E is for ELT in Spain

22 10 2017


TESOL Spain 40th anniversary Levy

Thanks to Mark Levy for the pic

Last Friday, at a function at the magnificent Edificio Bellas Artes in Madrid, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of TESOL-Spain, I gave an illustrated talk on the history of English language teaching in Spain. Here is a shortened version of the talk.


R is for (Wilga) Rivers

15 10 2017

Wilga RiversI’m working on a book chapter about methodology texts, and the name Wilga Rivers comes up again and again. You may remember that she is the first woman to get a mention in Stern’s (1983) chronology of significant language teaching milestones in the previous century (see W is for Women in ELT). Stern describes her as ‘a writer on language pedagogy who has influenced the thinking of many language teachers for nearly two decades’ (p. 107). Me included.

Rivers is significant from a number of points of view: she was one of the first writers on language teaching methodology to really engage with the developing field of psycholinguistics. Her first book, in fact, was called The psychologist and the foreign-language teacher (1964). But the book of hers I am most familiar with is probably also her best-known: Teaching foreign-language skills. This was first published in 1968, and then edited for re-publication in 1981. The dates are significant, if you think about it. Somewhere in that period a major sea-change had taken place in language teaching methodology, namely the advent of the communicative approach. Rivers 2nd ednAs Rivers herself wrote (in the second edition): ‘Much water has flown under the bridge since the sixties’ (p. xiii). What is fascinating comparing the two editions (and interesting to me for the purposes of writing my chapter) is the way that Rivers not only embraces that change but, in some ways, was able to predict it. (Even in her 1964 book she had included a chapter suggesting ways that audiolingualism could be improved.)

Her readiness to abandon the narrow strictures of the audiolingual approach and its associated structural grammar found a fuller expression in Speaking in many tongues (first published in 1972 and then revised in 1976) in which she has a chapter called ‘From linguistic competence to communicative competence’,  and yet again in a subsequent book that she edited for Cambridge, Interactive language teaching (1987).  This begins with an article of hers titled ‘Interaction as the key to teaching language for communication’, in which she recalls her first teacher of French when she was 11:

We performed actions; we handled objects; we drew large pictures and labelled them; we sang; we danced; we learned poems; we read little stories which we acted out and improvised upon…

And she adds: ‘Collaborative activity of this type should be the norm from the beginning of language study’ (p. 4, original emphasis).

I met Wilga Rivers only once: in Barcelona at a TESOL Spain conference in 1989. By then she would have been nearly 70. She gave a plenary, made memorable by her writing on the projector screen in indelible pen, and by her still uncompromisingly strong Australian accent. She was born in Melbourne in 1920. As Claire Kramsch (writing on the occasion of Rivers’ retirement from Harvard) recalls:

She had never intended to come to America. What she really wanted was to be the best French teacher in the Australian school system. She wanted to strengthen Australian education according to her own educational beliefs. But her Australian frontier spirit was not meant to bloom at home. It found a voice in the United States, a voice that led her to become one of the first few women full professors at Harvard, a voice now familiar to foreign language teachers all over the world . . . including Australia (1989, p. 53)

Wilga rivers quoteI was teaching a Diploma course at the time of the TESOL Conference, and we were using several of Rivers’ texts, including one on motivation and another on vocabulary teaching. In the latter, she quotes the biblical line ‘A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver’. One of my students on the course, Catie Lenaghan, engineered a gathering with Wilga over coffee during one of the breaks: Catie had written out the quote and asked Wilga to sign it (see picture) before presenting it to me.

Many years later, browsing in a second-hand bookshop in Boston, I was surprised to find a number of books with her (by now familiar) signature on the flyleaf (see picture below). I realized, with some sadness, that she must have recently died. Many of the books that had belonged to her dated from the pre-communicative era – books on habit formation and contrastive error analysis. Others, like the one I bought – Earl Stevick’s Images and options in the language classroom (1986) – were more recent.  It was sad to see what had presumably been an extensive library broken up and dismantled like this. It makes me look at my own library with a mix of pride and foreboding.

