Posts Tagged ‘Academic Issues’

Teaching Foreign Language is a Big Deal

October 27, 2009

uglyearlyI find myself having just returned from a very interesting symposium at Purdue University entitled “CIBER Doctoral Symposium on Foreign Language Pedagogy for the Business and the Professions.”  Wow, what a title!  No wonder people tease us academic folks!  But don’t let the title fool you.  It was a very interesting symposium, bringing together doctoral students in foreign language education and providing them with training in teaching business language.  I was invited to give some training in teaching business culture.  (BTW, the picture with with Greg Cutchin, the Managing Director of the CIBER at Purdue University.  We are at Harry’s, a local pub, and I’m still trying to figure out the whole “Go Ugly Early” thing!)

As to learning foreign language, there were two guest speakers that I wanted to mention.  The first was Quinn Frazier, the Director of Sales Operations and International Business Development at UPS and the second was Larry Ingraham, President of Ingraham & Associates, Inc. Both are North Americans who learned Japanese along the way.  Quinn Frazier first learned as a Mormon missionary and Larry Ingraham first learned while stationed in Japan in the Army.  What stuck with me was the enormous effect of how foreign language has shaped their lives.  In Mr. Frazier’s case, while working in Japan, his wife and children have all had the experience of experiencing Japanese culture, to the point that some children experienced cultural shock upon returning to the U.S.  In Mr. Ingraham’s case, to a large extent, the whole state of Indiana, and the presence of over 250 Japanese companies that have operations in Indiana, including the Suzuki’s auto factory, are all directly tied to the impact of one former U.S. soldier who was stationed in Japan and who decided he wanted to learn a little Japanese.  For one the impact was extremely personal, for the other the personal experience has had enormous impact on thousands of people.

Here is a partial list of Mr. Ingraham’s suggestions for language learners.

1.  As a non-native speaker you will always make mistakes!  Accept it!  It is okay to make mistakes.

2  The point is to successfully communicate your thoughts to the other person… It doesn’t matter if it is not grammatically perfect.  You will improve.

3.  Practice language OUT LOUD!  Silent study doesn’t work.

4.  Keep a notebook for new words learned, and mistakes you have made with their corrections.

5.  Don’t get hung up on WHY something is so with grammar.  Just understand it is “correct” and use it.

6.  Why do you think we have two ears and one mouth?  We should listen twice as much as we talk.

The whole symposium left me with a sense of the privilege it is to teach foreign languages.  Thanks to all of you at Purdue University and thanks to all of the doctoral students who participated in the conference.

Courses in language for specific purposes

July 20, 2009

A while back I got an email from Tommy who asked a very interesting question. I thought it would be good to try to put my response into words here.

Dr. Kelm, speaking of plants – do you know of any interdisciplinary courses/studies involving language/culture and ethnobotany?  I know Brazil has such unique flora, many plants and trees that make their way into cosmetics, medicines, foods, etc all over the world.  My impression is that of the identified species, many have multiple, indigenous names.  From a university classroom perspective, do you think there would be any value in a course about plants and natural resources of Brazil, language and culture, or is this kind of vague?

Basically I believe that students learn what is interesting to them and block out everything else. From a “university classroom perspective” years ago I noticed how we often “force” students to take classes in literature or linguistics, even when they would really like to learn a language for other reasons.  Often they sign up for classes “because that was all that was available.”  As a matter of fact I made this same mistake this year when I offered the course in business culture for students in the Salvador study abroad program.  Most were not really weren’t interested in business and I ended up having to modify the course.  A university language course with an ethnobotany focus would have the same challenges and issues.  That is to say, it is probably too narrow of a focus to be of interest to a wide range of students.

So what’s the solution at a university?  Offer courses where all of the students choose their area of focus.  That is, some students would focus their attention on ethnobotany, others music, others medicine, others sports, others business, etc.  Over the years I have “successfully” accomplished this about 2 or 3 times.  It was in an advanced grammar course where large chunks of the student’s activities focused on personal projects in their areas of interest.  I remember especially one student who learned all about polishing and cutting semi precious stones in Portuguese (she had previously purchased stones in Minas Gerais) While taking my class she was also enrolled in a geology course in stone cutting.

The honest answer:  The honest answer is probably that some topics lend themselves to personal learning more than to organized classroom situations.  This is one of those instances.  I’ll bet that a personal tutor and some focused practice would result in better learning than a course.

Hope that helps…

It’s what the students do – Part Two

December 15, 2008

dscn4355My previous post referred to the importance of what we get the students to do. This post is a continuation of that idea because we have reached the end of another semester and students have completed some of their projects.  Take a peek at our Portuguese language blog that I call “É isso aí” and check out the video clips from my students who were enrolled in our advanced grammar course.  I just can’t stop watching these clips.  How creative can the students be?  I am totally impressed.  Here’s the URL for the blog:

In terms of language learning, what impresses me is the way that the students built the projects.  In class we ask students to write about a given topic.  We then review the video clips of Brazilians who also discuss the same topic (  Then the students videotaped skits about those same topics.  The assignment was to also add the transcripts, translations, notes, analysis, etc. to those clips.

So not only did we tie in the topics among those various activities, but the students ended up combining references of their own video clips  in subsequent clips.   I even heard specific language patterns that we had discussed in class that they tried to incorporate into the clips.

At the end of the semester one of my students mentioned that our grammar book “sucks the life out of Portuguese.”  Compared to the video clips I totally understand where she was coming from.  There is a pretty good chance that future sections of the class will not have to worry about having that book any more.  Instead, we’ve found a much better way to see what the students can do.

