A Few Thoughts on Task-Based Instruction

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I appreciate Belgar and Hunt's (2002) attempts to integrate a task-based syllabus into the English as a Foreign Language curriculum of the Japanese university where they worked. No doubt, as the researchers pointed out, the students involved benefited from this alternative form of English instruction. The fact that the task required students to frequently negotiate meaning while using language for real-life (or near to real-life) communicative purposes probably served as a very useful complement to the more traditional instruction the students received in the other component of their program. Moreover, the students' largely positive responses to the project undoubtedly contributed to their gains in English proficiency, given that such an enthusiastic reception to the tasks increased their levels of motivation and lowered their affective filters.

Nevertheless, despite the positive aspects of this instructional model and the tangible benefits the Japanese students obtained from it, I question whether this and other "non-interventionist" approaches (or completely analytic syllabi more generally) have a sizeable place in my current English language curriculum. This is not to say that task-based and project-based teaching play absolutely no roles in our programs. In fact, they do, although the tasks (e.g., problem-solving activities, debates, scavenger hunts, etc.) tend to have both pedagogical and practical elements to them and involve more teacher involvement than the model contemplated by Belgar and Hunt, in which the instructor is more observer or facilitator than pedagogue. As a means of adding flexibility to the curriculum and increasing active student participation in the lesson, task-based teaching is quite welcome in our instructional model and fits nicely into our synthetic functional-notional syllabus, in which students are encouraged to interact only in the target language and grammatical structures are imbedded within the language functions and notions around which the curriculum is organized. Thus, task-based and project-based work can certainly be used in measured doses to enhance and supplement our traditional ESL/EFL curriculum.

On the other hand, I do not believe that task and project-based instruction should replace the traditional curriculum, as has been suggested as one possible approach. For one, if the purpose of a program for English language learners is to completely recreate a naturalistic language learning environment, then unless the program is situated in a purely EFL context where students have no access to a community of native English speakers, learners may be better off spending the same amount of time (and presumably, much less money) simply acquiring the language naturalistically. In other words, why should we be charging students tuition and fees to experience a simulated version (viz., quasi-naturalistic task-based interaction) of the real thing, which they can get for free? In addition, the minimal focus on form typical of purely task-based and project-based teaching may lead to serious unintended consequences, such as the provoked fossilization Skehan warns of. Thus, one matter of concern in implementing task-based and project-based teaching in my current instructional context is ensuring that it does not supplant other critical curricular components. As we are already pinched for time (in the language classrooms I have stepped into, time seems to pass faster than the laws of physics should allow), I fear that an overreliance on one single instructional approach, regardless of how well students take to it, may do more harm than good. Furthermore, I have serious reservations about charging students to participate in programs that adopt a completely analytic syllabus, at least in most ESL contexts, as explained above. Validly and reliably measuring student achievement in a program built around a strictly analytic syllabus is another potential difficulty. So it seems that striking the right balance when combining task-based and project-based teaching with traditional language instruction while preserving the synthetic syllabus at the core of the program in which I work would be a serious challenge.

Focus on Grammar

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Although the field of language education has seen many advances during the last two decades, especially when it comes to acknowledging the roles social interaction and cultural identity play in the language teaching and learning process, I fear the same cannot be said for teaching grammar. There seem to be just as many question marks now as there were when I was in college twenty years ago. In fact, the situation may be grimmer now than it was when I first studied these issues because at least back then, there was a fair degree of certainty over what "grammar" was (those were the heydays of generative grammar), whereas today, theoretical linguists cannot even agree on whether grammar rules exist at all (at least not in any psychologically real way). This is one of the reasons I am so hesitant to teach grammar explicitly in the classroom--no matter what I tell my students, chances are that much of what I tell them would be factually inaccurate. Consequently, to the extent that I approach grammar in a direct way, I carefully avoid mention of "rules" and instead focus on helping students recognize patterns and tendencies and assigning meaning to those patterns.

Perhaps the greatest challenge when teaching grammar in any instructional context is that so much of the language acquisition process still takes place in an impenetrable black box, that it is impossible to know with any degree of certainty what the "right" way to teach grammar is. Debates that began in earnest in the 1970s are still largely unresolved today. Which approach is more effective--inductive, deductive, or a mixture of both? Is there a difference between language learning and language acquisition? How much interface, if any, is there between implicit and explicit language knowledge? Should language input or learner output be emphasized in the classroom? Do grammar rules even exist? I could go on and on. For most of these and related questions, for every published article in favor of one position there is another arguing for the opposite. And of course, the fact that I experienced naturalistic foreign language learning and found it to be far more effective than any classroom instruction I ever encountered will constitute an enduring bias against explicit grammatical instruction that I will likely never be able to erase. So it would seem then that my greatest challenge when teaching grammar is that I am conflicted over whether I should be teaching it at all, mostly because the field itself is conflicted and has no definitive answers to my questions.

Luckily for me, the curriculum used in my current teaching context adopts a strictly inductive approach to language instruction, allowing me to minimize the impact of this intellectual conflict on my instruction (it still deals an occasional glancing blow, but one parried by a methodological framework that permits evasion of grammatical explanation). According to the tenets of our method, grammatical principles should be exemplified but not explained (unless absolutely necessary for learners to understand a target structure or form), which for the most part vitiates the question of how we should teach grammar since in the strict sense our method militates against teaching grammar in the first place. According to the details of this method, as long as students notice a grammatical structure, they should be able to acquire it provided the input is comprehensible and their output is reacted to appropriately, sans mention of grammar. This is not to say that we do not provide students feedback about whether their output is grammatical, only that we do not actually say "your output is not grammatical." We negotiate form, not grammatical rules.

I strongly believe in a meaning-based approach to language instruction, for we communicate to express meaning. Form is but a means to an end, not an end in itself. Form without meaning is of almost no value (as revealed by the Corandic Activity), whereas meaning with imperfect form is often of great communicative value. Whether planned focus on form is necessary at all is debatable, in my opinion, since authentic interactions will often produce more than enough incidental focus on form to go around. As pointed out by Ellis et al. (2001), incidental focus on form, especially when initiated by the learner, appears to be more effective than planned focus on form in generating uptake, and it may be more useful to the learner since it is directly relevant to the communicative needs of the moment. The strongest argument for planned focus on form is that complete reliance on incidental focus on form may not adequately address structures or vocabulary that students intentionally avoid, and so for this reason (and for this reason alone) I can begrudgingly concede that some planned focus on form may be required depending on the circumstances. However, throughout the long course of human history people have been learning second and foreign languages naturalistically and with great success, and in such authentic learning contexts (which must numerically dwarf all combined classroom language instruction ever carried out) most if not all focus on form is of the incidental type. Yes, I admit that it is at least within the realm of possibility that at least once or twice, some Greek struggling to speak Latin in ancient Rome walked up to a native Latin speaker and asked him to explain the ablative absolute, just like a native Spanish speaker asked me last week to clarify the difference between "hassle" and "hazard," but such interactions in naturalistic language learning settings are decidedly rare. My point is that since we seem to get so much more mileage out of incidental focus on form, why take valuable class time away from meaning-centered instruction by planning a focus on form that is of questionable value to start with?

