Category Archives: Teaching English & Other Languages

Teach a Foreign Language in the Accent of the Listener?

By   February 20, 2010

A study from the University of Haifa shows that “perception of second language speech is easier when it is spoken in the accent of the listener and not in the ‘original’ accent of that language.” So if you are an American learning French, you will understand French better if it is spoken with an American accent rather than a native French accent. Sounds a little like common sense, right? The researchers say this is important is determining the cognitive factors associated with understanding and learning foreign languages; but as for teaching foreign languages, I’m not so sure that teaching exclusively in the non-native accent as the title of the article suggests is the best idea.

Perhaps at the very beginning stages of language learning, a non-native accent would be more helpful than a native accent in simply understanding the language. But if a non-native accent is the only one a learner ever hears, then s/he will have a hard time understanding all other accents as well as learning how to pronounce the language in a more native-like accent.  Students should be exposed to several native and non-native accents of the  language because obviously not every French speaker in the world speaks with the standard accent presented in learning materials. How many French language materials teach the Picardie or Belgian or Toulousian accents?

This leads into the native vs. non-native teacher question and just how much effect the teacher’s accent has on the students’ learning.  As long as the student gets enough input in the target language outside of the classroom, it really shouldn’t matter what accent the teacher has. Most classes meet a few hours per week, which is not sufficient enough for learning a language, so the student needs to listen and study as much as possible on his/her own. The teacher needs to be able to answer questions and explain the grammar and encourage student participation and motivation, but to me, the accent isn’t really all that important because shouldn’t the students be talking more than the teacher anyway?

What do you think about this study? Is it important or does it just reiterate what we already know?

English spoken with French accents

Let’s hope no one actually teaches English based on Franglais!

Vacation is for Working

By   February 16, 2010

I’ve been on vacation from the university since Thursday afternoon, but I’m not going anywhere or doing anything special. I’ve actually just been working at my computer everyday. Last night I managed to finish preparing all of my lessons for the rest of the semester (8 weeks left) and wrote a midterm exam. All that is left to do is grade the 50 or so recordings my students did last week. The other big plans for this week are to wash my car and cut my hair. My life is so exciting during the semester!  I should be trying to look for a new job for October, but I really do not want to continue teaching English (unless it’s the same lectrice position, which is highly unlikely) because I’m tired of only thinking and working in English all day. By the time I’m finished with grading/preparing/giving classes in English, I am too tired to focus on other languages.

Working at the computer all day

I know I should be practical about working as an English teacher, because really, what other job in France can I get since I’m a non-native speaker of French and I have no degrees earned from a French university? It’s just depressing to think about never becoming a French teacher and never getting to do what I really want to do in life. And no matter what the next job is that I can find in France, I will be doing twice as much work for half as much pay. Ah, the joys of living in the land of low salaries.

Actually I have been doing other things than just working in English – yesterday I spent hours upon hours collecting the paperwork needed to renew my residency card. I am, of course, missing some of it since I have to wait for one document from Paris, and we need to find a day when David can come with me to the préfecture because he has to sign a document there. I never actually received my new card from June when we moved to Chambéry, and now I’m afraid French bureaucracy will continue to screw me over, which means I will be illegal in France & the EU as of May 7 and the university won’t give me my salary. I can’t wait to start the citizenship process at the end of this year. Knowing that the préfecture could refuse my residency card at any moment because I’ m “only” PACSed and not married to a French citizen has been a nightmare for the past 3.5 years.

Moving on… All I really want to do is study languages and travel and help others learn languages too.  My website lets me do that, but I don’t make nearly enough money to survive with it alone, especially since it’s mostly in dollars. I am trying to finally market it more and I’ve joined a few more social networking sites (look in the right sidebar) to get my site out there. I have pretty decent traffic already since my site has been around for over 10 years (thank goodness I was geeky in high school) but I don’t have any products to sell, which is how bloggers & webmasters make real money. I’m really torn on the idea of selling things though because I don’t think education and business should mix. My site has always been free because I don’t want to deny anyone an education just because they don’t have money.

