English teaching and football

An Interview with Damon Brewster (J.F. Oberlin University) and Damian Fitzpatrick (The Chinese University of Hong Kong)

Kay: Hi Damian and Damon. Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed about languagecaster.com, your Learning English through Football website which I mentioned in this column in August as an example of useful e-learning resources.

Before we get started, could you talk a bit about yourselves? You two share a lot in common. I know that both of you are from UK, your first names start with D and end with N, and you both love football (but only one of you really knows football). But what about your teaching experiences and current work? What about your research interests?

Damian, you previously lived and taught in Japan, then went back to the UK, and now you are in Hong Kong. What differences have you found (or are you finding) across these teaching contexts? Anything shared among university students learning English in these countries?

Damian: That’s an interesting question. I suppose the main difference is related to the role that English plays in each of these places, as this shapes the way that teaching and learning occurs. The things that students want or need in the EFL context in Japan are fairly different from the needs of students in Hong Kong where English is one of two official languages or indeed, the more immersive environment of the UK. One thing that all three learning contexts share is that there is always someone in the class who is a football fan!

Kay: That’s for sure! Now Damon, you are managing an English language program at a university in Tokyo. Has becoming a director had any effect on your teaching? What is different about managing a program from being one of the teachers on the team?

Damon: That’s a difficult question, but I suppose it makes me appreciate the contact hours in the classroom more than before. At heart, I enjoy teaching, and while managing our programme is important in helping a large number of students get a good experience during their English studies, I get a lot from the classroom interactions. On the other hand, I can get a feel for the larger picture and see more holistically what environment the students study in and what influences their learning choices. This allows me to work with others to implement initiatives that go beyond the classroom, which can be very satisfying, too. I try to implement findings from the research I do into L2 motivation, especially concepts around the self, self efficacy, and student autonomy, and technology enhanced learning.

Kay: Okay, so let’s talk about your languagecaster website. How did this come about? How and when did you two decide to do this? Who are your users and visitors? How do people use your site?

Damon: In 2006, I had been working with Damian for about a year and knew he was interested in football, but also, I think, we shared a desire to explore ways of helping learners of English beyond the usual classroom/textbook approach. The World Cup was coming up that year and at the same time there were lots of new ideas appearing for how blogs, self-publishing, and podcasting could be used in teaching. Given those circumstances, we decided to see if we could motivate learners of English by offering a website and podcast with content that would be interesting to a certain type of learner – those with an interest in football. It seemed a natural fit to create a site that would support English language learners as they listened to and read about the unfolding drama of the World Cup, with its schedule of weekly matches, universal rules, famous players and teams.

We have users from all around the world: our stats say we have had visits from 186 countries. The top five are the US, China, the UK, France and Germany, with Japan in eighth place. Our podcast is downloaded about 2000 times a month. But one thing we are always a bit disappointed about is the lack of interaction with the users. I think we imagined our forum page and comments sections would be filled with questions and reactions from listeners, but that isn’t the case. I suppose it should be expected. I visit UK news sites constantly, but never comment or interact.

Damian: I agree with Damon on that final point about the lack of “direct” interaction from our visitors. We know that people come to the site and that the weekly podcast is downloaded fairly regularly, but it might be nice to hear a little more from those visitors. Of course, we could also think of more ways to make the site a little more interactive as well!

Kay: Your website is indeed popular and very international! I think many teachers would be interested in hosting their own websites to provide a place for their students and people around the world to learn languages and interact with each other but may be worried that it would be a lot of work to maintain. You’ve been hosting the website for quite some time now while you teach full time. Isn’t it difficult to keep the website going? How do you divide up your work?

