Learning or using English?

What English course settings might a student in Germany experience? Evan Frendo’s professional development session at ELTABB cleared the cobwebs on CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning), a relatively new concept at the primary and secondary school level. I know it well from my own school days at The German School in Washington. Going through the school syllabus in a foreign language means that you become a proficient speaker and writer. You’re assessed on your linguistic abilities as a matter of course, often through a small percentage of any given grade, but generally more indirectly, as you must be able to (re-)produce the content and participate in the whole social context. Teachers running this system will benefit from being fully trained to make the additional challenge to students, which is steep at the beginning, work out. Thinking back to my school days, the teachers coming over from Germany were fully trained domestically, and didn’t have to struggle with the school language.

Now, university students in Germany are increasingly expected to be able to handle their entire syllabus in English, too, without having had this CLIL way in. A new trend at college is to have courses in English, which gives students more practice in preparing to move about in their increasingly international field. Having courses in English also lowers the linguistic barrier for foreign students and makes German colleges more international. The BBC recently reported that German universities are attracting foreign students especially because they are free, and don’t charge more for foreign than for domestic students. The British Council calls German universities the most foreign-student friendly.

So how do the universities provide their students with scaffolding on the way to becoming an expert user of English? They aren’t importing lecturers; so their existing lecturers need to skill up to handle the multiple challenge of teaching content and facilitating learning in an international, mixed level class in a language that is not their own. Universities are traditionally cosmopolitan communities, though. I’m going to Leipzig tomorrow and will learn what parts of the challenge they in fact do see as needing support.Students can also take general English courses, often to earn the necessary credits or pass entry level tests; EAP (English for academic purposes), which prepares students to study abroad in an English environment, teaching presentation, essay and job application skills. ESP (English for special purposes) or “Fachsprache Englisch” prepares pre-service and trainee students to handle the job in English. This table illustrates the main distinctions between the different course types.


Rhetorical styles

The PhD students looked at ways of incorporating rhetorical styles into their poster presentations. They were best at using the rule of three for repetition, but clearly need lots of practice in creating shorter, more powerful parallel phrases.

I demonstratrated the power of cutting out needless repetition through this correction (which is still not ideal):

  • To apply learning methods on our data sets we are looking for methods to group continuous data into discrete data. Such discretization methods are optimal if as little information as possible is lost and the discretized data still reflect the dependency structure.
  • Grouping continuous data into discrete data ideally requires methods that retain as much information as possible while still reflecting the dependency structure.

These were the phrases they came up with, which they practiced saying/ reading aloud:

rule of three

  • When I look for paleo-earthquakes in a certain area, I want to learn: Did big events happen, how big were they and how often did they occur?
  • Because there is such a deadlock in international climate negotiations, it is important to look at the levels below, namely the regional, the national and the local levels. (Use hands to scope from large to small, to express that region is larger than nation.)
  • Bayesian networks are a great tool since they help to discover dependency structures, to understand complex processes, and to communicate them to experts and non-experts.
  • Health depends on the fulfillment of physiological needs, the provision of adequate infrastructure, and the protection from disease exposure. (This nominal style needs rephrasing using verbs for spoken English: People can be considered healthy when their physiological needs are met, they are provided with an adequate infrastructure, and they are protected from exposure to disease.)
  • Finding alternatives to standard interpolation-based approaches allows us to stick with the original data, to retain the variance of the processes, and to adjust easily to different data qualities.
  • Interception cannot be measured; So we collect throughfall, we measure rainfall, and we subtract throughfall from rainfall.

parallel structure

  • Health is not simply the absence of disease, but in fact results from the presence of beneficial conditions. (This is contrast rather than parallel structure; a good example of how difficult it is to boil complex ideas down to simple phrases.)
  • There are two ways of looking at climate politics: One is the program, or policy; the other is its administration, or organization.

Next time I teach giving presentations, I’ll add logical shift: a change or movement in a piece resulting from an insight gained by the speaker. I’m just starting out, and so don’t have models and phrases from the students’ writing to work with yet. Work in progress.

Stuart Brown explains play

I used the first 10 minutes of this video, with its wonderful photos of the male polar bear and the female husky at play, as an intro to my last/ 3rd day of teaching the PhD students, as they trailed in, to attune them to the idea that play allows us to do things we would otherwise not be able to.

