August 2012 Archives

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, 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 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, corresponding to level B1 of the CEFR (see  

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 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.

Debunking Myths about English Language Learners

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In some cultures, students are embarrassed to speak in front of others, so I take this into account and don't call on these students in class.

This commonly-held belief about English language learners is particularly relevant to language instruction. I personally find the belief to be so unfounded (specious, really) as to be almost laughable for the reasons I will outline below. First, the belief is premised on the fallacy that there actually are (some) cultures where students are generally embarrassed to speak in front of others. Because individuals usually do not speak when alone (of course, there are exceptions as we do sometimes mutter to ourselves, but I would hold that even those who fervently support this belief would agree that most speaking takes place in the presence of others), if this premise were true, then there would have to be some cultures where individuals either never speak (except perhaps while alone and only to the mirror) or are always embarrassed when engaged in conversation. While the world is, admittedly, populated by thousands upon thousands of distinct cultures (many linguists posit that there are currently around 7,000 different languages spoken throughout the world), I have never heard of any culture where individuals do not speak at all when in the presence of others. Such a culture would seem to be completely at odds with human nature. Second, even if there are cultures where some individuals tend to feel anxious when speaking in front of groups (in fact, I would argue that in all cultures there are some individuals who are embarrassed to speak in front of others), this belief is built on a such a broad and sweeping generalization that it is almost impossible for it to be true, especially since the supposedly embarrassed students are completely unqualified (that is, in the numerical sense: not some students, many students or even most students). As Dr. Kris Gutierrez aptly pointed out, "there is more variation within groups than between groups" and so we would expect that within any cultural group, we should find individuals who run the gamut from timid and reticent to unreserved and garrulous, with all shades in between. Based on my personal experience, individual personalities play a far greater role in determining who sits in his chair looking down and who raises her hand trying to answer every question than do cultural tendencies. I have had students from societies in which our putatively easily-embarrassed students hail (such as China) who have talked my ear off and others from societies often stereotyped as outgoing and talkative (say, Italy or Brazil) who would hardly utter a word in class. I hope, then, that I have managed to deconstruct and demolish the first part of this "belief": it is inherently illogical and involves such an extreme overgeneralization that it cannot possibly reflect reality. Some might say that the belief is based on a grain of truth, but I have looked for that grain and cannot find it.

Next, I would like to turn to the second part of this belief to address the wisdom of not calling on students who may be embarrassed to speak in front of others, because such students do of course exist, even though they are more-or-less evenly distributed among cultures. I believe that this part of the belief is fundamentally flawed in at least two respects. First, even if some students do feel anxiety or become embarrassed when speaking in front of others, they must nevertheless be given meaningful opportunities to practice the language they are learning; otherwise, without practicing and producing the language, it will be impossible for them to acquire it and so the entire project will fail. If language instructors do not address the needs of all students (including those with performance anxiety), then the ignored students might as well not even show up for class, since completely ignoring students is tantamount to banishing them from the classroom altogether. Second, as we learned from Steele and Waters, many students are able to "rise to the challenge" when presented with challenging yet attainable goals and encouraged in effective ways (such as being told in a genuine manner that they have the ability to meet the challenge before them).

Contact or Contagion? The Impact of Globalization on Culture

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The Impact of Globalization on Culture

After considering the three theories presented by Kumaravadivelu (i.e., cultural homogenization, cultural heterogenization and cultural "glocalization"), I am most convinced that the conceptualization of cultural homogenization best explains the impact of globalization on culture. I believe that the competing theories of cultural heterogenization and cultural "glocalization" fail to adequately account for, or perhaps come to terms with, the fact that globalization is, as much as anything, the result of unequal power dynamics at play on the world stage. Twenty-first century globalization is really just the modern, technology-driven equivalent of an age old phenomenon: cultural contact. What we are seeing now is a drastic acceleration and enhancement of the same basic process that has been at work for thousands of years.

Since there has been human civilization, there has been cultural contact, and in most instances of cultural contact, the power relations between the two (or more) cultures in contact are unequal, with the culture of the politically, economically and/or militarily stronger group exerting a greater influence on the culture of the weaker group. The power differential has oftentimes been so great that the weaker cultural group eventually loses cohesion (culturally, politically, economically, and/or socially), sometimes even collapsing or being absorbed by the stronger power.

Contact or contagion?

Consider three well-known instances of cultural contact (or contagion) from the ancient and modern world:

Akkadians and Sumerians: In the mid third millennium before the Common Era, the politically and militarily stronger Akkadians moved into Sumerian territory in southern Mesopotamia. The Akkadians admired Sumerian culture and even wrote the Sumerian language long after it had no remaining native speakers, but the cultural influence of the Akkadians (who eventually became Babylonians in the south and Assyrians in the north) was so great that eventually the Sumerian language became completely extinct, Sumerian religion died out, and the Sumerians ceased to exist as a cultural group. Sumerian culture left an impact on the Akkadians (for example, the Akkadians kept the Sumerian writing system, even after they stopped using it to write the Sumerian language, and Sumerian religion definitely influenced Akkadian religious beliefs), but in the end the culture of the stronger group prevailed. No one speaks Babylonian or Sumerian anymore, but Babylonian hung on a lot longer than Sumerian did.

Romans and Etruscans: Despite the fact that Etruscan culture was by all accounts more "advanced" than Roman culture during the approximately five hundred years of cultural contact between the two peoples (after all, it was the Etruscans who taught the Romans how to write, and Etruscan art forms, including theater, had reached maturity at a time when the Romans were still just a few thousand rubes farming the hills of Latium), the eventually greater political, economic and militarily might of the Romans resulted in the complete absorption of the Etruscans into Roman society. No one speaks Etruscan anymore (in fact, the language can only be partially read at present), but hundreds of millions of people speak Romance languages.

English and Irish: During much of the European Bronze Age, speakers of Celtic languages likely outnumbered speakers of all other European languages. Spread from Iberia in the west all the way to Anatolia in the east (the Galatians of New Testament fame), the Celts were the dominant cultural group in Europe. Eventually, however, due mainly to encroachment by Germanic tribes in central and northwestern Europe, and the eventual rise of the Roman Empire in the rest of Celtic-speaking lands, Celtic languages were "pushed" to the extreme western coastal periphery of Europe (I use "pushed" in quotation marks here because it's not that the Celtic peoples themselves were pushed, at least not for the most part, but that most Celts stopped speaking Celtic languages, worshipping Celtic gods, and generally practicing Celtic culture because they adopted the languages and cultural practices of the stronger cultural groups with which they had come into contact). Today, there are only a few million speakers of Celtic languages left and almost all of them are bilingual, speaking Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic or Breton as a "grandmother" language. The cultural influence of the English was so great on the Irish people that today, there are at most 30,000 remaining monolingual Irish speakers, when in the eighteenth century almost everyone in Ireland spoke only Irish. Today, just about everyone in Ireland speaks English.

I could go on and on, as there are literally thousands of examples that prove my point, from ancient history (iron-bearing Bantus and so-called Pygmies in central Africa, see to the modern day (Russians and the Ket, see When two cultural groups come into contact, human nature, as borne out by the whole of human history, often results in one group culturally dominating the other (especially when there is a significant power differential between the two groups), with cultural extinction frequently the sad result. Mutual exchange (as suggested by cultural "glocalization") or a strengthening of cultural identity (as posited by cultural heterogenization) may happen rarely when unusual or fortuitous circumstances are involved, but I do not see that happening with globalization today.

The spread of English (some might say like a virus) seems uncontrolled, and uncontrollable. American cultural dominance is the contagion and the internet and modern transportation technologies are the vectors of transmission. The assumptions made about individuals and society by the cultural heterogenization camp (essentially that local, dominated cultures can somehow muster the strength to resist the rising tide of so-called Westernization or the push by other dominating cultures, which has already become a tsunami in many parts of the world, by force of will alone) and those defending the utopian vision of cultural "glocalization" (that dominant cultures and their peoples are receptive to influence from local cultures at anything other than a superficial level--handicrafts or conversation pieces to adorn their upscale lofts, the latest fad in exotic cuisine or a short vacation in some tropical locale excepted) seem wholly unwarranted to me when compared against full length of human cultural history.

The assumptions of cultural homogenization seem to me to be those warranted by history: that local/dominated/minority cultures adopt the language and customs of dominating cultures because it is ultimately in their economic and social best interests to do so, or at least because they believe that it is in their best interests to do so. In terms of economic interests, the call center outsourcing example given by Kumaravadivelu is a case in point: accepting/adopting the language and even the false persona of an individual from the dominating culture produces tangible economic benefits for many members of the dominated culture, even if those economic benefits come at a personal cost. Tollefson's example of the Filipina ESL instructor further supports this view.