Damian: The site and the podcast have been going since autumn 2006 and yes, quite a lot of work has gone into the whole process. The football season runs from autumn to spring so this is our “busy” time. But, as football is mostly played on the weekends, that is when we do most of the work. Of course, the fact that we are both huge football fans means it is a labour of love – our own form of intrinsic motivation? We usually take it in turns to edit the podcast with one of us choosing a main area to focus on in a particular week and the other helping with the rest of the content. So, for example, the podcast is divided into three sections: a short listening report, an explanation of a football phrase, and a discussion about upcoming matches (our prediction section) which means that one of us will do the listening report with the other doing the rest, but there is a fair amount of flexibility when it comes to sharing out the workload. Having done it for so long also means that we are fairly adept at putting together a podcast relatively quickly – it might take an hour in total.

Kay: You make it sound so easy, Damian. Obviously you two work well as a team and having a good partner must be a key factor. You gave a presentation at JALT 2013 on your development of a football corpus. What was or is your objective in doing this?

Damon: I think it was twofold. Firstly, like any teacher-researchers we are interested in validity – we wanted to know if the kind of unmodified/ authentic language that is used on our site is something students can expect to encounter and use in the “real” world. Finding out whether or not the language we have highlighted meets this criterion is important since, by focusing on higher frequency football-related lexis, the site can be more helpful to our users. And secondly, by adding content backed by research, we can raise the visibility of the site and get more visitors

Kay: Can you tell us how you select and define words for the corpus? How do you determine the levels of your users and when or whether to modify or simplify the language you include? It must be quite different from developing a vocabulary list for a course or a textbook where the levels of users are more or less defined.

Damon: As I mentioned, we do not intentionally grade the language we use on the site and podcast; it really is a case of readers and listeners applying their top-down knowledge of the subject and existing English proficiency to our content. We provide the language input, and gloss some words in our main reports, but the user has to rely on him or herself – or perhaps a helpful teacher who has used our content for a lesson. The only section where we do set out to “help” is in the section where we discuss an English phrase or word used in football. We employ repetition, meta-language, and simplified sentences to define the meaning. As for the vocabulary selection, this gets back to why we are doing the research into the corpus. We have used our intuition, both as teachers and as football fans, to select the language, rather than any word frequency analysis. We hope what we find from the corpus will justify the selections we have made over the years! Currently we are completing data collection from the 2013/14 Premier League season in England, and from initial analysis we have some interesting avenues to explore. For example, our data already shows we need to reconsider how the word home is used. Intuitively we think of a home ground or home fans, but the corpus suggests that it is used often to refer to the goal, as in ‘to head home’ – or score a goal. We are hoping that we will learn more systematically about how English is used in a football context because of this exploration into real life language usage.

Kay: I see. The use of authentic materials with language scaffolding built in is the core of content-based language learning. And you are doing it through football on your website! A great idea. So what is the future of the website? Any plan for further development or expansion? You mentioned your dissatisfaction with the lack of direct interaction with the audience. Any ideas about how you might want to make it more interactive?

Damian: We are always looking at ways in which we might be able to improve the site, and one area that we are interested in possibly developing is the use of video. This visual element would offer learners an alternative way to access the language and encourage them to be more interactive. Another way of improving the interactive side of the site would be to have learners become more involved in the podcast. Currently, we sometimes ask visitors to participate in the weekly football prediction section of the show, but it might be a nice idea if we offered a regular space or “slot” on the show for learners to come up with their own ideas such as talking about their favourite team or players.

Kay: Video would be great. I’ve seen some language learning websites that connect glossary and videos to demonstrate authentic examples of usage such as in EnglishCentral. You currently have a podcast that explains a football cliché but it would be great to see a video or radio clip of commentary. That would be fun!

Well, thank you both for your time. Your website is doing a great job providing a natural and accessible content-based language learning environment for those who love football and wish to learn English. I wish you continued success with the website and research.

Damon & Damian: Thank you very much, Kay.

2 thoughts on “English teaching and football”

  1. Thanks for this! As a British person I often feel quite ashamed by my lack of football knowledge, especially when students approach me hoping to be able to connect through a football discussion. I will have to check out Damon and Damian’s website!

    • Thanks Richard for your comment. I just noticed it. A bit slow. I hope you checked out their website and perhaps share it with your students too!


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