An Interview with Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton: Language Learning in the 21st Century

Sep 4, 2012 by

Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)  Your study  “Global Trends in Language Learning in the Twenty-First Century”, has just been released. What have you found?

The study examined what the emerging trends are in language education. That also provided insights into what practices and approaches are now outdated.

In a nutshell, some of the outdated practices are:

1.      Saying that learning languages is easy. Achieving fluency takes practice and dedication, over a sustained period of time. Today’s students can see right through feeble promises of fluency without effort.

2.      Authoritative teacher attitudes. Such an approach is now considered ineffective and even oppressive.

3.      Complaining about cutbacks and lack of funding. Cutbacks and lack of funding have been a reality of education for so long that some teachers have been moaning about it for years. Today’s students don’t remember “the good old days”. They want and need inspiration and motivation.

4.      Language labs. Audio labs emerged in the 1940s and today, there are more effective ways to teach speech and listening.

These are being replaced by newer approaches such as:

1.      Frameworks, benchmarks and other asset-based approaches to assessment. There are indications that standardized tests are an ineffective way to measure true competence. Very, very slowly we are starting to move away from them and adopt more positive, asset-based approaches to evaluation.

2.      Individualized, customizable, learner-centred approaches. Learning is becoming more and more individualized and focused on the students and their needs. Teachers of tomorrow will need to shift their thinking, stop thinking about how to get students to learn the curriculum and instead, make the curriculum work for the students.

3.      Proving the value of language learning through stories and speech.

4.      Using technology for language learning.

5.      Linking language learning to leadership skills.

6.      Showing funders the impact their investment has on students and communities.

2) In this age of the Internet and text messaging, how much is public speaking taught in the schools?

Not much, though I understand that it is being revived in leadership, civic education and language arts classes. I did a webinar with a school in TN a few months ago that now integrates student presentations into much of their curriculum. Having students present on their work adds another dimension to the learning, helping them to internalize it. If they have to put it into a format that they can present, they are less likely to plagiarize.

3) I suspect many students learn a lot about diction, projection and other aspects of language from television and the movies- are there good sides to this and what are the negatives?

I’m not sure how much they learn about projection, but diction I think they’d certainly pick up on. I suppose it all depends what they watch. I often told my second language students to watch the news as the speech would be clearer and easier to understand. I remember when I was studying German I would watch Deutsche Welle to hear authentic language.

Hearing authentic language, rather than actors on CDs produced by textbook companies is definitely a plus. The downsides? The kinds of programs many young people like to watch such as action movies and comedies, contain lots of slang and poor diction, making them frustrating to watch for language learning purposes.

4) What exactly do you do at the Language Research Centre of the University of Calgary?

I’ve been with the Language Research Centre since they opened in 2005. I’ve had a variety of different roles there. Currently I serve as a research assistant which means that I conduct research related to languages and contribute to the scholarly community through presentations, conferences and other research-type activities. It is an amazing hub of active minds, all of whom care deeply about languages. Investigations range from language teaching pedagogy and methodology, to second language acquisition, syntax and phonetics.

5) Are the high schools offering more public speaking courses in the high schools and what does the typical school have in terms of a curriculum?

In Calgary, some of the public high schools offer the International Baccalaureate (IB)
Diploma program, which has a higher focus on skills like debate and public speaking. Otherwise, public schools may offer speech and debate through clubs, rather than in formal courses. Through my work on formal, non-formal and informal learning in second languages, I have learned that non-formal learning is extremely powerful and so, such clubs offer students the opportunity to learn skills outside the rigidity of the formal (and often outdated) curriculum.

One private school, Strathcona-Tweesmuir School offers speech and debate as part of their curriculum.

6) Is there a difference between public speaking, communication skills and presentation skills?

Excellent question. The answer is yes… and no. Communication skills are used in all types of interactions, not just when one is speaking in front of a group. In fact, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC), a branch of our federal government, now defines oral communication as one of nine basic literacy and essential skills needed by everyone in order to function in society.

The fact that our federal government has indicated that communication skills are now considered basic literacy tells me that the bar has been raised when it comes to the need for everyone to have communication skills.

But that doesn’t mean that everyone will be a good presenter or public speaker.

Presentation skills are important for business or professional life, especially when a person needs to present an idea, concept or product to others. Presentation skills include such things as learning to use slides to effectively support your work.

