E is for Esperanto

14 05 2017

teach yourself esperantoTry this thought experiment:

A couple learn an invented language and use it with their child who picks it up naturally. The child eventually meets another person who has the same artificial mother tongue. To what extent will they be able to communicate? That is to say, to what extent will the two linguistic systems be aligned?

Or this one:

Two people, each with different L1s, learn to communicate in a lingua franca for which there are no prescribed rules of suprasegmental phonology, such as rhythm and intonation. Will they be mutually intelligible?

Or this one:

An artificial language has been developed that has its own grammar and vocabulary, but not a codified phraseology, e.g. of collocations, idioms, etc. Will a phraseology develop naturally through use? And to what extent will this cause communication breakdown between speakers of the language who have learned and used it in different settings?

As it happens, these ‘experiments’ are regularly put to the test whenever speakers of artificial languages, such as Esperanto, interact. Designed to be an international lingua franca, Esperanto never quite fulfilled its utopian promise, but (according to Wikipedia) ‘up to two million people worldwide, to varying degrees, speak Esperanto, including about 1,000 to 2,000 native speakers who learned Esperanto from birth.’  This last fact must surely excite researchers of second language acquisition and of sociolinguistics, specifically that aspect of sociolinguistics that deals with generational language change. It’s surprising, therefore, that there is little or no mention of Esperanto in the literature of either SLA or sociolinguistics.

The second generation speakers of Esperanto (I would have thought) would provide interesting data for those who are concerned with how language acquisition emerges, especially in conditions where opportunities for input and output are restricted  – which is often the case, not only for speakers of Esperanto, but also for learners of EFL. And it might provide insights into how languages evolve over time within particular speech communities.

For example, it has been shown (Bergen 2001) that children who grow up speaking Esperanto tend not to use the accusative case. (The accusative case is the marking of nouns and adjectives as objects of the verb. In English, the accusative survives in only a handful of pronouns, e.g. who vs whom). Native speakers of Esperanto also ignore a number of complex tense and aspect distinctions that are marked with affixes.

How does one account for these divergences from ‘proper’ Esperanto (i.e. the language learned by their parents) and the language spoken by second generation Esperanto speakers? Are the differences attributable simply to L1 transfer – given the fact that native Esperanto speakers are invariably bilingual? Or is the ‘nativization’ process determined by general (i.e. not language-specific) learning strategies, such as a tendency to overgeneralize rules or to eliminate redundancy? Or is the failure to adopt features of the target grammar, as prescribed by its grammarians, simply an effect of incomplete learning, due, perhaps, to limited exposure and opportunities for use – what SLA researchers might call the premature stabilization of the interlanguage? Indeed, can we talk about ‘interlanguage’ at all, given that there is no agreed ‘end state’ in the acquisition of Esperanto, i.e. there is no native speaker model that has been codified over generations of users?

Or can second generation Esperanto be explained only by recourse to an innate, language-learning faculty, such as argued by proponents of Universal Grammar (UG)? Could it be that second-generation Esperanto offers evidence of universalizing principles? Which also raises the interesting question as to whether any of the features of Esperanto grammar contravene UG, and, if so, have they been shed in the process of nativization? (Another thought experiment: a language is devised which contravenes UG – e.g. has ‘postpositions’, rather than prepositions (‘the bus on’, not on the bus), but has adjectives before rather than after the noun, i.e. a red bus, not a bus red. It is taught to one generation and then acquired by a second. Would the word order discrepancies resolve themselves? If so, in which direction?)



L.L. Zamenhof (1859-1917), architect of Esperanto

The accusative case, incidentally, has an interesting history in Esperanto: Zamenhof – Esperanto’s designer – believed that the presence of accusative forms of nouns and adjectives would allow a more flexible word order. Thus, with accusative markings, the difference between The dog bit the girl (‘La hundo mordis la knabinon’) and The girl bit the dog (‘La hundon morbis la knabino’) requires no change in word order. But, as early as 1895, there was a heated discussion as to its usefulness. So Zamenhof put it to the vote. The ‘accusativists’ won, triggering a separatist movement within Esperanto, and the formation of a breakaway language called Ido, which abandoned the accusative altogether. As we have seen, nativized Esperanto speakers have tended to follow suit.


