Last updated: September 16, 2019
Topic: EducationTeaching
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Dear yu? hàn,

Yes, my good friend John, that’s you’re name in Chinese characters (i.e. n? h?o –  in Mandarin, it means “How are you?”) Things are a bit shaky here in Manila – both figuratively and literally. Dr. Santos was in the middle of her lecture when Luzon was hit by an earthquake. Don’t worry, no one was hurt or injured, except perhaps my emotions.

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Honestly, it’s getting lonely here and the earthquake had been very successful in shaking me to my innermost being. What if something happened to me? Then, I would never see my family again! Oh, how I missed China I was already thinking of buying a ticket home right after the ground has stabilized. But in my contemplation, I remembered that I am here to study English so I can pursue my dream. That is why in order to ground myself back to reality and at the same time, to mend my loneliness, I thought of writing you.

As I was saying, I’ve been thinking lately about my dream of traveling in the Australia and Canada and settling in the New York and this motivates me to stay here. Actually, I learned from my readings that these are common motivating factors among students who study a second language. Authors Gardner and Lambert, in their book  Attitudes and Motivation in Second Language Learning identified this as integrative motivation and instrumental motivation. In my context, integrative motivation has something to do with my desire to learn English so that I can successfully integrate with the American community in the United States. Instrumental motivation, on the other hand has something to do with using English as an instrument for working in a foreign land or, in my case, for travel purposes.

If I correctly guess what you’re thinking, you might probably just dismiss this as an anxiety attack. You are wrong, my friend. Of course, I don’t expect to be able to speak like Native Americans and I don’t expect to be an expert translator from Mandarin to English and vice versa. Such tremendously high expectation would only stress me up even more. It is enough that I’m far away from home. I don’t need more stress from language learning, thank you. Besides, I’ve learned from Horwitz that this is a common tendency and this seriously hinders second language fluency and performance. So I am staying as far away from it as possible!

At this point, I anticipate that you might want to ask how am I getting along in the pursuit of my dream. To answer that, I have to first tell you a bit of a background on how they do language teaching, at least here in our school. Please bear with me, my friend, as I share to you what happens in our classroom.

As you already know, Dr. Santos is my language teacher. Right from the start of the first day of the class, she told us that in her class, we would focus more on learning language functions in diverse contexts. Historically, this approach is similar to audio lingual method or ALM which was widely used in the 1950s and 1960s. Of course, I didn’t know what she meant by that then so I tried to research it in on the Internet and found this very interesting website: http://www.sil.org/lingualinks/LANGUAGELEARNING/WaysToApproachLanguageLearning/TheAudioLingualMethod.htm. According to this site, the ALM emphasizes “mastering the building blocks of language and learning the rules for combining them”. This is achieved by helping students acquire accurate grammar and pronunciation. But as the class progressed, I realized that Dr. Santos didn’t give as much importance to grammar and pronunciation as she would to applying what we learn to both formal and social settings. For instance, she would ask the class to pair up and discuss (in English, of course) our greatest fears. Other times, she would group us and have us do a role playing game called “Mafia” which we all came to love!

Mafia, to be fun, needs at least eight players: one moderator, one mafia, one spy, one doctor, and four citizens. Technically, the spy and the doctor are citizens, too. Early in the game, the moderator (usually played by our teacher) would ask all of us to “sleep” – that is, to close our eyes. Then, she would ask the mafia to “wake up” while the rest are sleeping. The mafia would silently point to the moderator who he would want to kill that night. After which, he would sleep again. Then, the moderator would ask the doctor to “wake up,” silently point to the person he would want to heal, and sleep again. If the doctor pointed to the person “killed” by the mafia, that person would “live” and would play on. Otherwise, the person dies. Next, the moderator would “wake up” the spy and ask him who he thinks the mafia is. The moderator would confirm with a nod or a head shake if the person pointed to by the spy is the mafia. Finally, the moderator would ask everyone to “wake up”, announce whether or not someone died that “night”, and leave the people to discuss who matter among themselves. The goal of the group is to discuss among themselves who they think mafia is and “execute” him by voting him out. Of course, the Mafia would pose as a citizen, is included in this discussion and must convince everyone to execute the someone else. The spy, who is also a citizen, must make sure this never happens since he also knows who is or who is not the Mafia. Since everyone doesn’t know the role each one is playing, this discussion can lead to a passionate debate while at the same time, giving us an opportunity to practice English in order build our confidence, develop fluency, improve language functions. There are also opportunities to improve our grammar and pronunciation as some of our more advanced classmates (or Dr. Santos herself) would correct us on the spot. But then again, this happens only occasionally and could be attributed more to chance rather than a conscious effort of our teacher to integrate into the program.      In any case, whenever there’s a correction to be made, Dr. Santos is always there to make sure there is genuine acceptance as we grab hold of these opportunities for self-correction. You just don’t know how that always boosts self-confidence as  MacIntyre & Gardner noted in their article  “How does anxiety affect second language learning? A reply to Sparks and Ganschow” published in the Modern Language Journal.