On the other hand, I am facing unemployment once again and I would love to work on my website full-time. If I didn’t have to work in English everyday, I could accomplish and create so much more. I’ve been thinking about giving French lessons online through language communities and selling e-books & paperback books of my tutorials and other materials I’ve been working on for a long time.  Plus the fact that so many people have been stealing my tutorials and selling them as their own for the past 5 years has really gotten to me. Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s free for the taking and you can make money off of it!  It’s impossible to keep up with all of the pirates on Ebay and Tradebit and report them all. If anyone is going to make a profit off of my hard work, it should be me, right?

Anyway, I should probably stop complaining and get back to work. The weather is getting better (high of 10° C / 50° F this week!) and I have plenty of cheap trips coming up in May & June to look forward to, plus I get to see friends from back home. Living in France may be frustrating to me sometimes, but living in Europe is still pretty nice.

I don’t speak British English, but I (supposedly) teach it.

By   January 28, 2010

Maybe part of the reason why I don’t want to continue teaching English in France is because I’m usually expected to teach British English… but I speak American English.  The students’ vocabulary books are British English…. but I speak American English. The recordings for the pronunciation labs are in British English… but I speak American English!!!

The students are confused and I’m annoyed at all the vocabulary and pronunciation differences that they can’t pronounce in either accent anyway. Listening to their oral exams make me feel as though I’m talking to several people, first with a Brit who says little with a /t/ and then all of the sudden, the American personality comes out with car with an obvious /r/. They haven’t quite mastered the concept of sticking to one accent. I wish the students had a choice of which accent they wanted to learn though. I wish I could teach nothing but American English since that is what I know best, obviously. I’m afraid the students will constantly confuse the two and accidentally say fanny to a British person and fag to an American thinking of the more innocent meanings or not even knowing the other meanings.

I suppose it was the same when I was learning French in college. We were always taught standard European French even though I preferred Quebecois French. I had to learn how to understand the accent on my own, which isn’t too hard to do with enough listening practice. But knowing more of the common vocabulary differences would have been helpful before I studied at Laval. Luckily I never made the mistake of saying gosses while I was in Quebec, so that’s something at least.

Moodle 1.9 for Second Language Teaching by Jeff Stanford

By   November 22, 2009

Moodle 1.9 for Second Language Teaching by Jeff Stanford is the latest instructional book on Moodle, the popular Course Management System (CMS) for creating educational websites and communities, to be published by Packt Publishing. It is not written for true beginners who have no experience with Moodle, as it does not explain how to install it, but it is a “how-to” book for teachers who are at least familiar with the basics of Moodle and who are looking for specific ideas on activities to create for their language classes.

The first two chapters explain why Moodle is a great resource for language teaching and the basics of the CMS. The following chapters provide, in detail, explanations on how to create activities for all language skills: vocabulary, grammar, reading, writing, speaking and listening. In fact, chapter 8 Listening Activities [PDF – 1.3 MB] is available as a free download so that you can see Stanford’s directions and screenshots of listening activities using a wide range of web 2.0 tools, such as Inwicast media player and the NanoGong recorder.

Several sample activities are provided for each skill within the framework of Communicative Language Teaching, using English as a Second Language as the target language. Obviously, these activities can be modified to use any language, and most of the recommended websites for finding materials such as sound effects or public domain images are language independent.  Additionally, Stanford includes external programs that can be used with Moodle, such as Hot Potatoes for different types of quizzes, Audacity for audio  resources, and Jing and Picasa for image capturing and editing to enhance the activities.

Chapters 9 & 10 offer assessment information and extended activities that go beyond Moodle (such as Webquests).  Technically, that is where the book ends, after 494 pages. But Packt Publishing has already made available 2 more chapters, for free, on their website. Chapter 11 [PDF – 3.7 MB] explains how to improve navigation and materials, and chapter 12 [PDF -2.5 MB] explains how to help students get accustomed to using Moodle.

Personally, I do not have the chance to use Moodle in my language classes (not yet, at least) as we are only working with HTML and Hot Potatoes. But I have used the majority of the online resources Stanford mentions and found them all to be extremely helpful in designing and writing course materials. It is also possible to use a demo version of Moodle online or download a portable version that works directly from your Windows desktop. They are both free and allow you to test out the functions and get used to the Moodle interface before you actually install the CMS on your server.