They’d all been stretched on day 1, the natural scientists by having to address a broader audience rather than their peers, and the social scientists by having to define terms and make science posters. Their feedback the next morning showed what a challenge that had been. But then, on day 2, they knuckled down and got into the zone, working individually, but also in productive groups, on their texts and posters. So on the last day they were ready, and we were able to play.

I’ve become more cautious about using games in my lessons, but the spirit of play is central, a seriously important element, right at the heart of storytelling: “We all have an internal narrative that is our own inner story. The unit of intelligibilty of most of our brains is the story.” (9:30)

An elevator speech format

Today the PhD students and I did this exercise, among others, to prepare elevator speeches that will work with a wider audience.

Step 1: Watch the presentation by Steven Johnson on his book, Where Good Ideas Come From. Then answer:

  • How long have I been exploring this?
  • Why is it relevant?
  • What’s my approach/ perspective?
  • What are my specific questions?
  • What are my findings in general?
  • What is one example?
  • How do I explain this?
  • What story do I have for you?

Step 2: Make a speech of your own using phrases similar to his:

  • For the past…. months/years I’ve been investigating….
  • It’s the kind of/ a problem/question/issue I think….
  • I’ve looked at this problem from a/an… perspective/ the perspective of….
  • So what I’m exploring is: What are/is the …?
  • And what I’ve found, in all of these systems/ the research, there are recurring patterns;…
  • One pattern I call/ is…
  • And this is partially because/ may be due to…
  • This is particularly relevant because….
  • So you see…
  • There’s a great story about…

Communicating science across fields

Today I gave a class to PhD candidates on the challenge of communicating science to a broader audience without dumbing down.

First I did a mixer where each member chose a word from their research, something that was challenging them or very much on their mind. I told them that “intelligibility” was on mine, and explained briefly what it meant in my context. So they wrote up a word and explained theirs in their own context to the other participants. That’s a classic, and it was a very nice way in for this interdisciplinary group, who hadn’t met before, but will be working together more closely in the future.

Then I gave them a presentation that I’m quite happy with: Communicating science across fields (pdf). It’s based on a number of books I’ve found very enlightening, including:

  • Harry Collins/ Richard Evans: Rethinking Expertise, 2010
  • Carolyn Johnsen (ed.): Taking Science to the People. A Communication Primer for Scientists and Engineers. U. of Nebraska Press 2010

What didn’t work quite so well was the task that followed: Translating science basics (pdf). The basic idea was fine, but I wanted them to do not only the interview, but also collaborate on writing a text together that could serve as an abstract of their project. Under the expert coaching of Elisabeth Sillmann, a professional graphic designer specializing in scientific publications, they’re making science posters in this 3-day workshop, and need the texts to go on them. It would have been better to leave the interview as an interview, and after sleeping over it, to have them write up the poster texts separately tomorrow. In fact, that’s what might actually happen. In any case, tomorrow we’ll even things out.

ELF in the news

I’ve been listening to Al Jazeera all day as the reports come in about the horrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan, 8.9 on the Richter scale, a 7 on the Japanese scale. The Japanese people are being so courageous. Thinking of them.

Anyway, as I listen, it strikes me: There’s been a lot of talk about ELF lately, with much emphasis on lower level speakers. But the reality of ELF as I hear it spoken among academics, or at least the language they aspire to, is in fact far more advanced. The speakers at Al Jazeera are not the benchmark, they’re really off the grid, and many a native speaker could take a lesson from them. But what about the people they interview? Listen:

Dr. José Barrera, living in New Zealand, US/Canadian accent: AUDIO 1 – He might be a bilingual American, or a Latin American who has lived abroad for many years (English/Spanish). He’s a bit difficult to understand, as he uses “uh” and self-correction the way native speakers do. He seems to be distracted by multitasking, handling some windows on his computer in the background during the interview, so the difficulties he’s having making coherent statements aren’t an issue of proficiency. As soon as he starts concentrating his speech becomes more coherent.

Peter Janssen, from Denmark: AUDIO 2 – He’s a very proficient non-native speaker. As he speaks, he mixes up a few consonants (Japan becomes Yapan, the becomes de) and he does typical things to his vowels (all people becomes ole people) and he drops his third person s (“Everybody know that they have to run now”) and his articles and the odd –ing. As for his ss: He may say “It’s so amacing” instead of “amazing”, but that’s a set phrase every listener will recognize. So overall, he’s much easier to understand than Dr. Barrera.