December 2010 — Volume 14, Number 3
Speaking in Social Contexts: Issues for Pre-Sessional EAP Students
Huw Jarvis & Helena Stakounis
University of Salford, UK
A large number of non native speakers (NNS) of English from around the globe attend summer English for Academic Purposes (EAP) courses in host countries before going on to further study. Such learners have expectations regarding the improvements that they will make in their speaking skills, not just in an academic context, but also in social contexts. This paper reports on a qualitative study into the kind of contact that such NNS have with native speakers in the community. The findings suggest that expectations are generally not met and our discussion focuses on the ways in which arising issues might be better addressed not only by providers in the host country, but in some regards also by providers in the home country, before students actually leave. Particularly, we argue that when developing listening and speaking skills in the classroom we need to recognise the importance of English as a local language (ELL) and include tasks which contain examples of such language if we are going to adequately equip our learners.
A large number of NNS of English go to study a variety of academic courses abroad at universities and colleges in NS countries such as the UK, the USA, Australia, and Canada. For example, university data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (n.d.) in the UK for 2008/2009 shows that 368,970 students on university courses were not from the UK whilst the figure (which includes colleges) in the USA has been put by Vistawide (n.d.) at 672,000. Such students come from all over the world, with a significant proportion from Asia. All such students have studied some English in their home countries before departing, and a number will also take a pre-sessional English for Academic Purposes (EAP) summer course in the host countries before going on to further academic study.
The literature suggests that many students come onto courses in English Native Speaking (NS) countries with an idealistic view of the place they will establish in society, the contact they will have with local people in the community, and the progress they will make in their language skills by being surrounded by the language and culture (Amuzie & Winke, 2009; Horwitz, 1988). Such studies, along with others (Dekeyser, 1991; Berman & Chang, 2001), also point to the importance of spoken English skills for living and studying in a NS country, even if, as may be likely in EAP, such skills may not be the primary motivation for the students taking a course. Furthermore, a number of other studies suggest that such expectations are not always met (Peirce, 1995; Barron, 2006) which in turn leads to a negative impact on learning and the overall experience abroad.
In addition to the works cited above, there is a rich recent literature on the question of study abroad and student perspectives on it (Henderson, 2009; Iwasaki, 2010; Lee, 2009). Such work is significant for pre-sessional EAP in NS countries where students will, in the main, be spending at least a year studying an academic subject at a university or college in a language which is not their first language whilst also living in the host country. For these learners, speaking in social contexts will be a vital component of their experience. There is also an insightful literature focusing on NS-NNS contact in general (Cook, 1999; Leung et al., 1997; Park, 2007) as well as some relevant work on speech genres (Springer & Collins, 2008; Taguchi, 2008). To date, however, there appears to be no EAP-specific work which asks pre-sessional summer students to reflect on their expectations before arrival and the realities in the first few weeks after. This article is a contribution to addressing this shortfall. It focuses on the thoughts and experiences of a small number of individuals involved on such a programme, and attempts to see the experience through their eyes. Whilst our study is inevitably both university- and country-context specific, the implications of our work are of relevance to EAP providers in both NS and NNS countries. The implications for language pedagogy in terms of shaping and managing expectations, social programmes, course organisation, and above all, a need to embrace ELL, are pertinent issues for the many EAP providers in private language schools, colleges, and universities around the globe.
Pre-sessional EAP Courses and Speaking in Social Contexts
The primary purpose of pre-sessional EAP programmes is to equip students with the language and study skills needed to successfully follow an academic course at foundation, undergraduate, or postgraduate levels in the English language. Frequently, but not always, both the EAP course and the academic course are in an English NS environment, and in such circumstances the importance of living in the host country, and thus speaking in social contexts outside of the classroom is, as we have already suggested, significant. In the UK for example, the British Association of Lecturers in English for Academic Purposes (BALEAP) specifically mention as the first point in the course design section of their accreditation handbook, “The course will be designed according to a set of principles based on the needs of students who intend to live (our emphasis) and work in an English language academic environment.” (BALEAP, 2007, p. 12). Our study suggests that this problematic and that what has been termed “social networks” (Milroy, 1987) with NS are limited, and that learner expectations are not being met.
The specific work on speaking within EAP contexts has understandably focused on academic skills such as “giving presentations” or “participating in seminars” in classroom contexts, rather than speaking in social contexts beyond the classroom (Clennell, 1999; Hughes, 2002). In contrast, our study seeks to answer the following questions:
- Do the preconceptions of international students regarding their contact with NS (British) people and culture match the reality they find once in the UK?
- What kind of opportunities do students have to practice their spoken English outside the classroom? How often, where, and with whom do these opportunities occur, and do the students capitalize on them for maximum exposure to NS language, culture and people?
- Are international students satisfied with the support the university provides them to create speaking opportunities outside the classroom? Are they satisfied with their experience in the UK overall?
Participants and Rationale for Selection
Rubin’s (1975) ‘good language learner’ was a starting point for choosing the students for the study. Based on the intuitions of one of the researchers, who was also their instructor, those students considered confident enough to want to integrate and create opportunities to communicate with NS were invited to participate. In terms of culture, nationality, and gender, the study aimed for a degree of diversity with only one representative from each country (except Saudi Arabia, from which there were two–one male and one female).
The participants were all studying at an intermediate level (IELTS scores from 5 to 6.5) on a five-week pre-sessional summer course. All had arrived in the UK over the previous six weeks, and so their memories of what they expected before their departure were still fresh. By the interview stage of the research, all had been in the UK for at least four weeks and had a sense of the extent to which their expectations were being realised. In total, seven students (four men and three women) from Saudi Arabia, Greece, Russia, Brazil, Syria and China participated. The participants provide insights which go beyond their specific contexts (Flick, 1998) and “elements of their stories should reach across ethnic, linguistic, and geographic lines and resonate with border crossers in other parts …” (Jackson 2008, p. 350). This view is reflected in our chosen methodology.
As this research provides insight into the feelings, hopes, and beliefs of students, a qualitative methodology was adopted. This is a more appropriate methodology for addressing such phenomena (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). In creating a narrative, an account and a collection of words, the data is “rich, full and real” (Robson 1993, p. 370) and represents “the richness of a world that is socially determined” (Richards 2003, p. 38). Our approach follows Denzin and Lincoln’s line of reasoning that such enquiry is inherently “multimethod in focus” (2003, p. 8). This is particularly appropriate in view of the range of research questions and the different kinds of information they seek to obtain. Such a range suggests the need for a combination of qualitative approaches (Mason 2002, p. 60). Thus, the research employs three methods: retrospective essays, diaries, and interviews. Students were asked to produce a short written reflection of how they envisioned the experience to be before coming to the UK. A week’s diary recording the use of English outside the classroom aimed to give an indication of what kind of contact, if any, students had with NSs and what opportunities they have to speak English outside the classroom. The interviews then allowed for an elaboration of points with a focus on any mismatches or synergies between these expectations and the reality they then found.
Research ethics, particularly regarding informed consent, were put in place in order to minimize any risk to the participants. Names are not mentioned so that anonymity is upheld, although nationalities and gender will be referred to by the coding system shown in Table 1, which was agreed upon by the participants.
Table 1. Nationality and Gender of Participants