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The NATECLA (National Association for Teaching English and other Community Languages to Adults) National Conference took place this year in Guildford at the University of Surrey. The overarching theme of the conference was ‘Language, Migration and Identity’. It was, in fact, the first ELT conference that I have been to! I found a lot of what I saw and heard there very interesting, and would like to share some highlights here. I was at the conference sponsored by the British Council, together with Phil Bird, Callie Wilkinson and Amanda Wilson, involved in a presentation of the Council’s online resources to raise awareness of them for ESOL teachers. I’ll write about that session in a future post, but you can get an idea of the content by looking at the presentations we made at a British Council seminar in June. A recording of the seminar can be found here: http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/seminars/esol-workshop

Part 1 – a keynote that really was noteworthy

Celia Roberts gave the keynote address, titled ‘Language, Migration and the Gatekeepers’.

The first thing I noted was related to the title – Roberts hold that migrants to the UK and ESOL teachers are gatekept by institutions and institutional processes (the example Roberts gave was that of migrant workers at selection interviews) – and to Roberts’ related metaphor of a ‘linguistic penalty’. That is to say ‘all the sources of disadvantage that might lead a linguistic minority group to fare less well in the selection/evaluation process’. Certain examples of this given by Roberts were of prohibited languages (currently Kurdish in certain places would be one of these; an example going back, although not related to the UK, might be regional languages in Spain during the Civil War and Franco dictatorship); governmental policy regarding language used in certain professions; the conflict where migrants are expected to be fully functional in a capitalist environment, yet also inevitably perceived as ‘foreign’ and different; Citizenship exams.

So far, so clear. All obviously contexts and situations where someone who does not speak English (or the language of the country they are in) as a first language would find themselves at a disadvantage. What was really interesting was when Roberts looked in more detail at the selection interview process.

Janus: he looks left, he looks right...

Janus: he looks left, he looks right...

The metaphor here was Janus: both interviewer (and interviewing institution) and interviewee are stuck in a position of having to look backward and forward in time; and inward and outward in terms of experience, ideology, context. Hiring organisations look outward to those that they want to hire, while also looking inward to reaffirm what they are, what they stand for. Applicants have to show their past experience while also projecting how they would work in the organisation were they to get the job in the future. That duality flummoxes me, and I’m a native speaker!

This is even before you come to the type of questions asked at selection interviews. Here are a few from Roberts’ talk (both from her visuals and examples given orally):

  • What would you say is an advantage of a repetitive job?
  • How does an organisation manage change?
  • How does illness make you feel?
  • How do you know what you don’t know?

How easy would those be to answer if English was not your first language? I’d say how easy are they to answer if English is your first language!

Among the actions recommended by Celia Roberts were running employment-related courses based on real practices (to best prepare learners for such processes) and arranging appropriate work experience for ESOL students.

A final thought from the keynote: it is usually those that can tell a good story that succeed at selection interviews. Perhaps what we need to be doing is helping our students to tell their stories. What do you think?

You can find the slides to Celia Roberts’ talk (along with other speaker and workshop related documents) on the NATECLA website here: http://www.natecla.org.uk/content/526/national_conference_2010/

Image credit: Bust of Janus, at the Vatican, from wikimedia http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/f/f4/Janus-Vatican.JPG