Audio-visual technologies are rapidly changing and connecting the world. And with this revolution in technology and communications, the way that foreign languages are delivered and acquired has undergone rapid and dramatic transformations, too. A century ago, in 1909, Wilhelm Doegen was the first to introduce authentic foreign language audio material into the classroom. Doegen’s gramophone records of literary works, read by native speakers, gave German foreign language learners a real sense of correct pronunciation and intonation.
One-hundred years later, e-platforms, video sharing sites and instantly downloadable audio-visual material from the internet have ushered in a new era for language learning and teaching. With its speed, the internet presides over a wealth of material and information that can be accessed anywhere, at anytime and by anyone with an internet connection. It is in this context that English Conversation and Culture Oldenburg (ECCO) emerged exactly one-hundred years after Doegen introduced his gramophone recordings into the classroom.
Instead of the virtual voice, though, ECCO deploys highly qualified native speakers of English to deliver the world’s lingua franca in a stimulating, innovative and interactive manner to adult learners in Germany. ‘Gone’ is the traditional classroom setting of Doegen’s day with its strict rows and large class sizes; ‘in’ is a more relaxed, laid-back atmosphere, small group teaching and individualised, personalised learning. In small groups of no more than eight adults, students at ECCO receive intense language training that focuses specifically on the so-called three C’s: the conversational; the cultural; and (e-)communication.
Each weekly two-hour session, with its unique context and overarching unit theme, embeds a wide range of conversational activities, from scenario-based role plays and spoken presentations to individual videoed presentations and interviews. After a confidence boosting prep-talk in the first session, students’ fears about speaking aloud in the foreign language are dispelled. The key to the success of ECCO sessions is the active verbal participation of its students, who are willing to question and be questioned as well as to seek and provide information.
In learning English as a foreign language, an awareness and understanding of English-speaking cultures is paramount: it provides the learner with the cultural context in which the language is spoken and develops their awareness of the ‘other’. Each overarching unit theme is environmentally-conditioned: from home, local and national environments to social and business environments. Each session embeds a clear cultural context that coincides with each particular environment. In this way, students see the cultural relevance of the English material that is being discussed and delivered in the classroom.
At the end of each session (many of which are actively shaped by the students’ own line of questioning and often deviate away from the teacher’s set lesson plan), new words, phrases, grammar points, role plays and cultural information are transferred to a read-only pdf file. These Lesson and Revision Notes are sent to the students electronically. Whilst writing is not emphasised during the lessons, students are encouraged to use the e-mail interface to write to their lecturer in English, ask questions, request help with translations and even rearrange classes if they are unwell. With a promise to respond to e-mails within a forty-eight-hour period, students get immediate responses and feedback to their e-mails in English, whilst, at the same time, practising their reading and written English skills.
Counterpoint: Slang And Language Shortcuts
As a counterpoint to the delivery of correct, received pronunciation as well as accurate grammar usage, students are also given insights into some of the less conventional uses of the English language. In a world of shortcuts and a profusion of accents and dialects, students enrolled on all ECCO courses get a brief taster of American and British slang as well as the language of text messaging, all of which would be encountered, even during the briefest of stays in these English-speaking countries. The intention is to show the flexibility of the English language as well as its modern-day applications in a variety of diverse cultural contexts. In disregarding such intricacies of the language, ECCO would fail in its set mission to provide a broader and fuller picture of the various forms of the English language and the cultures in which this language is spoken.
ECCO on-entry assessment, lessons and courses are all informed by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). The CEFR is a Europe-wide system of benchmark descriptors to describe achievements of learners of foreign languages across Europe. Conceived by the Council of Europe, including by John Trim, it aims to provide a method of teaching, learning and assessment applicable to all languages across Europe. The CEFR is divided into six separate competency areas: A1, A2 (beginner), B1, B2 (intermediate) and C1, C2 (advanced).
Using the CEFR on entry
Accurately determining and describing an indvidual’s language competency is vital in planning their short, medium and long-term goals in the language. In a Kennenlernstunde with the Director of Studies, students are introduced both to the ECCO system and also to the CEFR. Before a course can get underway, students sit a placement test (German: Einstufungstest). The student chooses between a formal or informal mode of skills-based assessment in consultation with the Director of Studies. The results of this particular assessment provide both the Academy of English and the student with a clear idea of the current operational competency of the student in one or all of the following four-skill areas: reading, writing, listening and speaking. Published results are mapped to the CEFR and also have accompanying CAN DO descriptor benchmark statements, so that the student fully understands his/her current level of English in each individual area of language. On receipt of the results, the student can then identify current language level, strengths and weakness as well as determining his/her short, medium and long-term language goals. Once the student embarks on a course with a prescribed language level, the teacher uses both formal and informal methods of assessment to monitor progress, leading to a more formalized test––should the student require it––at the end of the course. Students receive a statement of their competencies in each area and understandable descriptors to reflect and describe their own competency level in familiar terms that are comprehendible to them.
In devising the broader ECCO concept, special attention has been paid to the notion of ‘plurallingualism’, emphasising ‘the fact that as an individual person’s experience of language in its cultural contexts expands, from the language of the home to that of society at large and then to the language of other peoples, he or she does not keep these languages and cultures in strictly separated mental compartments, but rather builds up a communicative competence to which all knowledge and experience of language contributes and in which languages interrelate and interact’. ECCO firmly believes that its programmes can facilitate this interrelation and interaction process, going on to widen students’ language skills and an awareness of similarities and differences between cultures.