I’m currently involved in a project with BBC Learning English that aims to support people from certain communities living in the UK to take their first steps towards learning English. The target areas for the project are Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Somali communities and the people we aim to help may face significant barriers that have prevented them from learning the language. They may live in very isolated communities, and rely on family members when they need to do things in English. They may be struggling with very poor living conditions, while attempting to bring up their children. They may have fled from very dire conditions in their own countries, such as war, famine and poverty, so they may have had a very disrupted education or possibly have never been to school.
The project is running as part of a consortium that won funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government, with the overall project being led by the Tinder Foundation, and involving both BBC Learning English and the British Council. The part of the project that is already running in a sort of pilot phase is called English My Way. You can read more about it here on the Tinder website, and on the English My Way site itself here. This part of the project focuses on a blended learning approach to teaching English, with tutor-led sessions being run in community centres. The British Council and BBC Learning English collaborated on the syllabus, with the Council focusing on producing teaching resources and BBC providing multimedia resources in the form of short video clips.
The part of the project that I am involved with, as part of a small team in the BBC Learning English department, focuses more on voluntary provision for language learning and attempts to reach people who would find it difficult to make it to English My Way sessions. Learning Circles, the part of the project for which the BBC is completely responsible, are intended to be used by volunteers with groups of their peers for informal sessions where they learn a little bit of language related to different situations they might find themselves in.
I am obviously not from any of the target communities and neither are the other people working on the project, so we had some areas that we needed to research before moving on to producing content for the Learning Circles: Who are these people who can’t access English classes? and What level of language do they actually have? being a couple of the key questions we needed to ask. We went to visit two community centres where English My Way classes were taking place, in Southall and Birmingham, and it was an interesting and useful experience. The groups consisted almost entirely of women, of differing ages and differing ability in and willingness to use English. They also seemed for the most part to be highly motivated to learn, something at odds with the media portrayal of migrants to the UK.
We asked them questions about where they used English, if at all, and tried to eke out from them the reasons why they might not be using English. My initial suspicion was that these communities build up self-contained ecosystems – there is no need to learn English for buying food when you can simply go to the local shop where they speak Bangla, Urdu or Somali, for example. From our investigation and questioning, this indeed seemed to be the case, as well as (over)reliance on other family members to get things done. Oft-mentioned were spouses or children who were more fluent in English who helped these ladies with shopping, arranging appointments and so on. We asked more questions and eventually hit on an approach for our Learning Circle content – situation-based videos focusing on key phrases that could be used to successfully complete some kind of transaction or conversation in English. These situations included things like talking to another parent in the school playground, phoning up to make a dentist appointment, tackling the self-checkout at the supermarket, among others.
Filming in such varied and busy locations would be almost impossible to do live in the wild of a city like London, Birmingham or Blackburn. Instead, we continued with the feel of the videos that the BBC had already produced for the English My Way course, with real actors filmed on green screen with an animated background filled in during post production. Writing the scripts for these videos and shooting them has been one of the most interesting experiences in my ELT career thus far, and certainly one from which I have learnt a lot about the production process and writing realistic yet clear and comprehensible dialogue.
I plan to share a bit about this process in one of my next posts, but for now I’ll leave you with one of the funnier things you can do when shooting on green screen 😉