Adapting Other Narratives to Make Sense of Your Own

In my previous post, I wrote about how I used to see my students simply as Taiwanese college students learning English. In a shallow sense, yes, they are. In the same way, their student narratives can also be interpreted by researchers as just students telling stories.

Or, narratives can be more.

Also from my last post, I mentioned that I have been conducting interviews with a small group of students with a research interest in narratives of prospective EFL teachers. During the initial stages of conducting interviews, I was interested in exploring how the narratives being told to students influenced their language learning process, language identity, or beliefs about language learning. I asked students about what people told them about learning English and their opinions about what other people told them. Yet, when analyzing their narratives, I found out that students were not telling me narratives other people had told them; instead, they were telling me their own narratives, altered and appropriated from others for their own purposes. And they were not telling me about the process and difficulties of learning English, not about grammar, pronunciation, reading, writing, etc, but they were telling me about the learning of English, or in other words, of learning English as a social practice within the societal context of Taiwanese society.

One student told me the conflicting messages he received from the people around him in terms of whether or not he should be an English Instruction major. For example, while his friends and classmates from high school envied him for his English proficiency, well-known in Taiwanese society to make you a more marketable employee, his parents and relatives objected to his desire to be an English major and pursue a career teaching English. This seems a bit surprising because one would think that Taiwanese parents would love for their children to be pursuing a teaching career. On top of that, he also has a lot of self-doubt and insecurities about whether or not his level of English proficiency is good enough. With all these factors, it’s apparent from his narrative that being a student preparing to be a future EFL teacher is no simple task.

Taking this complexity into consideration, how do students make sense of such a career path? Keep in mind, these are students with no teaching experience, students that are actually only in their first year of college. How are they supposed to understand what it means to be an EFL teacher? What I want to study in my research is the role narratives help students make sense of their future identities as EFL teachers. In my students case, he was able to adapt narratives told to him by others (some good, some bad), and reinterpret them for this own purposes, and eventually incorporate them as his own.

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Narratives of the Next Generation of EFL Teachers in Taiwan

As an EFL teacher who has been previously educated only in the U.S. and had prior teaching experience only in the U.S., it took two years of teaching EFL at a university in Taiwan before I genuinely felt like I could accurately understand what my undergraduate students were experiencing as “English Instruction” majors. That isn’t to say that I now perfectly understand their English learning experiences; in actuality, as teachers usually discover, the more I learn about my students, the more questions I end up raising.

What has helped me understand my students and their daily experiences is related to a research study I’ve been working on, a study of student narratives. Except I’ve realized that what students are telling me aren’t exactly only “student narratives” because of the fact that my students are actually being prepared to be EFL teachers, or specifically elementary school English teachers in Taiwan. For the four years of college, they occupy an awkward, gray space where they aren’t professional teachers or pre-service teachers yet, but they are also facing a very different experience than undergraduate students from other departments in their preparation to be future EFL teachers. Some of my students have studied to specifically get into our undergraduate English Instruction program because they already have strong aspirations of wanting to be elementary school English teachers. Other students had no idea what career they wanted to pursue and simply applied with the thought that being an English major might be to their benefit in the future. Yet, regardless of ambition, or lack of, they all must decide, sometimes with others, sometimes with themselves, what they want to do in their future careers and lives and who they want to be. Such difficult moments of making difficult decisions can take various forms, sometimes triggered by stress over a difficult linguistics final exam, sometimes brought on by an upcoming deadline to submit paperwork for switching majors.

I think most teachers have had experiences when a simple story that a student tells opened up a whole new window into that student’s life experience. Of course, from icebreakers in class and small talk during break time, I get to know little bits and pieces of my students’ interests and hobbies. But student lives, student narratives, exist in much more depth and complexity than that. EFL learners are much more than just students learning English as a foreign language.

