When I first started attending the annual TESOL convention, I was so overwhelmed by the number of attendees and the number of sessions. I missed some wonderful keynote addresses because I simply didn’t plan my day well! In the past few years, I’ve done better, and my attendance at these special morning events has meant that I was in the right place at the right time to receive some very good food for thought.
At the Presidential Keynote, Andy Curtis talked about his own challenges in identifying himself. As someone of mixed ethnicity, I identified with the “Other” category. For me, the question “Where are you from?” can be as complicated as “Where do you work?” I’ve written about this before. (Click here to read my article.) Andy Curtis was very inclusive, telling us that he loves how “Where are you from?” is a complex question for many TESOLers. Here are two main thoughts I took away from his talk Reflecting Forward, Reflecting Back: Looking in the Mirror at 50:
- Change is not the same as innovation.
- Teachers save lives because education is a tool.
Aren’t those great thoughts to ponder?
At the James E. Alatis Plenary, Jeannette Altarriba of University at Albany gave her talk Beyond Linguistic Borders: Language Learning Cradled in Cognition. Her research in cognition might be over my head, so what I appreciated most were the practical applications of her work. In the context of motivation, Professor Altarriba had us consider the relationship between language and memory. Her examples illustrated how a survival context, even an imaginary one, improves language learning and retention of language. This is worth keeping in mind the next time we teachers set up an exercise or activity. Carefully worded directions might establish the right context for students to have more motivation and greater memory.
Another key idea I took from this plenary was that being multilingual means you’re multiconceptual. What a wonderful argument for learning another language! Isn’t Professor Altarriba correct in her observation that some words don’t have a one-word equivalent in another language? She pointed out that not all words are concrete and can be represented by an image. Because of her talk, I later went online to find out more about Paivio’s Dual Coding Theory.
A morning keynote given by Anne Curzan of University of Michigan was likely the most thought-provoking for me. Professor Curzan presented Survey Says…: Determining What English Usage Is and Isn’t Acceptable. She is a self-identified descriptivist, and her talk challenged prescriptivism. Key thoughts for all of us to mull over:
- The question about what is and isn’t acceptable in English is one for both teachers and students to answer.
- Students should be aware of usage notes in dictionaries, and we can teach them to think critically about those notes.
- Perhaps it’s not about what’s right or wrong when we teach English. What we should guide students to do is think about their audience. What’s appropriate for the given context? Students can learn to code-switch.
- There are many Englishes (varieties of English), and language is something that always changes.
Personally, I had a lot to think about after Professor’s Curzan’s talk. I had recently been challenged online by someone who felt I shouldn’t be using the words correct and incorrect. In our work as ESL/EFL teachers, I think it’s about finding a balance between being a descriptivist and a prescriptivist. Rules do change, but language learners need to be aware of conventions. I’m not about to teach a lesson on double negatives, but I will be more sensitive to their use in other Englishes. I feel my main task is to teach standard use of the language that will be acceptable in the greatest number of situations my learners will find themselves in. One thought I agreed with was Professor Curzan’s belief that we should empower learners by encouraging them to question and making them aware that they have choices when they speak and write.
More highlights to come!