D is for Dictionary

3 12 2017

spanish dictionary(This post was timed to coincide with the most recent update of the Macmillan English Dictionary, and first appeared on the  Macmillan Dictionary blog here.)

I love dictionaries almost as much as I love old coursebooks. I have a two-volume Spanish-English dictionary published in Cadíz in MDCCCLXIII – which I think is 1863. I picked it up for a song in the flea market in Barcelona and it’s in great shape. In the English volume it includes words like duskishly, porterage, and crupper, so I’m not betting on it being of that much use in 2017. Presciently (or perhaps duskishly?) the writer – one Don Mariano Velasquez de la Cadena – comments in the preface:

Language, like dress, is subject to continual change; and many phrases which were deemed elegant two centuries ago are almost unintelligible at the present day, in consequence of being displaced by other [sic] which were then unknown.

This is as true in our own field – applied linguistics and language education – as it is in other specialized fields. It was driven home to me just this week (thanks to a blog post by Richard Smith) as I read a book published exactly 100 years ago, called The Scientific Study and Teaching of Languages, by Harold E. Palmer.

H E Palmer copy

Harold Palmer, circa 1920 (from Smith 1999)


Palmer, in case you didn’t know, taught and trained extensively in Japan, and  ‘did more than any other single individual to establish English language teaching (ELT) as an autonomous branch of language education in the first half of the 20th century and to give it the ‘applied linguistic’ direction to which it has remained loyal ever since’ (Smith 1999 p.vii). Reading Palmer, though, is not always easy, as he uses a number of terms which ‘are almost unintelligible at the present day’ (to quote Don Mariano). He refers frequently to ergons, for example, and the science of ergonics. And to morphons and polylogs and the catenizing. Fortunately, Palmer supplies a glossary, which explains that an ergon is ‘any speech unit considered from the point of view of its function or powers of combining with other units’. Morphons are what we might now call morphemes; polylogs are multi-word items, and catenizing is ‘learning to pronounce accurately and rapidly a given succession of sounds’. He uses this last term a lot, since it is an integral part of his methodology, but I am not sure if we have a contemporary equivalent.

Having just completed the second edition of An A – Z of ELT (now The New A to Z of ELT), I am particularly interested in the way terminology shifts, evolves and morphs like this. Over ten years have elapsed between the two editions, and it’s been salutary to see how rapidly some terms lose their currency while new ones are enlisted in response to developments in language description, methodology and second language acquisition theory.

An obvious area of rapid change is in educational technology: even the term educational technology didn’t get an entry in the first edition, where computer assisted language learning (CALL) was made to serve for virtually the whole field. Now there are separate entries for mobile learning, adaptive learning, blended learning, and the flipped classroom –  all new arrivals since 2006.

Another growth area has been in what I loosely call the ‘neoliberal turn’ – that is, the way the discourses of economic neoliberalism have been co-opted to serve the discourses of education, such that words like accountability, outcomes, competencies, granularity and life-skills (or twenty-first century skills) now regularly feature in ELT conference programs. In the entry on life skills, I manage to sneak in the suggestion that there might be something a little bit faddish about this development:

Concepts like communication, learner training and (inter-) cultural awareness have all been central to language teaching methodology for several decades now. The renewed interest in such skills may be an effect of the way education is being shaped to serve the needs of the new, globalized economy, with English playing a central role.

Indeed, by the time the third edition comes out, will granularity seem as dated then as ergons are to us now?


Smith, R.C. (1999) The writings of Harold E. Palmer: An overview. Tokyo: Hon-no-Tomosha.

Postscript:  This is the 200th post on this blog (see Index) and it’s appropriate that it’s about dictionaries since it was a kind of dictionary (The A – Z of ELT) that was the impetus behind it. At the year’s end, it also seems like a good time to take a break, comfortable in the knowledge that the blog is still very much visited, even during rest periods – if the graphic below, showing average views per day per month, is any guide. It’s also good to know that the website for The New A-Z of ELT is up and running (click on the book cover graphic top right) so if you need your weekly dose of An A -Z, you can always buy the book 😉  See you some time in 2018!average views per day



C is for Commodification

16 07 2017

cocacola(Or P is for Profit)

Let’s say you identify a large and untapped market for a product that you manufacture. Unfortunately the market is in one of the world’s most economically depressed areas. In order to capture and monopolize the market you need to be able to deliver your product at the lowest possible cost to the maximum number of consumers. The smaller the unit of sale, but the more of them, the better. Aggressive marketing will be needed, of course, to persuade a sceptical and precarious client-base to sign up – and stay signed up. And those who are delivering the product should be paid as little as you can get away with: if they are relatively untrained, so much the better.