Esperanto also offers a suggestive precedent for other (theorized) lingua francas, such as ELF (English as a lingua franca), which have no associated culture and few if any native speakers. Thus, the phonetician, John Wells, an accomplished Esperantist himself, has used the case of Esperanto to argue that speakers of a lingua franca for which there is no codified system of intonation (like Esperanto, like ELF) will simply adopt and adapt the intonation of their L1, with little or no prejudice to intelligibility. This is an argument against the explicit teaching of intonation, especially in the teaching of ELF (see the discussion in I for Intonation). On the other hand, transferring idiomatic expressions from an L1 into a lingua franca (such as Esperanto or ELF) should probably be avoided, since these are unlikely to be transparent to one’s interlocutors – a case against teaching phrasal verbs, for example.

In short, Esperanto, even if not the success its original proponents had envisioned, offers suggestive material for re-imagining the acquisition and teaching of English.


Bergen, B. K. (2001) ‘Nativization processes in L1 Esperanto.’ Journal of Child Language, 28.



M is for Mother tongue

19 04 2015

Berlitz frontispieceIn 1906 Maximilian Berlitz wrote, in the preface to his Method for Teaching Modern Languages:

“In the Berlitz Method, translation as a means of acquiring a foreign language is entirely abandoned. From the first lesson, the student hears only the language he is studying.”

The reasons for this (at the time) radical departure from established pedagogy included the following:

“He who is studying a foreign language by means of translation, neither gets hold of its spirit nor becomes accustomed to think in it; on the contrary, he has a tendency to base all he says upon what he would say in his mother tongue, and he cannot prevent his vernacular [i.e. his L1] from invading the foreign idiom [i.e. the L2].”

This view – that languages can and should be ‘kept apart’ because, if not, they will ‘invade’ one another – has underpinned second language teaching pedagogy ever since. Likewise, the folk wisdom that, unless languages are kept separate, learners will never learn to ‘think’ in the target language, has persisted until the present day.

What evidence is there (a) that languages are stored and accessed separately, and (b) that second language learners can be trained to ‘think’ in their L2?

Not a lot. The findings of neuroscience, based mainly on neuro-imaging technology, challenge the view that languages are stored separately in the brain. Instead, ‘current research suggests that the neural representation of an L2 converges with that of an L1’ (Green et al, 2006: 111) and that ‘each language affects the other and neither is identical to that of a monolingual’ (Birdsong 2006: 22). What’s more, ‘it would appear that the brain areas involved in L1 acquisition are very similar to those involved in L2 acquisition’ (Schumann 2006: 317).  In other words, languages do not develop separately, nor are they stored separately. Nor can they be: they are inextricably interconnected. Invasion, interference, transfer, leakage, competition – these are the facts of (psycholinguistic) life. Better, perhaps, to deal with them head on, rather than attempt to avoid them.

As for ‘thinking in English’: this seems only to occur in advanced learners who are committed to living their lives as part of the target language community. Studies of developmental changes in the way speakers gesture in their L2 (e.g. Gullberg 2008; 2011), for example, suggest that L1 cognitive structures persist even at quite advanced levels. Ellis and Shintani (2014: 243), reviewing the evidence, conclude, ‘it is clearly necessary to accept that the L1 will play a major role in most learners’ inner world’.

Berltiz prefaceMoreover, from a sociolinguistic perspective, it is quite likely that the L1 will play a role in the learners’ outer world as well – even in predominantly English-speaking contexts. Purely monolingual societies have probably never been the norm, but are less so now than ever. As Rampton (1995: 338) observes: ‘The idea that people really only have one native language, that really monolingualism is the fundamental linguistic condition, … underlies a widespread failure to recognise new and mixed linguistic identities’. This is even truer now than it was in 1995: in a globalized world, there is increasing use of, and greater tolerance of, ‘code-switching’ and ‘code meshing’ by multilinguals, and this needs to be reflected in pedagogy. Learners are probably not learning English to join a single monolithic discourse community but are ‘shuttling between communities’ (Canagarajah 2005: xxvi) – hence there should be a pedagogical focus on multilingual and multicultural practices, practices in which the learners’ mother tongue is not proscribed but legitimized.