As far as the implications for English language education and English language teachers are concerned, the first and third viewpoints seem to anticipate the further spread of English and additional opportunities for those working in the field, while the second viewpoint (heterogenization) anticipates resistance to the further spread of English, although as I have indicated above, I find this eventuality unlikely. English language instructors would do well to develop a sensitivity toward the perhaps unfair lingua-cultural dynamics at play, as the spread of English is a double-edged sword--while it brings opportunities to some, it may oppress others, including those who do not have the opportunity or means to learn English or who do not have access to quality ESL instruction. A critical analysis of the ongoing spread of English and the opportunities it both bestows and denies to those in affected cultures will serve English language teachers well, as we develop an awareness of these issues and empathy for those affected.

On SAE and Language Standardization

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I will devote this post to the question of Standard English in light of John Simon's claim that "language can always disintegrate further" and that "there is no bottom to language degeneration."

As someone who is not a native speaker of Standard American English (SAE), I am acutely aware of the potential social consequences of failing to meet the linguistic standards imposed by the majority (or at least the elite) of society. I was born and raised in rural and poor southern West Virginia, about 50 miles from the border with southwestern Virginia and about 100 miles from the border with southeastern Kentucky. Although the form of speech that I acquired as my native language (a variety of central Appalachian English) differs notably from Standard English in grammar (e.g., many so-called "irregular" or strong verbs have been regularized, such that we say throwed for SE threw, knowed for knew and so forth, although we may also say brung for brought) and lexicon (I always thought that a "toboggan" was a type of hat until my first year in college), I believe that the most salient, and stereotyped, differences involve phonology. I struggle mightily to repress my native vowel system, attempting to replace it with that of Standard English, when speaking in most contexts, especially since I no longer live in Appalachia. I occasionally slip, especially with the pin-pen merger, and I sometimes hypercorrect, blurting out sense when I mean since. I have also pretty much abandoned my attempts at standard pronunciation for less stereotyped or stigmatized features, such as the persistence of velar [x] (very similar to the hard h-like sound in German nacht) as an allophone of /l/ in certain environments and the presence of the voiceless labial-velar fricative /ʍ/ as a distinct phoneme in words like which and where, which contrast with witch and wear in my native dialect. In fact, I was reminded of the social awareness of this particular feature in a "Wheat Thins" commercial I happened to see on television just last night--the commercial was essentially making fun of those who "pronounce the h" in such words. I did not begin to acquire Standard English pronunciation until I was well into junior high school, and so the phonology of SE will always be a bit "foreign" to me, in the sense that I am not a native speaker. Perceptive listeners can detect some lack of comfort on my part when I am attempting Standard English pronunciation, particularly my overly careful pronunciation (or over-enunciation) of certain sounds and the hypercorrection that is inevitable when paying so much more attention to form than content.

So the question is: why do I make such great efforts at linguistic accommodation, even though as a linguist I am fully aware that my native form of speech is fully equal to Standard English as a communicative system? Of course, the answer is that most of American society does not deem my native form of speech equal to Standard English. I have been conditioned since birth to view Appalachian English as uneducated and improper, as have most other Americans, including many speakers of Appalachian English themselves, who will eagerly concede that they speak English badly! In one of the video clips from the PBS series Do You Speak American? almost everyone on the train was quick to circle areas where Appalachian English is spoken as a part of the United States where people do not speak "proper English." Simply put, there are strong negative social consequences to speaking stigmatized dialects, and Appalachian English is among the most stigmatized of all non-standard (or as some would put it, sub-standard) American English varieties. Failure to accommodate to the linguistic majority on my part would have disastrous consequences for my professional life. I certainly would not have my current job as a language school administrator, which began as a part-time ESL instructor, if I had walked into the initial interview speaking with my fully native pronunciation and grammar. So, due to the collective pressures of the majority and the socially-constructed narrative that perpetuates the myth of the inherent superiority of "Standard English," I am left with little choice but to attempt to sound like those blessed souls who had the great fortune to be born in the parts of the nation highlighted in gold, including an area just a few hundred miles to the northwest of my hometown in the "right" part of Ohio, on those dialect maps from the episode. Oh, what a difference two hundred miles can make!

As for John Simon's claim about language degeneration and disintegration, in the modern era there have always been certain language wonks who lament that, with each passing generation, the language (whether it be English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese or any other language that has a literary, national or regional standard) falls into further ruin. The irony is that Mr. Simon's great-grandparents might very well have found his own speech "degenerate" had they had the chance to hear it. For both biological and sociological reasons, language change is an inevitable part of the human condition, even if language standardization is not. Language standardization and the fossilization of a certain grammar and lexicon as the spoken and/or literary standard are not inevitable, although standardization is more likely to take place in societies with a strong social hierarchy and a written language. Many languages, especially those that are spoken by people who live in a society with a low degree of social hierarchy and that lack a written form (or that simply have few speakers) have no "standard" form in that speakers tend to accept any variety as acceptable, even though they may find certain dialects "odd" or difficult to understand, which proves that language standardization is the product of specific socio-cultural conditions and is not a universal feature of human culture. I have found that the adoration of all things past, including language, is a trait sometimes exhibited by social elites who find themselves threatened by a changing world and who attempt to convince the rest of society--often quite successfully--that only by preserving our cherished traditions--including language--can we hope to stem the tide of change, which they inevitably view as degeneration rather than evolution. However, no matter how stridently such "language authorities" (as they often proclaim themselves to be) curse the corruption that the present generation has brought upon the language, in the end their warnings of the dire consequences of language "disintegration" can do little to slow the pace of a change that is inevitable. And yet we still cannot resist looking up at Standard English, towering over us like a colossus, to respect its power and authority. I suppose that this is a great contradiction, and one that cannot yet be resolved. It demonstrates the great power of the social contract and that, somehow, what society believes to be true must be true, even if it is not.

Lesson Planning

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"In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable."

--Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States


This famous quotation by President Eisenhower neatly sums up my personal philosophy about lesson plans and lesson planning. I strongly believe in the importance of planning, and I never go into battle (for teaching is often a battle--a battle with time, a battle of ideas, a battle to balance an emphasis on meaning with an emphasis on form, a battle to get struggling students engaged...) without a mental roadmap of where I am and where I hope to lead my students. However, I have found lesson plans to be far less helpful than lesson planning (I hope that there is some room in the field for what may be this less-than-orthodox view). My personal teaching style is a meandering one that takes many turns, tangents and detours; I encourage my students to explore and this exploration often necessitates deviation from the original plan. Based on this style, one might argue that I need well drawn up plans more than most, yet I still find myself wondering how to best balance lesson planning, which I take to essentially be a mental journey, and lesson plans, which are the physical (or these days, electronic) manifestations of the aforementioned mental process.

I think a "good" lesson plan is one that actually works in the real (not the idealized) world. Given the reality of my teaching context, in which teachers are always pressed for time and most teachers have to manage a variety of course types and formats on any given day (typically intensive group classes in the mornings and/or evenings, with private tutorials and small corporate groups in the afternoons, sandwiched in between the intensive international students), a good lesson plan is a concise and flexible roadmap with clear, succinct directions, realistic objectives and suggested tasks. However, it is not a long narrative filled with rhetorical questions or interesting theoretical points to ponder, nor is it a detailed schedule with every single minute of class time accounted for. I have noted among some of the lesson plan templates I have seen that their developers included a detailed schedule (sometimes down to the minute) for each lesson segment and activity. Although I trust that this type of lesson plan is effective for the teachers who developed them, I must admit that they leave me somewhat puzzled. In the language teaching contexts I have experienced, things never seem to work out so neatly and precisely "off paper." So as to the value of this type of precise temporal planning, I am skeptical.

In creating and adapting lesson plans for my teaching context, I prefer to focus more on conceptualizing instead of detailing the lesson content, considering possible patterns of classroom interaction rather than prescribed or expected ones. I do not try to time the lesson down to the minute, but instead outline (not narrate) the most likely courses the class will take and how I might best adapt the instruction to the evolving situation in real time. In short, I believe in turning lesson plans into flexible roadmaps rather than tightly-scripted series of events.

Understanding Communication in Second Language Classrooms

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That which is public in second language classrooms includes everything that we can perceive, including our students' use of language, our (the teacher's) use of language, and to a more limited extent our students' knowledge of language. Although patterns of communication in the second language classroom may also be largely visible (public), the discourse of the classroom is complex, multifaceted, and problematic and therefore requires more than simple observation to comprehend with any depth. That which is hidden (i.e., not obvious or visible based on mere observation alone) includes but is not limited to our students' frames of reference, our (teachers') frames of reference, the way we as teachers and the way our students perceive classroom discourse and interaction, and of course the cultural baggage that both teachers and students bring to the classroom.

This understanding characterizes classroom communication as multilayered (visible or "public" vs. not visible or "hidden"), multifaceted (the socially-constructed product of individuals' perceptions, backgrounds, frames of reference, language and real-world knowledge, personalities, cultural identities, and so much more), complex (requiring more than mere observation to understand) and problematic (unable to be adequately characterized by a simplistic framework and requiring theory and rigorous investigation to untangle). These realizations have important implications for language instructors. First, they inform us that the dynamics of communication in second language classrooms are often (perhaps always) more complex than they may appear--no matter what we see (or think we see) on the surface, there is far more beneath, driving what is above, that remains impenetrable to the naked eye (or ear). Moreover, our assumptions about communication and interaction in the classroom, largely determined by our individual and culturally-constructed "frames of reference," strongly influence our own communicative strategies, decisions, and patterns, even though we may be barely aware of them. We would therefore do well to investigate and better understand those assumptions.