Soft drinks and cigarettes have been marketed to developing countries like this for decades. Now it is the turn of education. A recent report in The New York Times describes how a chain of low-cost private schools called Bridge International Academies has co-opted the practices of commodification to profit from the dire state of education in many parts of the developing world. As The Times reports:

It was founded in 2007 by [Shannon] May and her husband, Jay Kimmelman, along with a friend, Phil Frei. From early on, the founders’ plans for the world’s poor were audacious. ‘‘An aggressive start-up company that could figure out how to profitably deliver education at a high quality for less than $5 a month could radically disrupt the status quo in education for these 700 million children and ultimately create what could be a billion-dollar new global education company,’’ Kimmelman said in 2014.

Notice the key collocation that captures the essence of the business model: ‘to profitably deliver…’

The way they do this is to employ untrained teachers, give them a crash course, pay them less than public school teachers to work longer hours (which include recruitment drives among the local population), and then ‘deliver’ them their lesson plans by means of e-readers – lesson plans which are written by teams of content writers in the US who have never been near the local context. As the NYT describes it:

The e-reader all but guarantees that every instructor, despite his or her education or preparation level, has a lesson script ready for every class — an important tool in regions where teachers have few resources. But scripts can be confining, some teachers told me. And in some of the 20 or so Bridge classrooms I observed, pupils occasionally asked questions, but Bridge instructors ignored them. Teachers say that they are required to read the day’s script as written or risk a reprimand or eventual termination, and they do not have time to entertain questions. Bridge says that ‘‘teachers are required to reference the day’s teachers’ guide and to diligently work to ensure all material is covered in each lesson.’’

The Times correspondent was lucky enough to witness a lesson (reporters are discouraged from entering Bridge schools):

Inside the Bridge school in Kiserian, an hour’s drive from central Nairobi, students wore the same green uniforms and sat at attention behind the same rough wooden desks I saw in Kawan­gware. In front of a blackboard, a preschool teacher, Gladys Ngugi Nyambara, a thin woman also dressed in bright green, held a Bridge ‘‘teacher computer’’ that contained a recently downloaded lesson script on recognizing the ‘‘F’’ sound in common English words. Nyambara held up a picture of a fish and saw these words on the e-reader’s screen: What is this? (signal) Fish.

She gestured toward the class with the picture and delivered the line as precisely as she could. ‘‘What is this?’’ She snapped her fingers. ‘‘FEESSH.’’ She surveyed the 26 expectant faces in front of her. Her eyes went back to the script on the gray rectangular tablet. Listen. Say it the slow way. FISH. She followed the prompt. ‘‘Listen, class. This is a FEESSH.’’

There was a pause, and the teacher leaned over the e-reader. Our turn. Pupils say it the slow way. (signal) Fish. ‘‘Class, your turn.’’ She snapped her fingers again. ‘‘What is this?’’

After some uncertainty over whether to use ‘‘this’’ or ‘‘that,’’ the children began to dutifully respond. ‘‘This is a FEEEESH.’’

Nyambara pressed on, repeating the call-and-response five more times. ‘‘This is a FEESH. Now class?’’ Snap. ‘‘This is a FEESH,’’ responded the children, their voices moving from uncertainty to singsong, pleased to be catching on.

Needless to say, the delivery model has attracted some major corporate players who are already heavily invested in the economics of digitally-mediated commodification, Bill Gates, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Pearson being just a few. As The Times notes, ‘the company’s pitch [is] tailor-made for the new generation of tech-industry philanthropists, who are impatient to solve the world’s problems and who see unleashing the free market as the best way to create enduring social change.’

Hands Up

Contrast this with a project that is the polar opposite of Bridge in spirit, intent and educational philosophy, but which also addresses the needs of children (without disempowering their teachers) in very difficult circumstances. Nick Bilbrough’s initiative to use simple technology (Skype, Zoom) – not to deliver commodified lesson ‘MacNuggets’ at a price – but to freely create opportunities for learners to interact and be creative using English, supporting them and their teachers in such deprived situations as the Gaza Strip and Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, is called the Hands-Up Project.

Because it is not designed to make a profit, it has not attracted the attention of Bill Gates or Pearson, needless to say. But watch any of the videos that Nick has posted on his blog and you cannot help but be moved by the level of engagement – not to say the level of English – of these children.

How can we enlist more support for this project, without ‘unleashing the free market’ and the forces of commodification, I wonder?

I is for Innovation

9 05 2015

This is a dress rehearsal of my opening ‘mini-plenary’ for the hugely successful ELT Innovate conference, held this weekend in Barcelona  – on the subject, unsurprisingly – of innovation.

These are the books and articles I refer to:

Postman, N., & Weingartner, C. (1969) Teaching as a subversive activity. Penguin Education.

Selwyn, N. (2011) Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates, London: Continuum.

Selwyn, N. (2013) Distrusting Educational Technology: Critical Questions for Changing Times. London: Routledge.

Selwyn, N. (2015) ‘Minding our language: Why education and technology is full of bullshit … and what might be done about it’, paper given to the ‘Digital Innovation, creativity and knowledge in education’ conference, Qatar, January 2015.