EAP 2013

We had an EAP  conference here in Berlin yesterday organized by the Humboldt University Language Centre. ELTABB, the teachers association I coordinate events with, was involved as one of the sponsors. This was the second such annual conference here in Berlin. Time will tell whether there is a need for such a conference to grow outside Berlin, whether it will wander further afield.

The Humboldt team organized the conference, and after the keynote by Martin Hewings, ran the workshops in the morning (including the great one by Jeffrey Verhey on academic writing, which I went to) and included their partner institutions European University Institute in Fiesole, at the LSE and in Frankfurt/Oder in the final panel discussion. In between came two sets of talks. I went to listen to Steve Kirk (sponsored by ELTABB) and Judith Mader. I’m just summarizing my notes here:

Martin Hewings spoke on the applications of corpus analysis in research, learning and teaching. He expects the focus to shift towards speech, learner English, a wider range of scientific corpora, and more areas of language. The free online corpora he recommended were

  • COCA Corpus of Contemporary American English
  • BAWE British Academic Written English
  • MICASE Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English
  • BASE British Academic Spoken English

Looking back on his own early championship of data-driven learning (DDL) in the classroom, he said:

We need to consider whether the outcomes are really worth the time, effort and money needed to set up DDL. Not all students or teachers enjoy the experience of sifting through corpus lines. Though there is value in letting students get their hands dirty and learn to use the corpora, it is more economical for us as teachers to do the necessary research before we go to class and select the information to give to students.

For example, he used his MBA students’ work to create a corpus, and compared that to a corpus created from published articles in their field, to show them how their use of language differs. For instance, he discovered that students used “I” to express opinions (I believe, I think, I feel, I personally, I suppose), whereas the published works used “I” in hypothetical questions on behalf of the business community (Should I buy? When should I invest? How do I know…? If I were doing this…?)
He analyzed the use of adverbs and adjectives in selected structures, e.g. to express similarity and difference:

  • closely/ roughly/ reasonably similar
  • radically/ totally/vastly different
  • essentially/rather/ strikingly similar or different

or to express opinion more subtly:

  • It is important/possible/ difficult/necessary to
  • It is likely/clear/possible that
    It is true that… but…

Then he tipped us off that the best source of authentic examples in context is Google Scholar.

In his workshop, Jeffrey Verhey had us think about what we, what our students, and what our students’ professors consider to be good writing. He told us how he’d begun teaching using George Orwell’s six elementary rules (“Politics and the English Language”, 1946) and how his students had said they couldn’t possibly agree with them. We then discussed an example from Judith Butler, who in 1998 won Philosophy and Literature’s “Bad Writing Contest” for a sentence in Further Reflections on Conversations of Our Time. Also, he related having been told by one of his professors that his style was “journalistisch”, which to him sounded great at the time, but was in fact criticism. That got us talking about purpose, genre, and discourse communities at each academic level.  Jeffrey recommended Helen Sword Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard University Press 2012), who has essentially distilled all of the style guides since Fowler. He then came up with an image that he says his students understand, the contrast of Baroque and Bauhaus architecture, our preference being Bauhaus, he said. That fed into a discussion about personal style and standardization. – A recommendation I’ve come away with is Latham, R. A. Revising Prose, using this basic method to fix style (example).

1. Circle all the “be” verbs
2. Circle the prepositions
3. Ask, what’s the action, who’s performing it?
4. Put the action into a simple active verb (not compound)
5. Start fast — cut out introductory verbiage
6. Once you have a revised, shorter sentence, check to see if you need to add more information

Towards the end Jeff presented the type of phrases in German that drive translators crazy, because they lack the clarity we associate with end weight: “Dieser Zäsur geht die vorliegende Studie nach.”

I got a lot out of Steve Kirk‘s presentation. In his talk on putting the A back in EAP, extended to include thoughts on the use of English as a lingua franca, he focused on putting context first, i.e. treating all text as historic and connected to the specific status and authority of the writer/speaker. As soon as context stops mattering and we focus on accuracy and fluency, we leave what is special and specific to EAP behind. At the University of Durham they aim to skill teachers up to be able to apply scientific methods.

What students need to be doing is dealing with academic matter and expressing complex ideas. Language then follows. So they provide content integrated learning. Speaking and writing are the key skills, the others are ancillary.So what they do is to give their students 4-6 journal articles to read pre-session. That is followed by an essay question. Similarly, a content based lecture precedes speaking. They also have sessions dealing with long reading and note-taking, again a content-based lecture, and finally a 1,000 word essay. He criticized corpus studies as de-contextualizing. Though he hardly had any time at all to expand the idea, he said the importance of ELF is that the local context should lead the way in selecting both the content and the relevant language.

I also heard Judith Mader speak on intercultural conflicts in her diverse classes. The conflicts she presented involved the transgression of rules (a student using the word “bullshit” to criticize a task, another handing in a text copied from the Economist as own writing, chatting away over mobile devices). She drove home that rule-based communication requires that these rules be made explicit from the start. That got me thinking that I personally prefer negotiating emergent rules, as the group forms.

It was also helpful to reflect on the general method of analyzing conflict: Look closely at what the student or students expect of the teacher, and at what the teacher expects of the student(s), and compare and contrast. Other lecturers prefer to do this at the beginning of the course, but I prefer to do a cultural learning styles analysis at the beginning, and then study student preferences as they emerge, reacting flexibly and in the situation. But I’ll be thinking through why this is, and what the consequences are as the summer progresses.