As a strong supporter of Internet-based and Computer-assisted language learning, I love the idea behind Moodle’s community approach to online learning, whether it’s pure distance learning or blended courses that include some face-to-face contact. I believe that autonomous learning is a large part of language learning because humans do not all learn in the exact same way and they certainly don’t learn best by sitting in a classroom. I wish the internet had been more advanced when I was first learning French so that I would have had access to so many valuable audio-visual resources. If I could have taken an online French course instead of sitting through 4 nerve-wracking hours each week on campus, I’m sure I would have learned much faster.  Moodle allows language learning in a significantly less stressful environment, where everyone has the opportunity to participate and can work at his or her own pace. Its overall intent is communication and collaboration among people not limited by geographic, or even linguistic, boundaries – and isn’t that precisely why we learn languages?

Other Moodle books from Packt can be found here and all are available as PDF eBooks for immediate download.

Emphasizing Oral Skills in Language Education

By   October 17, 2009

For once I agree with Sarkozy on something. He recently announced an “emergency” plan for changing the way languages are taught in France. He recognizes that the French system currently emphasizes too much grammar and memorization when basic communication skills such as listening and speaking should be the focus of language education. Even though most French students learn two foreign languages from the 6th grade on, by the time they finish high school, they still cannot actually speak the language. Another recent report indicates that 41% of adults in France report speaking no foreign languages, which ranks France as the 6th worst country for adults speaking another language (behind Greece, Bulgaria, Spain, Portugal, and Hungary, which reports a whopping 78% of adults who only speak Hungarian).

After observing and “assisting” two years of middle & high school English classes in France, I can definitely say the teachers did not care so much for teaching listening skills or even exposing the students to authentic language which is absolutely necessary to improve pronunciation and spoken fluency. Of course, with 30-36 students in each class that only meets a few hours a week, it’s a nearly impossible to have every student practice talking. But that’s what homework is for. This leads into questions of motivation and autonomous learning, which are often very different for each student – especially French students who must take two foreign languages even if they don’t want to.

Some schools have been experimenting with using more audio resources for teaching English. I came across some reportages on using mp3 players outside of class to listen to an audio file in English and then the student records his or her reaction to it, or tries to write down the transcription, or answers comprehension questions, etc. The schools provide the mp3 players (since not all teenagers have one already), and this way more expensive language labs or even computers are not actually necessary.

Since my university most likely won’t spend money on mp3 players (because they won’t spend money on new computers…), I prefer to have my classes in the one computer room we have on campus even though the computers are from the late 90’s and we’re stuck using the 60-second-maximum Windows recorder. I’ve been asking for administrator privileges so I can install Audacity, but no luck so far. In my special English class for exchange students, I’ve been spending a ridiculous amount of time preparing interactive lessons using audio and video files so that the students can listen to English as much as possible. Our program does include many language labs that are audio-based as well, but the lecture courses remain writing and grammar-based and the grades for these lecture courses count more than for the labs, which seems a bit backwards to me.

But should all students be forced to learn English? My university doesn’t even offer a degree in a single foreign language. Students must learn English and another language. It’s English/Spanish, English/Italian or English/German and nothing else. Sarkozy was mostly referring to English when he announced the new plan because of its status as a global language vital to international business and also because he’s still upset about France’s ranking of 69 out of 109 on the TOEFL test. But some French people would prefer to learn other languages in order get jobs, such as German. The region of Alsace has launched a new campaign to get people interested in learning German because there are several jobs in the area that go unfilled because they cannot find enough French-German bilinguals to hire.  (The official site is here.)  German is actually the most widely-spoken language in Europe. There are 100 million people (or about 1 out of every 5 people in the EU) who speak it as their native language as compared to around 75 million for English.

Summer to Fall to Christmas in One Week

By   October 13, 2009

Last week I was still wearing tank tops because the temperature was still reaching 75° (24 C). This week it’s been probably about 50° or 60° (10-15 C) and the heat has been turned on in our building. We’re supposed to turn all the radiators on full blast to make sure everything is working properly and I absolutely love it. Our apartment had better be this warm all winter long. Anything is better than our heatless apartment in Annecy though, I guess!  After freezing for two years with no heat and no hot water in the evenings, it is nice to know that I will finally be comfortable in my own apartment.

