Interview with ELTABBer of the month: Breanna Leigh

October 10, 2017

Contact: englishteacherbreanna@gmail.com

What was the subject of your Masters thesis and why did you choose it?

The title of my thesis is “Language Use of International Adoptive Families in Taiwan” which is a qualitative study analysing the language use of Taiwanese/Chinese children adopted by native English-speaking parents from the U.S. and Canada. Unlike other studies I had read where the analysis focused on the internationally adopted children moving to the home country of the adoptive parents and experiencing language change, losing their L1 and acquiring the parents’ native language, my study was somewhat different in the sense that it was a phenomenology study where the parents resided in the adopted children’s home country (as opposed to the children moving back to the adoptive parents’ home country, losing their L1 and becoming fluent in the parents’ native language). I was curious as to how the children acquired English, Mandarin, and possibly “Taiwanese” (Southern Min) and what their proficiencies in each language/variety would be among other factors and issues.

I chose this topic for quite a few reasons. First, I had been thinking about adoption for quite a few years at that time and after seeing a piece on adoptive homes in Russia, that inspired me to do more research on the topic, which in turn, motivated me to research the topic linguistically. In addition, all of my classmates were researching topics related to semantics, syntax, and CALL (computer assisted language learning) and since I loved my bilingualism and sociolinguistics classes as well as learning about SLA (second language acquisition), I wanted to do something in that area. Also, Li Wei (a linguistic scholar) is my idol and since his piece on language shift enlightened me, I wanted to prove (as one of my hypotheses) that language shift was possible in adoptive families. As it turns out, that hypothesis of mine was refuted.

How has your MA helped your teaching practice?

Although I only took a few courses on TESOL, my linguistics background has definitely helped me become extremely observant of learners’ linguistic patterns (speech, pronunciation, errors, etc.) as well as their non-verbal body language, which is important to be aware of. Having this ability makes me more in tune with the learners’ needs and struggles (among other factors) in the classroom and helps me to analyse and apply these issues for when they occur in the future.

What epiphanies did you have while working in Taiwan that would take someone longer to have teaching for equal time in Germany?

To be honest, most of my teaching-related epiphanies are happening here in Berlin, Germany. I have been going through a process of transition since moving here as the methodologies used in the classrooms in Taiwan were quite the opposite to what I’m doing in Berlin, not to mention that my students’ English proficiencies are actually much higher here. Most of the places I worked at focused only on tests (TOEIC, for example) and would spend the entire school year preparing students for those tests. Although there are educators who are trying to use more didactic and student-centred methods, traditional teaching methods are still very common. It was a massive shock to me when I first moved to Taiwan in 2007 (one month after receiving my CELTA) and one of my trainers at a language school telling me to throw away everything I’d learned during the CELTA course. Now that I’m in Berlin, I’m working extremely hard to break all those teaching habits that I acquired in Taiwan. This is why I’m unbelievably grateful for being a member of ELTABB.

With your cross continental teaching experience, what comments can you make on teaching pronunciation to people with such diverse native languages? What things about teaching German speakers might we be taking for granted?

I have to say that for eight years, I only had to focus on the pronunciation issues of Mandarin Chinese speakers (although I did have students from Hong Kong and Malaysia), so I’m now in the process of mentally noting and analysing all the different pronunciation issues in a linguistically diverse classroom. One of the things I do is that I always highly exaggerate my mouth movements when teaching phonetics/phonics. The “th” sounds /θ/ and / ð̼/ seem to be the ones most learners have issues with.

What makes teaching/living in Germany different to teaching in Taiwan?

As I said in question 3, I have learned that the methodologies used here are very different than in Taiwan. In Taiwan, I was only scratching the surface of didactic teaching whereas here in Berlin, I’ve had to dive into it. Plus, most of the resources I used in Taiwan are quite worthless here and now I’m working on gathering teaching resources. I hope to someday be able to create my own teaching materials again, but for now, I’m just taking what I can get and find.

