Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head
I’ve just finished writing a Speaking Skills book for Harper Collins English for Life series – A self study book at B2+ level to complement the existing two lower levels in all four skills. (Just struggled to find these with a simple Google Search even when I knew what I was looking for which tallies with some suspicions and fears I have about the way anything that’s not a best selling EFL classroom course book is marketed.)
Anyhoo….let me tell you, writing this book has been no easy ride. What would you teach this level of students? Hmmm, perhaps I should have asked this question before writing the book 🙂 .
Upper Intermediate and beyond is just where Speaking really starts to be the source of most frustration. Student’s know all this stuff, the nuts and bolts of language, but they all want and need to be better at speaking. And in my opinion that is pretty much all they should be focussing on from then on anyway. Listening too is crucial but, presumably if they’re not just talking to the mirror, this is the other half of speaking.
So, I mined a couple of high level Non Native Speakers for what they thought was or had been difficult and built up a 20 chapter list of topics, discarding and adding some along the way. I’ve aimed high…teaching basic sarcasm being my most ambitious unit. I’m not completely sure this can be taught, (plenty of Native Speakers need to twiddle their sarcasm antennae) but I definitely think it’s worth the interest factor, useful for recognition and at least attemptable.
One chapter I knew I was going in though was showing interest in a conversation, mainly through echoing and questioning. It was inspired by the only good thing I can recall about Clockwise as they had this very insightful section in the Intermediate book on echoing using synonyms that stuck with me. I did my research and plenty of linguists have studied echoing.
Bingo, language jackpot, I am teaching something that’s definitely useful, in fact downright necessary and reflects the way native speakers communicate. It was one of my most confident inclusions.
Until I got into conversation with a male friend and discovered that this supposedly automatic skill I was trying to equip students with might be completely unnatural to at least half the English speaking world.
HIM: Echoing? Useful in relationships. Some girl told me that. Probably you.
ME: Yes! It was! I told you off about it once because you had this thing where I would talk and you would go “Uhuh…Uhuh” all along the way, which was meaning ‘Yes, keep talking, I’m listening and I get you’ but came across like ‘Hurry up and get to the real point.’
HIM: Right…yes, I remember now. That’s probably a man thing. Well it has helped with girls. I remember it at certain points when talking with women but it actually decreases the actual listening. I focus on the echo, not the content and because I have to direct my consciousness to it, it [the listening element] gets lost.
Wait a minute! What? You an educated native English speaking, intelligent, word smithy journalist and writer used to expressing yourself, interviewing people and responding to get the best out of them…you don’t echo naturally or easily?
One, I apologise to all the women Mike wasn’t really listening to because I’ve made him concentrate his attention on sounding interested. (He was interested before, he just didn’t show it well.)
And two, does this mean I need to add a gender note in Unit 7 to say that men may struggle or need to direct extra mental energy to this thing women do all the time?
I return to the study I used when researching the unit. It says that the samples were balanced for age, generation, gender, socioeconomic background and ethnicity but in the conversations the speakers’ instances of echoing are not gender identified in the paper. I’m willing to bet the echoing came more from the female participants.
More research and I find this in a summary of some research done on male and female same sex conversational styles.
Linguist Lynette Hirschman found that women make more listener-noise, such as “mhm,” “uhuh,”** and “yeah,” to show “I’m with you.” Men, she found, more often give silent attention. […] Also, when women talk to each other in a close, comfortable setting, they often overlap, finish each other’s sentences and anticipate what the other is about to say. This practice, which I call “participatory listenership,” is often perceived by men as interruption, intrusion and lack of attention.
If this is right, then half the English learning population should skip Unit 7 in my Skills for Life B2 book as it will be cognitive overload for them to cope with L2, listen to the content of the conversation AND remember these alien strategies.
On the other hand, they might find themselves much more popular with the opposite sex in English speaking countries than they are at home which should make the marketing of the book a doddle.
Buy this book and use your tongue to attract women….Pick up this book and pick up girls….just off the top of my head.
I’ll propose these straplines to Harper Collins as I do the final End Matter sections and see what they say. Presumably their marketing department are looking for something a bit more interesting to do.
**So, as a secondary point, although my friend wasn’t giving silent attention when he was doing his “Uhuh”, he wasn’t mixing it with enough participatory listening strategies which was probably what was off for me.
The book itself with this chapter in its finished form is available here.