Written by: Dora Blagova, PhD, lecturer, New Bulgarian University
In this paper we address some of the problems arising in teaching English for Telecommunications due to the diversity of its subject matter coupled with the students’ different background knowledge and skills both in the subject fields and in language proficiency. A possible solution is seen in designing and structuring the course for maximum flexibility based on TBL (Task-Based Learning) and PBL (Problem-Based Learning) approaches and the Internet as a resource.
Teaching language for specific purposes is inherently difficult because of the subject content and the specifics of the language that carries information. Quite naturally, the first questions to be answered are “What has to be taught?” and “Who can teach?”. There are two main trends related to the first question, namely skills-based teaching organized about skills like taking notes, summarizing, essay writing, giving presentations etc. and subject content-based learning in which the emphasis is on the content and the language is treated as a tool. When the emphasis is on teaching skills the more appropriate instructor is a language teacher, but when the content is in focus the problem arises whether an instructor who does not possess appropriate knowledge of the subject is the happy choice. In this case the language teachers in the role of ESP instructors are presented with the challenge to acquire an appropriate level of background knowledge in their students’ academic subject.
Another problem is related to the students’ proficiency level in the foreign language as well as the level of their background knowledge in the special subject. The development of interdisciplinarity leads to the necessity students to become knowledgeable in several fields as the subjects they study are interdisciplinary.
The field of telecommunications is no exception. Being the main medium for the development of the information society it quite naturally has to deal with several subjects.
1.1. The field of telecommunications and specifics of the language
The telecommunications industry has truly become an interdisciplinary field of knowledge, combining computer science and electrical engineering disciplines.When discussing the content of the field of telecommunications we need to consider first of all its three major aspects, each including a number of disciplines:
- Technological aspect – It is technology that provides for information transfer;
- Economic aspect – It is money that play an important role in the development of technologies;
- Human aspect – It is people who deal with information and the meanings that flow in all directions and it is people that have control over the delivery of information and the meanings.
It is obvious that the content of the area of telecommunications is marked by a diverging and ever-increasing number of disciplines. Networking professionals and communications specialists in today’s information society require knowledge in numerous areas: computer engineering, information management, telecommunications networking, wireless communication, satellite, radio, TV, to name a few. What is more, any of the major topics can be dealt with not only on a technical level but also on many others. For example: business – market, players, company strategies, marketing, etc. cultural/intercultural: personal, local, corporate, national, societal, international, economic, legal, political: laws, lobbies, regulation, social – impact on society, individuals, news – current trends, innovations – e-government, e-commerce.
Correspondingly, the discourse of telecommunications is modeled by all these disciplines. There are various types of texts to be dealt with, including business letters, strategic planning, manuals, articles, etc., hence students will encounter a variety of rhetorical structures. The diversity of the field of telecommunication reveals the fact that although terminology has to be monosemous actually it is not – on the one hand the same term in two different fields may have different meanings and consequently different translations, on the other hand, the same meaning can be represented by different terms. Terminology, although vernacular words are often used to name technical concepts, poses a problem because as stated by Vygotsky (1982(1934):217), the naming of abstract concepts involves mental operations that are different from the those used for concrete concepts . Within terminology a distinction is to be made between scientific terms and technological terms along the line of how close to vernacular lexis they are with regard to categorisation. In short scientific terms are defined by necessary and sufficient features while technological categories mainly focus on functionality and social purpose (Pueyo, 2000). The structure of terms is characterised by long chains of n+n compounds often mixed with other morphological classes as well as acronyms which tend to be lexicalised (White, 1998).
Students need English in their course of study and for their future professional occupation. There are many foreign companies operating in Bulgaria where all employees are required to possess a certain level of English proficiency besides the requirement for being able to readily apply technology from several disciplines in order to seek innovative solutions to the full range of telecommunications needs. From this follows that upon completion of their study at university, students need to be able to deal with a variety of subjects using English as a primary tool and to perform well in: negotiating contracts, participating in meetings and discussions, explaining technological developments and new products, attending social/ professional events, making presentations, reading academic/ professional journals, attending professional conferences, written business communication.