Focus on Pronunciation and Fluency

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When I studied phonetics and phonology for the first time in the early 1990s, the academic focus was almost entirely on the segmental aspects of the language's sound system. We reviewed the articulatory and acoustic traits of each consonant and vowel phoneme in the language in detail. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) was taught to us with urgency, and hours of class time were devoted to detailed phonetic transcription. Of course, we also learned about suprasegmental features (which at the time were often referred to as "prosody"), mostly at the phrase and sentence levels, but only as a short course module following our detailed segmental studies. Suprasegmentals were more of an afterthought than anything else. However, now that the pedagogical focus in the field has shifted away from an almost exclusive emphasis on individual sounds to a broad recognition that suprasegmental features such as stress, intonation, rhythm and linking play a more important role than segmental features in the language comprehension and pronunciation of English language learners, it is critical for teachers to thoroughly address suprasegmentals when teaching English pronunciation.

Goodwin (2002) argues that we should set four important realistic goals for our students when teaching pronunciation. Citing Morley (1999), Goodwin elaborates that our pronunciation instruction should help students achieve functional intelligibility (the ability to pronounce English with an accent that, while non-native, does not distract the listener), functional communicability (the ability of the speaker to achieve successful communication in the specific settings and contexts in which she or he must interact in "real life"), increased self-confidence and the ability to monitor his or her speech for errors (that is, to attend to phonetic form while not neglecting meaning). A key underlying premise behind the goals Goodwin advocates is that "perfect" or "near-native" pronunciation is not achievable for the vast majority of learners. As a result, we should not set our students up for failure by setting such an unrealistic goal. Moreover, it is important for us to conceptualize and carry out pronunciation instruction in a way that is respectful of the learner's cultural identity. This requires us to help our students acquire a new (comprehensible and non-distracting yet noticeably non-native) accent to add to their linguistic repertoire without demanding the eradication of their natural accent as a precondition for doing so.

My personal teaching philosophy holds that second language instruction should focus primarily on the development of communicative competence and that fluency and lexical command are far more important than grammatical (especially morphological) accuracy in most real-life interactive contexts. Consequently, my main goal when teaching pronunciation is to help my students produce comprehensible if imperfect English. In my current teaching context, my greatest challenge is convincing students of the soundness of this approach. I have encountered a number of students who initially insist on being corrected after every single mistake and have even had students who complained that I was not correcting enough of their pronunciation errors. While I understand that students may become comfortable with this type of instruction based on the expectations they have developed over many years of (mostly unsuccessful) language instruction using the audio-lingual method and the intuitive-imitative approach to teaching pronunciation, I fully understand that perpetuating this type of mostly ineffective pedagogy just to placate my students is not in their best interests. Yet convincing my students that perpetual correction will not help them achieve their language learning goals while at the same time respecting their beliefs is an ongoing challenge that I will continue to struggle with in my teaching practice.

Turning to the instructional activities for developing fluency through listening and speaking provided by Nation and Newton (2009), I found many of the suggestions useful and appropriate to my instructional context, especially since the language school where I work has a teaching methodology that focuses on oral communication with only a minor emphasis on reading and writing. Two of the activities that would fit quite well into our curriculum are listening to questions and rehearsed talks. Despite the frequent use of questions as a presentation and modeling technique at our school, I have found that many students still struggle to consistently and correctly identify questions. I often find myself explicitating the interrogative nature of questions by either holding up a piece of paper with a large question mark or even stating directly, "that was a question." Turning question recognition into a game, as Nation and Newton recommend, can help remove the tedium from this important but often frustrating task. Given the importance of question recognition and formation to successful communication (just think about what percentage of our real-world interactions involve either asking or answering a question), no stone should be left unturned to help our students master this essential communicative skill. Rehearsed talks would be particularly helpful for our lower and intermediate level students. I believe that one of the most effective strategies for helping learners at this range of proficiency improve their fluency is to help them add short (single phrase) and medium-length (two or three short phrases) high frequency language chunks to their lexical repertoire, which they can then internalize and use to build more fluent speech. Although I am not in favor of rote memorization à la the old audio-lingual method, I do think that lower-level learners should acquire meaningful language chunks (and not just single terms), with lots of opportunities for repetition. The rehearsed talks using pyramiding as suggested in the article would be an appropriate way to achieve that pedagogical aim.

Learning to Teach

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Richard McDorman in the early 1980s.jpg

Left: Richard preparing a "lesson" for great aunt Evelyn (October, 1980: Beckley, West Virginia)

Right: Richard and sister Crissy working on a "test" using Aunt Evelyn's manual typewriter (December, 1983: Beckley, West Virginia)

Below: Betty McDorman (image from 1978 Coal City Elementary School yearbook)

I think I always knew that I would eventually become a teacher. When I was in elementary school, I would "play professor" with my great aunt Evelyn, teaching her "lessons" about the alphabet and then preparing her tests, grading them and carefully explaining where she went wrong. She had a very old manual typewriter that I would use to carefully type her tests--I remember how excited I would get on the way to her house, just waiting to get my hands on that unique, ancient treasure.

Betty McDorman_September 1978.jpgMy grandmother Betty was an elementary school teacher in Coal City, West Virginia. She was one of the very first women in her town to earn a college degree, and some of my first memories of classrooms were of her second and third grade classes, with seasonally-themed collages neatly arranged on the walls. I have many diverse memories of school. Because my parents worked in the coal industry at time when it was in flux, we moved around a lot. Consequently, I was enrolled in three preschools, three elementary schools, two junior high schools (back when they still existed) and two senior high schools spread across three states and in very different areas, from a remote village of perhaps two hundred people (truly in the middle of nowhere) in central West Virginia with only a single seventy year-old school house in town, to the western suburbs of Pittsburgh and then to a small colonial Virginia town of about seven thousand people, where I went to high school from tenth grade on. As a result of having studied in such varied educational settings, my "apprenticeship of observation" was quite rich, as I was exposed to a great variety of ways of teaching.

