P is for Power

26 04 2015

What about ‘The English Woman’? Or ‘The Non-English Man’? (Language school in Barcelona)

The recent IATEFL Conference at Manchester has been generating quite a bit of heat on the social networks on issues that, to my way of thinking, relate to questions of power: specifically, who has it? who ought to have it? and who has earned it?

For example, in their presentation on the alleged invisibility of women in ELT, Nicola Prentis and Russell Mayne suggested that the predominance of a clique of (not quite) dead white males in ELT (all named and shamed!) has effectively blocked access to opportunities for aspiring writers and presenters, especially women. (I wasn’t there so I’m simply inferring the gist from what I’ve been reading on Facebook – I’m prepared to be corrected). Their concern echoes that of the Fair List, an initiative to encourage a higher profile for women speakers at ELT events, which had hosted an awards ceremony the evening before.

Where are the women in ELT? Well, while it may be true that women are underrepresented in the power structures of ELT (ignoring, for the moment, that the incoming and outgoing presidents of both IATEFL and TESOL are all women), the situation is probably healthier than in many professions. A quick check of a website where speakers from a whole range of disciplines (sciences, the arts, media, sports etc) advertise their wares shows that roughly nine out of ten speakers in all categories (Keynote, Celebrities, Motivational, Leadership etc) are men. By comparison, the ELT conference circuit seems relatively inclusive.  There is certainly room for improvement, but it does make me wonder if the gender debate isn’t distracting us from power issues that are much more pervasive and equally, if not more, pernicious.

Such as? Well, not one of the alpha males (in the list that Prentis and Mayne’s research identified) is a non-native speaker. Yet non-native speaker teachers comprise the vast majority of the teaching population worldwide – upwards of 95% by some estimates. This – more than the gender disparity – seems a much more serious indictment of the present state of ELT, and suggests that the ‘discourses of colonialism’ (Pennycook 1998) still permeate the profession, a situation in which, as Holliday (2005: 2) puts it, ‘a well-resourced, politically and economically aggressive, colonizing, Western ‘Centre’’ imposes its values, standards and beliefs on ‘an under-sourced, colonized ‘Periphery’.’ in class 1950

Ironically, these colonizing forces are particularly conspicuous at conferences in the so-called periphery itself, where the alpha (NS) males – myself included – really dominate. Is this a case of what Kumaravadivelu (2006: 22) calls ‘self-marginalization’? I.e.:

The TESOL profession is replete with instances where, in certain periphery communities, program administrators “require” or at least “prefer” native speakers to carry out teaching and consultancy, and teachers and teacher educators look up to native speakers for inspiration thinking that they have ready-made answers to all the recurrent problems of classroom teaching … By their uncritical acceptance of the native speaker dominance, non-native professionals legitimize their own marginalization.

As I’ve found, it’s very hard to persuade the head of a teachers’ organization in, say, Bangladesh or Armenia, that I have nothing of value to add to what the locals already know. TaW SIG

Meanwhile, a group calling itself TAW (Teachers as Workers) is lobbying IATEFL for Special Interest Group (SIG) status, on the grounds that it represents the interests of working teachers (‘pushing for the rights of ELT teachers in an era of precarity [sic]’), but, so far, with little success. It is a little odd, let’s face it, that a teachers’ organization (which is what IATEFL purports to be) can’t make room for a group that provides a forum for chalkface teachers. Teacher professional development, after all, is professional development, which surely includes issues of job security, working conditions, access to training, and so on. As Bill Johnston (2003: 137) writes:

I believe that all our talk of teacher professional development is seriously compromised if we ignore the marginalisation of ELT that is staring us in the face, that is, if we treat the professional growth of teachers as something that can be both conceived and carried out without reference to the sociopolitical realities of teachers’ lives. To devalue this central feature of work for huge numbers of teachers is to fail to grasp the significance of the drive for professional development. I believe that the ELT professional organisations have unwittingly colluded in this artificial separation of the professional and political. For many years, for example, the TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) Convention, the annual meeting of the TESOL organisation, was almost exclusively devoted to matters of classroom techniques and materials. These things are of course important and useful to teachers. What was lacking, however, was any sense of the sociopolitical contexts in which ELT is conducted, or of its role in those contexts.

teacher ny 1920So, don’t be put off by the somewhat hectoring rhetoric of the TaW collective. Even if it is unlikely to prosper, their cause is a worthy one.

