Some thoughts on the digital and the critical in English language learning

I remember in 1996 my brother and I would turn on a computer and run Microsoft Outlook program all night just to get one email from my mother who was in Rhode Island at that time, but if I try explaining that to my 4-year-old nieces, they would think it is one of the fairy tales.  The younger generation are often refereed to as ‘digital natives’ and they will face challenges we can’t even think of right now. But we do need to ask which of the younger generation, where, to what extent. We do live in the new digital world, surrounded (bombarded even) with information, media, news, posts, and chat messages. It not only affects how we communicate – faster, and more global, but also how we process information and consequently learn. It has been observed that our attention becomes more fragmented, and attention span becomes shorter. There is no time to reflect and process information critically, when ‘repost’ and ‘retweet’ is a constant online race.  Many researchers are concerned with this fact: as informational load increases its critical evaluation decreases. That is why there is a need for a new teaching model that fosters critical thinking skills expressed through critical self-awareness, as well as a critical evaluation of information.

My argument is that English as an additional language  lesson content must extend beyond language competence, even communicative competence. We need to focus on media literacy, information literacy, civic literacy, critical literacy, and language proficiency that intertwine and affect language practice. I would challenge the traditional understanding of literacy as the ability to read a text in its classic form. Books, letters, and other publishable media are a printed text; discussion and conversation are a live text; and emails, blogs, and other internet resources are a digital text. Such approach allows teachers to use unconventional resources – from advertisement in a newspaper to protesters’ posters and slogans – as classroom material.

Foreign language teachers use media resources in their classrooms for a variety of reasons. They primarily serve as methodological tools for practicing conversation, listening, vocabulary training, or grammar reference in their most common linguistic and pragmatic function.  Of course the main function of media is to spread information, be it through news programs, documentaries, or analytical programs, but we cannot overlook the fact that media also projects opinions, norms, values, and morals.

Since media shapes students’ opinions in different ways, we must teach them to process this information critically. By examining the ways in which these messages are presented, we also develop learners’ media literacy.

Media literacy should be approached from the theory of critical thought, because it encourages students to question ideologies and everyday realities. Students should understand whose interests are being served by the information they are presented with, evaluate how the information is presented, and be critically literate in order to examine how the text is constructed. Defined in Bloom’s taxonomy cognitive skills of identifying, describing, explaining, analyzing, and evaluating (in this case media information) as well as affective skills of receiving, responding, valuing and characterizing values can be well developed within any educational context, including foreign language education. This will make language education an environment conducive to helping students become confident members of society, who are willing to constructively engage with their community.

Of course these ideas are rooted in Freire’s theory of critical pedagogy that challenges educators to transform students’ ways of thinking in order to question power relations in society, rather than to simply impart knowledge of a certain subject. At the same time, by redefining teacher-student roles and acknowledging students’ valuable experiences and opinions, it encourages an atmosphere of true democracy, influencing students’ behavior outside the classroom. Freire advocates for reflection, and stresses the importance of action in the transformation of society. By implementing Freire’s work in a more specific area of teaching practice – such as the use of media resources in foreign language classes – we can achieve the following goals:

  • Develop students’ listening and speaking skills in a foreign language (language skills);
  • Engage students in a discussion of how the information is presented (language and media skills);
  • Allow students to express their opinions freely, and to argue and debate respectfully (language and civic skills)
  • Encourage students to critically evaluate information, seek out different opinions and resources, and analyze and compare facts (critical, media and civic skills);
  • Empower students to challenge media images and be confident and active in confronting a certain opinion (civic skills)

Along with their linguistic value and civic education potential, media resources, provide infinite possibilities for incorporation into instructional material. These resources are plentiful and can be modified or adapted according to the goals of the class. Texts can be used in reading classes, individual sentences can be used to illustrate grammar rules, speeches and videos can serve as material in conversational classes, and so forth. These teaching practices can create a unique educational environment that could develop students’ critical thinking.

Coffee & Cocktails Episode 3: Translanguaging in Senegal


Two academics, Samantha Goodchild and Miriam Weidl, from SOAS, University of London discuss their research with Dr Ann Wand regarding translanguaging practices in two Senegalese villages in the Casamance region and how their research can be used to understand how language learning can develop thanks to local mobility practices.