Nevertheless, current methodology still seems heavily predicated on Berlitz’s ‘English only’ principle. Teacher education is directed, not at exploiting the learners’ L1 as a resource for learning and communication, but at compensating for many teachers’ lack of knowledge of their learners’ L1, and at producing learners who are simulacra of monolingual native speakers. Worse, this ‘native speakerist’ mindset seems to have ‘infected’ many NNS teachers, who feel guilty if caught using the L1 in the classroom.

In the Cambridge English signature event at the IATEFL conference in Manchester last week, I argued that the Cambridge English Teaching Framework, a rubric for the assessment of teachers’ effectiveness, should not only NOT proscribe L1 use, but should include a section that validates L1 knowledge. Adopting the categories of the existing five competencies (which includes Language ability, but only insofar as this applies to the target language, i.e. English), it might look like this:

L1 competence Cambridge Framework

It was gratifying to receive this response (from Karima Gikar) to my not entirely frivolous proposal:

The suggestion you made concerning the modification of the [CET Framework] as to make it compulsory for NS teachers to know their students’ L1 is bloody daring! If your suggestion came to be taken more than seriously (which I hope) and implemented in internationally recognised tests like CELTA, DELTA and TESOL, it would be a huge boost for NNS teachers who have long been made to feel less capable or even deficient only because they happen to be non natives. Turning the knowledge and use of students’ L1 into an asset rather than a setback will undoubtedly make teachers who have been put off by discriminatory attitudes and practices regain trust in the profession.


Birdsong, D. (2006) ‘Age and second language acquisition and processing: a selective overview,’ in Gullberg, M. & Indefrey, P. (eds) The cognitive neuroscience of second language acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Canagarajah, S. (2005) ‘Introduction’, in Canagarajah, S. (ed.) Reclaiming the local in language policy and practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Ellis, R. & Shantini, N. (2014) Exploring language pedagogy through second language acquisition research. London: Routledge.

Green, D.W., Crinion, J., & Price, C.J. (2006) ‘Convergence, degeneracy, and control,’ in Gullberg, M. & Indefrey, P. (eds) The cognitive neuroscience of second language acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.

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

Rampton, B. (1995) Crossing: Language and ethnicity among adolescents. London: Longman.

Schumann, J. S. (2006) ‘Summing up: some themes in the cognitive neuroscience of second language acquisition,’ in Gullberg, M. & Indefrey, P. (eds) The cognitive neuroscience of second language acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.

J is for Jokes

15 03 2015

laugh_and_be_merry_smallThe polemical Slovenian cultural critic and philosopher Slavoj Žižek recently published a book of jokes designed, in the words of the blurb, to ‘provide an index to certain philosophical, political, and sexual themes that preoccupy him’.

This got me thinking about our own field, and the illustrative jokes that I often weave into talks — none of them as incisive, as witty or as racy as Žižek’s, I fear — but perhaps worth sharing, nevertheless, not least for the light they might shed on various aspects of language and of language learning. Here is a selection.

Firstly, then: jokes about language:

  1. Semantics

Adam (naming the animals): And finally, that is a hippopotamus.
Eve: Why is it called a hippopotamus?
Adam: Because it looks like a hippopotamus, silly!

I like this one because (for me) it pokes fun at the notion that we are hard-wired with the mental representations of the things we refer to when we use language – what has been called ‘mentalese’. That is to say, the concept HIPPOPOTAMUS pre-exists our actual encounter with a real one in the wild and is a precondition for our being able to name it. As Jerry Fodor puts it, ‘One cannot learn a language unless one has a language.’ Of course, none of the proponents of mentalese – Fodor included  – would go so far as to suggest that the word itself (i.e. ‘hippopotamus’) is part of our DNA, but the idea that you wouldn’t be able to think about a hippopotamus without your having been pre-programmed to do so seems equally implausible.

On a more mundane level, the joke also captures a particular mindset displayed by some (not very good) teachers that assumes that English words are self-explanatory, and often takes the form of exchanges like this:

Student (baffled by unfamiliar word in text): What means ‘hippopotamus’?
Teacher: A hippopotamus?  A hippopotamus is, erm, a hippopotamus.

