Friday, November 1, 2013

Applied linguistics conferences + tech tips for traveling

As the post title indicates, this post isn't really related to teaching, but I thought it was still useful information for language teachers and academics in general.

Fact about me: I love going to applied linguistics conferences, which is what I'm doing right now.  (I'm currently at the Second Language Research Forum in Provo, Utah.) I have three conferences that I try to go to every year: PSLLT (Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching), SLRF (Second Language Research Forum) and AAAL (American Association for Applied Linguistics). If our state language teaching conference (NILA - Nebraska International Languages Association) doesn't conflict with SLRF, I go to that, too.

There are lots of reasons that I love going to conferences in general, and these conferences in particular, but I'll limit myself to describing a few:

  • Going to conferences is great for meeting people, both professionally and personally. It's a fantastic opportunity to meet other people interested in the same types of research as you who maybe haven't happened to have published much yet. Because you're both the same type of nerd, you will probably become friends. :) For early career academics especially, this is a great opportunity to meet people that you can collaborate with, and get your name out to established people in the field (useful if you're on the tenure track and you need outside reviewers for your research).
  • A lot of great research is never published. This happens for lots of reasons; in my case, my studies never end up how I expect, and there are no statistically significant results. Even though these studies still tell us a lot about the field, they are less likely to be published because there are no statistically significant results. Conference presentations showcase a lot of that research, which is particularly useful for research about instructional effects. I get a lot of my best ideas for teaching from attending research presentations on different instructional techniques. Sometimes I just directly adopt a strategy from a conference presentation, and other times it provides the creative spark I need to come up with my own ideas on how to modify my teaching so that it's more effective.  
  • I think I mentioned that I was in school forever. :) This is because I love learning, and there's always a lot to learn at these conferences. I've learned to think about things in new ways by having regular exposure to people researching in lots of different subdisciplines of applied linguistics. These amazing people bring up ideas that would never occur to me in a million years, and I love it. It energizes me and reminds me why I wanted to study applied linguistics in the first place.
Because I love these conferences, I try to go to as many as I can every year, which can get expensive. One of the most annoying but necessary costs is internet access; for some reason, conference hotels never have free wifi, although they cost substantially more than other hotels that do have free wifi. (I'm sure there's some business logic in there somewhere, but to me it's mystifying: hotels that are already reasonably priced offer free wifi, and hotels that cost a lot more want you to pay extra for internet service.) Usually these hotels charge $12-15/day for internet access, which means that your real per-night cost ends up being substantially higher than advertised (I consider in-room internet access a necessity, not a luxury).

So when companies started coming out with prepaid mobile broadband plans, I was all in. I first had a little USB modem that let me connect to mobile broadband, but when mifi devices became available with a prepaid option, I upgraded. So now when I go to conferences, I always have my trusty mifi with me. I use Virgin Mobile*, and for my current trip, for example, I paid $25 for 1.5 GB of data that lasts for a month.  So how does it work? You do have to put down money up front to get the mifi device; mine was $100. But once you have it, you're set up. Then, when you're traveling, you just buy the amount of access you need, from $5 for one day and 100 MB to $75ish for a month and several GB of data. For my current conference, I would have spent $60 to have internet in my room over four days, but instead I spent $25, *and* I'm sharing with friends at the conference, since the mifi will let you connect up to five devices. It's not as fast as hotel wifi, since it's 3G, but I've always been impressed with how well it works. It stutters occasionally when streaming video, but I've uploaded and downloaded lots of sound files with no problems. [UPDATE: When I tried to publish this blog post the first time, my device had been kicked off the 3G network, and I had to restart it to reconnect. So it's not perfect, but it's portable and affordable.]


If you're an Android user, there's another option that's even cheaper. There's a wonderful app called PdaNet* that you can purchase that turns your phone into an internet hotspot. [CAVEAT: Installing and using this app almost certainly violates your terms of service with your mobile provider, particularly if your service includes an unlimited data package. But since Android is open market, this is a viable and cheap option, and it works wonderfully well.] This app is also available for iPhone, but you have to have an unlocked iPhone in order to install and use it. This app has both a paid version and a free version, so you can check it out and see how well it works. In my experience, the free version is one of the best free apps I've ever used, so it's definitely worth checking out.

The other gadget that goes everywhere with me now (not just to conferences) is my portable battery charger*. This particular charger comes with adapters to various mobile devices, so it would work to charge my mifi, for example. But I mainly use it for my phone. When I'm at a conference, my phone is main internet access point, so I tend to drain the battery pretty quickly. Now when my battery gets low, I just plug it in to this, wherever I'm at, and charge my phone. (It has come in really handy at baseball games, for the record.) If the charger is fully charged, it will charge my phone completely about three times.

Portable battery charger
This isn't a tech tip, but I attended Robert DeKeyser's plenary talk on age effects in second language acquisition today, which was fascinating. One of the main ideas of the talk was to point out the fallacy that younger is better for language learners in terms of classroom exposure. He pointed out that while young learners in an immersion context achieve high levels of second language proficiency regardless of how much language learning aptitude they have, this does *not* mean that instructed SLA is beneficial for young learners, since an immersion context is nothing like a foreign language context. It's far more efficient in terms of number of hours to instruct adolescent or adult learners, because they have the cognitive capacity to acquire things much more quickly. So while it's true that in an immersion context, a young age of acquisition is crucial for achieving high proficiency in the target language, we need research looking at instructed SLA in a non-immersion context to see if there is really an advantage to starting children in second language courses in kindergarten, rather than fifth grade, for example.  (There's some research on this in the context of Canadian dual-language programs that supports the idea that learners who start acquiring the L2 in the classroom from the beginning of their education don't perform any better at the end of their K-12 education than learners who start acquiring the L2 in, say, 5th grade. Sometime when I'm not so tired, I will track down references and post them.)

His concluding point was that we shouldn't be asking the question of when to teach a second language, but rather how to teach a second language to learners of various ages. Since children learn best by repetition and exposure to lots of input, and not by explicit instruction about forms, it's a waste of time trying to teach them grammar rules. It's far better to maximize their exposure to the target language. Conversely, it's non-sensical to claim, as certain language-learning software products do, that the best way for adults to learn a language is as if they were children, with exposure to lots of input and no explicit instruction. Given that adolescents and adults have much higher cognitive capabilities, and actually will fail to acquire many target-language features in the absence of instruction, instruction is enormously beneficial to language learners at these ages. As Prof. DeKeyser stated in his address, "Don't tell adult [language] learners that they can't learn explicitly, because you're taking away the only advantage these people have [compared with young learners]!"

*Note: I do not receive any benefits or compensation for mentioning these products. They're just things that I've found useful in my conference travels, and they've helped me save money.

No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments are now moderated due to the volume of spam links being posted in the comments section. To the spammers: Your junk links will never see the light of day, so please stop wasting my time by posting them.