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Tutors discussing what makes a good tutorial

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Tuesday, 23 May 2023, 14:14

There have been quite heated discussions on OU tutor forums this week about what makes a good tutorial.

Several tutors feel that face to face tutorials are really best and any online tutorial is second best.  Others state that online tutorials are here and that the advantages of convenience are vital for students (and tutors) who are often very busy with other work.

I had one face to face class recently and it was good to meet students.  I also think they very much valued being able to meet each other.  The effect of knowing that they are engaged in the same course and have the same hopes, challenges, desires etc could be very helpful for maintaining their interest in the course.

Online tutorials can also help students to get to know each other and see how they are individuals working with other people who are different but see some aspects in common.  For example, yesterday, I had a tutorial with one student in the UK and another in Dubai.  We established that they both worked in the broad area of the "caring professions" and this helped them to bond. 

For me, a problem arises when students attend but do not participate.  This means that the tutorial becomes rather similar to the rest of the students' experience of the module.  They may be mentally interacting with the content of the module but they are not engaging with other students or enabling the tutor or fellow students to see how they are interpreting the module material and therefore we cannot give feedback.

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Russian and Ukrainian in a time of war

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The Guardian published a report that it seems that many Ukrainians whose first language is Russian are trying to change the language they use most often to Ukrainian.  The article can be found  at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/apr/24/russian-speaking-ukrainians-want-to-shed-language-of-the-oppressor

There are interesting comments about how Russian had been seen as the language of the city of Kharkiv/Kharkov and how Ukrainian speaking people from the countryside had faced stigma and had often switched to Russian. 

There seems to have been a dramatic increase in the use of Ukrainian in formerly Russian speaking areas.  This has not happened suddenly and one speaker says she decided to use Ukrainian more after 2014 but this change has become more marked since last year's invasion.

One person in the article referred to Russian as a lingua franca and presumably it still could be if there become more contacts with other countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union.  It will be interesting to see whether people in Ukraine continue to learn and speak Russian because of its instrumental usefulness or focus even more on languages like English and German.

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"Everyone hates marking"

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This is the arresting title of an article by Lorna Finlayson in a recent edition of the London Review of Books.  She describes it as an activity that is despised.

However, she refers to it as being dignified and noble, even magical.  I think I can see something in what she says about this.  As a tutor, it is something that I spend a very large proportion of my time doing and I am aware that my marking has important consequences.  At times, it can inspire students and I sometimes have very grateful messages from students who feel that they have learned something from my marking (this is parhaps part of the noble and magical part).  However, I also get messages from students saying they find it confusing or discouraging (perhaps linking back to the "despised activity" Finlayson refers to.

Nowadays, we have criteria we are expected to mark to and this doubtless provides a transparency that was not the case when I was a student in the 1980s (I had no idea why I got the marks I did).  However, as Finlayson writes, these are often rather general and subjective. 

I prefer to think that the formative feedback suggesting to students what their strengths and weaknesses are is more important than the mark.  However, I doubt that many students agree with this and the marks clearly are high stakes for many students.

This means that there is often a tendency to mark quite generously - this is true of most lecturers at most institutions it would seem.  Finlayson makes an interesting point about this and the way it could lead to "grade inflation" when she writes:

"But even if it were possible to return to the good old days when only the top 10 per cent got firsts (and a similar proportion of the population went to university), why do it? To make it easier for Deloitte and Accenture to take their pick? Alternatively, you might make life a little easier for some young people who have been screwed over since before they were born. Whose side are you on?"

I am definitely on the latter side in principle but, of course, standards are important.  I would want the young people that follow to be treated by good doctors, taught by good teachers, served by good public servants etc.

She also refers to students asking what their markers want from their work.  I can empathise with them but also the teachers who often might not have a clear idea and willing to be open minded about what is good work.  I know that very good work from students sometimes surprises me with new insights and this is where marking can be magical (and I hope my responses to the work let my students realise that it is magical when it occurs).

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Adobe connect sessions

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One of the most striking features of Adobe Connect sessions is that they are very unpredictable.  Sometimes, I have 20 students or more and sometimes it is just one student.  There certainly seems to be very little relationship between how many have signed up for the tutorial and how many actually attend.

