Game-Design Enhanced Language Teaching

Let me start by saying this: “Game-design” language teaching is not the gamification of teaching. It is not “playing games” in a class in order to boost “fun”, though that is certainly a benefit. Game-design language teaching is something much bolder. (Check here for a brief definition of the differences). What follows here are a few principles of game-design and how they can be leveraged to teach languages in ways that address some of the hardest problems in language teaching. Namely, authentic communities of practice, learner-driven tasks and Dynamic, just-in-time feedback. This article will lay the foundation for future, praxis-oriented, content such as specific games for language teaching and specific language-learning plans.

 

Introduction

zet8tzb

Although, for me, Age empires would have been blue

Games in language teaching are, without question, seen as an integral and essential part of most teachers’ lesson plans. The intensity or involvement in any given game varies from teacher to teacher, class to class. From language puzzles like crosswords and hangman to active Dungeons and Dragons-esque RPGs. Researchers, too, have for decades recommended games in the language classroom for various reasons including the development of positive attitudes towards learning, providing clear goals and engagement (Palmer & Rodgers, 1983). Games, however, often only serve one specific goal for teachers: student engagement. Games are fun. The rise of gamification is related to this problem and it is an attempt to solve the same kinds of problems.

For this reason, there often is not much thought or discussion given to why we should play games, or how the games are beneficial language learning tools. Anecdotally, many teachers like myself know that games engage students and help scaffold their language production. But still, how? If it is true that games fundamentally help language learning, what principles of games and game design lead to these kinds of outcomes? These are the kinds of questions that researchers like Julie Skyes and James Paul Gee have begun to address. What follows here is a brief introduction and foundation to ground theoretically what will hopefully become a repository of useful information regarding games for second language learning and teaching (L2TL).

While many researchers have examined the language learning effects from games in themselves, as teachers many of us are interested in the ways we can effectively coordinate and implement games, particularly digital games relevant to our “digital native” (Prensky, 2003) students, in and around our classrooms. While games in general may be found to be effective language learning tools, how game-design, and in particular digital game-design can be leverage to improve pedagogy and classroom outcomes.

Some Assumptions

Language socialization 

Before going forward, I want to briefly mention some of the underlying theory and philosophy that leads many researchers and teachers like myself to believe that there is real value in using games to teach language. A game-design approach to L2TL takes a principled approach based on socio-cultural theories of language and teaching, in particular, language socialization (LS) (Ochs & Schieffelin, 1995) and tasked-based language teaching (TBLT) (Willis, 1996). An LS perspective views language and language learning as means-end oriented. That is, children come to learn and use language as a tool, or means, to achieve some goal, or end. These means and ends from an LS perspective are enforced by culture.

Ochs and Schieffelin’s perhaps most well-known example relates to how children are addressed differently in different cultures. They note that middle-class American caregivers are very likely to spend a lot of time directing their speech to their pre-linguistic infants. The speech is not random however. Nor is it monologue. It is conversational. Caregivers in these communities greet, ask questions and correct behavior all the while knowing the child can neither understand nor respond to them. Additionally, these caregivers go above and beyond normal conversational behavior to maintain the attention of the infant by exaggerating their tone of voice and body gesture.

Ochs and Schieffelin then go on to describe a different cultural practice by some Mayan (and many other) communities. Caregivers in these communities do not interact directly with pre-verbal infants. Adults in these communities do not view infants as appropriate conversational partners and so do not engage them directly with language until they already know how to talk.

The brilliance of the theory of Language Socialization then, is its ability to account for both of these cultural practices. Importantly, there is no single rule that governs the language development in these cultures. It is not the case that middle-class Americans learn language by direct conversation with their caregivers, nor is it the case that Mayan babies don’t learn language. Instead, LS says that different communities organize around the central principles of acceptable participation and evolutionary-driven needs (e.g. food, attention, touch and so on) that infants need to obtain. “novices”, as the children in each case are called, operate on the periphery of language communities. They are “peripheral members”. Core members of the community are those individuals and groups who have power and influence. These are generally adults, but can be other non-center groups who are nontheless closer to the center than the infant (such as older children). For us language teachers, it is easy to recognize that our L2 learners are peripheral members of their L2 language communities too.

So, how do the infant-directed approaches to language fit into this system of center and peripheral membership? For the Mayan children, they are required to follow their mother where ever she goes. The communal aspect of the every day life, on average, means that the child will be exposed to a great deal of language and conversation between their caregiver and other adults in the community. In the terms of Ochs and Schieffelin, the children become overhearers. They are legitimate peripheral members of the community. They are welcome to be present. For the American middle-class child however, particularly in traditional nuclear families, the child may spend days in the company of primarily one adult. The child in this situation then, is not overhearing much language at all. And hence, the effort of the caregiver to directly engage the pre-language infant.

For us, the L2TL educator, their are many other important insights that the LS perspective brings, but I just want to highlight the importance of this initial insight. Language learning is always the result of socializing into a community. And to do so, it is necessary to move from the periphery of that community towards the center. For our L2TL students then, helping them gain a legitimate and authentic position as a peripheral member of a community is a crucial step.

It is often assumed that the language classroom itself is that legitimate and authentic community. However, the goal of the language classroom is not to create a community of language classroom L2 users. But instead, to transfer the skills developed and honed in the classroom into a real community of speakers. Creating a positive and welcoming language classroom community is a real and important goal, but it is not itself the community we are aiming for. At least because the language classroom is necessary transitional and temporary, necessarily unstable.

  • So, we see a few important insights, as well as important challenges for L2TL. Membership in a language community is vital, but how to do so in a mostly inauthentic classroom setting?

Task-based Learning and Teaching (TBLT)

image002

The general structure of a TBLT lesson

Traditionally, TBLT was motivated by the failures of methods such as audio-lingual  and Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). Importantly, how each of those methods failed to incorporate vital aspects of the other. In the case of the grammar-translation and audio-lingual, it was the complete lack of social knowledge needed to actually use the grammar rules or pronunciations learned through those methods. And in the case of CLT, the fact that students seemed to make great gains in comprehension of content language, but failed to make similar gains in functional aspects of grammar. TBLT attempts to fix these problems and also motivate students, but marrying real-life language use with problems that needed to be solved through language.

TBLT, in relation to LS, can be seen as a pedagogical means-end approach to L2TL. Sykes and Reinhardt (2013) situate the theoretical foundation of TBLT in communicative language teaching related to functional approaches to language. From this view, it was important that L2TL be applicable to real-world situations and not just the learning of language rules and forms. This end, communication in real-world situations, is achieved through pedagogically valid tasks that act as means to those ends.

A classic example is a hotel checklist task. Originally designed for immigrant ESL learners who had been employed in hotels as maids or other staff. The task, following the diagram above, gives a pair of students the task of cleaning a hotel room. Each learner has a different set of tasks that they have either “done” or “not done”. Most of the tasks, between the two learners, have been done. The goal of the learners is to determine what still needs to be done to successfully prepare the hotel room.

