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Shanghai – Learning and Linguistics

March 21, 2009

China is a very large country with research strengths in many areas of science, however my randomly selected institution for the day excels in the areas of literature, education, economics, management and law.  It is located in Shanghai, it is:

Shanghai International Studies University

Shanghai International Studies University

(I think the image on the left is the actual university)

The research at this institute focuses in the areas mentioned above and has established more than ten research institutes and groups mainly focussing on foreign language and literature, international politics, economics, and cultures.  They do publish a lot of work in Chinese so I did have my work cut out for me finding a paper I could read and critique properly!  I had difficulty finding something in Web of Science – which admittedly does not have every work ever published in its database but it is quite comprehensive.

Google Scholar didn’t seem to be as helpful with research papers but did pop up with a lot of books in its search.  I then ended up using the very scientific method of typing into standard Google the following search “journal papers Shanghai International Studies University” and picked the first link that sent me to a paper that actually had an author affiliated with the institution.  On the 21st of March 2009 that paper happened to be:

Ellis, R., (2008), Educational Settings and Second Language Learning, The Phillipine ESL Journal, Volume 1, (90-111)

The author, Rod Ellis, is the Chiang Jiang scholar of the institution but is also affiliated with The University of Auckland.  Luckily I do actually have the ability to read his paper!

The paper focuses on students learning a language or another topic in a language other than their mother tongue, and the different scenarios in which they may do so.  One example of such a situation is where students learn the majority of their curriculum in their first language (their L1) and learn another language as one of their subjects (an L2), for example, I learnt French as one of my subjects in high school.

Other more extreme scenarios can be where speakers of an L1 are taught purely in another language L2, for example in the classes I teach we have immigrants from Asia, the Middle East and Africa whom all have a language other than English as their L1, but I teach in L2 (English).  It is harder for the student to learn at first if they have not had much training in the L2 and there is a whole area of research on teaching primary, secondary and tertiary curricula in English to speakers of other languages.

Due to globalisation and the ability for students to attend university or school anywhere in the world if they have the resources to do so, it is now more important than ever to cater for these students or at least make their ‘induction’ into an educational setting which is not in their native language easier.

But I digress.  After laying out many scenarios where the worlds of L1 and L2 collide for a student, Ellis puts forward a variety of cases whereby the educational approaches worked or didn’t work and concluded with some of the ways in which learning outcomes when working with an L1 and L2 could be improved or optimised.   Some general principles for success in such a setting were put forward which included:

*  Maintenance of the students’ L1 will help with their learning in L2.  Being able to already speak one language and understand it’s grammar and idiosyncracies can make it easier to learn another.  Case in point, I learnt French in high school and now I can recognise words in other latin-based languages that are analagous to those I learnt in French.

*  Attribute status to both L1 and L2.  I think this means not having a high or low status given to either of the languages but give them equal weight (If R. Ellis ever reads this maybe they can clarify).  Or it could mean in the context of the classroom one language has a higher status than the other and is the more ‘dominant’ language?

* There is a clear social need for the L2.  Learners seem to find it easier when they do actually need the language for some aspect of their life. Even if it is just to trade insults…

* Have clear norms to achieve in the target language (L2).  Sometimes students may wish to achieve a level of language comparable to a native speaker of the L2.  A formal classroom learning environment may not always cater to this desire, so it is important to incorporate colloquialisms, slang, swear words etc.  It is true that swear words are often picked up fairly early on…..  Dialects may also introduce some complexity to the learning mix.

* Ellis supports the theory that initial learning of an L2 is easier if the learner is allowed to first learn in their L1.  This does contradict work which supports an immersion/submersion form of learning (terminology may vary depending upon which sources you look at).  I have to support this in that immersion/submersion only works if those you are conversing with speak the L2 and some of your L1.  You can only get so far with sign language and other extravagant gestures.  However how to pick the point at which you let go of the dictionary can be difficult.

In summary, as far as I can tell, the work supports a more holistic, organic approach to learning another language or a topic in another language.  Formal structured classroom learning is the traditional method but it is important to understand the motivations for learning the L2 and restructure the learning environment appropriately.

As with any learning environment, each student is an individual so while it is important that you cater to the majority, it is important not to forget the minority.  So look at the forest, but focus on the trees too – whatever that means.

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