From interviewing a small group of students in my research study, some of the preliminary patterns I’m noticing is some students who have strong motivation to become elementary school English teachers, some who don’t. There are some students who have strong support (sometimes even pressure) to become elementary school English teachers, and some who don’t. There are also some students who see their role as a college student as a vocational one, a preparation for them to become teachers, while others see their role as simply a student, learning  and studying for grades and a degree. The one common thread in all of these narratives is that these are all students involved in a higher education department program that is geared toward developing elementary school English teachers, regardless of whether they like it or not, know it or not. These are not only narratives of EFL students, but they are actually the narratives of Taiwan’s next generation EFL teachers, the narratives of future EFL teachers just starting in their very first stages of professional development. While it’s not guarantee that all of them will actually become English teachers, their narratives are still artifacts of their journey, wherever it takes them.

The “Languaging” of Taro Ball

The concept of “languaging” was introduced by Swain and in simple terms, it’s a form of “talking-it-through”. You know, the experience when you might be frustrated with a problem or dealing with a lot of stress in your life and you just want to talk about it with someone. And more often than not, the simple act of talking it over with someone, helps you feel better or even helps you figure out a solution to your problem. More often than not, the person you talked to wasn’t a psychologist or an expert in anyway. Rather, it was the process of running your thoughts through language, or as Swain puts it, “languaging” that helped you come to a new understanding.

According to Swain (2009) defines “languaging” as “the process of making meaning and shaping knowledge and experience through language. It is part of what constitutes learning.” So how does languaging work? Can students really learn by simply talking it out? From Swain’s studies (2009), she explains languaging in two parts: firstly, “languaging articulated and transformed their thinking into an artifactual form, and as such it became available as a source of further reflection. Secondly, languaging was the means of that further reflection. Through it, these students created new meanings and understandings – that is, they learned both through and about language” (p. 106)

The reason why I’ve become interested in the concept of languaging is because I’ve seen some of my students use “languaging” and the interesting results it has produced. Of course, my students have no idea what “languaging” means. Even though they are undergraduate TESOL students, they most likely haven’t come across this term. The example that I remember quite vividly in my memory is a video recorded by my students and posted onto Facebook for a “Tourism English” class. The video consisted of a group of students visiting a popular Taiwanese tourist site, describing some of the culture and history of the site, and trying out some of the food the area is known for. In this particular video, one student was trying out a “taro ball”, which is a chewy, mochi-like ball, usually cooked and eaten with a sweet soup. He introduced the name of the food item and proceeded to take a bite. However, because of his pronunciation, it actually sounded he said “This is a terrible”, rather than “This is a taro ball”. What happened shortly after the student posted this video onto Facebook was, as expected, a lot of his classmates, making fun of him for his pronunciation. When I had the student in my class a few days later, he seemed fine and he seemed to simply take the jokes as good fun. However, even in class, when I asked them how their weekend was, when one student said “terrible”, the entire class started laughing. It became an inside joke.

Now, I want to be clear that I definitely don’t think that making fun of someone’s pronunciation is a good way of help someone improve, and I definitely don’t think that public shaming or ridicule is something teachers should encourage. And even though it was just light-hearted fun, when the entire class is laughing, you could see the student feeling uncomfortable. And while I don’t think this is exactly what Swain meant when she introduced the idea of “languaging”, I do think that simply through the talk of the student’s pronunciation, all of the students collectively became more sensitive to it. By joking about “terrible” with each other, they’ve come to a greater awareness of the word, and even a reflection of how “taro ball” should actually sound.

Now, it’s also important for me to point out that I didn’t do any follow-up studies to see if that student actually retains what he learned about pronunciation from this incident. However, I use this example because I do believe that for this situation, the students took that single moment of pronunciation from the Facebook video and made it into a artifactual product around which further reflection and analysis occurred. And through their discussion of the mistake, creation of an inside joke, and future references to the inside joke, they’ve reshaped their experience of the word “terrible” and “taro ball” and created a new understanding of it.

References:

Swain, M. (2009). “Languaging, agency and collaboration in advanced second language proficiency.” Advanced language learning: The contribution of Halliday and Vygotsky, 95.

“My English Isn’t Very Good”

In Taiwan, it’s common to hear English language learners preface something they’re about to say in English with the statement “My English is not very good.” I’ve always wondered what that meant. Of course, it could simply be a direct, descriptive statement characterizing an L2 speaker’s perception of their own English proficiency level. But nothing is ever that simple. From the field of pragmatics, we know that there is always much more to what we say than what we actually say. And while usually when pragmatics is mentioned in a TESOL context, it usually refers to the difficulties L2 learners have with pragmatics of their L2, one idea that I’ve had is that out of L2 interactions in EFL environments developed pragmatics distinct to EFL context; essentially, a statement like “my English isn’t very good” may have a different meaning when used in a Taiwanese context than when used elsewhere.

