The Multilingual Mozambican: Remembering my U.S. English Language Fellowship

The English Language Programs of the U.S. Department of State is celebrating their 50th anniversary of the Fellow Program. As a former English Fellow to Mozambique, I want to share my teaching English experience as part of the celebration. I wrote about my fellowship in a newsletter while working elsewhere. Sections of the article are provided below. Please note that this information is outdated. It’s a snapshot of the early 1990s in Maputo, Mozambique from the perspective of a foreign worker.


Sandra is standing between her students and her supervisor is beside her in the living room.
Sandra hosted a house party for her students. Her supervisor, Public Affairs Officer David Ballard, is standing behind her. Student Aboobakar Patel is standing at her other side.

The Multilingual Mozambican (Rogers, 1995)

I miss Africa. It was as great a pleasure as a hardship to teach in Mozambique. From September 1992 to December of 1993, I was employed by the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane (UEM) in Maputo, the capital city. After interviewing at TESOL Vancouver, the (USIS) United States Information Services provided me with an English Teaching Fellowship (ETF) contract for one year. Having always wanted to visit Africa, the stability of a US government contract made my adventure-in-the-wait a job reality with roundtrip airfare, medical insurance, and a generous stipend. In addition, UEM provided me with housing.

…My (US) salary as a visiting teacher was better than that of the host nationals. Monthly, I received $600 and the equivalent of $200 in their currency (Metical), which suffered from superinflation: one dollar equaled 5K meticais. My first check was for a million meticais.

Mozambican money in $10,000 bills

When I first arrived in Maputo, the country was still at war. There were numerous war orphans and amputees on the streets. During my stay, I witnessed the uneasy steps towards peace that eventually led to a peace accord and democratic elections. I saw the UN tanks replace their army’s. I experienced the rebel leader leaving the bush and taking up residence in the city (my neighborhood). I talked to teachers who after being restricted from traveling outside the city for 15 years, finally got to go visit their hometowns. It was an amazing time in Mozambican history, one that I’m glad I can share. The UN Mission (UNOMOZ) was a success and the troops pulled out. The country was a tropical paradise in ruins that needed to be rebuilt. The major obstacle to rebuilding the infrastructure and a normal lifestyle was the litter of hundreds of landmines. Mozambique had the largest landmine problem in the world.

…Portuguese, as well as many African Bantu languages,  are spoken in Mozambique. Spanish is understood by the Portuguese speakers and vice versa. It’s very close. I think it’s important to mentions this because, like most Americans, I was completely unaware of this fact. However, in my humble opinion, Portuguese is a more structurally complicated language.

Being fluent in Spanish helped me meet the language requirement to get the job. Also, my volunteer work with the Peace Corps (PC) in Honduras (1985-87) and an internship in Guatemala (1991) showed my ability to adapt to harsh conditions. Due to severe droughts and a sixteen-year-old civil conflict, Mozambique was one of the poorest countries in the world.

Teaching conditions at the university were definitely third world: no window panes to keep the dust out, sometimes no running water to wash hands or flush toilets, and frequent power outages. Most importantly, transit was limited for the students. Public transit was nonexistent in Maputo. Given these hardships, one must wonder why anyone would want to work there. Well, I knew from my PC experience that no matter how much I put into a job like this, I would gain more from it; and I strongly believe I have.

As a light-skinned, American female raised in a democratic society, I underwent a complete minority immersion. Placed in the Engineering faculty to teach English for Specific Purposes (ESP) to beginners, I encountered a majority of black males as well as a host of visiting professors from Communist countries. Mozambique was a Socialist/Communist country undergoing political change. In the past, they received assistance from Russia and Cuba, as well as other former East bloc countries. Some of my students had received military training in these countries and thus spoke Russian, German, and Spanish. Additionally, many Mozambican professionals had studied abroad…Not many Mozambicans spoke English, but a good number of them were multilingual. One charming example of this was the night I went out with some German backpackers to a simple open-air bar and had half the locals buying drinks for us and speaking German.

Another factor adding to the multilingualism in Mozambique is that many educational materials had been donated to the university in languages other than Portuguese… So learning how to read in English (the language of the largest selection of books) is necessary for third and fourth-year students at UEM. Hence, ESP programs focused on reading proficiency.

To add to the multilingualism, many visiting professors didn’t speak Portuguese and thus lecture in their native language. For example, my students were used to receiving math classes in Spanish because of the numerous Cuban professors employed at the Engineering faculty. Visiting professors make up about 50% of the staff due to the  ‘brain drain’ caused by the civil conflict and previous war of independence. In such a case, the majority of management and PhDs are very young and abroad obtaining their credentials.

As for the communication in my classroom, students received instructions only in English at first, but they were informed of my Spanish fluency and consequent comprehension of Portuguese. We exchanged English for Portuguese during free periods. The only formal instruction for non-native (adult) speakers at that time was the Brazilian Cultural Center downtown. I attended classes for one month, but the accent was so different that I decided it wasn’t a good idea. Mozambican Portugues is truer to Portugal given the colloquial insertions and accent. This is because Mozambique was Portugal colony until 1975.