Coffee & Cocktails Episode 3

Here’s their link to online teaching material:

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Knowledge Mobilization inAction: My TEDx Audition

This post in part rant, part reminisce with some comparison.

Knowledge mobilization: a rant

A while ago my friend Ernesto wrote a blog post Knowledge Mobilization and Interdisciplinarity: A rant. In this post he criticized academia’s obsession with knowledge mobilization and the shallow rhetoric  of interdisciplinarity.  Ernesto rightfully called out our educational system that ‘talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk’ by fostering publish-or-perish climate and academic publication arms race over the complexity of interdiciplinary work that often a) takes a long time to have any impact and b) favours process over product.

Later in the year, our department held a Graduate Students Conference Re-animating & Re-searching: Mobilizing Knowledge in Education, which specifically asked students to engage with the concepts of interdisciplinarity and knowledge mobilization, either in form or focus of the presentation. The organizers of the conference tried a new exciting format for the conference. First day was devoted to workshops and the second to students’ 8-minute presentations, one slide or image per talk, Q&A to follow. Similar to three-minute thesis , Fire Talks or Pecha Kucha this format pushes students to condense their thoughts, cut the jargon, get to the point and be open to rapid straighforward questions from the audience. I loved it (not everyone did).

Now, I understand the academic pain. Not everyone should embrace these emerging formats of knowledge communication.

Moreover, I echo Ernesto’s rant here. It seems that knowledge mobilization through participation in all the aforementioned events has become academic obsession, with little real-(academic)-life value attached to it. When I organized our Faculty’s 3MT heat, I found it incredibly hard to communicate its value to my peers. To many it seems like a waste of time, more work and non-CVable. The time spent preparing for the 3MT can be spent doing traditionally recognized and/or paid academic work.

In addition, there isn’t much support when it comes to actual preparation of one’s talk. There is more exposure to traditional formats and over the years students get comfortable following a fixed set of steps in their presentations. There are talks about elevator-pitch, but there aren’t too many walks in the direction of teaching students how to compose one. Because of this, engaging in knowledge mobilization seems difficult, not worth it, reserved for a small group of those colleagues who have mastered a formula (and don’t want to share).

I still love all these knowledge mobilization initiatives. I think they give us freedom and add excitement to our academic lives. And yes, I would love to Dance my PhD!


TEDx audition: reminisce

This summer, I found myself among the 48 applicants who were chosen to audition for the TEDxEastVan 2017. I didn’t make the final cut, but even being selected to pitch my idea, getting to meet the TEDx team and other amazing Vancouverites who make this event a reality was a great honour and I had a great time.

Looking back at my experience with applying for the TED talk and going through the audition process, I can confidently say that the past 10 years of my graduate life did little to  teach me how to communicate my work outside academia. Do better universities!


First step in getting the audition was to fill out an online application. It is a pretty transparent and straightforward form.  Once the call for applications comes out, anyone can fill out an online form and make a case for their talk to be selected. There are many good tips out there, so I won’t repeat them all here, I’ll just share what I did.

About me

In this section I wrote about my interest in sociolinguistics and why I should be chosen to give the talk. I also talked about my love for different street signs and my collection of fun signs around the world.

How it’s different from author’s bio

Author’s bio, a familiar genre to many academics. What the author’s bio doesn’t answer is why me? question. I had a difficult time making a case for “why me” – because IMPOSER SYNDROME duh. See below:

Image result for i have no idea what i'm doing

Outside academia, it seems, people believe in themselves just a little bit more. To start, I gave myself a pep talk (you are smart, you can do this). Then, I made a list of all my non-academic engagements and a short description of what made me do it and what I learned. I also thought about my life, learning languages, starting to read signs and funny moments shared with friends when we would encounter a fun/confusing sign. Finally, I put it all in a narrative form. Honestly, after filling out this section, I did feel better about myself and my experience with giving talks, presentations, workshops, public lectures and such.So, booo on you imposer syndrome, yay for finding strength and confidence through public speaking!