In their introduction to chapter 9, Celce-Murcia et al. (1996) assert that ESL instructors should "teach their learners (1) how to predict the pronunciation of a word given its spelling and (2) how to come up with a plausible spelling for a word given its pronunciation" (p. 269). However, the authors provide no empirical support for the effectiveness of this orthography-based approach and apparently fail to consider the possibility that such an approach may do more harm than good. It has been my personal teaching experience that focusing on how words are spelled often interferes with the learner's efforts to acquire correct English pronunciation. For example, I have taught more than one student who was able to produce a passable pronunciation for words like would and should until learning that such words are spelled with a "silent l," at which point the learners insisted that they could hear a faint l-sound in the word. From that point on, the learners began to pronounce these words with an intrusive [l] and I could never manage to remedy that incorrect pronunciation. I have observed that this phenomenon is particularly common among English language learners whose native language is written with a fairly phonemic alphabetic writing system (such as Spanish).

One viable alternative to the orthography-based approach advocated by Celce-Murcia et al. is to teach students to conceptualize the spelling of each word as a single unit, paying more attention to the whole than to the individual letters and their often tenuous sound correspondences. This holistic reading approach, which may impose a great learning burden on students at the start, can provide long-term rewards in that it allows for a faster reading rate (research has shown that readers who have internalized words as single units can read faster than those who have learned to read words as a string of individual letters), is effective for slower learners, and may minimize the risk that the learner will adopt an incorrect spelling pronunciation given the generally non-phonemic nature of the English orthographic system. Moreover, many of the spelling "rules" presented by Celce-Murcia et al. (taken mainly from the work of Dickerson) are so complicated and abstruse that they may be of little use to the learner.

On Inflection, Derivation and Teaching Word Forms

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Although heavy emphasis is typically placed on word formation, especially inflection and derivation, in most ESL/EFL curricula, only a small fraction of the total words that appear in typical English textual corpora involve either morphological strategy. The vast majority of the words used in everyday spoken English are either short function words (mainly articles and prepositions) or monomorphemic content words, with nouns predominating. I suspect that in many teaching contexts, there may be more emphasis placed on teaching inflection and derivation than usage warrants, especially when such instruction comes at the cost of tightening the "nuts and bolts" of function and simple content words. After all, even if students make minor inflectional or derivational errors, they are more likely than not to be understood. However, the same cannot be said for learners with significant gaps in their lexicon involving function and especially content words. It can be argued that complete mastery of all derivational prefixes and suffixes in a language is worthless if the speaker is constantly at a loss for the basic content words to which said affixes should be attached. This is not to say that we should not teach our students about word formation in English, as they must certainly learn to master the relatively meager inflection that does exist in the language as well as gain a significant command of frequent derivational patterns, but rather that we need to be careful not to put the cart before the horse.

When teaching word forms to beginners, I believe that it is important to focus on simple content and function words first while gradually presenting the most frequently-used inflectional and derivational morphemes. Once students have reached a low intermediate level of proficiency and have acquired a solid core lexicon, derivation should be given more attention and compounding should be introduced in order to expand the learners' lexical range and, hopefully, increase her intuitive grasp of word formation and derivational patterns. Given the right instruction, enough practice and sufficient exposure to the language, I do believe that many students can correctly guess the right word forms more often than not, or at least develop some sense of what "sounds right" and "sounds wrong," even if that intuition is based mainly on receptive skills and passive knowledge, which Folse (2009) has indicated is often a good "first start." Although as Folse rightly points out, there is something of a chicken-and-egg causality dilemma at work here (viz., how can students be expected to guess the right word form--for example, how can they know that bookish "works" whereas *bookly does not--until they have actually been exposed to the former), I nevertheless believe that students can develop enough of a holistic understanding of lexical patterns in English to at least suspect that loveliness is word while sensing that there is something not quite right about *loveliment. I have developed this sense in Spanish, such that even though I sometimes still "invent" words to the amusement of my native Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues, I guess the "correct" word form a good deal of the time. Finally, less frequent but still useful and important word formation strategies such as clipping, backformation, blending and conversion should be explicitly addressed with more advanced learners. To be sure, the most commonly-used words formed by these strategies (such as smog, TV, gas and so forth) should be still presented to beginning and intermediate level students as discrete words and useful language chunks, but discussion of the actual mechanics of such word formation strategies are best left to higher-level classrooms.

English is not typical in its predominantly analytic (isolating) character, as languages with a relatively higher degree of synthesis (see are much more numerous cross-linguistically. In fact, outside of East and Southeast Asia, predominantly isolating languages are fairly rare. With no case other than possessive (i.e., formed by the addition of the suffix -'s), English has an especially impoverished nominal inflectional morphology, and compared to most other languages, including Indo-European languages outside the Germanic group (such as Spanish, French, Italian and Russian), Arabic, Korean and Japanese, which tend to be commonly spoken by our students, English verb forms (although not necessarily their meaning or syntax, especially when it comes to modals and phrasal verbs) are a model of simplicity. Consequently, most students are much more likely to have problems acquiring derivational affixes in English than inflectional ones, if for no other reason than English has so few inflectional morphemes to start with. In addition, prefixation is rare to nonexistent in both Japanese and Korean, so native speakers of those languages are more likely to struggle with English prefixes than with suffixes, which are rife in both of those East Asian languages. Based on my own teaching experiences, Chinese is the only native language commonly spoken by our students that is less morphologically complex than English (other than a handful of morphemes that straddle the border between full-fledged suffixes and separate words, Chinese completely lacks affixation along with many of the grammatical categories, such as tense and number, that are expressed through suffixation in English). As a result, native Chinese speakers often have particular difficulties acquiring both inflectional and derivational patterns in English. The only word formation strategies they really get "for free" are uninflected simple function and content words and compounding, which is especially frequent in Chinese. These facts have led me to become especially patient with my native Chinese-speaking students, who will almost always find English morphology to be a great challenge.

On the other hand, speakers of Romance languages, especially Spanish and French (which as Western Romance languages are rather closely related historically; see, usually have fewer problems learning English word forms than speakers of Chinese (which, as noted above, almost completely lacks affixation of any kind), Arabic (which has exceptionally complex inflectional morphology, although it is of a quite different sort than that seen in English), and Japanese and Korean (both of which are highly agglutinative languages but which use suffixation to express very different grammatical categories than those in English). Unlike speakers of most languages outside the Romance (and to a lesser extent, the Germanic) group, native Spanish and French speakers find in English both familiar derivational patterns and, thanks to the many cognates due to borrowings from both French and Latin (and to a much lesser extent Greek), the derivational morphemes themselves. Thus, the morphological challenges our Spanish and French-speaking students face are of a very different sort than the ones experienced by their Chinese, Arabic, Japanese and Korean-speaking peers: although many of the derivational prefixes and suffixes in English are familiar to them in both form and meaning, there is never a one hundred percent overlap between languages in either respect. In addition, while cognates certainly aid their efforts to acquire English, faux amis are always lurking around the corner (thus, while English has devolve and Spanish has devolver, in which case both the prefixes and the roots are cognate, the two words do not mean the same thing at all, which can be said for dozens of similar pairs of close cognates). Still, on balance Spanish and French-speaking students usually find acquiring English word forms to be easier than speakers of languages unrelated to English.

Strategies for Teaching Articles

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I think that the most effective approach to teaching article usage depends mainly on the specific teaching context involved, since in the ESL classroom we typically teach students of diverse backgrounds and native languages, whereas in the EFL classroom we almost always have the luxury of students with the same native language, but who usually have the disadvantage of much more restricted access to comprehensible and grammatical input. Assuming the typical ESL context, in this case, a mixed class of first language speakers including Arabic (with a frequently-used definite article but no indefinite article), Chinese, Japanese and Korean (with no articles of any kind), and Spanish (with both a definite and indefinite article which are used in ways that often do not overlap with their English counterparts, including the fact that both types of Spanish articles are inflected for number), I would still use contrastive analysis as a strategy for helping students learn how articles are used in English. I believe that it is critical for adult learners to understand the differences in how articles are used (or not used) in English and their native language in order to master this aspect of English grammar (the same could also be said for many other grammar points). Since L1 interference tends to be robust and persistent in article usage (as it is in the usage of prepositions), I believe that completely ignoring the linguistic particulars of each student's native language just because of the teaching context (i.e., a class consisting of students with different and diverse native languages) would not be an effective strategy. Allowing students to explore the differences in how English and their native language deal with articles (or in the case of some languages, avoids them entirely) may also help sensitize students to the manifold ways articles can be used in different languages, thereby raising their general linguistic awareness while at the same time validating the importance and legitimacy of their native language, which can often be an issue in the ESL context.