I experienced similar variety in my own classroom language studies, which began when I was in grade school (a once-a-week enrichment program that included light instruction in Hebrew) and continued all the way through graduate school (the last formal language courses I took were Classical Aztec--one of the most boring classes I ever had to endure, due mainly to the instructor's dry and emotionless teaching method, which included nothing more than memorizing and translating texts--and Middle Egyptian, which I found somewhat overwhelming since I was taking the class for my non-Indo-European language requirement in the midst of aspiring Egyptologists). Sandwiched in between learning to write Hebrew letters when I was eight and studying the texts of ancient civilizations in my mid-twenties were abundant and diverse language studies that included many years of Spanish, French and Latin, along with two years of Chinese, a year of Arabic, and one semester each of Old English, German, Swahili, Old Provençal and Lakhota (the most widely spoken dialect of the Sioux). Although most of these language courses taught me what not to do when I would eventually become a language teacher myself, I was exposed to one or two excellent teachers whom I would later try to emulate (my Swahili teacher, one of most acclaimed Bantuists and in my humble opinion fantastic teachers in the United States, was particularly inspiring). I also experienced two naturalistic language learning settings when I was a teenager, first during a long summer in Mexico City and the next year at a Spanish language immersion camp for high school students. It was through these two experiences that I actually acquired the ability to use a foreign language for the first time. I made greater gains in Spanish proficiency in these two summers than during all of my years of formal Spanish classes combined. As a result of these experiences, I came to believe (and still do) that learning a language naturalistically, in situ, is a far more effective way to acquire fluency in a language than classroom-based learning. For despite our best efforts, I believe that it is impossible to recreate a truly naturalistic learning environment in the classroom. The best we can do is to simulate real-world conditions and scenarios, but I believe that there will always be an artificiality to the classroom that cannot be completely eliminated.

My first real teaching experience took place in the early 1990s, when I was teaching (or rather trying to teach) English as a second language to Mexican migrant workers and their children in Central Virginia. I remember those experiences vividly, as our small group of aspiring teachers would board a van, bubbling with enthusiasm and excitement, to travel about an hour away from the University of Virginia campus to the apple orchards south of Charlottesville. I recall being shocked upon seeing the deplorable living conditions of the workers and their children, who were huddled into what looked like (and very well might have been) dilapidated antebellum plantation workers' quarters and trying my best to present the weekly lesson to exhausted workers with perplexed looks on their faces. I remember that most of my lessons to these learners were in Spanish, not English, and that we talked about Mexico and Central America a lot. My second teaching experience took place when I was in graduate school in Chicago, where I taught two sections of first-year conversational Spanish. I received absolutely no training whatsoever for the job and was selected because I was the only graduate student in the linguistics department who was proficient in Spanish. Although I did the best I could (trying to emulate the few good language teachers I had learned from in the past while trying to avoid the habits of the bad ones), I barely managed to stumble my way through the year. What I remember most about the experience was being chastised by the program supervisor for misusing the word cuestión during a class and always struggling to hold the attention of my students, almost all of whom were in the class because they thought that taking first-year Spanish was the least painful way to satisfy their mandatory foreign language requirement.

These were the formative experiences that, at least as far as I am aware, have most powerfully shaped my ideas about teaching. By the time I started teaching English full-time at a private language school in Miami in 2003, I suppose that my ideas about what "good" language teaching should be like were already long settled. One of the common threads that runs through all of my language teaching experiences is that I had very little formal training in how to actually teach (as opposed to the subject matter itself, in which I was thoroughly well schooled), and pretty much had to figure it out own my own as I went along based on my prior observations and experiences.

Analyzing the Process of Course Development

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Barbara Fujiwara went through a very contemplative, deliberate and introspective process to develop her advanced listening course for second-year EFL students in Japan. Her approach to developing the course began with an analysis of her students' needs (to become, as she put it, "independent listening learners") and the institutional limitations imposed by the Japanese educational system (limited contact hours). Next, she made the decision to use a content-based curriculum to provide as deep and meaningful a learning context as possible, including a substantial cultural component, while fashioning a course that would be structurally different from the students' first-year course in the same area. Her third major consideration was student retention, since the course was an elective and students would be free to drop the course without harming their academic status. In her attempt to prevent a high level of student attrition from the course, she decided to give students a choice of materials to be used, which she hoped would lead to higher levels of student involvement. Although she initially feared that this strategy might not work (she stated that she reached the idea in desperation), it turned out well as most students selected culturally-meaningful materials.

This teacher spent as much time researching appropriate teaching methodologies and course materials as possible, given the time constraints imposed on her (she had a relatively short amount of time to research and develop the course due to a last-minute change in faculty assignments). She determined and wrote the course content mainly drawing upon her prior teaching and educational experiences, especially the research she conducted for her master's degree thesis, which was directly relevant to the course content. She also sought input from colleagues, who stressed the need for a variety of curricular content for this type of course, which ultimately led her to select one of the main sets of materials (a British television series). During and at the end of the course, her students reported enjoying these authentic materials much more than the course textbook, and the teacher took these opinions into account when she revised the course (she decided to drop the textbook since most students thought it was too boring).

The teacher stated that her approach to course design emphasized process more than content; this reflection appears to be consistent with her description of the course, as it focused on group project-based learning and learner responsibility. Her beliefs and values, including the need for a "rich and deep context for learning" and an emphasis on "inference and discovery" over spoon-feeding information to her students, also played an important role in how she developed and structured the course.

The Dilemmas of Language Assessment

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I would like to share my experiences with language assessment in my current instructional context--an intensive English program for international students at a large language school in Miami, Florida. We conduct formal assessments using a full-length simulated TOEIC (a norm-referenced standardized test consisting of two hundred selected-response items measuring listening and reading comprehension skills) at the beginning of each student's enrollment for initial placement purposes, and then a comprehensive assessment at the end of each academic quarter that involves a criterion-referenced achievement test (containing selected-response and constructed-response items to measure attainment of the course's learning objectives, which involve all four language skills), another full-length simulated TOEIC and an oral proficiency interview (OPI) scored on the ILR proficiency scale (a speaking performance assessment). We spend so much time, energy and resources conducting these three different types of assessments primarily because we are required to do so by the national accrediting agency to which we must answer (I am personally ambivalent about the value of spending so much time on formal, end-of-quarter testing; by the end of the year, most students are more than "tested out"). The accrediting agency's standards require language schools to conduct regular language assessments that are valid and reliable, and so we use the TOEIC because (at least according to ETS, the test maker), the test is among the most valid and reliable norm-referenced assessment instruments available. In the past, we tried using the TOEFL iBT, but that test is too complicated to administer en masse (it requires computers, whereas the TOEIC is an entirely paper-based test) and cannot be reliably scored due to the constructed-response sections (speaking and writing), which require professional, trained raters to score consistently and reliably. The same goes for the IELTS.

Although we employ three distinct assessment instruments for our quarterly testing, only the criterion-referenced achievement test is used to determine whether students pass or fail the course (we do not believe that it is fair to use norm-referenced tests to award final course grades, since such tests are designed to produce a normal distribution of scores; we believe that all students should have the opportunity to pass the course provided that they can demonstrate minimally-acceptable attainment of course objectives, which are defined and explained to students at the beginning of the course). All students are also assessed informally throughout their course based on their continuing in-class performance and completion of homework, assignments, language lab activities and exercises, which include a wide range of item types (selected-response, constructed-response and personal-response) and assessment tools (traditional and alternative), although none of these is formally graded.

