September 2017
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THE ROLE OF LINGUISTICS IN TEACHER IDENTITY
Bridget Schvarcz, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel

This article assesses the impact of linguistic knowledge on English language teachers’ classroom practice and its contribution to language teacher identity.

A language teacher’s persona is shaped by, among various factors, awareness of the structures and pitfalls of the target language. The Association for Language Awareness (n.d.), suggests that teachers should have “explicit knowledge about language, and conscious perception and sensitivity in language learning, language teaching and language use,” professionally known as language awareness (LA) or knowledge about language. According to Shulman’s (1987) famous tripartite definition, to be effective practitioners, teachers should acquire pedagogical knowledge, knowledge of student learning, and subject matter knowledge. Being aware of the structure of the target language is a key component of subject matter knowledge. Moreover, a deep insight into the target language springs from linguistic training. Today, most teacher education programs include a significant number of linguistics courses. Studying this subject has been linked to improvement in the teaching of both mother tongue and foreign languages (Cots, 2008; Andrews, 2008; Bartels, 2005).

My study investigated the beliefs of a group of English as a foreign language (EFL) teachers in the Israeli education system about the importance of language awareness as a factor in their professional identity. The central issue of this study enquired into whether knowledge gained in linguistics courses, taken during teacher education training, was transferable to the teachers’ day-to-day teaching. I was curious to find out about EFL teachers’ general attitude toward linguistics courses and how their education programs affected their LA development. In particular, I wanted to investigate the contribution of linguistic training to language teacher identity.

We selected 22 English language teachers from the Northern region of Israel and with varied teaching experience of 3–20+ years to take part. They filled out a digital questionnaire consisting of 11 questions, which required their retrospective commentaries on their own teacher education programs and the analysis of their current praxis. My questions divided into four types:

  1. Teachers’ general attitude towards linguistic courses: Questions of this type asked for a metaphor to describe the participant’s attitude toward the linguistic training received and for the evaluation of the influence of the linguistic courses on one’s LA.

  2. LA relevance, knowledge-transfer, and application in classroom practice: Questions of this type asked for the degree of transference and application of linguistic knowledge into everyday teaching. Participants were asked to recall specific teaching situations in which they applied their LA.

  3. Linguistics and methodology—division and fusion: Questions of this type asked whether the participant received any explanation on how to apply linguistic knowledge in the classroom and if the fields of pedagogy and linguistics merged for him or her.

  4. The essentiality of LA to being a good teacher: Questions of this type asked whether knowledge about language was necessary to be an effective practitioner.

Overall, the recipients of the questionnaire were really engaged in this topic and indicated a positive mindset toward the survey.

My results showed a high degree of awareness toward the applicability of linguistic knowledge in the classroom: 77% expressed positive opinions, 10% gave negative responses, 11% of the answers were left blank, and 2% gave answers such as “don’t know” or “I don’t remember.” Regarding knowledge transfer, the participants reported an average score of 3.2 (on a scale of 1–5, 1 standing for ‘not at all’, 5 standing for ‘to a great extent’) of linguistics applicability to the context of EFL teaching. Regarding the merger of linguistics and pedagogical practice, the responses were split down the middle: 50% indicated no or very little correlation, and 50% saw direct influence. An extremely high number, 19 of the 22 participants, indicated that LA is essential to their professional identity.

The participants reported that their teacher preparation programs had a significant effect on their LA development. Furthermore, they pointed to a clear correlation between linguistics and the teaching of grammar in the school curriculum:“these courses enhanced the importance of teaching grammar” and “influenced my understanding of different rules and structures existing in the English language.” They report the direct influence of their grammar-based knowledge on answering students’ queries and resolving confusions: “It was very useful for my students to learn that the ‘-ight-’ has German roots, and the ‘-cious-’ pattern is French originally.”

As the preceding findings indicate, the English language teachers in this study sample have come to appreciate the insights that linguistic training has to offer and report positively that their LA is pedagogically oriented. They found the linguistics courses taken in their training programs to be a key component of their language awareness and of great benefit to their teaching practice. They clearly report being aware of the advantages of linguistic training, and are open to exploring language in the classroom using an analytical approach.

To conclude, the participants of this study greatly value their linguistic training and report a high level of applicability thereof. There was a consensus of opinion that linguistic knowledge has a clear pedagogical use in the form of the presentation of grammar topics. My results are in line with the findings of Borg (2005) and Bartels (2005), who claimed that knowledge about language is viewed by teachers as a key component in their professional development. The voices of teachers in my study indicate that linguistic knowledge is advantageous to language teacher identity. As one of the respondents so aptly said: “I am sure that I'm a better teacher because of raising awareness of metacognitive knowledge about the language and how we learn it and deal with it.” This statement accentuates the concept of linguistic knowledge as an essential element in teachers’ identity.

References

Andrews, S. J. (2008). Teacher language awareness. In J. Cenoz & N. Hornberger (Eds.), Knowledge about language (pp. 287–298). Houten, the Netherlands: Springer Netherlands.

Association for Language Awareness. (n.d.). ALA definition. Retrieved from http://www.lexically.net/ala/la_defined.htm

Bartels, N. (2005). Applied linguistics and language teacher education: What we know. In N. Bartels (Ed.), Applied linguistics and language teacher education (pp. 405–424). New York, NY: Springer US.

Borg, S. (2005). Experience, knowledge about language and classroom practice in teaching grammar. In N. Bartels (Ed.), Applied linguistics and language teacher education (pp. 325–340). New York, NY: Springer US.

Cotts J. M. (2008). Knowledge about language in the mother tongue and foreign language curricula. In J. Cenoz & N. Hornberger (Eds.), Knowledge about language (pp. 15–30). Houten, the Netherlands: Springer Netherlands.


Bridget Schvarcz is a PhD student in linguistics at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan Israel. She teaches in-service training courses on various topics for the Israeli Ministry of Education for experienced EFL teachers in the Northern region of Israel. Her research interests are: formal semantics, educational linguistics, teacher identity, and professional development.

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