Tag Archives: language education

“I Accuse…!”

posted by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany

Why do so many asylum seekers fail the official German courses, among them even highly qualified, highly motivated and hard-working migrants who are keen on starting a new life in Germany?

I accuse…
all those who have been teaching German as a foreign language according to a monolingual German-only approach, to the detriment of their clients. These are notably teachers and teacher trainers

  • of the Goethe-Institute
  • of universities and academic language centres
  • of various language schools offering official German courses

I also accuse various publishers of textbooks and the BAMF (Federal German Agency for Migration and Refugees). Because they all should have known better and reacted more appropriately to a difficult situation.

I claim:
The German-only approach  (or, for that matter, the English-only policies worldwide) is self-crippling. In our digital age it is a patent absurdity and a cause of unnecessary misery especially for speakers of ‘remote’ languages. Many refugees fail the monolingual German courses. Clearly defined and brain compatible bilingual teaching techniques in conjunction with monolingual activities empower the students and enrich the teachers’ repertoire.

I propose:
– Textbook publishers offer bilingual word lists of words and phrases in many languages. The lists should be arranged in three columns and ordered according to lessons – this is standard practice in German coursebooks of English. These lists can be printed separately or downloaded freely from the internet. Bilingual classroom phrases for beginners should also be available.
– Teachers allow a ‘time-out’ to help learners who speak the same language clarify comprehension problems among themselves. Learners use dictionaries and smartphones and share the information gained.
– Teachers select and present Youtube videos on special German grammar topics to groups of students who share the same language. As they watch and learn, the teacher continues working with the rest of the class. German grammar videos are provided free of charge by bilingual native speakers and have often been clicked more than a million times (see, for instance, Deiaa Abdullah for Arabic and Almani be Farsi. For students who come equipped with a good knowledge of English smarterGerman.com is a great help.)
– Teachers ask former students who have become proficient bilinguals to provide them with parallel translations of selected texts which they will use time and again with new students.
– Contrary to what the BAMF recommends, homogeneous classes where all students share a language will be formed wherever possible. For them special textbooks such as Hossein Tavakkoly’s “Deutsch für Perser” could be used alongside traditional German-only textbooks. These textbooks are written in the learners’ own language, and it is possible for them, wherever necessary, to provide word-for-word translations of unfamiliar and ‘bizarre’ German constructions. Here are four examples illustrating this technique, also called mother-tongue mirroring, for English speakers: In many languages the phrase “Do you have a passport?” is rendered literally “Is to-you passport?”. In Twi, comparisons such “Kofi is bigger than me” are expressed  by means of a verb: “Kofi big exceed me”. In Mandarin, the plural of nouns is not marked by an ending, but by inserting a special measure word: “two books” is literally “two volume book”, “two knives” is “two grip knife”, somewhat similar to ”two pieces of soap” or ” two bars of chocolate”, etc. In the Ponca-language “I have a sister” is something like “I am sistered”. – In this way, languages can become transparent for one another.
– In the long run, teachers could make themselves familiar with salient grammatical peculiarities of their students‘ languages. They may record files of recurring errors from speakers of these languages and develop strategies to deal with them. Even a little knowledge of students’ languages will go a long way.
Textbook lessons for advanced students usually deal with certain topics such as ‘trade unions’. Teachers should point out to their students that there could be Wikipedia articles on the same topic in their own languages. Reading them will certainly help them to understand the foreign language text better. Comprehension is the key to language.
– Since students come from varying school cultures, they should be taught effective learning techniques such as the read-and-look-up method.

Our digital age provides many opportunities to tailor the teaching and learning of foreign languages to the individual needs of the learners. (See  also chapter 13: “Ideas for multilingual classes“ in Butzkamm & Caldwell, 2009, pp.229ff.)

The situation is complex, and the bilingual approach is no cure-all against failures. Teaching migrants remains a difficult job. Students differ significantly according to their origins, cultures, languages, ages, talents, motivation, and previous knowledge.


