Reflections on the Adult ESOL for Migrants Seminar Part 1

I’m doing these reflections in reverse order, so I promise to come to the NATECLA conference later. However, apologies to Melanie Cooke, Becky Winstanley and Richard Gresswell in advance as they were all talking about things I want to put into place for my next course, so will, if they don’t mind, leave it til then.

So this is the first of two posts, and focussed on the first half of the morning! Apologies in advance as well if I have misinterpreted any of this: very much other people’s ideas and words filtered through the distorting lens of my mind.

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It was, to put it mildly, a bit of a day. That’s a good thing. For the first time in ages I had to properly put my “making sense of stuff” brain in, rather than my regular teacher/writer brain, which was a bit of a challenge!

Fortunately we started with a topic theme which was close to my heart, with Mike Baynham from the Uni of Leeds talking about different “phases” of language acquisition theory. Phase 1 was a discussion around the models and metaphors of the cognitive elements of 2LA, something which I have always been interested in, but which he pointed it, rightly, I think, that this is a rather mechanistic point of view.

The second phase then is about classroom interactions: looking at the value of those interactions, although for me this was very much an extension of the cognitive and meta cognitive processes mentioned before: thinking here about input-interaction-output where interaction has a role in developing output and provides opportunities for testing learning hypotheses.

Which suggests, although Mike didn’t actually get to describing it as such, a third phase of looking at language learning which is very much the social element: where we need to look at learners’ lives outside the classroom as whole language users.

There was some discussion of the notion of interlanguage, which is very much a cognitive-interactional concept. The take on this was a little different, however, where learners are not so much acquiring or learning language, but are “appropriating” the language: that is, taking the language they are learning and making it their own. The metaphor here was that of a the temporary accommodation used by many migrants when they first arrive as asylum seekers and refugees: institutionalised, non-descript places with a fairly predictable space with an almost standardised set of basic furniture. And then the new arrival sets about making the space their own, by bringing in culture and meaning from their home country. And this is what learners do with English: they appropriate the language and make their own version of it: a more socio-linguistic spin on interlanguage perhaps, but one which reflects the reality of ESOL learners lives.

Which also segued neatly into John Callahan’s half of the presentation, looking at those learners lives and experiences through videos and images. A much more reflective moment all round: noting the different challenges in learners lives. These ranged from having your accommodation being broken into and trashed and not being able to actually get at your very limited possessions while council workers sorted it into a pile, to being fleeced while trying to sell your car (back, I should add to the person who sold it not three months since). And this is, of course, on top of more day to day things like sorting out bills, TV licenses, food and water.

These aspects aside, John was now focussing on that world “outside” the classroom, and through video and images really identifying how large the gap sometimes is between what happens in classrooms and what the complex reality, both social and linguistic, of learners actual lives.

For me, I’m not convinced you can simply reject the cognitive-interactional element of language learning, and that’s not really what was being said here, although it seemed like it a little from time to time. There is a cognitive & metacognitive element to language learning, and to reject this is as dangerous (?) as the rejection of the outside world which is indeed very common in all aspects of language learning and teaching. That said, we do need to bridge that gap between reality and the classroom in a much more meaningful way than we usually do, focussing on very formulaic social interactions: going to the doctor, filling in forms, etc. I always think of these things as “hyperfunctionalism”: compressing reality into functional lumps of language which in reality are a long way from how language is actually used. There are problems there when it comes to course design, like how do you prepare learners for situations like the real post office conversation without reducing it to a bunch of simple statements. I think it can be done, but we would need to reject certain notions, particularly “target language”. This is hard, simply because for anyone of the CELTA background, that is essential to a language lesson. But why do we insist on this? Why not open the classroom and the course up to the whole emergent language, developing out of the contexts of learners lives, needs and interests? I can think of a whole bunch of reasons and they begin and end with the ways in which ESOL is viewed and the standard approach to teaching and learning in colleges, which is very much focussed on achieving learning outcomes.

But anyway, I digress, and I think I had better leave that there for now, as we are on about a million words. Next instalment: translanguage and why learners don’t come to colleges for ESOL.

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