Friendship and Filoxenia: ‘Otherings’ or Facts?

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My Greek is actually coming on. Not thanks to my ‘friendship’ (long story – I should write a book.. or better, a soap opera) but the friendship (no scare quotes), hospitality and general loveliness of Greek people. I have a bagful of scribbled notes of things that people have taught me. I don’t have a teacher, I have hundreds of them. It’s as if the island itself is willing me to learn Greek. It’s actually an incredibly effective way to learn, because I attach new vocabulary to the person or situation where I heard it, which helps me to remember.

Since my MA research is about the influencing factors on English language learning, it got me wondering about whether students of English in the UK ever meet anyone who has the patience to help them in this way. I seriously doubt it. I don’t imagine many of my respondents will say ‘I studied in England and everyone I spoke to wanted to help’. Picture a grumpy pub  landlord saying ‘Yes of course I can explain the use of the present perfect. Oh and have some free food and wine too!’

I may be wrong though. Adrian Holliday would say that I’m ‘othering’ or ‘essentialising’ (1) about my own culture. That is, I’m making assumptions based on the stereotypical attributes of people from a particular country. People in the UK are: individualistic, capitalist and hence less likely to be hospitable and give time to someone without the expectation of financial gain.

Greece, however, is a different story.

There’s even a word for this phenomenon from Greek mythology: ‘filoxenia’, which can be said to be the opposite of xenophobia. Basically, (I’m ‘othering’ again) Greek people are hospitable to foreigners.

Where do these differences come from? Is it to do with the climate? In the summer in Greece everything slows down.  And what do people do? They chill out. They chat. The other day, after shamefacedly admitting to one Greek friend that I’d just walked to the beach then done nothing all afternoon, she said ‘It’s normal to do nothing when it’s hot. And it’s a 5km walk there and back- that’s not nothing!’. Thus my busy-Britishness revealed itself. (I have henceforth decided to make an effort to do absolutely nothing for at least four hours a day in attempt to liberate myself from such embarrassing capitalist tendencies. This is actually way more difficult than it sounds, hence why I’m currently lying in a hammock… writing a blog post).

Seemingly, Adrian Holliday would do away with cultural generalisations altogether. Benjamin Whorf (2), on the other hand, famously emphasised the importance of culture on language. And from my own experience, I know there is no word in Italian for ‘hangover’ and there is no word in English for the Italian ‘dislivello’ (the difference in altitude between the start and end point of a climb in the mountains) presumably because the British drink a lot, and Italy is mountainous. There seems to be a hundred different ways to say ‘no problem’ in Greek, suggesting Greeks are chilled out people. Are these otherings or facts? And I’ve heard that in Swedish there is a word for the inside of your elbow. Goodness knows what that means…

I agree with Holliday insofar as stereotypes are dangerous…But surely some differences are to be celebrated and enjoyed?

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References

1. Holliday, A. (2016). Doing and Writing Qualitative Research. LA:Sage Publishing

2. Whorf, B. (1940). Science and Linguistics. Retrieved 21.01.17 from:http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/whorf.scienceandlinguistics.pdf

 

 

 

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EFL Listening lesson: what one class learned (and taught me) about learner autonomy

This is a story about listening. About about how, in an effort to encourage learner autonomy, I helped some students start to overcome their fears of tackling authentic listening texts. But it’s also about what I discovered from listening to my own students about the strategies they used for tackling authentic texts. And finally, it’s about listening to feedback ― the best kind of feedback a teacher can get.

The story starts in 2015, when I taught four different groups, back to back, at a single company. The first group, Level B2 on the register, made it clear to me from the outset that the one thing they didn’t want was to suffer through another year with a coursebook (business or otherwise) that missed the mark. So we plunged in without one.

Lessons were a combination of articles they found, topics that came up in class, grammar that reflected challenges I picked up on in conversation and writing. Not having a coursebook also freed up time for developing, practicing and doing presentations, which they loved.

Sounds like trouble

The thing that absolutely terrified them, however, was listening. Even with graded listening activities for homework from BBC Learning English, they’d come back agonizing over the accents and lamenting how much they’d missed. We duly worked on individual sounds and connected speech, did targeted dictations and more in-class listening exercises. And I also encouraged them to do individual homework tasks listening to things that interested them.

