Diversity or Cash Cows?

This Love the Way we Bitch from this week’s issue of The Coast caught my eye, as it pertains to non-native English speaking (NNES) international students at my university:

I know your investments in the big oil are not turning much profit these days, but I take issue with where you’re turning for extra cash. You pull in international students and charge them gargantuan tuition fees, but your screening is weak. This is unfair to the students who are getting crushed by expectations, it is also unfair to their peers and professors. I truly enjoy going to a school with such diversity, but I can’t help but think it is for the wrong reasons. Why must you prey on people? —There’s got to be another way

I found this very interesting for several reasons. First, it’s (unfortunately) not at all uncommon to hear native English-speaking students and faculty complain about “international students who can’t speak English” in their classes, but very often, this criticism and frustration is aimed toward the students themselves. The writer of this “bitch” is more astute in their observation of the fact that much of the blame can be put on the institution for cash cow NNES international students who flounder linguistically once they begin their degree programs.

I think the author of this bitch hits the nail on the head when they mention students “getting crushed by expectations”. When an institution requires an IELTS 6.5 for admission, and offers almost nothing by way of ESL linguistic support for students once the arrive, it’s like the university is saying “Don’t worry, an IELTS 6.5 is all you need to be able to study successfully in English, you’ll be fine.”

But we all know that it’s simply not the case; the gulf is vast between what is tested on the IELTS and the real-world English proficiency needed for academic study, not to mention academic skills and academic-cultural practices necessary for success at a Canadian university. To open the floodgates to international students to milk them for tuition, and not provide support for them to bridge this linguistic gap is, “preying on people”.

“There’s got to be another way”, indeed–and its not rocket science. But providing linguistic (and other) support costs money, and eats away at the massive sums the international students’ tuition fees are adding to university coffers. Attitudes are cheaper to change, but it’s no easy task to make people in all levels of university bureaucracy realize that “internationalizing” the institution is not simply an activity limited to recruitment, but must include support programming (and a host of other measures) as well.

Google Translate and Academic Integrity

CaptureI think digital linguistic tools like Google Translate are great. But like many tools, I have seen Google Translate abused by EAP writing students in submissions of wonky single-word “synonyms” and incomprehensibly translated passages that the student thought I’d never notice.

I try to counter potential abuse with a bit of education and training, rather than outright banning the use of Google in class. The key point I try to drive home is that most Google translations sound ridiculous, and that once a student hits even a low intermediate level, the texts that they themselves can produce are actually much better. It’s a matter of breaking the all-out reverence many students have for machines and showing them that when it comes to language, humans still trump computers in many areas and that they should trust their own language ability more.

I think there are a few ways to do this: the short way and the long way. Revealing Google Translate’s shortcomings by explaining in detail how it works would be the longer way. If you go this route, Larry Ferlazzo has an amazing list of resources here on Google Translate and how it works. Another interesting video is this article from a few days ago on Gizmodo, entitled Why You can Never Rely on Google Translate. If I were teaching an EAP class of applied linguists, computer science and/or engineering students or if out coursebook had a unit on IT or technology that I wanted to expand on, I might bring one of these videos or articles into class.

If I wanted to cut to the chase, though, I would rather prepare a short demo to show my students how Google Translate is not a substitute for good writing or good tools. I’d distribute a short text in digital format, perhaps something we’d read together in class, and ask students to put it through Google Translate into their L1, and then comment on some of the structures and vocabulary shortcomings they came across in the translated text. Moral of the story: “This is what it’s like to read a text that’s been fed through a translator! Doesn’t it sound silly? Don’t sell yourself short by submitting something like this to your teacher!”

A personal pet peeve of mine, though, is the use of Google Translate by intermediate or advanced students as a dictionary for single words when its so clearly inadequate and there are so many great digital dictionaries and collocation tools out there. If I’m working with a class who share the same L1, (Spanish, for example, in the example below), I’d pop up the entry for a common word as entered into Google Translate and into something like the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary, and put them up side-by-side on the projector. A discussion on collocation, parts of speech, phrases/chunks, register, etc., would be bound to ensue.



Ideally, some discussion about the shortcomings of Google Translate as a tool for writing, and the presentation of some more helpful alternative tools acts as preventative medicine and prevent me from having to bring it up in a lecture on academic integrity should an term papers get submitted with machine-translated passages. Your mileage may vary…

Gearing up for IATEFL 2014


I head to Harrogate tomorrow for IATEFL 2014, but I actually left Halifax last Tuesday evening, and have been spending a few days’ vacation in London and Edinburgh. That, combined with the fact that the lead-in to any trip (I’m away from home until April 19) is a whirlwind of errands and things to do, has meant that I haven’t even had a chance to sit down and go through the Harrogate program at all. (I did, thankfully, finish the slides for my own presentation before leaving, so I wouldn’t have it hanging over my head on vacation.)

What I’ve been reading

The blogsphere and the Twittosphere have been abuzz with  people making lists of what they want to check out, and more less getting themselves all psyched up for the conference, somewhat akin to a group of superfans getting excited before their team plays in the final.

David Read’s list of EAP presentations looks interesting, Iand  got a big laugh out of Nicola Prentis’s post on archetypes of ELT. Rachael Fionda’s musings on the value of face-to-face conferencing hit home for me; her post reminded me of the fact that I will not have a minute to myself for the next 5 days (!) but also has me looking forward to that feeling of utter inspiration and flow of new ideas that I predict will start to hit halfway through the first morning of sessions.