I have had a couple of one to one sessions over the past few days and thought that they worked well.  It meant that I was able to get to know the student and work flexibly with them.  In both cases, there were some interruptions for family reasons on the student's part and they were able to disappear for a few seconds to deal with them and then we could resume the tutorial.  It also meant that we could focus on what the student felt they needed to focus on and pass over or ignore what was less important to them.

I had spoken with friends who had been teaching online in a university where tutorial attendance was compulsory and they found this hard to visualise and they asked questions like "how do you prepare if you don't know how many students come?"  I suppose the ability to be flexible is a key part of working at the Open University.

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Language learning in Lea Ypi’s “Free”.

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Monday, 30 Jan 2023, 10:53

I very much enjoyed Lea Ypi’s “Free”, an account of growing up in Albania at a time of great changes.  The book is sometimes ironic as the reader gradually understands more than the narrator or the important people in her life.  There are quite frequent references to language and language learning.

One account that particularly resonates is when she describes her father feeling he needs to learn English after the demise of the Communist rule.  Ypi’s describes how he already knows five languages as well as Albanian.

He has a few setbacks when he tries to learn English but then he had some luck.  Ypi describes this as follows:

“Hope came in the form of a fortuitous meeting on the bus home from work with a group of young Americans.  Probably marines,  he said - that’s how he’d heard them introduce themselves.  One could see it in the discipline with which they carried their black rucksacks, in the tight fitting trousers, the crisply ironed white shirts.”

This all seems plausible but then something seems strange at the end of the paragraph:

“They organised free English classes in the evening, they said, and he was welcome to enrol.”

Would marines organise English classes?

Anyway, he joins the class and is happy:

“Not only was my father making fast progress learning English from native speakers, the textbooks were very interesting in their own right.  He learned about something called the Church of Latter-Day Saints and about a doctrine he had never heard of before.  ….The debates were very profound, very substantial, my father reported, never about the kind of trivialities you would expect in an elementary English class.”

So, it becomes clear that they were Mormons rather than marines, which seems more logical.  This reminded me of how religious groups used English teaching as a tool for spreading the religion.  When I worked in China in the 1980s, there was an American Christian group called ELI who sent English teachers who, more or less explicitly, aimed to spread Christianity.  I also remember that many students at Moscow university in the early 1990s were offered the chance to go to courses offered by the Moonies.

It is interesting that the father liked the courses as the content did not seem trivial to him.  In the book, he is portrayed as open minded and humane and this is reflected by his behaviour in class “My father didn’t take sides…. He enjoyed listening and arbitrating” but some of the other students became very agitated as they put forward the Muslim perspectives. 

The issue of what is to be taught in General English classes is a key one.  Content which is motivating for some people (as this is for the father) might be boring for others (it would be for me) or perhaps alienating for others (perhaps those who have particularly strong opposing religious views).

Ypi’s grandmother thought the Mormons were dishonest about their motives but in keeping with his easy going nature, her father suggests that most of the students (who were often devout Muslims) gave as good as they got.

The extract seems typical of much of the book by describing important changes in people's lives in a humorous way.  This links quite closely to what my students on L101 are studying at the moment.  Hultgren (2019: unit 14) discusses humour and describes various categories.  It seems that this book mainly makes use of "breaking with expectations".  This occurs as the father originally thinks marines are organising language classes whereas it is Mormons.  There is also some surprise as the father enjoys the arguments where perhaps many readers might find the arguments tedious or threatening.

Hultgren AK (2019) Unit 14: Breaking with expectations, in L101: Introducing English language studies. Available at: https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1994429 (accessed 27 January 2023)

Ypi L (2021) Free London: Penguin

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Christmas greetings in languages of the UK

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Wednesday, 18 Jan 2023, 16:15

This is a list of Christmas greetings in indigenous languages of the UK


The course L101 discusses the Scottish languages as part of the course.

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Language and slavery 2

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Saturday, 26 Nov 2022, 20:04

Another part of the exhibition at the National Museum was a card that talked about language related to slavery.  This made an argument that “the trade in enslaved people” is a preferred term to the slave trade.  It emphasises that the people affected were people first of all and that something happened to them rather than being slaves as their whole identity.