Finally, while some are banging on the doors of IATEFL trying to get in, there are others who view IATEFL and similar organizations, not as the solution, but as the problem. From his bunker somewhere in Catalonia, Geoff Jordan lambasts IATEFL and all it stands for: “The IATEFL conference is about self-promotion, it’s held to justify IATEFL’s existence and to give the huge commercial concerns that run the ELT industry a chance to flog their shoddy goods.”

Whether you agree or not, this – like the other issues I have touched on – is clearly an issue of power: whose interests does IATEFL really serve? Does it kowtow to the publishers? What discourses does it privilege, e.g. those of professional development, or of social justice or of big business?

And, taking the wider view, is ELT still tainted with its colonial past? Does the centre still hold? Is it really all about ‘the English Man’? In short, how cognizant are we (to borrow Johnston’s phrase) “of the sociopolitical contexts in which ELT is conducted”?  How is power distributed in these contexts? How could it be distributed more equitably?


Holliday, A. (2005) The Struggle to Teach English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2006) ‘Dangerous liaison: globalization, empire and TESOL’, in Edge, J. (ed.) (Re)locating TESOL in an Age of Empire. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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

G is for Gossip

6 05 2012

The other week I posted the following ‘status update’ on Facebook:

“The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us.” (Dunbar, R. 1996. Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, p. 77).

With 141 FB friends, I am dangerously near the 150 point. Time for some discreet culling? 😉

The comment was tongue in cheek, obviously, but there was a semi-serious point to it. I’m not the first – by a long chalk – to want to broadcast the fact that it’s simply not possible to have thousands of ‘friends’, unless friendship is redefined in such a way as to leach it of all meaning entirely. When I finally took the FB plunge I vowed to friend only those people whom I’d actually met and whose names I could remember – already stretching the meaning of friend to breaking point – and, by and large, I’ve kept to that pledge.

It’s terrible!

But more about that later. Professor Dunbar, whose calculation of 150 manageable ‘friends’ is a key element in his compelling argument as to how language originated (Dunbar, 1996), was in the news again recently. Using a massive dataset of nearly two million mobile phone calls and 500 million text messages, collected over a 7-month period, Dunbar and his colleagues tracked the way that relationship patterns vary over time and according to gender. Among their findings were “a marked sex difference in investment in relationships during the period of pairbond formation, suggesting that women invest much more heavily in pairbonds than do men”. Not only that, the results of the study “tend to support the claim that mother-daughter relationships play a particularly seminal role in structuring human social relationships”. All this based on who people talk to (or text), how often, and over how long a period of time.

The way that language both shapes and is shaped by social networks has been a recurrent theme in Dunbar’s work. The book on gossip (1996) outlines the thesis that, when our primate forebears descended from the trees onto the African savannah, the ecological need to form larger and larger social groupings required other means, apart from mutual grooming, for bonding and group cohesion. It was simply not possible to groom your whole clan at one sitting. Language, specifically the phatic use of language that we have come to call gossip, provided an alternative to grooming. “Language has two interesting properties compared to grooming: you can talk to several people at once and you can talk while travelling, eating or working in the fields” (Dunbar 1992:30). By sharing information about other clan members, speakers not only cemented group ties but laid down norms of acceptable behaviour. “Language evolved to allow us to gossip” (Dunbar 1996:79).

And, like grooming, the socializing use of language was probably – initially, at least – gender-specific . While males hunted; women gathered – and gossiped.

So, men don’t gossip? It depends what you define as ‘gossip’. Certainly, as Coates (2004: 104) observes,  talking about football seems to fulfil a similar function. She quotes a study that suggests that “if female gossip is a way of talking which solidifies relationships between women, then talking about football would appear to serve a very similar purpose for men”.

In another, much older study of mobile phone use (reported in The Guardian in 2001) researchers found that “some 27% of men, compared with 21% of women, admitted making calls primarily for gossip, which 26% of men referred to as ‘keeping in touch’.  But when some were questioned in focus groups, this often proved to be ‘essentially a euphemism for gossip’” (Ezard 2001).  So, yes, men gossip – but they call it by a less pejorative name.

Which brings me back to Facebook. For all his insight, Dunbar got one thing horribly wrong. He saw no future in digital media in terms of consolidating or extending social networks. “The information super-highway’s only real benefit in the end will be the speed with which ideas are disseminated. … Nor is it likely that electronic mail will significantly enlarge people’s social networks” (1996: 204-205).