  1. Pragmatics

Man (on park bench to woman, admiring the dog at her feet): Does your dog bite?
Woman: No.
(Man pats dog and is bitten).
Man: I thought you said your dog didn’t bite!
Woman: It’s not my dog.

A perfect illustration of the flouting of Grice’s ‘maxim of quantity’: ‘Make your contribution just as informative as required.’

  1. Prescriptivism

I love anything that takes the mickey out of the grammar police:

A Texan was visiting Harvard University, and was lost. He stopped a student and asked, “Do you know where the library is at?” “I sure do,” replied the student, “But, you know, you’re not supposed to end sentences with prepositions.” “Oh, ok,” said the Texan, “Do you know where the library is at, asshole?”

  1. tell a jokePrecriptivism AND pragmatics

A linguistics professor was lecturing his class the other day. “In English,” he said, “a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn’t a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative.”
A voice from the back of the room retorted, “Yeah, right.”

Which reminds me that I’ve yet to see a corpus-based study of the not totally unusual discourse marker and turn initiator: ‘Yeah. No.’

As in:

Half past six? It’ll all be finished by then will it?
Erm yeah no. Say seven o’clock anyway…

Carol’s having one, did you know?
Yeah no yes well, she told us when she’s a– (unclear) having one…

(from the British National Corpus)

  1. Miscommunication

The following joke was told to me at primary school when I had no idea where Wembley was, but for some odd reason it made a lasting impression.

There are three hearing-challenged men on a train. (It wasn’t ‘hearing-challenged’ when I was at school, of course).

1st man: Is this Wembley?
2nd: No, it’s Thursday.
3rd: So am I. Let’s have a drink.

What I loved (and still love) about this joke is that none of the men is aware that they’ve misheard the other: an instance of misunderstanding, rather than partial understanding, where, in the words of people who study these things, ‘the interlocutor who misunderstands is not aware of it’2.  I suspect that this kind of misunderstanding between second language users occurs more often than we think, and is possibly a characteristic of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) communication — which may, in turn, account for the impression given in the literature that ELF interactions are invariably successful. The reality is that no one realizes that they have been misunderstood.

  1. Classroom talk

english_made_funny_smallMisunderstandings occur between teachers and learners too, of course, as in this joke:

Teacher: What is the outside layer of a tree trunk composed of? Jimmy?
Jimmy: Dunno.
Teacher: BARK, Jimmy, BARK!
Jimmy: Woof woof. Woof woof.

I’ve witnessed similar interactional cross-purposes during classroom observations, where the teacher’s real question has been misconstrued as a display question – as in this (real) example:

Teacher: How was your weekend?
Student: Fantastic – I won the lottery!
Teacher: Wow! How much did you win?
Student: I didn’t. It was just a sentence.

  1. Language acquisition

Doctor: What’s the matter?
Patient: I’ve got a pain in my kidley.
Doctor: You mean kidney.
Patient: That’s what I said, diddle I?

Failure to register the non-target-like nature of one’s own interlanguage is a characteristic of both first and second language acquisition. The child and the learner – like the patient – can hear and recognize the target pronunciation, but can’t hear themselves not achieving it. Which suggests that there is more to pronunciation teaching than simply ear-training and imitating models: you have to be able to hear yourself.

  1. Real-time processing

A French scholar has been awarded a prestigious prize in the US. Not being an English speaker, he follows the advice of his colleagues by repeatedly practising ‘Thank you very much’ – but without the tell-tale ‘z’ so typical of French speakers. ‘THHHHank you very much… THHHHank you very much’ – day and night, even using a mirror to monitor the position of his tongue. On the fateful day, he walks up to the podium to receive the prize, and says: ‘MerTHHHHHi beaucoup.’

Moral: if you don’t practise in ‘real operating conditions’, you might as well not practice at all. Or, as Gatbonton and Segalowitz (1988: 486) put it ‘the [practice] activity should be designed to allow learners to experience some of the normal psychological pressures felt by people engaged in real communication.’