About the talk

I really wanted to talk about multilingualism and how it manifests itself in public signs. So, in this section I wrote about linguistic landscapes. Pretty much it was the shorter version of the five-minute presentation I was invited to give later. Personally, I believe that linguistic landscapes are extremely interesting artifacts, but it was a bit hard to communicate my excitement in a brief format.

How it’s different from an abstract

There is a huge huge difference between writing a comprehensive abstract or a conference proposal and a TED talk pitch. It is also much harder to write the latter 🙂 At one editing workshop I heard a phrase “Bad writing often hides behind claims of complexity”, so true!

For many years, I have limited myself to academic styles of writing (also, see above for academic publish-or-perish arms race) and only recently I have allowed myself to be more playful with various genres. However, it is still somewhat challenging to communicate academic matters in non-academic ways. It took me five drafts and some peer feedback to rid the application of jargon, references and other researchy knick-knacks, and get the application right. This video from WIRED of Bobby Kasthuri explaining what Connectome is in five levels of difficulty was super useful as well. I would encourage everyone to share their work at various venues and using multiple formats. It doesn’t diminish the rigour of your argument, in fact it enhances it!


On the day of my audition, I was invited to speak for five minutes in front of a panel. There were four of us who made our pitches one after the other. After we gave our five minute pitches, the panel asked us questions on the topic of our talk.

My talk was about linguistic landscapes. I have been studying the use of various languages in public signs for many years and have presented on this topic at various academic venues. However, I have never given non-academic talks on this research. To think about it, I’ve become a bit too comfortable in my academic bubble where most people share my interests and opinions on different matters. So, being invited to a TEDx audition has really pushed me to reconsider how I communicate my research. It also reminded me about the difference between academic and non-academic venues.

Time and format

At conferences, we are usually given 20-40 minutes to talk. At the audition, we were given five. Plus, these was a really loud buzzer to make sure that you stop. I rehearsed and rehearsed, but still went almost overtime. That is, I said my last words with the buzzer going off. Maybe we should enforce time limits a bit better back at the university settings too…

At the conferences there is PowerPoint (AKA academic comfort blanket) or a Prezi if one feels adventurous. At the TED talk audition there wasn’t anything. Also, most people who auditioned with me had their talks memorized, so no reading from your manuscript! Too often we rely on the PPT, we could break away from this dependence a bit. I remember the horror when the PowerPoint doesn’t work…Instead, we could try to make out talk engaging and captivating without being too dependent on the screen support.


I found that people listened more carefully and attentively at the audition. Sometimes at the conferences, you would look around and see the audience answering emails or editing their own presentation slides. Multitasking is academic MO and a curse, plus don’t forget about slinking.


Yes, I have seen  this at the conferences too.

At the audition everyone was listening very attentively, looking straight at me, taking notes. As I was talking, I was getting increasingly excited about my ideas. I mean, there were people who were actually interested in what I had to say! What a luxury. In academia we could work more on supporting the speakers by putting the work aside for a little while, turning off the phones and just listening.


Insults disguised as compliments are the passive-aggressive reality of life. Ten-minute reflections on one’s research disguised as comments are the passive-aggressive reality of academic conferences. Oh, such pain! Yes, a pain, but an expected one, so most of us know how to defend ourselves from such comments. Other comments are usually about something you actually said, a theoretical concept or empirical finding that needs to be clarified. So, also quite manageable.

The audition gave us 5 minutes for questions and answers. So, the questions were very precise and to the point. My questions were supposed to be just as clear and straightforward. Needless to say, I struggled… The questions could be loosely grouped into “what’s you main message and why should I care?” category. These were quite unexpected. Simply, I don’t remember being asked such questions before. Honestly, I didn’t really know what to answer and stumbled a bit. I mean, why shouldn’t you — that was what I wanted to ask back. Isn’t it enough that linguistic landscapes are awesome and so much fun? Apparently not, haha. Now, I will ask this question to myself before I embark on any research journey. Curiosity and new theorization is not enough! Why should the larger public care? That’s the question…

I am sure that this year’s TEDx promises to be amazing. Even though I wasn’t chosen to give my talk, I am extremely excited to attend  TEDxEastVan  (September 16th at the York Theatre), meet those who made it through selection and hear their ideas on what it means to be human!