Why not? Because, according to Dunbar, 150 friends is the maximum number we can manage.  But, as one of my FB friends asked (in response to my cheeky post): “That was before Facebook. Wonder if he’s adjusted the number since”, while another commented “I don’t think the number above needs to be adjusted; it’s just the word “friend” has had a meaning shift”. Or, as still another said, ‘There are FB friends and then there are people who will lend you money, help you move a piano or go your bail’.

It’s certainly true that it’s not easy – or wise – to gossip on either Facebook or Twitter. Gossip assumes a measure of privacy, and social media are conspicuously public. And gossip assumes shared knowledge, but do all my Facebook friends know one another? I’m absolutely sure that they do not.

So, what’s it all for? Is it the case, that, as one of my ‘friends’ put it: ‘You are confusing genuine friendship & Facebook friendship, which is more about self-promotion & ego-boosting’?  But then, Dunbar (1996: 123) may well have foreseen this. He writes  “One of the most important things gossip allows you to do is to keep track of (and of course influence) other people’s reputations as well as your own.  Gossip… is all about the management of reputation”.

And isn’t that what Facebook is about, too?


Coates, J. (2004)  Women, Men and Language (3rd edition), Harlow, Pearson.

Dunbar, R.  (1992)  ‘Why gossip is good for you’, New Scientist, 21/11/1992.

Dunbar, R. (1996) Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, London: Faber & Faber.

Ezard, J. (2001)  ‘Mobile users “ape monkeys”’, Guardian 6/12/2001.

Palchykov, V., Kaski, K., Kertész, J., Barabási, A-L., and Dunbar, R.I.M. (2012) ‘Sex differences in intimate relationships’, Scientific Reports, 2, at http://www.nature.com/srep/2012/120419/srep00370/full/srep00370.html

Illustrations from Swan, M. & Walter, C. (1984) The Cambridge English Course 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University 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’

P is for Passive

18 07 2010

Obama: male or female?

In a recent article in the Washington Post, columnist Kathleen Parker adduces evidence from President Obama’s speech on the Gulf of Mexico oil-well blow-out to suggest that his speaking style is more female than male. Apparently Obama’s speech “featured 13 percent passive-voice constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century.” The use of the passive voice is, supposedly, a characteristic of female speech – the sort of gender myth that drives Deborah Cameron crazy (see my previous post G is for Gender).

In refuting Parker’s cod-linguistics, the Atlantic Wire quotes University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman, who “finds that Obama’s speech was only 11.1 percent passive, and that Bush used more passive voice anyway. Liberman finds that Bush’s Katrina speech was 17.6 percent passive”.

In any case, he adds, “there isn’t the slightest evidence that passive-voice constructions are ‘feminine’… The ‘passive is girly’ prejudice seems to be purely due to the connotations of (other senses of) the term passive.”

Newspaper columnists are not alone in misrepresenting the significance of the passive. Student grammars are also at fault. A trainee of mine recently brought to my attention the following explanation of the use of the passive in a reputable grammar reference text:

Active and passive sentences often have similar meanings, but a different focus.

Active sentences focus on the agent (the person or thing doing the action). Millions of people read the magazine. (The focus is on the people.)

Passive sentences focus on the object (the person or thing receiving the action).

The magazine is read by millions of people. (The focus is on the magazine.)

Assuming that by ‘focus’ is meant ‘the important information’, this is so wrong as to be the exact opposite of the case, and is a good example of what happens when you try to fabricate rules out of de-contextualised examples. So, let’s create a plausible context:

The National Geographic is an American institution. The magazine is read by millions of people.

In the second sentence, the magazine refers back to a previously mentioned topic (The National Geographic). In other words, it is “given information” (the definite article indicates as much, even in the absence of the context). The new information is everything that follows (is read by millions of people), and conforms to the convention in English (and in many other languages) that new information is placed towards the end of the sentence – what is called “the end-weight principle”.  The rule given in the grammar book – that “active sentences focus on the agent” and “passive sentences focus on the object” – wrongly implies that the so-called focus of a sentence is its subject. The focus (if by focus we mean ‘the important information’) is in fact everything that is not the subject, i.e. everything that follows the main verb. Thus, the passive is one of several devices available to move new information to the end of the sentence, even when that new information is the agent of the verb. Compare the following two ‘mini-texts’:

  1. Ludwig von Beethoven was a German composer. He composed the Pastoral Symphony.
  2. The Pastoral Symphony is a beautiful work. It was composed by Ludwig von Beethoven.

