A is for Accuracy

31 05 2015
from The Visual Thesaurus

from The Visual Thesaurus http://www.visualthesaurus.com/

Accuracy and fluency: it used to be the case that, of these two constructs, fluency was the one that was the most elusive and contentious – difficult to define, difficult to test, and only rarely achieved by classroom learners.

It’s true that fluency has been defined in many different, sometimes even contradictory ways, and that we are still no nearer to understanding how to measure it, or under what conditions it is optimally realized. See, for example F is for Fluency.

But I’m increasingly coming to the view that, of the two constructs, it is accuracy that is really the more slippery. I’m even wondering if it’s not a concept that has reached its sell-by date, and should be quietly, but forcefully, put down.

Look at these definitions of accuracy, for example:

  • “….clear, articulate, grammatically and phonologically correct” (Brown 1994: 254)
  • “…getting the language right” (Ur 1991: 103)
  • “…the extent to which a learner’s use of the second language conforms to the rules of the language” (Thornbury 2006: 2)

Correct? Right? Conforms to the rules? What could these highly normative criteria possibly mean? Even before English ‘escaped’ from the proprietorial clutches of its native speakers, by whose standards are correctness or rightness or conformity to be judged?

at the weekend

“[preposition] the weekend” from The Corpus of Global Web-based English CLICK TO ENLARGE

Take my own variety of English for example: I was brought up to say ‘in the weekend’. I found it very odd, therefore, that the coursebooks I was using when I started teaching insisted on ‘at the weekend’. And then, of course, there were all those speakers who preferred ‘on the weekend’. It was only by consulting the Corpus of Global Web-based English (Davies 2013) that I was able to confirm that, in fact, of all the ‘preposition + the weekend’ combos, ‘in the weekend’ is significantly frequent only in New Zealand, while ‘on the weekend’ is preferred in Australia. OK, fine: as teachers we are sensitive to the existence of different varieties. But if a learner says (or writes): ‘In the weekend we had a barby’, do I correct it?

Moreover, given the considerable differences between spoken and written grammar, and given the inevitability, even by proficient speakers, of such ‘deviations’ from the norm as false starts, grammatical blends, and other dysfluencies –  what are the ‘rules’ by which a speaker’s accuracy should be judged?

In fact, even the distinction between written and spoken seems to have been eroded by online communication. Here, for example, are some extracts from an exchange from an online discussion about a football match. Ignoring typos, which ‘deviations’ from standard English might be attributed to the speaker’s specific variety?

>I don’t care about the goal that wasn’t given; I care about how bad we played particularly when under pressure. Base on the performance from last three games we will be hammered when we play a “proper” decent side!! People think we are lucky to aviod Spain and get Italy but lets not forget the Italian draw Spain so they are no pushovers.

> yes we was lucky, but all teams get lucky sometimes. thats football, you cant plan a tactic for good or bad luck.

> Devic was unlucky to not have the goal allowed and the official on the line needs to get himself down to specsavers but as Devic was offside the goal should not of counted anyway. Anyway I pretty fed up with all the in fighting on here so I am not bothering to much with these blogs for the foreseeable future.

> also on sunday night i will be having an italian pizza i think it will suit the mood quite nicely

I think that the point is here that nit-picking about ‘should not of’ and ‘base on’ is irrelevant. More interestingly, it’s virtually impossible to tell if the deviations from the norm (e.g. ‘the Italian draw Spain’;’ we was lucky’; ‘I pretty fed up’…) owe to a regional or social variety, or to a non-native one. The fact is, that, in the context, these differences are immaterial, and the speakers’ choices are entirely appropriate, hence assessments of accuracy seem unwarranted, even patrician.

Unless, of course, those assessments are made by the speakers themselves. Which one does. Following the last comment, one of the commenters turns on the writer (who calls himself Titus), and complains:

>Titus. Please, please, please go back to school. Have you never heard of punctuation? What about capital letters? How about a dictionary? Sentences? Grammar?

It’s as if Titus is being excluded from membership of the ‘club’, his non-standard English being the pretext. To which Titus responds, with some justification:

> didnt know this was an english class? i am very intelligent and do not need to perform like its a spelling b on here

Which is tantamount to saying: accuracy has to be judged in terms of its appropriacy in context.

