Reflections on authenticity in teaching and learning

“But I don’t eat cucumber!”

Hindi classes continue to go well.  Today we started with our teacher Meena checking our homework 1-2-1 while the rest of us checked ours and did a few other bits and bobs to switch our brains into ‘Hindi learning’ mode.

First up was Diego, a 20-something who is studying both Punjabi and Hindi.  Meena teaches him both (in two different classes) but he has an exam coming up so  they were practising reading some words for different vegetables.  Diego was reading in Punjabi script and Meena was guiding him with pronunciation.  I, meanwhile, was checking my homework and working on a worksheet of vocabulary for ‘things in the home’, pictures with the Hindi names underneath written in roman script. I was transcribing them into Hindi.  But, as Diego and Meena were opposite me, I was also listening to their conversation (a bit of L+…101).  They paused to practise the pronunciation of tar.  Diego was struggling with the ‘t’ sound which is not like the English ‘t’; it is more aspirated and more of a cross between a ‘t’ and a ‘d’.  Meena was modelling the word and Diego was repeating.  This lasted a while, until Diego said jokingly, “but I don’t even eat cucumber!”  [Emma scribbles in her notebook]

Good point Diego!  The ability to remember vocabulary is closely related, in my experience, to its usefulness/relevance for the user.  If I don’t eat cucumbers, I am not likely to remember the word.  That is unless my brain makes some kind of conceptual association with it.  This latter point is demonstrated by my ability to remember the Hindi word shimla meaning ‘green’ because there’s a famous Indian restaurant in Birmingham called Shimla Pinks (green pinks?).  I map the new word onto something I already know.  Another example is that in Italy I picked up the Sicilian expletive minchia (used as an interjection such as “S**t! I’ve forgotten to pick my grandmother up from the hospital!”).  The reason I remember this word is because it sounds like ‘minging’ in English, again mapping the new word onto a word I have in my L1 that seems to have some kind of semantic correlation (and also perhaps due to the frequency Italians use it!).

A look through many EFL coursebooks shows us that grouping vocabulary into topics is very c0mmon. Language Leader Elementary (Pearson, 2008), for instance, presents vocabulary in topics such as ‘places in a city’, ‘jobs’, ‘furniture’ and of course, ‘food and drink’. There are other ways to present vocabulary, by common spellings, sounds, alphabetically, functionally, etc. but this is the most common way I have come across as both a language teacher and language learner.  In Hindi class we learn shimla, bhindi, palak, etc under the superordinate sabjiya (vegetables).

This vocabulary learning approach is closely connected to cognitive linguistics which expounds that language is an instrument for organising, processing, and conveying information. Our brains naturally organise and store information in a certain way so grouping words, yes, may give our brain a head start in acquiring vocabulary, but what makes us remember or internalise them?

Diego has a point.  If I don’t eat cucumber, will I remember the word? Or, do I even need to?

Could we have personalised vocabulary lists?


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This entry was posted on 17/11/2012 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , .

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