Wilga Rivers signature


Kramsch, C. J. (1989) ‘Wilga M. Rivers on her retirement.’ Modern Language Journal, 73/1.

Rivers, W. (1964) The psychologist and the foreign-language teacher. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Rivers, W. (1976) Speaking in many tongues. (Expanded 2nd edn.) Rowley, Mass: Newbury House.

Rivers, W. (1981) Teaching foreign-language skills (2nd edn) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rivers, W. (ed.) (1987) Interactive language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stern, H.H. (1983) Fundamental concepts of language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stevick, E. (1986) Images and options in the language classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


M is for Minimal pairs

8 10 2017

The story of the Australian pig farmer whose livestock were decimated by floods has been circulating on the Internet recently. A reporter misheard him say that ‘Thirty thousand pigs were floating down the river’, and reported it as such. In fact, what he had said was: ‘Thirty sows and pigs…’.  A nice example of how a minimal pair mistake can cause problems even among native speakers.

Just to remind you, here’s how minimal pairs are defined in The New A-Z of ELT:

A minimal pair is a pair of words which differ in meaning when only one sound (one phoneme) is changed. Pair and bear are minimal pairs, since their difference in meaning depends on the different pronunciation of their first sound: p versus b. However, pair and pear are not minimal pairs, since, although they differ in meaning, they are pronounced the same. Minimal pairs are widely used in pronunciation teaching to help learners discriminate between sound contrasts, particularly those that don’t exist in their L1, for the purposes of both recognition and production.

On the MA course I teach for The New School, I set the students a task in which they describe how they might exploit this kind of minimal pairs activity (from Baker 2006):

ship or sheep 2006

Here’s my feedback on the task:

As I suggest, such activities may have limited usefulness. Indeed, does anyone still do them?


Baker, A. (2006) Ship or sheep? (2nd edn). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


A is for Accent

1 10 2017

vivir-es-facil-con-los-ojos-cerrados‘Living is easy with eyes closed’, David Trueba’s 2013 movie, which I watched again on TV this week, is interwoven with references to language and language teaching. It is based on the true story of a high-school English teacher in Spain who, in 1966, manages to infiltrate himself on to the set of ‘How I won the War’, which was being filmed in a remote part of Almería, and persuade John Lennon to include the printed lyrics of songs in subsequent Beatles albums.

Apart from the teacher’s inspired use of Beatles lyrics to imbue his students with a feel for English, the film touches on other language issues too. At one point the teacher comments on the broadness of the accent of an elderly villager, who retorts, ‘No, I don’t have an accent. It’s them from Málaga and Cádiz who have the really broad accents.’

The perception that only other people have accents is, of course, a common one. So, too, is the view that some accents are ‘neutral’ or ‘slight’ or ‘faint’ – whereas others are ‘thick’ or ‘broad’ or ‘strong’. What this really means is that any given speaker’s pronunciation displays features that are either nearer to, or further from, the accent that the interlocutor is most familiar with. This could be the local one (as in the case of the man from Almería), or, more typically these days, the ‘standard’, where ‘standard’ is defined as ‘the variety that is normally spoken by educated people and used in news broadcasts and other similar situations’ (Carter, 1995, p. 145).

Significantly, the adjectives that most commonly co-occur with accent (according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English [Davies 2008-], and excluding for the moment names of languages – like French, Russian etc) are: thick, heavy, foreign, slight, strong, soft, faint, fake, lilting, native, clipped, funny, strange, different, good, charming and sexy.  Notice how value-laden many of these adjectives are. This fact serves to remind us that – for the ‘person in the street’ at least – there is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ accent, in the sense of an accent that is value-free.

