Developing foreign language learners

Dr Hui Ling Xu, an academic in the Department of International Studies at Macquarie University was recently awarded best poster by popular vote at the recent poster session held as part of Learning and Teaching Week at Macquarie University.

I asked Hui Ling to tell us a bit about her project and what motivated her to work on it…

2015 L&T Week Poster Session on Language Learning
Dr Hui Ling Xu at the 2015 Macquarie University Learning and Teacher Week Poster Session on Language Learnng



The language learner project

Hui Ling explained that the project, titled “Using language and intercultural learning portfolio in developing foreign language learner autonomy and intercultural competence”, has two foci: autonomous linked learning and intercultural learning.  She has combined the two based on a sociocultural theoretical framework which stressed the importance of including intercultural enquiry in foreign language learning, which previously has focused on linguistic competency. For example, when she teaches Chinese, a lot of her students have indicated they are studying it for solely pragmatic reasons to improve job prospects. This might be okay but unfortunately when these students get to China, many still cannot communicate in a culturally appropriate way. Intercultural communications means you need to know about the target language culture as well as knowing about your own culture and how the two cultures work together.

Before this project she would teach the vocabulary without getting deeper into why the Chinese would use language in certain ways.  For example, she explained that courteous expressions are repeated in Chinese to overcome the monosyllabic nature of the Chinese language. This might otherwise sound rude. Reduplication is a cultural nuance, which might seem out of place in Australia.

Another example, is in the use of terms of address. Here you say uncle for the brother of one’s father or mother or the husband of one’s aunt. The Australian Aboriginal people use the term uncle for older people, to whom the speaker may not be related. Whereas in Chinese, she says, we need to be more specific. In traditional Chinese culture from the Confucius tradition everyone has their own place. Specific naming of relationships associates particular responsibilities with that role.

What motivated you to do this project?

She noticed that many students tend to be passive in their learning, even though her feedback from them was positive. Also, she had completed two previous research projects looking at the learning motivation of students and most responses indicated motivations around job prospects. So in order to cultivate students affective and integrative factors, i.e. developing a closeness and appreciation for understanding the culture, the language and the people, she combined the two. Hui Ling’s aim is to really foster this autonomous learning giving students more charge of their own learning and fostering their cultural enquiry.  She has now developed ten activities that include intercultural enquiry and language learning.

Will this project contribute to better student engagement?

She has already observed that student attendance is much better than last semester.  This semester, up to now, the page is full of ticks, instead of crosses and reported absences due to sickness.  Also she can observe active engagement in the learning logs of her students , where they reflect on what strategies they are going to adopt to tackle the learning materials. In her Chinese class where she has employed this dual-pronged approach, she says it already feels like a success in terms of student engagement.

What’s your most memorable moment in teaching?

Hui Ling has many memorable moments teaching her students but most notable has always been when students present her with thank you cards and flowers at the end of semester or when they complete their Chinese studies. She says that students appreciate her enthusiasm and her interest and support for them, as well as being well prepared and always motivating. She often receives positive feedback regarding her deep informed knowledge of her area and her ability to explain things well.

She is planning to tell her students that they are part of her success with regard to the best poster, though she is not sure she can tell them how much work she puts into her teaching and this project. She does it because she is a committed and dedicated teacher and believes her students deserve this.

Outside of work, what are you passionate about?

Hui Ling has many areas outside of work that she is passionate about, if only she had more time.  Her first love is foreign language learning and she studies French and Spanish in her spare time.  She is also a very enthusiastic amateur artist and loves singing and sport.  Musicals and operas are among her favorite music genres. She mentioned having been to multiple performances of Les Miserables, watched the film and have been to many other musicals by local music societies. She also loves sport including yoga, pilates and tai chi.