  1. Multilingualism

A mouse is in his mouse hole and he wants to go out to get something to eat, but he’s afraid there might be a big cat outside, so he puts his ear by the opening and all he hears is “Bow Wow” so he thinks, “Well, there can’t be a cat out there because there’s a big old dog”, so he goes out of his mouse hole and is promptly caught and eaten by a cat, who licks his lips and says “It’s good to be bilingual !!”

Which makes a nice story, but I suspect that even a mouse would be able to tell a non-native barker from a native one.


1 cited in Evans, V. 2014. The Language Myth: Why language is not an instinct. Cambridge University Press.

2 Weigand, 1999 – quoted in House, J., Kasper, G., & Ross, S. (eds) 2003. Misunderstandings in Social Life: Discourse approaches to problematic talk. London: Pearson.

S is for SLA

1 03 2015

The criteria for evaluating the worth of any aid to language learning (whether print or digital, and, in the case of the latter, whether app, program, game, or the software that supports these) must include some assessment of its fitness for purpose. That is to say, does it facilitate learning?

But how do you measure this? Short of testing the item on a representative cross-section of learners, we need a rubric according to which its learning potential might be predicted. And this rubric should, ideally, be informed by our current understandings of how second languages are best learned, understandings which are in turn derived — in part at least — from the findings of researchers of second language acquisition (SLA).

This is easier said than done, of course, as there is (still) little real consensus on how the burgeoning research into SLA should be interpreted. This is partly because of the invisibility of most cognitive processes, but also because of the huge range of variables that SLA embraces: different languages, different aspects of language, different learners, different learning contexts, different learning needs, different learning outcomes, different instructional materials, and so on. Generalizing from research context A to learning context B is fraught with risks. It is for this reason that, in a recent article, Nina Spada (2015) urges caution in extrapolating classroom applications from the findings of SLA researchers.

Cautiously, then, and following VanPatten and Williams’ (2007) example, I’ve compiled a list of ‘observations’ about SLA that have been culled from the literature (albeit inflected by my own particular preoccupations). On the basis of these, and inspired by Long (2011), I will then attempt to frame some questions that can be asked of any teaching aid (tool, device, program, or whatever) in order to calculate its potential for facilitating learning.

Exposure to input is necessary

Here, then, are 12 observations:

  1. The acquisition of an L2 grammar follows a ‘natural order’ that is roughly the same for all learners, independent of age, L1, instructional approach, etc., although there is considerable variability in terms of the rate of acquisition and of ultimate achievement (Ellis 2008), and, moreover, ‘a good deal of SLA happens incidentally’ (VanPatten and Williams 2007).
  2. ‘The learner’s task is enormous because language is enormously complex’ (Lightbown 2000).
  3. ‘Exposure to input is necessary’ (VanPatten and Williams 2007).
  4. ‘Language learners can benefit from noticing salient features of the input’ (Tomlinson 2011).
  5. Learners benefit when their linguistic resources are stretched to meet their communicative needs (Swain 1995).
  6. Learning is a mediated, jointly-constructed process, enhanced when interventions are sensitive to, and aligned with, the learner’s current stage of development (Lantolf and Thorne 2006).
  7. ‘There is clear evidence that corrective feedback contributes to learning’ (Ellis 2008).
  8. Learners can learn from each other during communicative interaction (Swain et al. 2003).
  9. Automaticity in language processing is a function of ‘massive repetition experiences and consistent practice’ in ‘real operating conditions’ (Segalowitz 2003; Johnson 1996).
  10. A precondition of fluency is having rapid access to a large store of memorized sequences or chunks (Nattinger & DeCarrico 1992; Segalowitz 2010)
  11. Learning, particularly of words, is aided when the learner makes strong associations with the new material (Sökmen 1997).
  12. The more time (and the more intensive the time) spent on learning tasks, the better (Muñoz 2012). Moreover, ‘learners will invest effort in any task if they perceive benefit from it’ (Breen 1987); and task motivation is optimal when challenge and skill are harmonized (Csikszentmihalyi 1990).

