G is for Grammar syllabus

15 04 2012

A hobby-horse of mine, I know, but I thought I’d make a video this time, rather than write about it all over again.

Some relevant quotes and references (the numbers don’t correlate with my ‘8 issues’ but the order more or less does):

1. “Of the scores of detailed studies of naturalistic and classroom language learning reported over the past 30 years, none suggest, for example, that presentation of discrete points of grammar one at a  time bears any resemblance except an accidental one to either the order or the manner in which naturalistic or classroom acquirers learn those item”.

Long, M. and Robinson, P. (1998) ‘Focus on form: Theory, research and practice’, in Doughty, C., and  Williams, J. (eds.) Focus on form in classroom language acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 16.

2. “In helping learners manage their insights into the target language we should be conscious that our starting point is the learner’s grammar of the language.  It is the learner who has to make sense of the insights derived from input, and learners can only do this by  considering new evidence about the language in the light of their current model of the language. This argues against presenting them with pre-packaged structures and implies that they should be encouraged to process text for themselves so as to reach conclusions which make sense in terms of their own systems”.

Willis, D. (1994)  ‘A Lexical Approach’, in Bygate, M., A. Tonkyn, and E. Williams, (eds.) Grammar and the Language Teacher, Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall, p. 56.

3. “Materials used in the teaching of grammar have commonly been based on intuition… In fact, corpus-based research shows that the actual patterns of function and use in English often differ radically from prior expectations…  Some relatively common linguistic constructions are overlooked in pedagogic grammars, while some relatively rare constructions receive considerable attention.”

Biber, D., S. Conrad, and R. Reppen, (1994) ‘Corpus-based approaches to issues in applied linguistics’,  Applied Linguistics 15, 2, p. 171.

4. “Language learning is exemplar based…. the knowledge underlying fluent use of language is not grammar in the sense of abstract rules or structure but a huge collection of memories of previously experienced utterances”.

Ellis, N. (2002) ‘Frequency effects in language processing. A review with implications for theories of implicit and explicit language acquisition’, Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, p. 166.

5. “Learning grammar involves abstracting regularities from the stock of known lexical sequences.”

Ellis, N. (1997) ‘Vocabulary acquisition: word structure, collocation, word-class’, in Schmitt, N., and McCarthy, M. (Eds.) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition, and Pedagogy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 126.

6. “Grammar is … simply the name for certain categories of observed repetitions in discourse…. Its forms are not fixed templates but emerge out of face-to-face interaction in ways that reflect the individual speakers’ past experience of these forms… Grammar, in this view, is not the source of understanding and communication but a by-product of it”.

Hopper, P.J. (1998) ‘Emergent language’, in Tomasello, M. (ed.) The New Psychology of Language: Cognitive and Functional Approaches to Language Structure, Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrence Erlbaum, p. 156.

7. “From the perspective of emergent grammar … learning an additional language is about enhancing one’s repertoire of fragments and patterns that enables participation in a wider array of communicative activities. It is not about building up a complete and perfect grammar in order to produce well-formed sentences.”

Lantolf, J. and Thorne, S. (2006) Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 7.

8. “We may learn the tokens of language formally, but we learn the system by using it through reading or writing, or conversing”.

Brumfit, C. (2001) Individual Freedom In Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 12.

O is for Othering

8 04 2012

‘Othering’ is the way members of one social group distance themselves from, or assert themselves over, another by construing the latter as being fundamentally different (the ‘Other’).  It is a term that is associated with discourses of colonialism, and, in particular, with the work of Edward Said. In his influential book Orientalism, (1995: 332) Said wrote:

‘The development and maintenance of every culture requires the existence of another different and competing alter ego.  The construction of identity… whether Orient or Occident, France or Britain… involves establishing opposites and otherness whose actuality is always subject to the continuous interpretation and reinterpretation of their differences from us‘.

Patterns of written discourse (after Kaplan 1966) Click to enlarge

A discussion of otherness arose last week in my MA TESOL discourse analysis class. One of the students had posted this diagram from Kaplan’s (1966) seminal study of different, culturally-determined, styles of expository writing. According to Kaplan, text production is influenced by different ‘cultural thought patterns’ (represented schematically in the diagrams), and a comparison of these patterns can predict the kinds of problems learners face when writing in their L2: this is known as the contrastive rhetoric hypothesis.

