Class Activities: Audio Diary

What’s a common homework assignment or part of the so-called on-going assessment? Getting your students to write a diary is a pretty safe bet. We’ve all requested it and most students will deliver. The diary is used as a reflection of general speech and trying to get the student to find their own voice in their L2. But at the end of the day, no matter how much of their voice we can help them find, they don’t always progress when it comes to speaking. Be it confidence or perhaps even the physicality of actually speaking the L2, there are often obstacles. One possible way to alleviate these obstacles are to change tact a little bit. Where many of us teach (Korea, Japan, China…), the students are rather tech savvy little creatures… perhaps more so than the old-fashioned teacher gripping his chalk. It probably goes without saying that the majority of them will have an iPod, mobile phone or access to a computer. Any of these have recording capabilities – yes, even the iPod if you get a measly $2 microphone attachment available from all good electronic outlets based in places like Hong Kong. And for recording on a computer there’s always Audacity… Anyway, it’s these recording capabilities that we need to tap into. Out students want to speak, they have trouble speaking. We assign them writing, they still have trouble speaking. So here’s a pretty radical idea… let’s assign them speaking! Give our students a speaking assignment. It’s pretty simple. They keep an audio diary and can just email it to us before class (I record 45 minute presentations at 32kbs; they are perfectly audible and only weigh in at around 8mb… so a 3-5 minute diary is going to be sub 1mb). Or if it’s a weekly assignment, have them bring them on CD or even have them upload to a free web space. As for corrections, you can either provide written feedback or take the alternate route and give the students audio feedback to assist their listening skills. The ideas today are to focus on verbal communication, so I like the audio feedback route with perhaps a few key notes in the written form if they’re needed. In the beginning, students are likely to forget these assignments but with time and enouragement should become more comfortable. One possible way of clearing the first hurdle is to take the iniative and send a recording to each student via email to get the ball rolling. Once the students get over their initial reservations about this form of assignment, they should open up a little and take some risks… and hopefully they will be able to see the benefits...

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Size Matters: Vocabulary

How many words do you know? Something that in reality, I consider to be, err, a stupid question. I don’t really care how many words I know, and it doesn’t really matter how many words I know. What matters is that I know the words that I need. Anyway, watching your vocabulary grow is a motivational tool, so perhaps the question isn’t that stupid. The following is a way of kind of approximating your vocabulary size. I read it maybe 2-3 years ago, and unfortunately, I don’t remember where. Actually, in contrast to the introductory ramble, this is something that I do about once every 6 months or so… just for fun. What you need: 1x paper dictionary, 1x pen and paper, 1x calculator (optional). Original version that I read was something like this: Pick say 20 pages in the dictionary and see how many words you know per page. Find the average number of words you know per page. Multiply this average by the number of pages in the dictionary. Voila… rough approximation of either active or passive vocabulary) ** If you’re not sure, Active Vocab is L1 > L2 and Passive Vocab is L2 > L1 ** Modified version that I’ve used with Korean (but it will work with any language): Pick two pages in the dictionary for each letter of the alphabet and find the number of words you know. Find the average. Multiply average by number of pages in the dictionary. Obviously, the more pages you randomly select, the more accurate it can be. But also, the more pages you select, the more tedious it becomes. Remember, it’s just for fun and not a means of truly assessing your vocabulary. It does however, actually show an increase in figures as time goes by, and seeing these numbers climb gives you the sense that your study is actually paying off, even if you haven’t been able to practice conversation (or similar)...

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What is Fluency?