I was interested to see this term being used on a sign I saw on The Christmas Steps  in Bristol yesterday.

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Language and slavery

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Last weekend we visited our son in Cardiff and went to the reframing Picton exhibition at the National Museum of Wales 


The main focus is on whether someone so cruel should be glamorised and has parallels with the Colston issue in Bristol (and there is even a Picton Street near where we live).  The exhibition is interesting and important in its own right but there were some particular areas that link to my interest in language.

One part of the exhibition discussed the trial of Picton for the sadistic torture of a young woman and her testimony is described as follows:

It is interesting that the Creole is described as a corruption.

This report is from the following source.
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Open Learn Ukrainian course

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Tuesday, 8 Nov 2022, 15:23

There is now a free Ukrainian course on Open Learn 


I think it is particularly aimed at people who have contact with Ukrainian refugees but I am finding it interesting as someone who knows Russian and is interested in that part of the world in general.  

I have done the first two weeks of the five week course.  I had started learning Ukrainian on Duolingo.  This Open Learn course is generally better.  It is more contextualised and teaches in a more varied way that the “sink or swim” approach of Duolingo - I wonder if I could have coped without my knowledge of Russian because nothing is really taught on Duolingo.

The Open Learn course has discussion forums and they provide some social learning but they have not been used much yet.  There has been some feedback and I hope that as more people join there will be more interaction.
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Adobe Connect tutorials

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Thursday, 13 Oct 2022, 19:04

I had my first two tutorials of the academic year yesterday.  It was obviously early in the course and I could not expect the students to know much of the course content so developing a good rapport was probably the main aim.

One seemed to do this better than the other.  In one tutorial, very few were prepared to use their microphones and this led to a slightly stilted tutorial.  It was still useful but it did not really help students to break down barriers and think of how they can support each other.

The other seemed livelier as students turned their microphones on and we were able to speak more naturally.  Unfortunately, my slides did not load (there was no problem with that in the other tutorial) which meant it flowed less smoothly than it might have done.

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Article on plurilingualism in The Observer

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Monday, 5 Sep 2022, 09:40

This is quite a good newspaper article on parents and schools encouraging children to speak several languages and for a newspaper article, it seems quite well linked to what seems to be known.


It seems that there are great benefits to knowing several languages besides the practical ones.  This is true for older people as well.  People can become more flexible and this confers cognitive benefits and it also seems that being multilingual can help with recovery from strokes and make the development of dementia less likely.

There still seems to be resistance in some places to the development of languages other than English at school but this is perhaps less true than it used to be.

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Language issues - Russian and Ukrainian

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Thursday, 4 Aug 2022, 17:07

As often, the London Review of Books has an interesting blog posting related to some of the language issues regarding the invasion of Ukraine and how language choices may often reflect the social realities (Hanafin 2022).  The writer is studying Russian in Paris.

One point that is made is that Ukrainian is very different from Russian.  I am trying to learn Ukrainian on Duolingo and my previous knowledge of Russian is a great aid in this but I am struck by how much is different.  The language distance seems as great as between Russian and Slovak.  Incidentally, there is mention of the language/dialect distinction and this is always a political rather than a linguistic one (there is a famous quotation that a language is a dialect ""a dialect with an army and a navy" (attributed to Weinreich, RLG 2010).

A second point that resonated was the way that teaching examples might change.  So, Hanafin describes how his teacher is adding points about how people and institutions referred to in the texts used for teaching are affected by the war.  This seems to be a reminder that texts used for teaching are not politically neutral and presumably ignoring the war would be a political choice that for Russians would be tacit support for the war.  In a similar way, many language teaching texts address political issues such as climate change.  Language teachers may not be politicians but they do have political as well as language and teaching interests.

Hanafin refers to the way some refugees he encounters "couldn't or wouldn't speak Russian".  The latter seems more plausible to me but of course, I do not really know.  I can imagine that many Ukrainians may now have a negative attitude to the language of the invaders.  This slightly reminds me of a more trivial example I experienced in Hungary.  I do not speak Hungarian and encountered a waiter who did not speak English and seemed apologetic about this, I tried French and again he seemed apologetic but when I tried Russian, he seemed indignant that I asked. 