This task has the benefit of being immediately applicable to the learners, it involves words and language structures that will be immediately important and useful to them (words related to working in a hotel). Additionally, the learners must negotiate together to recognize and notice BOTH the content (what still needs to be done) and also the LANGUAGE (by carefully reading through their lists). There are also several problems with tasks like this, and if you’ve been teaching, you may be able to recognize any number of them. What follows is a short list (not comprehensive) of some of the problems that TBLT sometimes face, and how game-design can help us overcome them.

A critique of TBLT from a Game-Design Perspective

For L2TL at the moment, TBLT is the target most teachers are trying to hit. And there are many different approaches, pedagogues and lesson plans that utilize TBLT. However, some have recognized several short-comings in TBLT. In particular, researchers interested in game-design have discovered a short list of items that could be improved, and ways to do it.

Sykes and Reinhardt’s perspective of game-informed language socialization and task-based L2TL are categorized in five problematic areas:

  1. goals and tasks – lack of student agency
  2. interaction – promotes good ideational (semantic) interaction, but can fail to promote adquate interpersonal interaction
  3. feedback – Delayed, hard to give the correct feedback in the moment it will help
  4. context and narrative – Tasks can often be divorced from broader societal narratives and context that drives language learning (from an LS perspective).
  5. motivation – Tasks may motivate for awhile, but often do not lead to sustained, motivated attention over multiple class sessions..

A game-design TBLT perspective views each of the five areas of criteria differently than traditional views might. For this reason, we will briefly introduce them in this section along with a description of what good games do with the five TBLT areas mentioned above.

Sykes and Reinhardt describe goals and tasks in game-designed TBLT as centering around two main ideas: having learner driven tasks and goal-orienting. Learner-driven tasks contrast with learning driven tasks and the difference lies with who gets to decide how learning will happen. A game-informed TBLT perspective focuses on giving students agency and multiple routes of task completion with continually updated goals.

Interaction, Sykes and Reinhardt mention, is possibly the most defining aspect of games when compared with other types of media. For Sykes and Reinhardt, game-designed interaction is built on four levels of interaction. Ideational (or the interaction between learner and language, i.e., their own mind), Interpersonal (the interaction between speakers of a language) and cultural (the interaction of an individual user with the cultural expectations and values). Digital game-informed TBLT improves upon traditional applications by situating the learner into a game-oriented culture. Beyond multiplayer games, which promote both ideational language use and interpersonal, the communities that exist around games is vitally important. Using internet communities to learn, discuss and discover important information to better play the game is a fountain of possible interactions and provides the language learner with literally thousands of possible interpersonal partners.

Feedback in games is the primary way game-designers communicate to players whether or not they are progressing in the game. Actions taken by the player may lead to failure or success. Important then, for game design, is how to communicate to the player that they are failing or succeeding. For Sykes and Reinhardt feedback in games needs to be individualized, discernable and given “exactly at the moment it is needed” (p. 59). Feedback then, can be given both explicitly through the use of messages on the screen, level-ups, and tooltips. Or, it can be implicit through sound effects, or well-scaffolded tasks which teach the player step-by-step through each level of their development.

Narrative for Sykes and Reinhardt, is described as the way people transmit culture. Games generally have very well defined game-designed narratives. However, these narratives are never presented without a player and the player interaction with the game-designed narrative can lead to emergent, different narratives than perhaps the designed one. IThis is markedly different from other media genres such as books or movies. For example, game designers will intentionally create a narrative, build a world and populate it with characters and conflicts. However, unlike a book or a movie, the player then moves about that world making defined choices. Like in other genres, inside the players head there is an interpretation of the world designed by the creators. Unlike those genres however, an emergent narrative can unfold in the game-world itself, and not just in the attendant communities that surround it (such as fan fiction sites).

Motivation, finally, is described by Sykes and Reinhardt in terms of player engagement and flow. Motivation in games is not seen to reside within the individual player, but as an emerging factor in the interaction between the game-design and the player. Motivation in this view, then, is dynamic and continually negotiated and not simply an intrinsic property of the player or game. How the game uses the other four factors listed, it can help or hinder the motivation that the player brings to it themselves. The interactive nature of games can easily lead to a state of flow, or extended focus on the present moment. Flow is something of a mystical feature. We’ve all had the experience of being engrossed in a particularly good book, movie, conversation or other event. This in-the-momentness can lead to extensive exposure to whatever the game is exposing.

Conclusion

So, how can games be leveraged then? Do we just play games in English/Spanish/Korean and assume these principles will play out and, viola, language learned? Of course not. Though, then again, maybe. Some(1) researchers(2) have found(3) that just playing games leads inherently to learning outcomes, and this can be language learning in some cases.

But certainly, with the help of a Vygostkian helper, we can bring our language learners along faster. Reinhardt and Sykes help us with this and developed what they call a “bridging activities” cycle (example). In these cycles teachers help students explore these game worlds, analysis them and then perform them back in their authentic contexts.

 

 

I’m not lesson planning because blog

My 7th graders recently spent some time trying to figure out the difference between “because ______” and “because OF _____” in preparation for their midterm tests.  It caused a whole lot of consternation, even though the answer is fairly straightforward and easy to follow.

Simply, “because [reason]” is used to introduce a secondary clause; while “because of [reasons]” is used, like prepositions do, with noun phrases.

“I can’t go tonight because I have too much homework.”

“I can’t go tonight because of work.”

Simple.

Unfortunately, 7th graders have a hard time understanding the difference between Independent Clauses and Noun Phrases (Hell, I had trouble with the idea of verbs in 7th grade).  So it can actually be more tricky than normal to explain at times.  But since I don’t actually teach grammar, this responsibility mostly fell on the shoulders of my co-teacher.

However, it took almost everything I had to not teach the kids my favorite grammatical structure, which completely breaks this rule.

The “Because reasons” structure.

It’s an emerging usage that I’m sure really annoys a lot of people, but I just can’t get enough of it.  It think it’s funny in almost any situation.  Twitter is abuzz with this usage, here are some examples.

As you can see from the examples, the usage doesn’t exactly replace the “because of” structure.  Instead, it carves out it’s own little category within.  “Because reasons” is used to exaggerate the meaningfulness of the reasons.  Something like,

“I can’t go tonight (and it should be completely obvious why that I’m not even going to waste my time explaining) because reasons.”

Or, it used when there really aren’t any reasons, but the speaker wants to promote their proposition anyway, like this example:

because reasons 1

However, because the “because reasons” structure is used either jovially or emphatically, it can be misused, particularly in situations when stating the reason is actually necessary. Take this example:

because reasons 2

Notice that the writer actually then produces the reasons for disagreement.  The “because reasons” usage feels out of place.  Which is not to say it is ungrammatical. It seems as grammatical as any other use, it just feels less appropriate, or at least less funny.

The grammar of “because reasons” involves the adverbial conjunction “because” changing its part of speech into a preposition.  This is actually more interesting than it sounds, as it is not everyday that a new word becomes a preposition.  Language mavens may lament what they call “Zombie nouns”, but the truth is, one of the beautiful facts of English that words can move in and out of certain categories (like nouns to verbs, or vice versa).  But not all word categories easily do so.  Prepositions are one such category.

“It is a little difficult”

In the “apartment” I live, I fit: a bed, fridge, closet, TV, a small folding table, kitchen area and a bathroom with a washer all in a smaller space than my room in my parent’s home. It’s small.

