A few weeks ago now (I know, I’ve been neglectful of my poor blog!) I attended a workshop run by the English teachers’ association which I tweet for, ELTABB, on the subject of ‘authentic listening’. The presenter was Ian Badger and the session was very interesting indeed. Unfortunately, even though the workshop took place in the CELTA Training Centre of the Berlin School of English where I work, I still managed to be late as my class upstairs overran. So I’m afraid my summary won’t be the most comprehensive one ever written, but the workshop did raise some points which chimed well with my own experience of teaching so far.
Ian introduced his workshop by talking a lot about his own experience. I missed the very first part, but as I arrived he was talking about the kind of companies he works with now: he mainly works in businesses, specialising in the paper industry. Although I’m sure he spoke at length of his prior more ‘traditional’ (by that I mean more classroom-based) ELT experience, he now focuses on the idea of ‘multicultural communication’ through the medium of authentic listening. It was never completely clear to me whether this is the sole element that he focuses on in his teaching, but it’s certainly the method he’s written a few books about, and was therefore the focus of the ELTABB workshop.
He first spoke of the history of using authentic listenings, and how publishers didn’t use to allow them because of copyright issues and the fact that they weren’t scripted and perfectly pitched to learners. As a publishing geek, I obviously found this changing trend very interesting as there are now far more course book series which try to incorporate more semi-authentic recordings, if not wholly authentic ones, acknowledging the rise of English as a Lingua Franca.
In this introduction, Ian also laid out the three different levels of listening recordings:
- authentic…and I think it’s pretty self-explanatory the sliding scale between them!
Ian also spoke of the growing demand for use of authentic listenings in the English classroom due to the ever-growing use of English as a second language. Having helped to publish numerous books on English as a Lingua Franca when I worked at Routledge, I’m pretty confident in writing that there are now more second language speakers of English than there are native speakers without consulting an academic reference. This means that the people we’re teaching are far more likely to encounter other non-native speakers of English than they are native speakers – particularly in business. Ian wasn’t the first person I’ve heard report of learners saying they find British English hard to understand because they’re so used to either American English or Lingua Franca English – some of my own company classes have also commented the same.
However, this is about the place where this debate runs into murky waters: how do writers and publishers produce books using real texts without invoking any sort of prejudice or stereotypes? Well, from what I understood from Ian’s workshop, the key here is the adjective ‘authentic.’ He gave the example from his own experience that he once spent a week in a company filming employees interacting on the phone in English, and talking with other foreign colleagues. The company’s IT consultants were in India, but they had to regularly communicate with IT support staff and other colleagues in Finland, so of course English was the common language. With his footage, Ian was able to help the Finns get more accustomed to ‘Indian English’ and vice versa…all using very authentic texts filmed from within the company itself.
I thought this sounded fantastic, but of course, there are limitations to using authentic texts like this. First of all, it’s often impractical and very expensive to be able to carry out this approach as comprehensively as Ian is able to. Ian is now a trusted professional in the field, whose clients see the benefit of his work in terms of improved intra-company communication and efficiency, so they are willing to allow him to film their employees, transcribe their conversations and then take them out of work for two- or three-day intercultural awareness seminars. However, for ‘normal’ teachers like me, it’s sadly not quite as feasible to be able to stalk around Berlin’s start-ups with an expensive camera to use in my lessons!
Furthermore, the fact of the matter is that the very large majority (if not all?) of the most widely-recognised ELT exams focus on native speaker English – be that English, American, Australian or whatever. Therefore, if you were to focus a whole course on Indian, Singaporean or Malaysian English, those students would then be at a disadvantage should they want to take any of those main suite exams: the standardisation just wouldn’t be present. This particular point caused a lot of controversy in the workshop, for example about who sets this yardstick for assessment, and whether or not it’s likely to change. Not knowing much about exams in ELT yet, I don’t feel I can comment on this, but I would appreciate all opinions of teachers far more experienced than me!
In addition, Ian told us how he occasionally encounters resistance to his authentic listening approach from learners who are opposed to hearing other learners’ mistakes. Teaching in Germany, this attitude is a frequent occurrence, so any use of fully non-scripted recordings would probably have to be used judiciously and with lots of justification to the students first!
Ian did, however, give us a few practical tips to be able to implement elements of his approach. Nowadays of course, all Smartphones have exceptional recording capabilities which allow some element of flexibility with recording – even if it’s just a mixture of speakers within one class. We can also record ourselves, our colleagues or turn to our old faithful, the internet! My school does a pretty great thing for the aim of providing authentic listening exposure, I think, by including a ‘Live Listening’ slot on the second week of every two-week intensive course. Two teachers sit at the front of the class and have a chat on a topic usually chosen by the students, which is then recorded and dissected afterwards. Of course, there is some element of ‘staging’ to this, as some of us try to squeeze in the grammar and/or functional language the students have been working on, but it’s still very natural and in my experience is received very positively indeed – this is why I was so keen to attend Ian’s seminar in the first place. I certainly agree with him that students’ motivation seems to noticeably increase when authentic material is used, as opposed to pressing play on a stilted recording!
It was a shame that Ian didn’t have more time to show us how he actually uses his authentic recordings – it was great to be able to see some of the videos he’s shot, but I think a lot of us would have liked some more practical advice on how he has brought them into the classroom once the camera stops rolling. He mentioned a few things he does with them very briefly, which I scribbled in my notes in almost illegible writing, showing it really was the end of a terribly long day:
- focus on topic
- focus on accent
- focus on cultural norms
- focus on functional language
- focus on grammar
- focus on active listening techniques (the point I’d have most appreciated more information on)
- focus on intonation
Of course, the key overriding aim with all of this is for teaching students how to be successful global communicators, and without wanting to market Ian’s book for him, I think I shall certainly be taking some of the authentic texts from his book into some of my classes. A very interesting workshop indeed, which provided lots of food for thought!
I know I haven’t summarised the evening particularly coherently, but if anyone does have experience of using authentic listening material in their classroom, I’d be really interested to know!
Ian Badger is @BMES_UK on Twitter.