On the basis of these observations, and confronted by a novel language learning tool (app, game, device, blah blah), the following questions might be asked:

  1. ADAPTIVITY: Does the tool accommodate the non-linear, often recursive, stochastic, incidental, and idiosyncratic nature of learning, e.g. by allowing the users to negotiate their own learning paths and goals?
  2. COMPLEXITY: Does the tool address the complexity of language, including its multiple interrelated sub-systems (e.g. grammar, lexis, phonology, discourse, pragmatics)?
  3. INPUT: Does it provide access to rich, comprehensible, and engaging reading and/or listening input? Are there means by which the input can be made more comprehensible? And is there a lot of input (so as to optimize the chances of repeated encounters with language items, and of incidental learning)?
  4. NOTICING: Are there mechanisms whereby the user’s attention is directed to features of the input and/or mechanisms that the user can enlist to make features of the input salient?
  5. OUTPUT: Are there opportunities for language production? Are there means whereby the user is pushed to produce language at or even beyond his/her current level of competence?
  6. SCAFFOLDING: Are learning tasks modelled and mediated? Are interventions timely and supportive, and calibrated to take account of the learner’s emerging capacities?
  7. FEEDBACK: Do users get focused and informative feedback on their comprehension and production, including feedback on error?
  8. INTERACTION: Is there provision for the user to collaborate and interact with other users (whether other learners or proficient speakers) in the target language?
  9. AUTOMATICITY: Does the tool provide opportunities for massed practice, and in conditions that replicate conditions of use? Are practice opportunities optimally spaced?
  10. CHUNKS: Does the tool encourage/facilitate the acquisition and use of formulaic language?
  11. PERSONALIZATION: Does the tool encourage the user to form strong personal associations with the material?
  12. FLOW: Is the tool sufficiently engaging and challenging to increase the likelihood of sustained and repeated use? Are its benefits obvious to the user?

Is it better than a teacher?

This list is very provisional: consider it work in progress. But it does replicate a number of the criteria that have been used to evaluate educational materials generally (e.g. Tomlinson 2011) and educational technologies specifically (e.g. Kervin and Derewianka 2011). At the same time, the questions might also provide a framework for comparing and contrasting the learning power of self-access technology with that of more traditional, teacher-mediated classroom instruction. Of course, the bottom line is: does the tool (app, program, learning platform etc) do the job any better than a trained teacher on their own might do?

Any suggestions for amendments and improvements would be very welcome!


Breen, M. P. 1987. ‘Learner contributions to task design’, republished in van den Branden, K., Bygate, M. & Norris, J. (eds) 2009. Task-based Language Teaching: A reader. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Low.

Ellis, R. 2008. The Study of Second Language Acquisition (2nd edn). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kervin, L. & Derewianka, B. (2011) ‘New technologies to support language learning’, in Tomlinson, B. (ed.) Materials Development in Language Teaching (2nd edn). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lightbown, P.M. (2000) ‘Classroom SLA research and second language teaching’. Applied Linguistics, 21/4, 431-462.

Long, M.H. (2011) ‘Methodological principles for language teaching’. In Long, M.H. & Doughty, C. (eds) The Handbook of Language Teaching, Oxford: Blackwell.

Muñoz, C. (ed.) (2012). Intensive Exposure Experiences in Second Language Learning. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Nattinger, J.R. & DeCarrico, J.S. (1992). Lexical Phrases and Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Segalowitz, N. (2003) ‘Automaticity and second languages.’ In Doughty, C.J. & Long, M.H, (eds) The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Segalowitz, N. (2010) Cognitive Bases of Second Language Fluency. London: Routledge.

Sökmen, A.J. (1997) ‘Current trends in teaching second language vocabulary,’ in Schmitt, N. and McCarthy, M. (Eds.) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spada, N. (2015) ‘SLA research and L2 pedagogy: misapplications and questions of relevance.’ Language Teaching, 48/1.

Swain, M. (1995) ‘Three functions of output in second language learning’, in Cook, G., & Seidlhofer, B. (eds) Principle and Practice in Applied Linguistics: Studies in Honour of H.G.W. Widdowson. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swain, M., Brooks, L. & Tocalli-Beller, A. (2003) ‘Peer-peer dialogue as a means of second language learning’. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 23: 171-185.

