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As a Modern Foreign languages (MFL) teacher, I have chosen a research which looks into the proportion of target language (TL) used by teachers and learners in MFL classes since this topic is close to my heart. The investigation will focus on language immersion and the impact that this approach can have on pupils’ Second Language Acquisition and motivation.
Using the research findings, I will attempt to uncover whether teachers find it difficult to employ languages as a teaching tool, and suggest some possible new strategies for facilitating pupils learning. Both policy makers and MFL teachers believe that the TL should be used as the vehicle for teaching and learning, but in practice its occurrence varies greatly from class to class and from teacher to teacher.
Commentaries and guidance on this topic have been presented, with varying degrees of authority, in a whole range of contexts: initial teacher training, in-service training, NC documentation, OFSTED reports, publications on MFL teaching practice, etc. The fact remains that despite all this guidance, or even perhaps because of it, TL use remains one of those matters on which many educators remain uncertain.
Commonsense tells us that to learn a foreign language one must be exposed to it and that although it is possible to learn a foreign language through the medium of the mother tongue (as did most contemporary British teachers of Modern Languages), such teaching does not generally prepare the learner for face-to face communication.
In my teaching experiences it has become commonplace that the use of TL in a lesson tends to be punctured by English interjections as a means to manage behaviour. This point is confirmed by Clark (1981:153s) who says, “when the teacher resorts to speaking the shared native language the message that is being given to the pupils is: use English when you have something real to say. Use the foreign language when we are doing exercises, question-and-answers work, and other unreal (non-communicative) things”.
This project explores the relevance that second language research has for the secondary foreign language classroom. It analyses the concept of teaching and learning exclusively through the TL. The aim of this study is to find out about pupils’ thoughts and experiences when it comes to speaking French as a Second Language Acquisition (SLA).
I will situate this analysis within the context of a Catholic secondary school situated in London where the catchment area is mainly deprived. The school in question which we will call School G for anonymous purposes is a large oversubscribed comprehensive school, which holds a Language College Status. It is a mixed gender establishment which counts for approximately 650 pupils between the ages of 11 -16.
School G is currently experiencing a period of exciting and innovative changes and has been chosen to become a Pathfinder School, as part of the BSF (Building Schools for the Future) project. The Languages Department comprises 5 members of staff and 3 language assistants. The team was reborn at the beginning of this school year, under a new leadership and the induction of new staff. Since then the department has become a pioneer in TL immersion.
Over the years, our department has acquired a range of characteristics apparent to most observers: focus on the language of real use, all four skills being developed, grammar in the service of communication rather than an absolute, routines for pupil interaction, use of authentic materials, activity-based lessons, etc. Much of this is fine. On their own, however, there is evidence to suggest that that these features are unlikely to secure effective and permanent learning by all pupils; as an example, pupils may carry out a whole string of activities in a lesson and still not know what exactly their lesson was about in linguistic terms or what they were supposed to learn from it. Some pupils may crack the code of learning, but many will not: instead they end up with some chunks of language and topic boxes but generally unable to re-apply and manipulate the language outside these contexts.
I have been teaching French in School G for more than four years and as I have became more experienced in language teaching, it would be safe to infer that frequent use of the TL in the language classroom offers value add to learners. Nevertheless most Languages Teachers I have questioned are now realising that they have to make judgements about its use all the time: not only on whether and when (not) to use it, but more importantly how.
As a native speaker of French it should be relatively easy for me to use the foreign language 100% of the time. However language immersion is something that I often find challenging since I have to remember to make the language simple enough for my pupils to understand, especially when explaining grammar points or referring to the board to give written and pictorial examples whilst speaking. In addition to this, incorporating the use of gestures and visuals plays an integral role in engaging pupil learning. The reality is that exclusive use of French in class is not always enough on its own to secure quality students learning, hence it is not enough to constitute effective teaching. I became conscious that what matters most is what I say and do via the use of the language studied.
