Language and superdiversity: Ideologies & Practices – Adrian Blackledge
The conference was opened by Professor Adrian Blackledge from the MOSAIC Centre for multilingualism at the University of Birmingham
The main point of the talk was about the multilingual reality that exists in Britain today, this was contrasted with the political narrative that all people in Britain should speak (only?) English.
The first point was that the changing nature of migration to Britain, along with the diversity of media and communication available through the Internet has lead to an increasingly complex and rich multilingualism. This was illustrated by showing and playing extracts from a number of conversations recorded as part of a project looking at multilingual speakers in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Eindhoven & Birmingham as well as a project looking at complementary schools in Leicester, Birmingham, London & Manchester ; there is a vodcast describing the latter project on the Birmingham university website. The most striking point was the ease with which people in these communities effortless switch between languages and accents in a highly fluid way – Blackledge described this as ‘translanguaging’. This video is a brilliant illustration of translanguaging in today’s multilingual Britain.
The second key part of the keynote was the political narrative that holds English use as the key to solving all problems of integration in the UK. Blackledge demonstrated how politicians in recent lives have equated the use (note: use, not proficiency in) of the English language as a guarantee of pretty much every ‘democratic value’ while offering little explanation of how this will happen. The conclusion was how this narrative fails to acknowledge the previously described multilingualism that exists in many parts of the country; a multilingualism that almost appears to be a threat.
Personally I do think that knowing English is empowering for people in the UK, what is more disturbing is how the idea that today’s multilingual Britain is some kind of threat. The portrayal of the English language as some kind of cure-all just appears to be lazy politics, refusing to address the real problems in society. I won’t even mention the hypocrisy of making all these statements while presiding over the deepest cuts to English language provision that this country has seen for a long time (more of that later).
Visual Literacy – Dot Powell
The session started by considering the generic and ‘obvious’ ladies and gents signs used to distinguish toilets for men and women. However a few pictures from around the world soon showed that there was nothing universal about the pictograms that we recognise.
The implications of this are that we should try to develop visual literacy in our learners, whether this is because it is a new concept to them or just that elements of it can be culture-specific (as with the toilet signs).
The session considered a number of features of visual literacy that we would usually understand in our culture – this could be as simple as an up arrow meaning straight ahead, rather than straight up or the idea that different styles of bubble represent speech and thought in comics (and English teaching materials). These could be thought of as visual metaphors as they are not literal representations of what they purport to show. Dot also introduces the idea of visual grammar – an example of this being how speech bubbles in a cartoon usually start at the top left and then alternate sides downwards.
The final stage of the session was considering how the (in)famous Skills for Life ESOL teaching materials could create problems by assuming a certain level of visual literacy through the use of different logographic symbols, different typography, images etc. They can also be inconsistent in their use of these features, which can be confusing for learners. While these materials are often scape-goated, Dot pointed out that the reality is that this is the case to a greater or lesser degree with most English teaching materials.
We finished by investigating some of these teaching materials and pointing out the issues. As can be seen in the picture below, we managed to find a few…
This session was really thought-provoking, I’ve been interested by the idea of multimodality and semiotics, since I saw a great lecture by Gunther Kress at SOAS in 2009 (see the videos at the bottom of the linked page). This session gave a bit more depth to my knowledge and pointed out how important it is to consider visual conventions and literacies when developing resources for the classroom. When I did my Masters in translation we looked at digital publishing skills – and that was when I first realised that design is a key part of the effectiveness/functionality of a text – it’s not just mere aesthetics. There is also a cultural dimension in this – there has been a number of papers written where Geert Hofstede’s dimensions of culture are used to explain the differences in web design between different cultures. I had studied this in the context of Internet localisation, but hadn’t realised the implications in terms of developing learner’s visual literacy.
Action for ESOL
The issue hanging over the whole conference was that of the change of eligibility for fee remission for the most vulnerable ESOL learners. While that sounds very technical, what it means is that the majority of learners currently following ESOL courses in the UK will find them unaffordable. The government’s equality impact assessment is likely to show that this affects women and those from minority ethnic communities disproportionately and hence is delaying the publication of this report until the summer recess when it cannot be debated in parliament.
The funding implications were set out in great detail by Nick Linford of Lsect, his PowerPoint here goes into this in great detail. There were also other sessions where student involvement in protests was considered. Some colleges have been concerned about the political content of lessons, however, it was pointed out that if we are teaching citizenship getting learners to write a real letter about a real issue that genuinely concerns learners is far better than basing everything on hypothetical textbook type texts.
The involvement of learners has given them a chance to express themselves and to explore a number of areas of language and literacy related to the issue. Watch these learners at Greenwich Community College:
Jennie Turner told us of her learner who two years ago couldn’t speak English and now appeared speaking on national radio. Also, learners at LSBU/LLU+ produced their own film, documenting the Action for ESOL day of action – consider the language skills developed in the productions of this:
This blog is probably not the best place to go into the campaign in detail, but I would urge people to get more information from the Action for ESOL website and also to sign the online petition (which has already collected over 20,000 signatures).
Including Dyslexic learners – Anne Margaret Smith
I had seen a bit about Dyslexia in ESOL learners when I did my ESOL specialism and CertEd, but the consensus seemed to be that it was just very difficult to assess Dyslexia in bilingual learners, especially at Entry level. As a result, I hadn’t looked that much further into it. That general uncertainty about Dyslexia and ESOL is what made me interested in this session.
Anne Margaret Smith runs many workshops on Dyslexia in ESOL though her company ELTwell. She took us through a little bit of background of what Dyslexia is and its legal status under the equality act. The interesting point, and what makes it difficult to assess dyslexia in bilingual learners is that the difficulties that L1 speakers with dyslexia are very similar to those encountered by L2 speakers as they are learning a language.
While this can make it difficult to assess, what it does also mean is that a lot of the strategies used by ESOL teachers are suitable for teaching learners with dyslexia. Learners with dyslexia may have problems with memory and concentration, but then this is also true of anyone trying to learn a language. For example, I have written about a session I saw where Phillida Schellekens emphasised the importance of repetition to ensure that new vocabulary is learned. This is also the case with learners with dyslexia.
The list of strategies that we were given was reassuringly similar to what is best practice for any ESOL teaching: Learning should be in manageable chunks, instructions should be clear, activities should be multi-sensory and build up learners’ confidence.
An interesting point was that Anne felt that learners with dyslexia benefit from more explicit grammar and phonics instruction, as they find it harder to work this out independently. This would suggest that a deductive method may be better than inductive when teaching learners with a specific learning difference.
This workshop was very interesting as it gave us participants a re-assuring feel that we were doing the ‘right thing’, I would like to learn more at Anne’s workshops in the Autumn,
As always, the conference was also a great opportunity to talk to other people working in the sector. It is often difficult to discuss what is happening in different colleges and different parts of the country, apart from on Twitter that is, but it was nice to meet up with Sam Shepherd, Molly Drake, Sarah Kinsella, Alex Stephenson, Jennie Turner, Mike Richmond-Coggin, Sarah Masters, and Russell Stannard. Twitter has its pros and cons but it’s certainly great for initiating and continuing contacts made and discussions had at events like this. This may be a relatively small event, but I reckon it is one of the most passionate and tightly-knit events – there’s a real feeling that everyone is in it for their learners and to try and make a difference. The weekend provided a nice mix of content around policy in the sector and the challenges that it is now facing, along with some sessions focussed on professional development. Next year’s event will be somewhere in the North West, and I hope to be able to go back.