The real level of language proficiency

100420153730Every teacher would probably agree that the classroom should be a safe environment free of stress and anxiety. A lot has been written about ways of minimizing stress that interferes with learning. However, I believe that our attempts to keep stress at a zero level can sometimes be counter-productive.

A long, challenging week of the final state examinations is finally over in the school where I work, and I can announce with a great relief that none of our students failed the English part. My colleague and I examined 34 students in five days. During their oral English exam, the students were supposed to react to the examiner’s questions promptly, and they were expected to speak fluently and elaborately on various topics ranging from very personal ones to factual ones. We had to make sure that each performance was exactly 15 minutes long, which added to the stressfulness of the experience. I was the assessor, whose job was to listen carefully, note down errors as well as positive points, and grade each performance. My colleague, their English teacher, read the instructions, asked the questions and reacted to the examinee’s answers. We only had five minutes to agree on the final score before it was the next student’s turn.

It was obviously very stressful – both for us and the students. Unfortunately, this is the type of  situation you can never really prepare your students for. You can provide them with all the language input and the content they need to pass the exam, but you can never rehearse for the actual performance in advance simply because there is one aspect that you can’t simulate – stress. This, however, is one of the variables that have a huge impact on the quality of the student’s performance.

Under stress, your B2 students suddenly and miraculously turn into A2 learners – they make errors they never made in a relaxed atmosphere of the language classroom, where they cheerfully chattered about the burning problems of today’s world. During their final exam, students repeat the same low-level words again and again because they can’t remember the synonyms they are expected to use at their current level. They can’t remember the word ‘equipment’, for example, so they keep saying ‘things’ throughout the exam, which drives the examiner – their English teacher – crazy. Now and then, a fairly advanced student forgets to add an -s to the third person singular verbs but keeps using advanced fillers and linking devices, which proves his real level of proficiency. Unfortunately, points will finally have to be subtracted for these little failures, no matter how sorry you feel for your students and how well you know what they can actually do.

But what is the real level of proficiency? Is is what you can do in a relaxed atmosphere of an L2 classroom or is it the way you perform during a stressful situation? One way or the other, I believe there’s a certain core – the knowledge nobody can take away from you; the facts, data and skills resistant to any level of stress. Just above the core, there’s another layer, which, under certain circumstances, can be very unstable and vulnerable. This layer of knowledge needs to be consolidated before it becomes part of the safe and stable core.

It turned out that some of the knowledge and skills we expected during the examination were still in the unstable state, even though we believed that the students had already mastered them perfectly before. The question is whether (and how) we can find out what our students can really do. Can we find out in the rather unnatural (or inauthentic) setting of the L2 classroom at all?

Some of my nostalgic (linguistic) memories of the Netherlands

I’m finally back home from a short visit to a lovely Dutch town called Valkenswaard. My heart still aches a bit since I’m missing all the friendly people I met there – the students and teachers from six European countries that had got together to work on a music/poetry project. But I know the memories will soon fade and life will return to normal. Well, not quite, I’m afraid…. Things will never be the same.
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As a Czech tourist, when you land in Eindhoven, you immediately notice a few things. The architecture is slightly different from what you can see in a typical Czech town. The lovely traffic lights that look like children’s toys make you feel you’ve just come to see Legoland. But the main difference can’t be perceived visually – it is when you open your mouth to speak and prick up your ears to listen that you finally realize you are in the Netherlands; everybody speaks English there. Every bus driver, every shop assistant, and every waitress will reply fluently once you start asking them questions in English.

This is something you will hardly experience in the Czech Republic. In an extreme situation, once they are approached by a foreigner, people will even run away or pretend they don’t speak English. The reason is simple – generally, Czechs are not very confident in English.

So while in the Netherlands, I asked myself (and other people too) the same question over and over again: How come Dutch people are so proficient in English? I always got the same reply: we don’t dub English programs and thus we’re exposed to heaps of English from a very early age.

But I think there is another reason behind their high English proficiency. Dutch is a Germanic language and it is closely related to English and German. Dutch shares with German a similar word order, grammatical gender, and largely Germanic vocabulary, which contains the same Germanic core as German and English. Nonetheless, the fact that Russian is a Slavic language closely related to Czech didn’t help me achieve a native-like proficiency in it when I was forced to learn it back during the communist regime. Apparently, one ingredient vital for a successful acquisition of an L2 was missing – motivation.

