Becoming Aware of Language Awareness

alacoverOne thing I love about the world of ELT is the endless subfields it contains. It’s easy to fall down the Google Scholar rabbit hole, as a bit of research in one area starts you reading articles only tangentially related, until you wind up learning something completely new.

I only recently encountered the field of language awareness (LA). It’s a field with several strands and a long history (which I will not even try to summarize here), but in a nutshell, LA concerns “a person’s sensitivity to and conscious awareness of language and its role in human life.” (Donmall, 1985 as cited in Ellis, 2012) In ELT, LA is often discussed as related to both teachers’ knowledge and awareness of language, as well as learners’.

I’ve been fascinated to read about how LA for teachers is often characterized as focusing on grammatical and structural awareness, but it really extends far beyond that; teachers are in  position to have to teach and answer questions on matters related to the history of English, vocabulary, register and style, phonology, morphology, text types and genre, pragmatics, as well as sociolinguistics and dialectological variation. English teachers must be “both proficient users and skilled analysts of the target language” (Wright and Bolitho, 1997, as cited in Ellis, 2012) and see language, both in its structure and use, as a something systematic. Cross-linguistic awareness is another important aspect of LA.

My undergraduate degree was in linguistics, and included rigorous training in theoretical linguistics (syntax, phonetics, phonology, morphology), semantics, as well as sociolinguistics and dialectology. I constantly draw on this body of knowledge in my teaching: I give detailled explanations of the mechanics of the vocal tract in a pronunciation lesson. I draw on historical linguistics to de-mystify the English spelling system. I can compare structural or phonological features of English to my students’ L1s because I’ve learned about them. I tend to characterize things for my students as generalizable phenomena or systems as opposed to a series of unrelated rules. I really don’t know how I would teach without this body of background knowledge; my students constantly pose very challenging questions and it would feel like a cop out to be constantly responding “That’s just the way it is!” or “Oh, that’s (yet another) exception!”

Thornbury (1997, as cited in Ellis, 2012) “distinguishes LA from the formal study of language known as ‘linguistics’ which he sees as an end in itself. He sees LA as strictly pedagogical, asking what a teacher needs to know
about English in order to teach it effectively?” I agree; it’s not necessary to have a degree in linguistics to teach language. But there is a lot we have to know in order to be good teachers.

Another strand LA looks at ways to raise learners’ awareness of language as a series of systems as part of the language learning process. Noticing or inductive tasks, cross-linguistic comparison activities or translation tasks with the L1, discussions of sociolinguistic variation, pragmatics and the evolution of language are a few examples of ways LA can be incorporated into ELT. This is an area that’s of particular interest to me at the moment. I absolutely love being able to discuss an foster curiosity about language in the general sense with my students feels–linguistics geek meets ESL teacher! I’ve recently put together a conference submission for a session on LA and historical linguistics, so fingers crossed!

I’m definitely just getting my feet wet in this area, but here are a few resources I’ve found interesting so far. If you have anything to add to this list, please do so in the comments.

Interesting finds:

Ellis, E. M. (2012). Language awareness and its relevance to TESOL. University of Sydney Papers in TESOL, 7, 1–23.
Bolitho, R., Carter, R., Hughes, R., Ivanič, R., Masuhara, H., & Tomlinson, B. (2003). Ten questions about language awareness. ELT Journal, 57(3), 251–259.
The Association for Language Awareness
Language Awareness Journal
 Carter, R. (2003). Key Concepts in ELT: Language awareness. ELT Journal 57(1).64-5.

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