Despite the apparent robustness of this assessment protocol, we have been disappointed with the results of these assessments, especially the TOEIC, which despite its supposed validity has proven almost useless for us. The TOEIC's test maker claims that TOEIC scores provide a valid and reliable measure of the examinees' ability to use English in the workplace (since our program is general and not academic in nature, this test is better aligned to our course's goals than the TOEFL or IELTS, which mainly assess the examinee's ability to use English in academic settings). However, it has been our experience that the TOEIC substantially overestimates the test taker's language proficiency (we have had cases of students achieving high TOEIC scores who could not communicate effectively in English, at all). In my opinion, part of this problem is that the TOEIC only measures receptive skills, yet our students must be able to use the language to communicate in authentic contexts, and that obviously requires production. Unfortunately, our school's achievement tests (which are provided to us by our international headquarters in Switzerland) are only marginally better than the TOEIC (for one thing, the minimum passing score is only fifty percent according to the published scoring guide, although our school unilaterally moved that up to sixty percent for several reasons, including methodological ones that are too complicated to go into here), but at least they have the virtue of being aligned with the course content and assessing all four language skills. We (and many other language schools in the United States accredited by the same agency) have been forced into this situation due to accreditation rules and the mandatory institutional accreditation required by a federal law that went into effect in 2010. So, like Pete from this week's article, I long to break free of this administrative assessment mess and instead use what I consider more meaningful and authentic forms of assessment (I personally favor performance assessments), but our hands are tied due to the legally-enforced accreditation rules, which require that we use "nationally accepted language assessment instruments."

Cultural Biography of ESL Teacher Francisco R.

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Self and Cultural and Language Learning History

Francisco was born in Havana, Cuba. During the famed Operation "Peter Pan" in 1961 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Peter_Pan), he abruptly left the island at the age of twelve. His parents put him on a plane to Miami, where he was then quickly rerouted to Libby, Montana, to stay with a foster family arranged through the Catholic Church. Francisco only lived in Montana for about a year. He then moved to Miami, Florida, where he lived for ten years, before moving on to Cincinnati, Ohio where he lived for another thirteen years. After stints in Chicago, California, New Jersey and Texas, Francisco finally returned to Miami, where he has resided for the last five years.

Francisco has one sister. His parents, who were teachers, are now both deceased. Francisco is now Baptist, having converted from Roman Catholicism in 1975. He earned a bachelor's and master's degree in economics, both from the University of Miami. Francisco noted that he studied economics because he thought that degrees in that field would be useful. "Being a refugee, I had to be practical," he added.

In considering his cultural identity, Francisco believes that he is "very Cuban" in the sense that, although he "lost his country" and in his own words his "heritage" at a young age, he has always tried to maintain his Spanish language skills and his connection to Hispanic culture. He believes that his bilingualism has helped him professionally, allowing him to travel to Spanish-speaking countries and expanding his overall career options. When asked directly, he strongly agreed that he has a hybrid culture.

Francisco's persistent lifelong hobby has been learning languages. He studied French in high school and minored in French in college. He also studied Portuguese in college, Italian at a language school and German on his own (with the help of the BBC), in addition to studying Japanese at a local community school. He took Spanish for Spanish speakers in high school and some Spanish literature in courses in college. During his adult language studies, Francisco was exposed to a wide variety of instructional methodologies and materials. Those Portuguese classes at the University of Miami used authentic Portuguese-language music as the primary instructional medium, while his French courses incorporated strong literature and drama components. He decided to study both French and Portuguese because he aspired to a career in international banking (which never materialized) and thought that those particular languages would be particularly helpful in such a career.

Francisco's first experience studying a foreign language involved learning English at the young age of four at a bilingual school in Havana. He proudly told me that he was completely fluent in English after only three months in the United States, which is all that seemed to be required after eight years of high quality instruction in Cuba. That instruction came by way of a bilingual education program in which children studied Spanish and the humanities and social sciences in Spanish during the mornings, along with English (including English grammar) and the physical sciences and mathematics in English in the afternoons.

Francisco has worked professionally in both English and Spanish his entire professional life. His main line of work before going into semi-retirement was as an editor in both languages; he specialized in Spanish and English language textbooks.

Francisco has obviously had to overcome many challenges in his life: he came to the United States on his own at a young age, ripped away from his parents only to be shuffled around the country from Miami to Montana and back to Miami again. He remembers clearly the first sign he saw as soon as he stepped off the plane from Havana, which read "Cuban children this way." Despite the numerous obstacles he has had to overcome in life, however, Francisco has achieved great success in life and is a gifted teacher.

Language Teacher Motivation and Teaching Approach

Francisco only decided to become a full-time language teacher after he retired. He was "getting bored" with retirement and decided to explore teaching as a post-career option, just to "see to see what would happen." He had taught some English classes during his prior work as a textbook editor with Berlitz and thought that since he had quite a bit of experience studying foreign languages himself, he would be able to empathize with his students' learning experiences and challenges; based on my observation of his class, I can attest to his success in that regard. Francisco is currently working as an ESL instructor in an intensive English program at a private language school for adults in Miami. All of the students Francisco taught before coming to his current position were of middle school or high school age, so his current job is his first experience teaching adult learners. He has found most of the students at his current post to be highly motivated (after all, they do have to pay fairly high tuition fees, he pointed out). At the language school where he currently works, Francisco has also taught individual and small group tutorials, along with corporate executives at a French advertising agency whose Latin American headquarters are located in Miami.

Francisco describes his approach to teaching as "eclectic." He told me that he uses a "communicative approach" to teaching in which his lessons mainly emphasize speaking and listening, although he also sometimes incorporates what he referred to as "straight grammar" into his lessons. He was quick to point out that he is constantly "diagnosing" his students to determine how best to help them individually, giving students special attention when needed. He has found that most of his students are really interested in conversation. "The rest comes in gradually, as it's appropriate. When there's a teachable moment, that's when I stop the conversation to demonstrate a grammar structure," he added. Francisco said that he tries to allow his students to do most of the talking. He corrects minimally to "avoid frustration." Learning a language is a very difficult thing to do, he says, and in order to be successful, students must be persistent; otherwise, they drop out. "My greatest satisfaction here is that my students keep renewing their enrollments," he noted. One challenge he brought up was "keeping the freshness up" for longer-term students, who tend to get bored more easily than newer students.

Francisco's teaching philosophy has changed over time. According to Francisco, when he first started studying languages, the teaching methodologies relied mostly on repetition and rote memorization; however, he noted that the profession has changed dramatically during his lifetime. When he was in the publishing business, for example, the "translation method" was used, but now more "direct" or "communicative" methods seem to be in vogue. When I asked Francisco why he believes those older methods have been changed or abandoned, he provided a frank and terse response: "because they didn't work." Upon further probing, he added that they were also too difficult and "unrelated to real life." For example, those older methods were not helping students to talk about practical, useful activities such as going to the bank, ordering food in a restaurant, or expressing needs to medical professionals. According to Francisco, those old methodologies "weren't connecting with students' needs in a functional way."