It’s a view that has a certain face validity to many teachers, especially those having to deal with the lack of coherence that characterises the texts that their students regularly deliver under the guise of academic writing.  But there are problems with it. For a start, the contrastive rhetoric hypothesis assumes that culture, language, ethnicity and nation are mapped on to one another in a monolithic, homogeneous and mutually determining kind of way. Thus, the Japanese (or the Spanish, or the Arabs, or whoever) write the way they do because they think that way, and they think the way they do because they are that way – and that way is different.

Such a view seems overly reductive in this day and age. Indeed, Kaplan’s characterization of  ‘Orientals’ [sic] as being circular in their argumentative style, in contrast to the English (whoever they are) as being direct, seems to reinforce the worse type of cultural stereotypes. As Claire Kramsch (2001: 203) observes, ‘Such characterisations sound dangerously ethnocentric.  They show the difficulty of expressing one culture in terms of another without sounding critical or condescending’.

Pennycook (1998: 161) is more forthright: ‘What such examples raise for me are a host of questions about how we construct the Others of ELT, our students.  Why is it, for example, that Chinese students are so frequently and so consistently categorised as passive, rote-learners, whose logic follows a strange spiral pattern?’ Pennycook attributes such stereotyping to a  postcolonial mindset, the same mindset that privileges native speaker teachers over non-native ones.

Whether that is the case or not, the notion that ‘foreigners do things differently’ is perpetuated in many teaching materials, especially those that claim to target cultural issues.  A recent course aimed at teaching conversation (Steinbach, 1996) goes so far as to compare different conversational styles with sports: basketball (U.S. English), bowling (Asian languages) and rugby (Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East). And, always, as Kubota (2001: 24) points out, ‘the underlying assumption in the discourse of cultural dichotomy is that U.S. culture is the norm’.

Moreover, it’s not just the ‘colonisers’ who take this line: the colonized seem equally complicit.  McKay and Bokhorst-Heng (2008: 186) note that, ‘in many countries where Western characters are introduced in textbooks, it is often in the context of presenting differences between Western culture and local cultures, often accompanied by a subtle emulation of Western culture and traditions’.

But does this mean that we have to adopt a ‘universalist’ position, arguing not only for the equality of all cultures, but for their lack of differentiation as well? Surely, by definition, different cultures do things differently? That, after all, is a fundamental principle of genre theory.  As Eggins (1994: 35) reminds us, ‘Foreign travel broadens our minds by showing us that the genre potential of two cultures is not the same, nor is the mode of realising particular genres.  A foreign culture may have genres our culture of origin does not… Equally disorienting is the fact that apparently the same genres are in fact expressed in very different ways, so that you do not, for example, write an essay about sociology in France the same way you write an essay about sociology in Australia’.

Kramsch (1998: 63) would seem to confirm Eggins’ point:

There are striking differences … between the French and the Anglo-Saxon genre ‘research paper’.  …. Whereas American research articles end with the obligatory discussion of ‘the limitations of the study’, French articles do no such thing; instead, they are obligated to raise larger questions, and point to directions for further areas of study.  These two different styles within two scientific communities that otherwise share the same purpose may create difficulties for some French scientists, who may be willing to publish in English but wish to retain their own cultural scientific style.

Other researchers have documented similar differences in the way specific cultures realise particular genres. For example, Celce-Murcia and Olshtain (2000: 149) cite research that shows that Japanese expository writing ‘has a number of rhetorical organisational patterns that are quite different from those found in English expository writing.  In some of these patterns, the main theme is not foregrounded as it is in English but rather hinted at’.  They add, ‘English teachers may view English essays written according to one of the Japanese organisational patterns as lacking in coherence and unity, and thus rate them lower than essays written with English organisational patterns’.

