Task and Culture

At our college, we have a lot of international students – around half the students are from (East, South-East, Central & South) Asian countries other than Japan – which, of course, creates its own challenges of navigating a multi-cultural classroom. One of the biggest problems has to do with tasks and ‘games’ or speaking activities.

From talking to many students it’s clear that there are a lot of cultural differences that do affect activities in the classroom. The common Pelmanism, or card matching game, for instance. In Japan there is a similar game (called カルタ karuta) which is a traditional game played at New Year. However, students from sub-continent Nepal or Bangladesh have never seen it and consequently, of course, don’t know how to play, the rules or goals. Additionally, many Vietnamese students know of the game but for them games are not played in an educational setting so they do not see the activity as a ‘learning’ one. As such, they do not take the task seriously and often either fail to complete the task or complete it perfunctorily.

I am interested, however, as to how this affects task-based language learning (TBLL) and assessment. One of the key criteria by which TBLL is assessed is by task completion (see Ellis, 2003). Yet, if the very nature of the task itself is culturally-biased then these students are not, in fact, being assessed on their language abilities but on how well they have been acculturated to the demands of that particular task or how well they can perform as if they have been for the assessor. Either way, they would naturally be at a disadvantage compared to a candidate already familiar with the cultural expectations of the task.



Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press


Ideal L2 Self

I was reading an article recently by Yashima (2009) about the concept of an ‘ideal L2 self’. The article described the difficulties that many Japanese students in particular have in imagining an L2 Self that is separate from their L1 identities and that “Japanese students’ ideal selves are typically formed without an L2 component” (p148). Often Japanese learners want the language tools to be able to interact with members of the target community without necessarily becoming a part of it. As Yashima says, Japanese “are not particularly interested in identifying with [native speakers]” (p145). They often want merely the experience of speaking the target language for a variety of reasons but are generally unwilling, or even unable, to let go of their L1 identities and imagine an L2 self. In a globalised world, even the target language community can be hard for Japanese to identify (p.145). Students may want to learn an idealized ‘Queen’s English’ that does not exist or some vague notions of ‘for travel’.

I’m interested though in how this affects classroom language and interaction. I’ve noticed that quite a few of my students, far from L1 interference, are in fact speaking the L1 – with L2 lexical items. Here is an example. Asked to describe which the ‘classroom’ was from a set of pictures, a student produced:

Classroom is right side toilet under picture.

At first glance this seems a valid attempt by a beginner student at producing the target language but actually this student has been studying English about once a week for two years. If we look more closely, compared with the Japanese we can see that it is in fact merely a transliteration of the L2 with ‘is’ functioning as topic marker:

教室は 右側、 トイレ のした. 絵
kyoushitsu-wa migigawa toire no-shita e
Classroom-topic rightside toilet under picture

The grammar in terms of its ideational and textual features is entirely L1. It also features a distinct lack of any interpersonal features, which is entirely the point – it is a way of maintaining maximum distance between their ideal self and the L2 self. It could even be said that this student has not, in any real meaningful sense, learnt any English at all in two years but instead enough English lexical items which then can be mapped onto the L1 lexicogrammar sufficient to satisfy classroom communication. In fact, nearly all of the language produced by this student revolves around ‘is’. Another example:

Teacher: What are you doing this weekend?
Student: Weekend is play tennis

Again, the ‘is’ here is not functioning as a relational Process but as a topic marker. Similarly, ‘play tennis’ is not a material Process + Participant but is a single lexical item.

The classroom then, in the absence of any sense of an outside ideal L2 self or sense of a participation in a wider target community, becomes a language community of two – teacher and student – and, being a commercial relationship, the Vygotskian idea of Zone of Proximal Development becomes inverted and it is the teacher who must come down to the student’s level for communication to take place rather than the other way around. As nothing changes in this context from week to week, the student makes no real progress. While this particular student here might be an extreme case it is by no means unusual in a Japanese commercial EFL context. The question is how, or if, this can be overcome and help students create an L2 identity.

Yashima, T, (2009) “International Posture and the Ideal L2 Self in Japanese EFL Context” in Dornyei, E.Z & Ushioda, E (Eds.) Motivation, Language Identity, and the L2 Self, Multilingual Matters

Clause vs Sentence

The difference between a clause and a sentence can be difficult, but important. A clause basically must have a Finite whereas a sentence is just an orthographic convention beginning with a capital and ending with a full stop. Here is a text from SMH that illustrates this difference nicely:

When designing their own home, architects Sacha Zehnder and Jaya Param of Walk North Architects were reminded regularly they’d chosen ”the most difficult block” in the area.
Steep, tree-covered, 50 metres above sea level, with no road access; and, on idyllic but somewhat logistically challenging Scotland Island, in the middle of Pittwater and accessible only by boat.