No bother.  I do not demand much else than what I have, though it would be nice to have room for company.  What I have in place of room, are white walls and one picture of my family.  I have facebook also, of course, which offers as many pictures and opportunities to communicate as I’d like.  But I only have one real picture, that I can feel with my fingers; and no room for chairs, that can be occupied by a companion.

While the white walls, on one hand, can drive a person crazy; they can also narrow my focus onto what it is I am striving to do here in Korea.  I have little room, literally, for distractions.  I don’t even have room for a bookcase, in the event that I decide to forget the harsh realities of Northern South Korea and lose myself in fantasy and abstractions.

The white walls though, they do not keep the loneliness out .  There is always a window through which I see both opportunities gone by or not yet realized.  Some of which are fantasy, some of which are potential.  As focused as I try to be, it is hard to not find myself looking out the window at times.

“So why do you stay?  How can you stand it?”

I am asked that a lot.  In part because I am a habitual complainer, but also because people recognize the difficulty of the situation.  And not everyone would trade places with me.  My answers are rarely satisfying to others and I imagine I don’t paint the most beautiful picture of this lived experience.

Robin Williams has shown me how I want to answer that question though.  In the movie, Dead Poets Society there is a short, seemingly unimportant scene (so much so that I am having trouble finding it on youtube) where Neil comes to Mr. Keating for help dealing with his father. While Keating makes some tea, Neil says, looking a picture of a beautiful woman playing the chello on Mr. Keatings desk:

“She’s pretty.”

“She’s also in London.  Makes it a little difficult.”

“How can you stand it?”

“Stand what?”

“You can’t go anywhere.  You can’t do anything.  How can you stand being here?”

“’Cause I love teaching.  I don’t want to be anywhere else.”

The last line is deftly delivered.  It is pointed, quick and obvious.  There is no thinking; teaching is fundamental to Mr. Keating.  Most, if not all, teachers understand that phrase, “I love teaching”.  Not many of us got into this profession for the love of something else.

But it is the second sentence, that answers Neil’s question. I don’t want to be anywhere else.  What does Keating want? Before this moment, it’s not even a question on our minds. His wants outside of teaching are obscured.  But in this scene, Keating is someone with love and a life outside of the private school he teaches at.  With a life outside the cramped office and white walls that keep him focused on his work.  “It is a little difficult” is said modestly.

— This scene starts with Mr. Keating sitting at his desk, working, but not focused.  He keeps looking at the picture of the woman on his desk.

And yet

I love teaching.  I don’t want to be anywhere else.

Linguistic change in Korean kinship terms

Not too long ago, I was made aware of an interesting linguistic phenomenon involving the Korean kinship term, “hyung” (형).  Usually, this term is used only between younger males and their older brothers/close friends as an honorific term.  But it seems that some, college-aged, women are also calling their older male friends “hyung.”

Despite the insistence of some on the internet that this does not happen, or that it is simply a fluke or a speech-error, I have witnessed half a dozen or so instances of this phenomenon.  And while many people simply have no interest in the subject or want to down-play its role in the Korean language, as an amateur linguist I am very interested in the socio-linguistic motivations for women to use ‘hyung’ instead of ‘oppa’.

Scholarly information seems to be limited on the subject and because I am not an expert in Korean linguistics or sociology, my ability to accurately describe the situation is no better than most of the ignorant masses on the internet.  Which, by the way, includes¸ many average Korean people.  So, with that, here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

1) This linguistic act is mostly used by the 18-30 demographic.  It is possible that older speakers use it to an extent, and perhaps younger speakers use to some extent. (though the little data I *have* collected suggests that people younger than college-age do not use this term).

It could be that this is necessarily an 18-30 linguistic feature.  And not a linguistic change occuring in the 18-30 demographic.  Which would mean that as the women who are currently 18-30, leave their 30s, they may abandon the use of “hyung”.  This would suggest the usage is specific to a certain group or register.  As the photos show, it is considered a “university” usage.  It could also be that as the 18-30 women age, they will continue to use it, marking a broader linguistic change.

2) This linguistic change is being led by women and is above the level of conscious-awareness.  Here, we are specifically talking about the use of ‘hyung’ by women (which is really the only interesting usage).  But it is also possible that ‘onni’ could be used by men to describe older women, or in some other fashion.  As of yet, however, the only data I have seen suggests only women are making the kinship gender switch.  It will be interesting to see, in the future, whether or not all men, or some subgroups of men, make a similar kinship-term switch.

In conjunction with reason (3), this change comes “from above”, meaning it comes from a dominant social class (the middle), appears in careful speech (meaning, speakers choose overtly to say it) and is driven by extra-linguistic factors.

3) This linguistic change is happening mostly in the middle-class.  An interesting part of this phenomenon is that is it popularly acknowledged as something that happens in Korean universities. Suggesting that both before and after university, women are not expected or it is not considered appropriate for women to call older men, ‘hyung’.  This is a very tenuous hypothesis at this point, I’m basing it mostly under the assumption that those people who are attending Korean Universities are mostly middle-upper classes, and then making a guess that upper-class women don’t use ‘hyung’ for older men based on the idea that they have little need for social mobility, as they are already on top.

It would be interesting to see whether or not this linguistic change is more popular at less-prestigious universities or technical schools, where there are fewer of the upper-class attending.

This point, if true, is interesting in that it might suggest something about how women use ‘hyung’ as social capital.

To conclude, I invite any native speaker with anecdotes or other information, intuitions, to leave me a message somewhere, in the comments if you wish.  It would be very helpful to me.  If anyone knows any scholarly work that I get a hold of, I would love that.  And, of course, if you think I’m wrong about any of these hypothesizes, correct me!

Deflecting Questions

For those unaware of what I mean by “deflecting questions”, I mean the teaching technique of not immediately answering a question that is asked in your classroom.  Traditionally, in a teacher-centered, expert/novice teaching setting, the teacher is considered the knower-of-things and the students are the sponges, there to soak up the knowledge of the knower.  It follows, in traditional teaching, that if a question is to be answered at all, it would of course be done by the knower.

With the shift from teacher-centered classrooms to student or subject-centered classrooms, the idea of the teacher being the only “expert” is also in question.  For most questions asked in a classroom, it is more than likely that a student is also a knowerof-things.  Or at least, as a collective, the class may be able to come to some realization of the answer.

My experience in this classroom has strongly suggested that I work in a teacher-centered, expert/novice, knower-of-things/sponge class setting.  Which can feel like being in a time-machine. However, simply forcing a subject-centered approach on the class is not always greeted warmly by the students.  They have been conditioned to learn in a certain way, and it involves having an expert lead the class–  It is comforting to think someone in the classroom knows what they are doing– And at times, a redirected question back to them will be met with silence.

As a skill, however, deflection has a few great benefits, particularly in a language class.

1)     First, if students are actively asking you questions in class; congratulations! That sort of classroom participation is not always achieved everywhere.  And congratulations to your students, who are probably very bright.

2)     Now that you’ve been asked, and deflected a question in the target language¸ the class now has more opportunity to use the target language in an authentic situation!