I recommend presenting each article (indefinite, definite and null/zero) in separate lessons, with the indefinite article coming first since Folse (2009) urges that we always teach English count nouns as "language chunks" with the indefinite article included given that in English, we almost never use the singular form of count nouns without a determiner. I would then present each separate use of the articles as a discrete lesson, addressing the most common uses first. I would make sure that throughout the lessons, sufficient attention is paid to helping students of each language address their L1-specific difficulties (e.g., overuse of the definite article by Arabic speakers, underuse or random use of articles by Chinese, Japanese and Korean speakers, and the specific incongruities between article usage in Spanish and English).

A Few Comments on Discourse Markers

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Formal and informal discourse markers

There seem to be so many discourse markers used in spoken English that it is not hard to pluck a few from the linguistic ether to discuss, so I will select I mean, you know, oh and that discourse marker par excellence, okay-- four terms that rarely make an appearance in formal written contexts. Some of their formal written equivalents might include that is or i.e. (for I mean), in some contexts as noted or as is generally known (for you know), and the obvious alternatives yes or indeed (for okay), but probably only for a small minority of its spoken occurrences. However, I intentionally made this task harder that it needed to be by selecting discourse markers that frequently act as semantically vacuous fillers that lack formal written equivalents. I hoped to make the point that because speech and writing have very different communicative purposes, there will not necessarily be a formal written equivalent (i.e., "words or expressions which mark the same logical relation") for every discourse marker used in speech because not all discourse markers indicate logical relations. In speech, we often need to hedge, backchannel, reformulate and change topics on the fly, whereas writing is usually a much more planned and deliberate endeavor than speech.

Observations on so

The word so has a long and venerable history in the English language. As Germanic as Germanic gets, it started to wend its long and tortuous course through the history of the language as Old English swā at a time when its Gothic sister swa was alive and well, and similar-sounding words were flying from the mouths of Germanic tribesman all across northern Europe. In fact, the ultimate ancestor of Modern English so is probably at least six thousand years old, as its Indo-European cognates si, "if" (Latin) and ὡς, "as, thus" (Greek) attest. And oh how the Anglo-Saxons loved their swās--so much so, in fact, that they often uttered the word twice in a row, as in the phrase swā swā, which most famously appears in the line geweorþe ðin willa on eorðan swa swa on heofenum ("Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven"), but interestingly did not mean so-so (as in "mediocre"). The word was so versatile in Old English that it could even be used as a pronoun in addition to its modern function as an adverb and conjunction (see Old English entry at and analysis of Old English texts reveals it to be among the most commonly-used words in that ancient language.

So, I must admit that I am not particularly nonplussed by the term's frequent appearance in Modern English or news articles alerting us to some sort of major shift in the usage of discourse markers in English. While Giridharadas states that "[w]hat is new is its status as the favored introduction to thoughts, its encroachment on the territory of 'well,' 'oh,' 'um' and their ilk," I have to wonder whether what is actually new is the word's increasing frequency or just the fact that we are starting to pay more attention to these sorts of things. The point I am trying to make is that the word so has always been with us, and even a thousand years ago it was among the commonest of words. So, even if this grand old word has started to take over ground once held by well or oh or um, as Giridharadas avers, our trusty friend so already started out with its fair share of discursive territory.

Sharing My Own Second Language Learning Experiences

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Because I have engaged in diverse second language studies over many years at numerous institutions, I have experienced the pedagogical emphasis of both communicative competences (academic and interpersonal), although those emphases have not been evenly distributed among the languages studied and in some cases have been combined within the same course, but usually not in equal measure. The university courses I have taken in the more commonly-studied national European languages French and German focused almost exclusively on academic competence. Little to no attention was paid to language variation (whether dialectal or sociolectal), levels of formality (other than the obligatory tu/vous and Du/Sie distinction) or pragmatics and (in my opinion) excessive emphasis was placed on "proper" pronunciation, especially in the French courses. Although I did not end up becoming fluent in spoken German and only achieved an intermediate level of proficiency in spoken French, I do believe that the academic competence I gained in both languages has served me well, especially given my subsequent academic and career paths. Being able to read academic works with ease in French and with some difficulty in German has turned out to be very useful in my particular case, although I imagine that many of my classmates cannot say the same thing, especially those who took degrees in business, engineering, legal studies and the like and were studying the language as part of their mandatory degree requirements.

Spanish is the language that I have studied the longest and most intensively, from early junior high school through graduate school. Probably because I have studied the language in so many linguacultural and academic contexts (as a second language in Mexico, at intensive immersion camps, as a foreign language in a traditional classroom setting and as the medium of instruction for academic courses in the United States), levels and institutions, I have experienced the greatest variation in which communicative competence was emphasized. Interpersonal communicative competence was emphasized in the language immersion settings, both interpersonal and academic competence were emphasized in Mexico, and some combination of the competences was emphasized in most of the university courses, especially in the graduate-level courses for which Spanish was the sole language of instruction. The fact that I acquired high levels of both academic and interpersonal communicative competence in the language has helped to contribute to my professional and personal success. Advanced proficiency in Spanish is a practical requirement for my current position as a language school administrator in Miami, a city where Spanish is the primary language of communication at almost all levels of society (the most recent United States census statistics reveal that approximately seventy percent of Miami-Dade County's 2.6 million counted residents are native Spanish speakers; given the large number of undocumented native Spanish speakers in the South Florida region, the actual population and percentage are probably significantly higher than the official numbers indicate). In addition, my academic competence in Spanish has allowed me to become a professional translator; I have earned certification in Spanish to English translation from the American Translators Association and although I mainly work on translations as a side job, translation work represents an important source of income for me. Perhaps because Spanish is such an important second language in the United States, acquiring interpersonal communicative competence in that language tends to be a more common goal in traditional classroom settings than for many other commonly-taught languages. I make this conclusion because, based on my own L2 learning experiences, it seems that interpersonal communicative competence has been emphasized much more in Spanish classes than in French or German classes at all levels (from high school to college).

Finally, turning to some of the less commonly taught languages that I have studied for significant periods of time (viz., Arabic, Chinese and Swahili), the type of communicative competence emphasized seems to have been linked to the traditional teaching methodologies for and the predominant sociocultural role of the languages in question. For example, my studies of Swahili focused almost entirely on acquiring interpersonal communicative competence in the language. Although Swahili is a written language and has a significant corpus of written literature, the language is an important spoken lingua franca in much of east Africa, especially the nations of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, and far more people in that part of the world speak Swahili than read and write it (the fact that Swahili has only five million native speakers but more than sixty million proficient users is probably a relevant factor here). Although I never had the occasion to use Swahili in "real life" outside of the classroom, my studies of the language were nevertheless beneficial for my development as a linguist and understanding of language variation in general.

My experiences with Arabic and Chinese were quite different from each other, which I believe is partially a result of the sociolinguistic particulars of each language (the backgrounds of my instructors and the overall pedagogical philosophy of the institution where I studied the languages surely also played a role). During my Arabic studies, the object of instruction was a social construct known as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). MSA is the current literary standard across the Arab Middle East and North Africa, and most printed documents in Arabic are written in MSA. However, MSA does not serve as the colloquial language of almost any native Arabic speaker and, while the actual linguistic situation is much more complex than this, native Arabic speakers use one or more colloquial varieties for non-formal interactions, although most well-educated Arabic speakers can speak MSA fluently. So, at least in part as a result of this sociolinguistic milieu, my Arabic studies focused much more on academic competence than on interpersonal competence, which would have required learning a colloquial Arabic variety in addition to (or instead of) MSA. I never acquired any significant degree of proficiency in spoken Arabic, but the knowledge I gained about the language and my limited ability to read it have proved useful in adding depth to my understanding of language. On the other hand, my university studies of Chinese emphasized the spoken form of the language more than the written form of the language. I believe that this was the case in part because the Chinese writing system is extremely complex and so there is almost always a substantial lag between the acquisition of oral proficiency on the one hand, and reading and writing skills on the other (a much more significant lag than may normally be present for other languages or at least languages that do not use different writing systems), and so not surprisingly, interpersonal communication tended to be given greater emphasis. As a result, I actually gained some proficiency in the spoken form of the language, although I can now barely read or write it at all (although interestingly, I can tell whether I used to know what a given character means--I can recognize the character, but I do not usually recall its meaning or sound value). The small "core" of proficiency in the language that has not withered away after almost twenty years of nonuse still comes in handy once in a while, and so the interpersonal communicative competence I acquired (and retained) in Chinese has been of some limited utility in my life.

Beyond Method

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As an administrator of a language school that has a required teaching methodology (a version of the direct method), I have often felt frustrated and constrained by the method's "ten principles" (which the school has enshrined as its guiding light) and what many teachers and I consider to be inflexibility in this approach to language instruction. This is why I strongly support Nicholson and Adams' (2003) assertion that "it is every teacher's prerogative to take an independent view as long as it emerges from 'informed teaching and critical appraisal'" (citing Kumaravadivelu 1994).