The challenges I face in my diverse classroom involve enabling all learners to advance and grow as they compete with each other. I don’t feel challenged myself. But making them aware of their cultural communication preferences is key to keeping them from unfairly blocking their classmates’ progress, which can lead to skewed assessment. So I am more interested in exploring the role of the teacher as a conflict mediator than as an enforcer of given rules.

Top service from SurveyMonkey

We’re just organizing a conference here in Berlin, we being a group of lecturers working across institutions, using a Ning platform we’ve called EULEAP to connect internationally. The institution that will be hosting this conference, the Humboldt Language Centre, is directed by Cornelia Hacke and the whole project is powered by the impressive David Bowskill and his team. At ELTABB we’re providing support. Michelle Teveliet has set up a great conference site here: EAP Conference 2013. You couldn’t wish for a better team. The lineup for the conference is impressive, the topics good, and it’s free to participants thanks to the great sponsors.
Now, the only issue is that we have limited space – only 100 people can attend including the organizers and speakers. That means we needed a way to organize signup. Michelle wisely opted for SurveyMonkey. But initially we hit a major snag. Just a day after the conference was first posted in a forum on the EULEAP Ning and had started being announced across various informal networks, and just before we wanted to go live and send out a formal mail shot to all interested partners, SurveyMonkey had technical trouble and shut down. Shock! They’ve explained what happened here. Anyway, that was the bad news, a bit of a bad morning here. But the good news is that they were back after 4 hours, and there was some nice person with a good sense of humor and a lot of patience tweeting away, calming the nerves of hundreds of users who were also missing the service. I can only second what A Crock wrote: Top customer service.  Here’s a brief history of those 4 hours documented on Twitter.


EULEAP: EUropean Lecturers of English for Academic Purposes

There’s a new kid on the block: EULEAP, a network of EUropean Lecturers of English for Academic Purposes. It’s not incorporated officially, simply coordinated technically as a Ning social networking site, and is open to anyone who is involved in teaching English (or in teaching in English!) in tertiary education: http://euleap.ning.com/

Martin Bradbeer (TH Wildau) and Nicola Fox (Oxford University Press) recently organized the first Berlin area conference for EAP, and this network is aimed at building good connections among those who met there and growing new ones, as well as preparing the follow-up event in Berlin for next year.

This network will probably need to become more formally established to allow for sponsorship and more organized administration. But that requires quite a bit of work. If it were to become an association, there’s the politics of having an independent or an IATEFL affiliated group. For the time being, I’m (just) the Ning moderator. Since I’m also the events coordinator at ELTABB and a member of the BESIG Online Team, I’m a bit worried about becoming active in yet a third association.

But I’m really happy that there are now open lines of communication in an area I want to become more at home in. So here’s wishing EULEAP a leaping start!

Learning to listen to scientific lectures

One of the greatest challenges for non-native academic users of English as a Lingua Franca is keeping up with what is being said in discussions to the point where they can process the information in real time and contribute themselves. In a word, the challenge is information overload. Not only are you trying to understand the content, but you are also trying to decode the language. But instead of listening to every single word, you need to focus on very specific things.

The challenge is two-fold. First, learn to listen for the key words that hold meaning, and know what vocabulary to expect and which structures to expect those words in. This is something you can acquire through practice. It is also where pronunciation as a receptive skill comes in, listening in context and noticing how the most important words are stressed. Here it makes sense in the name of international intelligibility to listen to and emulate good near-native speakers and the way they use nuclear stress.

The second challenge is learning to accommodate a wide variety of accents. This means understanding what specific challenges a non-native speaker needs to overcome to make his or her English sound “English”, based on the restrictions of his or her native tongue (L1). Accomodation is a challenge for every speaker of English, and in fact is at least as difficult for native speakers as it is for non-native speakers. I have a hard time with some Asian and African accents, and even with some from the UK! But practice makes perfect. Here are some sites to practice your listening skills:

Talk About English: Academic English is a didactic program from the BBC geared to preparing learners for the listening skills part of the IELTS exam. This BBC program provides discussions and tips, listening practice and accompanying questions, and student responses are discussed with a teacher.

The TED Talks http://www.ted.com/talks are the best lectures online today, but tend to be removed from the type of lectures students are subjected to at college. Still, it has obvious benefits to study these talks by international luminaries, as the series celebrates the highly engaging nature of cutting edge research.

Video Lectures http://videolectures.net/ is a collection of videotaped academic and business lectures by international speakers, tagged by discipline and accompanied interactively by powerpoint slides. This site has content supplied by academic institutions, which makes it a good window into academic presentations. On the business side, I’ve watched a presentation from 2001 by Volvo CEO Leif Johannsen on Volvo’s Environmental Business Strategy, and one from 2009 by Robert Grant on the financial crisis. I can also recommed the very entertaining Umberto Eco on the History of Ugliness, from 2007.

In the Reith Lectures on Radio 4 on BBC, Martin Rees,  President of the Royal Society, speaks on “The Scientific Citizen”:  In 4 lectures dedicated to “Scientific Horizons”,  he challenges scientists to play a greater role in helping the public understand science. The full transcript is available.

For these and more tips, explore the wonderful English for University site written by Patrick McMahon. His page with great links is here.

Finally, my current favorite for online pronunciation practice, English Central, is the place to go to analyse at the level of individual words and phrases what exactly it is that you are hearing.

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…