An ESP course needs to equip them with skills and knowledge to do these activities. But, when students embark on an ESP course, there are problems related to:
– the homogeneity of the group with respect to their level of English proficiency and their background knowledge in the subject matter. Although at NBU the first two years of study are devoted to more general subjects, including general foreign language, there are problems with the homogeneity for several reasons: not all students meet the mandatory requirement for foreign language at B1 in English (they can choose between 6 languages). On the other hand, not all students are hard-working and achieve the required level. What is more, they are not equally equipped with special subject knowledge (they may do the same course at a different time, for examples some students may have studied electronics, but others – not), their background knowledge before entering the university is different (some have studied at vocational schools). And last, but not least important is the fact that not all students acquire the same level of knowledge either in their major or in English. This leads to well known problems, which I shall not discuss now.
– the attitude of the students towards the study of the specialized language. Students with higher level of proficiency often think that they do not need to study specialized language. They are not aware of the true difficulties and what exactly they lack and what might hinder them from performing well in an English telecommunications environment. To raise their awareness we need to put them in situations in which they cannot manage on their own, to show them in texts and through tasks they have to complete that they need to notice specifics and identify difficulties. Such students usually read texts in their field with an ease convinced that they understand them perfectly well. But when they have to utilize the information in the text they start experiencing difficulties. When they are asked to make a summary of the text, translate part of it or give an equivalent of a term, or inform their colleagues about what they have learned from the text, they realize that they either have not understood the text entirely, or are unable to interpret it and formulate the message the author makes. On the other hand they have insufficient knowledge of the subject field in terms of concepts and flexibility of meaning. They usually experience two difficulties – adaptation of their general language proficiency to the demands of a special subject field and deriving new knowledge from a text in a foreign language. On the other hand students with lower level of proficiency think they are unable to use any texts for any purposes. They are not aware that they can still learn and get information from a text in the foreign language based on their knowledge of the subject and their proficiency in the foreign language by manipulation of the features of the text
– the environment is Bulgarian, which means that if students have to do a task that entails looking for information from institutions or other sources, or discussions with specialists, they will most probably use Bulgarian, not English; but there are some positive facts: special subject lecturers are knowledgeable as regards the terminology in English and usually present the concepts with both the English and Bulgarian name, and there are many mixed companies where one can find information in English.
2. Possible solutions
The first consideration is related to the choice of a method that will equip the students with skills and knowledge that will provide for their further learning while performing either at university or the workplace. It is obvious that the PresentationPracticeProduction model is not fit for solving the problems stated above: one could not cover all the topics within a course, grammar could not be graded and presented based on proper texts. A skills-based approach is not appropriate from the point of view of content as it does not contribute to students’ obtaining any knowledge from the texts they are dealing with and they easily lose motivation. What is more, they will have to go through some adaptation in order to start using their skills when they have to do a real life task. Obviously we could not dispense with language teaching, but the problem is how it is to be done: as the main focus or as a follow-up.
A possible approach is teaching across the curriculum that will broadly mean learning the language in relation to other subjects studied in the major program, or interweaving language tasks and content with the tasks and content of other courses. Still, the method of teaching has to be identified. Where we shall look for solutions depends on our point of view regarding language. Although we cannot reduce a point of view to a method, the point of view determines what method/methods we choose.
If we adopt a semiotic point of view of learning it is only natural to choose methods of teaching that will not separate language from knowledge and experience, neither shall we lay the emphasis on any of them as they are interwoven. Language is a tool that helps us make meaning of the world we live in through experience. Here I shall cite Donald Thomas, who concisely and clearly points to these relationships and their place in the teaching process:
Language grows out of life, out of its needs and experiences . . . Good work in language presupposes and depends on real knowledge of things. I never taught language for the purpose of teaching it; but invariably used language as a medium for communication of thought: thus the learning of language was coincident with the acquisition of knowledge (Thomas, 48).
The problem is how such a view could be implemented in the classroom. To what extent a well-structured curriculum and syllabus with the accompanying materials is the method that can help implement this view? Is there only one method that can be used to implement such a view? If a variety of methods is used, how this happens in class, how does this reflect on students’ motivation? How is the balance between language learning and subject learning to be maintained?
