'Sharing Words': Conversation, collaboration and cultural connections

Authors: Adrian Armstrong and Diane Whitelegg


This paper examines the way in which native speakers of taught languages can be mobilised by universities for use in outreach activities. The authors suggest an empowering approach to facilitate cross-cultural communication. A questionnaire following such a scheme was administered to AS and A2 students, the results of which showed several benefits to the learners.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Navigating the new landscape for languages conference (www.llas.ac.uk/navlang), 30 June - 1 July 2004.

1. Native-speaker mobilization

When seeking to develop language-related outreach activities with local schools and colleges, many British universities have a significant asset: the presence of large numbers of students who are native speakers of the languages in question. Whether following complete degree programmes or benefiting from the Socrates/Erasmus exchange scheme, these students constitute a very important reservoir of knowledge, both about their native languages and about contemporary culture and lifestyles in their countries. The 'Sharing Words' programme, administered by the University of Manchester and financed in 2002-4 by HEFCE Widening Participation funding, draws on this constituency of students by paying them to deliver conversation classes in French, German, and Spanish at local schools and colleges, mostly at sixth-form level. Tuition consists of either brief one-to-one conversation sessions or longer sessions with 4-6 learners, according to partner institutions' preferences (see Armstrong and Wyburd 2004).

Initiatives of this kind, which might be designated 'native-speaker mobilization', are attractive options for outreach programmes. They can be tailored precisely to partner institutions' needs; they require relatively little input from academic staff; and they can produce very tangible benefits for everyone involved, not least the native speakers themselves, who can earn money, develop skills, and integrate more fully with the community. This paper outlines the issues which native-speaker mobilization seeks to address, and assesses the effectiveness of 'Sharing Words' in developing learners' skills and confidence, and in facilitating bilateral cross-cultural communication.

The issues underpinning native-speaker mobilization are familiar to language teachers in 14-19 education, and widely acknowledged in HEIs. Firstly, native speakers, whether language assistants or fully qualified teachers, are in short supply, and distributed very unevenly across institutions. This not only deprives learners of opportunities to practise speaking and listening; it also compromises the credibility of the wider curriculum, and indeed the pedagogical relationship itself. Many language learning activities are inauthentic: how many Key Stage 4 learners, for instance, regard making hotel bookings as relevant to their lives? To practise such activities in dialogue between native English speakers is still more artificial: it hardly encourages learners to think of languages as being spoken by real people outside the classroom. Secondly, learners tend to lack confidence when speaking a foreign language. This lack, exacerbated by the high-anxiety situations in which learners are normally required to speak (within a group of their peers, to an authority figure, sometimes for assessment), can only impact negatively on retention. Thirdly, learners often lack opportunities to discover aspects of foreign cultures. Whilst AS and A2 study entails a cultural element, discovery may be 'squeezed out' by other imperatives: learners must acquire a large body of prescribed linguistic knowledge, and teachers have little time in which to find suitable materials. Furthermore, discovery is often a one-way process: learners are positioned as essentially deficient, and filled up with the knowledge delivered by an authority figure. A much more empowering approach would facilitate bilateral cross-cultural communication. On this model, learners discover aspects of foreign cultures through contact with representatives of those cultures (ideally not authority figures) to whom they, in turn, convey knowledge of their own cultures. Besides enhancing learners' self-respect, this also provides a more authentic environment for speaking and listening, and reveals to learners that their language skills can genuinely be used for purposes relevant to them. But bilateral cross-cultural communication makes demands on both time and personnel; it is difficult to integrate easily into timetables and budgets. Here, then, native-speaker mobilization can make a difference.

2. 'Sharing Words': analysis

To assess how learners perceived the scheme, AS and A2 level learners at one partner institution, Xaverian College, were surveyed by questionnaire (see Questionnaire data). One set of questionnaires was distributed in February 2004, as the scheme was beginning a new cycle, and one towards the end of the scheme in May 2004. Significantly, learners overwhelmingly perceived both their strengths and their weaknesses to have developed over the course of the scheme (88.6% and 93.6% of respondents respectively). Development was acknowledged over a wide range. As might be expected, speaking and listening were the skills most commonly quoted as having improved. Of 47 respondents, 20 and 17 claimed that their existing strengths in speaking and listening respectively had developed, while 23 and 11 claimed that areas of weakness, in oral confidence and listening respectively, had improved. However, improvements in vocabulary were also widely acknowledged, with 9 respondents identifying this area as a strength which had developed, and 5 as a weakness which had improved. It remains to be seen how these developments will be manifested in examination performance.

The survey also indicated that native-speaker mobilization appears to open up spaces for bilateral cross-cultural communication. 70% of respondents considered that they had learned about aspects of life in the countries of the native speakers involved with the scheme, while 29.8% considered that the native speakers had learned from them about British culture. Xaverian College staff have also cited more qualitative evidence of cultural exchange. The learners have acquired vocabulary which they are likely to use again, in situations relevant to their lifestyles, while the native speakers often provided their own materials to help learners with topic-based work.

While there is scope for more systematic research into the effects of native-speaker mobilization, it can evidently produce concrete results relatively rapidly. It develops learners' core skills to an extent which promises significantly to enhance academic performance. Moreover, it fosters their confidence and readiness to communicate. In an educational climate where retention of learners at every level is vital for the health of the discipline, this may be the most important effect of all.


Armstrong, A. and Wyburd, J. (2004). HE initiatives with secondary school partners: Multiple strands of activity to benefit us all? CiLT Higher 9 (in press).

Related links

Questionnaire data. Available on request from the authors.