They soldiered on, but when I asked them to watch some PechaKucha presentations online to get a feel for the format (before doing it ourselves), this group practically went into crisis. It was two American college girls talking about a canoe trip that apparently pushed them over the edge. The students swore they didn’t understand anything. I flipped on the meeting room computer and tried vainly to firefight by revisiting the presentation. Between accent, lexis, speed and sound quality issues, it was a difficult presentation. But at that point it was foolish to even try. Panic had set in. In Krashen’s terms, their affective filters were solidly up.

After the next week’s class, the company’s training manager asked to meet with me so I could justify my methods. She was very polite and understanding while I explained my case, but I was still a bit taken aback by the fact that she’d been called on to intervene at all. It seemed that word was spreading around the company that I was torturing the groups with authentic ― and for that read: impossibly difficult ― sources.

Listening for signs of hope

I had given the same assignment to all four groups, from Pre-Int to Advanced, and I was happy to report to the training manager that not everyone had given in to despair. While there was some of the expected grumbling about not understanding everything from the lower levels, there were two particular students in the B1 group whose reactions interested me. Both had done the homework. But both had taken difficult speakers in stride. Because both had applied different strategies for choosing which presentation to listen to.

The first said she loved bees, and so she listened to a presentation on beekeeping something like 10 times to understand as much as possible. In other words, the topic had intrinsic interest. It was motivating.

The second said he tried one presentation and found it too difficult. He found another too difficult, and another, and kept trying until he found one he could understand. He listened to it a few times ― not as many as the woman ― but enough so that he could complete the task. In other words, he self-selected for difficulty, and found a presentation that was a right fit for his competence.

Both did something I as a teacher would have struggled to do with them individually ― in the first case, find a task that pinpointed a highly motivating interest I hadn’t known existed, and in the second, find a sort of Goldilocks just-right gradation of listening text. Both did something it would have been impossible to accomplish had I imposed a single listening text on them as a class.

Making strategies explicit

I took these revelations home with me and typed up a sort of guide with some tips for grappling with authentic listening texts. The next meeting with the first group was full crisis-management mode, and I shared the tips and we talked calmly through what makes authentic texts hard, but what can make them easier.

The biggest revelation for them, I think, was that they had the power to choose. Rather than torturing themselves with the first listening text they found, they could self-select. Select for interest or select for difficulty. But it was up to them.

After that, we tried a number of the usual authentic sources, including one of my favorites, The Week’s This Week I Learned podcast by Lauren Hansen. It’s 12 minutes or so of summaries of the sort of random, interesting things you expect to find around the internet on any given week. I like it because each piece averages about 3 minutes, the production quality is very good, it’s downloadable and there’s something for everybody. (To be fair, it serves up exactly the sort of the pub quiz trivia that gets shoehorned into the already overcrowded columns on your average coursebook layout, but the advantage of sending students individually to the podcast is that they can choose what actually interests them.)

Building confidence

I told them to each listen to what they wanted and then come back and share what they’d learned. When they wanted more community support, they agreed between them to all choose and listen to the same text each week ― a sort of listening club. To keep it fresher, however, I encouraged them to form two teams, write up some questions, and quiz each other. The game-aspect seemed to motivate them even more to understand and stump the opposing group with their questions. Autonomy doesn’t necessarily mean go it alone.

At the end of the course they not only delivered great final-day presentations, but gave me a wonderful and generous send-off, with a pizza party and a Christmas basket to boot. And then the classes stopped.

The company didn’t start lessons again. Had I done the right thing or scared them off English? I wondered. Until about a year later.

The sound of learner autonomy

While browsing through the toasters in a big electronics megastore one Sunday morning I bumped into one of the women from that B2 course. We chatted about our holidays. And when I asked if she saw the others much her response made me grin from ear to ear.

Every week, she reported. They contacted each other to pick a listening activity from This Week I Learned, listen together, and discuss. What I’d dubbed their listening club was continuing as before, alone, without the aid of a teacher.

It’s the best feedback a teacher, or rather an educator, can get: the knowledge that their time with you actually made a difference in their educational development. Not in the sense of she can use the present perfect a little better, but as in she’s left the class better equipped to pursue her own education and development in English.