Adam Simpson gives 10 great tips for getting the most out of IATEFL, mostly focusing on the social media and networking side of things. His advice is great, but many of the things he mentions are things I struggle with. For example, do I spend my lunch break huddled over my tablet, crafting a blog post about the sessions I’ve just seen, or do I use that opportunity to go start up a conversation with someone I’ve met or talk to a publisher about a new product that’s relevant for me? At least year’s conference, wifi access was unreliable and spotty, which meant that I couldn’t do much tweeting/blogging in real time unless I went back to my hotel room. Also, do I spend the days leading up to the conference networking with IATEFL attendees on Twitter, or do I spend it prepping and preparing my actual IATEFL presentation?

The one downside of e-publications for me is the lack of the ability to browse and flip through them easily. So I think I’ll wait until I have that fat, 200-page IATEFL program in my hand, and then start circling and highlighting my way to something of a conference plan, with lots of room for last-minute coups de coeur, networking, and sanity breaks. I try to maintain some sort of a balance between sessions on EAP, ELT management, and materials development. At work these days I’m knee deep in developing assessments, so I might try to check out few talks on that, especially listening assessment. I also do like sessions on global issues and sociolinguistics; for example, the panel discussion on linguistic imperialism at last year’s IATEFL was one of the highlights of the whole conference.

See you in Harrogate!

Words vs language

Don’t get me wrong–I am definitely in favour of the 1000 Words Challenge. In spirit, anyway. It’s a campaign challenging folks in the UK to learn 1000 words in a foreign language, to try to “overturn [their] poor record in language learning and show that [they] are ready to engage with a multilingual world,” (The US and Anglo Canada suffer from a similar reputation for monolingualism; it’s said the UK economy is suffering because of it. Is ours?)

But I find it reinforces the view commonly held in such monolingual countries that lexicon=language, and completely disregards any idea of communicative competence. I’ve been encountering this a lot lately in the hype around Duolingo, a new(-ish) language learning app that promises “Free language education for the world!” and that they claim “trumps university-level language learning.”

I signed up for Duolingo as a tool to support my Portuguese studies, and have found it’s great as that: a tool within someone’s language learning program. It’s structured around vocabulary sets and is a pretty pure example of the grammar translation method. The user does have to interact with and translate sentences, but its devoid of any sort of grammar presentation or explanation, besides user-generated comments and notes, which, as one could imagine,  range from helpful yet incomplete to completely misleading. And of course, there is nothing communicative about the app at all.

(I am planning a future post reviewing the app and my experiences with it in more detail. In the meantime, here’s how it works.)

While Duolingo’s lots of fun and has definitely increased my vocabulary in Portuguese, the idea that Duolingo is “language education” would be laughable by anyone who has ever put in the time and effort to learn a language to even a functional level of proficiency. And while rates of interest and proficiency in foreign languages are so low in the UK that anything is better than nothing, the 1000 Words Challenge inadvertently sends the wrong message. Becoming functional in a foreign language requires much more than a phrasebook, Google translate or a vocabulary app to start compiling a long list of learned words.  Until you can bind those words together with a bit of grammar for the purposes of communication and understand when someone throws a string of them back to you, you’re still carrying the monolingual card, unfortunately.


ku-xlargeI definitely am with the author of this article‘s enthusiasm and admitted (over-)use of what might just be one of the most versatile words in modern spoken English: DUDE.

(You just have to get past the fact that in the source article they don’t seem to know the difference between tones and intonation.)

What that blog post glosses over, but that’s at the heart of linguistic research on “dude” such as this, is not so much the use of the word as a noun synonymous to different variations on “guy”, but rather as a form of address. It used be primarily between men, but now women use it to address each other and to establish solidarity with the interlocutor.

What’s fun is looking for “dude” equivalents in different languages. “Che” in Argentine Spanish has a function similar to “dude”, though with syntactic and intonational differences. In Iberian Spanish the word “hombre” can be used in similar, albeit seemingly more limited, fashion at the beginning of an utterance, to create solidarity, usually in cases of disagreement or to mitigate a negative reaction or response to the interlocutor.

Open Education and MOOCs


Most of this week’s videos and readings focused around the future of education, focusing on different reactions to the emergence of MOOCs.

The element of teaching and teacher is quite present in many of these commentaries on MOOCs, mostly in terms of a sort of cost-benefit analysis: Are we getting the best bang for our buck in duplicating the same course on hundreds of university campuses worldwide? how can we bring the best teachers to the largest audiences? etc.

But the interplay between the teacher and the actual process of learning is something I find most interesting. In the description of the course materials for one of this week’s videos, Campbell, Gardner (2012). Ecologies of Yearning,  it states: “This lecture is important this week because it addresses learning as a difficult problem – perhaps the difficult problem – and not as a natural consequence of free access to information.”

And it’s true: free access to information does not guarantee learning. At its best, the art of teaching is what bridges the gap between all of the information available out there and the learner, and in many cases facilitates learning. A teacher acts as curator of this knowledge, picking choosing what’s relevant, what’s necessary and at what moment. The teacher scaffolds this information, adjusting the quantity and complexity of the flow of information in response to the learner. Many learners need their learning to be structured and monitored by someone, who will also give them feedback, encouragement, motivation, and perhaps a kick in the arse when needed.

Many people are able to  take the information out there that they need and structure their own learning experience out of it. But many people benefit from what a teacher can bring to the equation. The current faculty lecturer model is not necessarily the ideal teacher-student relationship, and its unlikely that a 40,000-to-1 MOOC student to teacher ratio is either. In any case, how to keep the art of good teaching and how to aids real learning in the picture as we imagine the future of education is a necessity.