Francisco had a lot to say about American attitudes toward learning languages in general. He believes that Americans are, by and large, "very culturally isolated," which leads to an "affective filter" making it more difficult for them to adapt to cultural change in our globalized world (as an aside, upon hearing him use the term "affective filter" completely unprompted it struck me that Francisco, like I, must have also been brought up on Krashen's theories during his prior applied linguistic studies). In his words, many Americans are "handicapped" by this cultural isolation and are very lucky that "their language" (i.e., English), is "the international language," which makes it less necessary, from a purely practical standpoint, for Americans to gain fluency in other languages. The fact that Francisco chose the phrase "their language" instead of "our language" or simply "English" seems relevant here, as he appears to be distancing himself from Americans in this regard (I did not ask him about his citizenship, although I presumed that he is now a U.S. citizen, as are most Cubans who immigrated to the United States during the 1960s). He believes that the fact that "other foreigners have a greater need to learn English than Americans have to learn other languages" has led to complacency on the part of many in the United States.

Francisco insightfully observed that Americans tend to say things like "I took Spanish in high school" as if they had merely taken a vaccination--as if the dreadful process is now over and the experience is best forgotten, the language something they would never use. As we wrapped up this portion of the interview, Francisco shared an interesting story from his early experiences studying French. While in college, one of his French instructors had told the class that native German speakers from the Alsace-Lorraine region of northeastern France, along the German border, generally had a hard time learning the language because, being of Germanic stock, they believed themselves to be superior to the (generally Romano-Celtic) French and so they looked down on the French language and were generally unmotivated to learn it for this reason.

Teaching and Culture

When I asked Francisco about the steps he takes to understand and acknowledge his students' cultural selves, he said that he tries to ensure that his students see him as an equal and that he seems them as equals as well. He provided several examples of how he accomplishes this. He started by informing me that since he has many students who are refugees or exiles (recently-exiled Cubans and Venezuelans are well represented in Miami), he lets them know that he himself was an exile. He wants his displaced students to know that he understands how hard it is to leave one's country under "political stress" and that he can personally relate to their life experiences. When interacting with his students from Brazil (also quite numerous in Miami), Francisco makes sure to tell them that he has studied Portuguese so that they know he is interested in their language and culture. He always asks his new students where they are from and invites them to talk about their country or region of origin and their culture, and since he is a world traveler (having visited most of Latin American and Europe) he is often able to connect to his students based on his own life experiences.

Francisco emphasized repeatedly that he believes in the importance of making sure his students understand that he is as just as interested in their culture as they are interested in his. As a case in point, once while teaching an Italian couple he decided to conduct some research on Italian culture that led him to a funny, lighthearted book on the quirkiness of Italians, which he shared with his students as a springboard for discussion on Italian culture.

This Cuban-American teacher often jokes with his students about the difficulties of learning English in Miami, since Spanish is the primary language here. In order to help his students learn more about American culture, he encourages them to go to places like Boston Market ("to see the meatloaf and so forth...to understand that there are different types of foods that Americans eat, other than fast food," he explained). He also invites them to explore American cultural traditions, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. Since he has owned a vacation home in North Carolina for many years and is familiar with Southern culture (it should be pointed out that although Miami is technically located in the South from the purely geographical perspective, it is definitely no longer "Southern" from the culture perspective and is in that respect an excellent example of how culture is dynamic), Francisco likes to talk about American Southern culture as well during his classes. He revels in sharing his life experiences with his students, such as explaining how Robert E. Lee Day was once an official government holiday in Miami (the old Miami, that is) as a segue to comparing and contrasting Southern culture and what he refers to as "Yankee" culture.

Francisco believes in the importance of critically comparing American culture and society to that of his students. For example, he uses a cultural-historical perspective to explain to his students how the United States was once much more like their primary cultures, especially before the 1950s--a time when communities were closer, before the suburban lifestyle had become so prevalent and when there were no "big box" stores. He also makes it a point to find out which of his students are immigrants to the United States and which are just visiting Miami for a short period of time, and he takes this into account when teaching, as he believes that the needs of learners who plan to stay in the country permanently are often different from those who are learning English as an international language and plan to return home.

When asked what suggestions he has for others working with ESL/EFL students with regard to culture, Francisco recommended using realia (authentic objects and materials such as menus, public transportation maps and even Christmas tree ornaments) in the classroom whenever possible to spark cultural dialogue as well as using history as an entrée to teaching language. He strongly recommended using authentic texts and digital media such as popular and classic television shows and movies that portray American life. True to his cultural-historical orientation, Francisco also recommended comparing the present to the past (e.g., by having students watch an episode of I Love Lucy followed by an episode of Seinfeld or Friends) to help students better understand how American culture has changed so that they will realize that culture is dynamic.

Class Observation

I observed Francisco teach for approximately one hour (the final hour of a three-hour class which forms part of an intensive English program consisting of 19 hours of instruction per week). Francisco teaches at a private language school in Miami, Florida that serves English language learners from diverse national, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds of a wide age range and across the proficiency levels. The class I observed consisted of twelve students ranging from approximately twenty to fifty years of age and of diverse ethnicities and countries of origin (the students in the class hailed from Latin America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East) at a low-intermediate level of proficiency. Each of the students in the course had previously undergone formal testing at the language school, which had assessed their proficiency at level 2 of the ILR language proficiency scale (see http://www.govtilr.org/Skills/ILRscale1.htm), corresponding to level B1 of the CEFR (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_European_Framework_of_Reference_for_Languages).  

I witnessed substantial and meaningful student involvement in the class. Most of the students appeared to be genuinely interested and motivated to participate in the lesson. The bulk of the hour-long segment of the class I observed consisted of meaning-based activities (idioms and phrasal verbs appeared to be the themes of the day), followed by a short form-based activity in which each student was called on in turn. The instructor was very enthusiastic and encouraging at all times, only minimally correcting student errors (a practice encouraged by a number of approaches to language instruction, including the Natural Approach and Communicative Approach, for students at this level, for whom an emphasis on meaning rather than form is recommended). It should be pointed out that the language school where Francisco works encourages its instructors to adopt such teaching methodologies.

Throughout the class, the instructor used his sense of humor to help him relate to his students and, true to his self-professed teaching style, he cited Anglo-American cultural references, including the popular American reality show American Idol and British history, in this case what he referred to as Winston Churchill's famous "Never Give Up" speech. An explanatory conversation ensued after several younger students asked who Winston Churchill was. I also observed an interesting (and from my point of view, entertaining) foray into the competing uses of "grand" (e.g., "that watch costs three grand") and "K" (e.g., "he makes 50 K per year") to mean "one thousand dollars." Based on the examples the students provided, it became clear to me that the younger students in the group have become well acquainted with hip hop culture.

At several time during the class, the instructor drew on his knowledge of some of his students' native languages (in this case, Spanish and Portuguese) to accommodate their learning needs. At one point, when several students struggled to grasp the meaning of a certain phrasal verb, the instructor provided a short explanation in Spanish, which quickly and effectively moved the lesson forward. The class format included a substantial question-answer component (both instructor and student driven), which frequently led to additional questions or more in-depth coverage of the points under discussion.