Within the semiotic view of language as a representational device interconnected with the other representational devices of culture Danesi (2002) develops network theory as a framework for discussing language acquisition. He contends that “associative conceptual structure is convertible into linear surface structure through a process called reﬂexivization” (Danezi p.58). Thus Danesi lays the emphasis on conceptual and metaphoric networks and the acquisition of the conceptual structure of the foreign language since the acquisition of its grammatical structure and lexis is not enough.
Another method which deviates from a syllabus organized in terms of grammar and vocabulary is the task-based learning. Willis (1996) defines TBL as an activity which involves the use of language but in which the focus is on the outcome of the activity rather than on the language used to achieve that outcome. The syllabus is organized around tasks which the learners are expected to carry out in the language, such as using the telephone to obtain information; drawing maps based on oral instruction; giving orders and instruction to others, etc.
From a constructivist point of view Savery and Duffy(1995) consider PBL as organizing proper learning environment. They state: “In our own examination of learning environments, however, we have found one application that seems to us to almost ideally capture the principles — the problem-based learning model of Howard Barrows (1985; 1992).” Further they outline the distinctive characteristics of PBL as: “all of the learning arises out of consideration of the problem”, “cognitive apprenticeship focusing on both the knowledge domain and the problem solving associated with that knowledge domain or profession”, “The learners have ownership of the problem.”(Savery & Duffy, 1995:13). Their work is not related to language teaching, but to instructional design in general. A concrete, practical development of the PBL in the field of ESP is the 1999 Leonardo project for Teaching English for Technical Purposes ( TENTEC). The purpose of this approach is to integrate language and content study to facilitate autonomous learning. Students are presented with a problem to solve in their field of study. They have to prepare a report in the target language and present the results in the class.
While in TBL a task is an activity which is designed to help achieve a particular language goal and the answer is known to the teacher, in PBL problems are ill-defined, there are several possible solutions and the answers are not known to the instructor.
All the above mentioned approaches are new trends in methodology which turn the focus from language practice to dealing with real life problems in the solution of which language is a tool and the study of the language is necessitated by the need to appropriate the tool so that the task be done and the problem solved.
I shall present below some ideas how to exploit these methods in an ESP course for students of telecommunications:
1. I consider the idea of a real life problem to be solved around which the course is organised as the most appropriate for our situation. In this way the difficulty of selecting texts for teaching purposes is resolved because given the problem, the students themselves will find proper materials that will motivate them to work on them. Using mind mapping (the technique which was originated by Tony Buzan; the online mind42 software is used) they brainstorm for concepts and ideas they have already learned in the field of telecommunications, identify their existing knowledge of English terms and structures they can use to represent this knowledge, identify what they further need to learn in terms of language and content, then search for new information on the internet and libraries, discuss and use the new knowledge to solve the problem. Mind mapping can be used for developing conceptual networks which is done based on students’ previous knowledge and looking for sources of information to complete the map. In this way at the first stage they obviously will start with Bulgarian conceptual networks, but with the help of English sources they will switch to the English conceptual networks and will be able to make the corresponding comparison and discover the points of difference. Then they can produce a text based on the mindmap, thus effecting what Danesi calls reflexivization. Since this can be done collectively, students with better command of English will help other students produce grammatically correct sentences and use appropriate lexis. In this process, the teacher is a facilitator helping out when students cannot cope on their own.
2. The fact that neither the students nor the teacher know the solution to the problem turns the process of problem solving into a natural activity and not a simulated one.
There is a change from “I know the answer, but I will not tell it to you. You need to invest effort in order to find it, present it and compare it with mine to see whether you’ve done a good job.” into “I don’t know the answer. I’ll be looking for it, too. I can tell you, show you, give you advice on how you can cope with the problem. You can come up with all possible solutions. We shall discuss them together, compare our findings and learn from each other.”
3. Cooperation with lecturers in telecommunications is very useful as the problem-solving task will have a real outcome. The major subject lecturer can suggest a case or a task the outcome of which is to be presented as a course assignment in his/her discipline (sometimes the task is to translate an article to serve as a basis for a presentation on a given topic, sometimes a review of a technology, other times it is an essay expressing students’ opinion). The language teacher is the one that organizes the preparation, the development and fulfillment of the task, which can only be done using the foreign language as a tool for getting information, developing knowledge in the field. In this process, the teacher, who is looking for answers together with the students as he/she doesn’t know the answer beforehand, naturally becomes a partner and an assistant, gives guidelines and shares experience in finding answers.
