The End

9 06 2013

So this is it, folks: I’m closing down the blog for the summer… and for good. After 3 years, 150 posts, nearly 7000 comments, and innumerable hits, visits, views, however you want to describe and count them, plus one e-book spin-off (but no sign of a second edition of An A-Z!), I think it’s time to call it a day.

But that’s not the end of blogging.  In the autumn (or in the spring, if that’s your orientation) I’ll be resuming with an altogether different theme and format, provisionally titled The (De-)Fossilization Diaries.  Watch this space!

At some point between now and then I’ll lock the comments on this blog, but it will hang around a little longer. If you think you might miss it if it suddenly disappeared, you could always buy the book! 😉

Meanwhile, thanks for following, commenting, subscribing, tweeting… I have so enjoyed hosting this blog, not least because of the active and widely-distributed online community that has grown up around it. Blogging is my favourite medium by far, and, despite claims to the contrary by some curmudgeons, it seems to be very much alive and well.

bunyolsNow, to give you something to chew on over breakfast, I’ve done a quick cut and paste of some of the one- (or two-) liners that capture many of the core themes of this blog. (You can hunt them down in context by using the Index link above).

1. If there are no languages, only language, what is it that we teach? … The short answer, perhaps, is that we would facilitate a kind of creative DIY approach – semiotic bricolage, perhaps – by means of which learners would become resourceful language users, cutting and pasting from the heteroglossic landscape to meet both their short-term and their long-term goals. (L is for Language)

2. The tension – and challenge – of successful communication is in negotiating the given and the new, of exploiting the predictable while coping with unpredictability. To this end, a phrasebook, a grammar or a dictionary can be of only limited use. They are a bit like the stopped clock, which is correct only two times a day. (M is for Mobility)

3. Creating the sense of ‘feeling at home’, i.e. creating a dynamic whereby students feel unthreatened and at ease with one another and with you, is one of the most important things that a teacher can do. (T is for Teacher Development)

4. A reliance on the coursebook IN the classroom does not really equip learners for self-directed learning OUTSIDE the classroom, since nothing in the outside world really reflects the way that language is packaged, rationed and sanitised in the coursebook.(T is for Teacher Development)

5. The language that teachers need in order to provide and scaffold learning opportunities is possibly of more importance than their overall language proficiency (T is for Teacher Knowledge)

6. A critical mass of connected chunks might be the definition of fluency. (Plus of course, the desire or need to BE fluent). (T is for Turning Point)

7. Education systems are predicated on the belief that learning is both linear and incremental. Syllabuses, coursebooks and tests conspire to perpetuate this view. To suggest otherwise is to undermine the foundations of civilization as we know it. (T is for Turning Point)

8. If I were learning a second language with a teacher, I would tell the teacher what I want to say, not wait to be told what someone who is not there thinks I might want to say. (W is for Wondering)

9. Irrespective of the degree to which we might teach grammar explicitly, or even base our curriculums on it, as teachers I think we need to know something about it ourselves. It’s part of our expertise, surely. Besides which, it’s endlessly fascinating (in a geeky kind of way). (P is for Pedagogic grammar)

10. Every language divides up the world slightly differently, and learning a second language is – to a large extent – learning these new divisions.(P is for Pedagogic grammar)

11. The meaning of the term student-centred has become too diffuse – that is to say, it means whatever you want it to mean, and – whatever it does mean – the concept needs to be problematized because it’s in danger of creating a false dichotomy. (S is for Student-centred)

12. There is a responsibility on the part of teachers to provide feedback on progress, but maybe the problem is in defining progress in terms of pre-selected outcomes, rather than negotiating the outcomes during the progress. (O is for Outcomes)

13. Language learning, whether classroom-based or naturalistic, whether in an EFL or an ESL context, is capricious, opportunistic, idiosyncratic and seldom amenable to external manipulation. (P is for Postmodern method)

14. I have no problem with the idea of classes – in fact for many learners and teachers these can be less threatening than one-to-one situations – but I do have a problem with the way that the group learning context is moulded to fit the somewhat artificial constraints of the absentee coursebook writer. (P is for Postmodern method)poached eggs nov 2012

15. The idea that there is a syllabus of items to be ‘covered’ sits uncomfortably with the view that language learning is an emergent process – a process of ‘UNcovering’, in fact. (P is for Postmodern method)

16. This, by the way, is one of [Dogme’s] characteristics that most irritates its detractors – that it seems to be a moving target, constantly slipping and sliding like some kind of methodological ectoplasm. (P is for Postmodern method)