Whether, in fact, the lack of coherence in student writing is due to transfer of L1 discourse patterns, or to other reasons altogether, is a moot point. Odlin (1989: 67), for example, concludes that ‘the extent of discourse transfer is not clear. Some studies of contrastive discourse have found little or no evidence for transfer’.

Even if transfer were to occur, should we be judging a Japanese writing style by US, UK, or Australian standards? Kachru (1999: 85) says, emphatically, that we should not: ‘Contrasting rhetoric with the aim of changing the behaviour of non-native users of English is a form of behaviourism no longer acceptable in linguistic research or language education’.

As I see it, the questions to resolve are these:

  • What evidence is there that different cultures have different rhetorical styles?
  • Do these rhetorical styles impact on, or interfere with, the target language rhetorical style (assuming there is one)?
  • Does it matter?

Or, perhaps, as Humpty Dumpty famously said, ‘The question is, which is to be master — that’s all’.


Celce-Murcia, M. and Olshtain, E. (2000) Discourse and Context in Language Teaching: A Guide for Language Teachers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Eggins, S. (1994) An Introduction to Systemic Functional Linguistics, London: Pinter.

Kachru, Y. (1999) ‘Culture, context, and writing’, in Hinkel. E. (ed.) Culture in Second Language Teaching and Learning, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kaplan,  R. (1966) ‘Cultural thought patterns in inter-cultural education’, Language Learning, 16, 1-20.

Kramsch, C.  (1998). Language and Culture, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kramsch, C. (2001).  ‘Intercultural communication’, in Carter, R. & Nunan, D. (eds.) The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

Kubota, R. (2001) ‘Discursive construction of the images of U.S. classrooms’, TESOL Quarterly 35, 1, 9-38.

McKay, S.L., and Bokhorst-Heng, W.D. (2008) International English in its Sociolinguistic Contexts: Towards a socially sensitive EIL pedagogy, New York: Routledge.

Odlin, T. (1989) Language Transfer: Cross-linguistic Influence in Language Learning, Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Pennycook, A. (1998) English and the Discourses of Colonialism, London: Routledge.

Said, E. (1995)  Orientalism: Western conceptions of the Orient, (revised edition), London: Penguin.

Steinbach, S. 1996. Fluent American English. Davis, CA: The Seabright Group.

Illustrations from Alexander, L (1967) New Concept English: First Things First, Harlow: Longman.

P is for Pre-service training

1 04 2012

Or C is for CELTA. Or F is for Four-week course.

This month celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first teacher training course offered by International House (IH) at its then London home in 40 Shaftesbury Avenue. As the current issue of the EL Gazette notes, this is ‘still the model of initial training for native-speaker teachers which predominates in most of the world’ (p.24).

A model that is not without its problems, it goes without saying.  But first some autobiography.

Teaching practice, 40 Shaftesbury Ave

I enrolled on the 4-week course (as it was then called, prior to its morphing into the RSA course, then the CTEFLA, and now, its most recent avatar, the CELTA) in early 1975. I had recently arrived in the UK, via a few heady days and nights in Athens, and I had set my sights on a teaching job in Greece. Friends who had done ‘the course’ and were already teaching recommended it: I was duly interviewed (by the wise and lovely Georgie Raman) and coughed up the course fee of £65.00. Probably the best 65 quid I ever spent.

IH was still housed at 40 Shaftesbury Avenue, just down the road from the evocative Berwick Street market and around the corner from the Blue Posts pub (the site of many well-lubricated lesson post-mortems). Finding your way around the warren of rooms that comprised IH almost required a course in its own right. Day 1 began with a welcome speech from IH’s co-founder, John Haycraft. It all felt a bit like drama school: we sat on the floor while John’s introduction involved a lot of what I would soon discover was a core technique on the course itself: he elicited.

There was more eliciting in the foreign language lesson (which happened to be Thai) even though none of us had any Thai to elicit. Magically, though, we were all exchanging names and greetings in Thai within minutes and with NO TRANSLATION!  Just as geese will mistakenly assume that the first perambulating object they set eyes on, such as a wheelbarrow, is their mother, and will follow it unquestioningly, we were all instantly and irrevocably ‘imprinted’ by the direct method.