So what could “my English isn’t very good” possibly imply other than the fact that the L2 speaker doesn’t think his/her English is very good? Here are some of my thoughts on the situations such disclaimers may appear and what using “my English isn’t very good” could possibly mean.

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What Makes a Good Teacher?

Have you ever been a student in a class and thought, “What is this teacher doing up there? Doesn’t he/she notice that no one knows what the heck is going on in his class?

Have you ever been assigned to teach a class you’re not so familiar or confident with?

Sometimes, it feels like the more I teach, the more I am unsure about how to teach. I say this with two specific conditions in mind:

  1. with new teachers who are provided relatively little support in terms of curriculum
  2. with subjects that teachers are unfamiliar or don’t feel confident teaching

And though this is really just from my own reflections from my teaching experience, I suspect it’s something teachers go through, a phase perhaps, during their teaching career.

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“Can Immigrant Learners Identify the Language of Discrimination?”

I went to the Spring 2013 SFSU MATESOL Conference  last week, where the graduate class of the MATESOL program present their capstone projects. If you’re at all interested in doing the MATESOL program at SFSU, it’s a good idea to attend one of these to see what kind of work and topics we work on in the program.

As some of you may know, the month of May is designated as Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, which pays “tribute to the generations of Asian and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America’s history and are instrumental in its future success.” I mention this because the one presentation in particular that really impressed me, partly because of my own interest in Asian American issues but also because race/racism seems like a topic that isn’t really discussed much in the field of TESOL.

Presented by Elissa K. Ouchida, here is the presentation title and description:

“Where are you REALLY from?” – Can Immigrant Students Identify the Language of Discrimination?

The difference between being charged for a robbery or a hate crime can be as small as one word. In fact, an act of discrimination can be something as subtle as a change in intonation. If English Language Learners are not able to pick up the nuances in the language of discrimination, they cannot take the proper recourse actions. With a focus on discrimination against Asian and Pacific Islanders, this project investigates whether immigrant students can identify the language of discrimination.

The presentation made me think about my own experience with racist discourse and whether or not I’ve been able to recognize and react effectively to it. I remember my father telling me his own experience with racist discourse. He had gotten in a car accident and in comparison to the other party’s truck, his car had suffered much more damage. When the police came to document the accident, one of the things my dad remembers the police asking him informally was why he drove a Japanese branded car (Inifiniti brand) instead of an American branded car. This obviously had nothing to do with the accident and had no place in the police officer’s role in documenting the accident. And yet, for some reason (obviously because of the fact that my dad is Asian), the police officer felt inclined to ask that question. I don’t think the police officer would have asked that question if my dad looked white instead.

Fortunately, my dad had lived in the United States long enough to be sensitive to what Ouchida explains is categorized as “symbolic racism”. This is racist discourse that expresses racial discrimination in subtle, implicit, and indirect ways. You can probably see how many immigrant, English learners wouldn’t be able to recognize the implicit messages embedded in such language, and since many discriminatory language is either directed towards or about minority populations, this disconnect in what is being said and what is understood is unfortunate and problematic.

Some pedagogical implications that Ouchida suggests are:

    • Students need to understand the language of discrimination
      • They should know how discrimination can happen to them.
      • They also should be aware of what they say so that they can avoid a dangerous situation or situation where they are the cause of discrimination.
    • Students should know the resources available to them.
    • Students seem interested in learning and discussing the topic of discrimination.
    • Recommended that this is taught to advanced level students
      • Understood it the most once explained
      • Seemed to be the most interested

Some suggested resources from Ouchida are:

    • Angry Asian Man Blog: http://blog.angryasianman.com/
      • A blog that follows all aspects of Asians in the mass media and pop culture with a particular focus on racism towards Asian Americans.
    • JACL (Japanese American Culture League)
      • Based in San Francisco, this is the oldest and largest Asian American civil rights organization.