Sunday, 17 March 2013
Where does students' English come from?
As my teaching placement has progressed, I've found that I've been getting better at estimating the level of students. Naturally, I'm still not perfect at this, and the dreaded words 'I don't know' still rear their ugly heads more often than I would like, but when I look at a class there are definitely fewer blank faces staring back at me than there were back in October. This development, this building on what my students do know as opposed to focusing on what they don't know, got me thinking about another question in English language learning: where does my students' English knowledge come from?
The most obvious source of English knowledge is perhaps the most closely associated with a school environment: their teachers. Although I'm treated as a teacher by the school's administration (and hence get the benefits of the staff coffee machine and a shorter queue in the canteen), the day-to-day work that I do differs quite substantially from what a fully-paid-up, agrégation-qualified teacher does. In many ways, I've got it easy: while teachers have to work through areas that many students find quite dull, such as grammar, we language assistants are employed to enrich students culturally and to get them speaking. As a result, we don't have to worry too much about grammar, whereas teachers are constantly having to strike a balance between intriguing students and teaching what has to be taught. Generally, though, they're very good at this, meaning that some classes in particular are (a) very motivated and (b) in possession of an impressive grammatical knowledge. So if, in a lesson, I ask them about the phrase 'I would have wanted' and they identify it as a conditional perfect, the teachers are the ones I should thank.
But in this increasingly-interconnected world, there are plenty of other sources of linguistic and cultural knowledge. It's hard not to notice the presence of the English language in France, whether it's in shops (Monoprix's 'We love babies' ad campaigns springs to mind) or on billboards (see my friend Dominic's commentary on this here). Then, of course, there's the Hit Parade, France's version of the Top 40. The sheer number of English songs present among its ranks is still surprising, even six months into my time in France. The café I'm currently sitting in is playing one of the music channels, and in the past hour we've had Tinee Tempah, Rihanna, Olly Murs, Nicki Minaj … the list goes on. All this English music can be a boon for language teaching - I've listened to Adele and Taylor Swift with my English club - but it can also pose problems. I was surprised to discover yesterday that the current number 1 single in France is none other than Thrift Shop, an irritatingly catchy ditty about vintage clothing whose lyrics are definitely not repeatable in polite conversation. Inevitably, these lyrics were being sung with impressive enthusiasm (thankfully without complete comprehension) by the ten-year-olds around the rowing club yesterday.
And of couse, no discussion of language acquisition would be complete without a mention of the technology. YouTube and Twitter in particular are excellent distributors of the English language, and as a result quite a few of my lessons have begun with a YouTube video of some kind. Then there are the computer games: when we were discussing gun control in the USA a few weeks ago, I was surprised to discover the depth of my students' knowledge of different types of firearm, and their ability to describe them in English. Surprised, that is, until I remembered about Call of Duty. And Battlefield. And Medal of Honor.
But actually, it was a rather more sedate word that got me thinking about the provenance of my students' vocabulary*: specifically, their awareness of word 'harvest'. Thanks go to Harvest Moon, a Japanese strategy game, for that one. And it was at that point that I said something to my students that, back at the start of my assistantship, I don't think I could have said: 'I don't care where your English comes from. As long as it's good.'
And that feels like progress.
On an unrelated note, here's a piece of advice for you. If you're committed to producing short- to medium-form content a couple of times a month (such as, for instance, a blog), and you fail to produce anything for a couple of months, just try not mentioning this fact at all during your next publication. That way, no-one will notice.