Monday, May 26, 2014

A New Role for Avatars: Learning Languages

A New Role for Avatars: Learning Languages

| May 2, 2013 | 2 Comments


Most experts agree that the best way to learn a language is by immersing yourself in it. Now, with  more sophisticated technology, another theory around language learning is being tested: the use of avatars to practice speaking.
Alongside traditional methods, like listening, repeating, and digital flashcards, created by companies like Rosetta Stone,  Livemocha, and AccelaStudy, a few tech companies have leveraged the idea that becoming someone else helps to learn a foreign language, especially when speaking it.
Companies like Second Life and Middlebury Interactive Languages both offer digital avatar programs to give language learners a chance to practice their skills in virtual environments. Britain’s Language Lab has created “English City” using Second Life, where learners are promised realistic conversations with native English-speaking teachers, also using avatars, in virtual but plausible digital environments, like checking in at the airport, going to an art museum, or giving a presentation.

“Speaking practice was only possible in the classroom, and that meant very little practice for students who have no contact with English outside their school.”

Few studies exist on the effectiveness of avatars for language learning, and just as recently as 2009, a study conducted by Griffith University on digital technology and second language learning found that “although significant advances have been made recently with chatbots [avatars] for conversation practice… reliable programs of this type are ‘still some way off being a reality.’”
That reality is now here – and while Second Life and Language Lab are meant for the language learner at home on her laptop, what about using digital avatars in classroom environments? Some teachers say that language-learning avatars work well for classroom students, if used in a slightly different way.
English teacher Ana Maria Menezes uses web tool Voki with her high school students in Uberlandia, Brazil, and said she has watched them become more comfortable speaking English when it’s not really “them” doing the talking. Voki, a free education web app created by Oddcast, allows students and teachers to create their own talking character – they can be historical figures, animals, or a person that looks just like the user.

Teachers and students can give their character a voice by using one of three methods: text to speech, recording by microphone, or uploading their own pre-recording audio file. Voki characters can speak in over 25 languages, and 150-plus voices, according to Eric Kiang, Voki’s Product and Marketing Manager.
Menezes has students record themselves speaking English, and then has them play it for the class on a computer, using their avatar.
“Most of my students were very embarrassed when asked to record their voices while speaking English; many of them had never actually heard themselves using a foreign language,” she said. But students felt more comfortable watching their avatar speak for them. “It has to do with the ‘hiding behind the mask’ effect: when we speak behind a mask, it’s as if you’re another character, you’re safer and less exposed.”
Middle and high school Spanish and German teacher José Picardo doubts that using avatars alone causes dramatic improvements in learning a new language. “But I do think that incorporating tools such as Voki into the teaching and learning that goes on in my classroom, and practices such as regular peer-assessment, has had a very positive influence in attainment.” Picardo puts all of his students’ avatars on the departmental blog at Nottingham High School in Nottingham, UK, where they can be used by teachers, parents and students both as a showcase of student work as well as for peer review and assessment.
For Menezes, the most important use of digital avatars is the ability to get students doing more speaking outside the classroom. “Years ago, it was unthinkable to assign speaking homework to EFL or ESL students; all we could expect from them at home was to complete written exercises or write texts. Speaking practice was only possible in the classroom, and that meant very little practice for students who have no contact with English outside their school. Using an avatar for both for listening and for speaking purposes, I clearly noticed several improvements in their language use: Students were braver when expressing themselves and were also able to observe their pronunciation for the first time.”
One drawback teachers mentioned is the learning curve to use the apps; Second Life’s virtual world recommends that students be 16 to use it. Menezes mentioned there is a ramp-up time to using Voki, too, and that students need access to good recording equipment and fast Internet connections to get started. But even with learning curves, the technology is intuitive and tech-savvy students catch on quickly.
“Is there such a thing as a non-techie 13-year-old?” joked Picardo. “It could be argued that using these tools ensure that we are teaching children a range of skills that are necessary for later life, not just foreign languages.”
Even for the non-techie school setting, though, there’s another option. Wake Forest Latin teacher-scholar Ted Gellar-Goad developed an original pen-and-paper avatar game for his Latin prose composition students. Students role-play and interact in ancient Rome, in the spirit of Dungeons and Dragons, and the game is meant to help students stay engaged and have fun performing the arduous task of writing difficult Latin sentences.
For the imaginative teacher, there’s always a way.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

"I'm afraid I disagree with you" - or, How to disagree in English?