Here the first part actually contains three clauses in one sentence: a mental Process (‘were reminded’) and a projected clause (‘had chosen’) plus a hypotactic ‘when’ clause. The second part, on the other hand, is a ‘sentence’, in that it begins with a capital and ends with a full stop, but is not a clause as there is no Finite element. I think the second sentence is, in fact, a kind of logico-semantic relation of enhancement giving reasons why the area is ‘difficult’ (although I guess you could also it’s elaboration – exemplifying the ‘area’).

I think a lot of EFL students might miss the logico-semantic link between the two parts if they are not familiar with the difference between ‘sentence’ and ‘clause’.

Discourse function of “How are you?”

A bit further to my post on the XKCD comic, I’ve been spending time recently in class on the discourse function of “How are you?”. While it may seem like a small and basic point I think it actually gets to the heart of what an SFL approach to teaching can bring to the classroom. Because very few students can answer the question appropriately. The most common responses I get are: “I’m tired/sleepy”, “I’m happy/hungry” (from kids), “Today is busy”, “Not good” (with no explanation) through to the always charming “I have diarrhea”. What’s going on here?

I think part of the problem is the result of a traditional approach to teaching that emphasises grammatical forms over everything else. The responses above are grammatically correct and, as one student told me, that’s what they were taught in their very first English lesson in Junior High School – focus on the verb ‘to be’. This, however, entirely misses the point of the question “How are you?”.

The question is not concerned with the Ideational content of its lexico-grammar – I’m not really concerned with the current state of your physical condition – but in fact operates at the strata above. At the context level it serves to both establish and reinforce interpersonal relationships and power structures in an indirect way. Slight variations in turn-taking, lexical, phonological selections are used for “constructing and signalling degrees of solidarity and intimacy in relationships” (Eggins & Slade, 1997:117). If we compare, for example, “Good morning. Now young lady, how are
you today?” spoken by a doctor in a consultation with “Hallo Stewie, how are you mate!” in casual conversation (both examples from BNC) we can see these differences quite clearly.

Also on a generic level the question plays an important role. Here, it functions as an opening, or way in, to the conversation. Even in a medical examination, where we might expect a focus on Ideational content, it in fact functions as an Opening stage before the Examination stage. Here is an extended conversation from the BNC:

(Doctor) Good morning, good morning.
(patient) Good morrow.
(Doctor) How are you today?
(Patient) I’m fine. How are you?
(Doctor) I’m alive. Causing trouble.
(Patient) (laugh) I suppose you’re ahead of the game if you’re alive.
(Doctor) Yes. That’s it. Now then young man, what can we do for you today?

Note here that it is the Doctor who opens the conversation and also the Doctor who makes a little joke, both of which establish the Doctor as the participant with higher power and authority yet also reinforce the (possibly) on-going nature of the Doctor-Patient relationship.

In a slightly different form, “How are you?” is also an important generic component of letters, as this example from the BNC shows:

Dear Laura, I hope you are well, we’re
all fine. Are you enjoying school?

There is a cultural difference to this. Japanese correspondence, even highly formal, will insert a digression on the weather that serves a similar opening function.

In defence of “How was your weekend?”

Recently, a (Japanese) staff member came up to me and said that a student had asked her, “Why do teachers always ask ‘How was your weekend?'”. We ended up having an interesting chat about the role of ‘casual conversation’ in English and some of the differences between this and Japanese. It also got me thinking about just why do teachers ask it and is it in fact pedagogically worthwhile. I believe it is.

  1. Authentic interaction – In many EFL contexts, the textbook holds sway. This is unavoidable due to many and varied reasons. However well written the text-book and however skillfully it is used it is still a fact that, by its very nature, it does not promote genuine interaction – the topics are out of the participants control and the language is dictated by the pedagogical aims rather than the other way around. The ‘weekend’ conversation is thus one of the few classroom contexts in which an authentic exchange of information can take place.
  2. Cultural value – The importance of ‘casual conversation’, especially story telling (see Eggins & Slade, 1997), as a genre within many English-speaking cultures is often under-valued or overlooked. ‘Casual conversation’ is, in fact, a very important genre to signal in-group identification and membership and those unfamiliar with or not competent in this genre may be missing out on an important gateway into the culture.
  3. Workplace value – Similar to the point above is that the importance of ‘casual conversation’ in the work place is often overlooked. ‘Casual conversation’ in workplace settings serves to “establish shared ways of seeing the world” (Eggins & Slade, 1997: 297) and also function to establish interpersonal relations. For example “during a business meeting, participants may align themselves as superior and subordinate” (Walsh, 2007). Many business English students in Japan, however, will enter the classroom and open the textbook with barely a ‘hello’.
  4. Diagnostics – As Mike Guest, a professor at Miyazaki university, points out, conversation in the classroom can serve as a useful diagnostic tool. I start all my lessons with a guided task to establish (both for myself and for the students) what the students are able to or not able to do. ‘How was your weekend’, however, functions as a valuable long-term diagnostic tool. The teacher is able to see over an extended period of time what progress has been made and what mistakes recur within a repeated task. Which brings me to the next point.
  5. Task-repetition – While the conversation may function as a useful diagnostic tool for the teacher it may also prove valuable to the student to guage their own progress in a regularly occuring familiar context. The value also of task repetition has recently gained prominence (Lynch & Maclean, 2000).