Our instructor was the always encouraging and endlessly inventive David Thompson, who, not long after, would leave to set up the IH chain in Argentina. Hazel Imbert was one of the Teaching Practice tutors, and took advantage of her role to recruit potential performers for the English Teaching Theatre, of which she was a member. (After one of my lessons she slipped me a note: ‘Can you play the guitar?’)

Teaching Practice (TP), of course, is at the very heart of the 4-week course, and is what made it both so terrifying and so exhilarating – and also so effective. In retrospect it seems amazing that such a perfectly obvious idea (i.e. to incorporate a practicum from Day 1) hadn’t been thought of before, or that – even today – it is so relatively rarely instituted on preservice teacher training programs, especially at tertiary level. Of course, it’s not just the teaching practice that is so formative: it is the collaborative planning and the tutor-led post-lesson feedback discussion, as well as the regular classroom observation, not to mention the way that the input sessions themselves cross-refer to teaching practice, so that – when it works well – the whole experience is entirely integrated, coherent and maximally practical.

From beach bum to EFL teacher - in 4 easy weeks

So practical, in fact, that, having finished the course on a Friday, I was teaching my first class in IH Hastings the following Monday. The rest, as they say, is history (except that I never did make it back to Athens).

So, if it’s so good, why is it so bad?

The same issue of the EL Gazette that celebrates the 50th anniversary of the IH course, has another piece about teaching in Russia, which makes salutary reading. Despite having been ‘opened up’ to non-native speaker teachers, there is still a widespread perception that the CELTA is a native-speaker club, a feeling that clearly causes resentment to many Russians (judging by the article) especially when the CELTA is promoted as a more reliable measure of employability than a degree in linguistics or yards of teaching experience. One Moscow-based teacher complained that, to get work, ‘we have to change our methods because only Celta teaching is acceptable. I think Celta is fine, but it isn’t the only way to teach. It would be nice to have other options’ (p. 21).

It took me many years to outgrow the 4-week course and to realise that there are ‘other options’. This is not to deny its power and its fitness for purpose, nor to feel less grateful for the incredible career it kick-started. But isn’t it time that some of the other options were given more credence? And more legitimacy?

I is for Imitation

25 03 2012

Listen!  Repeat! Understand! The sequence below comes from an advert for a self-study language course – an advert that I have used countless times on training sessions to (gently) mock the folk theory that language acquisition (both first and second) is primarily a process of imitation – and imitation in advance of understanding, no less. The text of the advert spells it out: ‘You probably can’t remember, but at that time [i.e. when you were a child]  you first reproduced sounds, then words, and then entire phrases without really understanding anything. Very quickly you were able to speak, understand and make yourself understood’.  And of course they add, ‘This is the best way to learn any language’.

It’s amazing how this notion has resisted the hatchet-job that Chomsky and his followers inflicted upon it so long ago. Mindless reproduction of the type described cannot of course account for the almost limitless creativity that even quite young children allegedly exhibit. Summing up the evidence, Lightbown and Spada (2006: 14) confidently declare that ‘imitation and practice alone cannot explain some of the forms created by children’, citing a figure of less than 10 per cent of children’s output as being directly imitative.

So, if, in Chomsky’s terms, language use is rule-based creativity, and if performance is contingent upon competence, then it follows that we should teach (or have learners figure out) the rules of the language, so that they can generate their own meanings, rather than have them simply imitate a model. The learning sequence might better be summed up as Listen! Understand! Figure it out! Create!

It’s something of a shock, therefore, to come up against this sentence in Vygotsky’s Thought and Language ([1934], 1986: 188, emphasis added): ‘In learning to speak, as in learning school subjects, imitation is indispensable’. Or, as Lantolf and Thorne (2006: 166) gloss it, ‘Imitation is the process through which socioculturally constructed forms of mediation are internalised’. That is to say, the transition from skills (including linguistic ones) that are initially other-regulated to those that are self-regulated is engineered by – hold your breath – imitation.