We also received catalogs from Toys R Us and King Jouet today, advertising toys to buy for Christmas! It is October 13th. OCTOBER THIRTEENTH! I don’t even want to think about Christmas yet, especially since most of our money will have to go towards the stupid taxe d’habitation anyway and we’re staying in France this year so I will once again miss out on a real Michigan Christmas full of decorations and cookies and snow and Rudolph the Reindeer on the radio.

As much as I love summer, I’m glad fall is here. I feel better working and having a purpose in life instead of just being on vacation forever. Work is going great this year (minus all the scheduling conflicts) and I’m not having too many problems with students. Or at least I think I yelled enough at the immature boys last week that they got the point. Giving them seating charts and treating them like 5 year-olds works wonders sometimes. I think the best part is being able to work with students from last year because they know how I expect them to behave and simply already knowing their names makes things so much easier. And my Italian students! I adore them. I want to go to the Università della Valle d’Aosta just to tell them to send me more students.

Five hours of class tomorrow and I am en week-end again!

Where does the time go?

By   October 9, 2009

I’ve finished my first full week of classes (all 16.5 hours) and even though I only work Monday-Wednesday, I am exhausted! I would prefer to work 4 hours a day over 4 days, but the students don’t have classes on Thursday afternoons because of sports. So as of 6:30pm Wednesday evening, I am en week-end.

However, since I’m teaching a new English “soutien” class for our Italian exchange students, my entire weekend goes by in a flash because I spend all my time preparing for it. We’re working in the computer lab, so I’m preparing tons of online flashcards and listening exercises. I almost lost my voice yesterday recording tons of words to illustrate all the vowel differences. My students are so enthusiastic about improving their English so I feel like giving them as much material as possible to work with. I’m trying to incorporate all accents of English instead of just American or British. I actually spent about 6 hours yesterday just finding and downloading more audio and video files that I thought would help with their listening comprehension. ( and Real English are awesome, btw.)

The rest of my classes are going fine so far, except for a few immature boys in my first year classes. (Why is it always boys??) I feel much better this year since I know exactly what I need to do and what the students need to learn. Plus knowing that I’m only 10 minutes from home instead of 50 is quite nice.

Only 2 more weeks until Toussaint vacation!

My new favorite applet for teaching and learning languages online: NanoGong

By   October 1, 2009

I just discovered this awesome applet called NanoGong from the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology. It’s a mini-recorder that you can use on webpages (and Moodle) and it will work perfectly in my vocabulary classes! The students listen to my pronunciation (by using flash mp3 players that I already embedded into the flashcards) and then they can record their pronunciation of the word and compare the two. They can also save their recordings in .wav or .flv format. I am so geeked out by this! I can’t wait for them to try it next week!

This is what it looks like, though this is just the image. Try it for yourself on NanoGong’s site or my FSI Italian flashcards. I plan on adding it to other flashcards when I get the chance.

I ♥ technology.

My rentrée is almost here

By   September 27, 2009

Tomorrow I will finally start classes again! We are just doing placement tests so we can divide the groups by level, but it’s still work, especially since we’re using our lovely computer lab with Windows 2000 and so far 3 out of 18 of the computers are already dead. New computers will be installed, but not before the rentrée 2010 – when I will no longer be a lectrice there – so the computer techs will not help us at all this year if we have problems with the computers or server. I am going to have to croiser my doigts all year that our 15 remaining computers make it until April!

My schedule is done, I think. I’ll have class 16.5 hours a week (7 are labs, 7.5 are vocabulary class, and 2 are a special class for the Italian exchange students). So I will have to do some preparation this year (for the Italian students) and a lot more correcting of recordings since I have 5 vocab classes instead of the normal 3 or 4. But I’m excited. I felt so lazy this summer for not doing much, and I would always rather be too busy than too bored.

I keep thinking about next fall and what type of job I can get. I don’t mind teaching English, but I still feel like it’s preventing me from perfecting my French. And I would still prefer to teach French to Anglophones… Not that that will ever happen while I’m living in France, but at least I can try to teach people through my website. As a technology nerd, I’ve been doing a lot of reading on autonomous technology-assisted language learning. I definitely believe the bulk of language acquisition takes place outside of the classroom, when and where the students feel most comfortable and motivated and where they can be exposed to a variety of input. That’s not to say that the teacher or classroom are unnecessary in language learning though. Both are required for interaction, correction, feedback and to provide the tools for further study. But students need to take the initiative to study on their own, outside of the measly few hours they spend in class each week.

