E is for ELT in Spain

22 10 2017


TESOL Spain 40th anniversary Levy

Thanks to Mark Levy for the pic

Last Friday, at a function at the magnificent Edificio Bellas Artes in Madrid, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of TESOL-Spain, I gave an illustrated talk on the history of English language teaching in Spain. Here is a shortened version of the talk.


P is for Predictions (part 2)

10 09 2017

fortune teller 02In last week’s post I identified some of the tensions that characterize the current state of ELT, the resolution of which may determine the shape that the profession takes in the next decade or two.  Without daring to commit to an outcome, one way or the other, let me suggest two more dimensions along which the future of ELT may be inscribed.

  1. The tension between public and private

Most English language teaching, and specifically EFL, takes place in public institutions, such as state-funded schools or universities. In these contexts, ELT methodology is typically (but not always) constrained by such factors as class size, i.e. large numbers of learners often seated in rows; limited contact with the target language; teachers who are less that fully confident in their own command of English (even if they are expected to use it as the vehicular language in their classes); a lack of motivation on the part of the learners; and mandated curricula that are driven by exams whose focus is primarily on accuracy. Under such conditions it is not surprising that the favoured methodology is form-focused, teacher-fronted, choral, and bilingual – a variant, in other words, of grammar-translation.

In the private (or fee-paying) sector, however, things tend to be very different: with smaller class-sizes and (often) native-speaker teachers – or, even, only native-speaker teachers – albeit with minimal training. Learners may be there of their own volition, motivated by work, study, or leisure-related needs. Such an ‘ecology’ favours a more learner-centred, English-only and activity-based methodology – a variant, in other words, of communicative language teaching.

fortune teller 03It’s likely that this division will persist for the foreseeable future, particularly in developing countries, which do not have the means to support ongoing professional development of state-school teachers, but where the necessity of having ‘English’ somewhere on the curriculum will long outlive its utility. Meanwhile, attempts to redress the generally poor results in the public sector by introducing English-medium instruction (e.g. in the form of CLIL) will work only when both teachers and learners have a ‘critical mass’ of English language proficiency to support content-based learning without prejudicing the learning of the subject matter. In some contexts, this may still be generations away. Until then, any form of immersion is likely to be associated with the elite, private sector.

Indeed, the public-private polarity both reflects and intensifies existing inequalities and does not look like improving any time soon. As Bruthiaux (2002, p. 190) comments, ‘In most markets, the consumers of English language education are the relatively well-off, already far beyond the stage of mere survival. To the extent that the severely poor are aware of it at all, the global spread of English is a sideshow compared with the issue of basic economic development and poverty reduction.’

  1. The tension between ‘standard English’ and English as a lingua franca

For the original proponents of the communicative approach it was axiomatic that native-like competence was a less urgent and less realistic goal than communicative efficiency, particularly with regard to pronunciation. In theory, at least, a first language accent was tolerable so long as it was intelligible. Such generosity did not readily extend to other systems, such as grammar, which were still taught and tested according to some idealized notion of what a native-speaker might say or write. This ‘native speakerism’ was reinforced by the prestige still being bestowed on native speaker teachers, especially in the private sector (see above).  As long ago as 1999, Vivian Cook railed against this deficit model of instruction, arguing that ‘L2 users have to be looked at in their own right as genuine L2 users, not as imitation native speakers’ (1999, p. 195).

This view was given extra impetus by the realization that, for many users, English is a contact language between other English-as-an-L2 users, and that, therefore, different standards apply. The notion of English as a lingua franca (ELF) as promulgated by Jennifer Jenkins (2000) – initially in relation to phonology –  had the effect  (or should have had the effect) of moving the goalposts in the direction of the learner-user. Nevertheless, years of (often bitter) debate have not resolved the issue as to what the goalposts actually look like. Is there an emergent codifiable variety called ELF? Or is it simply an elusive social practice – a spontaneously negotiated communicative ‘dance’ involving a creative mix of pragmatics, paralinguistics, accommodation, code-switching, repair strategies and interlanguage?

fortune teller 01Either way, the effect has been to challenge, even subvert, the supremacy of the native-speaker ‘gold standard’. Will the steady penetration of English into all corners of the globe and at most levels of society, mediated by ever swifter, cheaper and more accessible technologies, do the rest?  Or will the need for some mutually intelligible ‘common core’ tip the argument in favour of retaining the Queen’s English (or a version thereof)? The jury is out.

I had promised to discuss three ‘tensions’ today, but I am already out of time. Will there be more Predictions? Place your bets!


Bruthiaux, P. (2002) ‘Hold your courses: language education, language choice, and economic development.’ TESOL Quarterly, 36/3.