A slightly harder skill to achieve is for my students to use the TL 100% of the time. Therefore, I considered undertaking some primary research as a starting point in order to gain knowledge about learners’ attitudes towards the foreign language, hoping this will enable our department to design best classroom practices to meet our students’ needs.
Prior to the implementation of the study some informal departmental meeting took place where a general consensus about the study was gathered. Views were aired regarding the purpose and the likely outcomes of such a study. Two of my colleagues were keen to co-operate and their ringing endorsement was backed up by their willingness to take part in lessons observations.
Ideas that were suggested included using French background music in lessons in order to create a friendly atmosphere. Planning more trips abroad to French speaking countries will also be great for pupils to immerse themselves in the foreign language. From this point of view, other features (some not so obvious) emerge as much more important in terms of making our teaching effective. In fact, our current work is focused on how to make teaching more explicit in the MFL curriculum, ensuring that learning is accessible to pupils, while implementing as much TL as possible.
During lunchtime I set up an extra-curricular club which facilitated this learning objective. Pupils created posters with common French expressions which helped as useful reminders to the students, should they be tempted to lapse into English. I felt that if language immersion was to be introduced from the very outset, my students may accept this as the norm and reap the benefits of being immersed in a supportive language learning environment. It will be, so to speak, no big deal since pupils might accept it unselfconsciously, responding as best they can, and receive all the benefits of exposure to the model of the foreign language expertly used.
In the first couple of weeks of conducting the study, we, as a department planned our lessons meticulously ensuring that the curriculum was transparent to and understood by pupils. All pupils were observed twice a week over a period of nine weeks, the language content was simple as well as repetitive and the approach was largely communicative. The emphasis was on fun and enjoyment, in a non-threatening environment where the pupils were praised for their efforts. Visuals and props played a large part in enabling the learners to understand meanings, avoiding ‘translation’ into English. The language was also embedded around the school in the form of multi-lingual signs and displays.
According to Stephen Krashen “Acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language – natural communication – in which speakers is concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding”.
Using the Natural Approach, we spoke only French and class time were committed to providing input for acquisition. Students were encouraged to use the language being taught and errors in speech were not corrected; however homework included grammar exercises that were corrected. Goals for the class emphasised the students being able use the language “to talk about ideas, perform tasks, and solve problems.” This approach aimed to fulfil the requirements for learning and acquisition, and did a great job in doing it. Its main weakness was that all classroom teaching was to some degree limited in its ability to be interesting and relevant to all students.
During lesson observations I remarked that KS3 pupils were usually able to understand the teacher speaking in the foreign language at normal speed for routine classroom business and to follow the recorded speech of native speakers on familiar topics. However it was noticeable that their comprehension was less secure when they encountered new material or unfamiliar contexts.
Furthermore, I noted that after a good start as beginners in Year 7, School G pupils made less progress in Years 8 and 9 in their use of the TL, so I felt that progress over KS3 as a whole was disappointing. During oral conversations, pupils could answer simple questions on matters concerning personal information or personal interests, even in Year 7, but they lacked the confidence to take the initiative in speaking. It was unusual to hear them seeking clarification, asking simple questions in the target language such as:
“Comment dit-on … en français ?” (“How do we say … in French?”)
Pouvez-vous répéter la question s’il vous plait? (“Could you repeat the question please?”)
“Qu’est ce que ça veut dire?” (“What does this mean?”)
It is also fair to mention that during oral conversations, pupils spoke with acceptable accuracy in routine situations. When required to speak at greater length or in new situations, their accuracy and fluency deteriorated, partly because their grasp of structure was usually less secure than their retention of vocabulary. In KS4, whilst pupils widen their range of vocabulary, many were still insecure in their grasp of tenses, idiom and other points of grammar, for example, when required to recount past experiences in areas previously covered in the present tense.
The research took place in School G where data collection spanned over a two weeks period. The methods used for collecting information types were qualitative data and for added dimension, quantitative data was also used in order to provide quick, fact-finding information.