All of this has compelled me to revise my definition of accuracy accordingly. Here’s an attempt:

Accuracy is the extent to which a speaker/writer’s lexical and grammatical choices are unremarkable according to the norms of the (immediate) discourse community.

Thanks to corpora, these norms can be more easily identified (as in my ‘in the weekend’). A corpus of ‘football blog comment speak’ would no doubt throw up many instances of ‘we was lucky’ and ‘should of won’. ‘Unremarkable’ captures the probabilistic nature of language usage – that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, only degrees of departure from the norm. The greater the departure, the more ‘marked’.

The problem is, of course, in defining the discourse community. Consider these two signs, snapped in Japan last week. To which discourse community, if any, is the English part of each sign directed? Assuming a discourse community, and given its membership, are these signs ‘remarkable’? That is to say, are they inaccurate?

keep off from herewe have a maintenance


Brown, H.D. (1994) Teaching by Principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.

Davies, M. (2013) Corpus of Global Web-Based English: 1.9 billion words from speakers in 20 countries. Available online at http://corpus.byu.edu/glowbe/.

Thornbury, S. (2006) An A – Z of ELT. Oxford: Macmillan.

Ur, P. (1991) A Course in Language Teaching: Practice and theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

E is for English in the world

24 05 2015
soccer tavern

Photo: Christopher Collins

I’ve just completed a hugely enjoyable but challenging semester as instructor on a course I designed for The New School online MA in TESOL. It’s called English in the World, and replaces an earlier version of the course that was a casualty of some curriculum restructuring a few years back Here is the official description of the new course:

Throughout today’s postmodern, globalized and highly mobile world there are millions of students, both young and not so young, studying the English language. This phenomenon raises many questions, not only about the educational implications of teaching English as an International Language (EIL) – such as standardization – but also about economic, political and ethical considerations. In order to address these questions, this course will introduce basic concepts of sociolinguistics, including societal multilingualism and language contact and conflict, in order to contextualize the spread of English and its consequences. The relationship between language and culture, and language and identity, will also be explored, especially insofar as these issues impact on the fostering of intercultural communication. And, in response to charges of linguistic imperialism and the commodification of English, proposals for a socially-sensitive pedagogy will be explored, along with an examination of how English teaching might better serve the needs of societies in development.

Topics covered include:

  • Language variation and standardization
  • Multilingualism
  • The history of English
  • World Englishes
  • English as a lingua franca
  • Language and culture
  • Cross-cultural communication
  • Language and identity
  • The ideology of English in the world
  • A pedagogy for English in the world
  • English and development
vote signs

Photo: Christopher Collins

Given the somewhat disparate nature of the course content, readings come from a variety of sources: names often invoked include Sandra McKay, David Graddol, Zhu Hua, Ryuko Kubota, B. Kumaravadivelu, Claire Kramsch, Adrian Holliday, Jennifer Jenkins, Sureish Canagarajah, John Gray and David Block, and many others. Thankfully, the connections between these scholars, and their relevance to the topic of English in the World seemed to cohere. One student wrote (in his reflective journal) ‘Everything we learned in this class was interconnected.’ And he added, ‘Luckily this course wasn’t just theory. It gave us very specific answers on how to apply this theory into practice.’ Some other comments (from students’ journals):

‘My mind is a lot more open than it was just three months ago.’ ‘Throughout the roughly four months spent on this course I have undergone a transformative period of growth and self-evaluation.’ ‘The course … has challenged my preconceived ideas and philosophies about language and teaching.’+

One student homed in on this quote, which to her captured the essence of what the course was about:

“The broader social, cultural, political, and economic contexts in which [English language programs] occur have major implications for what occurs in the classroom, and what occurs in the classroom has great significance for the outside world […]  ELT is a controversial activity, and its implementation in any context is shaped by, and shapes, cultural politics at multiple levels” (Appleby, et al. 2002: 343).