Cook, V. (1999) ‘Going beyond the native speaker in language teaching.’ TESOL Quarterly, 33/2.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an international language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

C is for Contrastive analysis

27 01 2013

Charles-BridgeAn article in the latest Applied Linguistics (Scheffler 2012) makes a robust defence of some discredited classroom practices, including the use of translation. While lamenting the lack of research into the effectiveness of translation, Scheffler reports a couple of studies that suggest that learners exposed to cross-linguistic comparison (also called contrastive metalinguistic input) out-perform those who have had grammar presented to them solely in the target language. The author concludes that ‘teachers who resisted the ban on [translation] in the classroom may have known what they were doing’ (p. 606).  In this wise, Scheffler echoes the thrust of Guy Cook’s (2010) book, discussed in this blog here.

Interestingly, neither Scheffler nor Cook reference the work of the ‘Prague School’ of linguistics, and especially of its founder, Vilém Mathesius, whose application of cross-linguistic comparison to the teaching of foreign languages seems to have been a methodological staple in (then) Czechoslovakia until at least the late 1960s.

PragueatnightJust a bit of background: the Prague School flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, and was distinguished by at least three major breaks with tradition:

1. In contrast to the then predominant preoccupation with historical linguistics (and what the past might tell us about ‘correct’ language use), Prague School linguists were more concerned with language as it is currently used now, hence had a less prescriptive, more relaxed approach to acceptable language use (and one which perhaps foreshadowed the development of corpus linguistics);

2. In viewing language as an integrated, interdependent system, in which all its elements stand in some relationship with one another, such that no single element can be viewed in isolation, the Prague School was able to show how changes in one element might affect changes across the system, thereby modelling systematic language change and variability, and, incidentally, helping to establish linguistics as a discipline in its own right, rather than as a branch of psychology or philosophy; and

3. (perhaps most importantly), Prague School linguists shifted the prevailing focus on linguistic structures to a focus on the communicative functions of language, thereby paving the way for the kind of functional linguistics associated with Michael Halliday, and, by extension, communicative language teaching.

Prague-CastleThe conjunction of both a descriptive and a functional perspective prompted an interest in comparative linguistics, and, specifically, in the way that different languages express the same functions.  Languages, for example, divide between those (like English) that express movement using constructions where the manner is encoded in the verb and the direction in a particle, e.g. Juan ran in (the house); she limps out (of the kitchen), and those (like Spanish or French) where the direction is expressed in the verb, while the manner is expressed in some kind of non-finite construction: Juan entró (en la casa) corriendo;  elle sort (de la cuisine) en boitant. Hence English is particularly well endowed with manner of movement phrasal verbs: saunter off, stride about, scurry away, slide down, etc.

Prague school linguists argued that ‘confronting’ such differences should form the basis of language course design and classroom practice. As Vachek (1972: 24) puts it,

‘In language teaching, the instructor using the contrastive method makes a point of stressing, in the taught foreign language, not only those of its features which are identical or parallel in it with the corresponding features of the pupil’s mother tongue, but also, and particularly, those features in which the two languages are found to differ.’

Likewise, Fried (1968: 45), another Prague School associate, advocated an approach in which ‘the student is systematically guided and made to realize the functional differences that exist between the foreign language…and his native tongue’, and he adds: ‘Two-way translation may not be excluded here’.

Prague-TowerHow was this realized in practice?  Tantalizingly, in a footnote Fried refers to a series of textbooks, called Nová cesta k jazykum: Co není v učebních (‘A New Approach to Languages: What cannot be found in textbooks’), one of which, written by Mathesius himself and published in 1936, was called Nebojte se angličtiny (‘Don’t be afraid of English’). (Can my dear readers in the Czech Republic or Slovakia keep an eye out for this – the title alone is worth the price of the book!)

Short of knowing how Mathesius went about it, I’m assuming that one way of realizing a ‘confrontational approach’ might be to take the deductive route, in which the rules of the target language are compared and contrasted with those of the students’ mother tongue.

A more inductive approach, however, seems better attuned to current methodology. Here, for example, is my attempt to contrast a feature of English which is not shared to anything like the same extent with Spanish:

1.            Read the text in English and Spanish


Coffee is made from the beans of the coffee plant. Coffee bushes grow best in warm, wet highland areas, such as in Brazil and Kenya. Inside each red berry are one or two beans. At harvest time, the beans are removed and dried in the sun. Then they are roasted until they are brown, and sold, either ground or whole. Coffee is exported all over the world.


El café se hace con los granos de la planta del café.   El arbusto de café crece mejor en tierras altas, cálidas, y húmedas, como en Brasil y en Kenia. Dentro de cada baya roja hay uno o dos granos. Después de la recolección, se extraen los granos y se secan al sol.  Entonces se tuestan hasta que adquieren un color morrón, y se venden, o molidos o en grano. El café se exporta a todo el mundo.