The instructor utilized the immigrant experiences he shares with many of his students (drawing from his own funds of knowledge) to help him connect with them in class. For example, while exemplifying the idiom "get up and go," Francisco said to a student, "you were unhappy with circumstances in your home country, so you got up and went" and then went on to note that he had experienced similar life circumstances. The instructor also demonstrated an understanding of cultural complexity and realism, telling his students that "at least in the United States, being a go getter is something good" during his presentation of the term.

In addition, the instructor often referenced his students' personal experiences and wove them into the lesson in what I interpreted as his attempts to maintain a personal connection with his students. From jocularly alluding to one of the student's apparently well-known proclivity to shop at an upscale department store on a regular basis to recalling a prior in-class conversation with a student about a difficult day she had experienced, the instructor repeatedly acknowledged and validated his students varying life experiences during the class.

Cultural Biography of Cecilia J. (ELL)

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Notes: Both interviews were conducted in Spanish. All quotations included in this cultural biography were translated from Spanish into English by the interviewer. The interviewee graciously expressly consented to the use of her real first name and the first initial of her last name in the publication of the interview.

Self and Cultural History


Cecilia J. was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where she was raised and lived until moving to the United States seven years ago. Her mother Bricela and father Luis are both from the rural province of Manabí (Bricela from the town of Canuto and Luis from the town of Manta). They moved from Manabí Province to Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador, in their early twenties. Cecilia noted that it is very common for people from the rural provinces of Ecuador to move to Guayaquil or Quito in search of better opportunities (especially employment) but that the reverse (people moving from Guayaquil or Quito to the provinces) rarely occurs.

Cecilia has one brother on her mother's side but because her father and mother never lived together (Cecilia indicated that they never wed) and since she has only seen her father twice in her lifetime during brief encounters (both of which took place when Cecilia, who is now in her forties, was in her early twenties), she does not know whether she has any brothers or sisters on her father's side of the family. Cecilia was close to her maternal grandparents, both of whom passed away approximately seven years ago, but she never met her paternal grandparents for the reason previously mentioned.

Cecilia self-identifies as Roman Catholic. During the interview, she made a point of informing me that her mother is a devout Roman Catholic and attends mass almost every day. Although Cecilia herself only attends mass on an "occasional basis," her Roman Catholic identity is very important to her overall individual and cultural identity. Cecilia attended a private primary school and public high school (colegio) in Guayaquil, from which she graduated; her high school graduation represents a significant achievement in her life.

When asked about the cultural values, beliefs and practices shared by her family and primary cultural group, Cecilia explained that her family has been the "nucleus of her life" and that most important values, beliefs and practices in her life are in some way related to her family. Important family traditions include holiday and religious celebrations and the family reunions associated with them, especially Christmas. Other important cultural beliefs shared by Cecilia and taught to her by her family include the desire to help others (especially family members), maintaining a positive outlook on life in the face of difficult circumstances and staying "united" with her family. She learned these values and beliefs both implicitly by observing those around her and explicitly through the instruction and encouragement of her parents and in school. "That is how they taught me," she explained. Cecilia insists that these beliefs play a central role in her life today.


Cecilia currently works in the accounting department of a medium-sized company in Miami, Florida. When asked about her interests and hobbies, she listed the following: (1) being a good person spiritually, (2) spending time with and helping her family (which she can only do now when she returns to Ecuador for visits or by sending money from abroad), (3) shopping, and (4) working. Cecilia flatly admitted "I'm addicted to work" and pointed out that since most of her social structure revolves around her family, and since all of her family is in Ecuador (she is, as she put it, "alone in the United States"), she is focusing on her professional self during this stage of her life. She stated that her primary goal right row is establishing financial security for herself and helping to support her family in Ecuador through regular remittances sourced from her earnings from work.

Cecilia is rightly proud of her accomplishments, among the greatest of which she tallies overcoming the absence of her father throughout her life, being able to help her family by sending much-needed funds from the United States, and making it into and graduating from public high school in Guayaquil, which involved a competitive admissions process. Cecilia's experiences with language learning have been complex and at times frustrating. Although she was required to study English for three years in high school, all instruction took place in Spanish by instructors with limited English proficiency themselves and the program emphasized reading and writing over speaking and listening; consequently, Cecilia did not acquire more than a basic level of proficiency in English from her classroom-based learning (in her own words, "I didn't really learn a lot"). Other than her three years of high school English, Cecilia has never taken formal foreign language classes. She noted that she prefers learning English in situ by practicing with native speakers, yet she has struggled to achieve even intermediate proficiency despite having lived in the United States for more than seven years mainly due to the fact that Miami is a predominantly Spanish-speaking city so her opportunities to practice English are limited; moreover, she does not feel compelled to learn English in order to succeed professionally in the United States and so lacks motivation to further her language studies. Cecilia said that she "considers learning English to be a serious challenge," especially since she must learn both conversational English and the specialized language used in accounting for her job. Nevertheless, Cecilia's lack of English proficiency does not appear to have substantially limited her employment or economic opportunities in the United States considering that she earns a decent living in her current position in spite of her limited English skills.

Self and Cultural Present

When asked to describe her identity in terms of her affiliations/associations with her primary culture, Cecilia focused on her belief structure and how it has influenced her personality. She explained that she is humble, hardworking, proactive (she scrupulously avoids procrastination) and easy to get along with, and that these character traits are highly valued in Ecuadorian society. When putting those traits in a cultural context, Cecilia affirmed that "they are the same as my culture. I identify myself with my Ecuadorian culture." She denied having any traits or beliefs in conflict with her primary culture. Given the personal nature of the topic and her insistence, I did not press Cecilia on this issue, even though we know that no one shares every single value and belief with others, in any society. Interestingly, however, Cecilia later stated that living in the United States has changed her in certain ways (which will be described below).

Cecilia never planned on moving to the United States or even leaving Ecuador; Cecilia's departure from her homeland was ultimately prompted by an internet chat during which she met the man who would become her future boyfriend. In her own words, "it was love that brought me to the United States; it just sort of happened." Cecilia had heard about, as she put it, "the famous American dream" and expected to find the United States, and opportunity, waiting for her with open arms. However, she was sorely disappointed after arriving when she found out that the country she had heard about (an idealized version based on that mythical American dream) was not the same country she encountered in reality. About the "American dream," Cecilia noted that "they make you think it's true, but when you get here, you see that you have to spend your whole life paying for things. In Ecuador, we live simply but without debts." Cecilia's greatest fears and challenges involve learning English and the feeling of loneliness she often experiences being so far away from home and her family, especially given the importance that her family plays in her social system. Cecilia was surprised to find that the United States is, as she put it, "a cold country with cold people." She added that "[here], you don't even know your own neighbors. There is no real social life. There's no 'human warmth.'" To summarize, the United States Cecilia found upon her arrival did not exactly match the idealized version of the country she had in her mind before arriving.