Coursework included regular online discussions on such topics as ‘native speakerism’, cultural stereotyping, code-switching, the ELT global ‘industry’, standard English, and one on English in the linguistic landscape. To give you a flavor, here is my video feedback on this discussion:   Reference Appleby, R., Copley, K., Sithirajvongsa, S., & Pennycook, A. (2002) ‘Language in development constrained: three contexts.’ TESOL Quarterly, 36 (3).

Thanks to MA TESOL alumnus Christopher Collins for the photos.

I is for Intonation

22 02 2015

For someone who has never enjoyed – nor succeeded at – teaching intonation, I was gratified to find that John Wells shares my scepticism. In his latest book, Sounds Interesting: Observations on English and general phonetics (Wells 2014) he writes:

Most learners of English as an additional language… are not taught intonation and do not study intonation. Yet they do not speak English on a monotone. A few may be gifted mimics who succeed in imitating intonation along with everything else in the phonetics of the target language. For most, though, their intonation patterns are presumably those of their first language, transferred to English.

The same applies to English learners of foreign languages.

On the whole, even though this may make the speaker sound strange, typical of their origin, boring or annoying, it seems not to cause much of an actual breakdown in communication. How can this be?

It must be because the principles of intonation in language are sufficiently universal for us to be able to rely on them even in a foreign-language situation.

Wells Sounds InterestingWells (who, I hope I don’t have to remind you, is probably Britain’s foremost phonetician) goes on to look at the different functions of intonation in terms of their universality. The three systems in which intonation is implicated are: 1. the tonality system, i.e. the chunking of speech into meaningful units; 2. the tonicity system, i.e. the assigning of nuclear stress within these units; and 3. the tone system, i.e. the use of changes in pitch to convey certain kinds of meaning, such as assertion vs non-assertion, completion vs non-completion, high involvement vs low involvement.

Of the three, he argues that tonality and the meaningful use of tones seem both to be linguistic universals. Tonicity, on the other hand, does not. Whereas in English we would ask

Do you want your coffee WITH milk or withOUT milk?

in Spanish this would more likely be:

¿Quiere el café con LECHe or sin LECHe?

Given the way that nuclear stress plays an important role in flagging new information in discourse, this would seem to be something worth teaching, if not for production, at least for recognition.

human_body faceA quick scan of a number of current coursebooks suggests that it is an area that does indeed get fairly regular – if not detailed – treatment. But so too do the other, supposedly universal, features of intonation, such as the use of a wide pitch span, or high key, to signal politeness. Or the different intonation contours of wh- and yes/no questions. Or the use of falling intonation to signal the end of a list. And so on.

Are we wasting our students’ time? If their goal is to be communicatively effective in international contexts, probably yes. In making her case for a lingua franca phonological core, Jennifer Jenkins (2000, p. 153) argues:

Even if it were possible to teach pitch in the classroom, I do not believe that the use of “native speaker” pitch movements matters very much for intelligibility in interactions among [non-native speakers]. This feature of the intonation system seldom leads to communication problems in the [interlanguage talk] data …

But, anticipating Wells, she goes on to argue:

Nuclear stress, however is a completely different story [and] it is crucial for intelligibility in interlanguage talk (ibid.).

With regard to the redundancy of teaching the rest of the systems, Wells (who happens to be a fluent speaker of Esperanto) nails his case thus:

These points about intonation in EFL applied equally to intonation in Esperanto: somehow speakers manage to understand one another in the language very well despite the lack of any agreed, taught or described intonation system.


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

Wells, J.C. 2014. Sounds Interesting: Observations on English and general phonetics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(This post started life as a thread on the Facebook site of the ELT Writers Connected group.)

A is for Accommodation

6 01 2013

You may well have seen this YouTube clip a month or so ago: British footballer Joey Barton is interviewed in France not long after having debuted for the Marseille football club.  Much commented upon – and mocked – was his thick French accent, despite his being a native speaker of English and speaking little or no French. The Daily Mail, for example, described it as ‘an embarrassing display’ and ‘a comedy French accent’. Judge for yourself…

What Barton of course was doing (although neither he nor the Daily Mail named it as such) was accommodating his accent to that of his audience. Accommodation, as Robin Walker (2010: 97) reminds us, is ‘the ability to adjust your speech and aspects of spoken communication so that they become more (or less) like that of your interlocutors’.  David Crystal (2003: 6) adds that, ‘among the reasons why people converge towards the speech pattern of their listener are the desires to identify more closely with the listener, to win social approval, or simply to increase the communicative efficiency of the interaction’.