I’m afraid I disagree with you.

May 7, 2014 by Kate Woodford disagree
Last week we looked at the ‘softeners’ (polite words and phrases) that people use to make requests sound nicer. This week we’re taking a look at the sort of phrases that people use when they are disagreeing with people and they don’t want to sound rude or express opinions that sound too strong.

The statement, ‘I disagree with you.’ sounds very strong in English and people often choose not to use it. However, if people do want to express strong disagreement and they use this phrase, they often ‘soften’ it slightly by first apologising:

I’m afraid I disagree with you there.
I’m sorry, I disagree with you there.

Another way of slightly softening the statement ‘I disagree with you.’ is to introduce it with ‘I have to say’:

I have to say, I disagree with you, James.

Very often, though, people prefer to use phrases that are less strong when they are disagreeing with statements. A very common way of doing this is to use the phrase ‘I’m not sure…’ or another phrase with a similar meaning:

I’m not sure I agree with you there.
I’m not sure that’s always true.
I’m not convinced that’s the case.

Statements such as these usually mean, ‘I don’t agree.’ even though they seem to be saying something less certain. They are generally just a gentler way of saying it.

In a similar way, people may disagree with a statement by seeming to ask a question. Again, this is a slightly ‘softer’ way of disagreeing:

Statement: In any case, women are better at these sorts of tasks than men.
Reply: Is that really true? In my experience, men are just as good.
Response: Is that always the case? I know plenty of men who are just as good as women.
Response: Do you think so? I’m not so sure that’s the case.

A third way of ‘softening’ disagreement is by first saying that you understand what someone is saying, or that you accept that part of what they are saying is true. You may then go on to say exactly what it is that you disagree with:

I take your point – she’s a very experienced teacher, but I’m afraid I don’t think she’s right for this particular job.
I do understand what you’re saying. I just don’t think we have the resources to do this.
I hear what you’re saying – the problem needs fixing. I just don’t think now is the time to do it.

Of course, you are free to disagree in any way that you choose, but if you want to make sure that you don’t sound too direct or rude, here are a few useful hints.

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Monday, May 5, 2014


Picture it. You're typing away. Perhaps you're working on a presentation for the office. Perhaps you're writing out invitations to a pretty little picnic. Or, maybe you're just writing to a pal reminding them about National Donut Day.
Regardless of the reason, you never want to commit one of those easily-missed spelling crimes. It happens to the best of us. Some words are just so darn similar.
So, to help maintain your professional goals, your social calendar, and, of course, your sparkling reputation, here's a quick visual guide for those very similar, and oft-confusing words. Happy spelling!
Bigstock's Grammar Guide: 12 Works You Might Be Misusing
Check out the images used in this post in our Misused Words lightbox. 



Here in the United States, we speak the same language as our ye old predecessors in Great Britain, but we don't always speak it the same way. So, we asked our oh-so British receptionist, Ryan Lovett, to give us a crash course in some of the more notable discrepancies.
Here are 20 words that have pretty different meanings in Great Britain than they do in the U.S. Made with royalty-free images from Bigstock.

1. Jumper 

2. Trainer 

3. Pants

4. Bird

5. Bog

6. Rubber

7. Braces

8. Trolley

9. Chips

10. Coach

11. Biscuit

12. Shag

13. Dummy

14. Lift

15. Hooker

16. Flannel

17. Football

18. Hamper

19. Vest

20. God Save the Queen! 

Ryan would like to thank his office minions in helping him with this in-depth report.

Friday, May 2, 2014

How to use newspaper article in language class (British Council blog)

An excellent article about the challenges that teachers need to overcome to be able to use newspapers articles in class. 


How to use newspaper article in language class

How should teachers use ‘authentic’ texts in class? Author, trainer and teacher Rachael Roberts gives valuable advice on the example of newspapers. She will also be delivering a live-streamed presentation from Belfast on writing effective classroom materials, 11 March 2014.

Back in 1981, Vivian Cook wrote:
‘One of the words that has been creeping into English teaching in the past few years is ‘authentic’. It has a kind of magic ring to it: who after all would want to be inauthentic?’