In fairness, and as Swain et al (2011: 58) point out, Vygotsky’s notion of imitation was a far cry from mindless parroting: ‘Vygotsky differentiated imitation from automatic copying.  In Vygotsky’s view, imitation is a potentially transformative mechanism that is applied consciously and is goal-directed. Intentionality of the imitation, the reflection and examination of the results, and the subsequent revisions differentiates the action from simple mimicry’. This is reminiscent of Bakhtin’s (1981: 428) claim that, to make an utterance is to ‘appropriate the words of others and populate them with one’s own intentions’.

Imitation, then, is like a benign form of plagiarism, in which the child cobbles utterances together, in a kind of cut-and-paste fashion, using whatever linguistic affordances are available in order to achieve their immediate communicative purposes.  These linguistic affordances include, not only words, but multi-word chunks, such as lemme-see, I-wanna-do-it, etc, that, initially at least, are unanalysed into their component parts (Tomasello 2003). In this sense, they constitute what one scholar (Clark 1974: 1) has called performance without competence: ‘The important question is no longer whether imitation can help children to acquire syntax, but precisely how a child gradually extracts grammatical information from the repertoire of imitated sequences at his [or her] disposal’.

So, to tweak our learning sequence yet again, maybe what’s happening is more like Listen! Imitate! Understand! Figure it out! – not a million miles from the Listen! Repeat! Understand! formula that I habitually mock.

The question then is (as ever): how does this apply to the learning of a second language? How does one ‘populate the words of others with one’s own intentions’?  Eva Hoffman (1998: 220), a Polish teenager learning English in the United States, describes the process of appropriation:  ‘Since I lack a voice of my own, the voices of others invade me… By assuming them, I gradually make them mine. I am being remade, fragment by fragment, like a patchwork quilt’.  In a similar, patchwork fashion, a student of academic writing will selectively imitate (or copy) features, both micro- and macro-, of a model text as a first step in discovering her own academic ‘voice’.

If imitation is fundamental to first language acquisition, should we be integrating more imitation-type activities into our second language classrooms? And how can we ensure that, in order to be ‘transformative’, imitation meets the criteria that Swain et al. establish (2011: 59), i.e. that it is ‘deliberate, reflective, and accompanied by some kind of instruction’?


Bakhtin, M.M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, Austin: University of Texas Press.

Clark, R. (1974) ‘Performing without competence’, Journal of Child Language, 1, 1.

Hoffman, E. (1998) Lost in Translation: A Life in a  New Language, London: Vintage.

Lantolf, J.P., and Thorne, S. (2006) Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lightbown, P.M. and Spada, N. (2006) How Languages are Learned (3rd edn.), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swain, M., Kinnear, P., and Steinman, L. (2011) Sociocultural Theory in Second Language Education: An Introduction through Narratives, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Tomasello, M. (2003) Constructing a Language: A Usage-based Theory of Language Acquisition, London: Continuum.

Vygotsky, L. ([1934] 1986), Thought and Language, edited by Kozulin, A., Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.

S is for Sexist language

18 03 2012

You know the one about the judge who, on being shown the name of the culprit to be tried, said, ‘I can’t try him – he’s my son!’  Another judge was summoned, who – no sooner given the name of the culprit – said, ‘I can’t try him – he’s my son!’

How can this be?  Well, of course, one judge was the culprit’s father, the other his mother. (I’ve adapted this from an original which was about two surgeons, but you could create a similar puzzle involving two nurses, or two plumbers, or two manicurists, and so on).  The puzzle plays on the fact that, while in English most professions are not marked for gender, we are disposed to assume (foolishly, of course) that the representatives of certain professions are either male or female, by default.

The puzzle wouldn’t work in Spanish, where – apart from anything else – the determiner clearly flags the gender of el juez and la juez. (Not to mention the feminine ending, in the case of the relatively recent form: la jueza).

On the other hand, because the masculine form is the unmarked (i.e. the default) form, when you have a group of judges or architects or surgeons, they are automatically ‘masculinized’, whether or not the group includes any women members. So the puzzle becomes: Dos jueces caminaban por la calle, y los dos dijieron… (Two judges were walking down the street, and both said ‘That’s my son!’  etc).