Eventually, I learned to communicate in Portuguese. My students were at ease after my acquisition. It led me to question the ‘English only’ rule: If I’m to be the facilitator, how can I help them if I can’t speak their language? That year (1993) an article appeared in the TESOL Journal questioning the validity and general acceptance of such rule with no empirical basis. In my opinion, this rule creates a high affective filter. I was made aware of this by reading hundreds of my students’ journals each week.

To further expand on my minority immersion, I was the only American teaching English in the city, probably the entire country. British English dominated Africa. This is due to…their colonization…and their continued outpouring of funds for English programs throughout the continent. For example, the British Council had a wonderful library and resource center in … Maputo.

I taught these students English for Specific Purposes (ESP), which included vocabulary on the subject of civil engineering.

…Teaching Mozambicans was a great pleasure. They were very receptive and gracious. I miss my students and the Mozambican teachers. Together they showed me how to relax and have a good time despite the harsh conditions. Thanks to them, I too have become multilingual. Initially, Mozambique was at the end of the world for me, as it appears to many based on their global location, but now it seems somehow closer with the education I carry of the land and its people.

Mozambican student's note on back of class photo

#ELPalumni #Mozambique #TESOL #fellowimpact

Reference

Rogers, S. (1995). The multilingual Mozambican. The Teacher, 1(2). Recife: Brasil: Association Brasil America.

My Personal Learning Theory

Embed from Getty Images

Learning is the acquisition of knowledge, skills, abilities, as well as the acculturation of values, attitudes, and emotional reactions (mindset). Learning is determined from the following observations: completion of a new behavior/task, change in frequency/speed/intensity to said task, changing the complexity of a task, and responding differently to a particular stimulus. Moreover, learning can be inferred from certain situations like avoidance of risky or unpleasant behaviors.

Learning is impacted by prior knowledge (and misunderstandings), a learners’ belief system, and environmental barriers. Environmental barriers include economic, physical, political, linguistic, ethnocultural, and social ones. For example, societal barriers include gender bias.

According to Pinker’s debate with Spelke (2010) at the Harvard Mind, Brain, Behavior series, there’s a great deal of parental discrimination in raising and reporting on sons versus daughters’ individual differences in math and science. She suggested that this produces a pattern of discrimination in favor of sons. For example, parents of children in the 6th or 8th grade thought that their sons were better at math and science than parents of daughters of the same age. Subsequently, females may lose interest or be discouraged due to lack of encouragement. Of note, male and female students at that age both reported liking math. Fortunately, teachers of that same age group reported no gender biases.

My personal learning theory is a myriad of best practices supported by human learning theories of behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. (I actually place constructivism within the cognitivist umbrella term.) I adhere for the need to show measurable outcomes, which is rooted in behaviorism. An example would be the utilization of measurable objectives. Moreover, I acknowledge the use of positive reinforcement to enhance learning. As for cognitive theory, I adhere to cognitivists’ self-regulated learning. For example, I’m a constant learner who reflects on my own understanding of a topic or methodology and seeks ongoing education.

From constructivism, I utilize Vygotsky’s (1978) sociocultural learning theory to address misconceptions. For instance, I use a term called, ‘smart mistakes.’ These types of errors are often based on preconceived rules, such as the application of false cognates to a second language. In this situation, the learner is drawing from their first language, which is part of their sociocultural background.

See my blog post on Where Learning Happens. See also my Teaching Philosophy.

References

Pinker, S. & Spelke, E. S. (2010). The science of gender and science. Harvard Mind, Brain, Behavior. [Presentation]. President & Fellows of Harvard University. Retrieved fromhttp://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k69509&pageid=icb.page334500&pageContentId=icb.pagecontent698262&view=watch.do&viewParam_entry=28700&state=maximize#a_icb_pagecontent698262

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Understanding A Learner’s Misunderstanding

Fish and fish-like animals and people
Fish is Fish, written & illustrated by Leo Lionni (1970); Published by Penguin Random House

In Fish is Fish ©, Lionni tells the story of two friends, a fish and a tadpole, who grow up together in a pond. When the tadpole becomes a frog, he’s able to hop out of the pond and discover land.  Upon return, he describes to the fish the wondrous things he has seen. The fish imagines these things based on his prior knowledge and understanding of the world.  Hence, birds are fish with wings, cows are fish with udders, and people are fish in clothing, and so forth. With an inability to imagine a very different reality, the fish simply superimposes the new on the old.

This story illustrates the impact of a learner’s prior knowledge on new information. Generally, the learner is unaware of their misunderstandings. Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999) found a solid research base to support tapping into a learner’s prior knowledge. Learners’ preconceived notions remain unchanged if their initial understanding is not engaged by the instructor.  In fact, even if students learn new information about a concept for a test, they may still revert to their original understanding when transferring it to real world applications. For example, in a 1983 study by Wandersee, students’ prior knowledge on animal food needs biased their understanding of the primary source of food in green plants.  Elementary and college students held the misconception that soil was the plants’ food even though many had received instruction on photosynthesis. Bransford et al. suggested that educators find ways to make a learner’s thinking visible in order to address these misconceptions.

