Thursday, October 27, 2011

Strategies in Use – Follow up on Affective Strategies

Recently, I wrote about emotions in language learning and affective language learning strategies. I also talked about a learner that I was working with who had an emotional block with speaking English. This entry is a follow up on the strategies I discussed in action.

Moving Along the Emotional Scale
Lowering Anxiety
In order to help her lower her anxiety, I wanted to give have her try some of the language learning strategies in the “Lowering Anxiety” section. I had planned on just assigning some of the activities suggested by Oxford, but Tim suggested finding out what she already does to relax, and to incorporate that into her learning routine. I thought that this was an excellent (and more authentic) idea, so, in one of our sessions, we spent some time talking about how she normally relaxes. She told me that she likes to read or listen to music, and based on that information, I suggested that she spend about 10 minutes doing one of these activities everyday before she worked on her English project.

Encourage Yourself
For this strategy, I asked my learner to write down a positive statement about her progress in English learning every day for the week, until we met again. We wrote the first one down together, and talked about it. I was surprised the next week, however, when she told me that she didn't write them down during the week because she thought the strategy didn't work for her. She explained that, because of her culture, she feels more secure with hard work and with other people telling her positive things about her learning (But, she said, maybe this will work for other people). When she tells herself positive things, she feels like she is pretending. She also mentioned an American movie she had seen where one of the main characters was told “You have to believe in yourself to achieve what you want” or something like that. She said she thought it was so strange, because no one in her culture would ever say that. They would say. “You have to work hard to achieve what you want.” Based on this exchange, I didn't press this strategy anymore, but I did focus on giving her encouraging statements and pointing out improvement.

Taking Your Emotional Temperature
I didn't directly incorporate this strategy with my learner, but I did indirectly make it a part of all of our sessions. Each time we met, I would ask her how she felt about her English (and about her upcoming project) this week, and we would discuss the times she had felt stressed, and the times that she had felt successful. This was a nice way to begin our sessions, because it allowed her to discuss what she was feeling and it allowed me to see where she still felt insecure so that we could work a little more in that area.

This application of language learning strategies has taught me a few things.
  1. The idea that all strategies must work for all learners is not correct. The “Encourage Yourself” was a big miss with my learner; however, by listening to her reaction, I was able to help her reach the desired effect of encouragement through other means, i.e., giving her extra “practice” work and telling her about her improvement.
  2. Cultural ideas of encouragement are sometimes strikingly different. Her response that people in her culture would never say “You have to believe it to achieve it” shocked me at first, because it is such an ingrained part of my own culture. That is the American motto! How can you not agree with that?? It is going to be important to find out what your learners' cultural views of positive statements are. If their culture doesn't agree with this idea of making positive statements to yourself, you may want to either explain the purpose of the strategy more clearly or skip it in favor of a different approach to encouragement.
  3. Adapt strategies to the learner's current practices. Strategies that are easy to incorporate into the learners routine may be more effective in the long run. Tim's suggestion of inquiring about the learner's pre-exisiting habits was very helpful in making the “lowering anxiety” strategy activities seem more natural and less new-age-yoga-hollistic-medicine-y.
  4. Strategy knowledge is important for teachers, not just learners. Even if you are not teaching every strategy directly, it is still helpful to know them so that you can indirectly incorporate them into your teaching. While it is helpful to teach learners these strategies, trying to teach all of them can be overwhelming. Modeling the use of strategies in your teaching may also be helpful.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Autonomous Language Learning

Autonomous language learning is the idea that learners are capable of learning a language on their own, outside the language classroom. Language programs that focus on incorporating autonomous language learning usually have some sort of self-access center with resources and guides, where the learner can go during his or her free time to study. In this model, the classroom is often seen as a place for learners to interact with an expert (the teacher) and with other learners. Instead of focusing entirely on grammar and vocabulary, classroom time is spent creating language learning goals and sharing positive and negative experiences of learning. As our teaching methodology moves towards a more student-centered model, and as internet technology becomes increasingly more available throughout the word, we are seeing that this model of language learning is a growing reality for students (and teachers) everywhere.

There are several reasons that I like this model of language learning.
  1. Motivation – Autonomous language learning utilizes the learner's motivation. For the communicative classroom to function properly, it is essential that the learners are all motivated to study, learn, and interact. When learners lack intrinsic motivation, the teacher is stuck trying to think of colorful circus tricks and rewards in order to get learners to talk to each other and to study outside of class. Autonomous language learning forces learners to take greater responsibility for motivation.
  2. Power – This model places the power in the hands of the learner. The learners make their own goals and plans to achieve these goals. The learners choose what they are going to learn. The teacher is available to guide the learner in the event that they don't know where to go or what to do, but the ultimate choice is in the hands of the learner. This will lead not only to more relevant language learning, but also to a greater sense of personal responsibility for the material. Moreover, giving learners the power over their own learning equips them for life-long learning.
  3. Authenticity – I have written before about authenticity in language learning, and about how I think it is one of the most important parts of language teaching. Autonomous language learning allows learners to take advantage of authentic materials that teachers cannot feasibly use in the classroom, due to time constraints, discrepancies in learner levels, and access, etc. In this model, learners have more exposure to native-speaker materials and less exposure to pedagogical texts and “classroom talk”.
In my own life, I am trying to learn German. As a supporter of this autonomous language learning, I feel that my own learning experience should reflect my teaching methodology. I am hesitant to sign up for a language course because I feel that, with a little guidance, I should be able to take advantage of the materials available to me while I am living in a German-speaking environment.