That the masculine is the default form in Spanish accounts for all sorts of oddities, such as the fact that a parents’ association in Spain is una asociación de padres, even though the only people who attend are las madres. Or that, when you walk up to a crowded stall in the market, you ask ¿Quién es el último? (Who’s the [masculine] last?), even if the bulk of those in line are women.

The invisibility of women that is instantiated in such usages is, of course, way out of step both with reality and with feminist aspirations.  Consequently, this linguistic bias has prompted the publication, in Spanish as in English, of a number of ‘style guides’ that promote the use of non-sexist and inclusive language. The Spanish style guides, however, have irritated the self-appointed guardians of ‘la lengua’, i.e. the Real Academia Española (RAE), to the point that, a couple of weeks ago, a leading Spanish grammarian and lexicographer, Ignacio Bosque, was moved to write a long piece in the national press, signed by 24 of his fellow ‘academicians’, taking these style guides to task. Unsurprisingly, this put el gato (or la gata?) among las palomas (or los palomos?) and, as they say here, the debate was served.

The principle arguments levelled by the (mainly) male academicians at the (mainly) female style guide writers are that their recommendations are

  • inelegant
  • wrong
  • impractical
  • ineffectual
  • misconceived
  • ideological

Inelegance, it is true, often results from the doubling up of gender-marked nouns in the interests of inclusiveness (los hermanos y las hermanas de mi padre y mi madre son mis tíos y mis tías), and an extract from the Constitution of Venezuela that takes this trope to an extreme is quoted with derision.

But worse than inelegant, many of the recommendations are (according to Bosque) simply wrong, and ‘contravene the norms laid down by the RAE’.  In 2008 the then Minister for Equality was roundly mocked for addressing her parliamentary colleagues as ‘miembros y miembras’ (members). The RAE declared this attempt at greater visibility ‘incorrect’.  That coinages like miembra or jueza are wrong simply because they are coinages overlooks the fact that new words are being coined at an astonishing rate (8,500 English words a year, according to a recent study). Language changes, resist it as we may.

Of course, it is not always that easy to unpick the deeply embedded cognitive structures of a language, especially those encoded in its grammar. Attempts to invent gender-neutral pronouns in English have failed miserably. But change does occur, relentlessly, even at the level of grammar. Apart from a few residual suffixes, English lost its gender distinctions long ago, as did Persian, while some languages (e.g. French and, hey!, Spanish) collapsed a three-way distinction into two. Will there still be grammatical gender in Spanish in 500 years? Place your bets.

More serious is the charge that militating for non-sexist language is both ineffectual and misconceived. It’s ineffectual, according to the RAE, because you can’t legislate for language change, which is ironic, since this is exactly what the RAE (through its grammars and dictionaries) has always done. As Deborah Cameron (1990: 162) has argued, ‘defenders of “the language” regard language as their property’, and the tone of the Bosque article is very much ‘back off!’

And the movement for greater inclusiveness is misconceived, so the argument goes, because linguistic change does not effect social change: it merely reflects it. Again, Cameron (1990: 90) is eloquent on this subject:

Anti-feminists are fond of observing that eliminating generic masculine pronouns does not secure equal pay.  Indeed it does not – whoever said it would?  Eliminating generic masculine pronouns precisely eliminates generic masculine pronouns. And in so doing it changes the repertoire of social meanings and choices available to social actors.

Moreover, as she writes elsewhere (Cameron 1995: 143), ‘changing what counts as acceptable public behaviour is one of the ways you go about changing prevailing attitudes – ask anyone who still smokes cigarettes’.

Finally, a great deal of the debate about the RAE communique hinges on the claim that language is ideologically neutral. ‘La gramática no tiene ideología’[i] ran a headline in El País (March 13, 2012). But this is debatable. Languages reflect the cultures out of which they have emerged and bear the traces – the scars, even – of their origins. A language which divides all of creation into two genders, and then selects one of those genders as the preferred form, is ideological to the core.


Cameron, D. (1990) ‘Demythologizing sociolinguistics: Why language does not reflect society’, in Joseph, J.E., and Taylor, T.J. (eds.) Ideologies of Language, London: Routledge.