Later on, I learned that this method – or approach, as some would argue – of teaching is actually called Communicative Language Teaching or CLT. In a way, it is like the ALM but rather than focusing on pronunciation and grammar, language application is emphasized as you might have observed from the classroom stories I’ve just told you. David Nunan, one well known proponent of this approach list some of its principles in his article “Communicative tasks and the language curriculum.” You might also want to check this out.

I think this approach works well for me. Firstly, extensive use of grammatical rules is unimportant in my learning of English. At least, Stephen Krashen shares this view in his book, Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Training. According to him, the speaker’s concern is in passing along and understanding messages, not their form of utterances. Secondly, this is what most Chinese students exactly need since we are good in reading and writing but are actually poor in listening and speaking. Check out Huang’s study, Voices from Chinese students: Professor’s use of English affects academic listening, and you’ll be surprised that according to this research, Chinese students studying in universities in North America have fair TOEFL scores. And yet, even if some achieved very high score, academic tasks such as lecturing, note-taking, assignment-writing and presentation-making are found by these students to be difficult. As can be expected, Huang also reports that their confidence, as well as their overall performance, is adversely affected by this.

So, on the question of how am I doing in terms of my study, I would say I’m doing fine and it took me five pages to say it – ha! ha! 😀

How about you, John? How is your thesis going on? I hope your doing great there in New York City. Write me as soon as you can, ok?

Your friend,

Joshua

A LETTER TO DR. SANTOS

LETICIA ADRES-SANTOS, Ph.D.

Professor

Maharlika Language Institute

Manila, Philippines

;

Dear Dr. Santos,

;

It has been seven years since I’ve been in your class. I remember telling about you to my friend, John, when I was still taking my language acquisition course. (I hope he kept that letter.) He is from the US whom I met in China when he and his dad (who happens to be an ambassador) visited our high school. We still communicate up to this day. As I have told you on our first day of class, my primary purpose for coming back here in Manila is to learn English language teaching and I was very much delighted to have been, once again, under your supervision. So, as the term is about to come to an end, I thought of  sharing you some  of my thoughts regarding those wonderful early days of English language acquisition class which I understand, you still teach today. Looking back at the way you taught us, I would like to commend you on the way you manage our class then.7

I happen to be reading Hadfield’s book, Classroom Dynamics, on my free time and wondered if you have been reading the book, too. What the author listed as traits of good classroom dynamics can be readily observed in our class then: First, you encouraged us to be supportive of each. Because of this our groups became cohesive in the sense that everyone is interested the feelings of one another. Second, you taught us to compromise by trying to find the balance between pursuing our individual and group goals. Third, we learned to gladly interact with each other properly. For instance, in as much as we are eager to speak, we wait for our turn and listen instead. Fourth, you promoted cooperation instead of competition. No one sought to take the spotlight. Instead, everyone worked together harmoniously. Fifth, there was tolerance. I remember my classmate Gio and I  disagreed sharply over one criterion in selecting the Mafia that we almost had a fist-fight. But because of your guidance, we regained our composure and was even able to empathize with each other even if we have opposing points of view. Sixth, we had lot of fun – especially with group activities like Mafia! And finally, we were able to incorporate a positive attitude in our study, not only of the language, but on the culture, the people, and the process of learning that we don’t easily subscribe to language learning anxieties – which leads me to the point I want to bring up.

Dr. Santos, I believe the reason I was able to finish the my language acquisition program is because of minimized learning anxieties and that was brought about by our collaboration, albeit unconsciously, in mitigating it. According to Young, anxiety can be linked to both the learners’ perception and the teachers’ belief. For instance, feelings of uneasiness, as suggested by Ehrman and others, can arise from a perceived inferior performance in a foreign language class compared to their experience in acquiring their first language. Moreover, domineering attitude of teacher makes learning even more difficult because this makes them feel that they have no control on what is going on in the classroom.

Good thing you were not domineering and I was able to check my perception of what’s going on from time to time. I remember that in my letter to John, I mentioned to him I learned from Horwitz that unrealistic expectations on my part can contribute to poor language learning as well. That is why I consciously remind myself that I will be all right even if I don’t speak with a flawless American accent or could translate President’s Bush address to the nation perfectly. So, you see, we have been working together all along! And I didn’t ever realize we have been doing it till now. My suggestion, then, is for us to do this consciously. (By “us”, of course, I now include myself since I’ll also be a language teacher, too.) One way of doing this is by incorporating a topic or two about anxieties. I believe the more the students know about this, the less likely these anxieties affect their language learning.

Also, confidence-building is extremely important as Philipps found a correlation in the students negative self-concept and anxiety. However, we as teachers must also see to it that they don’t become overconfident as Price found this to be equally detrimental to language learning as well. Over-confident students feel that they have learned all there is to learn and so, this attitude prevent them from improving their language skills. Again, this issue is effectively addressed in because we have a great good classroom dynamics as I have described earlier.

