The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, August 30, 2012

My Headway accent - in memory of John Soars

As I said in my last post, I started out in ELT with no formal training and I learnt most of the basics about language and how to teach it from the textbooks I relied on so heavily in those early years. Like many teachers of my generation, a lot of my teaching revolved around the Headway series, whose co-author, John Soars, sadly died at the end of last week. (See In memory of John Soars on the OUP webiste).

Everyone will have their own memories of using Headway, but for me, one of the books' most lasting impacts was what I refer to as my "Headway accent". My parents are from South London and I grew up in Kent, and although I don't think I had a very strong accent growing up, once I started teaching abroad, I became increasingly conscious of the way I spoke. I often tell the story of how as a young teacher in Greece, I was horrified when a class of six-year-olds all parroted "nah-fing" back to me instead of "nothing"! Over the coming years, my accent gradually neutralised, largely modelled on the very clear, but unplaceable (although vaguely southern, middle-class English) accents that appeared in the Headway listening activities. To this day, people struggle to put their finger on exactly where I'm from, but students still frequently comment on how lovely and clear my accent is!

I didn't know John Soars personally and, to be honest, by the time I stopped using Headway, I was heartily sick of it - I didn't even need my own copy of the students book in front of me in class (let alone a teacher's book) because I knew whole units off by heart! There's no doubting though that it was a landmark series of books which had a huge influence on both EFL teaching and ELT publishing.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Metalanguage - friend or foe?

I started school in the 1970s when ideas about education were rather ‘hippy’, for want of a better word, and teaching grammar was thought to be old-fashioned and unnecessary. So it wasn't until I studied Linguistics at university that I got to grips with the whole concept of nouns, verbs and adjectives. And it wasn't until I started teaching EFL that my grasp of grammatical terminology more generally gradually filled out - picked up almost entirely from the textbooks I was teaching, often only just ahead of the students I was teaching it to! So I suppose, I have a natural wariness of metalanguage (language to describe language). Coming from a background in which ‘fancy’ terminology seemed both alien and alienating - to me, it was very much the language of ‘posh’ people with a classical, private school education - I felt that people only used it to show off and that it wasn't really necessary, having got on perfectly well without it for so many years.

Since then, my grasp of not just basic grammatical terminology, but the whole mess of metalanguage that surrounds the study and teaching of language more generally has flourished and it's come to feel more familiar, more a natural part of my own vocabulary, so I can now “talk terminology” with the best of them. I'm still acutely aware though that this isn't the case for everybody, and I know that for many of my learners, all those fancy terms are equally as confusing and alienating as they were for me at one time. I certainly wouldn't advocate the slightly weird, listen-and-repeat language learning methodologies that I was subjected to as a child and I can see that it's helpful to have some basic terminology to talk about the subject you're teaching/studying, in this case language. But I'm always wary about letting the terminology get out of hand - after all, the majority of my students aren't interested in language for language’s sake, for most, it's a means to an end.

The issue of metalanguage in the classroom becomes even more evident when you move into EAP (English for academic purposes) and you're suddenly faced with perspective, stance, voice, contextualisation, evaluation, objectivity, subjectivity, criticality, exemplification, citation, signposting, hedging, thesis statements, abstracts, bibliographies ... the list goes on and on and on. For the poor student suddenly having to get to grips with long, dense academic texts, with writing in a very different way, with a new academic culture and with the demands of their own specific discipline, is throwing a whole bunch of extra metalanguage at them, just for the purposes of improving their English, really helpful? Or is it all just part of adapting to the "academic discourse community" (see, I'm quite good at this stuff)? Getting to grips with academic language is all about understanding linguistic labels for abstract concepts after all, so we may as well start them off in the EAP classroom.

Across academia though there's a fine line between terms that are necessary to express subtle, but important distinctions which might be lost by using more everyday language, and unnecessarily complex language that really does nothing more than show off the skills of the writer. So whilst I'm happy to talk to my students about "hedging" because it's an important concept for them to grasp and one not easily expressed in other words, I'm more likely to remind them to “explain the background to a topic” rather than talking about “contextualisation”. It's a fine line to tread though and one I agonise over frequently, both in the classroom and at my desk. How often do I find myself consciously avoiding a term, then to only give up later and include it because it’s getting too messy to explain in other words? Is metalanguage helpful and necessary or just confusing? And how much is too much?

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