Saturday, March 26, 2011

Virtual Round Table Presentation

I just did my first adobe connect session for the Virtual Round Table, part of my online PLN (personal learning network).

I think my presentation was okay but the internet cafe was busy and a bit loud! I hope it wasn't too 'gritty' as one of the participants says in the chat, it was a bit low budget and I should have worn a shirt and considered my mes en scene. :O)

Here's the link if you want to hear me chat about screencasting in ELT

Friday, March 18, 2011

A first class experience?

I had a sense of eager excitement and arrived about half an hour early. It felt important to get off on the right foot and show enthusiasm. Entering a new classroom is quite a daunting experience as a teacher and going in as a student was an occasion where affect was a factor. The room was already filling up by the time I arrived. The 'seatables' were arranged in a horseshoe so I walked in and took a free seat in the middle, right in front of the board. I was sat between S a Polish 22 year old with an American accent and Ali, who was as it turns out from Sheffield. Initially though we sat in silence waiting for our teacher to arrive and tell us what to do, strange that groups of students don't naturally introduce themselves. I thought about saying something but my morning head told me to shut up. It was the two Koreans (one from the North and one from the South) who were getting to know each other unprompted (amybe they knew each other already). In the room were, 2 Koreans, a German, a Czech, 2 Frenchies, 1 Italian, 1 Turk and Z our Syrian teacher.

The group is nice and range in age from 21 to 66. There was clearly a mix of knowledge already evident. Some of us were literate, others not so. Some knew how to count to 100, others (like me) not. For some the grammatical endings seemed familiar, for others it was new ground, and we covered a lot of it.

As a way of getting to know each other we covered the following ground: singular pronouns, 1st (ana min) 2nd (anta / anti) and 3rd person singular (hua / heeya); the word “isme”- my name is, your name is (male anamooka and female annamooki), his name is (annamukkhu), her name is (annamukkha). This was followed by “baduka”: I'm from; you're from (male and female); he's from; she's from. Then we did “medina”: my hometown is; your hometown is (male and female); his hometown is; her hometown is. We finished with saying our ages (omri), which the 66 year old was most displeased with! This was quite a lot for a four hour class conducted 95% in Arabic. I was a bit disappointed that there were no aims given at the start or a menu of the ground to be covered, I find it motivating to know what is coming up. That said, I felt at the end of the class like I had worked hard and I had a sense of completion and accomplishment at a few moments in the class.

There is the cognitive load of the real information, towns, countries, ages, then the added difficulty of saying these words in Arabic, though much was similar (Poland is Bolandia, for example). What struck me most about this was the amount of drilling. There was loads and loads of choral drilling and no variation to this. There was pair work and mills, more on that in a second, but there was a staggering amount of whole class repetition. This behaviourist trend worries me a bit. I hope that the aim behind this is to focus on pronunciation, not to scar these patterns of words onto our brains.

The mills were evident, and it was good to get out of the seat, but the instructions were a bit vague, talk to each other and no time limits were given meaning that often some of our loose, self-constructed groups, didn't get the chance to practice. I think these milling periods could have been extended a bit. I would like to have had a game or competitive slant to this. I would also like to have been organised a little more. Similarly, I sometimes have a certain shyness with regard to telling students what to do at the start of term. I soon loosen up :O). I was pleased there was a variety of interaction and despite a choral, pair, mill routine being established earlier on, there are worse routines in the world.

The teacher took a grammatical slant to this. We were focused on accuracy, both in form and pronunciation early and although everyone has lots to say, and interesting stories to tell, all the extraneous information must be kept at the door. This is perhaps the frustration of adult language beginners in any language, we come with heaps of knowledge and experience but can't verbalise it in the second language yet – dumbing us down. I am reminded of a nice activity I have used with Level one class before which is to give out a piece of paper and ask them to write all the words they know in English. This is usually met with disbelief, we are beginners, we don't have any words but in fact there are many English-loan words: computer and TV are just two of them found in many languages.