    Beethoven: active or passive?

In the second sentence of Text 2, a passive structure is enlisted simply to push the new information to the end of the sentence in order to ‘focus’ on it. (The end-weighted matter, incidentally, also receives the most stress when spoken – a further indication of its ‘focal’ value). Compare Text 2 above with the less convincing – albeit grammatically well-formed – alternative:

2a. The Pastoral Symphony is a beautiful work. Ludwig von Beethoven composed it.

Curiously, the same point came up in a teaching practice class this week. In her reflections on a lesson, a teacher recounted the following:

On the board I wrote:

In the 1880’s, the telephone was invented.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.

The telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell.

I asked students, “What is the focus of each sentence?” They did fine on the first two, but answered, “by Alexander Graham Bell,” for the third.   At this point, I said well actually the focus is on the telephone.   The meaning of the structure is to place emphasis on the noun (subject) that fronts the sentence.  The students not knowing this, couldn’t make sense of the concept check question.

In fact, as I pointed out to the teacher, the students were right!

G is for Gender

23 05 2010

According to a BBC report this week, “men are bigger liars than women”: they admit to telling around three porkies a day, compared to women who lie only twice.

Hmm.  This sounds like the kind of dodgy research that Deborah Cameron calls “soundbite science”. In her book The Myth of Mars and Venus (OUP 2007), she takes to task researchers who make newsworthy but unfounded claims for gender differences, of the type “Men interrupt more than women do”, or “Women are more talkative than men”. Or – as in the BBC report – “Men lie more than women”. For a start (she says) such claims ignore the fact that there is as much variation within each gender group as there is between them. Another problem is that such studies take linguistic behaviour out of context: “To make sense of linguistic behaviour we need to go back to the context and look at what a particular linguistic feature was actually being used to communicate” (p. 45). Asking people whether they lie or not overlooks the various pragmatic functions of “not telling the truth” – which can range from deliberate deceit of the Richard Nixon variety, to tactful avoidance of threats to face, of the type “No, it doesn’t make you look fat”.  One man’s deception might be another man’s (or woman’s) discretion.

Nevertheless, such spurious  claims for language-related  gender differences proliferate – especially on the internet. Of course, gender difference (whether real or invented) makes better news than gender similarity. A news headline that read “Women and men both tell a few fibs every day” wouldn’t attract much attention. Nor would it feed people’s apparent hunger to have gender stereotypes confirmed.  As Cameron argues, these alleged differences validate the very popular myth that men and women “speak a different language”, a myth that is founded on the following assumptions:

  1. Language and communication matter more to women than to men; women talk more than men;
  2. Women are more verbally skilled than men.
  3. Men’s goals in using language tend to be instrumental—about getting things done—whereas women’s tend to be interpersonal or relational—about making connections to other people…
  4. Men’s way of using language is competitive …Because of this, men’s style of communicating also tends to be more direct and less polite than women’s.
  5. These differences routinely lead to ‘miscommunication’ between the sexes.

(Cameron 2007, pp 7-8)

Cameron dismisses these claims fairly convincingly, exposing most of them as either fraudulent or exaggerated.  And, in the latest issue of Applied Linguistics (31:2, May 2010) she revisits the topic to critique what she calls “the new biologism”. This is the belief that linguistic differences connote gender differences that, in turn, are both biological and innate. Thus, evolutionary psychologists argue that men talk the way they do because their hunting ancestors had to be strong and silent, whereas women have inherited a nurturing and ‘mutual grooming’ role, reflected in their more empathetic and less assertive speaking style. Cameron argues that – if there are indeed differences between men’s and women’s talk – these owe to socio-cultural rather than to genetic factors. If women come across as less assertive, this may reflect an unequal distribution of power between the sexes in many social contexts.

In  the entry on gender in An A-Z of ELT I deal solely with linguistic gender (as in pronoun marking) and ignore these sociolinguistic issues. Reading Cameron makes me think I should take these issues up – along with the question (that Cameron doesn’t address directly) as to whether women really are better second language learners than men – for which there is a fair amount of supporting evidence, both anecdotal and research-based.

Which raises the question: if – as Cameron claims – women don’t have a genetic advantage, what might the reasons be for their supposed success as language learners?