I hope by now you realize that I have the highest admiration for you, my teacher. That is why I took courage on commenting on your teaching style, as well. By doing so, I hope that you would also produce other language learners more brilliant than our batch. 🙂

First, let me say that for me, the CLT approach in English worked well. In fact, I have commended you for it in my letter to John then. However, as the years go by, I also became exposed to critics of your this method such as Swan and Bax. The CLT, due to its focus on language application, inevitably places understanding as the barometer. This, of course, would work nicely if I, for instance, would talk to my sister Jenny who was also my classmate in your class.  Because we have the same background, there is really not much room for misinterpretation. Now, if you have,  John and I see each other and talk, a different scenario may arise. Chances are we could still have hard time communicating. One reason is the presence of a strong Chinese accent which didn’t weaken at all since we did not emphasize pronunciation in the classroom. Another reason is the possibility of John understanding me even though I made a mistake because of the influence on my native tongue. Let me recount to you an amusing story.

Last Christmas, I made a long distance call to John to greet him. From the sound of his voice, I sensed that he was so happy I called. We updated each other about what is happening in our lives and we were so glad to hear each one is doing fine. Towards the end of conversation, I complimented him, “You truly are Baby King!” To which, he replied, “And you are King Kong!” I was hurt because he only did not return my compliment well, he insulted me as well. So, I shouted to him, “I SAID YOU ARE BABY KING!” To which, he replied with a very agitated voice, “AND YOU ARE KING KONG!” and bang the phone! Unbelievable!

There I was, calling him Baby King – our symbol of the joy of a baby emperor, with all his innocence and playfulness – and he called me King Kong – a disgusting oversize ape! I was really hurt by this. After 10 minutes, he called and asked me what just happened. “You tell me,” I told him, “since it was you who bang the phone!”

In our discussion, I found out that he got offended when I called him Baby King. “How dare you name me, King of Babies? Am I that immature,” he asked. Then I realized that he misunderstood my compliment for an insult. Later in the conversation, I also found out that when he called me King Kong, it was really a joke and other westerners would just make a joke in the same way. He told me I could have just call him Godzilla.

May I suggest, therefore, that we modify CLT to address these issues? One way of doing this is  by deliberately focusing on grammar and pronunciation on some days. For instance, there could be storytelling session where the focus is not on the story but on grammar and pronunciation. After the story telling, members of the group (which include, the teacher, of course) should compliment the storyteller on the content (i.e., find something good about his  story) then make suggestions on how he can improve his grammar and pronunciation. Also, a cultural orientation should also be inserted as part of the syllabus. This should prepare our students mentally to situations like the “Baby King – King Kong” incident, thereby enabling them to handle it better.

I guess that would be all for now. But before I sign off, I though you might also be interested in some of the things I read which influenced my line of thinking:
REFERENCES

Bax, S. 2003. The end of CLT: a context approach to language teaching. ELT,  J2003 (57): 278-287 .

Ehrman, M.E., Leaver, B.L. ; Oxford, R.L. 2003. A brief overview of individual differences in second language learning.

Gardner, R.C. ; Lambert, W. E. 1972. Attitudes and motivation in second language learning. Rowley, Mass: Newbury House.

Hadfield, J. 1992. Classroom dynamics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Horwitz, E.K., Horwitz, M.B. ; Cope, J. 1986.  Foreign language classroom anxiety. The Modern Language Journal. 70 (2).

Huang, J. 2004. Voices from Chinese students: Professor’s use of English affects academic listening. College Student Journal.  38(2): 212-223.

Krashen, S. 1981. Second language acquisition and second language learning. Pergamon Press, Inc.

MacIntyre, P. D. ; Garder, D. 1994. How does anxiety affect second language learning? A reply to Sparks and Ganschow. The Modern Language Journal, 79 (1)

Nunan, David. 1991. Communicative tasks and the language curriculum. TESOL Quarterly 25(2), 279-295.

Phillips, E.M. 1992. The effects of language anxiety on a student’s oral test performance and attitudes. The Modern Language Journal, 26 (1): 14-26.

Price, M. 1991. The subjective experiences of foreign language anxiety: interviews with anxious students. In E. Horwitz & D. Young (eds.) Language anxiety: from theory and research to classroom implications. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Sun, W. & Chen. G. 1997. Dimensions of difficulties Mainland Chinese students encounter in the United States. Paper presented at the 6th International Conference in Cross-Cultural Communication, Tempe, AZ.

Swan, Michael. 1985. English Language Teaching Journal, 39 (1):2-12

Young, D.J. 1991. Creating a low-anxiety classroom environment: What does language anxiety research suggest? The Modern Language Journal, 75 (4).

 

Yours truly,

Joshua