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)


R is for Repetition (again)

19 05 2013

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Wallace Stevens, ‘Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird’.

It’s spring and the male blackbirds are in full throat. I was listening to one for a good while the other morning, trying to track the way his little tune (what Wikipedia calls a ‘varied and melodious low-pitched fluted warble’) subtly changes with each iteration. Are these variations accidental? Is he perhaps not very good at holding a tune? Or are they intentional – improvisations on a theme, so to speak? Could these different inflections be the bird’s accent, as it were – the distinguishing characteristics that identify him to other (territorial) blackbirds?

Improvisation on a theme is, of course, a musical reference, and musicians have often been drawn to birdsong.  Preeminent among these is Olivier Messiaen.  ‘Birds are my first and greatest masters’, he is alleged to have said. According to the sleeve notes of an album of works inspired by birdsong (Samuel, n.d.), ‘as an ornithologist, Olivier Messiaen has always loved and studied birds’ lives and songs. Not only in a poetical way but very scientifically too: “They are the best musicians living on our planet”. With a pencil and a score and the musical tools of the western composer, he directly transcribes their songs or the spontaneous combinations of the songs and rhythms.’

Here is the man himself describing some of his musical renditions of birdsong:

And here is his blackbird:

But it’s less the spontaneity of birdsong that I am curious about than the repetition.  Hence, the musical connection, because, as Philip Ball (2010: 124) reminds us: ‘Music is extraordinarily repetitive. ….Around ninety-four per cent of any material lasting longer than a few seconds that appears in musical pieces of cultures ranging from Inuit throat-singing to Norwegian polkas to Navajo war dances recurs more than once – and that is only taking account of verbatim repeats.’ (Those of a musical bent might like to do the math on the Messiaen piece!)

But, of course – and this is the point – no repetition is ever the same: Ball goes on to quote the musicologist Leonard Meyer, to the effect that ‘repetition in music “never exists psychologically” – that we never quite hear the same thing twice. It’s clearly a different experience, for example, to hear a theme for the first time and then to find it returning sometime later.’

OK. So what’s the connection with language?  Repetitive practice is good for musicians and language learners alike? That would seem to be self-evident. But I’ve already blogged about task repetition here, and about drilling here, and about controlled practice here.

No, my current interest is in how ‘we never quite hear the same thing twice’, and, indeed, we never quite say the same thing twice. As Pennycook (2010: 43) puts it: ‘Repetition, even of the “same thing”, always produces something new, so that when we repeat an idea, a word, a phrase or an event, it is always renewed’. And rather grandly, he adds, ‘these ideas can be traced back to Heraclitus (540-475 BC), who insisted that change was real and stability only illusory, famously proclaiming that … “We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not”‘ (ibid: 42).

Diane Larsen-Freeman in action at TESOL

Diane Larsen-Freeman in action at TESOL

This was in fact the very point that Diane Larsen-Freeman, along with Sandra Silberstein, forcibly made in a spell-binding talk at the recent TESOL Convention in Dallas. After reviewing the history of repetition in language learning (pattern practice drills, rote learning, automaticity, and so on) she argued that the problem with this kind of repetition is its dogged obsession with form. As she points out in her contribution to Meaningful Action (Larsen-Freeman 2013: 194), ‘The major problem with repetition in audiolingualism … was that it didn’t necessarily require students to use language meaningfully. Repeating the form as precisely as possible was seen to be sufficient.’ Coming from the perspective of complex systems theory, she goes on to argue:

By way of contrast, there is another term, iteration, which I think merits closer attention. Iteration makes explicit the claim that the act of repeating results in a change to a procedure or system. In other words, what results from iteration is “a mutable state”‘ (2013:195).

Elsewhere (2012: 202) she explains: ‘In a complex system, what results from one iteration is used as the starting point for the next iteration. Thus, the starting point or initial condition is always different’.

If this sounds abstruse, 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. This is what Larsen-Freeman describes as repetition’s capacity to generate innovation. ‘When we entertain a view of language as a complex adaptive system, we recognise that every meaningful use of language changes the language resources of the learner/user, and the changed resources are then potentially available to the user and members of the speech community (2013: 195). Or, as Pennycook (2010: 47) puts it, repetition is ‘a form of renewal that creates the illusion of systematicity.’ (1)

By means of this illusion of systematicity, iteration equips us with the wherewithal to cope with, and exploit, the inherent variability of real language use.  ‘What is learned through iteration are not simply meaningful patterns, but the process of shaping them appropriately to fit the present context’ (Larsen-Freeman 2012: 204).  Thus, ‘learning takes place not by repeating forms of a closed, static system, but by meaningfully playing the game while revisiting the same territory again and again’ (ibid: 206).

Like the blackbird: revisiting the same territory again and again.  But how can we do this in class?

