that you ended this post with a quote from your Dad.
Love, Mom

5:09 AM  
Blogger Nathan said...

Hi Mom,

Glad you liked it!

11:24 PM  

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