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Twitter for English Language Learners (and Teachers)

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At CATESOL this past weekend, @blythe_musteric gave a great presentation about how teachers could use Twitter. Later, there was the very first CATESOL tweetup (a meeting of Twitter-users, often at an event), featuring @blythe_musteric, @pearsonlongman, @rogerdupuy, @joemcveigh, @leejeylee, @compellingtalks, @ohsanderella, @talkclouds (me), and possibly other people I’m forgetting.

During @blythe_musteric’s session and later during the tweetup, I mentioned that, particularly in Japan and Korea, English-language learners are using Twitter as a self-study tool. I have another Twitter account, @readable, which is for ELLs. I use it to post relatively simple tweets on topics of interest to English learners, links to news posts, and links to self-study tools. Eventually, I started seeing posts from my readers using the hashtags #twinglish (Twitter+English), #eigodewa (“as for English…?”), #engtwit (English+Twitter), and #kor_eng (Korean+English). Putting a hashmark (#) in front of a word makes it clickable; when you click on it you see everyone’s tweets using that hashtag, I was impressed by how many users there were experimenting with English and chatting with each other in a second language.

Some of my followers’ (connected users) responses about why they are using Twitter in English (minor mistakes corrected for one user by request; others exactly as written):

@[anonymous]: 1) Expect to meet people from all over the world and share ideas or talk with freely 2) Need to practice English regularly
@oxwinter: That’s because… I learned English at school, but few opportunities to use it here, Japan. Twitter gives us that opportunity.
@akaSEANJUNG: in ma case.. it’s just 4 fun. tryin to not to forget how 2 use…too.
@noelsora: It’s a good tool for driving me to to think in English.

As I mentioned at the conference, I also discovered some Japanese ELT professionals, including teachers and publishers. In particular, @MakotoIshiwata and @mayumi_ishihara do a good job using Twitter with ELLs. @Makoto_Ishiwata is actually Mr. Makoto Ishiwata, the president of Kaplan Japan. He’s written a great short post about how Japanese learners of English can benefit from using Twitter: “Suggestion: three easy steps for the Japanese to start tweeting in English.” He writes about the difference it made for him years ago when he began to think in English, and feels that Twitter can help Japanese English learners, who study English at school in an artificial way, start really thinking and communicating in English. He says that “Twitter is easy to use. The limit of 140 words is a great plus for English learners too because they don’t have to think too seriously before typing. Above all, we can share what we tweet. We can start communicating with each other. We can make new friends, including people from abroad, when we tweet in English.” (Actually, a lot of that goes for teachers, too…) Check out his post.

@mayumi_ishihara is Ms. Mayumi Ishihara, an English teacher and author. I’ve seen one of her previous books, 『英語で日記を書いてみる』Try Writing a Diary in English!, at my local Kinokuniya. She has a new book coming out in May, 『Twitterで英語をつぶやいてみる』Try Tweeting in English on Twitter! (Oh, Japanese book prices…it’s only ¥735–about $7.80 US–and it’s 200 pages!).

Both of them regularly interact with their followers in English, and their/our followers interact with each other, too. I don’t think Twitter is perfect for learning English–for one thing, there are certain grammatical structures that I just don’t even use because they take up too much room. I’m not sure if @mayumi_ishihara will address this in her book, but I hope so. [EDIT: Another drawback is that many of the English-teaching accounts that post vocabulary and so on are regularly sharing information that is archaic, useless, or downright incorrect or ungrammatical.] You also have to deal with learning abbreviations such as w/o, b/c, wknd, and so on. There are also some differences in Twitter culture between most of the fluent English-using Twittersphere and the English-learning Twittersphere: #twinglish users usually use RT in replies, not just retweets (like forwards), leaving a truncated piece of the original tweet at the end of their reply; they’re generally not familiar with things like Follow Friday/#FF; they often send a reply to thank people not just for following them but even for responding to them; and so on.

I don’t think the differences between other modes or registers of English and Twitter constitute a deal-breaker. Every mode and medium is different, and I’ve noticed that many ELL twitterers use it to share other recommendations for input, such as TV shows, books, and websites. No one is trying to learn English solely from Twitter that I’ve heard of. [EDIT: And the problem with the useless, archaic, and ungrammatical/incorrect teaching accounts is also quite true for many textbooks and commercial texts sold overseas and in the US, as well. It’s not just an online problem.] Learners in countries such as Korea often feel starved for spontaneous, unstructured English input, and Twitter provides that, even if it’s not perfect. It may require access to a phone or computer, which is a time-and-money barrier that makes it somewhat less useful for the average ELL in the USA, but for East Asian learners with extensive access to sophisticated cell phones, it’s a cheaper and more flexible alternative or supplement to expensive English lessons.

I’ve had some great conversations with my followers. We’ve discovered cultural misconceptions about beer and weather, made jokes with each other, commiserated about everything from procrastination to language study, and helped each other with grammar and vocabulary (since I’m studying Japanese myself).