Stevick coverReferences:

Ball, P. (2010) The Music Instinct: How music works and why we can’t do without it, London: The Bodley Head.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2012) ‘On the roles of repetition in language teaching and learning’, Applied Linguistics Review, 3/2, 195–210.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2013) ‘Complex systems and technemes: learning as iterative adaptations’, in Arnold, J., & Murphey, T. (eds.) Meaningful Action: Earl Stevick’s influence on language teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pennycook, A. (2010) Language as  a Local Practice, London: Routledge.

Samuel, C. (n.d.) ‘The message of  Olivier Messiaen’ (translated by Julie de La Bardonnie), sleeve notes to  ‘Homage to Olivier Messiaen: the 80th birthday concert’. Disques Montaigne.

(Thanks to Ben Goldstein for getting me hooked on Messiaen!)


(1) The same idea is beautifully captured in these lines from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop (also about birdsong!):

The Goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the White-throated Sparrow’s five-note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.
Nature repeats herself, or almost does:
repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.

R is for Repetition

5 12 2010

In her latest book, Claire Kramsch (2009) argues – among other things – for the value of repetition:

“In an effort to make language use more authentic and spontaneous, communicative language teaching has moved away from memorisation, recitation, and choral responses.  It has put a premium on the unique, individual, and repeatable utterance in unpredictable conversational situations.  And yet, there is value in repetition as an educational device: utterances repeated are also resignified” (p. 209).

That is to say, simply repeating something gives it an added or even different signifiance. Walt Whitman captured this principle in this brilliant little poem:

What am I, after all, but a child, pleas’d with the sound of my own name? repeating it over and over;
I stand apart to hear—it never tires me.

To you, your name also;
Did you think there was nothing but two or three pronunciations in the sound of your name?

Whitman Whitman Whitman...

Kramsch goes on to argue that “we may want to put the principle of iterability to work…: the same text, reread silently or aloud, can yield new meanings.  The same utterance, repeated in various contexts, with different inflections, can index different emotions, evoke different associations.  The same poem, memorised and performed two or three times in front of the same class, yields each time new pleasures of recognition and anticipation.  The same story, told to three different interlocutors, can enable the storyteller to put different emphases on the same general theme depending on the listener…” (ibid.)

The value of repetition as a means of achieving fluency has also been acknowledged in the recent literature on task-based learning. When learners repeat a task, even a relatively long time after its first performance, gains have been shown in both fluency and linguistic complexity. Bygate (2009) suggests that this is because “previous experience of a task is available for speakers to build on in subsequent performance” (p. 269).  He makes a similar point to Kramsch’s: that the communicative approach tends to value spontaneity and creativity. “And yet to provide speaking practice only under these conditions runs the risk that learners will constantly be improvising, constantly experimenting with new forms, but also constantly doing so while having to pay some considerable attention to the content of what they want to say” (ibid.). In other words, ‘free expression’ may come at considerable cost to fluency.

Corpus linguistics has shown, too, that a large proportion of what we say and write is ‘second-hand’: we recycle our own utterances repeatedly, as well as those of the discourse community we are affiliated to (or wish to be affiliated to). As Hopper (1998) puts it, echoing the Russian scholar M. Bakhtin, “We say things that have been said before. Our speech is a vast collection of hand-me-downs that reaches back in time to the beginnings of language” (p. 159).  He adds that, from this perspective, “language is … to be viewed as a kind of pastiche, pasted together in an improvised way out of ready-made elements” (op. cit. p. 166).  A good writer of academic text, for example, knows how to select formulations that are already part of what T.S. Eliot called ‘the dialect of the tribe’ in order to create “an easy commerce of the old and the new” (The Four Quartets).

The problem with repetition, from a pedagogical point of view, is that there is a tension between the need to repeat, on the one hand, and the boredom factor, on the other. It requires skilful management to balance repetitive language practice with the need for variety and a change of focus. One way is to change some element in the task for each iteration. Here are some ideas:

1. Change the amount of support: e.g. ‘Disappearing Dialogues’: learners practice a dialogue that is written on the board or projected, chunks of which are progressively hidden or erased, until they are perfroming the entire dialogue from memory.

2. Change the mode: e.g. ‘Paper conversations’: students interact passing paper and pen back and forth (like on-line chat), then repeat the exchange speaking.

3. Change the time: e.g. the 4-2-1 technique: students take turns to talk to their partner about a topic, for – at first – 4 minutes, then again for 2, and finally for 1, trying to keep the content constant.

4. Change the speakers: e.g. the ‘onion’ technique, whereby students are seated in two concentric circles, the inner circle facing the outer. Students perform a speaking task in pairs (e.g. a role play) and then the outer circle students move one seat clockwise, and the task is repeated with new partners.


Bygate, M. 2009. Effects of task repetition on the structure and control of oral language. In Van den Branden, K., Bygate, M., Norris, J.  (eds.) Task-based Language Teaching: A Reader.  Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Hopper, P.J. 1998. Emergent language. In Tomasello, M. (ed.) The New Psychology of Language: Cognitive and Functional Approaches to Language Structure. Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Kramsch, C. 2009. The Multilingual Subject. Oxford:  Oxford University Press.