ELF7 soundbites: LanguageS!


ELF7logoThis is the fourth in a series of mini-posts featuring “soundbites” from the 7th Annual Conference of English as a Lingua Franca, held from 4-6 September 2014 in Athens, Greece.

The aim of this series of posts is to give a flavour of the breadth of topics covered at the conference and simply to share some of the ideas, words and moments which made this year a memorable one for me.

Soundbite #4: Elana Shohamy

“I have a rich resource of languageS!  Why aren’t you taking advantage of the whole repertoire?”

Professor Elana Shohamy was one of the plenary speakers at ELF7.  We’ve already seen another memorable moment from her talk in the first of this series of mini-blogposts.  If you haven’t already done so, I strongly recommend you watch the video of her full presentation, which is now available on YouTube here.

Elana’s talk focused particularly on language assessment.  She noted how test-takers are often penalized for their use of other-language resources (i.e. anything but English, which in turn is usually understood to mean native-like English).  In speaking, they are penalized for mixing codes, having L1-influenced pronunciation, code-switching in grammar, and so on; in writing, they are penalized for the use of L1-influenced syntax and vocabulary; in reading, their comprehension may require additional knowledge beyond language (e.g. of history, culture, critical views, etc.); and so on.

But what stood out to me with particular relevance to the classroom setting was the quotation above, spoken from the learner’s point of view.

I accept the arguments for encouraging extensive practice of English in the English-language classroom, whether as the aim of a task or for other classroom discourse (e.g. giving instructions).  But why on earth would we expressly forbid the use of L1 (or any other languages the learner is aware of) if this could actually help them understand and use the L2?  Surely we can make effective strategic use of the “rich resource of languageS” some learners have at their disposal?

To illustrate what I mean, let me give a few recent personal examples of how my own knowledge of various languages has helped me as both a language teacher and a language learner:

  • When my Italian students struggle to find a word in English, sometimes they say something under their breath in Italian.  I speak French and a little Spanish (similar languages in some respects to Italian), and within the context, I can sometimes guess what they’re trying to say.  I then follow this up by concept-checking, comparing and contrasting the use of the given word in English with its use in the other language(s).
  • When I was trying to pronounce a type of pasta (gigli), I struggled with the Italian ‘gl’ sound (phonemic symbol: /ʎ/).  An Italian-speaking colleague of mine pointed out that it is similar to sound immediately after /l/ in the English word “million”.  I tried ‘borrowing’ that sound from my English pronunciation and ‘lending’ it to my Italian pronunciation, and felt much more comfortable with it afterwards!
  • When learning some basic Greek in preparation to go to Athens for the ELF7 conference, my colleague taught me the written alphabet and phonemes of Greek.  I learned that the letter <ψ> is pronounced /ps/, but unlike English, in Greek it can occur at the beginning of a word.  In English it can only occur in between syllables or at the end of a word.  For example, in “Pepsi” /pepsi/.  Once I recognised this, I had no trouble pronouncing ψυχολογία appropriately as [psixoloɣˈia].  (The word is “psychology”, pronounced in English by dropping the /p/ at the start, of course!)

Put simply, if our aim is to help our students learn and use English, why deny them access to valuable resources they have at their command which might facilitate this process?

In terms of testing, the issue of language use is very complex, of course (though assessment criteria try to simplify and standardise it) and I won’t attempt to address that further here.  But it is interesting that monolingual speakers of any language are far less common on a global scale than people who speak multiple languages (to whatever degree of proficiency, which is another point for argument).  Yet popular English language tests do not appear to recognise or reward this.






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