[EDIT: Overall, I think Twitter is a useful additional tool for English learners, particularly EFL learners and others with limited access to spontaneous English interaction, authentic English input, and an English-understanding audience. It contributes to learner autonomy, lowers the affective barrier, and promotes the idea of English as a tool for communication rather than an abstract object of study--goals that many teachers struggle with even partially achieving.]

What do you think?

Learning Diary: Tadoku For Me

Table of contents for Learning Japanese

  1. Learning Diary: My Language History
  2. Learning Diary: More Language History
  3. Learning Diary: Tadoku For Me

A basic principle of any form of teaching is that a teacher should avoid asking students to do anything she wouldn’t do herself. Dr. Sarah Nielsen, the head of my MATESOL program, always put this into practice by joining us during in-class reflective essays. Most models for extensive reading programs similarly encourage the facilitator of the ER session to sit down and read too. With that in mind, and being fairly well convinced of ER’s claims, I set out to find some graded readers for my current target language, Japanese. (See my previous post on tadoku, or extensive reading, in Japan.)

The bad news for me was that there appears to be only one series for Japanese learners, unlike the many that are available for English learners. The series is レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー (Reberu Betsu Nihongo Tadoku Raiburarii, which I’d kind of translate as Leveled Japanese Extensive Reading Library). The good news is that they’re fairly interesting, with a variety of illustrative styles for each little book, and they come with audio. They’re currently up to 3 sets (“volumes”) with several different levels in each set. Each level comprises a slipcase with several thin paperback books inside.

The cover price for the first level set, which is five short books, is 2300 JPY–about $21 USD at the current rate, including an audio CD with all of the stories. I bought it from Kinokuniya in San Jose, though, so the price was $32 plus tax. You can read about the books at the publisher’s website (some English; click around to get to samples) and at the website of the nonprofit group behind the series. (Unfortunately, the English version of the latter is temporarily disabled for Firefox users.) I’m so glad somebody’s working on rectifying this lack of Japanese-learning materials, and I definitely recommend the series.

A few weeks I sat down to read the first book. It’s a couple steps up from “see Jane run,” but not a lot. It’s very simple and (thank goodness) below my level. Even then, I learned a new verb and got some good review on kanji that are rarely put into beginners’ materials. Much to my surprise and amusement, when I got to the end, I suddenly thought “I’ve finished my first book in Japanese!”

Well, that thought is kind of silly–the writing is totally oversimplified and fairly inauthentic, the book is only a few pages long, and it’s easier than what I should be reading anyway. Right? I mean, it’s not even a real book. But, somehow, I still got that brief flash of accomplishment. That’s worth something! That feeling itself is one of the reasons why easy, fun reading can be such a powerful tool for language learners.

Later, I’ll write about my continuing attempts to use the series, and how it’s helping me with both my Japanese and my teaching. So far, I’d say the experiment is a success. However, I wonder what I’m going to do when I run out of books at my level, since there are so few texts available for anyone who’s not already at the high-intermediate level.

Many of you are also language learners, so how about it–do you try to practice what you preach? I know I have clients whose enthusiasm for self-study puts me to shame. I’m trying to be more like them!

Learning Diary: My Language History

Table of contents for Learning Japanese

  1. Learning Diary: My Language History
  2. Learning Diary: More Language History
  3. Learning Diary: Tadoku For Me

Or, “Airing My Dirty Language-Learning Laundry.” I am not an exemplary language student myself. Through what I learned about good pedagogy during my MATESOL program, I concluded that most of my language teachers had not been trained in language pedagogy. However, I know lots of people who have become fluent in another language in far worse situations, so much of the blame should rest with me. I’m sure I’ve gotten some of the details wrong, but while my history of false starts has left me unable to speak anything except English fluently, it has also helped me understand some of the problems that my students have.

Very few American public elementary schools offer foreign language classes. I remember random Spanish lessons during elementary school, and my mom taught me a few words in Spanish. I was interested in languages and was childishly proud of my ability to tell which languages random foreign words came from, but we always lived in linguistically homogeneous environments. I don’t remember having any classmates who had non-English home languages until I got to junior high, when I met LoAn from Vietnam. (For some reason she asked me to help her with her English, so after I finished our tedious typing class assignments–yes, I know, typing class!–I’d type a note to her and drop it in her locker. Did I have “Embryonic ESL Teacher” tattooed on my forehead?)

My junior high in Fayetteville, Arkansas, didn’t offer any full language classes, which is also fairly typical. We could take a half-school-year “mini-course” consisting of a few weeks each in German, French, and Spanish, from the same teacher. We learned basic tourist phrases. I don’t remember anything about Señor Reyes’ methods or how easy or hard it was, but I wasn’t really taken with any of the languages. I didn’t study languages during high school because I decided to do home-schooling with my parents. Neither of them are fluent in another language, but they would have supported me if I’d wanted to get training software and a tutor. I’m not sure why I didn’t…other than that I was used to an English-only environment and had not yet contemplated international travel myself. (All too typical of an American.)

