National Day Hiatus

During the first week of October, China celebrates National Day, a week of reflecting on the struggles and efforts that have given birth to modern China. My understanding of it is that it’s analogous to July 4th in the U.S. but longer! During the national day holiday, I’ll be traveling back to the U.S. to visit my spouse and to attend a series of shared governance meetings with NYU Shanghai’s parent campus (NYU Washington Square).

During this time, ALx (Re)Coded will be taking a brief hiatus so that I can focus my time on family and a few pressing conference/publication deadlines. When I get back to China on 9 October, I’ll pick up the blogging again by starting to dig into some of my recent work on graduate student professionalization and the acquisition of professional literacy and identity.


Personal Reflection: Language Learner, Language User

Today’s blog post is going to be a personal reflection, of course, colored by my position as a professional in the field of applied linguistics. This reflection has been kicked off by some experiences that I had while taking a short vacation with my husband a few weeks ago.

Allow me to begin by setting the scene. For those that don’t recall, my husband is a Chinese national that is living and working in the United States; while I am a U.S. national that is living and working in China. Recently, he decided to come to China to visit with his family in southwestern China. After that, he stopped by Shanghai for a few days so that we could go to Shanghai Disney; I could show him the city; and, of course, I could make him suffer through coming to work with me for a day. Afterwards, we headed off to Tokyo for a few days of exploring and experiencing someplace new. It was an exciting time, as neither of us had ever really been…a bit sad considering that I spent six years of my university experiences studying Japanese and designing research projects that either looked at Japanese ESL student writing, or that looked at JFL teaching methods. While we were in Japan, we decided it would be best if we had defined roles—to prevent any bickering. So, he was the navigator (since the maps want to load on his phone), and I was the communicator (since we hoped that some of the dormant Japanese would resurface). It was in this role as the communicator that some of what I talk about theoretically as an applied linguist really, truly came to life for me.

Language Attrition & Cognition

I have to admit that I was a bit shocked by just how much Japanese I have lost over the years. Or, more appropriately just how much has been replaced by Chinese. So many things that used to be automatic in Japanese I had to struggle to access. For example, we went to one restaurant, and the waitress asked us in Japanese how many people we had. I used to be able to respond to that without thinking, using the proper numeral form as well. Automatically, Liǎng wèi came out. This caused confusion each time it happened—whether it was asking for prices or just saying thanks. The automaticity of many of these phrases had switched to Chinese.

Which got me thinking about how linguistic, cognitive networks come into play as we navigate our ecosocial spaces. I was most certainly consciously aware that I was in a place that not an English dominant country. In my mind, I was hyperaware of the need to perform in a language other than English. However, when under pressure to perform, the cognitive machinery switched over to the most accessible non-English language meet this contextual need. It just happened to be the wrong one far too often. An interesting quirk that I noticed, even when I was hobbling together some Japanese and English when talking with people, like when I was trying to talk to a kid about how to find the nearest subway, the filler phrase was almost always zěnme shuō (how do you say in Mandarin).

For us to successfully navigate our short stay in Tokyo, I also had to make use of some extended cognitive affordances to make up for my lack of linguistic ability. This need was heightened by the fact that my spouse had a knack for picking places to eat that were not targeted at foreigners, which was great because we ate at a lot of restaurants that were popular with Tokyo denizens. So, for me to discharge my job as the communicator, I needed a few things. I needed my handy dandy phrasebook app, and I needed access to Google Translate. It was also super helpful when I had a patient and willing interlocutor, which seemed to be most people we engaged with. Using these three things, we managed quite well, much better than if we had just pointed and grunted. But, even with being able to use extended cognitive affordances (the apps and the internet) it was a cognitively and socially demanding task to not appear to be the rude foreigner. Something that was made even more complicated by the differing social scripts.

Social Scripts: Governing How to Behave

If you ever want to be reminded of the role that social scripts play in governing interaction, and social behavior just take public transportation wherever you are. My spouse and I got slapped in the face with this when we first started taking the metro in Tokyo. We were tired and on stimulus overload because of all the newness around us. The first couple of times walking through the subway stations and getting onto the trains, we were very much being driven by our dominant “public transit social scripts.” That is to say; we were doing things like we would in China. So, queueing is only really a thing until the doors open. Then it’s a rather free flow of people in and out of the trains. Also, when navigating the subway, it’s about moving quickly to get to your exit. This may mean weaving in and out the crowd.