Eggins, S., Slade, D., 1997, Analysing Casual Conversation, Equinox

Walsh, I.P., 2007, “Small Talk Is ‘Big Talk’ in Clinical Discourse: Appreciating the Value of Conversation in SLP Clinical Interactions”, Topics in Language Disorders, vol 27-1, p24

Lynch, T., & Maclean, J., 2000, “Exploring the benefits of task repetition and recycling for classroom language learning”, Language Teaching Research July 2000, Vol. 4-3, p221

Activity: Verbal group, discourse and Harry Potter

If we teach ‘the tenses’ separately, I think students might not get the interaction between them and how they are used in discourse for different effects. Here is an activity I’ve used with Upper Intermediate – Advanced students, though you could use it in a more simplified form for lower levels. The activity compares the first paragraph of each of the Harry Potter novels and the tense choices made for each one and why.

Here is the first book:

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Here we can see it is the primary past that is mainly used, with one modal ‘would’. Taking it a rank up to clause, we can also see that it is mainly relational clauses. The first book of a series like this establishes the tone and introduces the characters. The Dursleys are ‘proud’, ‘normal’ and not ‘strange or mysterious’, to be compared of course with the characters to come. The opening establishes a simple tension between the two worlds.

The second book is slightly different:

Not for the first time, an argument had broken out over breakfast at number four, Privet Drive. Mr Vernon Dursley had been woken in the early hours of the morning by a loud, hooting noise from his nephew Harry’s room.

Here the past-in past is mainly used. The tense choice in the opening here provides a continuity link between the action in the first book (secondary past) and the action to come (primary past). On a higher rank, we have also shifted from relational clauses (establishing character) to material clauses (continuing story).

Here is the third opening:

Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways. For one thing, he hated the summer holidays more than any other time of year. For another, he really wanted to do his homework, but was forced to do it in secret, in the dead of night. And he also happened to be a wizard.

Here we have a much more complicated interplay of primary past and hypotactic expansion of the verbal group. Whereas the first book introduced the characters and the second built on the story, the third book now expands on the character of Harry, reflected in the language choices. Notice also the shift from relational ‘was’ to mental processes ‘hated’, ‘wanted’.

By the fourth book, the characters, story and Harry are fully established and so there is a shift in tone from this narrow focus to introduce the wider wizarding community and the larger story arc that is to come:

The villagers of Little Hangleton still called it ‘the Riddle House’, even though it had been many years since the Riddle family had lived there. It stood on a hill overlooking the village, some of its windows boarded, tiles missing from its roof, and ivy spreading unchecked over its face. Once a fine-looking manor, and easily the largest and grandest building for miles around, the Riddle house was now damp, derelict and unoccupied.

Here we have an interaction between the main action of the story (primary past) and its causes (past-in past). This presages the story arc of Dumbledore delving into Tom Riddle’s past and his evolution into Voldemort.

Book Five sees a pause in the story and back to the Dursley’s:

The hottest day of the summer so far was drawing to a close and a drowsy silence lay over the large, square houses of Privet Drive. Cars that were usually gleaming stood dusty in their drives and lawns that were once emerald lay parched and yellowing – for the use of hosepipes had been banned due to drought. Deprived of their usual car-washing and lawn-mowing pursuits, the inhabitants of Privet Drive had retreated into the shade of their cool houses, windows thrown open in the hope of tempting in a non-existent breeze. The only person left outdoors was a teenage boy who was lying flat on his back in a flowerbed outside number four.

After all the Horwarts action of the first four books and battle within the wizarding world that is to come, here is the mid-point between them. The past-in present takes us out of the main story and gives us a respite away from all the drama, almost like taking a breather before your second wind. Literally the calm before the storm.

Here is the penultimate sixth book:

It was nearing midnight and the Prime Minister was sitting alone in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind. He was waiting for a call from the president of a far-distant country, and between wondering when the wretched man would telephone, and trying to suppress unpleasant memories of what had been a long, tiring and difficult week, there was not much space in his head for anything else. The more he attempted to focus on the print on the page before him, the more clearly the Prime Minister could see the gloating face of one of his political opponents. This particular opponent had appeared on the news that very day, not only to enumerate all the terrible things that had happened last week (as though anyone needed reminding) but also to explain why every one of them was the government’s fault.