Public speaking is closely related to presentation skills, I’d say, but it takes it one step further. Through my work with the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers, one thing I’ve learned is that people who speak for a living, or as an important part of their work, such as politicians, study the art of speaking the same way space engineers study how to build the space shuttle. It requires years of dedicated, ongoing, constant study, refinement and rigor. Public speaking is rooted in the same discipline as debate, oratory and rhetoric, which dates back to the ancient Greeks.

7) Our politicians seem to have to be good at telling the public a lot of bad news- the oil spill, the economy- Is this a part of public speaking that needs to be focused on? Telling people what they do not necessarily want to hear?

There are very few people, I would hazard a guess, for whom this would be a significant part of their work. Most people in management or leadership positions will have the uncomfortable job of delivering bad news at some point. That goes with the territory. In the majority of circumstances, such news will be delivered on a one-to-one or possibly even a small group basis. The skills needed for this type of work would likely fall under communications skills.

Few will ever have to deliver such news to a large group, en masse. People who have that delicate task are likely to be surrounded by others who can work behind the scenes to ensure that the final speech is delivered appropriately. This may include speech writers, PR or communications staff, media specialists and so on. Leaders who find themselves in this position require not only the communications skills of those who deliver bad news on a smaller scale, but they also require the composure, professionalism and grace that go with public speaking to groups on a larger scale.

Second language students would benefit from learning communication skills necessary to deliver news on a small scale, but few will ever need skills developed to the depth of, say, world leaders.

8) Our country seems to be quite divided about certain topics- for example illegal immigration. Do public speakers need to be well versed in presenting both sides of an argument?

Well, since public speaking is related historically to the skills of debate, oratory, rhetoric and persuasion, dating back to Socrates’ day in ancient Greece, then presenting an argument from both sides is a good skill to know for those who speak in public.

If nothing else, learning to present an argument from both sides boosts critical thinking skills and creative problem solving, if the objective is to be convincing, no matter what side of the argument you’re presenting. It would seem to be that those in the professions of law and politics would benefit especially from such skills.

9) What role do parents play in language learning?

A group of my colleagues at the Language Research Centre, led by Dr. John Archibald,  conducted A Review of the Literature on Second Language Learning (2006). They found   that knowledge of a second language can enhance the language skills and use in a person’s first language and can also enhance non-linguistic skills such as divergent thinking and even mathematics skills.

They also found that students with special needs and learning disabilities can learn second languages, at least to some degree.

With this in mind, it stands to reason that parents play an important role in their children’s language learning. Encouraging them to take language programs is an excellent starting point. But perhaps more importantly, parents must encourage their children to continue with language studies. Dr. Archibald and his team found that a significant investment of time is required for students to achieve fluency. Therefore, at some point, students may want to just quit. It’s important for parents to encourage their children to stick with it and not give up.

10) Many public speakers rely on Power Point to get their point across. Is this a positive or a negative?

This is a tough one. I mean, who hasn’t seen terrible slides during a presentation? The audience members end up remembering, and talking about the terrible slides, rather than the content of the presentation.

It takes time and practice to learn how to use slides effectively. Many people hate public speaking and so they tend to “let the slides do the talking”. This fear of speaking in front of others is only heightened when the presentation is done in a second language. I tell my students that they should be able to give their entire presentation without slides.

Having said that, twice in my career, at different times, I have had deaf students in my second language class. In both cases, Powerpoint slides became my godsend. In those cases, I did have more extensive explanations on the slides, but they were still in bullet point.

I guess the bottom line is that the slides should support the presentation, not be the presentation, regardless of what language you’re presenting in.

11) Sadly, some politicians seem to duck, dodge and avoid answering questions directly. Is this a skill that should be taught, or should we offer more courses in ethical, moral, honest communication?

I agree with you. It is sad. If we look at it objectively though, I think this also dates back many centuries to the Ancient Greeks and Romans, when politics and rhetoric became closely intertwined. Through the centuries, politicians, heads of state, and monarchs don’t exactly have a track record for transparency and honesty. These qualities were not always advantageous in the preparations for or during battle.

Perhaps the 21st century is the time to change that? I agree that offering courses in ethics is a good idea. At least that way, we would be teaching our students to think critically and challenge outdated ideas strategically and effectively. Today, more than ever, the common man has more personal power and the potential influence others like never before in history.

Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” If we can get more thoughtful, committed citizens from every corner of the earth who can relate to one another in each other’s language, we are poised for great things in this century.

12) What have I neglected to ask?

I can’t think of anything else, but if you do think of anything feel free to e-mail me. Thank you very much for the opportunity to share these thoughts with you. I very much enjoyed your thought-provoking and engaging questions.


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