We applied this social script when we first landed in Japan, which may have got us a few odd looks. This is because in Tokyo you, largely, wait until people have disembarked before you move your way onto the train. Also, you stay in your lane as you walk through the subway…in most places, this means staying to the right. Eventually, we got the hang of it. But, if we were overly tired, we defaulted back to the Chinese social script.

This got us thinking about how these social scripts might have emerged. For example, in post-WWII China, there was the cultural revolution, food shortages, and significant rationing. Some cultural anthropologists have posited that this means the social script for queueing in China is one where you must rush to get a limited supply. Japan received significantly more support from other nations during its post-war reconstruction, which helped alleviate some of these concerns. Certainly, there are other cultural forces driving these differences, but my spouse and I found this to be an interesting thing to consider.

Some Final “Fun” Bits

  1. It was exciting being in Japan where people actually know that my wrist tatoo says “Ganbare” and not just a string of random Chinese characters. The airport security guy was like, “AY! Ganbare! Good tattoo”. While my students are often like, “Um. You know that doesn’t mean anything, right?”
  2. It was fun “messing” with people in China. My spouse is Chinese and when we would go out together service staff would often turn to him, expecting him to order or to pay…or just to communicate. They were a bit thrown when I was doing it.
  3. Sideways glances. My spouse got a few glances while we were in China. We were at Disney and I wanted to get my “Magical Passport” Stamped. So, I would be going up to workers asking them where I could get it stamped. I would be using very simple (and poor) Chinese while my spouse was standing right next to me. A few times the person looked at him imploringly, as if saying “Dude, his Chinese is so bad. Help him! Help me!”


Interdisciplinary Chats

Since I’ve landed at NYU Shanghai, I have been involved in crossing borders—shuttling between silos in an attempt to support student learning and advanced literacy acquisition throughout their educational experiences. When I first arrived, I was told that something that contributed to the decision to hire me, besides my background in L2 writing and TESOL, was that I had knowledge of professional and technical writing from my time leading development at the Purdue Online Writing Lab. So about three weeks into my first semester, I sat down with the dean of the Silver School of Social Work and we started developing a professional writing seminar that would provide L2 writers with a targeted opportunity to continue working on the literacy skills required to be practitioners in the field of social work. We purposefully designed the course to address linguistic and rhetorical issues, while staying away from creating a remedial grammar and writing course—a fact that I’ve felt the need to remind people of recently as leadership has changed.

During my second year, I was tasked with leading a support project to help our first-year sciences faculty better scaffold students’ acquisition of scientific literacy practices. I contributed to and supervised the development of a bank of instructor- and student-facing resources that covered topics like scientific writing best practices, common organizational patterns and genres in scientific communication, and advice for working with L2 writers in an ethical manner, as well as general guidelines for effectively providing feedback about writing.

Despite the fact that all of this disciplinary border crossing has been such a major part of my career at NYU Shanghai, I’ve got to say that I’ve just come to realize something rather profound. I enjoy engaging with people outside of my discipline. It’s thrilling to discuss teaching with others and to highlight the ways that we can complement each other when it comes to literacy acquisition and development. Sure, it can be frustrating when you feel the need to constantly (re-) justify the importance of what you do—which is helping disciplinary faculty make explicit for students what they have implicitly acquired over years of graduate study and professional engagement—but at the end of the day, I enjoy it. We tend to learn a great deal from each other. And, while there are varying degrees of engagement, just like when teaching, when I reach even just a few of my colleagues from outside my discipline, and we learn from each other about ways to improve how we teach students…well, that’s a major win in my book.

TL;DR: Escape your disciplinary silo often and talk with others about your practice. You’ll both gain something valuable from the experience.

Expat Teachers as Language Learners

The semester has begun at NYU Shanghai, and I was sitting at my desk staring out the window with a lukewarm cup of Nescafé in my hands. I had just finished reviewing a few chapters on articulatory phonetics and general phonology to prepare for my seminar the next day. And, my mind was wondering from what to read next—perhaps something for the article that I need to revise and resubmit before 1 December—to the colleague that had upset my morning flow by turning a standard greeting into a chance to vent for fifteen minutes. My thoughts were interrupted by the ping of my email inbox. So, I dragged my mind back to the present and took a look at what had arrived. Perhaps, it would be a request for more materials in class. Or Maybe, it would be an invitation to another meeting or to serve on another committee.