In this book, all the various strands of the story that have been introduced so far come together and move towards the final denouement and showdown with Voldemort that will come in the final book. Here also, all of the primary and secondary tense choices, as well as expansion, that have been made previously are used in one long passage. This almost creates a kind of exophoric cohesive tie to the other six books – not of reference or collocation but of tense choice.

The seventh book is the final battle:

The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane. For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other’s chest; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their cloaks and started walking briskly in the same direction.

Here we have the primary past. It is literally and metaphorically a final showdown. We have no more need of background. Only the primary past is needed.

I think this exercise is useful for demonstrating that tense choices are also discourse choices and it is the interaction of these choices that is important. Notice also how the passages get progressively longer, reflecting the increasing ages of the characters and the increasing complexity of the story.

Creating an ‘audience’ for EFL writing

For writing, a key concept is that of audience – how writers adjust their message to suit the (often imagined) audience. For example, a scientist, writing about their area of expertise, may adjust their language depending upon whether they are writing for a general science magazine or a specialized journal. Certain disciplines also often have their preferred style.

While this may be relevant for those students moving into EAP contexts, the problem with many EFL writing contexts, whose goal in studying English may not be as clearly defined and where a writing task may form a class activity or be set for homework, is that the ‘audience’ is often unclear: who, exactly, are they writing to and what is the purpose of the writing task? Many students often view the task as a ‘display task’ for the teacher, leading to often torturous use of as many different grammatical choices as possible, or a ‘learning task’, where every second word has been taken from dictionary entries with little focus on grammaticality at all. Neither approach is, of course, beneficial (or usually comprehensible).

One solution might be to use the members of the class itself and get students to write to each other. Recently, I’ve put the students into pairs and the task is then to write to each other. In this way, they are more focused on the intended audience, the appropriate lexico-grammatical choices for that student, and on the demands of the task itself. The texts they produce are then swapped with their partner and rated, not on grammaticality but on readability.

Stories from the Classroom

I thought I’d share here two stories from my own class that might illustrate some of the problems implementing a sociocultural approach within a specifically English as a foreign language classroom and what is says about, perhaps, cultural or contextual beliefs about classroom discourse.

The first was a girl of five in a new young learners class who, while I was organising an activity, turned to another student and said (in L1 Japanese) “Why does this guy keep talking at us?!” Before this, on the surface, she seemed quite badly behaved – she would talk a lot in L1 and run around the classroom – but once she said that I realised that she was merely interpreting her role within this classroom space in a fundamentally different way which explained a lot of her behaviour, and it stemmed from a clash of beliefs about the function of the classroom space and what was actually occurring within it. For her, the classroom was a ‘play’ space as opposed to a ‘learning’ space and so she interacted according to those beliefs. Within this ‘play’ space, she had no need for an L2. The L2 here becomes, in fact, a barrier to her perceived function of the space as it merely interrupted her play and she would react against it accordingly.

The second example was a lady in her 50s or 60s in a group general English class who, during a role-play activity, turned to me and said, in some distress, “Teacher, what should I say?!” I think in this case, and I’ve encountered similar examples many times, the problem was the result of more cultural beliefs about learning, the classroom and students’ role within it. For her, I think, the classroom is not, in fact, a ‘communicative’ space within which her role is to genuinely interact but is instead a ‘performance’ space, more like a test, where her role is to demonstrate knowledge of the correct answer and the teacher plays an ‘adjudicating’ role. A more open-ended situation like in a role-play, however, can lead the student to occasionally freeze, just as some people are better than others at open-ended test situations.

Book: Language Learning and Teacher Education

I’ve been reading recently Hawkins, M.R. (Ed) Language Learning and Teacher Education: A Sociocultural Approach. It has a number of articles influenced by SFL and also similar approaches focusing learner identity within the classroom and, in particular, a Vygotskian perspective to classroom practice. The book moves through five parts, giving a very good account of a shift from a traditional approach to ESL focusing on individual learners in isolation to one in which learning is “embedded in and shaped by situated social interactions” (p. 3).

Parts 1 & 2 present a theoretical overview of this concept of learners engaging in the construction of what Gee describes as “socially-situated identities” (p. 17), not through ‘learning English’ but through participation in “Discourse” (p. 24) which is ways of enacting and recognizing social identity and activity through language. Parts 3 & 4 give a description of the pedagogical applications of this approach for the classroom in various contexts, mainly in Australian and US ESL programmes, while Part 5 discusses the implications of a sociocultural approach for language teacher education.

Overall, the book gives a very informative and stimulating introduction to sociocultural approaches to language teaching. I especially liked the point-by-point comparison of this to traditional Second Language Acquisition. I think the best thing about the book, however, is the inclusion of several learner stories throughout that really bring the real-world implications of teaching and learning a second language to life.