2.            How do you say…

1. El café se hace con los granos de la planta del café.
2. Se extraen los granos
3. Se secan al sol.
4. Se tuestan
5. Se venden
6. El café se exporta.

3.            Can you work out the rule for these sentences? How does it differ from Spanish?

Incidentally, has anyone done ‘running translations’? I.e., as in running dictations, a text is pinned up at some distance from where the students, working in groups, have to translate it, one student acting as the ‘runner’. Is there any mileage in it, do you think? 😉


Cook, G. (2010) Translation in Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fried, V. (1968) ‘Comparative linguistic analysis in language teaching’, in Jalling, H. (ed.) Modern Language Teaching, London: Oxford University Press.

Scheffler, P. (2012) ‘Theories pass. Learners and teachers remain,’ Applied Linguistics, 33, 5: 603-607.

Vachek, J. (1972) ‘The linguistic theory of the Prague School’, in Fried, V. (ed.) The Prague School of Linguistics and Language Teaching, London: Oxford University Press.

Many thanks to Jeremy Taylor for his lovely photos of Prague.

G is for Grammar-Translation

15 10 2010

A new book by Guy Cook, called Translation in Language Teaching (Oxford University Press, 2010), dropped into my letterbox last week, and makes compelling reading. Without giving too much away, this extract, from the very last page, captures not only his thesis, but something of the passion with which it is argued:

A great deal remains to be done before TILT [Translation in Language Teaching] can be rehabilitated and developed in the way that it deserves.  The insidious association of TILT with dull and authoritarian Grammar Translation, combined with the insinuation that Grammar Translation had nothing good in it at all, has lodged itself so deeply in the collective consciousness of the language-teaching profession, that it is difficult to prise it out at all, and it has hardly moved for a hundred years.  The result has been an arid period in the use and development of TILT, and serious detriment to language teaching as a whole. (p.  156)

This prompted me to resurrect from my files a coursebook proposal (yes, I know, I know) that I drafted over ten years ago, aimed at rehabilitaing GT within the umbrella of a communicative approach. This is an edited extract from the Rationale:

Grammar-Translation (GT) has come to be seen as the antithesis of good teaching practice, and much scorn is customarily heaped upon it. This bad reputation is not entirely undeserved: GT is associated with a very grammar driven approach to learning, with an emphasis on accuracy rather than fluency, and on the written form rather than the spoken form. Moreover, most exercise types in traditional GT courses work at the sentence level or below: there is no such thing as authentic text, for example, in a standard GT course. In fact, inauthenticity is a hallmark of GT courses, and lends itself to endless ridicule.

None of the features commonly associated with GT, however, – its accuracy-driven sentence-level grammar-focus, nor its inauthenticity – are necessarily intrinsic to it. They are simply excess baggage that GT accreted in its passage through the nineteenth century.

Old-fashioned GT course

The notions of fluency, skills work, and whole texts are not in the least incompatible with a translation-mediated approach to the presentation and practice of grammar and vocabulary.

The fact is that a vast number of teachers, both native-speakers and teachers who are speakers of languages other than English, use translation on a regular basis in their teaching of English. They do this because of common sense practical reasons, but without necessarily compromising their adherence to a communicative philosophy.

…An approach that uses translation as a vehicle for teaching the meaning and use of the second language “code” respects the universal tendency to build from the known to the unknown, and, at the same time, does not insult the intelligence and preferred learning styles of most learners.

From the affective point of view, L1 reference provides the support that many beginning learners are desperately in need of. Moreover, by recognising the validity and relevance of the learners’ mother tongue in learning a second language, a GT approach does not devalue the learner’s culture, background and experience to the extent that an “English only” approach might seem to.

…Finally, there are sound practical reasons for rehabilitating translation in the classroom.  The current reaction away from communicative syllabuses, and the resultant resurgence of grammar has meant that grammar teaching occupies more classroom time than ever – at the expense of opportunities for authentic language use. The economy and efficiency of translation as a means of grammar presentation – as opposed to such direct method techniques as demonstration and situationalization – is an argument for its reinstatement: if nothing else, it saves time.

To summarise, then, it is my belief that EFL materials need to catch up with EFL practice. The rehabilitation of translation-mediated learning through GT-style materials is an idea whose time has come. In the absence of a global initiative, local publishers will soon rush in to fill the vacuum. This could be the biggest EFL publishing breakthrough since the advent of the functional syllabus.

I sent the proposal, including some sample units (one with Spanish as the mediating language, another with German), to a leading ELT publisher. Receipt was politely acknowledged. That was the last I heard from them.

Now that Guy’s book is out, would I stand a better chance, I wonder?