17. The ‘mind is a computer’ metaphor has percolated down (or up?) and underpins many of our methodological practices and materials, including the idea that language learning is systematic, linear, incremental, enclosed, uniform, dependent on input and practice, independent of its social context, de-humanized, disembodied, … and so on. (M is for Mind)

18. Is there no getting away from the fact that classrooms are just not good places to learn languages in? And that, instead of flogging the present perfect continuous to death, it might not be better simply ‘to take a walk around the block’? (A is for Affordance)

19. If automaticity is simply the ability to retrieve memorised chunks, this may result in a repertoire that is fast and accurate, but functional only in situations of the utmost predictability. Fine, if you’re a tourist – just memorise a phrase-book. But for a more sophisticated command of language – one that is adaptable to a whole range of situations – you need to be able to customise your chunks. In short, you need to be creative. Hence, creative automaticity. (A is for Automaticity)

20. Technosceptics, like me, happily embrace technology in our daily lives, but are nevertheless a little suspicious of the claims made, by some enthusiasts, for its educational applications – claims that frequently border on the coercive. (T is for Technology)

21. As edtech proponents tirelessly point out, technology is only a tool. What they fail to acknowledge is that there are good tools and bad tools. (T is for Technology)

22. Another bonus, for me, of the struggle to dominate a second (and third, fourth etc) language has been an almost obsessive interest in SLA theory and research – as if, somewhere, amongst all this burgeoning literature, there lies the answer to the puzzle. (B is for Bad language learner)

23. ‘Fluency is in the ear of the beholder’ – which means that perhaps we need to teach our students tricks whereby they ‘fool’ their interlocutors into thinking they’re fluent. Having a few well rehearsed conversational openers might be a start…. (B is for Bad language learner)

24. I’ve always been a bit chary of the argument that we should use movement in class in order to satisfy the needs of so-called kinaesthetic learners. All learning surely has kinaesthetic elements, especially if we accept the notion of ‘embodied cognition’, and you don’t need a theory of multiple intelligences to argue the case for whole-person engagement in learning. (B is for Body)

25. I agree that learners’ perceptions of the goals of second language learning are often at odds with our own or with the researchers’. However, if we can show [the learners] that the communicative uptake on acquiring a ‘generative phraseology’ is worth the initial investment in memorisation, and, even, in old-fashioned pattern practice, we may be able to win them over. (C is for Construction)

26. How do we align the inherent variability of the learner’s emergent system with the inherent variability of the way that the language is being used by its speakers? (V is for Variability)

27. The problem is that, if there is a norm, it is constantly on the move, like a flock of starlings: a dense dark centre, a less dense margin, and a few lone outliers. (V is for Variability)

28. Think of the blackbird. Every iteration of its song embeds the echo, or trace, of the previous iteration, and of the one before that, and the one before that, and so on. And each iteration changes in subtle, sometimes barely perceptible, ways. But the net effect of these changes may be profound. (R is for Repetition [again])

29. Diversity is only a problem if you are trying to frog-march everyone towards a very narrowly-defined objective, such as “mastering the present perfect continuous.” If your goals are defined in terms of a collaborative task outcome … then everyone brings to the task their particular skills, and it is in the interests of those with many skills to induct those with fewer. (E is for Ecology)

30. Teaching […] is less about navigating the container-ship of the class through the narrow canal of the coursebook/syllabus than about shepherding a motley flotilla of little boats, in all weathers, across the open sea, in whatever direction and at whatever speed they have elected to go. (P is for Postmodern method)


G is for Gesture

26 05 2013
cruz the smallest grapes

“the smallest grapes”

A couple of weeks ago the University of Barcelona hosted a week-long course on Gesture and SLA, run by Dr Marianne Gullberg, Professor of Psycholinguistics at Lund University in Sweden. Marianne has to be one of the leading experts on gesture and language, having published and researched extensively on the subject. While it’s still fresh, then, here are ten things that I think every language teacher should know about gesture.

1. Gesturing with the hands is just one of the many types of non-verbal behaviours that we use when we communicate, others being voice-quality, facial expressions, eye gaze, head nods, body orientation, shoulder shrugs, and so on. But of all these, gesture is probably the bodily behaviour that is most directly tied to linguistic meaning.

2. Gesture occupies one end of a continuum of communicative hand actions, the other end of which is sign language. Pantomime occupies a point midway on this continuum. But, unlike sign language and mime, gesture doesn’t substitute for speech: rather it co-occurs with it. Nor is it a conventionalized system that, like signing, can be taught systematically.

