Interview: Dr. Rob Griffin on Teaching English Language Learners

Interviewed by Dr. Kendra Slayton

Dr. Robert Griffin is the English Language Learning (ELL) Specialist at Georgia Tech’s Naugle Communication Center (“CommLab”). He also teaches classes on communication for the School of Literature, Media, and Communication. He received his Ph.D. in Linguistics from Indiana University—Bloomington, and his research focuses on Second Language Acquisition, Phonology, and Pragmatics. As a CommLab ELL specialist, Rob works regularly with our ELL and international students on English language grammar, pragmatics, and pronunciation, and also co-runs the CommLab’s English Conversation Hour and English Conversation Partner programs.

I sat down with Rob in Fall 2020 to discuss his work at the CommLab and learn in detail how he helps students as our English Language Learning Specialist. In what follows, we discuss his background; his inspiration for pursuing his current career; the ways that he supports ELL students at the CommLab; the tips that he has for other teachers working with ELL students; and what he loves most about working with Georgia Tech students.

At the beginning of our conversation, we discovered a shared inspiration for our work not only in the CommLab but with English Language Learners specifically. I myself became interested in working with English Language Learners because of my own time studying Japanese and studying abroad—and later living in—Japan. Likewise, Rob’s first inspiration for this career path was when he was a language learner himself. Specifically, after studying German for a few years in high school, Rob studied abroad in the German-speaking, Alpine region of Switzerland, where he stayed with a host family for a year. Recounting this experience, Rob recalls initially struggling with culture shock and language barriers. As he explains it,

the biggest reason I had for going into the field of second language acquisition and language learning in general was when I did an exchange year in Switzerland. I was in the German-speaking part of Switzerland and I went to high school there. And I realized first-hand what it was like to be in a place where you really didn’t always understand what was going on. Culture shock was a big issue for me, I was in an Alpine village coming from San Diego, it was a lot—it was a very big change. And I just remember the first night being in this 500-year-old Swiss chalet, the father was a baker and the family had 8 kids, a big family, so it was very different from what I was used to, and I couldn’t even figure out how to get to my room, I got lost. We were sitting at the table and I didn’t even know how to say, “Pass the…whatever.” I had had 3 or 4 years of German, but obviously it wasn’t enough. […] Within a few months, I was able to converse in the language, and then I began to speak the dialect.

Reflecting on this time now, Rob points to the ways that his first-hand experience of language and cultural barriers broadened his awareness of the importance of language acquisition more generally, eventually leading him to study linguistics:

So, that really led me to understand really how important it is to learn and acquire languages […] And that’s what really got me into this field. I went into German literature, that’s what I started with because I was so interested in the culture, and so my undergraduate degree was in German literature and history. But at some point, I said to myself, I’m never going to be—although my skill in German is pretty good—I’m still not a native speaker of German, and I thought, well, let’s see what it might be like going into teaching English Language Learners and becoming more proficient in language acquisition. And so, that move from German literature with my interest in other cultures…it sort of led me to go into linguistics. And so I started my Masters and PhD work in German at Indiana, and then decided after my Masters and some of my PhD work that I really enjoyed the linguistic aspects of language, and I started working on a PhD in linguistics.

You can see more of this part of our conversation here:

Next, I asked Rob if he could talk in more detail about one of his sub-specializations within the field of linguistics: phonology. As Rob explains it,

It’s a sub-field of linguistics, and it really refers to the science of the sounds of language. So, linguistics consists of language, but then the subfields deal with different aspects of language. So, phonology deals with sound, syntax deals more with grammar, then you have other areas such as semantics dealing with meaning. But phonology is an area that is interesting to me because I can take what phonology provides us in terms of theory and implement it in a way that can be useful for second language learners. And there’s a whole area just dealing with second language phonology. And what we do in phonology then is we look at the specific individual sounds of a language, we call them the “segments,” or “segmentals,” and then we build from that. Because language consists of building blocks, we go from the individual sounds to how words are then pronounced or sounded out, and then we look at word stress and entire sentence-level stress. So, it really consists of pronunciation, it consists of issues of intonation, rhythm, pitch, all of these things come under the field of phonology and when we think of it, we’re asking ourself, how does a person form particular sounds in a language? What sounds are native to a particular language, which sounds are not?

In terms of how phonology can help language learners, Rob explains:

In the case of second language learners, we think about, “Well what sounds might be challenging given what we know about their first language?” So, we can sort of help them in different ways from how to produce a sound—so knowing where the tongue is placed, knowing the articulation—knowing whether a sound is voiced or not, all of these things come to play when someone is rattling off spoken language, and we just break it down, break long sentences down into units, words, it also helps of course with listening comprehension. So, yeah, I guess that’s phonology in a nutshell and how it can be applied to the second language learner. The building blocks of sound, and how we perform sounds.

Rob and I then dug into some of the specifics of phonology. We discussed, for example, the difference in pronunciation—and more specifically, in tongue placement—when pronouncing a hard Midwestern “R,” as in the word “far” or “her” (this is known as a “dark R” in linguistics, Rob tells me), versus the Japanese sound that in English gets transcribed as an “R,” as in the Japanese syllabic sounds “ra-ri-ru-re-ro” (ら・り・る・れ・ろ). In the Midwestern English “R,” Rob points out, your tongue curls up towards the back of your mouth; in the Japanese “R,” however, the tip of your tongue actually hits the roof of your mouth a bit. As Rob points out, as native speakers of any language, we do not necessarily think about where are tongues are when we are speaking—that’s why meeting with specialists with backgrounds in phonology can be so helpful for language learners.

