Thursday, May 03, 2012

collateral damage

Recently I've taken the stand that although "technological interference" is responsible for lots of student errors, and language that is actually not as good as what they could have created themselves without the technology, perhaps by far its biggest influence is on their confidence. Technology undermines the confidence of students who use it for its biggest advantage: to connect words they read to their native language. ESL teachers have long had a war on electronic dictionaries (bilingual, small, sometimes connected to their phones) and have even gone so far as taking them away from students who use them in class. But we have no control over what students do in their free time, and that, in many ways, is far more significant, because it amounts to a lot more time, and it sets up the habit or the expectation that every English word has a corresponding native word that is only a touch away. But some colleagues and I have concluded recently that by far the most damaging influence of reliance on electronic dictionaries is much more subtle. When students look up a word in an old-fashioned paper dictionary, they meet the word's entire family, its noun form, its verb form, its adverb form, etc. They are sometimes bombarded with several distinct definitions and have to choose the best. Our textbooks give mini-lessons on how to pick the best definition from a dictionary. But more and more often, we find students who don't even know what they're looking at when they see a page of a paper dictionary. They've never seen one. We teach them to use one; we can even force them to buy one and bring it to class. But the fact is, they aren't using them habitually. Our conclusion is that the worst damage of the electronic dictionary is its flattening of the words: you no longer meet the family. I have responded to this problem, by the way, by including forms of the word whenever I make them responsible for any new vocabulary. For example, if we learn compete then I put on their list: compete / competition / competitor / competitive. I make exercises that demand that they use the right one. I figure we have to work into the teaching the exercises that will adapt to the conditions they are learning in. Somehow, our present population is more technological than any we've ever had; it's adept at listening (perhaps two levels ahead); it's doing ok in reading, progressing normally; but its grammar is way behind. Why? I seek the answers not so much in the nature of their native language or culture, but the environment they've been trying to learn in.

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