I believe one way that we can help our students find and enter the "third space" advocated by culturally responsive pedagogical approaches is by adopting a flexible, tolerant and open-minded approach to teaching--by accepting that there is no methodological "magic bullet" that will solve all of our pedagogical problems and by putting that acceptance into practice by refusing to adhere to inflexible teaching "rules" that we suspect may be doing more harm than good (one example that quickly jumps to mind is the aforementioned method's absolute prohibition against the use of translation in the classroom; "students will eventually figure it out," we are promised...). As Nicholson and Adams argue, flexibility is an absolute requirement for allowing students to enter the "third space" where they can be comfortable and free to explore language learning in their own way. One way of assuring that we will slam the door to the third space in our students' faces is to blindly follow methodological rules and principles without any consideration of how those rules and principles may negatively affect our students' classroom experiences (or even hurt their feelings, in some cases), especially when they strip all true agency away from the learner. I have seen too many teachers adhere to the letter of the law, as it were--carefully following all of the prescribed methodological steps, lesson plans and learning activities, doing exactly what they have been trained to do--even when students were reacting negatively (or just not reacting at all), and then wondering with a discouraged perplexity what could have possibly gone wrong.

While these sorts of inflexible methodologies might have been, in their day, an improvement on earlier, even less flexible methods (like the old audio-lingual method, which I suffered through during three years of high school French), I still yearn for that day when the "post-method condition" advocated by Nicholson, Adams and Kumaravadivelu reaches the hinterlands of language schools that tenaciously adhere to a methodology whose expiration date has long since passed. So, what I believe that teachers can best do to help students find their own "third space," at least in teaching contexts like mine in which we labor with methodological millstones around our necks, is to fight a guerilla war against those methods (at least the ones with capital M's in their name) in the classroom. We must have the courage to do what we believe is right (such as allowing students to learn in the way that best suits them, granting them the freedom to refuse to participate in activities they find troublesome, having the sensibility not to force grown adults to run around the classroom pointing at pictures of count nouns that rhyme with "joy"), even if it violates two or three of those enshrined methodological principles that we've been so carefully taught (or indoctrinated?) to uphold.

How Curriculum Shapes Language Learning

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As someone who has studied Spanish since the age of thirteen and has lived in a predominantly Spanish-speaking city for many years now, I have quite a bit to stay about language textbooks, Spanish language textbooks in particular. Most of the Spanish language textbooks I have encountered (and I have run into a lot of them, believe you me) teach an artificial type of Spanish that really only exists in Spanish textbooks themselves. When I moved to Mexico City at the age of sixteen and spoke what I would characterize as a fluent but "synthetic" Spanish, my speech was greeted by a fair share of giggles, although they were probably caused by surprise more than anything else. When I returned to my small-town Virginia high school a year later, my Spanish teacher (a lovely lady and a truly caring teacher from Illinois who was drafted into the job because she minored in Spanish in college) could barely understand me at times.

Although commercial textbooks do have their benefits (in most of my junior high and high school Spanish classes, the textbook was the course syllabus and some of the teachers would have been completely lost without them), they pale in comparison to authentic materials because only authentic materials can teach students the real language, with its unanticipated twists and turns, its less-than-literary but extremely useful constructions, and the type of language that would come in handy should learners ever have to use the language to communicate with native speakers. I remember once in eighth grade Spanish (I had the great fortune of having a passionate and phenomenal teacher that year, as I was living in the western suburbs of Pittsburgh which have some very high quality public schools) that we spent several classes watching commercial advertisements from Latin American television networks that the teacher had videotaped during her visits to South America, and I was amazed at the difference between the language I heard in those commercials and what we had been studying from the textbook. It was almost as if the two were entirely separate languages.

I also remember some of the utterly useless language that was presented in our Spanish textbooks. One of the first Spanish words I learned was pupitre (those individual desks about two feet from the floor that are used in grade schools), which unless you happen to work in an elementary school or a furniture factory is a word that you might use five times in your adult life, if that. Then there was the whole lesson on cuyo (a rather formal way of saying "whose"), which I have only seen in legal documents and is rarely used in spoken Spanish. Conversely, in all my years of formally studying Spanish, I amazingly never saw a single lesson in any textbook on the use of the reflexive pronoun se as used to form medio-passives or the so-called middle voice (unlike English, which just has two voices--the active and passive--Spanish has three voices: active, middle and passive), as in Aquí se habla español ("Spanish is spoken here") and is extremely common in both spoken and written Spanish, so common in fact that one cannot really speak Spanish fluently without being able to use the construction effectively. So, to sum things up, I would say that language textbooks are useful and even necessary in certain circumstances, especially in instructional contexts with weak or marginally-competent instructors, but that they are absolutely no replacement for authentic materials, which are crucial for learners to acquire real (or as I like to put it, "non-synthetic") language.

Tutoring Reflection 7 (Final Reflection)

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In response to the ancient oracle's proclamation of his wisdom, Socrates is quoted as saying that "It is only because I ... know that I know nothing." If I have learned anything about teaching from my three months tutoring Eliana, it is that I know, at best, very little. Teaching is both an art and a science; while I may know something of the science, I feel that I have a lot of learning still to do, especially about the art. As with all arts, they can never truly be mastered. And as with all sciences, much of what we believe to be true is mere illusion, like the fanciful figures we see in clouds which in reality are nothing more than our minds playing tricks on us as photons reflected from billions of atoms of water dance around in our eyes. So I must ask myself if the modest improvements I perceived in Eliana's English language abilities were real, or whether they were only artifacts of my perception, like the faces we can't help but see in clouds. My experiences with Eliana have taught me that, especially when it comes to learners whose interlanguage is long fossilized, the power I have as an instructor to help my student improve her language skills is limited. Although I did my best to help Eliana reach her stated goals, in the end I fear that we made precious little progress. My enthusiasm was insufficient to overcome her motivation. I will never really know if the small victories we achieved in the crucible of the classroom will transfer over to her real-world language skills.

I have also been convincingly reminded by this experience that teaching beginners, intermediate-level students and advanced learners are all distinct endeavors that require correspondingly distinct methods and strategies. It also seems that I may have initially overestimated my student's English proficiency, although weighing fluency against accuracy in language assessments is never an easy task. I am haunted by the possibility that I allowed myself to be drawn into Eliana's comfort zone--the part of her expressive range that is accurate but limited--and that I failed to push her to exceed her current bounds. At the end of the day, however, I must accept that since Eliana is generally satisfied with her current language skills, I have no reason, or right, to try to convince her to feel otherwise.

My greatest challenge during the tutoring period was finding a way to get the learner to use new language. Although I presented lots of new structures and vocabulary and Eliana practiced them (in controlled sessions) during the lessons, it was not easy for me to get her to use the new language in her free production. I would frequently attempt to elicit the newly-taught structure or lexical items only to receive a response that landed right back in the middle of Eliana's comfort zone, drawn from the same set of structures and vocabulary that she had already mastered and avoiding the new, more "difficult" (i.e., less familiar) structures and terms. The area where I seemed to find the greatest success was helping Eliana notice some of her grammatical and lexical errors, for my corrective feedback was often met with successful learner uptake. Again, however, I am unsure of whether that progress will result in permanent changes to Eliana's interlanguage or whether she will only be more aware of her errors after the fact. Is awareness of one's language errors and mistakes of any real benefit if that awareness does not yield permanent improvements to spontaneous speech (i.e., unrehearsed utterances)? I suppose that this is an interface question that is still unresolved after more than thirty years of vigorous academic debate and so I should not be overly concerned with it, yet it troubles me nonetheless.

If I could go back and do it all over again, knowing what I know now, I would try harder or be more persistent in encouraging the learner to incorporate new language (the structures and vocabulary I presented during the tutoring sessions) into her speech. I have little doubt that Eliana made some gains to her receptive language skills, which as Folse informed us can be a good "first start," but given my student's experience with English and her current proficiency level, I believe that she needs more than a "first start." Her receptive language skills are already impressive and her passive vocabulary probably approaches that of a typical (although perhaps not university-educated) native English speaker. The conundrum was finding a way to convert the learner's receptive knowledge into active knowledge. Should I have been more insistent? Could I have been more creative? Does my still-developing teaching toolkit lack the pedagogical implements to achieve these aims, or did I just fail to use the right tool for the job? These are a few of the questions that I will continue to ponder long after this course and my tutoring project with Eliana have ended. Looking back on the experience, I am left wondering whether the progress I saw in my student was real, or whether it was illusory, like a face in the clouds.

Tutoring Reflection 6

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During our recent tutoring sessions, Eliana and I have been working mainly on improving her syntactic and lexical accuracy. We have continued to address some occasional pronunciation problems (such as her difficulty with /ow/, which often sounds more like /a/, obscuring the distinction in minimal pairs like won't and want) and sporadic word confusion (the trio restrict, restrain and retain made an appearance during one of our sessions). However, the student's use (or misuse) of auxiliary verbs has been a point of special emphasis. I noticed several weeks ago that my student severely overuses the auxiliary do, liberally inserting it into structures where native English speakers would only use it for strong emphasis (e.g., ?I do have a new client instead of simply I have a new client). She also tends to inappropriately stress modal auxiliary verbs, which she almost never contracts (e.g., I will go there tomorrow instead of I'll go there tomorrow). Consequently, I took the opportunity use Ellis' principle 4 ("instruction needs to focus on developing implicit knowledge of the second language while not neglecting explicit knowledge") during our class this week with the hope of helping my student resolve this issue, especially her overuse of emphatic do, which can definitely lead to communication problems if listeners presume emphasis where none was intended.