Theoretical Approaches to Second/Foreign Language Acquisition and/or Learning

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

In a recent paper published in the Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition (Herschensohn & Young-Scholten 2013), Florence Myles looks at “the major theoretical families that currently exist in SLA research” (2013: 46). Comparing the most influential linguistic, cognitive, and sociocultural frameworks and approaches to second language acquisition, she identifies a number of divergent trends and “a plethora of different and seemingly conflicting claims” (2013: 46), arguing that due to the complexity of language and language learning “a single SLA theory is currently beyond our reach” (2013: 70). I agree in principle but there remains the question as to “where all the different and sometimes conflicting approaches originate from” (2013: 70). According to Myles, most of the seemingly irreconcilable theoretical positions that are under discussion today originate from conflicting views of the nature of language and language acquisition, but she remains relatively vague in this respect (2013: 70). Here are my thoughts on this:

Theories of foreign or second language learning and teaching ultimately build on sets of ontological and epistemological assumptions about the very nature of reality and existence. Frequently, however, these core assumptions remain implicit and vague. There are two plausible reasons for this. (1) Basic philosophical assumptions about being and knowing may appear to be too abstract to be mentioned or discussed, because they go beyond falsification or verification. (2) Philosophical assumptions, orientations, or mindsets (see fn 1) may be viewed as being mutually exclusive, thus contributing to increasing, rather than resolving the many discrepancies inherent in contemporary research on learning and teaching foreign or second languages (often resulting in clashes between theoretical constructs such as nature versus nurture, mind versus body, the individual versus society, language as a system versus language in use, competence versus performance, acquisition versus learning, and focus on forms versus focus on meaning).

Generally, current theories of foreign or second language learning vary in the degree to which they specify their underlying ontological and epistemological foundations (for a more detailed discussion, see Kurtz, 2003). Nonetheless, since most theoretical approaches or models draw predominantly on concepts and propositions derived from or influenced by psychology and linguistics, they reflect the ontological and epistemological views and assumptions underlying theory-construction in these fields. As the history of research on learning and teaching foreign or second languages shows, this is, or can be, problematic. Mapping philosophical core assumptions, perspectives, or mindsets (e.g. empiricism) prevalent in one academic field of study (e.g. behaviorism and associationism in psychology) to another (e.g. audiolingualism and audiovisualism in foreign or second language pedagogy) can lead to serious theoretical ‘birth-defects’ and shortcomings, such as overemphasis of instructed language learning as habit formation and automatization. It can also cause serious problems in instructional design and practice, such as overemphasis of mimicry, memorization, repetition, and pattern drill.

This is largely undisputed today (see, e.g., Mitchell & Myles, 2004: 261). Yet, there are two competing orientations in foreign and second language learning research which dominate and (unnecessarily) polarize current international discussions: cognitivism and socioculturalism.

Grounded in a computation-representation paradigm, cognitive approaches to foreign language learning and teaching tend to place strong emphasis on the human being as a mental self. The overall focus is on aspects or factors such as the role and quality of linguistic input in instruction and learning, the mental processes involved in the conversion of input into intake, and the optimal conditions for the production of target language output in pedagogical interaction (for a brief overview, see, e.g., Mitchell & Myles, 2004: 95-130, 159-192).

However, in recent years, the underlying mind as machine-metaphor and the corresponding view that mental processes could be described in computational terms (input – output) have been criticized for over-theorizing and for exaggerating the importance of the cognitive processes involved in learning a foreign language, especially in instructed learning environments:

Cognitive metaphors of SLA have obviously been productive during the last 30 years. However, […], their intellectual scope is unnecessarily narrow. […] Cognition and learning are constructs that go beyond the individual. […] Individuals are members of larger ecosystems of contributing agents and technologies. This position contrasts sharply with the individualistic version of cognitive science that is still the norm in cognitive SLA. […] This individualistic perspective is excessively restrictive or, worse still, simply out of date (Markee & Seo, 2009: 40).

Sociocultural (or ecological) approaches to foreign language learning and teaching view the learner primarily as a social being and an interdependent self, placing much stronger emphasis on learning with and through others, and, ultimately, on learning as a transformation of participation (typically modeled in terms of Vygotskyan sociocultural theory and, interestingly, on former Soviet psychology):

The view of learning as changing participation is radically different from theories of second language acquisition that frame language learning as a cognitive process residing in the mind-brain of an individual learner […]. The view […] I wish to argue here for is, instead, of second language acquisition as a situated, co-constructed process, distributed among participants. This is a learning theory that takes social and ecological interaction as its starting point and develops detailed analyses of patterns of interaction in context. In this perspective, language learning is manifested as participants’ progress along trajectories of changing engagement in discursive practices, changes which lead from peripheral to fuller participation and growth of self-identity. (Young, 2007: 263).