This was driven home this week by the appearance of a video on the BBC Website in which  a young Polish woman living in the UK is reduced, literally, to tears by the negative reaction her accent supposedly evokes among Britons – an accent that is hardly thick, heavy or funny, incidentally. Accordingly, she enlists the services of an elocution teacher, who promises to rid her of her accent once and for all. (The teacher’s exaggerated RP vowels and her manner of drilling them is reminiscent of Professor Henry Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion, and the way he successfully erases the Cockney accent of Eliza Doolittle, and, in so doing, effectively erases her identity).

my fair lady 02

Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins, Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in the film of the musical ‘My Fair Lady’


What the Polish woman is seeking is what is marketed as ‘accent reduction’, which, as Jennifer Jenkins (2000, p. 208) points out, is predicated on a misunderstanding of what second language acquisition means, i.e. not subtraction, but addition: ‘An L2 accent is not an accent reduced but an accent gained: a facility which increases learners’ choices by expanding their phonological repertoires.’ And she adds, ‘Interestingly, we never hear references to “grammar reduction” or “vocabulary reduction”. No writer of L2 pedagogic grammars or vocabulary courses would entertain the notion that learners need to reduce their L1 grammar or vocabulary in order to acquire the L2.’

Of course, such arguments will probably not appease the Polish woman who desperately wants to achieve a kind of social invisibility. Nevertheless, they serve to remind us that our choices – as teachers, curriculum designers and materials writers – have a strong ethical component, as Bill Johnston (2003, pp 39-40) argues:

It is commonly known in our field that the English language includes a bewildering diversity of varieties, especially accents… The problem in the field of ELT is to know which of these varieties to teach. My contention that this decision is moral in nature– that is, that it is grounded in values — stems from the fact that… language varieties themselves are not value neutral. Quite the opposite, in fact is true: the different varieties of English are highly value laden. Accents are closely linked to the identities of  individuals and groups of people; to value one accent over another is, rather directly, to value one group of people over another.

Accent and idenity are inextricably interconnected. I wonder if ‘accent reduction’ courses would be quite as popular if they were re-branded as ‘identity reduction’ courses?


Carter, R. (1995) Key Words in Language and Literacy. London: Routledge.

Davies, Mark. (2008-) The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA): 520 million words, 1990-present. Available online at https://corpus.byu.edu/coca/

Jenkins, J. (2000) The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johnston, B. (2003) Values in English Language Teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.


I is for Idiolect (and Intimate discourse)

24 09 2017


hotel el muniria

The Hotel Muniria, Tangier, where Burroughs wrote The Naked Lunch

A weekend in Tangier prompted a re-reading of the letters of William Burroughs (Harris 1993) , the US writer who lived there in the 1960s. Apart from their intrinsic interest, there were a number of linguistic oddities that caught my eye. As well as some idiosyncratic spellings (anyhoo for anyhow, innarested for interested), there were some curious non-standard constructions, including at least two instances of I look forward to see you, and these present perfect ‘simplifications’:


A Turkish bath [in London] beats anything I ever see for nightmarish horror.
Tanger is as safe as any town I ever live in.
Venice is perhaps the greatest place I ever see.
See you in Paris which I hope has more innarest than what I see already.

Burroughs was born and brought up in St Louis, Missouri, and these non-standard features might well be characteristic of the local variety. On the other hand, they could also be distinctive features of Burroughs’ own ‘idiolect’, where idiolect is defined as ‘a term used in linguistics to refer to the linguistic system of an individual speaker – one’s personal dialect’ (Crystal, 2003, p.225).   Elsewhere, Crystal (1987, p. 24) elaborates on this definition:

Probably no two people are identical in the way they use language or react to the usage of others. Minor differences in phonology, grammar, and vocabulary are normal, so that everyone has, to a limited extent, a ‘personal dialect’. It is often useful to talk about the linguistic system as found in the single speaker, and this is known as an idiolect. In fact, when we investigate language, we have no alternative but to begin with the speech habits of individual speakers: idiolects  are the first objects of study. Dialects can thus be seen as an abstraction, deriving from an analysis of a number of idiolects; and languages, in turn, are an abstraction deriving from a number of dialects.

As with dialect, the notion of idiolect is suggestive since it challenges the perception that there is one, monolithic, immutable and standard version of a language.