3)     Since the question came from a peer, often the class is much more interested in hearing an answer to the question.  At the very least, they are very interested in how you, the teacher, will handle the question as a template for future question/answers.

4)     Because the question came from a peer, students will be motivated to participate, either out of perceived cooperation or competition.

5)     By deflecting, you show the students that you value their thoughts, even if their thinking is flawed, illogical or irrational.  As a teacher, you can guide the students through their own confusion, without necessarily having to point the fact of it out to them.

—  Now, certainly deflecting questions in an ESL setting where you as the teacher do not speak the students’ language is a difficult task.  Often times even if I did answer a question, it still isn’t understood by the students.  Which is really only more reason to deflect the question back to the students, who, if they have a good answer, are better suited (knowing both Korean and some English) to help the question-asker to learn.

To finish, I’ll show an example of this that commonly happens in my classroom.

My students love spelling.  They love it and fear it.  It is a cause of much anguish to have to write for some of them.  So a common question that I get asked is “how do you spell ________?”  This question is not one of those great mind-bending, paradigm-shifting moments.  But it is an easy opportunity to deflect and get the class to participate in constructing and navigating English.  Especially since spelling is, apparently to some, so “random”.

So instead of answering, I might ask, “Hmm.. well, what do you think?”  and then ask, “any other ideas?” even if they get it right. Then maybe ask the class,
“Student X has a question, how do you spell _________?”
“ok, any other ideas?”
“Why spell it ______ instead of _____?”
— It is here that I could answer it, being the authority in the classroom.  But it is also an opportunity to teach the students how to discover resources, like a dictionary. So, instead, I might say,
“Let’s look it up!  Looks like it is spelled __________.”

You can even make a game of this, asking for bets on which spelling they think is correct.  Any single question, even a simple spelling question can go as deep or as shallow as you have time for.  There certainly are times when I will simply give the student the correct spelling, but if I can, I try to give them much more.

The Senses as Metaphor

Over the Korean Thanksgiving holiday, I had more than a few opportunities to talk with friends and strangers in Korean.  Such opportunities are always a mixture of self-loathing and confidence-building.

I had a thought one night after coming home from a full day of mumbling my way through conversations in a department store, that my level of fluency in Korean is at least 80% determined by the willingness of the listener to try to hear me.  It is amazing what a cooperative conversational partner can do with whatever it is we should call my Korean language ability.

Conversely, it is equally distressing how little I am able to communicate with someone who either chooses not to hear me, or through their own shyness/fear or inexperience, cannot hear me.  Suddenly all those inspirational stories, phrases and advice about “listening instead of speaking” I’ve received have new meaning.  It’s not that someone who listens more is better than someone who speaks, it’s that the vast majority of communication is accomplished on the listening end of it all.  Speech is necessary for listening (though, clearly not for communication), but even the most eloquent speaker can be misunderstood by a poor or inexperienced listener.

And I say inexperienced sincerely.  Listening, while the birthright of most humans, is a skill, chiseled by effort and time into a fine work.  It is not a passive skill nor does a person who listens much more than speaks a passive person.  It is a laborious effort for most and comes easily only to very few people.  I suspect there are a few “good listeners” out there who are really just quiet, which is not exactly the same, though if one wishes to develop listening, being quiet is a place to start.

My thinking about listening led me to this idea: First, sense words (sight, sound, etc) have secondary meanings in English to convey the meaning “I understand”.  The first to come to mind was, “hear”, as in “I hear you.”  A phrase I have come to really like due in small part to the movie, Australia.  My idea being that while many of the words for senses can convey understanding, words for “speaking” could not.  Here are a few:

“I hear you.”
“I feel you.”
“I see.”
“I’m touched.”

I thought I had stumbled upon an interesting phenomoneon (by which I don’t mean to imply I am the first).  However, I soon realized that “speak” can also be used to convey understanding:

“That speaks to me.”

Though I find the structure to be interesting, in a way I’m not particularly clear on yet.  The “speaks” example is slightly different in meaning (they all are) than the others, and “see” is really the only one that strictly conveys the idea, “I understand”.  The other tend to also imply a sense of empathy or other emotion.  “speaks” for example, seems to me to say something like, “I’m struck by this” or some other sense of wonder.  “touch” suggests connection, sympathy or gratitude.

So my idea is wrong, in addition, I can think of no way that the word “taste” is commonly used as a metaphor for understanding. “Delicious” is often used to convey a sense of goodness about something other than taste-oriented senses, but understanding isn’t one of them.  If you’ve got one, let me know.

The one where I get Final Fantasy VII into a lesson

final_fantasy_vii_advent_children_background_wallpaper-wide

In my 7th graders textbook, the reading portion for our current chapter is focused on art history and linguistically on color/feeling words and “makes me feel” type phrases.  They are taught to associate colors with feelings and then make a commentary on a piece of artwork. (“The blue colors in this picture make me feel calm/sad/relaxed.”)

I am reminded of my high school Jazz class where my director tried to get us to develop at least a sense of perfect pitch.  Part of the exercises included listening to notes individually, over and over, trying to associate or think of a color that you identify with that sound.  I never did develop perfect pitch, but that is hardly the fault of my director.  The exercise wasn’t wasted either, as I was recently reminded of it by a ESL Teacher friend here in South Korea, who did a similar lesson with her students.

Since the students are familiar with making associations between feelings and colors, I thought I would add sounds into the mix.  I grabbed four songs from Final Fantasy VII (yes, a video game).  Video game or movie compositions are good because the music generally evokes specific feelings by design. This makes the whole exercise of sound-feeling association less ambigious (while still free and creative).

Using the music from musician Nobuo Uematsu is also wonderful, because he is highly talented and the music is exciting to listen to, even though it is instrumental.  (My students were asking for Kpop by the end of the lesson,  but no one seemed bored by the music).  For my purposes, I used Sephiroth’s Theme, Cloud’s Theme, Aerith’s Theme and the Fighting music.  I tried to pick music that started in one area of the feelings spectrum, but it could be difficult to differentiate the “love” of arieth and “confidence” or “happiness” of Cloud’s theme.

Here’s a little taste of Mr. Uematsu:

I played each song for the students, asking them to just listen and after each song, they told me what colors they “saw” and the feelings the felt.  After the first song, I explicitly reminded them of the phrase “this song makes me feel ______” and asked them to use it.

To reinforce, I used a trick I like to help them remember all the parts of a phrase.  I assign three parts to the phrase,

“this song (1) makes me feel (2) __________ (3)”.  

This draws the students attention to anything they may have forgotten while also covertly teaching grammatical phrases ( ‘this song’ is a noun phrase.  ‘makes me feel’ is a verb phrase and (3) is the object complement).  I then repeat the phrase and with each part, I lift a finger, so that I have three fingers lifted by the end.  Then, when the students practice using this phrase, I don’t have to wait for them to finish, or interupt them to provide meaningful feedback.  As they speak, I lift fingers, indicating that they are on track or if they have missed a piece.

So, for example, if the student responds with “makes me feel sad!” I lift two of the three fingers (each finger maps 1 to 1 with the phrase, so they will know which piece they have forgotten to include).  After awhile, I stop using my fingers and only start doing it again, if they fall back into one word answers.

