One of the questions I ask EAL students applying to attend Ipswich High School is: What language do you use on your devices?
This may seem like an odd question. If a student speaks another language as a home language, then what does it matter what language they use on their computer or phone? The reason is because the language we use when interfacing with technology affects our understanding of it. You can see from the table below that some words, like “technology”, for example, are almost universal with some exceptions. Words like “file”, “folder” and “application” are completely different.
“The language we use when using technology affects our understanding of it.”
Now imagine a teacher giving instructions to the class by saying:
“Click on the app, then use the drop-down menu to find the folder that has the right file.”
While fairly straightforward instructions for a native English speaker (with average competences in use of technology), this sentence contains numerous problems for EAL students who may be completely tech-savvy but in their own language. If we were then to consider the potential confusion from shortening the word “application” to simply “app”, the compound adjective “drop-down”, and that “right” means “correct” and not the direction, this complicates the instructions further.
“The most obvious solution for teachers using tech vocabulary in the classroom is to provide a vocabulary list for students to learn and practice.”
We then need to understand that the words listed above are simply direct translations of the words used by English speakers to refer to the technology we use. We use the word “menu” for example, to refer to the list of programs, folders, or files available to select. But the word ‘menu’ comes from French which comes from the Latin word ‘minutus’ meaning, small, unimportant, or something made small. This word has predominantly been used in English to describe the list of food at a restaurant. From English it was then introduced into many cultures and languages as restaurants, cafes and, of course, fast-food chains spread around the world.
One example is the word “to crash” (when a programme has an error and stops working) in French the word is “planter”, as in, ‘to plant‘. It is not always safe to assume that the nouns and verbs used in English are universally the same.
Once we understand the inherent difficulties in discussing technology with non-native speakers, we then need to ask ourselves what can be done?
The most obvious solution for teachers using tech vocabulary in the classroom is to provide a vocabulary list for students to learn and practice. This may be the quickest solution but may not always be the best solution as pronunciation and more abstract concepts may still present a problem.
“I ask my students to begin their immersion into English Language learning by switching the language on their phones and computers into English.”
An alternative solution would be for teachers to visually illustrate their instructions. Show a short video or a series of pictures showing the process of what should be done. Most secondary school students use technology as second nature, so it is not necessarily that they need to be taught how to use their computer or device, but more likely, they need to know what they need to do.
Additionally, I ask my students to begin their immersion into English Language learning by switching the language on their phones and computers into English. I am often faced with reluctance and hesitance. Once they do, however, it is amazing how quickly their competency in navigating technology in English improves!
While the presence of technology has become nearly universal, and we would assume that students sitting in our classrooms with their smartphones, tablets and laptops posting on Snapchat and TikTok, are able to understand the “simple” instructions we are giving, it is important to remember that our use and understanding of technology is still tied to language. Your EAL students are ready to engage with you and your lessons technologically, you only need to make sure you equip them with the tools they need by making every lesson digitally inclusive!