However, a convincing theoretical framework which can serve as a basis for the design of sustainable curricular frameworks, for the creation of powerful language learning environments, and for the implementation of effective and efficient instructional procedures and techniques ultimately needs to integrate both, the internal (or mental) and the external (or social), modeling language and language learning from a code-focused as well as a usage-based perspective. Approaches to foreign language learning and instruction which set a sharp divide between the mental and the social, and between language form and function are, ultimately, too restrictive to account for their (seemingly) interdependent and complementary character.

It is perfectly clear that fundamental theoretical and methodological problems need to be overcome in order to develop such a unified theory of second and/or foreign language acquisition and/or learning. In terms of research methodology, we need more multi-perspective (classroom) research that is theory- as well as data-driven (i.e. top-down and bottom-up qualitative research). I terms of theorizing, we need to assume a pragmatic stance, without of course trying to pigeon-hole a domain-specific theory into a vague ontological and epistemological framework. Nor does it make sense to draw simplistic conclusions for domain-specific instructional design from such a domain-unspecific philosophical orientation. At any rate, in order to get to the core of things, we need to lay bare the central theoretical premises and priorities that guide our inquiries.

(Fn 1) Schuh & Barab (see 2007: 71-72) distinguish between objectivism, realism, empiricism, rationalism, idealism, relativism, and pragmatism, but not all of these broad philosophical orientations or mindsets have been or are of equal importance for theorizing about language and language learning.

Kurtz, Jürgen (2003): „Menschenbilder in der Theorie und Praxis des Fremdsprachenunterrichts: Konturen, Funktionen und Konsequenzen für das Lehren und Lernen“. Zeitschrift für Fremdsprachenforschung, 14 (1), Baltmannsweiler: Schneider Verlag Hohengehren, 149-167.

Markee, Numa & Seo, Mi-Suk (2009): “Learning Talk Analysis.” IRAL, 47 (1), Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 37-63.

Mitchell, Rosamond & Miles, Florence (2004): Second Language Learning Theories. London: Hodder Education.

Myles, Florence (2013): “Theoretical Approaches”. In: Herschensohn, Julia & Young-Scholten, Martha (eds.) (2013). The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: CUP, 46-70.

Schuh, Kathy L. & Barab, Sasha A. (2007): “Philosophical perspectives.” In: J. Michael Spector, M. David Merrill, Jeroen van Merriënboer and Marcy P. Driscoll (eds.): Handbook of Research on Educational Communication and Technology. New York: Taylor & Francis Group.

Young, Richard F. (2007): “Language learning and teaching as discursive practice”. In: Zhu Hua; Seedhouse, Paul; Wei, Li & Cook, Vivian (eds.): Language Learning and Teaching as Social InterAction. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 251–271.

New Journal: Children’s Literature in English Language Education (CLELE)

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

CLELEjournal (edited by Janice Bland, Christiane Lütge and Sandie Mourão) is a new, bi-annual, comprehensively peer-reviewed online journal for scholars, teacher educators and practitioners involved in using and researching children’s literature in the field of English learning as a second, additional or foreign language. The journal investigates children’s literature as an art form, and as a framework with which to connect L2 literature teaching across the school years. The scope covers the affordances of children’s literature for L2 acquisition with pre-school infants through to young adults.

CLELEjournal will consider contributions on all forms of children’s literature: fiction and non-fiction, oral storytelling and picturebooks, fairy tales and poetry, comics and graphic novels, educational drama and plays for children and young adults, children’s films and language learner literature. Contributions are solicited that cover the theory or practice of children’s literature in the English language classroom, encompassing the sharing of research projects and results, in-depth textual analysis and interpretation, teaching ideas as well as writing and adapting literature for second language education on any of the following topics:

– visual literacy
– critical literacy
– reader-response theory
– intercultural competence and ideology issues
– gender and diversity issues
– the constructions of childhood in children’s literature
– children’s literature and language play
– the canon of literary texts for TEFL
– teacher education, methodologies and materials design

CLELEjournal Volume 1, Issue 1, is now available online. This first issue contains five papers sharing perspectives from Poland, Germany, Lebanon, India and Portugal, offering perceptive and innovative ideas, suggestions and shared experience with students from primary through to secondary education. The texts referred to include picturebooks, nonsense literature and an alternate history written for young adults.

The call for papers for Volume 1, Issue 2 (November 2013) has been extended to July 1st 2013. This is a themed issue: Intercultural approaches to English language education through children’s literature. For further information about contributing please click here.