Chilton cover3.  Near the purely gestural end of the continuum are what are called ‘emblems’: those gestures that have become conventionalised within a culture to represent certain meanings, such as the scribbling gesture that means ‘bring me the bill’ (in a restaurant) or the thumbs-up sign in many cultures. (The picture on the left is the cover of a book of Spanish gesture emblems [Green 1968]). Emblems are, arguably, teachable, but represent only a small subset of what most people do when they gesture while talking (despite the fascination that emblems have for amateur cultural anthropologists).

"in the middle of nowhere"

“in the middle of nowhere”

4. Most gestures are either ‘beats’ – rhythmic, often chopping, motions that act as a kind of ‘prosodic highlighting’ (McNeill 2012), or pointing of some kind, or (the most interesting from a psycholinguistic point of view) the metaphoric/iconic type of gesture, as when we make a wide arc with both hands (like Penelope Cruz in this pic) to represent ‘expansiveness’. Pragmatic gestures – such as indicating a question (‘How do you call it?’) – are also common.

5. Gesture is non-verbal but that doesn’t mean it is non-linguistic. In fact, speech and gesture are inextricably linked, forming an integrated (or ‘coupled’) system. As McNeill (2012: 31) puts it, ‘gestures and synchronous speech are … co-expressive but not redundant: they express the same idea each in its own way – often each its own aspects of it’. Thus, gesture is not just an ‘add-on’, a way of ornamenting speech. Gesture and speech originate together, and are precisely synchronized.

"How do you call it?"

“How do you call it?”

6. But gestures are more than simply communicative: we gesture when we can’t be seen gesturing, such as on the phone, or in the dark, or talking to ourselves. This suggests that gesture has some kind of self-regulating function, that it is a physical embodiment of thought, that we ‘think with our hands’.

7. While gesturing is a universal feature of speech, there are identifiable cross-cultural differences in gesture systems. These are mainly with regard to emblems (the ‘thumbs-up’ gesture, for example) and also in terms of the extent of ‘gestural space’. But, because gesture and language are closely linked, and because gestures are often representational, they can reveal ways in which different languages construe the world. Gullberg (2011) herself has researched the ways that ‘putting an object on a surface’ is differently represented in some languages, and how there is a close match between the semantics of the verbs in these languages and the characteristics of the gesture. Interestingly, cross-linguistic transfer effects have been observed in learners.

8. On the subject of language learning, there is evidence to suggest that language learners gesture more in their second language than in their first: this is largely because they use more pragmatic gestures (e.g. hand flapping) to compensate for disfluencies, such as when searching for a word. But, contrary to expectations, perhaps, learners only occasionally use representative gestures as a substitute for lexical gaps. Research (e.g. Gregersen et al 2009) also shows that the more proficient the learner, the more meaning-oriented are their gestures.

9. So, how does gesture aid language acquisition? In terms of reception, the gestures of others (including, of course, the teacher) may help make input comprehensible by, for example, ‘speech parsing’ – i.e. helping learners find ‘the words in the noise’. They may also help link language and cognition by activating mirror neurons: seeing you gesture makes me feel as if I’m gesturing, and hence I’m connected to the thinking that motivated the gesture.

10. The learner’s own gestures may also play an important role in language learning. It’s generally accepted that any kind of learning task is aided when the learner can ‘off-load’ the cognitive effort involved on to an external representation. Hence learners will gesture a lot when doing a speaking task, even when they are performing behind a screen and so cannot be seen. ‘It is possible that L2 learners’ gestures reflect their attempts to reduce the processing load of keeping words, grammar, and the relationships between entities in mind at the same time as planning what to say next. In this sense, gestures may help learners to keep talking’ (Gullberg 2008: 293). Moreover, gesturing while learning seems to improve recall, e.g. of lexis. And, very importantly, gestures help build rapport and confer on their users the status of a legitimate interlocutor. ’Learners who are seen to gesture are often more positively evaluated on proficiency than those who are not’ (ibid.)

Moral: if your students have a speaking test, encourage them to gesture.

Marianne Gullberg in Barcelona

Marianne Gullberg in Barcelona


Green, J.R. (1968) A Gesture Inventory for the Teaching of Spanish, Philadelphia: Chilton Books.

Gregersen, T., Olivares-Cuhat, G. & Storm, J. (2009) ‘An examination of L1 and L2 gesture use: what role does proficiency play? Modern Language Journal, 93/2, 195-208.

