There is no greater satisfaction for an educator or researcher than being able to see the fruits of his or her labor. I know this from experience. Allow me to occupy a few minutes of your time to share a language learning and teaching technique with you that has been showing positive results in my language courses over the past few months.
Second-language learners of English in Taiwan are, more often than not, quite familiar with English grammar. For the sake of explaining which verb tense or preposition is the correct choice for any of the numerous questions that appear in any of the English competency exams conducted in Taiwan, instructors must be fluent in the discourse of English grammar and have a flair for deconstructing sentences to enable students and test-takers to know right from wrong.
At the other end of the spectrum, native speakers of any language acquire communicative competence and grammatical ability largely through listening and mimicry without significant conscious attention to grammar. Native speakers know right from wrong through intuition. They can judge and produce their native language by referencing the dynamic linguistic corpus residing in the society around them as well as stored on their onboard language computer: the human brain.
So where does that leave second-language learners of English in Taiwan who must learn English largely out of context? In other words, in the Mandarin and Taiwanese language environment we have here, how can students best negotiate the linguistic transfer from their own native language and make progress in the second language without having the daily opportunities to contact and produce English in the way that native English speakers can? Is it possible for learners to efficiently close the gap between their interlanguage and the target language without leaving the island?
Fear not. The English language environment in Taiwan is much richer than it seems. It goes without saying that cable television and the Internet provide copious native English language resources for learners. For the more sensitive or discerning student, the variety of English language print media available provides the authentic materials than can stimulate and shepherd our language learners in reaching the next level of competence. And of course we always have that most fundamental space of second language learning and acquisition: the direct method classroom. There, once students accumulate the critical mass of linguistic forms to express ideas, they can emerge from the “silent period” and realize that speaking English among peers with error correction from the instructor is precisely the language environment they need for honing their growing skills in the four modalities. Students come to know that there is absolutely nothing wrong with using the target language to communicate among other non-native speakers, especially when there is supervision. Getting them to continue this active practice outside of class is the trick.
Like archeologists scouring the environment for cultural treasure, I now send my students out on an assignment designated “English Artifact.” Throughout the course, their task is to seek out and collect examples of authentic English they find in Taiwan and share what they find with their classmates in class. Not all students immediately catch on, but a few do. And from their insightful examples, everyone begins to benefit. The most innocuous phrasal verb, collocation, or choice of words found in an English Artifact can provide the “why?” from a classmate that can facilitate analysis, contextualization, and practice of the form right on the spot.
Most importantly, students are able to put their knowledge of grammar to work as they peruse authentic English forms in which they are interested. The English Artifacts they find, no matter the medium, bridge the gap between the grammatical forms they have studied and the corpus of authentic English out there in the world. Through contact with English in contexts in which language learners have a vested interest, be it his or her favorite TV show, an email from a colleague at work, or the picture of a billboard from a trip to London, they come to realize exactly where, when, and with what frequency particular grammatical forms are deployed by native speakers. From the English Artifacts my students have presented, and by the ways in which they are able to describe them, my sense is that they are coming to have a better handle on which grammar and vocabulary items are most useful to have in their active vocabularies, and which forms are best suited to be cached in their passive vocabularies.
As I crossed the NTU campus on my way to sit down and draft this piece, I passed a convenience store near the bike repair place and noticed that its sign stated “Convenient Store.” Aside from displaying, quite simply, the differences in forming adjectives between Chinese and English, it also shows the potential of having our language learners plugged into a steady stream of authentic English language resources. With an increasing awareness of which language forms are used when and where, our students will be better equipped to produce authentic forms in the target language with a diminishing reliance on their native language. At a minimum, authentic forms can be accessed and emulated.
I know that this is all easier said than done, but I can also say, with confidence, that from the wonderful things my students have been presenting during class in recent months, they would all get a kick out of the sign I saw on campus. For all I know, the sign will be one of the English Artifacts I have the pleasure of seeing later in the term. I also trust, knock on wood, that it wasn’t one of my students who created that English Artifact! But even if it were, it just shows the ways in which this activity can bear fruit. Try it!