PS This is my five-minute pitch Why linguistic landscapes are awesome


Why linguistic landscapes are awesome

One day in 2011 a friend of mine and I were returning to Russia from a trip to Finland. Just as Vancouverites would drive over to Bellingham to do some casual shopping, we used to go to bordering towns of Finland on regular basis. That day, the trip followed all the same stages: shop, eat, take photos, pass the custom and passport control, drive back. My camera was on my lap, and luckily since I was not driving, I could leisurely look from the window on the changing landscape, when I saw a billboard. It said Welcome to Us. In large red letters against an image of a peaceful lake with a big rainbow over it. This billboard was so fascinating that I immediately took a photo. So, started my extensive collection of use of written text on public signage, something that as I later learned is termed as linguistic landscape.


What made me stop and snap a photo? Was it the size of the billboard? Its placement? The choice of colours and font? Or was it the choice of language? In fact, its was all of it together. Linguistic landscapes are made from multimodal texts that convey their messages through multiple semiotic systems at the same time. Linguistic landscapes—beautiful fonts, vibrant colours, images, languages, layouts—are captivatingly beautiful. However, their careful analysis can reveal messages that are not immediately recognized. These messages present evidence of larger sociocultural processes in the society—such as fascination with the English language in Russia—or of emergence of new linguistic context of the locality—such as increased immigration to a certain city.

As a scholar of sociolinguistics, I study how people use languages in multilingual societies. Think about it, somehow, we know that if you are trying to say something to an international audience, your best bet would be to use English. You can expect a restaurant Mamma Mia to serve Italian cuisine in some form, just as La Cigale is understandably a French Bistro in Kitsilano, though maybe you would expect to have cicadas there for dinner. You know to expect signs in Cantonese in Vancouver’s Chinatown and in Mandarin in Richmond. You can actually map the city of Vancouver through analyzing what languages are used in what areas. You can also try and understand the thinking behind the creation of certain signs in certain languages.

However, in multilingual societies, people are constantly juggling languages, cultural practices, and modes of communication. In multilingual societies, speakers don’t simply rely on one system of sounds, words and grammar rules at a time, but constantly create a fluid multilingual system. Take metro Vancouver. It is incredible in its ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity. In fact, a recent article in Vancouver Sun called our city “one of the most ethnically diverse cities on the planet”. Why do we know that?  We have signs that are written in many languages at the same time. A multilingual individual can easily read a menu or a sale advertisement, drawing on whichever languages they speak. Having access to multilingual linguistic landscape legitimizes that speaker’s multilingual practices.

Since time immemorial people wanted to communicate their presence. The first forms of symbolic communication were petroglyphs, rock carvings, color, etchings on stone walls. Some of petroglyphs are as old as 40,000 years. Today they open a window into deep complex cultural practices of the societies that created them. In 2017, humans have access to a multitude of modes of communication: words, images, colours, textures. This is why, when talking about multilingual linguistic landscapes we are really talking about a deeply human desire to carve out a space of belonging, to communicate their presence. I hope that my talk will help people see the beauty of multilingualism and inspire them to embrace the linguistic diversity of our society. I hope that we will find the languages around us fascinating and not threatening. Multilingual linguistic landscapes help us embrace human creativity that is continually reshaping our society and makes it vibrant. All we need to do is take a closer look around.

PhoneMe poems

Here is one more poem I wrote during PhoneMe workshop last week. If you want to explore our interactive map, go to 

Prompt: Write about something insignificant. 


 to Dust 




I want to lift you up,

your name, oh Dust!

and glorify your presence.


You are the pollen

of morning roses.

The layered beauty

of leaves and petals.

You are the fibers

of teary love notes.

The softened scratches

of midnight passions.

You are the soil

of marshes, meadows.

The deafening roars

of mighty oceans.

You are the essence

of human nature.

Our skin, our hair,

our breath, our heartbeat.


Majestic Dust!

As ancient as

the burnt meteorites

At the birth of  planets.

As regal as

the rarest jewels

At the feet of victors.


I want to lift you up,

towards the sun

oh, Dust!

and bask in your golden glory.