The question of how, or whether, explicit knowledge (i.e., declarative, articulable knowledge of grammatical rules and principles) is of use to second language learners has long been a matter of contention in the field of second language acquisition. According to Krashen's monitor hypothesis, explicit knowledge is of marginal use in aiding performance in that speakers can only use it to check mentally-rehearsed utterances for grammaticality. Thus, as Krashen's controversial hypothesis goes, explicit knowledge is only helpful when speakers have time to carefully pay attention to the form of their speech in addition to its content. If this strong non-interface position were actually true, then teaching grammar qua grammar would be almost pointless (as would almost all commercially available ESL textbooks). Such a zero grammar approach (one that prioritizes meaning and meaning-based learning activities while forcing learners to induce grammatical structures purely from exposure to input) would also doom my student, since it would presume that she has acquired this structure "incorrectly" (i.e., her implicit knowledge results in the production of ungrammatical utterances) and since this aspect of her interlanguage appears to be strongly fossilized, she would only be able to correct the error when carefully monitoring her speech.

I disagree with Krashen's extreme position. I believe that some amount of interface (the extent to which explicit knowledge can be converted to implicit knowledge) can take place for most learners, provided that they have enough opportunity to practice structures until they become proceduralized. If this were not so, then second language learners would be unable to acquire less common structures to which they are infrequently exposed, and all fossilized errors would be impossible to correct; both of these premises are demonstrably untrue. In accordance with my belief that explicit grammatical knowledge can be converted to implicit knowledge, I spent about twenty minutes during this week's lesson with Eliana carefully reviewing the use of auxiliary do. This explicit grammatical discussion was followed by another half hour or so of form-based practice to allow the student to begin to proceduralize the correct use of this and related structures. The practice session contained exchanges such as the following:

Richard: So, do you have any appointments this afternoon?

Eliana: Yes, I do.

Richard: Great. What else could you say?

Eliana: No, I don't.

Richard: Well, yes, you could say that, but I meant what else could you say if the answer is "yes"?

Eliana: Yes, I have.

Richard: Yes, I have...[prompting the student to self-correct]

Eliana: Yes, I have some appointments.

Richard: Fantastic. Now, what could you say if I told you I don't believe you? What if I think you don't really have any appointments? Maybe I think you just want to end the class early! What would you say if you wanted to convince me that the statement is true?

Eliana: I'm not lying?

Richard: Well, that might be a little strong. Remember, you can use "do" before a verb if you're trying to intentionally emphasize the truth of the statement, but that's really the only time we use "do + verb" unless we're negating the verb. So, try it again. Convince me that the appointments are real. What would you say if I asked you "Are you sure you have an appointment this afternoon?"

Eliana: Yes, I really do have any appointment at 3 o'clock.

Richard: [Relieved that the student demonstrates that she understands by using the correct form] Perfect!

It is difficult to judge the extent to which this strategy of explicit grammatical instruction will ultimately prove successful for my student. The fact that she managed to achieve consistently accurate production in class--a controlled environment where she can pay more attention to the form of her speech than she would be able to normally--in no way guarantees "real world" communicative accuracy. However, at the very least she is now aware of her difficulties with the structure in question and should be able to monitor her speech more effectively and/or self-correct after making an error. At best, she will be able to successfully convert her new explicit grammatical knowledge into implicit knowledge, thereby permanently modifying her interlanguage. Either way, it seems that the exercise was worthwhile and of benefit to the student.

Tutoring Reflection 5

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Assessment of Learner's Pronunciation

Overall, Eliana's pronunciation is almost always comprehensible. Although she has a noticeable (at times strong) foreign accent, pronunciation errors that impede communication are rare, although some native English speakers might find her foreign accent bothersome. While several of her pronunciation errors are persistent and systematic (such as deletion or hypercorrect insertion of unstressed word-final [iy] and merger of /z/ and /s/ in word-final position), others appear to be lexically determined and involve close cognates in English and Portuguese, for which she tends to pronounce the vowels like they are pronounced in Portuguese (example: ['na-zl] instead of ['ney-zl] for nasal). Eliana's English pronunciation is strong in several respects: unlike many of my other students, Eliana has mastered vowel reduction in English (the fact that Portuguese has a phoneme similar to schwa as well as its own version of vowel reduction is probably a great help here). In addition, she has no difficulty distinguishing most English vowels (including the pairs /e/ and /ɛ/ and /o/ and /ɔ~a/) due to the large number of vowel phonemes in Portuguese.


The following table summarizes the student's systematic elements of speech difficulty:

Consonants: /θ/, /z/, /s/, /ʃ/, /l/, /r/

Vowels: /ɪ/, /ʊ/, /i/ (word finally only)

Grammatical Endings: -s (but only when realized as voiced [z])

Word Stress: No systematic difficulties although the student has some problems caused by L1 interference for close cognates.

Rhythm: Non-native but difficult to describe in systematic terms


Eliana has difficulties with the phoneme /θ/ in all environments, as this sound does not exist in Portuguese (or any other language she speaks other than English). She can articulate the sound correctly when monitoring her speech, but when unmonitored she often produces the acoustically similar [f] instead of [θ]. In contrast, her problems with /s/, /ʃ/, /l/, /r/ only involve positions in the word where the sound does not occur in Portuguese, usually word-finally. For example, although Portuguese distinguishes /z/ and /s/, the two sounds only contrast word-initially and between vowels in that language. Consequently, Eliana tends to produce [s] for [z], but only when /z/ appears in word-final position (saying [wrds] instead of [wr:dz] for words; notably, she has little difficulty with the syllabic [r] that trips up many students). This error manifests itself often due to the frequency of the grammatical ending -s, although it rarely if ever hinders her communicative efforts. Similarly, she has trouble distinguishing /s/ and /ʃ/ word-finally but not in other positions. She can articulate /l/ as [l] at the end of words, but must use care to do so since in the dialect of Portuguese that Eliana speaks, the phoneme /l/ vocalizes to the glide [w] in word-final position, forming a diphthong with the vowel nucleus of the syllable (such that she tends to say [maw] instead of [ma:l] for mall). The only other difficult consonant for Eliana is /r/, which has an unusual and complex allophonic realization in Brazilian Portuguese involving the voiceless velar fricative [x] (a stronger, throatier version of [h]) and flap [ɾ]. As Eliana is already aware of these difficulties (as evidenced by the fact that she can correct each of these errors when carefully monitoring her speech), frequent correction would serve no purpose other than to frustrate or even humiliate the student. With the possible exception of those rare instances when one of these pronunciation difficulties clearly interferes with communication, I believe the wisest course is to ignore them (after all, the primary purpose of error correction is to alert the student to the error itself, and in each of these cases the student is already aware of her difficulties).

Like a great many students, Eliana finds it difficult to distinguish /i/ and /ɪ/ and /u/ and /ʊ/, for neither of the lax high vowels exists in Portuguese. Of all her pronunciation difficulties, this is one of the more serious from a communicative perspective: since English has so many minimal pairs involving /i/ and /ɪ/ (heat/hit, seat/sit, teen/tin) and to a lesser extent, /u/ and /ʊ/ (Luke/look, fool/full), the likelihood that the error will interfere with listener comprehension is substantially greater than for her problematic consonants whose mispronunciations are for the most part positionally conditioned. Nevertheless, because this type of long-fossilized pronunciation error is not very amenable to improvement (in fact, this situation, in which two very close vowels are phonemically distinct in the L2 yet one of them does not exist in the learner's L1 and the sound falls within the phonologically-determined perceptual space of the other vowel, is one of the worst-case scenarios when it comes to helping a learner improve her pronunciation) and the student is already aware of the problem, I will only correct this error when it jeopardizes successful communication.

One error that I do believe warrants some attention and correction is my student's sporadic (or seemingly sporadic) deletion or hypercorrect insertion of /i/ (/iy/) in word-final position. I intentionally selected a nursery rhyme (Humpty Dumpty) to test the student's ability to correctly pronounce this sound. As I suspected she might, Eliana deleted the final /i/ in Dumpty (pronouncing it as dumped) almost every time she pronounced the word during her recorded recitation. In the student's native Brazilian Portuguese dialect, unstressed word-final /i/ is either devoiced (producing a whispered vowel) or deleted during normal (i.e., non-careful) speech. Although Eliana knows that she tends to make this pronunciation error, she is frequently unaware of the error during production. Consequently, in order to increase her awareness of this fairly serious pronunciation difficulty, which sometimes does lead to miscommunication, I believe it is important for me to point it out, at least in contexts where the error could lead to listener confusion.