Are you fluent? It’s a pretty simple question. The answers are more than subjective. To a non-language learner there seems to be the consensus that this question is a definitive yes or no. So not true. Everybody has their own interpretation of what fluency is and while there is a switch in all of us that can flick on or off when we reach our interpretation of fluency, it’s not easily defined across the board. Yes, we can look at something like CEFR or ILR scales (both in the Language Proficiency Scales post) but they’re still open to subjective analysis. For me, fluency is a matter of being able to speak freely about any subject I’m interested in. Nothing more, nothing less. I’m not too concerned with accuracy and accept that making mistakes is the norm… Many native speakers make mistakes quite often if you listen closely. I take for granted that I will also be able to read and write with ease, and obviously, if I can speak, then listening is also thrown in. But why only subjects I’m interested it? Well, because if it’s a subject I’m not particularly interested in, then I’m not likely to want to contribute to the conversation at this stage anyway. The different between fluency and advanced fluency is being able to contribute meaningfully in conversations that don’t particularly interest me. And perhaps more importantly, an overall accuracy and nuance in my usage. I can only do this in English… and it will take me a long time to reach this level in any other language I feel. Somewhat interestingly, I read on I Kinda Like Languages recently, that Kato Lomb – the Hungarian polyglot – devised a simple test to check your profiency in any language. There are 4 categories with 4 words in each. Category 1 words are worth 1 point each, Category 2 are 2 points each, Category 3 are 3, and 4 are 4. I’m a little uncertain on how to actually determine your language level, but I guess the closer you are to the 40 point max, then the more of a superstar you are. Anyway, the words… Category 1: the moon, to buy, wide, free Category 2: a blow, to enjoy, suddenly, grateful Category 3: a straw, to promote, rigidly, significant Category 4: brass, to browse, obstinately, enthusiastic I see this as being quite useful for assessing your knowledge of a language. Not for necessarily assessing fluency per se, but still…...

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Language Proficiency Scales

There are numerous scales for assessing language proficiency, with three of the most widely known being the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), the American Council for Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) and the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR). Typically, formal testing takes place to ascertain your true level, but nothing is stopping you from self-assessing to give yourself an idea of your level. Just remember to be honest with yourself! It’s better to under-estimate your ability and have the pleasant surprise of performing better than your expectations in a real situation than have the unpleasant shock of walking into a situation over-confidently and walk away totally lost. CEFR A1: Breakthrough (Elementary Proficiency) – Self-introduction, simple questions seeking information (“where is…?”). Communicate at a slower pace with assistance from the other speaker. A2: Waystage (Basic Proficiency) – Frequent expressions and everyday information (family, shopping, etc.). Simple and routine communication with some expression of description and need. B1: Threshold (Lower Intermediate Proficiency) – Most topics of a familiar nature (work, school, leisure, etc.). Possible to describe experience and ambition in brief language. B2: Vantage (Upper Intermediate Proficiency) – Understanding main points of more complex language. Possible to express abstract thought and opinion with supporting explanations. Communication has a degree of fluency. C1: Effective Operational Proficiency (Basic Fluency) – Able to understand a wide variety of language with ease. Possible to use language flexibly and accurately across all areas of life. Communication is spontaneous and with fluent expression. C2: Mastery (Advanced Fluency) – Able to understand virtually everything encountered. And possible to manipulate language to convey intricate meaning. Communication can be considered fluent. ILR S-1: Elementary Proficiency – Basic communication on routine matters (e.g. shopping) and simple topics if aided by the other speaker in their speed of speech, vocabulary usage, etc. S-2: Limited Working Proficiency – Able to communicate socially and understand information on many non-technical subjects such as current events, work, etc. S-3: Professional Working Proficiency – Able to communicate in most environments and comprehend the majority of speech at natural speed. Can discuss interests and opinions with reasonable competence and ease with a vocabulary adequate enough to not interfere with fluency. S-4: Full Professional Proficiency – Advanced fluency and ability with few errors in usage. Able to communicate across all areas and have the ability to interpret on an informal level. S-5: Native or Bilingual Proficiency – Complete fluency and ability equivalent to an educated native speaker, including idiomatic expressions, colloquialisms and cultural reference. ** It’s worth noting that each ILR level can also have a “+” for slightly above any given level. For example, a rating...

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