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.

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).