The students seemed to enjoy the lesson, and at the end we examined the board (now full of feelings and colors) and I told the students that the music comes from a story.  By just looking at the words, I asked them which song they thought represented the main character, the bad guy, etc.  I was sort of surprised that it was pretty clear from their lists that the first song was Sepiroth’s Theme and that the 3rd song was Cloud’s.  I finally disclosed where I got the songs from, but Final Fantasy VII is too old for these youngsters, they hadn’t even heard of it.

Final Fantasy Colors, Feelings and Sounds

Materials Needed:

Pictures to associate colors with feelings (anger  happiness sadness fear warm-up)
Four sample songs (of any genre or type). (Fighting loop Cloud’s theme Aerith’s Theme Sephiroth’s Theme)
Whiteboard, or some way of writing down for the whole class to see
Powerpoint

Performance Objectives:

Students Will Be Able To (SWBAT): associate colorful pictures with feelings.  Students will organize their thoughts and activate their lexical memory by individually writing down as many color words and feeling words that describe the pictures.  They will evaluate in pairs by comparing their word lists and finally class-wide, the color/feeling words will be presented.

SWBAT understand and prepare for listening and associating sounds with colors and feelings by a short introduction by the teacher using language, gesture, and an audio-visual (powerpoint).

SWBAT associate music with colors and feelings without knowing anything a priori about the music.  In pairs students will discuss which feelings and colors they felt and saw and then the teacher or a volunteer will organize the words and write them on the board under “song #1”.

SWBAT express their feelings using the phrase, “makes me feel” to describe their feeling words to the second song.  Before playing song #2, the teacher will write the phrase, “this song makes me feel ________” on the board and says the phrase while gesturing to their heart on the word “feel”, followed by a mimic of any emotion.  Students will repeat the exercise for song #2, making use of the phrase “this song makes me feel _________”.  For the 3rd song, the teacher will erase, “makes me feel” and repeat the exercise.  Finally on the 4th song, “this song” is erased, and the students must perform the communicative act from memory.

SWBAT use the feeling and color words they said to describe the story the songs convey.  As a class, the students will discuss themes like, “fear” and “love”.  When the discussion ends, the teacher will reveal where the music comes from.

Before Class:

Ensure each song is ready to be played and which portions of the songs you wish to play for maximum effect.
Ensure you are familiar with the gestures and miming that you will use to help with student comprehension in the introduction, presentation and evaluation.

Warm-up: (5 min)

Objectives:
SWBAT associate colorful pictures with feelings.  Students will organize their thoughts and activate their lexical memory by individually writing down as many color words and feeling words that describe the pictures.  They will evaluate in pairs by comparing their word lists and finally class-wide, the color/feeling words will be presented.

A.    Instructional Strategy:
individual, pair, class work
B.    Sensory Learning Style:
audio, visual
C.    Task Description:
Following up on prior lessons, reactivate the students memory of color/feeling associations by showing a series of pictures which explicitly express simply feelings (sadness, anger, happiness, love, etc.).  Have the students label a piece of paper on one side as “FEELINGS” and the other “COLORS”.  Draw the students attention to the facial and body language of the pictures and any dominate colors.  Gesture that they should think (point to head, rub chin) of as many colors (point to many colors), and feelings (mimic sad/happy) and then write them down (actually do this on the board).  Give the students 1-2 minutes.After a time, tell the students to work in pairs and grow their list to as many feelings/colors as they think are appropriate for each picture.  Ask for volunteers to describe their color/feelings.  Write them on the board, and give the students a moment to copy any words they may not know.  Clarify any feeling/color that most students may not know (e.g. ‘agony’ or ‘cyan’).

 Introduction: (1-2 min)

Objectives:
SWBAT understand and prepare for listening and associating sounds with colors and feelings by a short introduction by the teacher using language, gesture, and an audio-visual (powerpoint).

A.    Instructional Strategy:
lecture
B.    Sensory Learning Style:
audio, visual
C.    Task Description:
Using a simple powerpoint or other visual, explain that the students will take the words they know for feelings and colors and use them to describe music.  Following the powerpoint, explain that they will listen to four different songs and describe the colors the music makes them “see” and the feelings it makes them feel.  Explain that the songs are related and that at the end they will discuss why or how.

Presentation: (10-15 min)

Objectives:
SWBAT associate music with colors and feelings without knowing anything a priori about the music.  In pairs students will discuss which feelings and colors they felt and saw and then the teacher or a volunteer will organize the words and write them on the board under “song #1”.

A.    Instructional Strategy:
lecture, individual, pair, class work
B.    Sensory Learning Style:
audio, visual
C.    Task Description:
To begin, start with the most unambiguous (in regards to feelings) song of the four.  You are helping the students understand how this activity works.  Tell them to clear their minds, close their eyes and just listen.  Don’t write anything, don’t say anything.  Just pay attention to the music.  Play the song for them and let them be silent for a moment after. And then in pairs discuss/write down what colors they saw and feelings they felt.Ask for volunteers and write their answers on the board under the title “song 1” separated under colors and feelings.  If they seem hesitant, or unsure, give a few examples and maybe a counter-example (if the song is intended to provoke anger or fear, ask the students if ‘happy’ is appropriate).  Be careful with counter-examples, as this activity necessarily depends on the students free-thinking and creativity.  At the same time, the purpose of the activity is language learning.  So dance that dance.

Practice: (30 min)

Objectives:
SWBAT express their feelings using the phrase, “makes me feel” to describe their feeling words to the second song.  Before playing song #2, the teacher will write the phrase, “this song makes me feel ________” on the board and says the phrase while gesturing to their heart on the word “feel”, followed by a mimic of any emotion.  Students will repeat the exercise for song #2, making use of the phrase “this song makes me feel _________”.  For the 3rd song, the teacher will erase, “makes me feel” and repeat the exercise.  Finally on the 4th song, “this song” is erased, and the students must perform the communicative act from memory.

A.   
Instructional Strategy:
individual, pair, whole-class
B.    Sensory Learning Style:
audio, visual
C.    Task Description:
Before moving to the second song, write “this song makes me feel _______” on the board.  Separate the phrase into three parts and label them ‘This song (1) makes me feel (2) _________ (3).  Lift up three fingers and have the students repeat as you lift a finger as they say each phrase.To reinforce, read some of their feelings from song #1, holding your fingers up, say, “This song (lift a finger) makes me feel (lift another finger) nervous (lift the third finger).”  Give another example.  Call on or ask a volunteer to say how song #1 makes them feel.  As they speak, hold up all the fingers that they express. (If they say, “the song makes me feel happy” hold up three fingers.  If they just say “happy” just hold up the third finger.  Prompt until they give the full phrase).
After, play the 2nd song and repeat the exercise.  When working in pairs, circulate and make sure the students are using the phrase, “this song makes me feel” when talking with their partner.  Ask for volunteers and use the finger gesture as necessary to help prompt the students use the full phrase.  After all the feelings/colors are written for the 2nd song, erase “makes me feel” from the board, have the students repeat the phrase and gesture as necessary.  Listen the 3rd song, repeat process.  Erase the phrase from the board before listening to the 4th song.