Teachers and students are naturally attracted to authentic texts (by which I mean any text which has not been produced for the purpose of language learning). Finding that you can read something designed for a native speaker is motivating, and developing strategies to deal with ‘real’ texts enables students to read more confidently and extensively outside the classroom.

But, as Cook goes on to say, we also need to consider just how helpful the authentic text we choose actually is for our students. Many of the features of authentic texts, especially newspaper texts, are far more complex than we might realise at first glance.

First challenge: Text organisation
For example, how clearly is the text organised? This can be a real headache with newspaper texts, which often have very short paragraphs, not necessarily linked clearly to the surrounding text. I remember an activity in the first edition of Headway Intermediate where the students had to order the paragraphs of a newspaper article. It was virtually impossible, because the links weren’t clear enough and because the students weren’t made aware that the first paragraph of a newspaper article usually sums up the whole story.

Second challenge: Headlines
Newspaper headlines can also be hard to decipher. They often use puns or cultural references. This is particularly true of tabloid newspapers, which you might think would use simpler language, but are in fact about the hardest to decipher. Look at this headline, for example, which appeared on the Mirror website not long ago:

It’s Bradley Zoo-per! LEMUR grabs keeper’s camera to join the selfie craze

To understand this headline we need cultural knowledge – to know that someone called Bradley Cooper took a ‘selfie’ (a popular form of self-portrait using a camera, often a mobile phone) at the Oscars (film awards) recently. We also need to know what a keeper is (a zoo-keeper, who looks after the animals) and we need to be able to understand the syntax of the headline. (A lemur took his keeper’s camera and used it to take a self-portrait).

Understanding the genre
If we are going to work with news articles, students need some help and training in understanding the features of the genre. For example, the headline is frequently confusing, but there is often a subheadline which makes things clearer, e.g.:

After actor Bradley Cooper’s Oscars snap went viral, London Zoo’s lemur Bekily gets in on the act

And then the first paragraph usually summarises the story:

This ring-tailed lemur didn’t want to miss out on the selfie craze – so he snatched his keeper’s camera and took his own.

This first paragraph nearly always contains what journalists call the 5 Ws (who, what, when, where and why). Getting students to try and find the 5 Ws (or as many as possible), just using the headline and first paragraph, is a way of leading them into the rest of the text, which usually just adds detail to these main points.

Third challenge: Identifying what certain words refer to
Another common feature is the use of reference devices. Obviously, we find these in all texts, but because of the concise way newspaper texts are written, it can be particularly hard to follow the chain of reference. For example:

Bekily, 12, was watching Tegan McPhail photograph animals at London Zoo at feeding time. Perhaps inspired by Bradley Cooper’s mega-selfie with fellow stars at the Oscars he decided he wanted to pose for one himself.

I think a lot of students would assume that the highlighted ‘he’ referred to Bradley Cooper, because he has just been mentioned (or even Tegan McPhail, mentioned in the previous sentence) when it actually refers right back to ‘Bekily’. To help students with this we could ask them to underline the reference words and then draw arrows to what they refer to.

Fourth challenge: Idioms
And, as you will have noticed, there are also a lot of idioms, especially in the tabloids. With a short article like this one, you can ask students to underline any idioms they find (go viral, get in on the act, mega-selfie) and look them up. They could then try and rewrite the article (or a section of it) without any idioms, putting the original idioms in a list below. If the students have read different texts, they could then swap and ask their partner to try and rewrite the article using the list of idioms given.

Comprehension tasks
Either of these activities could be used with any authentic news text, thus saving preparation time. But what about comprehension questions? Teachers often spend a lot of time thinking up exercises to exploit news articles. And, because they date, the material can rarely be used again.

One solution is to provide a generic task, such as the 5Ws task outlined above. Other possibilities:
  • Ask learners to choose, say, no more than five sentences that seem to carry the main points of the article. This can then be checked by a peer (while you monitor).
  • Ask learners to rewrite a short article, changing some of the information to make it a lie (as outrageous as they wish. For example, Bekily might take photos of the keeper… A partner then reads it and spots the lies.
  • Ask learners to write their own headlines, and talk together to decide on the best one (which will involve discussing the content of the text).
While there are certainly some pitfalls, up-to-date and topical news items can be very motivating for learners, and ways of helping learners to deal with them are a useful tool in any teacher’s toolkit.