The Science Teacher Who Wanted to Teach in English
– Divya Madhavan
I have a story to tell you. It’s about a science teacher- we’ll call him Roberto. Roberto’s school decided that it would become more international and use English to teach other subjects. It would be good for the local students to be exposed to more English and it wouldn’t hurt to attract more international students.
Let me give you a bit more information; Roberto is in his late fifties. He started learning English in school when he was 12, stopped after university. He’s taken the odd refresher course- nothing formal. He has never lived in an English speaking country. Most of his students share his L1.
Although he has always taught science in his L1, Roberto was very enthusiastic about making the change and being one of the first ones at the school to do it. Roberto loves speaking English by the way, he makes the occasional mistake and misses the odd joke but he is very positive about being an English speaker.
Roberto conscientiously spent a lot of time with his English-language teacher friends to help him work out the things he wanted to say. He spent even more time looking up collocations that were specific to his field and ironing out translation details. All in all he was feeling pleased with his preparation at show time at the start of his new science course in English.
Now, I’ve built up the story enough for you to guess that something went wrong but I’m going to give you three choices as to what and I’d love to know whether your intuitive guess as a language teacher matches up with what happened in the end:
a) Roberto got nervous once he started teaching in English and ended up skipping some of the important material because he was so worried about speaking English well.
b) Roberto spoke perfectly confidently and said everything he wanted to say but got a lot of negative feedback from his students on the quality of his accent.
c) Roberto started teaching in English but because most of his students shared his L1, they all slipped into the L1 when it came to discussion and interaction. This made it difficult for him to stick to English later.
(Decide now if you’re going with a, b or c 🙂
Roberto uses English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI). It’s a little different to CLIL because the goal was not to teach two things at once- science and English. Roberto only had to worry about communicating the content of his science lesson and measuring how much of the science his students learnt, there’s no explicit language learning goals in EMI apart from general exposure. The snapshot I’ve just given you of his life and language-learning history is a fairly typical one in Europe, especially for teachers of Roberto’s generation
EMI has had its highs and lows as an area of concern around the world. Some have argued that it steers a slow and steady demise of other languages in science and academia while others have said that it’s the inevitable way forward and we may as well learn to play the EMI game.
These viewpoints aside, EMI raises very real and immediate concerns of expectation management in the classroom when a teacher’s L1 is taken away from them, because guess what? The answer to Roberto’s story is b). He did a great job and to his total surprise his students thought his accent wasn’t up to standard and they claimed it ruined the content for them.
His English teacher friends had told him “don’t worry if you don’t sound British or American, we understand you perfectly”…. ” and besides even in ELT we talk about English as a Lingua Franca these days and being positive about getting the message across, not sounding like a native speaker”…. “The science is very clear and that (is) the main reason your students are there”.
But the question is what standard are Roberto’s students referring to here? Ben Goldstein dug a little deeper into this very question in his talk “No Listen the Ask” which I saw at the IH Barcelona Conference, where he discussed the problems with conceptions of language that are based on standard varieties.
Now, I’ve been trying to work out how Roberto’s hard work might have worked out differently ever since I met him. I haven’t and I doubt I will. His is just one story, and I hope you’ll agree with me that it might have had a, b or c as possible endings. I also wouldn’t dream of generalising from this one story.
Sometimes it’s good to just let stories sit and think about the questions they ask and not the answers we want them to give. So here are my three questions on managing student expectations in the EMI classroom;
- How does a teacher manage student expectations when he/she loses the tool of mother tongue mastery in their specialised subject?
- Is it fair that students are critical a teacher’s accent in English when the content of the lesson is understandable? (Is it fair when it happens the other way round?)
- How can a school manage its EMI policy in terms of student expectations? It is something that policy can even manage or is it something that’s too deeply embedded in culture and society?
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