Hanafin S (2022) Translation exercises LRB Blogs at https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2022/july/translation-exercises?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20220803blog&utm_content=20220803blog+CID_dc3d5ac355cacfedc0624ee8c34eefb4&utm_source=LRB%20email&utm_term=Read%20more {accessed 04/08/22}

RLG (2010) Of dialects, armies and navies The Economist August 4th 2010 at https://www.economist.com/johnson/2010/08/04/of-dialects-armies-and-navies {Accessed 04/08/22}

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The importance of language for integration

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Monday, 4 Jul 2022, 16:23

My son is studying in Germany and we went to visit him last week.  We met in Dusseldorf and went to a museum about the state he is living in and there was an interesting section on immigration into the state.  Language was often an important issue and this is one of the captions.

Caption about the importance of language in the case of an immigramt to Germany from Russia.

It is interesting that she believed that "language is a key to life in Germany".  They are described as learning German from dictionaries, which no teacher training course on language teaching would recommend.  However, this seems to show how important having investment in wanting to learn a language is (Norton 2010).  These people have a real investment in the imagined community they want to join.

Norton B (2010) "Identity, Literacy, and English-LanguageTeaching" TESL CANADA JOURNAL/REVUE TESL DU CANADA1VOL. 28, NO 1, WINTER 2010

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Use of sources

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Sunday, 7 Aug 2022, 11:34

I have been marking a lot of work recently - about 70 EMAs and a large number of final TMAs.  Something that strikes me is issues around use of sources and referencing.

One issue is that many students overquote and some even seem to think that there is only a need to reference if they quote.  This seems a quite ineffective way of referring to knowledge of the course.  The references are often too wordy for the point they need to make.  Sometimes they do not make sense out of context - e.g. writing "now" or even "yesterday" when the student's work is about the situation a few years later. 

Another issue is that many students put a full stop before a reference when the reference finished the sentence.  Sometimes students even put a full stop before and after a reference.  This seems to suggest that they consider the reference as being apart from the rest of the sentence rather than an integral part of the text. 

These perhaps suggest that there need to be new ways of presenting how sources are used in academic contexts.

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Time wasted on inappropriate training modules

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Monday, 23 May 2022, 10:37

Occasionally, staff need to do online training on issues like safety and the "one size fits all" means that time is wasted on irrelevant content.  For example, I had to do a course on health and safety for people who work remotely.  This included several minutes spent on safe behaviour when driving.  I do not drive and do not intend doing so.  Perhaps there could have been a yes/no question about whether the person taking the course drives and if they answer "no", they would not have faced the questions.

There were also some fairly irrelevant questions about carrying heavy loads at work.  I do not carry anything heavier than a book for work but I suppose that content could be useful for other times in my life.

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Linguistic creativity in reaction to the invasion of Ukraine

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I had read about the term pашизм (literally transliterated as "rashism") being used as a way to refer to the ideology that justifies the invasion of Ukraine and I had assumed that it was mixture of Russian (just represented by the "r") and fascism (represented by the rest of the word).

In this article  https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/22/magazine/ruscism-ukraine-russia-war.html Snyder argues that it is more complex than this and that the "ra" links to the way that Russia is pronounced in Russian (it is written as Россия but pronounced more like /ræsiːjə/.  He also suggests that the pашизм links it more closely to the English pronunciation of Russia/Russian.  As a result, he thinks the transliteration should be "ruscism".  I am not sure that I am completely convinced by this but it is an interesting hypothesis.

There is also much interesting discussion of the role of bilingualism in the Ukraine and presumably this means that there is great potential for cross linguistic puns and creative language.

As someone who knows Russian quite well and has just started learning Ukrainian, I am struck by how much of the lexis is diffferent and Snyder gives examples of this but I am finding I get most sentences correct when doing Duolingo as the grammar seems so similar.