However, I have had some trouble identifying good materials for myself as a learner, which proves (to me, at least) that autonomous language learning does NOT reduce the need for a teacher. I will continue to develop my plan and see if I can create path for myself, and I will share my reflections along the way.

Along that line, several blog articles and websites stuck out to me as particularly helpful for and/or related to autonomous language learning this week.

The Telenovela Method of LanguageLearning. Very interesting article about the use of Mexican soap operas to learn Spanish, good tips for learning on your own with this method, and some resources.

The NEW Issue of the SiSAL (Studies in Self-Access Learning) Journal. I'll just say that I like this journal. I also like that it is completely open-access, so you can read it without a subscription. There are some good articles in this issue, and in past issues, for those of you who would like to know more about autonomous language learning (or self-access learning).

I found this website in an article from the new issue of the SiSAL. I haven't had a chance to test it yet, but wow! It looks like an amazing resouce. I wish they had it for other languages. Basically, it is a collection of video clips with transcripts, and learners can watch the videos, read the text, and record themselves saying the lines. Supposedly, they also compare the recording with the original to tell students how they are doing. I know that Google has something to do with the site, and I'm pretty sure it is free.

I regularly read this blog, and I saw this article about talking to native speakers of the target language. It struck a chord with me, and I think that following the advice that the author gives about “just talking” is instrumental in autonomous language learning. 

Does anyone have experience in autonomous language learning (or teaching) that they can share? What about some more good resources for independent learning?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Language Learning Strategies: Affective Strategies

“The affective side of the learner is probably on of the very biggest influences on language learning success or failure” Rebecca Oxford, Language Learning Strategies, p. 140

This month, I was working with a very intelligent, very educated, and very perceptive English learner who identified her main problem with English as an emotional issue. She explained to me that, although she had learned English in school as a young girl (over 20 years ago), she never really learned to use it. A year ago, she started practicing her English again. She started writing emails to colleagues, she started listening to the BBC radio, and she started trying to speak.

When she started, she said she felt great about her success, but now, a year later, she feels terrible about her English. It gives her anxiety and she “feels bad” when she speaks it. I believe that this anxiety is common to language learners, and that it could be related to the language learner's progression through the Conscious Competence model.

Image from
In the first step, the language learners are not conscious of the lack of competence in the language. As they move through the model, they become aware of their incompetency. Although this eventually leads to language learning (because they realize that there are deficiencies in their language), I believe that it also increases anxiety (because, again, they realize that there are deficiencies in their language).

Another interesting point I observed during our session was her description of her own language and language use:
  • “I feel bad about my English.”
  • “I think that my English is not very good.”
  • “My speaking is bad. I think that people will not understand me.”
This negative language reflects a low language self-esteem, which can be very damaging tto possible success, as well as to future reduction of anxiety. Negative statements about language learning keep the learner in a constant mindset of pending failure.

I feel that learners' emotions are often overlooked in language learning. Stress, anxiety, or general bad feelings about language learning prevents learners from accessing the language that they already have, and additionally, from acquiring the language that are exposed to. Here is an interesting article that discusses this topic and a different article on the same information where you can read the abstract or buy the research that these two news articles talk about. Krashen's Affective Filter hypothesis proposes that affective factors create a mental block that prevents language input from reaching the language acquisition part of the brain.

Affective Strategies in language learning can help students identify these negative emotional features, increase their language self-esteem, and decrease their anxiety. Oxford's Affective Strategies for language learning are :
  • Lower Your Anxiety: The best way to lower anxiety is to relax. Listen to music, laugh, play a game, or meditate! A while ago, Ann Evans from Linguistics in the Classroom wrote about how she uses meditation in the language classroom. This is a great example of lowering anxiety.
  • Encourage Yourself: Help students overcome negative language self-esteem by making them act positively. Have them write down positive strides that they've made in language learning, or help them set achievable short-term goals that they can reward themselves for.
  • Take Your Emotional Temperature: Increasing learners' awareness of emotions is very important, as well. Often, they don't know what they are feeling, or even that stress and anxiety are normal. Help them identify how their anxiety and stress may be playing out in their lives, and then show them how to counteract it (with the other two affective strategies)! A good tool for taking your emotional temperature is using some sort of checklist (with the different emotions) and having students identify what they are feeling daily.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Cultural Views of Learning

This week, I “taught” a discussion group for one of my colleagues who is on vacation.