Personally speaking, I really suffered from severe culture shock in Taiwan. I moved in 2007 with only about 1,000€ in my pocket and completely on my own never having even stepped foot in Asia before. Because my mom and step dad have lived in the Netherlands since 2000 (and I lived there for a couple years as well) moving to and living in Germany has been a piece of cake!

Did your Masters of Linguistics have a significant lasting impact on your teaching or would you say your experience has become more the dominating force?

Oh, absolutely! I loved being in the linguistics program and being able to apply that to my teaching! My professors were amazing and a couple of them really inspired me to become a uni lecturer. I also have a great friend who has been a lecturer at uni in central Taiwan for over 25 years and he also encouraged me down this path. That said, as much as I love teaching, I find that I am starting to really miss having time to do linguistics research. Due to financial issues and [lack of] time, I never really had a chance to be published in an academic journal and it’s something that I regret and I hope to change very soon.

Of all the different types of teaching that you do, what is your favourite?

I have quite a few! When I was in Taiwan, I loved teaching hotel and hospitality English. Now that I’m in Berlin, I love teaching my “intercultural communication” lesson to my uni and high school students. I have a lesson dedicated to Grice’s Maxims, Brown & Levinson’s Politeness Theory, CQ, Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions, cultural misunderstandings and how to deal with them, taboos, euphemisms, PC language, and more. The lesson only touches on the fundamentals and/or the main ideas of these concepts, but the ideas, concepts, scenarios, and media are interesting to the students and it makes me smile to see them actually interested in learning something that I love. With my high school students, I try to teach them a little about Berlin and I even go into a “street art” lesson where we discuss the murals and we all go on a street art tour and workshop to learn about the local artists and crews and their works. It’s a total blast for everyone! I’ve also learned to love teaching TOEFL prep. I find that when I first need to teach a topic I know nothing about, I really struggle, but I work extra hard to be knowledgeable in the subject and teach it well. I got a couple emails back from my last intensive prep course from students telling me their high TOEFL scores and thanking me for my help. Now I’m working on academic writing. As a person who considers herself a “writer”, teaching writing has been incredibly difficult, but once again, after some positive feedback from some students, I’m completely motivated to be the best academic writing teacher EVER!

Where do you see yourself (or hope to see yourself) in 10 years? What is your ideal teaching situation?

I see myself with a PhD in linguistics (or something close) and a tenured professor position somewhere in Germany or in the Netherlands. Ideally, I want to stay in Berlin so hopefully, I can find something permanent here.

You’ve been to a lot of Eltabb events; do you have any favourites?

I’m trying to refrain from using emojis or typing “Haha” here but as much as I love all the workshops and seminars, my fave is the Stammtisch. As most of my friends (ELTABB and not) know, I’m a workaholic. By the end of the week, I’m exhausted and the introvert in me just wants to stay home, cuddle with my dog on the couch and watch Netflix. I love going to the Stammtisch to just chill, talk shop, talk to all you lovely and awesome ELTABBers new and familiar, but also do it while having a nice beer or glass of wine in hand (and food).

How did you hear about Eltabb and why did you join?

I remember doing research on teaching jobs and the like while I was still living in Taiwan and preparing myself (and my two dogs) for the big move. After I arrived, I did a consultation hour with Expath and the consultant mentioned joining ELTABB. As for the reason for joining, my mom and step dad raised me to be “business-minded” and professional. I remember networking and volunteering with an expat group in Amsterdam and well, networking in Taiwan was much more casual but still feasible and effective. My parents were a bit freaked out that I was making this big move without having secured a job or visa beforehand (when I moved to Taiwan, I had a job and visa already secured before moving) so I had to prove to them (and to myself) that I could survive and thrive in Berlin and I was going to do whatever it took to make that happen. That said, I also wanted to meet other teachers and make friends.

Who would you like to nominate as ELTABBer of the month for September?

There are so many people that I’d love to nominate (and sorry for not doing so) but I’d have to go with Evan Frendo. He’s a well-known member with some great experience and advice, not to mention he has helped my self-esteem greatly with his encouragement!

Edited by Mandy Welfare