Snyder T (2022) "The War in Ukraine has unleashed a new word" The New York Times Magazine April 22nd 2022 Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/22/magazine/ruscism-ukraine-russia-war.html (Accessed 27/04/2022)

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Zelenskiy and adapting messages to audiences

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Monday, 28 Mar 2022, 15:22

One of my students kindly sent me a link to this BBC article about the way Zelenskiy adapts what he talks about to his audiences:


It seems to me that this adaptation flatters the different audiences as well as helping him achieve his aims of trying to garner support.  For example, references to the Battle of Britain perhaps reminds British listeners of the time Britain stood up against tyranny.  It also makes it seem earth shatteringly important because someone so far away refers to it.  The same could be said of the mentions of "liberté, égalité, fraternité" for a French audience.  They may be flattered by the reference.

I am also interested by the way he presents himself.  He looks too busy to care about his appearance although he is probably quite mindful - he looks just "scruffy enough" (an interesting contract with Boris Johnson whose scruffiness is more over the top and seems contrived - there does not seem any purpose to Johnson's uncombed hair, for example).  He appears approachable and has been seen taking selfies with ordinary Ukrainians so probably seems "one of us" despite having the elevated role.  This contrasts with Vladimir Putin who is pictured at one end of a long table.

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More on Ukrainian, Russian and the invasion of Ukraine

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I greatly admired Ilya Kaminsky's long poem "Deaf Republic" and so I was interested in his views of language and writing about the situation in Ukraine at https://lithub.com/ilya-kaminsky-on-ukrainian-russian-and-the-language-of-war/

He refers to Russian speakers now choosing to use Ukrainian as a reaction to Putin's threats and of course what later turned out to be actions.  There is a sad account from a poet of how:

"I have never felt discriminated against because I spoke the Russian language. Those are myths. In all the cities of Western Ukraine I have visited, I spoke with everyone in Russian—in stores, in trains, in cafes. I have found new friends."

So, the language itself is not the problem and it was often a way of bringing people together.  This also undermines Putin's argument that he is protecting Russian speakers from discrimination (but, of course, this is just one account).

An even more interesting and tragic point is made about a Ukrainian poet:

"Just as Russian-language poet Khersonsky refuses to speak his language when Russia occupies Ukraine, Yakimchuk, a Ukrainian-language poet, refuses to speak an unfragmented language as the country is fragmented in front of her eyes. As she changes the words, breaking them down and counterpointing the sounds from within the words, the sounds testify to a knowledge they do not possess. No longer lexical yet still legible to us, the wrecked word confronts the reader mutely, both within and beyond language."

It seems that the way to express the broken world is to use language that is as broken as the world it represents.

Kaminsky then reflects on the issue of himself writing in English and presumably this reflects another angle and other ways of representing a perspective on the events.

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Language and the invasion of Ukraine

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Monday, 28 Feb 2022, 11:41

There has been much talk that the capital of Ukraine should be written in the style used in Ukrainian Kyiv rather than the Russian Kiev - see, for example 


I can see the argument for this but it also has to be considered that many Ukrainians are Russian speakers and many of these are also proudly Ukrainian.  I wonder whether insisting on the new spelling/pronunciation might have the unintended consequence of alienating some from their Ukrainian identities.

It is always difficult to compare language situations but Swansea are not called Abertawe in the Football League.  The supporters who speak English are no less Welsh than those who speak Welsh.  Using Russian for Kiev/Kyiv does not immediately seem to reduce support for the multilingual country of Ukraine.
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Discussion on accents

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Thursday, 17 Feb 2022, 10:51

I was listening to this podcast while walking to play football today.  


It is an interesting and informative discussion about accents and how they relate to perceptions of people.  It mainly focuses on English but some references are made to other languages.

There are some key points that are relevant for students of L101, in particular.

1 Accents are not neutral.

2 There is nothing intrinsically good or bad about any sound or any accent.  However, they do have social implications.

3 RP is a rare accent.

4 There are accents for most (perhaps all?) languages.  They are not unique to English.

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Gender neutral pronoun in Norwegian

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I was interested by this story 


It would be useful to have this kind of pronoun in English, especially for academic writing where there is often the dilemma of choosing “he or she” or using “they” in sentences like “a teacher decides how they/she or he plans lessons”.
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I am addicted .....

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Wednesday, 27 Apr 2022, 19:34

.... to duolingo.