After this week's lesson, I replayed the nursery rhyme recording for Eliana and we talked about the pronunciation errors she made. One very important point that came up, which I will use to guide my remaining lessons with Eliana, is that she feels comfortable with her English pronunciation and is not troubled by the fact that she speaks with a noticeable foreign accent. Since her pronunciation errors rarely lead to miscommunication, she has good reason to focus on other more important language learning matters (such as improving her vocabulary and using more complex grammatical structures effectively, as described in previous posts). Since Eliana does not feel the need to emphasize pronunciation in our lessons, I feel obligated to respect her wishes. In fact, I agree with her approach. Given that Eliana has been speaking English for more than twenty years, she and I both realize that at this point there will likely be no more major breakthroughs in her acquisition of English phonology. The interlanguage phonology that she has already acquired is extremely stable (fossilized) and is unlikely to change significantly.

Since I have prior experience in the fields of phonetics and phonology, this analytical process was not difficult for me, although I continue to learn more about how I can successfully apply my theoretical knowledge to practical teaching contexts. I also marvel at how well my student has acquired the sounds of English, many of which (especially the vowels) are quite difficult. I see each new student as a fresh case to investigate and analyze and am excited about the prospects of helping Eliana and my future students improve their English pronunciation, even when the steps forward (as with Eliana) represent small yet cherished triumphs. Perhaps the most important lesson that I have learned is that, especially when it comes to teaching pronunciation (which for many students will always be a hurdle), the most important pedagogical principle is to do no harm. Where pronunciation is involved, I believe that overcorrection has the potential to do more damage than no correction at all, as it can frustrate the learner, thereby magnifying the affective filter than can impede acquisition. This is not to say that we as teachers should ignore our students' pronunciation errors, but rather that we should pick our battles to ensure that our corrective efforts are strategically guided to do the most good and the least harm.

Instructor Comments: Nice reflection and analysis.

Tutoring Reflection 4

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When I asked my tutee Eliana which areas of English grammar she finds to be most challenging, she answered without hesitation, "some prepositions (especially in, at and on), modal verbs and where to put it." Indeed, as demonstrated by her writing sample below, Eliana has excellent insight into her own strengths and weaknesses--her writing sample displays numerous prepositional errors, includes an omission of the impersonal subject it and fails to incorporate a single modal verb. When I asked her why she thought she has problems with these particular grammar points, she gave me an answer only another language instructor could provide (recall that Eliana is an experienced and accomplished Portuguese teacher): "Because all L2 learners have problems with prepositions, Portuguese doesn't have any modal verbs and we don't have a word for it [referring to the semantically empty impersonal subject it] in my language." Oh, if only all students had such diagnostic powers! Eliana went on to identify verb conjugation (because English has so little compared to the complex verbal morphology of Portuguese, she pointed out) and the lack of grammatical gender in English as the least difficult aspects of English grammar.

Turning to the writing exercise, my tutee produced a generally cohesive, coherent and entertaining text in a fairly short period of time (under twenty minutes), recounting a personal story of how she once had an amusing experience at a drive-through grocery store due to another non-native English speaker's pronunciation difficulties. She gave me permission to reproduce the text in this blog post. Other than typing it (she wrote the original text by hand), I not have edited the text in any way.

How Much an Accent Can Interfere in a Conversation

It was Sunday night and suddenly I got the desire to drink milk with coffee, with a piece of cheese in a baguette. I decided to go to a drive throught to save my time. I took my dogs with me. I drove to the store. The salesman came to ask me what I wanted to order. The guy is from Asia and has a strong accent. He looked to my dogs and said:

- Nice dogs. Nice dogs, he said.

- Thank you. I smiled and ordered the milk and the baguette. The guy put the bread in the oven and come back to chat a little with me.

- Nice dogs. Nice dogs. Do you sale poop?

- I beg your pardon!?

- Do you sale poop? He asked me again. Took me a minute to realize that he was asking if I sell puppies.

I told him that I don't breed my dogs, but he was welcome to go to my back yard and grab the poops for free!!

Error Identification

I identified the following errors in my tutee's text (for present purposes, I am ignoring stylistic errors and only focusing on grammatical and lexical ones)

1. Incorrect preposition: in for with in the title How Much an Accent Can Interfere in a Conversation

2. Omission of the indefinite article a in the phrase Sunday night (the student's version is not technically ungrammatical but implies that the Sunday night in question was recent, which she did not intend).

3. Questionable use of the preposition in in the phrase cheese in a baguette (the conjunction and would have been more appropriate in this context.)

4. Misspelling or word confusion in *throught for through

5. Incorrect addition of my in save my time (the collocation save time does not permit a determiner before time in this and most other contexts).

6. Inappropriate word choice in salesman for clerk (salesman is not normally used to refer to grocery store employees).

7. Incorrect verb tense: is for was and has for had in the sentence The guy is from Asia and has a strong accent (the historical present would have been acceptable if it had been used consistently throughout the story.)

8. Incorrect preposition: to instead of at in He looked to my dogs...

9. Incorrect verb tense: come for came in the sentence The guy put the bread in the oven and come back to chat a little with me.

10. Noun/verb confusion: noun sale for verb sell in Do you sale poop?

11. Omission of subject it in Took me a minute to realize that he was asking if I sell puppies.

12. Incorrect verb tense: sell for sold in the same sentence (the prescriptivist rule regarding sequence of tenses requires the simple past here.)

Note that poops for puppies in the last sentence was intentional, as the student was quoting the store clerk for humorous effect.

Most of the recurring errors (viz., incorrect usage of articles, determiners and prepositions) plague English language learners at all proficiency levels (including advanced students like Eliana) and native languages. My student's persistent difficulty using the impersonal subject it also made an appearance in her story, which is not surprising given that this fossilized error is a ubiquitous feature of her speech. Analysis of the text and its errors reveals that the student has a generally strong command of English grammar, including advanced knowledge of collocations (e.g., take a minute, save time, beg your pardon) and stylistic conventions, but that transfer from her native language is still often present, as evidenced by the omission of the impersonal subject it and insertion of my into phrasal positions where a determiner may appear in Portuguese but not in English. In addition, the lack of expected discourse markers and cohesive devices, especially between sentences, occasionally obscured the connection of ideas and contributed to the text's choppiness. Based on the errors my student made in this writing sample, I will be sure to address preposition and determiner usage as well as discourse markers and cohesive devices in upcoming lessons.

Instructor Comment: The use of humor by your tutee is impressive :) Excellent post.

Tutoring Reflection 3

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Reflection on Recent Tutoring Sessions

My last two tutoring sessions with Eliana have focused primarily on vocabulary building and correcting grammatical problems caused by L1 interference. On the vocabulary front, we have journeyed from advanced phrasal verbs (e.g., leaf through, fade away) to idiomatic expressions (e.g., a grain of truth, for my taste, to my liking) while shoring up lacunae in my advanced student's vocabulary (e.g., slight, core, and the much less common welt, which happened to come up during Eliana's free production). We have struggled with some of the most common grammatical difficulties experienced by English language learners who are native speakers of Spanish and Portuguese, including have/be and in/on confusion (also sticking points for many students, regardless of their native language) and a persistent omission of it, both as an impersonal subject (*Is a book instead of It's a book) and as a mandatory object of verbs that are only transitive in English (e.g., non-auxiliary have, take, put) but both transitive and intransitive in Portuguese (*I put in the computer instead of I put it in the computer; *Yes, I have instead of Yes, I have it, when have is being used as an action verb and not as an auxiliary verb). Some portion of each lesson so far has been devoted to Eliana's difficulties with it, but it is clear that this aspect of her interlanguage is long fossilized and so while we will continue to work on this point during our tutoring sessions, I am realistic in my expectations about our prospects of completely resolving this systemic error and I will take care not to frustrate the student by overreaching on this point.

Building Awareness of Pedagogical Discourse

I learned a lot from listening to the recording of this week's tutoring session. I know that I have a tendency to dominate conversations, so I always try to be conscious of my teacher talking time. Eliana has already reached an advanced level of proficiency in English and is learning English in an ESL context in an area where English is spoken by a substantial portion of the population, so access to grammatical input is not an issue. Consequently, unlike for students in an EFL setting in which the instructor may be the main (or only) source of grammatical input, Eliana does not need me as primary source of input, but rather as an expert to facilitate her improvement in the language. I was therefore pleased to find that my teacher talking time was limited to perhaps one third of the total session when I played back the recording. My speaking rate was also normal (not intentionally slow), which I believe is appropriate for advanced learners. However, I was disappointed to hear myself interrupting my tutee several times, denying her the opportunity for self-correction on a number of occasions. I was also disappointed with the limited amount of positive reinforcement that I provided. I will be sure to pay much more attention to these issues during our future tutoring sessions.