When I asked Rob about his typical work in any given week at the CommLab, he explained that he’s helped students with a broad range of skillsets and modes of communication, whether written projects, mock interviews, or general pronunciation practice. Sometimes, as he points out, it goes beyond just pronunciation or grammar—recently arrived international students, for example, sometimes want help with cultural pragmatics and also need assistance learning academic meta language. But in particular, he has seen an emphasis on phonology help many students. As he explains, in late Fall 2019,

we began to see more people coming in. I saw a lot of people for mock interviews, and I began to notice, particularly towards the end of the Fall semester when I was helping one person who was going to be doing the graduation speech, as well as some of the people in the 3MT competition…I realized that they really needed help in stressing/emphasizing the sentence in a way that made it meaningful and impressionable. Knowing which words to stress and how to use pitch/intonation. That’s what then gave me the idea that maybe we could use a phonology lab. Everyone was so supportive of the idea.  The students needed some pronunciation help…so my day evolved from doing work on writing but also on pronunciation. And with pronunciation, I also found that I was doing consultations on pragmatics or situational and appropriate use of the language. Because if their pronunciation is off, or the intonation is somewhat askew, they may sound like they’re being pushy, or rude, when in fact they’re not.

Overall, Rob says, he would describe his average day working in the CommLab as “diverse” in terms of the many ways he helps students. He also notes the special role that consultants can play in helping international students, which extends beyond issues of language acquisition. As he points out, some students are struggling with culture shock, homesickness, and, during the COVID crisis, isolation, and, in one-on-one appointments, students may sometimes open up about these struggles in a way that they might not to their classroom teachers. As he explains,

aside from their linguistic skills, I also have had a number of cases where I had to help with more…I guess you could say psychological issues that have come up, where I would basically just listen to them chat, because that’s what they wanted. And then, that then led to general conversation sessions, and I think our Conversation Hour has done a lot to help with that need right now. […] I’m not a psychologist, so what happened is I’d often direct them to CARE, or we’d discuss student issues in our staff meetings…the Georgia Tech CARE program or counseling. Part of my position has been funded by…well the Student Government Association, and a part of that was for mental health-related issues. And what’s come out of this is this interest that I’ve gathered in how language and mental health overlap. You know, particularly if you don’t have a grasp of the language, or if you feel like sort of an outsider, that has an impact on your well-being, and I think in the CommLab, we’re addressing that, whether the student is international or not.

This led us to further discuss the myriad ways that the CommLab helps students, particularly through our English Conversation Hour program. Initially begun as an in-person event, we had to pivot, as with so many things, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic in Spring 2020; the program has grown in popularity, however, despite remote learning, and we roughly doubled our previous, in-person average for participation (10–15 people) with the October 2020, online version of the event (29 people). As we discuss in the following clip, we were determined to continue an online version of Conversation Hour, as language-learning can play such a fundamental role for one’s overall well-being, as can, of course, a sense of community:

During the course of our conversation, we also discussed how much goes on behind the scenes in Writing Centers and other support services that the campus-wide community and faculty don’t always know about. While there is sometimes the assumption that Writing Centers are a sort of “one stop fix-it shop,” or even an editorial service, as Rob notes, “for those of us in CommLabs and support units, we have a really challenging job because you have to wear a variety of hats.” In addition, he points out that it’s really about tailoring our help to each student—international students and domestic students sometimes may need different types of help, for example—and about ensuring that we can give them “the tools to help themselves.”

While Rob and I talked a great deal about the ways in which he helps students in his own CommLab consultations, he also had some advice to share with teachers who may be working with both English Language Learners and international students. Primarily, he advises easing students in to new cultural situations, and helping them build confidence by beginning discussions/tasks in pairs or small groups on low-stake activities before moving onto bigger projects or whole-class discussions. Essentially, he recommends scaffolding and flexibility as key for working in an ELL classroom, as you can see in the following clip:

Reflecting on his time at the CommLab thus far, while Rob’s career has spanned multiple institutions, he says that there’s something special about Georgia Tech. When I asked him about his favorite part about working with Georgia Tech English Language Learners and international students, he immediately responded,

My favorite part is that they are highly diligent students. I mean, these guys are responsible, they…I have rarely seen so many students, and the international students, I think most of the Georgia Tech students, regardless…they take their work seriously, they’re conscientious, and they’re really trying to make a difference in the lives of many people. One thing that I would say about Georgia Tech in general, whether you’re an international student, or faculty member, or CommLab consultant, we’re all trying to improve the human circumstance. And when I first came to Georgia Tech, I thought, well these are going to be all engineers, they’re all focused on their formulas…in fact, for most of them, behind all of the technical jargon, lies a real concern and sincere need to improve the situations that we’re in. And you just see such novel and innovative ideas.

Working in the CommLab has really shown me to appreciate the…well, it’s really the interchange…the interchange of disciplines. You can see, really, how your help with writing is helping them to communicate better, and they honestly all come in with a real sincere attempt to take what you give them, and I think they’re tremendously grateful for what we do. Because we may be the only ones on campus that offer this type of individualized support service where they can come in and speak with a live person […] I think all of the students we work with are really great.

I could not agree more. As Rob and I discussed, the CommLab affords us, as teachers and consultants, the incredible opportunity to get to know students on a personal level, and to share with them their hopes and ambitions. In the case of our English Language Learner students, it means not only working on things like grammar, pronunciation, and syntax, but also things like cultural awareness—both for our students, and for ourselves—and purposefully building a positive campus community. I, for one, am grateful for the many ways that Rob does this personally in his every day work with our ELL students, and thank him for his generosity with his time in sitting for this interview with me, and in sharing his experiences and advice.