Elevating Increased Monitoring and Testing to an Educational Imperative – Does this really make sense?

Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

On Monday this week I gave a talk to a small group of teacher advisors on the pros and cons of integrated skills development in EFL classroom environments near the city of Berlin. The focus was on developing oral skills in primary and secondary schools, more specifically, on fundamental issues related to the transition from primary to secondary EFL classrooms. In this context, I voiced my concerns about the current trend to think about (efficient?) foreign language education in terms of competence- and standards-based measurable outcome in Germany, arguing that this approach is difficult to bring in line with traditional conceptualizations of Bildung (foreign language education as a time-consuming process of self-formation; in the age of globalization, mobility and migration, cultural diversity and hybridity, etc.). This was followed by a lively discussion.  Since we did not have enough time to discuss all this in detail, especially the potential problems associated with conceiving of oral target language proficiency in terms of neatly defined, measurable sub-skills (or so-called competences and levels of oral competence), especially perhaps with regard to primary schools, I would like to add the following:

In my view, improving foreign language education in everyday classroom practice is complex and subject to the interplay of a wide spectrum of interacting factors. By importing and adapting reform strategies and measures that are largely based on values, goals and concepts which (arguably) have been proven successful in business, commerce, finance and industry, complexity may appear to be manageable. However, the price to be paid for injecting market pressure into secondary (primary?) school education, for turning foreign language classrooms into arenas of competition for the best test results, for coating instruction with more and more layers of assessment, for reducing educational ‘quality’ to a limited number of measurable performance indicators, and for conceiving of output or outcome as the linchpin of quality development, may be hefty and unacceptable. In many countries, concerns are continuing to grow that standards- and test-driven compliance pressures on teachers are likely to rise, and that, in consequence, foreign language classroom instruction may increasingly and largely be condensed, redesigned and repackaged toward improving isolated skills performance in standardized tests (see, for instance, Böttcher, Bos, Döbert & Holtappels 2008; Kurtz 2005, O’Day 2008).

Today I stumbled upon two highly interesting, and perhaps, highly controversial  articles (mentioned/written) in the New York Times that I would like to share with you. Please click here and there. :-)


Böttcher, Wolfgang; Bos, Wilfried; Döbert, Hans & Holtappels, Heinz Günter (eds.) (2008). Bildungsmonitoring und Bildungscontrolling in nationaler und internationaler Perspektive. Münster: Waxmann. [Education Monitoring and Control – Viewed from an international perspective; my translation].

Kurtz, Jürgen (2005). „Bildungsstandards als Instrumente der Qualitätsentwicklung im Fremdsprachenunterricht: Towards a Checklist Approach to Foreign Language Learning and Teaching? In: Bausch, Karl-Richard; Burwitz-Melzer; Eva; Königs, Frank G.; Krumm, Hans-Jürgen (eds.). Bildungsstandards auf dem Prüfstand. Arbeitspapiere der 25. Frühjahrskonferenz zur Erforschung des Fremdsprachenunterrichts. Tübingen: Narr, 159-167.

O’Day, Jennifer (2008). “Standards-based reform: promises, pitfalls, and potential lessons from the U.S.” In: Böttcher, Wolfgang; Bos, Wilfried; Döbert, Hans & Holtappels, Heinz Günter (eds.). Bildungsmonitoring und Bildungscontrollingt in nationaler und internationaler Perspektive. Münster: Waxmann, 107-157.

New Publication on FL/SL Textbook Research

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

This special issue of Fremdsprachen Lehren und Lernen (FLuL), a fully peer reviewed, interdisciplinary journal which aims to promote the research and the practice of language learning and teaching, focuses on foreign/second language as well as multilingual textbook analysis, textbook use, and textbook development. Guest edited by me, it features papers by various experts in the field, covering a wide range of languages (German as a second language, English as a foreign language, French, Russian and Spanish as foreign languages), topics, and problematic issues.

The contributors to this issue are Engelbert Thaler (University of Augsburg, Germany); Members of The English Academy, Andreas Grünewald (University of Bremen, Germany), Britta Hufeisen (University of Darmstadt, Germany), Grit Mehlhorn (University of Leipzig, Germany) & Heike Wapenhans (Humboldt-University Berlin, Germany), Hélène Martinez (University of Kassel, Germany), and Markus Bohnensteffen (Carolus-Magnus-Gymnasium Marsberg, Germany, an academic high school leading to the Abitur, the central German university entrance qualification).