Anyhow, I rabbit away. The final part of the class, she introduced some letters, I was back on familiar turf and feeling cocky. Some in the class who may know how to speak, don't know how to read or write. This was pleasing, or more so a time to relax slightly and try to help my neighbours who were plunged in at the deep end.
Then at the end we did ages and numbers. There was no teaching for this and I didn't know how to say my age, or any number for that matter. This was a bit bad for me. I felt like a dummy and realised that those around me have considerable experience of using Arabic already as they unprompted spat out their ages and those around them.

We're off.


(Pic of Iraqi embassy Amman)

So, we arrived at Damascus airport 10 days ago and I got to practice my basic Arabic with the border guard. I said Hello, how are you, and thanked him in Arabic. It was a good start, thanks K! Later in the afternoon we left for Amman, Jordan. Thankfully we had L's colleagues who could speak Arabic to help us on our way. We crossed the borders easily enough (visas etc around 40US or so..) and the hotel was nice. The following day I headed into town.

Everyone was surprisingly nice and I didn't have much to report in the way of issues. The Jordanians and others who I met seemed to cope fairly well with a foreigner in their shop / car. One word I picked up fast was 'Fondook' (hotel) in order to get back! It seemed bizarre that 'hotel', a word I had always assumed to be an international standard didn't work. I also learnt the word for yes because when I sneezed one of L's colleagues pointed out that my sneeze was close to the Syrian word 'Aywaa' (yes). I have since learnt that other versions exist for yes including 'nam' which I learnt at the AIDS clinic the other day. To collect your results you fight with a crowd to give your slip of paper to the man behind the barred window who calls your name when they have found them. The expectant people shout 'yes'. The results were in Arabic and I was forced to ask someone else to read my form asking if I had HIV or not using the question form me (pointing) AIDs, yes(aywa)? No (laam)?
Anyway, back to the language stuff. We survived Jordan, it was a good trip for me and Damascus beckoned. The next day I set off to central Damascus but before I left I made sure I had my destination, town and return written in Arabic (so I could show it to the taxi driver) and transliterated for me to try and say. I tried to write it first and then had my attempt corrected by a local, the difference was marked! I have used this book a lot over the last week and thus have a list of useful places now transliterated and written in Arabic for me. On the downside I can't remember any of the names for these places but do remember the isolates: britaniya / An – gles -ee / Melkezel (council) Amerikikeya.

Damascus has been great so far, a few idiot cab drivers but it's to be expected anywhere. It's also a fruitful environment to practice Arabic as there isn't much alternative in a lot of situations. It's a fruitful experience trying to read number plates or adverts which leads to hours of practice over the day as I mooch round town with agents looking for a place to rent. I haven't really picked up much apart from noticing a word being used lots 'mafi' which may or may not be related to organised crime.

One breakthrough was that I finally learnt what 'Mekthub' and 'Kalimet' meant, two words which were said in every writing lesson on our Alif Baa DVD with our learn Arabic text book: mekthub = letter, and kalimet = word. I asked a taxi driver.

I started at university last Monday, it's a 4 week 80 hour course; pretty intense stuff. I hope to successfully balance this work load with my MA, may struggle, in fact struggling already, am 2 weeks to the bad in that respect.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The book - Alif Baa

This title for learning Arabic was recommended by K as being the one for 'people like me' meaning in the main, Americans going into an Egyptian context (even though I am an Englishman in a Syrian one). One recent conversation suggested a link between US foreign policy, diplomacy and Alif Baa, in the sense that the words taught are overtly of a political nature. However, a quick glance through the glossary reveals little of this.

What annoyed me about this book was that a lot of the language we practised to learn the Arabic alphabet and authology was never taught meaningfully. I mean this in the sense that the meanings were never given. Also, it was inconsistent from page to page, sometimes meanings were given, sometimes not. This goes against everything I have been taught and believe about language learning. K argued that this non-focus on meaning was because of the cognitive difficulty of learning to read and write (and deal with meaning) is too much. That said , lady Love has picked up a few words and phrases from the book and we can both read and write (kind of).