On a slightly different topic, I don’t really feel qualified to teach French even if I could. My Master’s is in Linguistics, and my Bachelor’s is in French & Linguistics, which I specifically chose because I love linguistics a million times more than literature. Yet most universities focus their language programs on literature, so even if I did become a French professor someday, I wouldn’t want to teach those classes. I wouldn’t mind teaching culture, film, music, etc. but literature? No thanks. I guess I just always prefer the spoken language. I’ve been looking at university sites to see what’s required for degrees in French nowadays, and also to see what textbooks they use, and I came across Hong Kong’s impressive course websites and resources. Sometimes I wonder how people learned languages before the internet!

But getting back to teaching English and my future job in France, I can’t decide what would be better: continue teaching English or just be a student in French. I’d love to start my PhD soon, but I want to improve my written French first. However, can we afford to live on only one salary for a while? Do I want to try to juggle teaching English with improving my French and/or starting my PhD? Maybe something else completely unrelated to teaching will come up and I’ll be able to improve my French while earning money so I won’t have to worry about it. My goal is to get French citizenship (I can apply in 2 years) and a career that allows me to use languages, whether or not it’s teaching, so perfecting my French is going to have to be a priority.  In the meantime, I just want to discover the best way to teach French through the internet.

Hazardous Effects of Dubbing

By   September 17, 2009

Ok, maybe not hazardous, but the effects sure are annoying. France dubs almost all foreign TV shows and movies into French instead of leaving the original spoken language and adding subtitles. I absolutely hate it because the lips don’t match the words, the voices don’t match the actors, and it’s really distracting when the French voice of Gibbs is also the voice of Bones’ dad! (Are there really not enough voice actors in France for all the shows?)

It is much, much cheaper to subtitle than to dub, it helps people learn foreign languages, and it keeps the original work closer to its intended form. So why do countries insist on spending extra money on dubbing? To create a few more voice acting jobs? Because the general population doesn’t like to read? I would really like to know the reasons because it makes no sense to me.

The last time I went to the movies, five out of six of them were American and dubbed into French. It got me thinking about growing up in a country where most of the entertainment is from a different country (usually America), and having to watch everything dubbed. Would it annoy me? Would I just get used to it? I have never watched a foreign movie dubbed into English so I don’t know what it’s like to hear your native language, but know that everything about the movie is completely foreign and different. What do the French think about American high school movies? Don’t they find it weird when the characters talk about things that don’t even exist in France, like cheerleaders or Prom? I know these words translate into French (pom-pom girl and bal de la fin de l’année) but do the French really know what they are? Or why they’re so prevalent in American culture and entertainment?

Another thing I don’t understand is when people say that a certain actor is their favorite actor ever, and yet they have never heard his real voice. The voice is so important!! Even the body language can’t be conveyed or interpreted the same since that’s highly dependent on culture. Are they simply referring to his physical look or perhaps to the French voice? (A lot of the really famous American actors have the same French voice actor for all of their movies so they can be more recognizable.)

Of course, the main reason I prefer subtitles is for their effect on listening comprehension in other languages. Scandinavian and Dutch learners of English always outperform French, German, Spanish and Italian learners of English. Hmm, I wonder why? Last year only about 5-10% of my students said they ever watched movies in English, and it certainly showed in their listening and speaking abilities.

Countries in red do dubbing, those in blue do subtitles (with some dubbing for childrens’ programs).

I know I’m a bit biased being a language teacher/linguist who highly values listening comprehension in order to learn proper pronunciation and who views audio-visual input such as television and films as major language learning tools that everyone should utilize. Unfortunately, I also know there are some people out there who don’t actually want to/refuse to learn another language or culture.  I’d like to think even if I weren’t so passionate about foreign languages, I would still prefer subtitles to dubbing for the simple reason that it doesn’t destroy the authenticity. It’s just a few words at the bottom of the screen.