Because that, I thought, the grin still plastered to my face, sounds like learner autonomy.

The moral of the story

The moral, I think, is that if we want to encourage learner autonomy we have to

  • get our students to practice it by giving them space on the calendar/syllabus and opportunity through individual or group choice of texts, topics, etc.
  • find out what strategies they’re using and help those not using good strategies to do so (my “listening plan”, mentioned above, is one such attempt). If this information and encouragement comes from your students and not you, even better.

 

How do you encourage students to deal with authentic listening texts outside – or inside – class?

How to use the internet to improve your listening skills

Are your students struggling with authentic listening activities?

Below is a brief guide I wrote to help my EFL students overcome both confidence issues and poor strategic choices when doing independent listening at home (the full story of which can be found here).

In addition to coaching them on how to choose what to listen to, the point was to make the structure of standard-issue listening activities visible to them so that they could make it part of a self-guided listening routine.

For the record, this is not a replacement for doing regular listening work in the classroom, whether it’s activities you’ve created, canned coursebook texts or ad-hoc micro-dictations. But this guide gives students one more tool for developing independence and autonomy in their learning.

Since I first created it, I’ve used it with a number of groups from lower intermediate to advanced level. Sometimes I’ve read through it in class, point by point. Other times I’ve just handed it out and had the students read through it (and apply it) at home. But in any case I regularly have students bring in the results of their independent listening to share and guide discussion in class.

Feel free to use it or adapt it as you like for your classrooms!

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How to use the internet to improve your listening skills

Do you get nervous at the thought of listening online? You shouldn’t! When you listen to anything online, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Be selective

First, be selective about what you listen to. You’re going to spend 10-20 minutes on this, so don’t just force yourself to listen to the first thing you find. Being selective means you should prioritize:

  • Brevity ― a 2-3 minute selection will probably be more doable than a 10 minute selection because you’ll be able to go back and re-listen to it.
  • Difficulty ― choose something that’s a good challenge, but not impossible.
  • Interest ― a topic you’re really interested in will usually motivate you to try to understand more. (Also, you might already know something about the topic, which will help.)

Don’t stress about catching every word

Next, don’t stress about not understanding every word. Remember, in real life, when you listen to the radio in the car or at home, you probably don’t pay attention to or hear every word. You hear some important points and then later reconstruct a memory of what you heard. Also, remember that a lot of things like pop music and talk radio can be difficult for even native speakers to understand, because it’s fast, the sound quality may not be good, people don’t always speak/sing clearly or the speaker’s accent might be unfamiliar.

Have a plan

Finally, have a plan for when you listen. It’s important to listen more than once and think about different things each time. My listening plan would look something like this:

 

Listening Plan

  1. Before you listen, look at the title and (possible) summary. Think about the following questions:
    • What do you know about the topic?
    • Have you heard anything about it in the news?
    • What do you think they’re going to talk about?
  1. Listen once:
    • Who? What? How? Where? When? Why?
    • Briefly summarize (out loud or in writing) what you heard/understood. Realizing what you understood/didn’t understand should help you focus on what to listen for next.
  1. Listen twice for more detail about the previous questions.
  2. Listen three times:

Write down some key vocabulary. I’d try to put key vocabulary in 2 categories:

  • Key topic-related vocabulary (if the topic is “Scientists discover water on Mars”, topic-related vocabulary like: spaceship, astronaut, space probe, atmosphere, etc.)
  • Other interesting/important/unknown words you hear. It can be words you know, or words you don’t know.

 

Mars/space vocabulary Other
spaceship

astronaut

space probe

atmosphere

find out

seek out

investigate

 

(If there’s a script, listen a fourth time with the script. Check your vocabulary list against the text and add to it.)

  1. After listening:

Say or write a brief summary of what you heard, using the key vocabulary you wrote down. Look up any unfamiliar words. Then, go and listen to something else on the same topic ― you might find a lot of similar vocabulary, and maybe even find you understand more!

Conclusion

At first, it may seem like a lot of steps, but the better and better you get, the fewer steps you’ll actually have to do. The goal in the end is to automatize the whole process so you listen consciously and effectively but without the stress. Follow these tips and you’ll be healthier, happier, more confident and have stronger listening skills.