Gullberg, M. (2008) ‘Gestures and second language acquisition,’ in Robinson, P., & Ellis, N.C. (eds) Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition, London: Routledge.

Gullberg, M. (2011) ‘Thinking, speaking and gesturing about motion in more than one language,’ in Pavlenko, A. (ed.) Thinking and Speaking in Two Languages, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

McNeill, D. (2012) How Language Began: Gesture and speech in human evolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The David Letterman interview from where the stills of Penelope Cruz were taken can be seen here:


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.

B is for Body

12 12 2010

“English is on the up at the moment, an up that is probably unprecedented in world history. But world history is full of languages that have dominated for a long time, yet there aren’t too many of them around now.” (Interview with Nicholas Ostler, Guardian Weekly, 12.11.2010).

This post is not about the dominance of English – I just happen to have chosen that quote because it includes at least two examples of what Mark Johnson calls “the experiential embodied nature of human rationality” (1987, p.100): 1. English is on the up and 2. history is full of languages.

The use of the word up to connote increase, in the sense that MORE IS UP, emerges – according to Johnson – “from a tendency to employ an UP-DOWN orientation in picking out meaningful structures of our experience.  We grasp the structure of verticality repeatedly in thousands of perceptions and activities we experience every day, such as perceiving a tree, our felt sense of standing upright, the activity of climbing stairs…” (p. xiv). Likewise, the idea that history is a container, and hence can be full of languages, is an extension of our own embodied sense of physical containment.  According to Johsnon, “our encounter with containment and boundedness is one of the most pervasive features of our bodily experience” (p.21).

Johnson argues that such experientially-based ‘image schemata’ are integral to meaning and rationality — and, of course, language.  The way that language is, the way we use language, and the way that language is learned, are all structured and shaped by the fact that, as Johnson puts it, “the body is in the mind” (p. xxxviii).

One fairly obvious manifestation of this is the way we choose particles for phrasal verbs.  We fill up the tank, the future is looking up, and children both grow up, and are brought up.  Likewise, notions of boundedness and containment are intrinsic, not only to the semantics of the noun phrase in many languages (think of countable and uncountable nouns), but also to verb aspect (a point I will take up in a future post).

In an article in the latest Applied Linguistics, Dwight Atkinson (2010) explores the way an extended, embodied view of cognition might affect second language acquisition. He suggests that language learning, rather than being an intellectual process of internalization, is a socially-situated, adaptive behaviour, a process “of continuously and progressively fitting oneself to one’s environment, often with the help of guides” (p. 611). Atkinson proposes what he calls ‘the alignment principle’: “Learning is more discovering how to align with the world than extracting knowledge from it” (p.610). To this end, interaction and engagement are key: these are the processes by which we externalise language. “Instead of isolating language in cognitive space, we wear it on our sleeve, so to speak, because it helps us live in the world” (p.617).

from Applied Linguistics, 31/5, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 609

To demonstrate how this might be realised in practice, he traces, in minute detail, the interaction a Japanese schoolgirl has with her aunt, an English teacher, as they work through a homework exercise together: an intricate meshing of language, gesture, gaze, and laughter, inseparable from the experience of learning itself, and bringing to mind these lines of Yeats:

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

In another recent article that reports the same data, the researchers summarise their point of view:

If  language is intrinsically embodied and embedded, then what does that mean for its acquisition?  Obviously, if language is learned for worldly use, the learning process itself must be use-based.  In this view, language learning is not primarily about squirreling away abstract linguistic competence in an isolated cognitive space,… Rather, language learning is a process of building meaningful ways of participating in socio-material worlds — of constructing flexible, reliable, and therefore survival-enhancing repertoires of ecosocial participation. (Churchill. et al. 2010, p.249).

So, learning is using, and using is learning. That much we know. But what are the implications of a more ’embodied’ view of learning? Is there a case for incorporating more kinaesthetic practices? For reviving Total Physical Response, even? And to what extent, as teachers, are we conscious of the way that ‘body language’ helps in the co-construction of learning?


Atkinson, D. 2010. Extended, embodied cognition and second language acquisition. Applied Linguistics, 31/5, 599-622.

Churchill, E.,  Okada, H.,  Nishino, T., & Atkinson, D.  2010. Symbiotic gesture and the sociocognitive visibility of grammar in second language acquisition.  The Modern Language Journal, 94/2.

Johnson, M. 1987. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago: Chicago University Press.