Cross-cultural discussion, graphically depicted
This discussion group was a free, round-table setting for employees of a pharmaceutical development company. The participants were German chemists, IT specialists, and engineers. When I say “taught,” what I really mean is that I was the native English speaker “expert” in charge of the group, but that my actual role was really not much like traditional teaching at all.

I prepared several discussion games and activities because I wasn't sure what to expect. However, it turns out that the participants wanted to talk about current events (occupy wall street, outsourcing business, total freedom, communism vs. socialism, etc.) amongst themselves. They were eager to use their English, they didn't rely on me “calling on” them before they answered. They simply negotiated a conversation the way they would have if they were conversing in German. They questioned each other, asked for clarification from each other, changed the topic together, and agreed/disagreed with each other. If the conversation ever died down, I would simply ask an open-ended question to direct the topic. The thing that surprised me the most was, at the end, when they told me that I needed to correct them more often!

My previous experience with group discussions is very different. I am used to having to pry words out of students' mouths, used to having to encourage and build them up in order to get them to talk, and used to having to decide on the one, singularly most important issue to correct so that I don't discourage learners.

Germans are direct people, and this is a fact. My very limited experience teaching Germans has led me to theorize that they, because of their culture, take a very different (and more active) approach to the role of the learner than some other cultural students do. (It could also be that the German learners that I have worked with have been very similar in their age, education, and socioeconomic levels, but since I am in Germany and the culture is new to me, it first occurred to me that it was a culture issue.)

This leads me to a more general question: How does culture shape language learners' expectations of their role in learning?

McCarger's (1993) survey of American ESL teachers and international ESL students in the U.S. showed that typically, “...students expected a more teacher-oriented environment than did the teachers” (p. 200).

**Interesting side note on correction of students errors. As I previously noted, the participants in my discussion session expected more correction than I provided. This survey confirmed that my experience seems to be typical: “The teachers clearly disagreed that they should correct every student error. Except for the Japanese, who agreed mildly, each student group clearly agreed with this item” (p. 198). Also, “...the diversity of expectations on the error and error correction items...shows that errors and correction are a sensitive factor in second-language classes. Students wanted more correction than teachers wanted to give, and much disagreement existed on whether students should make mistakes, how students should feel about making errors, and whether teachers should criticize errors” (p. 200)

I did some quick internet research about cultural teacher/students' expectation of learner roles, and here is what I found.

Hispanic Students:
When we watch our Hispanic students during the time we lecture and lead the discussions, we will see that they are all quiet and look at us somewhat scared at the thought that we might call on them individually. When they are called upon, they will often freeze, get confused and embarrassed as they try to answer. They feel much more comfortable responding in groups, doing exercises together, and helping each other. … [G]roup exercises can cut down the frequent interruptions, when a student explains something to his/her neighbor, namely what the teacher has said and what it means. (Source)

Middle Eastern Students:
Compared to Middle East, most US classrooms employ less power differences (egalitarian ideal), expect more self initiative (empowered students) and focus on critical thinking over memorization. (Source)

Asian Students:
While Western teacher expect students to use other sources of information, like libraries, media experts, the internet (i.e., they do not provide all information required), Asian teachers provide the information through notes and one main text. While Western students usually view the teacher as an expert (but more as a resource), Asian students see the teacher as one who has acquired a level of mastery worthy of significant respect. (Source)
These are very general (and very basic) stereotypes of expectations, but I think they illustrate a good point: expectations differ from culture to culture. When you are dealing with cross-cultural education, you will most likely encounter differences in teacher and student expectations.

This power point does a really good job illustrating some different aspects of culture and explaining how they affect student and teacher expectations in education.

The different cultural aspects discussed are:
  • Power Distance
  • Uncertainty avoidance
  • Masculinity (distinctly separate emotional gender roles) vs. Femininity (emotional gender roles overlap)
  • Individualism vs. collectivism
  • Long term orientation (working towards the future) vs. Short-term orientation (learning from the past)
Additionally, this site  also discusses these cultural factors:
  • Monochronic vs. polychronic cultures
  • High context and low context cultures
(While it doesn't talk about how these factors affect teaching or learning roles, I think that it is obvious that students from these different backgrounds will have different expectations, as far as learning goes.)

Once you have determined what your learners' expectations are (whether by reading about their cultures or by just asking them), another question presents itself: Whose cultural expectations should you teach to? The learners' expectations or your own expectations? 

The answer to this question will likely change depending on each group of learners you work with, the composition of the group, and the degree of difference between your cultural expectations and theirs. However, I think the most important thing is to be aware yourself and to discuss with your learners your shared and distinct expectations and motivations behind them. Otherwise, you will end up with learners who are dissatisfied, frustrated, and not sure that you are an effective teacher, despite your years of training in current teaching methodology.

Works Cited:
McCarger, D.F. (1993). Teacher and Student Role Expectations: Cross-Cultural Differences and Implications. Modern Language Journal, 77(2), p.192-207. Accessed through EBSCO Host.