Monday, 18 February 2013

Four Types of Language Interactor

Well, half term is upon us, and the work load is shifting round to a vaguely lighter pattern, so I thought it was high time I endeavoured to produce a post. In fact, I'm going back to a previous entry, as I want to expand on how we deal with different types of language user.
Working in FE as I do, I come across a veritable smorgasbord of language learners of different nationalities, backgrounds and ages, and this of course presents very different challenges from those in a monolingual classroom. I have one group that can best be charitably described as :Ladies What Lunch, or more accurately Ladies Who Use The Classroom To Catch Up On The Latest Gossip. While they are all very polite and lovely, they have about as much chance of becoming fluent in English as a fish has of developing opposable thumbs.
 There are also students who are, in fact, fluent English users - it's just that they use a different variety of English, such as Hinglish, and much of what they produce either seems very weird to a British English user, or actually prevents them from effectively communicating with others.
 I have also taught Academic English, FCE, CAE, so in these groups I tend to get learners with a very determined perspective, knowing precisely the things they want to learn. This is the kind of learner that actually bays for MORE grammar.
Then there is a big fat group of people who need to learn English just to get on - these are a big slice of my ESOL learners, people who for whatever reason have come to live and work in the UK and need English in order to live.
The problem is, what to do with all these different learners when they're all bunged in together in the same class?
A couple of years ago, I gave a presentation at the English UK Teachers' Conference on the subject of Global Englishes, and I came up with the analogy of a language being like a city in the way that people interact with it. A couple of years down the line, I feel my analogy still holds water, so I'd like to (re-)introduce four kinds of Language Interactor, where we usually encounter them, and how to deal with them.
1 The Tourist
The tourist is the kind of learner who is 'just visiting' a language, just as a tourist passes through a place. Tourists look around, take photos, maybe scribble a postcard home - but then leave. Their interaction with the place is relatively minimal, especially if they're the kind of tourist who follows the environmentalist's maxim of 'take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints'. Alternatively, the Tourist wanders round in a kind of terrified daze, petrified of everything they see in this strange new place, clinging on desperately to anything that remids them of home, and deeply glad to get the Hell out when they can.
This kind of learner is really not going to do much with the language. He or she will only work in class, and then not particularly well, and hardly does anything with it when they are outside. In other words, they just come in and out of the language, with little attempt to understand it. Looking back at my career as a neophyte language learner, doing French at school, I can safely say that I was a Language Tourist.

2 The Commuter
The Commuter comes into the city, moving with purpose and speed towards their destination. They work diligently for a given chunk of time, then, at the appointed hour, they move with equal speed and purpose back where they came from. Their movements have a specific goal - namely, do the work necessary and get out of the city again. The Commuter may know everything he or she needs to know between points A and B, but may not have considered that points C,D, or E even exist.
This kind of learner has a very fixed point of view. They may well have exact knowledge of the language, but it is not broad knowledge - for example, they might be able to tell you in excruciating detail all the uses of perfect tenses, but they don't really know enough to use it outside the class or in a natural context. This learner will know enough to pass exams, and function well in English, but for them the language is a means to an end. They are more likely to view language as a subject of study, rather than as a skill.

What Tourists and Commuters have in common is that they are approaching the language from the outside - that is, they don't, as it were, habitually live in the language. This may be literally true: If you have a monolingual group in a Non-English Speaking country, then learners are far more likely to regard language as a study subject rather than a skill - that is, they are travelling into and out of the language. The difference between them is that Tourists tend to have low motivation while Commuters tend to be more highly motivated, although possibly only about specific learning points. 

3 The Citizen 
The Citizen, is, surprise, surprise, someone who lives in the city. They know the place well, feel at ease in it, and can find their way around with little difficulty. Typically, though, they may take the place for granted: They might live near to a place of historical interest, but never actually visit it at all, simply because it is just there. Likewise, they know their own part of the city intimately well, but there may be quarters and outliers that they are unfamiliar with.
This type of learner is, of course, a Native Language Speaker - but which variety? Just as a city can have different districts with distinctive characters, so can language. In terms of teaching English, this kind of learner can be especially challenging - after all, they speak the language already, so what in fact are we teaching them? It's more akin to instructing someone in the layout of a different part of the city they already inhabit.

4 The Denizen 
The term 'Denizen' can mean, simply, 'inhabitant', but it can also mean 'a foreigner who has been granted rights of residence - and sometimes citizenship', and it is in this context that I use the term. The denizen, in our model of a Language City, is someone who has to live within the city, even though it is not necessarily a place entirely familiar to them. Some denizens may know it quite well, and like the place: for others, it is a disquieting, alien, even terrifying place to be. Some are there to work, some there because of family, some for reasons they don't really understand - but the key feature is that they have to live within this city, and they encompass a variety of attitudes towards it, from enthusiastic participants to sullen, angry follwers.
This type of learner is what we might imagine the typical ESOL student to be - someone who has settled in the UK (or another NES country) and who needs to learn English in order to get on, get citizenship etc. We also see that this type of learner's attitude towards and motivation for learning English can vary widely. However, we can also find the Denizen in countries where English, for whatever reason, is a requirement of some kind - it may be, for example, that it is an offical second language, or the medium for judicial/official procedure. We can expect the learner's attitudes in these kind of situations to vary from acceptance to extreme resentment.

The key similarity between the Citizen and the Denizen is that they experience language from within - they are either born into it or have to live within it. However, we can also say that some Citizens are at times like denizens, or even tourists,  when they 'visit' other areas of the language. Likewise, some Denizens are on their way to becoming Citizens, or are Citizen-like, as are some Commuters.

This whole model is meant to be dynamic and show that things can and do change within the ways people interact with a language. I hope to show that Kachru's model of language, where you have a kind of 'superior' version of the language in the middle and weaker ones outside of that, is not the only way to look at language learning and acquisition.

In my next post, I'll look at the motivations of each group as language learners (even citizens!), and the problems each pose teachers in the classroom.


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