English abstracts of the papers (which are written in German):

Engelbert Thaler addresses important issues concerning ‘the future of the textbook’ as well the as ‘the textbook of the future’ in the EFL classroom. Beginning with a brief outline of what is presently known about textbook use in EFL classrooms in the current ‘Internet Age’, he goes on to present findings from two case studies that point to emerging trends in textbook development. Pulling these strands together, the paper concludes with some useful insights into the development and use of textbooks and their supplementary materials in the future.

Members of The English Academy look at the current state and the future of foreign language textbook development and research, focusing on major achievements as well as new challenges. In this context, the authors problematize the opportunities and interactive potential that electronic media have added to textbook development and use, particularly those of interest for foreign language teaching in schools.

Andreas Grünewald argues that promoting intercultural competence has gained considerable momentum since the introduction of Foreign Language Education Standards in Germany in 2004. So what does today’s foreign language classroom look like with respect to cultural and intercultural learning? Few empirical studies have addressed this question, as the cognitive-affective processes involved are exceedingly complex and nearly impossible to depict fully in an objective way. However, the content of textbooks can give a good indication of what could be learned from them. Accordingly, he analyzes recently published school textbooks for French and Spanish for their promotion of intercultural competence. The paper presents his findings, highlighting the degree to which these recent textbooks now incorporate promotion of intercultural competence as an actual objective.

Grit Mehlhorn & Heike Wapenhans point out that the year 2008 saw the introduction of a new generation of textbooks for Russian as a second or third foreign language. From a methodological standpoint, these new textbooks are comparable to many being used for the instruction of other foreign languages. In their article, they take a look at how these textbooks are designed to support teachers in the difficult task of developing communicative and intercultural competence, in addition to language skills. They extend their discussion to approaches that have been recommended for tertiary language learning, suggestions for self-reflection and self-assessment by learners, and considerations of authenticity and media in textbooks. Finally, they identify the strengths of these new textbooks and note those areas that still need improvement.

Hélène Martinez states that in the course of the implementation of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), the definition of the term ‘competence’ in  foreign language teaching and learning and the issue of its measurability have  been controversially discussed. In her paper she questions to what extent the development of the different types of competence and skills required by the  CEFR, e.g. intercultural communicative competence, is embedded in current French and Spanish textbooks and how exemplary units reflect this underlying  principle. Her paper emphasizes the importance of process-oriented and  learner-centered textbook and task design and also calls attention to the high demands competence-oriented approaches put on teachers and learners.

Markus Bohnensteffen argues that textbooks are undoubtedly the most widely-used classroom materials in the teaching of English as a Foreign Language. However, research on English textbooks focuses almost exclusively on examining their potential. The question of how students and teachers actually use the materials is rarely addressed. His article begins with an overview of the advantages and disadvantages of using textbooks in the EFL classroom and suggests reasons for their popularity as a teaching medium. It then looks at the attitudes of German learners of English and their teachers towards the textbooks they use and goes on to report on an informal study, conducted in two German grammar schools, on what students and teachers thought about their English textbooks and supplementary materials. The findings serve as input for a more empirically-based discussion of what future English textbooks should look like.

Martin Cortazzi: Transcultural Issues in TESOL (TESOLacademic.org)

by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) academic is a knowledge dissemination site which links the work of TESOL-based academics to teachers, teacher-trainers, teacher-trainees, decision-makers and other researchers. Edited by Huw Jarvis, it provides a global forum for people to talk about how their published research, or an aspect of it, impacts on language pedagogy. TESOLacademics.org only posts talks about research which have gone through the peer review process and this ‘guarantees’ the quality of the submissions. 

In the following video webcast, Martin Cortazzi focuses on some fundamental transcultural issues in teaching English to speakers of other languages (click on image to view):

David Little: Issues in Learner Autonomy (TESOLacademic.org)

by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) academic is a knowledge dissemination site which links the work of TESOL-based academics to teachers, teacher-trainers, teacher-trainees, decision-makers and other researchers. Edited by Huw Jarvis, it provides a global forum for people to talk about how their published research, or an aspect of it, impacts on language pedagogy. TESOLacademics.org only posts talks about research which have gone through the peer review process and this ‘guarantees’ the quality of the submissions. 

In the following video, David Little focuses on some fundamental issues in learner autonomy (click on image to view):