Application: (10 min)

Objectives:
SWBAT use the feeling and color words they said to describe the story the songs convey.  As a class, the students will discuss themes like, “fear” and “love”.  When the discussion ends, the teacher will reveal where the music comes from.

A.    Instructional Strategy:
pair, whole-class
B.    Sensory Learning Style:
audio, visual
C.    Task Description:
After listening to the last song, admire the amount of color and feeling words the students have come up with (the board should be quite full).  Point out to the students that the feeling and color words change from song to song.  Some songs seem to make them feel more nervous or happy or sad.Tell the students that the songs create a story. Ask which song they think represents the protagonist (use simple language “good guy”).  The antagonist? The climactic scene? Love interest?  Allow them to discuss each question in pairs or small groups and then discuss as a class.  This final portion is more free-discussion, try not to limit the students participation or critique language-use.  Instead promote fluency and listening-skills.

Before class ends, reveal where the music came from and see if the students’ guesses about the characters/feelings/music are correct.

Language Exchange Lament (and a lesson plan for Listening)

There is a popular method for informal language learning here in South Korea (and I’m sure other places) that goes by the name “language exchange”.  The name is appealing.  It suggests a business-like approach to the learning of a language, a fair trade in which you give and then take equal shares of a product.

LanguagePartners5

This is what people think is going to happen at a language exchange

Unfortunately, “language exchange” is probably a misnomer for the most part.  Rarely do two people at these events exchange equally and often what is exchanged isn’t exactly a product of the greatest quality.  Most exchanges are, after all, informal events.  So I suppose they can be forgiven on that point.

Language exchanges suffer from two problems, 1) generally one language is favored and 2) if by chance one language isn’t favored, then language acquisition is ignoring a very important piece of the “four strands”, namely, listening.  In language exchanges, what normally is done, is each participant speaks in the target language they are trying to learn to a native speaker of that language.  So I would speak to a Korean in Korean and they would speak to me in English.  This is a fine drill in itself, but it ignores entirely the very important skill of listening and receiving authentic feedback (note: I’m not talking about overt feedback like, “say this instead” or “that was really good!” but covert feedback.  The type where you say something, it is understood and the other person responds authentically.  This sort of feedback is vastly under-acknowledged and far more important than overt feedback).

What actually happens

What actually happens

Of course, other types of language exchange combat this problem by designating a time limit and specifying that during a certain amount of time only English will be spoken and then only Korean in the next time period.  Of course, these events are usually only a couple of hours long and it can be difficult to regulate these periods effectively. If done correctly, this type of language exchange satisfies my complaint.  It is my experience (having visited several different language exchanges around Seoul) that this does not happen regularly.  English is usually the dominate language used by everyone.  I have found one exchange where Korean is the dominate language and I continue to frequent that exchange, though like I noted before, it’s hard to call it an exchange, as I don’t really give anything in return, just take.  I suppose maybe friendship is my gift, not a fair trade, I think!

So what does “listening” look like in a language class as opposed to an exchange?  Well, here’s my go-to method.

Ordered Sentences and Pronunciation Distinguishing

Materials Needed:
pronunciation Powerpoint slides (or pictures that you can hold), listening material (audio or transcript to read), copy of transcript cut into individual sentences for every (or groups of) student(s).

Performance Objectives:
Students will be able to (SWBAT) distinguish between two similar sounds ([i] and [I]).  This is accomplished first by repeating real words after a native speaker.  The speaker draws attention to the position of the articulatory tract.  Using fake words, the speaker draws attention to the sounds by elongating them.  Students mimic the speaker.  Students are then given three minimal pair words (fake or real) one of which does not contain [i] or [I] and the speaker says them one after another.  Students must say which word doesn’t contain [i] or [I].  Students are then given two pictures, each representing a minimal pair of [i]/[I] words.  The speaker says one of the words and the students will point to the picture that represents the word.

SWBAT put the transcript of an audio piece in the correct sequence by listening to a full recording of the transcript.  Students will have a pre-determined amount of times they can listen to the recording. Students will evaluate their performance in pairs, by comparing with their partner how they ordered the transcript.  As a class, the transcript will be read.

SWBAT listen and repeat the transcript (or a portion) from memory.  Students will follow the teacher (or a leader) in a rote-repeat fashion once.  Students will repeat again, waiting 3 seconds, then 5 seconds, between hearing and speaking.  Finally, students will attempt to repeat the transcript (or portion) purely from memory.

SWBAT produce the transcript (or a portion) following a native-speaker rhythm.  Students will follow the teacher (or a leader), repeating the transcript.  The teacher will emphasize stressed syllables within words and stressed words within phrases.  Students will mimic the teacher’s technique.  Students will produce the rhythm again first waiting 3 seconds, then 5 then 10 between listening/seeing and speaking/doing.

Warm-up: (1-5min)

Objectives: Students will prepare their articulatory tract for correct pronunciation by stretching their mouth.

Instructional Strategy:
lecture, whole class work

Sensory Learning Style:
audio, visual, kinetic

Task Description:
Students will follow the teacher (or a leader) in stretching their articulatory tract by alternatingly rounding and stretching the lips, opening and closing the mouth, sticking out and putting in the tongue, moving the tongue side to side and finally by doing a vowel chant (a,e,i,o,u).  Finish with a yell if you’d like!

Presentation: (1 min)

Objectives: Prepare students for what the class will be about

Instructional Strategy:
lecture

Sensory Learning Style:
audio, visual

Task Description:
Using a powerpoint, or some other material, describe to the students the tasks for that day.  Explain briefly the key objectives, which is successful listening.

Practice: (10-15 min)

Objectives:
Students will be able to (SWBAT) distinguish between two similar sounds ([i] and [I]).  This is accomplished first by repeating real words after a native speaker.  The speaker draws attention to the position of the articulatory tract.  Using fake words, the speaker draws attention to the sounds by elongating them.  Students mimic the speaker.

Instructional Strategy:
lecture, whole class work, individual work

Sensory Learning Style:
audio, visual

Task Description:
Using a text, or a prepared powerpoint, draw the students attention to the specific sound (in this case, the [i]/[I] distinction).  Show them words that change only when that specific change happens (e.g. a minimal pair) such as ‘heel/hill’ or ‘seat/sit’.  Using several examples, have the students repeat after a native speaker (or someone in the class who can produce the minimal pairs well enough.  It might be better for the students to hear a non-native speaker produce the sounds correctly, in order for them to hear or believe they can produce the sound themselves).

From there, move on to made up words (this focuses the attention purely onto the sounds, without any interference from semantic or lexical questions).  Slow down the sound, have the students say just the sound for a few seconds and then finish the word (i.e. siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii-t/ seeeaaaaaaaa-t).  Speed up slowly.

Pronunciation Powerpoint

Practice: (10-15 min)

Objectives:
Students are then given three minimal pair words (fake or real) one of which does not contain [i] or [I] and the speaker says them one after another.  Students must say which word doesn’t contain [i] or [I].  Students are then given two pictures, each representing a minimal pair of [i]/[I] words.  The speaker says one of the words and the students will point to the picture that represents the word.