Luckily it was an announcement that the September issue of Asian EFL Journal was out. I try to keep up on the reading in my field; so, I browsed the T.O.C. to see if there was anything worth adding to my queue—which is finally under 30. The very first article sucked me in by the title, “Always the Other: Foreign Teachers of English in Korea, and Their Experiences as Speakers of KSL.” I immediately downloaded the article, not even bothering to vet my decision by reading the abstract. I knew I needed to read this piece.

I’ve written a few posts on this blog looking at the life of the migrant (expat) faculty member (the most recent can be found here). I write about this topic for two reasons. First, it is my current lived reality. I shuttle back and forth between China and the U.S. according to the academic calendar. Second, you don’t see that much work done in TESOL or English-facing Applied Linguistics about so-called native-speaker teachers (NESTs) acculturating to a new culture, let alone the NEST as a language learner in their own right. The relative absence of work on this topic is deafening once you realize it’s there. Seeing Grey’s (2017) entry in the Asian EFL Journal, I simply knew that I had to read it.

I can’t say that there was anything overly surprising about what Grey found. His primary finding was that the foreign teachers in his sample actively pursued L2 Korean proficiency to help them acculturate to their new country and to help carry out identity and affiliative work with the socially significant others (e.g., co-workers, friends, potential lovers, etc.). Many of his participants reported that Korean language proficiency was necessary to integrate fully into their workplaces and local communities. Also, they reported still being set apart because they did not phenotypically present as Korean or East Asian. This set them up as constantly other, especially when their interlocutors responded poorly to their linguistically facilitated performance of social identity.

I must admit that there were places where I was frustrated with Grey’s respondents. At times the simultaneously seemed to want to be integrated into Korean society and to enjoy still the rights and privileges of being outside it—and, make no mistake; all of us expats live in a bubble of privilege in our respective host nations. Said another way, they seemed to want to have their cake and eat it too. But, I acknowledge that feeling. There are times that I, too, wish that I had sufficient language skill in Chinese to more fully, and smoothly, interact with my Chinese neighbours, colleagues, and peers. But, I also acknowledge that I am a guest in this country and that I will always—for better or for worse—be American and not Chinese.

What’s groundbreaking about Grey’s work isn’t his findings, which I come to expect as an expat teacher myself. What is groundbreaking is the shift in focus to the NEST as a language learner. This is something that needs so much more attention. This is made even truer when we consider his findings in relationship to teacher-training and graduate programs, which should prepare ELT professionals for the genuine possibility that they may move abroad for work. So, if you’re an expat faculty member, or you’re a teacher-trainer/MA-TESOL professor…read it, now. Assign it to your students. Discuss it. Come to terms with it. Work to extend it.

Source material.

Grey, S. (2017). Always the other: Foreign teachers of English in Korea, and their experiences as speakers of KSL. Asian EFL Journal, 19(3), 7-30.


Personal PD (Cont.): Mobile Learning in the Japanese Context

Obari, H., Goda, Y., Shimoyama, Y. & Kimura, M. (2010). Mobile technologies and language learning in Japan: Learn anywhere, anytime. In S. Levy, F. Blin, C.B. Siskin, and O. Takeuchi (eds.). WorldCALL: International Perspectives on Language Learning (pp. 38-54). New York: Routledge.


In this chapter, the authors presented the material conditions for mobile Computer-assisted Language Learning (m-CALL) in the Japanese context and explored the efficacy of mCALL implementations for English language learning. They showed that a majority of college-aged students at Japanese universities owned a mobile device (~94%) and that of these students over 60% preferred to use their mobile devices for language learning activities, ranging from lexicon expansion activities to listening comprehension activities. Based on some small-scale exploratory studies, the authors found that students, except for liberal arts students, all had marked gains in linguistic skills after experiencing mCALL interventions.


The biggest take away from this piece was that CALL interventions should meet students where they are at. Increasingly, in Asian contexts at least, this is on mobile devices while on the metro, while queued up to buy food, or even while watching TV. The prevalence of mobile devices in our students’ lives has substantial implications for how we design and implement our CALL tasks, as not every website will be immediately mobile friendly, nor will every file type be equally accessible on mobile devices. It is a critical takeaway when we consider the ubiquity of high-powered smart devices that our students use. Having said this, this chapter had many flaws that made it difficult to follow, and that decreased its potential impact. Most critically, it just tried to do too much. The authors summarized five different studies that they carried out but didn’t go into enough detail for them to be useful. They presented some charts and figures that were never fully explained, which made it difficult to see their relevance to the argument that they were trying to advance.