Winning social approval may well have motivated Barton, a newcomer to the region, to assume a French accent. But more important still was the need to be intelligible: in his defence he had said that ‘it is very difficult to do a press conference in Scouse for a room full of French journalists. The alternative is to speak like a ‘Allo Allo!’ character’.

Whatever the reason, Barton’s much-publicized accommodation is a good, if extreme, example of what most of us tend to do naturally and instinctively, and not just at the level of accent.  Jenny Jenkins (2000: 169) identifies a wide range of linguistic and prosodic features that are subject to convergence between speakers, ‘such as speech rate, pauses, utterance length, pronunciation and… non-vocal features such as smiling and gaze’.

Basic English 1 two figures01And, as Richardson et al., (2008: 75) note, ‘conversational partners do not limit their behavioural coordination to speech. They spontaneously move in synchrony with each other’s speech rhythms’, a finding which is likened to the ‘synchrony, swing, and coordination’ displayed by members of a jazz band. The researchers tracked the posture and gaze position of conversants to show that this coordination is not simply a byproduct of the interaction, but the physical embodiment of the speakers’ cognitive alignment – ‘an intimate temporal coupling between conversants’ (p. 88) or, (in T.S.Eliot’s words) ‘the whole consort dancing together’.

Arguably, accommodation occurs not only at the paralinguistic level, but at the linguistic one too. As we speak, for example, we are continuously monitoring our interlocutor’s degree of understanding, and adjusting our message accordingly. This is especially obvious in the way we talk to children and non-native speakers, forms of talk called  ‘caretaker talk’ and ‘foreigner talk’, respectively. Both varieties are characterized by considerable simplification, although there are significant differences. Caretaker talk is often pitched higher and is slower than talk used with adults, but, while simpler, is nearly always grammatically well-formed. Foreigner talk, on the other hand, tolerates greater use of non-grammatical, pidgin-like forms, as in ‘me wait you here’, or ‘you like drink much, no?’

Various theories have been proposed as to how speakers modify their talk like this. One is that they ‘regress’ to an early stage in their own language development. Another is that they negotiate a mutually-intelligible degree of communication. A third (and this is really a form of accommodation) is that they simply match their language to that of their interlocutor, imitating its simplifications, including its lack of grammatical accuracy. Rod Ellis (1994: 265), however, thinks that this explanation is unlikely, as ‘it is probably asking too much of learners’ interlocutors to measure simultaneously the learners’ phonology, lexicon, syntax, and discourse with sufficient accuracy to adjust their own language output’.

However, this was written before the discovery of ‘mirror neurons’, and their key role in enabling imitative behavior.  As Iacoboni (2008: 91-92) observes, ‘the fact that the major language area of the human brain is also a critical area for imitation and contains mirror neurons offers a new view of language and cognition in general’.  According to Iacobini, it is because of these mirror neurons that ‘during conversations we imitate each other’s expressions, even each other’s syntactic constructions… If one person engaged in a dialogue uses the word “sofa” rather than the word “couch,” the other person engaged in the dialogue will do the same’ (op. cit. 97-98).

It seems, then, that as humans we are hard-wired to imitate one another.

Basic English 1 two figures02So, what are the implications for language teaching? In the interests both of intelligibility and establishing ‘comity’, Joey Barton’s adaptive accent strategy may be the way to go. For learners of English, whose interlocutors may not themselves be native speakers, this may mean learning to adapt to other non-native speaker accents. As Jenkins (2007: 238) argues, ‘in international communication, the ability to accommodate  to interlocutors with other first languages than one’s own… is a far more important skill than the ability to imitate the English of a native speaker.’

So, in the interests of mutual intelligibility, rather than teaching pronunciation per se, maybe we should be teaching accommodation skills. The question, of course, is how?