I drafted an anonymous Internet-based questionnaire study on TL that was carried out in December 2009. A sample of 120 students from Year 7 to Year 11 responded to the survey. For the interviews ten more pupils were selected from a pool of volunteers who indicated that they were interested in participating in this study. With respect to their foreign language experience, most of the participants were native English speakers, but had the opportunity to learn French, Spanish or Italian since primary school.
The first group of questions was open-ended and designed to elicit information about each pupil. The objective of the survey was to ascertain the learners’ motivational and confidence level, involvement in a language class, their second language anxiety level in the TL environment, their perception about the language teacher, and finally the curriculum.
The second part of the questionnaire focused on the pupils perceptions of Effective Foreign Language Teachers. The types of responses pupils were presented with were a set of multiple-choice options. An example one such question was as follows: Do you Strongly Agree* Agree* Disagree* Strongly Disagree that an effective foreign language teachers should be as knowledgeable about the culture(s) of those who speak the language as the language itself?
Through observations and interviews we were also able to assess their level of involvement and enthusiasm about language immersion. In addition, their oral proficiency in the SLA was also monitored for their progress. The students were asked for their opinions regarding various aspects of their views on the use of a Foreign Language. Their comments and opinions were then recorded in a notebook.
The findings indicate that most boys do not like to talk in the foreign language because they are subject to peer pressures and fear of negative feedback from teachers; they suffer from lack of self-confidence and they regard speaking as not being real work, preferring instead to engage in activities which they see as having a concrete and practical outcome, such as writing.
As Jones (2002) put it “speaking in the target language is often defined, both by students and teachers, as the principal objective of learning MFL”. However this aim is hindered by the socio-affective factors outlined above, resulting in most boys being reticent and unforthcoming when asked to speak in the TL due, mostly, to lack of motivation and self-confidence. All of the above socio-affective factors conspire to strengthen boys’ reluctance to speak in their own language, never mind a foreign language in which, not only do they have to say something of consequence on the spot in front of their teacher and fellow students, but in addition they have to pronounce all those strange sounds while ensuring that they get the grammar right.
Recent research has shown that ICT has been used successfully to motivate boys into speaking by making the process more engaging, offering them a greater degree of independence, and by appealing to every boy’s interest in high-tech. Computers are certainly cool as far as boys are concerned. It has also been noted by Walker, Davies and Hewer (2008) that ICT motivates by “removing the fear of making errors”.
Since the use of ICT has been demonstrated to engage the learner and “to provide pupils with the autonomy that is required to improve motivation and instil greater self-confidence” (Leach 2002), I set out to determine in the study whether using ICT, could help my pupils to improve their ability to speak French more often in class, as well as increasing their willingness to communicate. I began by examining the application of a new software program put in place in our department that was designed to teach a second language to young children with an emphasis on oral production. The software in question was located in the language laboratory. It allowed pupils to record their coursework so that their words appeared in French on the software. The native narrator on the software could also correct pupils’ pronunciation.
Unfortunately, the program froze several times in the middle of a lesson and the computer had to be restarted. As a consequence, pupils had to start their recordings again from the beginning. Not having the right kind of microphones in the beginning took away some of the initial enthusiasm that the students had shown for being involved in the study. However, as soon as the problem was solved microphones became the most important feature of the oral activities. Moreover, noise became an issue when students were working close to each other as they were working at different levels. Furthermore, some students became less willing to repeat phrases when older students were present in the computer lab. They felt more self-conscious and apprehensive.
The results indicated that the participants were generally quite enthusiastic about oral activities and had very positive attitudes toward learning foreign languages in general. They all indicated that learning a foreign language is valuable and allows them to better understand others. A few pupils emphasised that learning a foreign language will enable them to secure better jobs in the future. One girl noted: “the most exciting part of the study was when I had the opportunity to record my own voice”. One of the girls who was of Portuguese origin, mentioned that her grandmother was particularly happy that she was now learning French. This undoubtedly increased her motivation to learn this language. Some of these children have unquestionably learned these attitudes from their parents or other significant adults in their lives.