During our interview, Cecilia was quick to point out the many differences between the cultural beliefs and practices she has observed in the United States and those of her homeland. Among the differences she highlighted are that in the United States, there are far more rules and regulations to follow, although she interprets this as a positive aspect of American culture and society. She also appreciates the high level of societal and governmental organization in the United States, giving examples such as the well-maintained roads and cleanliness of cities and towns. She explained that in Ecuador, potholes are rarely fixed and large cities, such as her hometown of Guayaquil, are much dirtier than similarly-sized cities in the United States; according to Cecilia, it is common to see garbage piling up along the streets of Guayaquil, something she has never seen in Miami. Cecilia added that in the United States, work is "an obligation, and not a joy." Although she believes that both countries share a strong work ethic, she sees working in the United States as a sort of indentured servitude required to pay off the large debts (mainly from credit cards) that new arrivals inevitably acquire (it seems that Cecilia may be overgeneralizing here based on her own personal experiences). Cecilia appreciates the cosmopolitan nature of Miami and expressed admiration for the many cultures represented here. However, since Cecilia's entire American experience has taken place in South Florida (she has never visited any other part of the country), she seems to be somewhat unaware of the fact that Miami is unrepresentative of much of the country in this respect. Finally, Cecilia contrasted the progressive spirit of the United States (she believes that the U.S. is a country "making progress and interested in advancement") with what she perceives as widespread apathy on the part of Ecuadorians, whom she believes to have it in their nature to accept the status quo; according to Cecilia, "people in Ecuador accept the current situation without wanting to make progress." These comments seem to reveal stereotypes that Cecilia holds about both her primary culture ("everyone there accepts things the way they are") and the culture of her new home ("everyone here is interested in making progress").

Cecilia does believe that moving from Ecuador to the United States has changed her identity in certain ways: "I identify now more with the United States than my own country, especially when it comes to improving, advancing and making progress," she said. Cecilia went on to point out that she appreciates the "law and order" in the United States and enjoys the opportunities she has here to encounter new cultures, learn a new language (despite the challenges it poses and her anxieties connected to English) and earn a good living. The greatest challenges she has experienced are learning English and resisting the "temptation to go into debt to get whatever you want." Based on her repeated comments on the subject, it is apparent that the easy availability of consumer credit in the United States (which, as noted by Cecilia, is much harder to obtain in Ecuador) and the debt she may have incurred as a result (I did not ask her about this directly, as I believed it would have constituted an inappropriate intrusion into her privacy) have affected Cecilia at the personal level.

Cecilia claims that the only bias, prejudice or discrimination that she has experienced in the United States has been related to her inability to communicate effectively in English, especially when she first arrived. Until she made contact with other Ecuadorians who had already become well-established in Miami, Cecilia had difficulty finding a job because of her limited English proficiency. However, it bears mentioning that functional bilingualism is a requirement for many jobs (including most professional jobs and virtually all customer service positions) in Miami and that limited proficiency in Spanish can limit one's job prospects as much as, if not more than, limited proficiency in English. In my opinion, the fact that Cecilia has immigrated to an urban community where 70% of the population is Hispanic, and perhaps more importantly where Hispanic persons hold important power positions at all levels, has very likely insulated her from the type of bias and prejudice she probably would have experienced in most other parts of the United States. When asked why she thinks the type of discrimination she has experienced exists, Cecilia replied that it must be "due to people's lack of understanding of who [she] really [is]." She further noted that "a person can be very hard-working, but if no one gives you a chance then it's hopeless."

Although Cecilia at first claimed that living in a different cultural context has not really changed her sense of self, upon further questioning and self-reflection she agreed that she has, to some extent, adopted a hybrid identity that incorporates features from both her native culture of Guayaquil, Ecuador and her new culture in the United States. While she holds onto the Ecuadorian values of industry and humility that she so greatly esteems, she accepts that her seven years in South Florida have left an impact on her identity and her self-described cultural identity is "hardworking, a mix of Ecuadorian and American." After all, she did say that she now identifies more with the United States than with Ecuador, although she may not realize that the part of the United States with which she identifies (predominantly Hispanic and Spanish-speaking Miami) is in some ways more similar to Ecuador than it is to most of the rest of the United States.

Cecilia's advice to others experiencing or about to experience a new culture is a poignant reminder that leaving one's native culture can take an emotional and personal toll on the individual and that for many immigrants, the reality of the United States falls far short of their expectations. "They should think twice about it," she warns, "because there's no place like home. At home there are always people to help you out, but not here. And [in the United States] you have to work too hard to get what you need."


Instructor Comments: "What a revealing account of the immigrant experience! It really makes clear how much an individual's experience depends on the context in which the person lives and interacts. I think you must be correct that Cecilia's experience would be very different had she not ended up in Miami. I find it interesting that, like the rest of us, she seemed to become aware of cultural hybridity only through prompting to reflect on it.

I had some questions about the lack of a need for English proficiency at Cecilia's workplace. I suppose that she speaks enough conversational English to get by, or is it maybe a bilingual or Spanish-speaking workplace?

I think that Ecuadorian national culture is quite strong, partly because while the nation itself is a composite of richly diverse cultural roots: indigenous cultures (among which there exists great linguistic and cultural variety), African-Ecuadorian and Spanish, there is not much awareness of this diversity or maybe better to say that it is only a recently growing awareness. And, there is not a high percentage of immigrants. People identify quite strongly with being 'Ecuadorian' and can indicate very clearly what that means....as opposed to what an American might say when you ask them what it means to be 'American.'"

Richard McDorman's Cultural Autoethnography

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My Family

Most of my family was born and raised in the mostly poor, small coal mining towns of southern West Virginia. Many of my close family members (including all but one grandparent) have passed away. My mother died of a stroke when I was a child and my father, a disabled Vietnam War veteran, remarried but the marriage failed and I have been estranged from my stepmother for many years. All of my family members have been native English speakers and at least nominally Protestant, although I had two distant relatives who were bilingual and bicultural (a great grandmother who was Cherokee and a great grandfather who may have spoken a bit of Irish).

My family has been unevenly educated, but compared to the average levels of education for the southern West Virginia area as a whole, their education level is high. Grandma Betty was one of the first women in our town to earn a college degree; she was an elementary school teacher for more than thirty years. My mother died while in graduate school at West Virginia University and my father earned degrees in political science and engineering. My grandmother's strong belief in the power of education helped to shape my own values and beliefs.

The values and beliefs shared by my primary cultural group (the white, Protestant and poor rural Appalachians) include self-sufficiency, industriousness, making the most of limited resources and opportunities, charity and conservation. I learned these values at home and in school, both explicitly and implicitly. As a child, I often heard the aphorism "waste not, want not." Even though I moved out of the area of my primary cultural group in early adulthood, I still share these values.


My family was poor during much of my childhood. Despite my father's high level of education, his disability often prevented him from finding gainful work. Nevertheless, I excelled in school and became the valedictorian of my high school class. I have spent the majority my adult life pursuing higher education while working at the same time. I earned a B.A. in Linguistics from the University of Virginia in 1994, an M.A. in Linguistics from the University of Chicago in 1997, an M.A.L.S. (Master of Arts in Liberal Studies) from the University of Miami in 2003 and a Professional Certificate in Translation from New York University in 2011. I became an American Translators Association (ATA) Certified Translator in 2010, which I consider one of my greatest accomplishments.