Students either read or summarize their findings depending on their abilities. More proficient students summarize, less proficient ones – read, then they prepare an outline putting the main points on the board, discuss them and finally prepare a summary collectively. In this process the less proficient students get involved in using the language in a friendly and cooperative environment with various clues and prompts available. Classroom management becomes a student-driven operation – the teacher has to be ready for all sorts of deviations from a preconceived plan.
4. The place and role of language instruction changes as there isn’t a syllabus organized in terms of grammar and lexis that helps students master “the target language in ready-to-assimilate pieces” (Foster, 1999), starting with easier elements and gradually moving towards more difficult ones. Language points to cope with appear while working on the problem or the task and they are dealt with as they arise. More knowledgeable students instruct the less knowledgeable ones, the teacher only monitors and interferes if necessary, instructing them to look for clues in the text that will help interpret the meaning, and, if needed, find an appropriate Bulgarian equivalent. Students will also need to get used to looking for help from various reference materials such as online dictionaries, online grammar books and sites like answer.com or to use Google wisely as a corpus of texts to check some language points such as usage of prepositions, collocations, or the correctness of a phrase. The teacher can also provide the students with handouts explaining grammatical points, giving examples, revealing the relation between grammar and text. For example, to help reading comprehension some information may be given on cohesion, how it is realized and how it can help understanding. If needed, some practice can be done through appropriate tasks, such that can be done by finding clues in the text. If the task is to fill gaps in the text, its successful completion must be dependent on clues in the text so that students are aware that they need to read the text carefully to find support and prompts for the decisions they have to make. For example, in a text on transistors students have to choose the correct preposition in the phrases: “current flows toward/across collector” and “current flows toward/across transistor”. The decision is based on knowledge of transistors, movement of electrons and manipulating signs (interpretation and translation). The prepositions across and through can both be translated in Bulgarian with preposition prez. Knowledge about transistors and current makes it clear that current cannot flow toward the transistor, but inside it can flow toward the collector (the relation emitter – collector). This distinction of the meaning of the above prepositions is acquired at the stage of general language, but it needs to be acquired in the new context (conceptual and linguistic knowledge).
5. Translation could not be avoided as the environment is Bulgarian and when students have to act as problem-solvers they will have to use all sort of sources; there will be articles and informers who will give information in Bulgarian, they will be tempted to discuss difficult points in Bulgarian, etc. But since one of the requirements to students of Telecommunications is to be able to translate texts, although not as professional translators, the need to translate the information found in Bulgarian will actually be helpful because there is a real purpose for doing the translation, namely to be presented in class (this could be done with the help of articles in English on the same topic). On the other hand, regarding translation as interpretation, we should state that translation is an integral part of the whole learning process. In order to acquire and appropriate knowledge one has to interpret various facts, situations, etc. represented in different manners in different semiotic systems, both typological and topological. To solve the problem students read texts, listen to audio materials and watch videos, use the Internet. Translation often helps deeper understanding of the concept and ideas presented in the text. Translation of terms is important as they name concepts which have been acquired in the mother tongue and it will be more efficiently to translate than to make the student go through the process of learning the concept again. On the other hand, concepts form the so called conceptual networks, mentioned earlier in this paper, which are not identical in the different languages. There are differences which the students need to become aware of in order to be able to effectively understand texts (written or oral) in the foreign language. That poses the problem of looking at concepts both ways: in any language separately and at the level of translation equivalence between the languages.
In conclusion, I would state that PBL as a general framework for organizing an ESP course seems to be the most appropriate approach. Techniques from other methods and approaches can be used and successfully applied, but not in the structured way more traditional methods require. There is a lot of flexibility and the instructor has to be prepared to provide for various resources, to change plans, modify instructions, etc. The greatest danger is the possible avoidance of using English in the process of working out the solution to the problem because of the environment and the sources used to solve it. Eguchi (Eguchi 2006) inform that students do not use English while working on solving the problem, which prevents them from developing good language proficiency. This could be overcome by using the Internet not only as a recourse for information, but for communication as well.
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