Catching and Coaxing the language of the environment

warsaw weddingCatching and coaxing the language of the environment

Those who know me well will know that I have two passions. The first is to travel and it is a serious addiction, I just can’t get enough of it. The second is language, I’m honestly not sure how many mother tongues I have. It is this combination that led me to teaching in the first place. More recently, it has also led me to an increasing awareness of the presence of other languages in the urban environment and ultimately rethink how I teach.
In the last year I have criss-crossed Europe. In each country I have visited, I have been on the lookout for, and photographed, English outside of its L1 environment. In Reykjavik I saw city bicycles branding the slogan don’t stink and drive, in Andalusia I spotted graffiti with the words I never meow, in Kaunas, Lithuania I contemplated the message on the wall of an ice-cream parlour without ice-cream there would be darkness and chaos and on the French Riviera a sign directing me to a hotel with a famous marmite taught me the origin of a word I had previously only associated with a not-so-tasty sandwich spread. You can see these as well as other images in the gallery.
When I reflect on my own language acquisition, the languages I have learnt to speak I have picked up by recognising vocabulary and syntax from the language of my surroundings: advertising slogans and jingles, public notices, graffiti and t-shirts and menus. It’s how I learn best. And, if I may say so, I’ve done quite well without ever really bothering to study those languages formally.
A few years ago I went to a teaching conference in Sweden and met Lotta Carlegård. She told me about her new book ‘Learning English Outdoors’, full of activities for teaching outside of the classroom. It reminded me of Dogme ELT which promotes:
a pedagogy of bare essentials, that is, a pedagogy unburdened by an excess of materials and technology, a pedagogy grounded in the local and relevant concerns of the people in the room. Why not go one step further, I thought, and remove the burden of the room?
When I got back home I asked my group of teenage migrants where they thought they learnt best – inside or outside of the classroom. The answer was an overwhelming ‘outside’. So, I decided to try a little experiment and took them for their first class walk. I took them to a busy pedestrian street in the centre of Hamburg and asked them to look for any English words they could find and write them down. In a very short amount of time their vocabulary lists filled up. They already had similar lists from the classroom but the difference here, was that they had seen experienced the former in real life, emotional contexts rather than in a room that they associated with discipline, hard work and exams.
We went out again. This time I asked them to look for groups of words – sentences and phrases rather than isolated words. After I while I caught some students playing with the sentences they found, substituting or rearranging words and questioning the pragmatic meaning. I realised, that this was not just giving them a much better understanding of how language works but also much more motivational than using language they’d been given in a coursebook.
I became so convinced of the effectiveness of outside, experiential input that I tried taking other groups of learners outside. My exam preparation classes loved the novelty and exposure to ‘real language’ that they could later use to impress their assessors. When I took business students outside, it wasn’t long before I realised the potential of applying their subsequent intake to business correspondence.
Keen to share the idea with other teachers I sent off the following proposal for a workshop at the IATEFL-Besig conference in Bonn:
A popular statistic says that people who live in cities are exposed to 5000 advertising messages a day. While this may or may not be true, messages in a second language in the urban environment can be an invaluable learning tool. This workshop looks at the value of noticing and collecting authentic language, and shows how, by analysing this input, we can help students understand grammatical structure as well as pragmatic meaning. It also shares activities aimed at encouraging your students to loosen their dependence on translation tools for business correspondence and ultimately become better communicators.
The ideas shared at this workshop, as well as the images that I continue to collect and activities that I develop to work with them will be the subject of this blog.
Watch this space!


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