I have been involved in athletics since junior high school and this has continued throughout my adult life. I took up boxing a few years ago and still compete in several long-distance (5-10 km) races each year. I love strategy and word games, something I "inherited" from my grandmother.

My Identity

Due to my choices and the circumstances of my life, I have acquired multiple identities and other cultures: as an athlete, a linguist and translator, a teacher, a Spanish speaker, a liberal progressive, and a Miamian living in the inner city, among others. Each of these identities contributes to my beliefs, values and sense of "self." For example, I share the discipline of the athlete, the multicultural-multilingual perspective of the translator, the teacher's love of learning, at least a part of the Spanish speaker's understanding and interpretation of the world, the liberal's conviction that the less fortunate should be helped by those more fortunate, and the urban identity forged from life in the big city.

These identities are complex and diverse, so I cannot easily discern how similar or different I am from others (who are also complex and diverse) in some of these groups. Not being Hispanic, I am not fully integrated into Hispanic culture, although my advanced Spanish fluency, experience living in Mexico and work as a translator, along with the fact that I live in a predominantly Hispanic city, provide me significant access to that community. As a non-Hispanic white person, I am in the minority in Miami and especially in my neighborhood. For over ten years I have lived in Overtown , in the heart of Miami's inner city, where about 3% of the neighborhood's 10,000 residents are non-Hispanic white persons like me (75% are Black and 20% are Hispanic). In Miami, diversity is an inescapable fact of daily life.

The most serious stereotyping/prejudice I have experienced as a result of my identity affiliation has come at the hands of police in my own neighborhood. I have been pulled over multiple times, and was once briefly arrested by a racist police officer who believed I was in the neighborhood for some illegal purpose, because I am white. The policeman demanded to know what a "white person like [me]" was doing in "a neighborhood like this." I was eventually released without charges after the officer realized I was only two blocks away from the home address on my driver's license. Because I had no power in those encounters and knew that I would be taken to jail if I argued, I simply endured them. I believe this type of stereotyping exists because individuals make unwarranted, blanket assumptions and generalizations about others based on their outward appearance and features, such as skin color, language/dialect, and style of dress.

My affiliation with these diverse groups has shaped me in many ways, including how I view myself (as a complex person with multiple identities) and others (as individuals who each have a unique "story"). I understand that I have many "faces" (culture is multifaceted) and that how I act, speak and interact with others is contextually determined. The language I use (whether English or Spanish) when giving a lecture at work is not the same language I use when speaking with my neighbors, friends or acquaintances. My sense of "self" is complex and multi-layered, with some layers (e.g., my identity as a native of Appalachia) deeper than others (e.g., my identity as a translator). I believe that being a member of these groups has changed me more than I have deliberately changed myself to belong to these groups.


Instructor Comment: "You have a fascinating life history with diverse life experiences. I enjoyed reading your story (and loved the links which made it come alive a bit more). We have a few things in common....Spanish, coal-mining town origins, Mexico, linguistics, but not translation, that's way too demanding of my language proficiency."

Cultural Pluralism vs. Cultural Hybridity

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Both cultural pluralism and cultural hybridity attempt to move beyond traditional nativist conceptions of the superiority of the language and culture of the "Self" and the presumed inherent inferiority and deficit-oriented view of the "Other." Both phenomena incorporate postmodernist notions of cultural relativism, but they do so in different ways. While cultural pluralism respects and values differences among cultural groups, it still places individuals in traditionally bounded cultural spaces and for this reason has been criticized for essentializing culture. On the other hand, cultural hybridity allows for the transcendence of traditional cultural zones and their boundaries by transforming individuals into culturally sophisticated members of a global community who have control over the formation of their own identities by selecting from an almost unlimited number of distinct cultural elements drawn from their inherited culture and the cultures in which they interact (or perhaps even cultures in which they come into only tangential contact yet willingly choose to adopt). Thus, whereas cultural pluralism places individuals into honored yet confining cultural spaces, cultural hybridity seeks to liberate individuals and their cultural identities from predefined cultural compartments, allowing them to move beyond traditional cultural spaces into highly-individualized "third spaces" forged out of their own unique cultural experiences.

Although the idea of cultural hybridity is seductive, I find it more problematic than cultural pluralism. I believe that what might be conceptualized as the weak version of cultural hybridity, that all cultures are hybrids and that all individuals have hybrid cultural identities to the extent that no two individuals exist in the exact same cultural space, is as unproblematic as it is obvious. However, the strong version of cultural hybridity as proposed (essentially as a postcolonial solution to cultural nativism) seems somewhat oblivious to the socioeconomic realities of the modern world. While cultural hybridity supports personal liberation from traditional and confining cultural spaces, only those privileged individuals with the means to move from one cultural area to another (à la Pnina Werbner's "gorgeous butterflies in the greenhouse of global cultures") can take full advantage of its liberating power. And so while cultural hybridity may be a liberating phenomenon, relatively few (as Kumaravadivelu has pointed out, it is "fairly limited to the globe-trotting citizens of the world") can avail themselves its benefits, despite its lure. On the other hand, while cultural pluralism may lack some (or even much) of cultural hybridity's philosophical attractiveness, it is a solution to nativism that is readily available to all. I personally believe that all cultures should be honored and valued, and while Kumaravadivelu (2007) has criticized even this liberal interpretation of cultural pluralism as essentialized, I am comfortable accepting the continued existence of ethnic, racial and national boundaries so long as we respect them as legitimate, valued and coequal manifestations of human cultural diversity.

Turning to model pedagogical approaches for teaching language learners about cultural hybridity, I find the Australian approach of Intercultural Language Teaching (ILT) particularly compelling. The ILT approach's attempt to create a holistic linguacultural learning experience (through the inclusion of the student's native linguaculture and the target linguaculture as pedagogical elements to be contrasted) and the development of intercultural competence through learning about cultures, comparing cultures and exploring them can empower students to see themselves as more than just language learners. I believe that this type of empowerment can motivate learners to become more deeply invested in the learning process as they experience the challenges, frustrations and joys of personal cultural development, exploration and growth in addition to simple language acquisition/learning. I would incorporate the approach's "three dimensional" teaching methods into my lessons to explore not only the how and what of language use (i.e., language structures, functions, vocabulary, etc.) but also the why (such as the cultural beliefs and values that are intertwined with and drive language use). An example of this type of teaching strategy would be the exploration and comparison of the verbal and non-verbal rituals involved in specific culturally-driven language functions (such as apologizing or responding to compliments, both of which can vary greatly from linguaculture to linguaculture but tend to be ritualized) in both the native and target linguacultures so that learners can understand and appreciate what cultural elements motivate language use in these types of personal interactions and how they do so.