Equally interesting are the other kinds of ‘lect’ that develop in small speech communities, such as the under-researched language spoken within families (a ‘famililect’?). In her 1963 novel, appropriately titled The Family Lexicon, the Italian novelist Natalia Ginzburg captures this familiar phenomenon (cited in Parks 2017):

My parents had five children. We now live in different cities, some of us in foreign countries, and we don’t write to each other often. When we do meet up with one another we can be indifferent or distracted. But for us it takes just one word. It takes one word, one sentence, one of the old ones from our childhood, heard and repeated countless times… If my siblings and I were to find ourselves in a dark cave or among millions of people, just one of those phrases or words would immediately allow us to recognise each other.

Ginzburg’s mention of the countless repetitions that established this mini-variety reminds me of Guy Cook’s (1994) description of what he called ‘intimate discourse’, defined as ‘discourse between people in a minimal power relations which they would not wish to share with outsiders’ (p.134). This includes what Barthes (2010, p. 1) calls ‘a lover’s discourse’:

This discourse is spoken, perhaps, by thousands of subjects (who knows?), But warranted by no one; it is completely forsaken by the surrounding languages: ignored, disparaged, or derided by them, severed not only from authorities but also from the mechanisms of authority (sciences, techniques, arts).

Cook characterizes such discourse as being – among other things – repetitive and highly redundant, neologistic (i.e. it involves the creation of completely new words), nonsensical, figurative and ‘oriented towards form rather than meaning’ (1994, p. 135).  I would also add – from my own experience – that it is frequently macaronic, i.e. it incorporates the playful mixing of different languages.

the tangerinn

Former ‘beat’ bar in Hotel Muniria


I’ll spare you cringe-inducing examples of my own, but this example from a letter by the writer Christopher Isherwood (‘Kitty’) to his partner Don Bachardy (‘Dobbin’), gives a flavor (Bucknell 2013, p. 17):

Dearest Angel –

I miss you so much. I think of you all the time and long so to be back in my basket, close to Dobbin.… I just want to work. That and being with Dobbin are all that matters to Kitty, and being with Dobbin matters more than anything….

Cook argues that ‘intimate discourse’ is under-researched (by definition, it’s almost impossible to collect), but that it has a lot to teach us about how language is used – and learned – not least in the way that such frequently occurring discourse is form-focused, non-transactional, ritualized and highly repetitive. Shouldn’t we therefore be including more repetition and rote-learning in our methodology? asks Cook.

I have another question: if Burroughs’ idiolect includes non-standard forms – but was presumably understood and tolerated by his interlocutors  – shouldn’t we also consider the learner’s developing interlanguage (frequently non-standard) an idiolect in its own right, and be equally tolerant?

tangiers view rooftop

‘There is no town like Tanger town’ (Burroughs)



Barthes, R. (2010) A lover’s discourse: Fragments. New York: Hill and Wang.

Bucknell, K. (ed.) (2013) The Animals: Love letters between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Cook, G. (1994) ‘Repetition and learning by heart: an aspect of intimate discourse and its implications’. ELT Journal, 48/2.

Crystal, D. (1987) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crystal, D. (2003) A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (5th edition). Oxford: Blackwell.

Harris, O. (ed.) (1993) The letters of William S. Burroughs: 1945 to 1959. London: Picador.

Parks, T. (2017) ‘Keep the ball rolling’: A review of The Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg, trans. by Jenny McPhee, NYRB 2017, in London Review of Books, 39/13.

W is for (language learning in) the Wild

17 09 2017

japanese hitchhikerYears ago, driving from the west to the east coast in New Zealand’s South Island, we picked up a Japanese hitch-hiker (pictured in the centre above) who, once settled in the back seat, proceeded to ply us with questions from a notebook he carried. ‘What’s your favourite snack?’ ‘When did you last go to the movies?’ Even: ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ It transpired that he had been studying at a language school in Christchurch and these were questions that his (prescient) teacher had encouraged him to formulate, in order to pursue his language learning experience ‘in the wild’.

The term ‘in the wild’ has recently been co-opted from cognitive science (e.g. Hutchins 1995) to apply to a series of projects in which a number of Nordic countries are participating. As their website describes it,

Language learning in the wild is about using the resources available in the second language life world of the newcomers to a language[i].

