Sunday, April 14, 2013

Grammar technology: For better or worse 2013

Leverett, T. (2013, Mar.). Grammar technology: For better or worse. Internet Fair Classics, invited presentation. TESOL Convention, Dallas, TX, USA.

This one was a little harder for me logistically, because I'd been in Illinois beforehand and had to come back to Texas in order to do it. Nearby my friend Vance was doing a webcast from that same Classics presentation. Dallas was a nice city; I enjoyed it, unexpectedly.

Reactions from teachers were interesting. One that stuck with me was a woman who wrote off use of grammar technology by students as plagiarism. I didn't want to dispute with her the subtle difference between simply copying someone else's paragraph and calling it yours, and taking some paragraph in native language, yours or someone else's, and crunching it through a machine. In this sense "plagiarism" is redefined as "getting one's English paragraph without actually constructing it in English," but it can be seen as a related form of laziness, unwillingness or inability to do the work.

It is clear to me, though, that it's not always motivated by these things, which are so familiar to teachers especially in places where students don't want to learn so much as to survive, pass or move on to a better place. I look at it more this way: The technology is there; it's free; why would you not use it, or at least try it, until you were told loudly and clearly that it was prohibited?

My friend told the story of how students did in fact use both kinds (electronic dictionary, one word at a time, and Google Translate, one sentence at a time), and eventually settled on one-word-at-a-time systems because of their teacher's extreme reaction to GT's garbled variants. Teachers do in fact respond negatively to big vocabulary words that you couldn't possibly have known already, put into complex native-language grammatical patterns that are difficult to decode. If the students slog through and construct sentences in their own English, they'll have better luck with this kind of teacher, though. And this is what would happen, according to her.

I spent a long time talking to a guy who saw it somewhat like I did. You have to keep your eye on this software, and learn what is available to students. You have to know what they can do with it the minute you turn your back. You have to assume that they are going to use it at every possible chance and that they are genuinely interested in learning the language. You might as well be honest with them about the fact that it's there, that they can use it, that it will affect what they write, and that it will affect their learning, and for example that it will cause their high vocabulary to belie their true ability, and rub some teachers the wrong way. Students, incredibly enough, come away from it all with a sense of what they still need to become fluent, and are even able to talk about this and pass it along to other students.

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