The book and DVD-rom were generally thorough and complete. The authology DVD where you watch a professor writing so you can copy was useful. However there wasn’t a lot of variety in the drills and listening activities. Having the answer key built in would also have been useful at times, but I am sure this is evidence of a publishers thinking.

With some letters there was a discrepancy (or at least seemed to be) between the explanation for the sound represented by a character and the sample (for example daad). This could also be down to the fact that there is not a parallel English / French sound (and thus our ears couldn't distinguish it), or to recording quality.

Learning with the lady

Image from

There were four parties involved in our Swiss Arabic learning: myself, the lady, the book and K - our teacher. Often this foursome operated as a threesome and learning happened.

L and I would sit on the sofa, with the laptop at hand for the listening tasks, and work through our homework. This was tough. After a days work, then cooking, the last thing you really want to do is more work. However, we were motivated enough to stay disciplined and we usually completed 90% of the work set.

What I noticed was that I was learning a lot from her, her explanations of things helped. In addition I found that talking through my thinking, vocalising my thoughts helped me 'to learn'. Equally the book was definitely an instructional aid, and although it never gave any cues for pair-work and was made for individual self study, it could, with a bit of invention, be adapted to pairwork. We varied our interaction patterns and so on. We would read explanations aloud to each other and work through tasks or questions individually and then compare answers. What we created was a developmental space, a zone of proximal development (ZPD). It was in this space that we grew as learners. Helping each other with support from the book. This is in contrast to our 'classes' where we enter a win/lose situation with correction from the teacher.

I think learning with a close friend, wife, husband, partner or similar can be stressful at times. I got a bit annoyed with L for being good, for one and I felt that she was a bit impatient at times with my pace. That said, without her I am sure my discipline would have waned, we helped motivate each other too; cups of tea and biscuits.

What makes a good language learner? / Saying hello

Greetings from Syria! We are landed, safe and sound and currently focused on settling down and finding a place to stay. My MA is currently a bit on hold but I intend to get on with it after this post.

Speaking to K about his Spanish learning , before leaving, sparked my thinking (cause he's a spark). He said (approx) “I am the top of my class at Cervantes, I am the f$*&ing best! And it’s not because of my teacher or the book or my classmates or anything: it’s because of me. In fact I learn in spite of them”. Fairly strong stuff.

Now, Keith has a tendency for confidence but I think he has a point. In the same way that some of the comments reflect that I have made progress in Arabic, perhaps, in spite of the teacher's approach. A 'good' (motivated) student may grow and learn despite everything else. Language learning is a chaotic thing, it's non-linear, growth ebbs and flows. This point is reinforced by teachers' common reports of learners learning language that wasn't the target of their lesson. However, two key elements, beyond chaos, are at play in my situation; aptitude and motivation.
Lets begin with aptitude.

So lady Love is a gifted language learner. Her French Creole, French, German and English are all advanced and then there’s her elementary and above Tamil, Spanish, Bulgarian and burgeoning Arabic too. She has an ear for this stuff, and I am sure having experience of learning a variety of languages has benefited her in the strategies she uses to learn. She certainly was faster on the uptake most of the time. I think her memory is better than mine too. I am utterly loathe to put it down to some sort of innate ability but there is part of me that believes in it. Hypocritically, I have always preached to my students that hard-work pays off, when it comes to languages, but suspected that this isn't an absolute. When lady Love and I were doing homework together often exercises that took her 1 minute took me 3. This was frustrating as we were time short doing homework after a day's work, travel, dinner and Eastenders (which we miss!.

The fact that she could recall the delicate shape of the medial letter 'daad', doesn't mean that this learning is permanent or a good measure of 'success'. It does seem to be the case that learning the alphabet is a memorization exercise, one in which I have been less successful (slower). However, it is more helpful to remove the win / lose paradigm and focus on the fact that I can read and write (even though I don't know what I am reading or writing). This helps me stay motivated.