Based on interviews and remarks, it became apparent that the participants displayed enthusiasm about learning a foreign language. They were eager to learn as they avidly attended some of the sessions that took place after school. It must also be noted that the children’s participation in this study was completely voluntary and they were free to discontinue their participation at any time. Yet, one male student who was not enthusiastic about the Language Immersion Program participated in every activity and provided valuable feedback. He felt that a point system should be given to students as they finish each lesson.
Furthermore, our participants were quite keen about comparing the accuracy of their pronunciation with that of the native speaker narrator of the program. Furthermore, students were quite accurate in diagnosing their own pronunciation of the target language. One girl stated that the program was “very entertaining and made me want to work on it for a long time”. The children indicated that the most exciting part of the program was when they had the opportunity to record their own voices.
“I liked hearing myself on it, I would listen to it and if it didn’t sound anything like it at all, I would do it again and try to make it (the pronunciation) better. At the end of each lesson they give you a test which I think is good because you can review how you are pronouncing the words and it’s fun” was the comment of one of the children.
Another female participant who was relatively enthusiastic about learning French stated that she liked the “sound” of French and thought that “French people were nice”.
The recent rise of technology in the classroom has been a very useful one, now that most pupils have access to fast computers connected to the internet. I have found that most pupils learned a lot, particularly about grammar, less about meaning, from good interactive exercises. Hence, Mobile phones, Podcasting and MP3 players could offer good opportunities for listening as well as speaking. I found it fascinating that through comments and non verbal behaviour the students expressed their satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) in accurately producing phrases required.
In sum, students indicated that using the new Language Lab software was worthwhile and even requested to be involved in future projects. The scope of this project was merely observational and was meant to identity various aspects of the software program that were particularly interesting to students. A more detailed study must be designed and implemented in order to measure the extent to which students learn the TL. It is clear that children should be able to use the program on a regular basis in order to take full advantage of its potential.
I suppose that if the program is made available to students every day, (possibly at their homes) they would have ample time to learn, as well as to practice what they have previously learned. This point is especially important since “ample time for language learning is an important factor in successfully acquiring a second language” (e.g., Cook, 1996). Finally, the extent to which adult supervision is needed to provide guidance and motivation is another topic in need of study.
I was very pleased with the participants as they held positive attitudes towards computers. This is partly due to the fact that they all had computers at home and had access to computers at school. Let’s not forget the computer is no panacea to learning a new language. Language learning is a social activity and I know that my pupils enjoy interacting with other humans, including, for the most part, their teachers.
In fact, when pupils are assessing their teachers, they appreciate imaginative planning and a lively approach, but above all they wish to work and enjoy the company of their teacher. And this is of course the crux of the matter: teaching methodologies are very important. More important is the personality of the teacher and the way they are able to control, interact with and motivate their pupils. There is no one way of doing this and it is very difficult to teach such subtle skills.
Pupils also appreciate being clearly instructed and led in their activities, knowing that the teacher is clearly in control. To some extent, this sets us apart from other subject areas where more independent learning styles are often encouraged. We can only begin to let students free once they have reached a more advanced level. Unfortunately we do not have the time or money to let them work at length on personal projects since we have to work through a structured programme, carefully selected and graded.
What about grammar? My experience tells me that pupils like it when grammar is carefully explained in English at some point. Students are low in tolerance for ambiguity and appreciate clarity. Clarity also means understanding instructions. I believe it is more pragmatic and efficient to explain the rules for an activity or game in English, perhaps after an explanation in the foreign language. This saves time and then I do not waste time subsequently explaining to pupils what they are meant to be doing. So I use a little English to achieve a gain of greater practice time, understanding and enjoyment.