Second, a learner’s belief system is tied to their experiences and culture. Sometimes in order to make sense of something new, one needs to see it associated to something known within their culture. Bransford et al. give the example of storytelling, which is an important component of some cultures. This can be associated with the language arts curriculum as a skill. An educator needs to have an understanding of the learners’ cultural background to aid sense-making. Generally, second language educators understand the importance of valuing a learner’s cultural background. Their specific training on the nature of language (linguistics) describes how culture is inextricably tied to language. Therefore, it’s important to use many examples and nonexamples in teaching new concepts. These should be open for discussion to allow learners to make connections to their understandings. In this way, the student introduces their own culture versus the good-willed but misinformed teachers’ understanding of culture not her own.

Third, it’s important to understand the economic, physical, political, linguistic, ethno-cultural, and social environmental barriers to learning new concepts. In my opinion, the fish-is-fish phenomenon occurs with learners whose systems include one or a combination of the following: monolingualism, racial homogeneity, geographic isolation, closed systems (those that exist without need from outside systems), economic hardships, and political isolation. This list is only cursory.

I  encountered various environmental barriers when using food to discuss nutrition in the elementary classroom in East Los Angeles. A school grant provided fresh fruits and vegetables with nutrition lessons weekly to a classroom. The day I introduced blueberries became more of a discussion on the fruit than on its nutritional values. The high cost of this fruit, coupled with it not being a part of the ethnic foods generally sold or purchased in the area, made blueberries an oddity. As one can imagine, students were more interested in tasting it than hearing about it. How could I appropriately describe the taste of a blueberry to someone who has never eaten one? The nutrition program’s lesson time frame for eating the fruit was generally on day three; of course, I didn’t stick to the plan. However, in some instances, the fruit was shipped still green, so that it would ripen according to the right day of the lesson plan.

Sandra Rogers, PhD

P.S. I received permission from Random House to use this copyrighted illustration for this single blog post!

Trace Effects Video Game for Learning English as a Foreign Language

Trace and other characters in the game called Trace Effects
Source: Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State

What is it?

Trace Effects is an educational 3-D multimedia interactive video game that can be played individually off-line from a DVD or online individually or with a group.  There’s also a complimentary mobile app called Trace Word Soup, which is a vocabulary game. Trace Effects was designed for English language learners (ELLs) ages 12-16 by the United States Department of State (DOS), Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

What does it teach?

The game teaches American English and culture in the context of a student entering a university setting for the first time.  For example, Trace, the main character, navigates the campus in search of the student information center to obtain his student identification card in order to access certain buildings and ultimately progress to the next level of play. This game (and all of its supporting material) is part of an outreach program of the Office of English Language Programs and the American English resource center, which supports the efforts of the Regional English Language Officers (RELOs) worldwide.  RELOs work directly with English language specialists to promote American culture and English language learning activities in public and private schools abroad.

What learning principles and practices is it based on?

I was able to interview key stakeholders about the game’s program theory.  Based on their comments and my review of the game and existing documents, I concluded that Trace Effects is based on the following major concepts: cognitivism, constructivism, the communicative approach to language acquisition, the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) Technology Standards Framework, and gaming as an instructional strategy.  Moreover, the DOS’s vision (pillars) factor into the game.  The following DOS pillars are embedded in the levels/lessons of the game: entrepreneurship, community activism, empowering women, science and innovation, environmental conservation, and conflict resolution.

Who is the target audience?

The game was designed specifically for secondary school students in various nations who are involved in the English Access Micro-scholarship Program.  This is one of the State Department’s outreach efforts to provide English language skills to talented 13-20 year-olds from economically disadvantaged sectors of the world through after-school classes.  The purpose is to provide an opportunity for participants to improve their English skills to increase their chances of better employment and/or entrance into post-secondary schools. For example, Access participants may compete for, and participate in, future exchanges and study in the United States. 

How will one know if users improved their English language ability and/or learned about American culture by using the game?  

In the Trace Effects’ teacher manual, teachers are encouraged to assess students before and after so many hours of playtime (pretest/posttest).  There are numerous extension activities in the teacher’s manual to assess learning (alternative assessments).  For example, the student worksheets associated with each chapter allow teachers to monitor student learning.  Students can monitor their own learning through the passive game feedback of points, redirects, and level achievement (self-regulation).  Students share their progress on an electronic log with their teacher.  There are competitions held worldwide for the record of the highest scorer.  Stakeholders reported that educators could conduct action research to compare a control group that does not play the game with that of the treatment group that does.  Another idea is using think-alouds for qualitative research—taking notes on what students report on while playing the game (phenomenology).

How can I access this game for my students?

Visit the US DOS website to play the game and download the manual.  If you teach English abroad, contact your local RELO for access to the Trace Effects DVD and supporting material to use in your classroom.  Click here to learn how to download the Trace Word Soup app.

To learn about the program theory behind the game, see my logic model of Trace Effects.

Your blogger,

Sandra Rogers

P. S. A special thanks to the US DOS Office of English Language Programs for the use of this image.

Reference

Rogers, S. (2014). Program Theory Logic Model of Trace Effects Video Game. In Proceedings of World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education 2014 (pp. 1662-1674). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.