P is for Predictions (part 2)

10 09 2017

fortune teller 02In last week’s post I identified some of the tensions that characterize the current state of ELT, the resolution of which may determine the shape that the profession takes in the next decade or two.  Without daring to commit to an outcome, one way or the other, let me suggest two more dimensions along which the future of ELT may be inscribed.

  1. The tension between public and private

Most English language teaching, and specifically EFL, takes place in public institutions, such as state-funded schools or universities. In these contexts, ELT methodology is typically (but not always) constrained by such factors as class size, i.e. large numbers of learners often seated in rows; limited contact with the target language; teachers who are less that fully confident in their own command of English (even if they are expected to use it as the vehicular language in their classes); a lack of motivation on the part of the learners; and mandated curricula that are driven by exams whose focus is primarily on accuracy. Under such conditions it is not surprising that the favoured methodology is form-focused, teacher-fronted, choral, and bilingual – a variant, in other words, of grammar-translation.

In the private (or fee-paying) sector, however, things tend to be very different: with smaller class-sizes and (often) native-speaker teachers – or, even, only native-speaker teachers – albeit with minimal training. Learners may be there of their own volition, motivated by work, study, or leisure-related needs. Such an ‘ecology’ favours a more learner-centred, English-only and activity-based methodology – a variant, in other words, of communicative language teaching.

fortune teller 03It’s likely that this division will persist for the foreseeable future, particularly in developing countries, which do not have the means to support ongoing professional development of state-school teachers, but where the necessity of having ‘English’ somewhere on the curriculum will long outlive its utility. Meanwhile, attempts to redress the generally poor results in the public sector by introducing English-medium instruction (e.g. in the form of CLIL) will work only when both teachers and learners have a ‘critical mass’ of English language proficiency to support content-based learning without prejudicing the learning of the subject matter. In some contexts, this may still be generations away. Until then, any form of immersion is likely to be associated with the elite, private sector.

Indeed, the public-private polarity both reflects and intensifies existing inequalities and does not look like improving any time soon. As Bruthiaux (2002, p. 190) comments, ‘In most markets, the consumers of English language education are the relatively well-off, already far beyond the stage of mere survival. To the extent that the severely poor are aware of it at all, the global spread of English is a sideshow compared with the issue of basic economic development and poverty reduction.’

  1. The tension between ‘standard English’ and English as a lingua franca

For the original proponents of the communicative approach it was axiomatic that native-like competence was a less urgent and less realistic goal than communicative efficiency, particularly with regard to pronunciation. In theory, at least, a first language accent was tolerable so long as it was intelligible. Such generosity did not readily extend to other systems, such as grammar, which were still taught and tested according to some idealized notion of what a native-speaker might say or write. This ‘native speakerism’ was reinforced by the prestige still being bestowed on native speaker teachers, especially in the private sector (see above).  As long ago as 1999, Vivian Cook railed against this deficit model of instruction, arguing that ‘L2 users have to be looked at in their own right as genuine L2 users, not as imitation native speakers’ (1999, p. 195).

This view was given extra impetus by the realization that, for many users, English is a contact language between other English-as-an-L2 users, and that, therefore, different standards apply. The notion of English as a lingua franca (ELF) as promulgated by Jennifer Jenkins (2000) – initially in relation to phonology –  had the effect  (or should have had the effect) of moving the goalposts in the direction of the learner-user. Nevertheless, years of (often bitter) debate have not resolved the issue as to what the goalposts actually look like. Is there an emergent codifiable variety called ELF? Or is it simply an elusive social practice – a spontaneously negotiated communicative ‘dance’ involving a creative mix of pragmatics, paralinguistics, accommodation, code-switching, repair strategies and interlanguage?

fortune teller 01Either way, the effect has been to challenge, even subvert, the supremacy of the native-speaker ‘gold standard’. Will the steady penetration of English into all corners of the globe and at most levels of society, mediated by ever swifter, cheaper and more accessible technologies, do the rest?  Or will the need for some mutually intelligible ‘common core’ tip the argument in favour of retaining the Queen’s English (or a version thereof)? The jury is out.

I had promised to discuss three ‘tensions’ today, but I am already out of time. Will there be more Predictions? Place your bets!


Bruthiaux, P. (2002) ‘Hold your courses: language education, language choice, and economic development.’ TESOL Quarterly, 36/3.

Cook, V. (1999) ‘Going beyond the native speaker in language teaching.’ TESOL Quarterly, 33/2.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an international language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



10 responses

10 09 2017
Jeff B

Speaking of the private sector, I came across this video on You Tube the other day: “English teacher who earns $500k – BBC News”. Is she really an English “teacher”? I have no problem with ELT professionals getting rich teaching, writing books, etc., but this seems more like being a motivational speaker or an ELT “televangelist” or celebrity. Are students (or their parents) so naive about language learning that they are willing to pay tons of money for someone to read PPTs to them while they, the students, parrot what the presenter says? Where’s the human connection with the students? And where’s the line between effective teaching for profit and just making ELT a business?

11 09 2017
Scott Thornbury

Yikes! Depressing example of how suggestible some people are and/or what astute marketing can do. (But I thought the journalist’s commentary was banal in the extreme – no attempt to account for her success or provide some biographical background).