In college, I signed up for Mandarin Chinese. I was studying gongfu (“kung fu”) at the time, but it was a bit of a tossup for me between Chinese and Japanese. I was in an honors program and had scholarships to maintain, so my mother was concerned that I might damage my grades by studying a non-European, and presumably more difficult, language. I stuck to my guns, though. My Chinese teacher was a kind Chinese woman who was trying very hard, but she had no training in teaching languages. She worked from those ancient, terrible, green textbooks that are (I think) officially approved by the People’s Republic of China. Many of my classmates had parents who spoke Chinese, or were native speakers themselves of another Chinese dialect. The rest of us learned painfully, at a snail’s pace, somewhere in the realm of grammar translation. I stuck with it for four years, though the university didn’t support a full set of classes and I probably got the equivalent of two years of instruction. When a Chinese person asked me a question at a class outing, I was paralyzed and couldn’t answer.

Somehow, when I enrolled in my East Asian Studies master’s program, I passed the Chinese placement test with flying colors. This was a fluke; a Taiwanese co-worker of mine had been helping me prep and we had covered some of the exact grammar points that were on the test, which I promptly forgot how to use the next day. I tested out of my language requirement and was assigned to an advanced Chinese class. This class was taught in Chinese. I went to the first day of class and fled it afterward. I couldn’t understand anything the teacher said, nor read anything on the handouts. Language ego sorely bruised, I dropped the class in a panic and was far too embarrassed to sign up for a level below that class. It was a dumb decision, but the feelings I experienced during this incident have really helped me empathize with the panic my students sometimes feel.

Later I applied for a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowship to study in Taiwan at Tai Da’s International Chinese Language Program. I got the fellowship and went to Taipei for three months, studying with a mix of college and grad students from all over the world. I had to start over a bit with traditional Chinese characters, but I probably learned more there than I did in my entire previous history. However, that was mostly just from living there, going out, and doing things, I think. Unfortunately, ICLP (at the time) relied largely on the audiolingual method plus the direct method. Classes were taught in Chinese, and we spent long hours nodding off while listening to tapes in the language lab. Readings were terribly dull (focused on politics and economics, as I recall) and no lesson content was ever customized to the students’ interests. Attempts at immersion backfired: Only Mandarin could be spoken in the building, and this was such a psychological strain that all of us reverted to our native languages or English once we got outside. The student teachers were enthusiastic and kind, but they were hampered by outdated methods. I hope the program has modernized in the last few years. At any rate, my memories of studying overseas have been incredibly helpful in helping me empathize and connect with my students, so I’m glad I went.

After taking a leave from that MA program, I began to realize that Chinese was probably not the best language choice for me. I’m a highly visual and textual learner, so the steep learning curve for written Chinese is a major problem for me. I decided to take a Japanese course through UC Berkeley extension and really enjoyed it, although I didn’t retain much due to some health problems. When I later started my MA in TESOL, I took advantage of the unit cap (the point at which you can take extra classes without paying for them, if you’re not an international student–unfair!). I took three quarters of Japanese, which was, shockingly, all that CSUEB offered at the time. The head instructor was terrific. She had a master’s in TJSOL from SFSU, one of the few schools in the US that offers degrees in Japanese language pedagogy. She was full of teaching ideas, from creative mnemonics (which finally let me quickly memorize all the shapes of the two syllable-based writing systems) to the use of TPR. It was the first time in my life I saw TPR “in the wild!” This was the best language-learning experience I’ve ever had, and I was sorely disappointed that I couldn’t take more than one year.

Now I find myself faced with the same problem of self-study that many of my students face. I yearn to express my opinions in Japanese, order food, read books, watch movies, and travel freely in Japan. But … I can’t afford a tutor; I could exchange hours with a student, but I really want somebody who’s had language pedagogy training. I’ve amassed countless Japanese textbooks and guides and programs and audio files, but I rarely use them. I am terrible at forcing myself to sit down with a textbook, and I’m not sure how effective that is, anyway. I’ve been considering taking Japanese classes at a highly regarded community college in my area that offers a full slate of Japanese classes, but my plans for this fall are up in the air (and it’s a long commute). I’ve also toyed with the idea of trying to save up enough to study in Japan, but I don’t want to go to another language school that is unaware of the principles of communicative language teaching. (The Aichi-area institute that is frequently recommended to me looks good in many ways but will only say that they use “the direct method.” The direct method, focusing on instruction in the target language, is insufficient to form an entire pedagogical approach. Even that’s ahead of most of the schools that still dwell in Audiolingual and Grammar-Translation Land, but I keep hoping to find an actual CLT-aware school. If you have any suggestions, please leave me a comment or send me an e-mail!)

Anyway, while I agonize over these choices, I’ve finally found one set of tools that is helpful for a text-oriented person like me. I’ll write about that in a future post, because this one is already far too long.

What’s your language-learning history? Reflecting on mine was a part of my MA program, and I think it’s been very helpful to me in forming my teaching philosophy. It also helps me establish a connection with my students. How about you?