Teacher Development Session: Elephants in the Classroom

This morning I attended a workshop organised by ELTABB and hosted at The Berlin school of English.  ELTABB (English Language Teachers’ Association Berlin-Brandenburg) are a fantastic organisation founded on the principle of “teacher helping teacher” whose goal is to offer professional development to English Language teachers.  I’d recommend them wholeheartedly to any English Teacher working in Berlin.  There’s a link to their website below.

The workshop was entitled Elephants in the Classroom – a Problem of Hedging and was delivered by Andreas Grundtvig, an author, trainer, teacher and consultant who is passionate about pragmatics and imaginative learning.

elephant, kiryat-motzkin zoo (2)

The session was about ‘hedging’ (hedges are ‘words whose job is to make things fuzzier or less fuzzy’ Lakoff, G: 1972) in the English Language: how we use various degrees and types of politeness in different situations and the importance of this for students – particularly with intercultural groups.  The workshop had a very ‘open’ quality to it and we, as participants, were able to share thoughts, experiences and ideas, and were encouraged to ask questions throughout. There was no extraneous ‘fluff’ as I’ve seen in some teacher development sessions – everything Andreas said was relevant or referred back to during the session, and he provided us with a lot of very useful links and resources.

Andreas began the session by talking about the Royal Baby.  I was admittedly a little perturbed (having heard quite enough about it in the media) but also curious to see how the context would develop.  The topic led to the child’s cultural and class background, and some very interesting facts about behaviour in the royal household – in terms of the type of language expected.  The personal link here for Andreas – with his own rather multi-cultural background – was lovely to observe:  I always enjoy a teacher bringing their own personal experience and character into the classroom (which I note in my post Is it Important for Students to Like Us? as being an important factor in building rapport).

We went on to discuss acceptable social behaviours and the principles of pragmatics (H. P Grice; 1975).  Andreas had sent a survey to the participants prior to the session, questioning the appropriateness of various lexical phrases when emailing a range of recipients (boss, spouse, etc).  It was interesting to note that there was a lack of ambiguity in the responses and most participants were in agreement about to whom they would write certain phrases, but it also highlighted the importance of context.

I was very glad this came up, as it’s something I’ve been mulling over a lot recently:  the importance of context in language teaching.  Anne Hodgson who attended the workshop related a charming anecdote about using the word ‘gotcha’ (to mean ‘I understand’) as part of her ‘classroom language’ with Business English students, and hearing them repeat it as part of a business meeting role-play.  As much as we need to grade our language for lower level students, we need to be aware of how our ‘classroom language’ (when meeting and greeting students, giving instructions, explanations, etc) influences the language choices our students make.  I don’t think with higher level students we should always and only speak the language we’re teaching – perhaps we’re with a long term class and the teacher student relationship is relatively informal – but I think it vital to build students’ awareness of the different contexts in which we use certain language.  When I first began learning German I would try to translate a polite English sentence into German and end up sounding quite mad.  Giving students language is futile if we don’t teach them when and where to use it.  As Andreas put it; context is crucial.


Andreas then went on to talk about hedging and showed some advertising slogans as examples, as well as a BBC Hard Talk extract and the wonderful Monty Python grim reaper sketch – all very pertinent examples.  We discussed politeness (in linguistics) and strategies for saving face and Andreas told us that if there’s one thing we should take away today it’s that:

there’s no such thing as the British being more or less polite 
than anyone else, but the difference is in our understanding of 
politeness and the language that we use.

We identified examples of ‘Face saving strategies’ (Brown, P. & Levinson, S; 1978), both in the Monty Python sketch and some quotes about the Berlin wall, before going on to discuss ‘Impoliteness Strategies’ (Culpeper, J. 1996) which set out to ‘damage the speaker’s face’.  You can read more (and share thoughts and ideas) about the role of impoliteness in language teaching in Andreas’ Facebook group (of the same name, link below), but here’s an extract of his introduction to the topic:

Interpreting the behaviour of others as rudeness often leads us to 
resort to stereotypes and turn a cold shoulder of our own. In the 
business world, an ill chosen word or phrase can result in a 
breakdown of negotiation, turn a warm first encounter into a 
frosty meeting or bring a phone call to an abrupt end.  On the 
other hand, impoliteness can be used to establish rapport and 
clinch an important deal!  Is it time that we stopped shunning and 
start accepting this important subject?

Earlier in the workshop Andreas had talked about finding common ground between students as stimuli for peer discussion, and came back to this point (and a lovely exercise he shared for it) as a way of getting students talking in order to observe the type of language they use, highlighting the importance of helping students to decode the English language in varying situations.  Linking back to his previous context of the Royal baby, he said:

we grow up surrounded by different cultures but it is our 
responsibility to teach what is expected and what isn’t.

On another note, the conference was a great opportunity to meet other ELT practitioners in the city.  I met several people with whom I’d have liked to have set up further contact, were it not for the fact that I’m returning to the UK later this month.  But I look forward to getting involved in more ELTABB events when I return next year.

All in all, the morning was a fantastically positive experience.  The content of Andreas’ workshop was incredibly though-provoking and is certainly something I’ll look into further.   Sometimes I wish my teaching schedule allowed me more time to study and research these areas, because as Andreas said to me after the session, ‘we’re only just beginning to scratch the surface’, but that said I wouldn’t want to spend less time in the classroom as, after all, that’s where these ideas come into practice.


ELTABB    http://www.eltabb.com/main/
The Role of Impoliteness in English Language Teaching:
Andreas Grundtvig’s blog:     http://andralma.wordpress.com/
Andreas Grundtvig’s website:  http://www.playlands.org/Andreas.htm


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