I still prefer on the whole to practise a point before the stage of explanation. This means pupil can infer rules for themselves. Even so, on some occasions, for example during an afternoon lessons when a class may become restless and need tight control, I am happy to beginning with an old fashioned grammar explanation in English form board or OHT, followed by oral drilling and a written exercise. “Learning grammar” is, of course, far more about internalising rules through practice than knowing how to explain the rule, in itself a not particularly important skill. Grammar is the heart of everything for the learner who wishes to make serious progress and become fluent, but it may be much less important to the child who is going to stop learning after just three years. Perhaps the focus should be more on vocabulary knowledge, cultural input and survival language for such learners.
The two examples given relate to “discussing a grammar point” and “comparing English and the target language”: in other words, specifically linguistic matters. I noted few reasons given by my colleagues regarding their lack of TL use: the pupils won’t listen, they wouldn’t understand, if I try it the behaviour deteriorates, they tell me their last teacher never did. It is also vexing to know that pupils can get reasonable and sometimes good GCSE grades whether or not they have received consistent TL provision over the years: so where is the advantage? In this context the real long-term value and impact of hearing the TL used intensively and consistently can easily get lost in the understandable search for short-term “solutions”.
Students who are gifted and talented in MFL may have differing strengths and language skills and should therefore be expected to make rapid progress acquiring conversational skills, and become high achievers. Nonetheless I realised that the high-achieving group of learners who (usually have excellent grammatical understanding and superb reading comprehension skills) are not necessarily the ones who grasp new language quickly and re-use it spontaneously in oral interaction.
One thing the behaviourists taught us is that repetition, drilling and controlled practice are useful weapons in a teacher’s armoury. So I have found it useful over the years, especially with beginners and low-ability pupils to do frequent group repetition and drilling, rapid question and answer and simple oral drills (e.g. I say a masculine word, they give back a positive one).
I have always rather liked the imperfect analogy that learning a language is like learning a musical instrument so drills are often effective starters to lessons when I want to get the full attention of the class.
No matter what the underlying motivation to study a second language, what cannot be disputed is the fact that motivation is an important variable when examining successful second language acquisition. Amongst the many factors that influence second language acquisition is the attitude of the learner toward the TL and the people who speak it. Krashen (1981) affirms that “it is the attitude of the learner that is fundamental to the learning of a second language and is a much better predictor of success than aptitude”. He suggests that self-confidence is a desirable quality in pupils because it will encourage learning.
I strongly believe that fostering a positive attitude toward the TL among young learners is particularly important. Its presentation must be done in a way that maintains and/or enhances the motivation of the child to learn that language. In other words, the child must be convinced that the process of learning a second language is worth the effort and the energy it requires. This cannot be accomplished solely by the efforts of a few teachers and highly motivating language programs. Parents, educators, business leaders and other influential leaders must be convinced of the value of early learning of a foreign language and direct children to such learning opportunities.
Based on my experiences and findings, there are some important issues that need to be mentioned before concluding. These have to do with the acceptance, by teachers and students, of SLA as primary, and comprehensible input as the means of encouraging language acquisition. These problems are caused by the fact that acquisition differs from learning in two major ways: acquisition is slow and subtle, while learning is fast and, for some people evident.
Hence I am convinced that motivation is vital in language learning since it makes language learners positive about their own learning. It also creates the drive in them to acquire the TL, enjoy the learning process, and experience real communication. Moreover, experience of success and satisfaction has a strong connection with motivation. By realising their improvement and achievement, students always gain the feeling of success.
People in general have acquired second languages while they were focused on something else, while they were gaining interesting or needed information, or interacting with people they liked to be with. In order for language students to become satisfied with a lesson, it is required to produce a stress-free classroom and develop integrated-tasks lesson. It is also necessary that there is a trust between a teacher and the students so that much communication in a targeted language is developed.
In conclusion, these three factors: self-confidence, experiencing success and satisfaction, and good teacher-learner relationships as well as relationships between learners, play an essential role in developing language learners’ motivation.
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