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

Ellis, R. (1994) The Study of Second language Acquisition, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Iacoboni, M. (2008) Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

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

Jenkins, J. (2007) English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and Identity, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Basic English 1 two figures03Richardson, D.C., Dale, R., & Shockley, K., (2008) ‘Synchrony and swaying in conversation: coordination, temporal dynamics, and communication,’ in Wachsmuth, I., Lenzen, M., & Knoblich, G. (eds) Embodied Communication in Humans and Machines, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walker, R. (2010) Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Illustrations from Ogden, C.K. (ed.) (n.d.) The Basic Way to English, London: Evans Brothers.

E is for ELF

3 04 2011

Alistair Pennycook's plenary, TESOL 2011

At last month’s TESOL Convention in New Orleans the topic of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) (and/or English as an International Language (EIL) or Global English), was definitely the flavour of the month. There were plenaries by both Alistair Pennycook and Jennifer Jenkins, plus talks and colloquia by the likes of Andy Kirkpatrick, Ryuko Kubota, and Ramin Akbari, all on aspects of ELF or EIF – or both.

This last was interesting because, as a representative of the expanding circle – i.e. those parts of the world where English is neither spoken by the majority as their native language, nor granted the status of an official language – Akbari made a good case for rejecting the ELF model in places like, for example, his native Iran.  His reasons were partly political: the suggestion (coming typically from inner circle academics) that expanding circle teachers should ‘lower the bar’, and show greater tolerance of ‘non-standard forms’ (otherwise known as errors) would  – he argued – serve simply to perpetuate the second-class status of expanding circle English, its users forever condemned to speaking a sort of pidgin of the ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane’ variety.

But more interesting – to me, at least – was his argument that ELF represents a case of ‘linguistics applied’, whereby the insights from researchers and theorists drives classroom practice, rather than the other way round, as would be the case if the needs of teachers (and learners) were allowed to inform the research agenda. We have already seen this happen with corpus linguistics, where discoveries at the level of language description are incorporated into materials and syllabi, un-predigested, as it were, and bearing the hallmark of authority as examples of ‘real English’.

There’s little doubt that the widespread use of English as a form of communication between non-native speakers is influencing the way people speak it. The problem comes when this sociolinguistic fact is invoked by proponents of ELF to argue the case for new curriculum goals, different materials, a different methodology, revised standards of accuracy, and so on. (Or so, at least, is the perception). This is ‘linguistics applied’.

Akbari argued that – from a pedagogical point of view – the case for ELF raises more questions than it answers. For a start, if you remove or otherwise discredit inner circle norms on the grounds that they are no longer relevant, by whose standards are learners to be judged? If the standards are those of other (successful) ELF users, what qualifies as success,  and where are these standards codified? And what kind of pedagogy should you adopt? How, for example, would you model pronunciation? Finally, how do you deal with the expectations – and aspirations – of both teachers and learners, who may well feel disempowered if the goal-posts are shifted? For Akbari (and many others, I suspect) ELF is all theory and no praxis.

Of course, in one sense the problem goes away if you re-construe the goals of instruction as being those that are defined by the learner and driven by the learner’s needs, rather than being predetermined by the curriculum designer or the coursebook writer.   If you take an ESP approach, for example, and, start off by identifying the kinds of contexts the learner is going to operate in, with whom and for what purposes, using what kinds of texts and registers, at what degree of intelligibility, in combination with what other languages, and employing what kinds of skills and strategies, you don’t have to label the goals as EFL, ESL, ESP, ELF or EIL – or anything! Leave the labelling to the sociolinguists!

You say tomahto, I say tomayto...

Put another way, if we devoted more time and energy to teaching the learner, and less to teaching the language, we might be better off.

It is the learner, in the end, who must decide what code best serves his or her needs, and what is achievable in the available time and with the available resources. For most learners, the arguments as to what constitutes the global variety are academic. As an article in a recent TESOL Quarterly put it, “To learners in developing, resource-poor EFL settings especially, it matters very little who says tomahto and who says tomayto.  Knowing the word tomato is achievement enough” (Bruthiaux, 2010, p. 368).


Bruthiaux, P.  2010.  World Englishes and the classroom: an EFL perspective.  TESOL Quarterly, 44/2, p.368).