Cameron, D. (1995) Verbal Hygiene, London: Routledge.

[i] ‘Grammar has no ideology’

L is for Linguistic landscape

11 03 2012

I took the photos (below) in one 20-minute walk from home to the gym last week. (You may need to click on them to see the details of their texts).

They all feature language, or better, languages, and are typical of the multilingual ‘linguistic landscape’ that is Barcelona – or, for that matter, any large cosmopolitan centre in the 21st century.  Barcelona may be an extreme case of public multilingualism, given the fact that it is the capital of a region that already has two official languages, as well as being a major tourist centre. Nevertheless, as English extends its (some might say insidious) global reach, there must be few places in the world where public signage and advertising hoardings don’t intermix languages. (An exception is/was Libya, where the law proscribes anything but Arabic).

The term linguistic landscape (LL) is a relatively recent one, and

refers to the visibility and salience of languages on public and commercial signs in a given territory or region. It is proposed that the linguistic landscape may serve important informational and symbolic functions as a marker of the relative power and status of the linguistic communities inhabiting the territory (Landry and Bourhis, 1997: 23).

In a recent collection of papers, Shohamy and Barni (2010: xiv) add that, ‘the notion “linguistic landscape” … includes any written sign found outside private homes, from road signs to names of streets shops and schools.  The study of LLs focuses on analysing these items according to the languages utilised, their relative saliency, syntactic or semantic aspects’. (Elana Shohamy gave a memorable plenary on this very subject at the IATEFL Conference in Cardiff in 2009).

This kind of analysis – or a simplified version of it – is not beyond the reach of English language learners. As I have blogged elsewhere this week, learners have the means (e.g. their mobile phones) and the opportunities (unless they live in Libya) to collect examples of signage in English, or English mixed with a local language, in their own context.

In a recent article, Peter Sayer (2010: 152) describes how he documented and classified the uses of English in the linguistic landscape of Oaxaca, Mexico, and adds that such a study ‘can easily be reproduced as a classroom project, with the students taking on the role of “language detectives”‘, thereby becoming more aware of their own sociolinguistic context.

The photos they bring to class could become the focus of the following questions:

  1. Where was this photo taken?
  2. How many languages can you see?
  3. What is the relative status of the languages? How can you tell?
  4. Who wrote the text? For whom?
  5. Why is (some of it) in English?
  6. Is there a translation? Why/why not?
  7. Is it correct?
  8. Is there anything you don’t understand?
  9. Is there anything you would like to remember?

Particularly interesting is the way that the use of English indexes specific discourses, such as the aspirational culture of brand-name consumer goods. But it can also frame the language of dissent and resistance. Here, for example, is a piece of graffiti spray-painted on the rocks at a beach (Canet de Mar) north of Barcelona. It says ‘NO MORE GUIRIS IN CANET’.  (Guiri is a fairly pejorative Spanish word for tourist).

It intrigues me that, while the language chosen to frame the message is English (easily intelligible to foreign visitors), the author uses a Spanish word (guiri) that most tourists would not understand.  Which raises the question: for whom was the message written – and why? Clearly, there is an intertextual element – the use of English in graffiti is widespread, and the NO MORE-frame is a recognisable feature of the discourse of protest. At the same time, the use of the word guiris serves to exclude a wider readership – reflecting (intentionally or not) the way that the writer seems to wish to exclude tourists from Canet. The interplay between the global and the local – through the use of an in-group expression embedded in an international catchphrase  – captures the essence of the message, making it less an expression of out-group-directed protest and more an expression of in-group-directed solidarity.

Such are the language affordances provided by the linguistic landscape!


Landry, R. and Bourhis, R. (1997) ‘Linguistic landscape and ethnolinguistic vitality: an empirical study’, Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 16,  1.

Sayer, P. (2010) ‘Using the linguistic landscape as a pedagogical resource’, ELT Journal, 64, 2.

Shohamy, E. and Barni, M. (2010) Linguistic Landscape in the City, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

F is for Futurity

4 03 2012

A video blog, in an occasional series on features of English grammar:


Relative distribution of different modals in the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., and Finegan, E. 1999. London: Longman).