Instructional Strategy:
lecture, individual work, whole class work

Sensory Learning Style:
audio, visual, kinetic

Task Description:
Following the powerpoint, show three words which are minimal pairs, two of which have [i] and [I] and the last which does not.  Say the words in order and have the students decide which word does not have [i]/[I].  (Another option is to say the words in a random order and have the students order them 1,2,3).

Finally, show two pictures on the screen which represent a [i]/[I] minimal pair.  A picture of a ‘hill’ next to a picture of a ‘heel’.  Say one of the words and have the students point or gesture to the correct picture. Repeat several times with various word pairs.

Presentation: (10 min)

Objectives:
SWBAT put the transcript of an audio piece in the correct sequence by listening to a full recording of the transcript.  Students will have a pre-determined amount of times they can listen to the recording. Students will evaluate their performance in pairs, by comparing with their partner how they ordered the transcript.  As a class, the transcript will be read.

Instructional Strategy:
whole-class work, pair work

Sensory Learning Style:
audio, visual, textile

Task Description:
using a prepared script or audio have the students listen to a conversation or monologue of one or two paragraphs, depending on level.  Have the students listen through once.  Before listening, prompt them with questions to answer after listening like, “what is the main idea?”  “who is speaking?” “what are their names?”  “what is the main problem?”  After that, discuss briefly the answers.  Next, hand out the cut-up scripts to the students.  Have them spread them out and look at them.  They can begin putting them in order if they think they know.  Tell the students they will have 2 or 3 opportunities to listen to the recording before you begin again.

Listen to the audio.  Pause between turns to allow the students to think about the order.  After 2 or 3 listenings, have the students compare their order with a partner.  Have them reconcile any differences.  After that, go through with the class the correct order (have the students read them in order, one student per sentence, for example).

Below is a gallery of my own attempt at using this activity.  I used the Intermediate listening activities from a very useful website for learning Korean called “Talk to Me in Korean“. It is the Iyagi – Intermediate lesson. It is a little bit above my Korean level, so it took me a little longer to get it finished, and I used a lot of dialogue.  For my Middle School Students, I will use anywhere between8-15 sentences, but not more than that usually.

Practice (10 minutes)

Objectives:
SWBAT listen and repeat the transcript (or a portion) from memory.  Students will follow the teacher (or a leader) in a rote-repeat fashion once.  Students will repeat again, waiting 3 seconds, then 5 seconds, between hearing and speaking.  Finally, students will attempt to repeat the transcript (or portion) purely from memory.

SWBAT produce the transcript (or a portion) following a native-speaker rhythm.  Students will follow the teacher (or a leader), repeating the transcript.  The teacher will emphasize stressed syllables within words and stressed words within phrases.  Students will mimic the teacher’s technique.  Students will produce the rhythm again first waiting 3 seconds, then 5 then 10 between listening/seeing and speaking/doing.

Instructional Strategy:
whole class work, pair work

Sensory Learning Style:
audio, visual, visual

Task Description:
using the same script the students used for the ordering activity, read the sentences one by one (or choose a couple of sentences or dialogues to work on) with the students repeating. After going through once.  Repeat the activity, only have the students wait 3 seconds before repeating.  Do the activity again with 5 seconds, and then 10 seconds.  If it is a dialogue, you can try to have the students do it from memory (they will have the sentences in front of them from the ordering exercise, if they need them).

Virtues and Weakness, Cross-culturally

I often find that who I think I am, and the things I value, present a completely different image to other people than to myself.  That who I think I am, often is interpreted as something that I personally do not identify with, in the minds of other people.

Cross-cultural communication is a tough nut to crack (in small part because languages and cultures have so many idiomatic expressions!).  What one culture views as pedestrian can be scandalous to another.  What one culture values highly is ignored by another.  A recent example in my life involved describing a picture of a new friend as “gangster”, a harmless semi-joke in my cultural-dialect, but which caused a fairly confused reaction that could have been hurtful.  Thankfully, we both worked to a place of mutual understanding.  One where I won’t call her “gangster” again, and she learned to understand and forgive my not-funny joke.

damn-it-feels-good-to-be-a-gangster

But often our perceptions of others, particularly “others” of a different culture go as unchallenged assumptions by both the assumer and the assumee. Partially perhaps because one or both are consciously unaware that the assumption has been made.  In other circumstances, the Assumer assumes without seeking clarification from the assumed.  Leading the Assumer to view the actions of the other person through a very different lens than the assumptions that color the view of the assumed.

This is all abstract.  Let me get personal.

Here is a short list of qualities that I find virtuous, and want in myself:
Doubt
Critical thought
meekness
empathy
equality
vulnerability

Here, now, are some examples of how what I feel is a personal virtue, are seen as faults or weaknesses.

– A former roommate of mine who I hadn’t seen in a long time came up to me and started with this, “Hey! So you still bitter or what?”  (doubt, critical thought).  It took me by surprise and it also hurt a little bit.  But my non-conformity to some beliefs that he held meant in his mind that I was primarily, bitter, for not accepting those cultural mores.

– A Korean girlfriend once told me she didn’t like having to “lead” with a boyfriend.  That it was the man’s responsibility to make (most) decisions in the relationship.  In an attempt to identify with her beliefs (empathy) I taught her to tell me, “be a man!” whenever she felt I wasn’t being “boyfriendish” enough.

That quickly turned out badly, as I don’t care to “lead” a girl around anymore than she wants to.  (equality).  I believe women are my equals and have an equal say in relationship decisions.  Telling me to “be a man” was essentially the same as dragging my confidence into a dark alley, mugging it, taking all its cash and then spitting in its face for good measure.  I ended up moving in the opposite direction of “manliness” with her.

– I once asked a close Korean friend to watch a TEDtalk by Brene Brown on vulnerability, and told them, “I really like what she says and think vulnerability is a really important character trait for me”.  I wanted my friend to understand me a little better, and they wanted to learn English better, so.. win win.

They watched a part and when I asked them about it they said, “oh yeah, that video, I think it’s about weakness?” (Brene Brown says this is one of the great myths of vulernability, that it is “weakness”).

These examples often make me feel vulernable in a not-so-good kind of way.  As if the things that I spend my time trying to cultivate in myself end up only defining me in a completely different and undesirable way.  But these examples are also more clear cut.  If I were able, I could clarify with each of these friends and maybe come to a place of understanding.  This is because the Assumer (my friends) showed me what they think of my virtues, which hurts, but also offers an opportunity for understanding.

I have in the past, referenced my “fears” as a teacher and also how I understand myself as a teacher.  Those things have certainly changed overtime, but what continues to nag at me, is how what I am doing in this classroom is percieved by my students, their parents and Korean society at large.

And equally, I fear that what my students, their families and Korean society value, may be greatly misunderstood on my part and misrepresented in my mind and words.  Often it is only in hindsight that one realizes the assumptions or opinions one holds against another are fabrications in their own minds, and don’t reflect actual reality, to say nothing of the reality in the other’s mind.