I started practising Russian and Chinese last year on duolingo last year.  These are both languages I have studied before (in the 1980s) and I lived in China from 1986 to 1988 and Russia from 1989.  Duoloingo provides a good chance to practise for free and I think I do benefit to some extent although the practise is very decontextualised.

For any readers unfamiliar with Duolingo (https://www.duolingo.com/), the basic version is free.  A large number of languages are available but there are several gaps (eg Bulgarian).  There are a large (but finite) number of short "lessons" in each language taught - they are more like tests than lessons, though, in most cases.  The user starts with five "hearts" that are needed to access the lessons.  Each time they make a mistake, they lose a heart and when all are lost, they either have to do a practice lesson or wait for a period of up to four hours.  There are also "gems" that are needed to access some content and they are added as rewards for some achievements.

Users are put into groups who are encouraged to compete.  Users get messages that they might be relegated or that someone has overtaken them.  It is interesting how seriously I take not being relegated although it does not affect my learning at all (I get no change in what is available for me).  My wife and brother who also use the app are also anxious not to get relegated.

There are also frustrations.  Sometimes I write a translation that seems reasonable but the app rejects it.  It is possible to report this with a menu item "My answer should have been accepted" and sometimes I get emails saying my suggestion has been accepted but I still lose "hearts" which means that I cannot continue for a period of time. 

Another problem is sometimes the app crashes and I lose hearts and/or gems through no fault of my own.

I have more or less finished the Chinese course.  I have done the basic lessons and only have some lessons to get "legendary status" (legendary for who? 😀) left to do.  I have done some of these but I have to preserve my gems to access these.  It is interesting that there is some fairly key vocabulary not taught.  Despite several lessons on food, the words "soy sauce", "vinegar" "leek" and garlic" (fundamental ingredients) have not been mentioned.  There is a very difficult lesson on "net slang" that features "otaka" (the app seems to think this is an English word - it seems to mean a person who plays computer games all day).

I am well through the Russian course and I recently started Norweigan as a new language - I decided on this because I am interested in the writer Knausgaard but I imagine it will be a long time before I can read him in the original.

Does any of this give me insights for my own work as a teacher?  I think the ability to do short periods of learning is useful for students and is something I should emphasise to students of language.  My choices of language show that outside factors such as interest in cultures are important.  I do feel frustrated by the lack of context.  Sometimes the sentences taught raise questions it would be interesting to discuss (eg one question taught was "Which presents should not be given to Chinese people".  I know partial answers (eg I have been told clocks are unsuitable for retirement) but it would be interesting to have more.

The example of Duolingo is discussed in L161 so it is useful to have experience of it as a "consumer".

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Language and football - use of different varieties of English

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I sometimes play walking football with two groups in Bristol and each of these groups has a WhatsApp group.  One of the group has a strong representations of people who came to Bristol from Jamaica or who are of Jamaican heritage.  They mostly speak and write Standard British English (often with a Bristol accent) but there is some use of Jamaican English when two or more people of that heritage or origin are speaking in small groups, presumably as a way of asserting solidarity and a shared identity.

Until yesterday, all messages on WhatsApp had been in Standard British English but fury about the Lewis Hamilton result in F1 led to several messages in Jamaican English.  There was a feeling that he had been cheated because of his race and perhaps this was why Jamaican English seemed the most appropriate variety to express a group feeling.

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Reflections on first marking of the academic year

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I have just finished marking first assignments for LB170 and L161.  As I have two groups for both courses at the moment (I am covering for one L161 course), it has been a busy time.  As usual, there is a great variety but it seems some students have underestimated the amount of work they needed to do and wrote answers that they could have written without studying the courses.  I hope that my feedback will encourage them to make use of what they are studying in their future assignments (and presumably this is a major reason why they have assignments so early in the course.

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Use of video in online tutorials

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When we first started using online tutorials (Elluminate), advice was to avoid the use of webcams because the quality was not good enough.  However, I recently saw an OU document recommending the use of webcams by the tutor and I have been switching it on recently.  Student response seems to be quite favourable with comments like "It is good to put a face to the name and voice", which slightly surprised me as most of the time I focus on the whiteboard, slides and chat.  However, if it makes a difference to how students feel about the experience, I am very happy to have my webcam on.

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