It’s not what I do, it’s what the students do.

November 18, 2008

provoWhen it comes to language learning, years ago I remember hearing, “It’s not what you do as a teacher, but it’s what you get the students to do that results in learning.”  I’m sure that every program in teacher training has some similar statement.

This picture was taken in Provo, Utah last week when I accompanied three of my students (from left to right: Ebony Jackson, Eduardo Gonzalez, and Kyle Averack) who participated in a Portuguese language Business Case Competition.  For weeks I had seen how focused they were at preparing their presentation, fine tuning their powerpoint slides, practicing their lines, and debating over strategies.  Of course business schools traditionally use case study method in teaching, but it’s less common among language learners.  (I should add that these students won third place in the competition, also received a nice cash prize, and enjoyed some great hanging out time while playing in the snow in the mountains of Utah).

The reason for making this post is because of a comment that Kyle made while we were waiting for the shuttle bus.  Basically he was talking about how much Portuguese he had learned as part of the case competition.  Readers might be interested to know that this case competition was not part of their course of study, they got no academic credit for it, and it wasn’t part of any grade at all.  Yet, they were motivated to do a good job because of the satisfaction that comes for learning new things.  After the first round of the competition, even before they knew if they would advance or not, they were already back to a practice room, preparing for the next phase.  It was cool to see.  Kyle’s comment stayed with me for days.  As a language teacher (and learner) it has reinforced once again that it isn’t as important what I do as a teacher, what’s important is what we get our students to do.

Learning a foreign language at a university

September 8, 2008

We have just started another semester here at UT. In today’s world there are so many options for learning a foreign language, I sometimes wonder where universities fit in.  If you go back to one of my earlier blog entries called “General principles in learning a foreign language”, most of the items on the list are pretty independent from a classroom situation (e.g, time on task, context, schema theory, input, intake, narrow listening, cultural factors).  In my own case, most of the languages that I speak were acquired through personal study, tutors, travel, podcasts, etc. and not through university courses.  I’m also the first to admit that in general the results of our university teaching of foreign languages are dismal (we’ll save that blog for another day).

However, this blog today is to reaffirm the positive side of teaching foreign languages at a university.  This comes at a time when I have been observing (and have been impressed) with the sense of “community” that goes along with the language learners that subscribe to and  I have great admiration for their approach to language learning and in fact I subscribe to them myself.  Those that feel part of the community of learners create support groups, help each other out, provide feedback, answer questions, get involved in forums, practice with skype, and identify as part of the group.  What’s clear is that the mere podcast lessons are not enough, and things are enhanced with community activities.

I have also observed this sense of “community” among the students in my courses this semster.  This semester I am teaching a Portuguese language course.  It is an advanced grammar class and there are 15 students enrolled (which for an advanced Portuguese class is already impressive). On the very first day of class I noticed that healthy buzz as the students chatted among themselves.  Some had spent the summer in Brazil and they were sharing experiences with others.  Some of the students had participated in a study abroad program and it was a sort of reunion among four or five of them.  Other students had known each other from previous semesters, and so they were already friends.  Since Portuguese is a less commonly taught language, learners clearly bond together.  In all, there is a gigantic sense of community.  I love to feel the energy and desire that the students have for learning and improving.  I feel that my job, as professor, has to include strategies for taking advantage of this sense of community.

This semester I’m also teaching a large lecture-style course which is an introduction to Spanish Phonetics.  There are 90 students enrolled in this class.  Again, although very different from the Portuguese class, there is impressive energy in the class.  Lots of the students already know one another and you can see the support they give to each other.  Many are Spanish majors, others met during during study abroad experiences.  In all, they feel like a community of learners.

Do university courses automatically have this sense of community?  No, clearly not.  But the circumstances surrounding these courses are ideal opportunities to create this feeling.  And that is where I hope to put my focus with the students this semester.

Foreign Language and “General Education” Requirements

August 14, 2008

Yesterday I was invited to participate in a workshop for language faculty at St. Edwards University here in Austin, Texas.  We had an enjoyable discussion and talked about foreign language education and how it fits into our educational system. My take is that in US universities we teach foreign language as if all students were preparing to be language experts and future majors.  The problem is that the majority of our students in beginning classes are not going to major in foreign languages and language expertise is not one of their goals.  A few years ago I surveyed some of our UT students.

UT’s first Upper Division Course for Spanish Majors:  86% of the students had fulfilled the prerequisite through credit by exam (not all 4 semester, but 86% had tested out of at least one semester).  82% of the students enrolled in this course planned on taking more Spanish courses.

UT’s last Lower Division Course for General Education: 46% of the students had fulfilled the prerequisite through credit by exam.  38% of these students planned on taking more Spanish courses.

In other words, our methodology and how we teach our beginning foreign language classes may never affect 86% of these students in our advanced classes.  And, most of the students in our general education classes will not take any more classes after they fulfill the requirement.

It begs the question:  Why do we teach general education language courses as if all students are going to continue to become language “experts”?

Our discussion at St. Edwards focused on how we could include more of the cultural aspects of language learning (more scripts as seen from schema theory–see my previous posts) if we weren’t so concerned about treating everyone as if they were going to be future foreign language majors.

Thanks St. Edwards, I enjoyed our discussion a lot.

Kelm Wiki, Student Projects

November 27, 2007

If you go to my student wiki there are links under “student projects” that contain the video clips and comments that students have made from my Spanish Phonetics and Portuguese Grammar course. I believe they are nice examples of how projects from one semester can be used by students in subsequent semester.

Here’s a shot of my students from the Business Culture class who contributed to the site during the spring semester 2008.