Most of my questions were referential and served the discursive purpose of keeping the conversation going when my student's speech became halted, although I did use a few display questions to elicit specific vocabulary or grammatical structures. For example, after hearing my student make the common error of pluralizing noun in the number + noun compound adjective construction (as in ten-dollar bill, three-car garage), I later asked the question "How long is this class?" hoping to elicit the construction. When the student replied, *Is a 45-minutes long class, we had the opportunity to address both errors (omission of the subject it and the incorrect plural form). I corrected Eliana somewhat frequently during the tutoring sessions (which I believe is necessary and appropriate given that one of the primary goals of our sessions is to improve her accuracy), usually by eliciting the erroneous lexical item or grammatical structure in the form of a question in order to draw her attention to the incorrect form. This strategy was successful for most of the fossilized errors of which the student was already aware, but for those errors of which she was not aware (as was the case for the number + noun construction described above), explicit correction and explanation were required.

Instructor Comment: I once did a grammar project with a very high level ELL informant - he continually omitted the referential IT. Amazing! His L1 was Urdu. I hope you found the recording more helpful than painful. Nice post.

Tutoring Reflection 2

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Eliana and I are making slow but hopefully steady progress. Most of our work thus far has been devoted to error recognition and self-correction, vocabulary building and structural accuracy. We have also had to place a great-than-expected emphasis on pronunciation, for it seems that my initial assessment of the frequency of communication breakdowns due to the student's pronunciation errors was unrealistic. The two greatest areas of concern in this area have been the student's difficulty reliably distinguishing /i/ and /ɪ/ (the beat ~ bit distinction) in production (a difficulty experienced by many students whose native language does not distinguish these two high front vowels) and her superimposition of the Portuguese allophonic variation of the phoneme /r/, in which a segment very close to English [h] is realized in word-initial position (thus obscuring the distinction between minimal pairs such as read and he'd); the latter problem has been particularly intractable, yet since it has caused so many communicative difficulties already, it is one that we will have to continue to address. On the brighter side, Eliana has made a bit of progress in incorporating the "past" forms of modal auxiliary verbs (especially would) into her active lexicon and using them appropriately, even if haltingly. One thing seems certain, however: Eliana's interlanguage is well-established and stable--much of her inaccurate production is the result of errors long fossilized and so improvement in structural accuracy is likely to be a slow and steady uphill climb.

One of our major goals (one identified by the student) is the detection of patterns of grammatical or lexical errors caused by transfer from Portuguese. This week, we focused on the very common noun + noun construction in English, which Eliana typically renders, often inaccurately, as noun of noun, as in *manual of telemarketing instead of telemarketing manual, which appeared during Eliana's free production. Of course, the fact that English does have plenty of noun of noun constructions (e.g., wheel of fortune and not *fortune wheel, both filet of fish and fish filet, etc.) complicated my answer to her question: "So how do I know when to use one and when to use the other?" I explained that there is no magic bullet for this particular construction (which also happens to be true for most others) and that understanding when noun of noun works (and when it does not) and when noun + noun is required is part of her evolving word knowledge. We spent some time talking about the importance of word knowledge and I tried to impress upon her that word knowledge is not an all-or-nothing proposition; knowing the meaning (dictionary definition) of a word is just the tip of the iceberg of "knowing" a word. Understanding that telemarketing manual "works" whereas manual of telemarketing does not requires more than superficial knowledge of both the words telemarketing and manual.

As I mentioned in the last post, Eliana is mainly interested in improving her English skills for professional reasons, especially to help her communicate with her English-speaking clients more effectively, both over the phone and in person. Because Eliana already has excellent reading and writing skills and since most of her prior schooling and education in English have emphasized academic communicative competence, the primary goal of our tutoring sessions is to help improve her interpersonal communicative competence. In fact, her academic competence sometimes interferes with her interpersonal competence; this is particularly noticeable in her nearly complete aversion to the use of contractions. As she explained to me, many of her former English instructors in Brazil (incorrectly) told her that contractions should not be used in English and so until she moved to the United States, she never used any contractions at all. Of course, she now understands that the prescriptivist ban on contractions applies to formal written discourse and not to spoken English, even in formal contexts (as we saw in President Obama's speech on race a couple of weeks ago), but so many years of I would and I am make I'd and I'm a rather daunting challenge for my student, especially when she is not carefully monitoring her speech. I really think that Eliana did not completely believe me when I told her that it is not only acceptable but natural and situationally appropriate to say things like I'duv bought it if I'd had the chance instead of I would have bought it if I had had the chance in just about every conceivable context other than formal written discourse. I will continue to press this theme in our tutoring sessions to help Eliana improve her interpersonal communicative competence.

Our most recent session included a short self-assessment to help focus our tutoring goals. Although I searched online for self-assessment instruments, most of what I found was overly simplistic, specifically designed to be used with K-12 students, or not particularly well-suited to Eliana's situation (for example, many of the self-assessment worksheets I found overemphasized academic communicative competence and/or reading and writing skills, which Eliana has made clear are not significant concerns for her). I therefore improvised a self-assessment worksheet specifically tailored to Eliana's needs. I learned that she places a high value on what she calls "correct" pronunciation and that she feels this is one of her weakest areas. She also noted that, although she has a strong vocabulary, she often finds herself grasping for the "right" word or struggling with the right word form (just a few minutes before the self-assessment, she produced *comfortability for comfort and saloon for room, the latter mistake being the result of transfer from Portuguese involving a semi-false cognate, thereby confirming this aspect of her self-assessment). Finally, she and I both agreed that while her fluency is excellent, her accuracy is not, and so our tutoring sessions will continue to include a significant error correction component, as originally planned.

Instructor Comment: Your phonetic and phonemic descriptions are spot on! Your explanation of the rather idiomatic phrases such as filet of fish to Eliana is good - Folse will tell us that many of these idiomatic phrases must be memorized since there's really [n]o rule to learn. I am also of the school that teaching and using contractions and reduced speech are not as necessary as other things, but if the student is confused by native speaker use of these notions, then they need to be made aware.

Tutoring Reflection 1

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I conducted my first tutoring session with Eliana R. on Tuesday, January 17, 2012 in Coral Gables, Florida. Eliana, originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is a delightful student who is interested in improving her English proficiency mainly for professional purposes. Eliana is herself an experienced and accomplished Portuguese teacher; in addition, she is fluent in French and speaks what she describes as Portuñol (a combination of Portuguese and Spanish; see Eliana's current and prior classroom-based English learning experiences have been mainly limited to private, one-one-one instruction (she has avoided the traditional group format).

During our first session, I conducted a needs assessment and oral proficiency interview (OPI) using the ACTFL speaking proficiency guidelines ( to determine Eliana's level of English proficiency. I determined that her current level of proficiency is Advanced Low (roughly equivalent to a low 3 on the ILR proficiency scale) primarily on the grounds that (1) although she can handle a wide variety of communicative tasks, she does so haltingly at times; (2) she has the ability to narrate and describe in all major time frames but does not demonstrate full and consistent control of aspect (for example, during the interview, Eliana persistently failed to use the "past" form of modal auxiliary verbs when contextually required, using "will" where "would" is expected, and avoided using perfect tenses in all time frames); (3) her connected discourse is typically limited to paragraph length; (4) the structure of her dominant language (Portuguese) is still often evident in the use of false cognates and literal translations (for example, she often fails to use the semantically-empty subject pronoun it in impersonal constructions, as evidenced by her statement *"Is a very warm day today" instead of the grammatical "It's very warm day today"); and (5) when attempting to perform functions or handle topics associated with the Superior level of proficiency, the linguistic quality and quantity of her speech deteriorates significantly (Ibid).

Through the needs assessment, I learned that Eliana believes that her strengths include an extensive vocabulary, which is to be expected given her high level of education and advanced proficiency in French (which has contributed so many thousands of words to English), and general fluency and ability to discuss almost any topic, even if haltingly. She recognized difficulties in grammatical and lexical accuracy, especially when complex (periphrastic) verb structures (such as "modal auxiliary + have + past participle" and conditional constructions) are required. She also expressed dissatisfaction with her pronunciation (while fluent, she speaks with a noticeably non-native accent) and contextually-determined register usage (or as she put it, "knowing when to use formal and informal language"). I generally agree with Eliana's self-assessment, and although I find her pronunciation to be well within what I consider to be an acceptable range (her pronunciation errors only rarely impede comprehension, although some native English speakers may sometimes find them bothersome), I respect her desire to focus on "improving" her pronunciation.

Based on Eliana's expressed desires and our mutual assessment of her needs, our tutorial sessions will focus largely on a combination of structural practice using form-based exercises targeting her areas of greatest difficulty (especially the use of modal auxiliary verbs), error recognition and correction through production activities focusing on language functions and themes relevant to her professional needs and target proficiency level (Advanced Mid of the ACTFL proficiency scale), and pronunciation improvement. I plan to use a combination of authentic materials/texts and (probably to a lesser extent) traditional ESL teaching and learning materials to facilitate the lessons and will encourage Eliana to bring in materials relevant to her personal or professional life, which should help maintain what appears to be an already high level of intrinsic motivation.

Instructor Comment: I think Eliana is in very good hands!

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