Now, considering the fact that the Netherlands has a tradition of learning languages and almost 90% of the population can easily converse in English, it’s obvious that the L2 proficiency of their English teachers reflects the situation. I met a Dutch (as well as a German and a Belgian) teacher of English, whose L2 proficiency was absolutely stunning. Had I not known what their nationalities were, I wouldn’t have guessed they were non-native speakers of English. The NNEST vs. NEST dichotomy suddenly seemed useless and redundant. If I had ever doubted that non-native speakers of English can achieve native-like proficiency, this was the final proof that they can.

But I also met a German teacher of geography and a Belgian music teacher whose fluency in spoken English (and several other languages) was equally astounding. I remember a few occasions in the past when my English had been described as flawless but honestly, now I think people were only trying to be nice to me; most of the time in the Netherlands I felt humbled. In spite of this, I’m immensely thankful for this experience.

If only I could spend more time at the school – observe lessons, talk to the teachers, students, and other members of the staff. I would like to get under the surface and find out if their approaches to learning and methods of teaching English are very different from what we do here. I’d like to interview more people in the streets and pubs; I’d love to ask about their motivation and general attitudes to foreign languages….

Preferences, approaches and aspirations

The oth71be3-mc5a02bdorter day I went over to Steve Wheeler’s blog and watched a short interview recorded at the INTED 2015 conference in Madrid, Spain. I highly recommend watching the video, in which Steve talks about the importance of technology in education. The progressive, yet moderate view on technology resonates with me but what really struck a chord with me was the following line: Every student has different preferences, approaches and aspirations. Nothing new under the sun, right? Yet, it got me thinking and inspired me to write this post. When I heard the line, I immediately thought of learning styles and the heated debate they have recently inspired, and I realised that it’s much better to think of students’ differences in terms of their preferences, approaches and aspirations than in terms of the looked-down-on learning styles, which, to me, represent a rather narrow perspective. However, as you’ll see, it’d probably be more comfortable and easier to deal with just seven learning styles than with a plethora of different preferences, approaches and aspirations.

It’s obvious that each and every student wants a different thing – hence the different preferences. When learning English, one student prefers grammar tables; another favours picking up the language through reading books. You don’t need to prove this scientifically because you can tell what your students want – they show you, implicitly or explicitly, or they just tell you if you ask. Also, it’s beyond doubt that each and every student deals with school work in a different way. You can observe this directly, provided you give your students some choice and control over their learning approaches. For example, some like learning vocabulary by underlining words and recording them in their notebooks; others use apps on mobile phones to memorise and revise lexical items. As for aspirations, it’s unlikely that you’ll find two students who aspire for the very same thing. Few students will do without English when they leave school, but there might be some in the end. Maybe they’ll need German or Russian instead – not English. Not all students will need to be able to speak the language at a high level; some will get by with passive knowledge of vocabulary since they won’t use the language to communicate orally. For instance, they will only read texts for academic purposes. Others won’t have to do a lot of writing, so they won’t have to panic about spelling and linking words a big deal.

Now, if you take into account that there are at least 3 constants – preferences, approaches and aspirations, which, by the way, can be highly variable – and you have a class of, say, 25 students, then it’s really difficult to adjust your teaching to satisfy every student’s needs. You’d have to have an inventory of up to 25 times 3 different teaching approaches/methods/techniques/styles/magic tricks, which you obviously can’t perform all at once. i e. in one lesson. Plus you would sometimes have to be a fortune teller to be able to tell what exactly you students want on a particular day, in a particular lesson.

What is the solution, then? Individualisation? Yes, but there are 25 individuals with various preferences, approaches and aspirations in your class, remember? Personalisation? Yes, but there are 25 persons sitting in front of you ready to start talking about what concerns them. Making your teaching learner-centred? Absolutely! However, there are 25 learners to be focused on. Give them tasks to complete? Yes, but what if they prefer to absorb knowledge through listening and taking notes, and it bugs them when they are forced to learn through completing inauthentic tasks. Dogme? Well, yes, but imagine how much variety would suddenly emerge at one point if you were really liberal; would you be able to handle it? Let them use technology then? Good idea but there are some who prefer to see things on paper and they hate looking at the computer screen. The matter is complicated by the fact that I, too, have my preferences, approaches and aspirations, and beliefs.

I’m not exactly pessimistic but whenever I enter the classroom and see those 25 little heads, I can’t help feeling I’m not doing enough – I can never do enough. What is my role as a teacher then? Mind you, this is not a philosophical question; this is a question I ask as a practitioner with some experience in the classroom and I bit of theoretical knowledge. Can we do anything at all or would the whole system of schooling have to change completely, as some argue? Before this happens, I guess I’ll just be there for my students trying to do what I believe is best for them …