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The latest webinar organized by the Council of Teachers of Southeast Asian Languages trained language faculty on how to better teach multiword units to second language learners.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies)

Beginning with multiword units

For some, the sentence, "They moved to California for good," might be easy to understand, but this multiword item takes time for newer English language learners to process. What does "for good" mean? Can you use "in good" instead of "for"?

"One of the most interesting areas of research in second language acquisition is how language learners process and use multiword items, or chunks of language," began Charlene Polio, professor in the Department of Linguistics and Germanic, Slavic, Asian and African Languages at Michigan State University. "Theory and empirical research suggest that a pedagogical focus on multiword items can facilitate language learning."

On March 12, 2021, Polio led a virtual workshop for members of the Council of Teachers of Southeast Asian Languages (COTSEAL) from over a dozen different institutions across the U.S. and in Southeast Asia. The webinar was cosponsored by UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies (UCLA CSEAS). Polio began by covering phrases that cannot be taken apart — idioms, binomial expressions, lexical bundles, discourse markers, collocations — to illustrate the spectrum of multiword items and the need to understand how to best teach these items in language classrooms. 

Resources and activities for the classroom

For first language acquisition, Polio said children can repeat back longer sentences if they contain chunks. This lends itself to unpacking how usage-based theories can assist in second language acquisition, indicating that the frequency of structure is relevant to learning. Polio suggested for teachers to develop curriculum materials with sequences of language that may be more salient to their students. This also helps when teaching formal grammar rules and demonstrating that occasionally there is a difference between what the rule says and what is more commonly used.

Polio also recommended using specific databases, such as the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) for English in this case, to identify what words typically collocate, such as a discourse marker like "in conclusion" or a binomial expression like "salt and pepper."

During the webinar, Polio offered several exercises and activities for listening, speaking, reading and writing, as well as for various proficiencies, to engage professors in experimenting with teaching methods and applications.

Best practices for teaching multiword items

"We have to move beyond just thinking about idioms. We need to think about other kinds of multiword units," added Polio. "It's really important that you use some authentic material because that's how learners get exposure to these multiword units as they exist in real life."

While she noted that incidental learning may happen, especially during conversational activities, more explicit and intentional teaching of multiword items is more efficient. Even just pointing out multiword items is helpful to make students aware of how certain phrases work. Polio also cited research that said vocabulary learning can be extended to multiword units.

"Have students do things with the language," she concluded. "It will result in the better retention of vocabulary and the same is true for these multiword items."

Spearheading training for language educators

This webinar is part of a series of virtual workshops and conferences organized by COTSEAL during the COVID-19 pandemic to continue offering language pedagogy training to Southeast Asian language instructors and other instructors of Less Commonly Taught Languages.

COTSEAL organized its 36th annual conference, cosponsored by UCLA CSEAS, in July 2020 on content-based instruction that also included a faculty panel on the glocalization of Southeast Asian languages and a student panel on the remote language learning experience at the Southeast Asian Studies Summer Institute.

In October 2020, the organization hosted a joint workshop with the Southeast Asian Language Council (SEALC) on heritage language and project-based learning. This initiative was supported by the UC Berkeley-UCLA Southeast Asia Consortium National Resource Center and UCLA National Heritage Language Resource Center as part of their Title VI grants.

This year, COTSEAL hosted a virtual discussion for its members to share strategies and best practices for remote language teaching. It will collaborate with SEALC and UCLA CSEAS to put on two additional workshops focused on developing project-based teaching modules and language research publication in spring and will host its annual conference in the summer.

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Published: Thursday, April 1, 2021