This, of course, is not an entirely new idea. As long ago as 1956, Peter Strevens argued that ‘language is not a sterile subject to be confined to the classroom. One of two things must be done: either life must be brought to the classroom or the class must be taken to life’ (1956: 69).

Arthurs Pass

The call of the wild

What is perhaps new in the way that this principle is being applied in places like Sweden and Iceland is that, not only are learners (or ‘newcomers’ as they are termed) being sent outside the classroom to perform certain routine tasks ‘in the wild’, but that they are encouraged to use their smartphones to record the interactions they have, as well as to collect any other linguistic data, such as signs, menus, etc, and bring these back to the classroom for analysis, discussion and strategizing for future encounters.

Moreover, many of their potential interlocutors (e.g. shopkeepers) have been primed in ways to ensure that these interactions provide optimal opportunities for learning. For example, they are encouraged not to switch straight into (global) English when interacting with the newcomer but to persist with the (local) target language. They also allow the newcomers to ‘hang out’ and watch the way the locals negotiate basic transactions.  In this way, learners learn to cope with the unpredictability of even quite routine operations, such as ordering a coffee. As Wagner (2015) explains,  ‘this means… that language experiences often are memorable and tellable, in a negative or positive sense’, such that, ‘in language encounters in the wild, newcomers create their own history of the second language and that history may linger for a while with new words and constructions’ (p.85). As Eskildsen and Theodórsdóttir (2017: 160) argue,

This, in effect, breaks with a long tradition of teaching language as a decontextualised object in classrooms and instead entails a mutually constitutive relationship between L2 speakers’ everyday practices and the classroom which then comes to be a pedagogically enhanced world in which a view of language as situated and locally contextualised is propagated.

Nevertheless, ‘long-term language learning in the wild is understudied’ (Esklidsen & Theodórsdóttir 2017, p. 160). One small study that does attempt to track the language development of such a learner over time (Barraja-Rohan 2015) reports how a Japanese-speaking university student in Australia improved her story-telling skills through repeated interactions with an English speaking fellow student. The researcher calls such interactions ‘conversations-for-practising’, which, essentially, is what our Japanese hitch-hiker was also doing. Barraja-Rohan (2015, p. 299) concludes:

Conversations-for-practising, centred on the participants’ needs to build social relationships rather than on curricular considerations, seem to be a valuable arrangement to bring the L2 speakers into situations of authentic, everyday social interaction and language use, i.e., into the wild.

She adds that such conversational  ‘affordances’ don’t normally occur in conventional classrooms. A pedagogy based on the conversations that emerge in meaning-focused activity might redress this lack. And especially if it was a pedagogy that – like my Japanese hitchhiker’s teacher in New Zealand – equipped ‘newcomers’ to become legitimate users of the local language.

Even so, I guess the question is: how do you provide ‘in the wild’ experiences – including socialization into an English-speaking community – for EFL-type learners studying in their home country and hence lacking the direct contact my Japanese hitch-hiker was able to exploit?

sea scouts oamaru

Where the wild things are


Barraja-Rohan, A-M., (2015) ‘“I told you”: storytelling development of a Japanese learning English as a second language.’ In Cadierno, T. & Eskildsen, S. W. (eds) Usage-based perspectives on second language learning. Mouton: De Gruyter.

Eskildsen, S.W. and Theodórsdóttir G. 2017. ‘Constructing L2 learning spaces: ways to achieve learning inside and outside the classroom.’ Applied Linguistics. 38/2.

Hutchins, E. (1995) Cognition in the wild. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Strevens, P. (1956) Spoken language: an introduction for teachers and students in Africa. London: Longmans, Green and Co.

Wagner, J. (2015) ‘Designing for language learning in the wild: creating social infrastructures for second language learning.’ In Cadierno, T. & Eskildsen, S. W. (eds) Usage-based perspectives on second language learning. Mouton: De Gruyter.


[i] http://languagelearninginthewild.com/


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.