Nevertheless, this might indeed be the future of ELT – for those who can afford it.

10 09 2017
Patrick Julian Huwyler

Well, I guess there’ll be no bespoke lessons there 🙂

10 09 2017
Sue Edwards

Although English-dominant countries such as New Zealand, where I live, are perhaps not aware of this as a ‘tension’, I see a tension between the relentless drive to bring more and more international students into the country to learn English, or learn various subjects in the medium of English, and the natural process of language learning. Why the relentless drive to bring these students into the country? Because international students are now important to the economy and certainly to the maintenance of higher educational institutions in new Zealand and other English-speaking countries. However, students are often unmotivated or only extrinsically motivated by the money that their parents have paid and the pressure to ‘succeed’ in an English-speaking country, and English language programmes become narrowly focussed either on trying to ensure that students pass IELTS with a certain score, or other assessments which deem them to be at a certain level of English to gain entry into mainstream classes. Somewhere in all of this I feel that English language teachers may no longer be able to do the job that they thought they had trained to do – to help English language learners acquire English to use it for whatever purposes they might wish to use it for.

11 09 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Sue – for this somewhat disheartening view from NZ. This suggests that a major tension, as you say, is between business and education, with the former driving – or even sidelining – the latter.

11 09 2017

Re the CEFR, its influence is very likely (actually I would say certain) to continue to grow and spread.

Personally I think this is a good thing, here’s a few reasons why –

• It’s based on the judgement of a very large number of experienced teachers, not to mention leading academics.
• It’s based on a communicative model.
• It lends itself easily to CLT and TBLT, though it’s not aligned to any methodology.
• It’s suggestive not prescriptive.
• It’s comprehensive (not exhaustive of course).
• It’s non-proprietary.
• It’s free.

Anyone interested specifically in testing and the CEFR could try “The Manual for Language Test Development and Examining for Use with the CEFR” produced by ALTE (Association of Language Testers in Europe) and “Relating Language Examinations to the CEFR”. Both free of course.

A couple of weeks ago several people here expressed interest in Van Ek’s Threshold specification – this was the basis for CEFR B1 (as I know most of you know), there are similar specifications for other levels in the CEFR too, all free and googleable, as is the CEFR.

I’ve had a lot of fun using the CEFR to assess my own proficiency in several 2nd languages (sadly mostly A1!), not all of which are European – there is absolutely no reason why the CEFR cannot or should not be applied for non-European languages and in non-European settings.

Brian North’s “The CEFR in Practice” (not free) is a useful supplement to the CEFR, and in it he addresses among other things the concerns raised by some academics.

John Trim advises to use the CEFR “as a tool for reflection, communication and empowerment”. I don’t know of a better one, or even one that comes remotely close.

11 09 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Patrick. It’s true that the CEFR has been widely adopted – and in contexts far removed from its original European one. But it’s not without its critics, both in terms of the way it was devised and, perhaps more crucially, the uses to which it is put. Perhaps this might be the subject of another blog?

11 09 2017

Hi Scott

anything as big and successful as the CEFR is bound to have its share of critics, but I haven’t seen any criticism that actually stands up to analysis.

Certainly Fulcher’s recently cited (here) criticism doesn’t stand up to analysis – it does however demonstrate that either he hasn’t read or understood or used the CEFR, or that he’s more interested in distorting its message in the interests of marketing his new theory: he doesn’t even get the quotations right. Sadly this kind of shoddy scholarship seems to be widespread in TESOL academia.

I’ve seen several criticisms of the way that certain publishers have used the CEFR, but even if one agrees with these it’s hardly a criticism of the CEFR itself.

Re the way it was devised, yes there have been critics (I thought you were one of them, but I haven’t been able to find the quote, so my memory might be playing up), but if the choice is between the judgement of experienced teachers or the pseudo-science of some particular rating method then I’ll go with the former any day (there are so many rating methods to choose from anyway).

And as for its use outside of Europe, this type of criticism is bizarre, particularly as the people who level it often have very limited international experience themselves. There was a time when English was never used outside of the UK (or even England, or even certain English counties), perhaps we should ban its wider use too!

And more to the point from a practitioner’s perspective, is there an alternative? Have any of the critics provided one, erm no!

11 09 2017

Thanks for the great post as usual
I do not think that “The tension between ‘standard English’ and English as a lingua franca” will ever disappear. From you article, I understand that English used as a lingua franca is associated with some sort of faulty language in terms of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.
As a means of communication in certain contexts, the use of so called Englishes is justified. However, as an English teacher, I would need to know what we call standard English. Learners would not be positive if their teacher spoke some kind of English which could be erroneous. Thus acceptability is an important factor to decide on the choice.

12 09 2017
Scott Thornbury

Hi Shahram: one of the ‘lessons’ to be learned from the whole standard English vs ELF argument is that the notion of error has become problematized, such that it is contentious to talk about ‘faulty’ or ‘erroneous’ English any more, since this represents only the ‘native speaker’ perception, and not necessarily that of a ‘multi-competent user’. If you substituted ‘non-standard’ for the terms ‘faulty’ and ‘erroneous’ in your comment, it would be more inclusive and less judgmental. Of course, even the notion of what is ‘standard’ is problematic, since ‘standard English’ is an idealization and does not necessarily represent the speech or writing of any single user.

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