Rachel Jeantel, Black English and Linguistic Authority

aave6As a linguistics undergraduate who was interested in preserving Endangered Languages, I realized quickly that the general population of the United States holds mostly contrary views concerning language compared with  linguists.  For whatever reason (take your pick, honestly) the average US citizen is either consciously against the idea of promoting or using non-standard dialects, or they are oblivious to the idea of “other” dialects.

This usually comes from a place of well-meaning.  Speakers of minority dialects (who also never learned the standard variety) often suffer from other problems, like poverty.  They usually live in either very rural or very urban areas, where access to the best education is harder to come by and they have fewer resources to deal with that.  How people speak is often the first or second thing you come to understand about another person.  And like the first look, the first words are all part of that “first impression” that can leave us with a premature judgement of another person.

So, when people are against “Ebonics”, what they think they are arguing for is helping these people who speak non-standard varieties to acquire the traits that will lift them from their poverty, from the poor first impressions people may have of them or from whatever else.  It does come from a place of wanting to help.

That doesn’t make it any less misguided.

The pop-linguistics world has been debating this (old) topic recently because of the George Zimmerman trial, and the now infamous witness, Rachel Jeantel.  Her African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) proved to be difficult for most of the United States, who cared enough to comment.  And even after linguists chimed in to help dispell myths, most people remained unconvinced.  AAVE is just bad, they say.  It keeps people poor, they say.  The first step out of poverty is learning Standard American English.

Sadly, they are missing the point.  On the r/ Linguistics forum at Reddit.com, user, u/ Choosing_is_a_sin  explains fairly simply why we need to recognize AAVE (and other minority dialects) in our education system.  Why the Ebonics debate of the 1990s was mis-interpreted (and is still, frustratingly, misinterpreted).  Presented here in its entirety:

Grr, I typed out a long response, and the thread was deleted. So I’m posting it here.

Reinforcing AAVE in young children is setting them up for failure. It teaches them to rely on a dialect that is perceived as ignorant and racially charged. Students being taught AAVE will leave school unprepared for life in the real world, unless they plan on staying in Oakland for the rest of their lives. It is simply another way to restart the cycle of poverty and keep these kids trapped in the lower classes.

It’s hard to see how telling kids that the way they and their family, friends and neighbors speak is unacceptable, deficient, or otherwise undesirable is setting them up for success. From an early age, they are taught that how they speak is wrong, rather than different. By teaching them that the way they speak is natural fully grammatical, you instill a pride in how they speak rather than reinforcing a prejudice. It also allows you to draw a distinction between home language and school language. Just as kids have different rules for behavior at home and at school (e.g. needing permission to go to the bathroom at school but not at home), there are different ways of speaking and writing for home and school. Neither is better, but they each serve their own function. Furthermore, the home language can then be used as a legitimate source of comparison with the school language. Kids not only learn explicitly what the differences are (rather than expecting them to simply figure it out), but they also get a chance to develop metalinguistic awareness, that is, knowledge about how different varieties work. This was the plan of the Oakland School district, as described in the source you linked to: teach kids Standard English using AAVE as a starting point. As the article points out, it would have been nonsensical to teach the kids AAVE, since they already came to school speaking it. It would be like spending time teaching kids the order of English adjectives: no native speaking child of English says the red big boat, and accordingly schools spend no time teaching them how to order them. Instead they focus on teaching things that are unlikely to be part of children’s language input such as who vs. whom and me and my friendsversus my friends and I— things that are part of a formal register that would cease to be used if schools didn’t impose them. AAVE-speaking students would also learn how standard English be is learned, and how street is pronounced in standard English and their home language.

Your suggested way of pedagogy is like abstinence education. Show them only one way to do things and then just hope for the best that they take it heart. Like abstinence education, that technique was failing in the Oakland schools. As you know, Oakland is not exactly a model for educational achievement in the US. The school board wasn’t trying to find new ways to hinder success. They were trying to improve achievement on tests written and evaluated through the lens of standard English. They hoped to exploit the differences between the two varieties to help their students break out of the cycle of poverty.

If a legal witness is giving their statements in something we are considering a non-English language, shouldn’t they require an interpreter? A witness speaking Spanish would be given a translator – the press wouldn’t accuse the jury of bigotry for not understanding Spanish, so why are they bigots for not understanding AAVE?

It might very well have been helpful for there to be an interpreter. The Department of Justice has in the past recognized the need for specialists in AAVE, which shows a sensitivity to the differences that exist and the need for people who know it and Standard English really well. But lawyers and judges don’t always realize that the differences that exist between AAVE and standard English are important and have the potential to mean very different things (see the discussion in the article you linked about the errors in the mock dialogue by a black non-AAVE speaker). There was also a case that I heard about just today where a speaker of Jamaican Creole (also known as Patois/Patwa) had no interpreter in a death penalty case in Florida, and as a result, some of his statements were misinterpreted. Jamaican Creole is much more obviously a separate language than AAVE is, but it’s close enough that people think they can understand it, even when the two diverge. So perhaps speakers of AAVE who are not also speakers of Standard English should indeed have access to interpreters (note that translator is usually reserved in technical contexts for written translation, while interpreter is used for spoken), just to be sure that their statements are construed as they intended.

And no one is bigoted for not understanding a language or not understanding how someone speaks. They are bigoted if they say that how a native speaker speaks their language is wrong or bad because it is different from the variety that they prefer. The use of AAVE in a courtroom is situationally dispreferred, especially since the judge and jury cannot be assumed to speak it. But the same would be true of other non-regional varieties of English. Was there somewhere in the press that said the jurors were bigoted (or even that the jurors didn’t understand)?

I believe that supporting AAVE is simply a politically correct reaction, and that educators are unwilling to call it a mistake, because that might imply a racial bias. Would those educators willingly teach South Georgian dialects as legitimate language? What about Bostonian slang, is that a legitimate language?

Usually when we call something a mistake, it indicates that it’s some anomaly, one that’s done either when someone knows the right way or when it’s just a procedural error by someone who hasn’t learned the correct way. But the use of AAVE isn’t inherently a mistake. It’s a variety that developed through segregation and one that continues in large part because of de facto segregation. It is also a rule-governed variety. It’s not just Standard English with random, unpredictable mistakes like we might expect from a Hungarian or Vietnamese immigrant. There are systematic differences between AAVE and Standard English, differences that are documented in the article you’ve linked. Why, if we can identify systematic, meaningful differences, would we turn around and just call them mistakes? It makes no sense. As far as teaching southern Georgian or Bostonian characteristics, I’d point out that Jimmy Carter knew southern Georgian and John F. Kennedy spoke like a Bostonian and they did just fine (well, it wasn’t their language that caused them problems). And the idea that the home language should be used as a medium of instruction to teach a standard language is popular around the world, and I’m sure that if students in Boston or southern Georgia were having trouble filtering out grammatical features of the area from their standard English, there would be teachers would not hesitate to point out that there are differences between the two and that only one is what’s used in school. I’d also point out that ‘slang’ is not a language. The article you link says it quite well: Comparing slang to language is like comparing a few drops of hot sauce to dinner.

So in conclusion, teaching the legitimacy of AAVE is an excellent way to teach standard English, and can ultimately help to improve the standing of African Americans in a way that does not denigrate the way they speak as somehow deficient.