Tomlinson, B. (2011) ‘Introduction: principles and procedures of materials development,’ in Tomlinson, B. (ed.) Materials Development in Language Teaching (2nd edn). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

VanPatten, B. & Williams, J. (eds) 2007. Theories in Second Language Acquisition: An Introduction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

This is a revised version of a post that first appeared on the eltjam site:  http://eltjam.com/how-could-sla-research-inform-edtech/


A new beginning

23 08 2013

As promised, blogging resumes shortly… but in a new site and with a new format.

You can find the new blog here: it’s called The (De-) Fossilization Diaries, and charts the attempts I’m making to improve my faltering Spanish. Hope to see you there!

Según lo prometido, mis blogs se reanudan en breve … pero en un nuevo lugar y con un nuevo formato.

Se puede encontrar el nuevo blog aquí: se llama The (De-) Fossilization Diaries, y documenta mis  esfuerzos para mejorar mi español titubeante. ¡Espero veros allí!

P is for Pecha Kucha

20 01 2013

What is PechaKucha 20×20?

PechaKucha 20×20 is a simple presentation format where you show 20 images, each for 20 seconds. The images advance automatically and you talk along to the images.

(from the official Pecha Kucha website)

Strategies kitchen reduced

Cooking, Strategies style (1975)

Pecha kuchas have become regular events at ELT conferences, ever since Lindsay Clandfield introduced the genre at the IATEFL Conference in Exeter in 2008, and where I had the dubious honour of being one of the presenters. My 20 times 20 seconds of fame was called Eating for Specific Purposes, and dealt with the way that food, and specifically recipes, have been portrayed in ELT coursebooks over the years. That gives you an indication of the kind of (often fairly frivolous) topics that are the subject of pecha kuchas, which are typically staged as an evening entertainment, not unlike a Victorian parlour game.

But when I was asked to do a pecha kucha at the KOTESOL conference in Seoul last October, I chose a topic that was a little more ambitious: a sort of potted history of second language acquisition (SLA) theory in alphabetical order (a nod both to the book, An A-Z of ELT, and the eponymous blog). I also wanted to reduce the amount of text on the slides to a minimum: in my experience 20 seconds a slide doesn’t allow for a whole lot of cognitive processing, especially when the presenter is talking nineteen to the dozen, as one tends to do.

Well, this is the result, kindly made available by KOTESOL. What do you think?

T is for Transmission

13 01 2013

teacher dixon 01“I do agree that it takes multiple aspects of learning L2 with frequent reviews for learners to absorb information”.

So wrote one of my online MA students on a discussion board last semester. The course I was teaching was on second language acquisition, and the tasks that they were asked to engage with focused on their reading (of the core texts), their teaching experience, and their experience themselves as second language learners.

What I started to notice (and then couldn’t stop noticing!) was the persistence of the metaphor of language learning being like absorbing information.  In one form or another, it came up again and again. Here’s a sample:

1. I figure out what the teacher wants/requires then take the info she/he provides and jumble/distribute/ teach it to myself in the way I know I’ll absorb the information then come back to class.
2. I like to think there’s just a few broad types of ways students will absorb/process/react to the information and refine from there as needed.
3. Spending time around Spanish speakers, absorbing information incidentally while being able to produce the language…
4. While students must be active during input for acquisition to happen, it nonetheless has a more passive nature to it, something along the lines of absorbing the information.

(Note that the students used the ‘absorb information’ metaphor to describe, not just language teaching, but their own experience of second language learning).

This prompted me to see if there was anything else, apart from information, that is ‘absorbed’. In fact, there’s a lot: pronunciation, grammar, language in general. Again – a few items from my ‘corpus’:

5. The students that already knew how to write became much better speakers than I was because they just needed to absorb the pronunciation.
6. I learned syntax, grammar and vocabulary in school but I found that communicative interaction was a key factor in absorbing the language.
7. I like the idea of not stressing the order of which students absorb input fully

Interestingly, if you check the principal noun collocates of the verb ‘absorb’ in a corpus of general English, this is what you get (in order of frequency): water, light, heat, energy, shock, moisture, information. That is to say, information is the most frequent non-physical entity that is absorbed, and it does this, it would seem, because it shares conceptual space with fluids and energy sources. A metaphor of information absorption construes the mind as a kind of sponge.

The idea that information is a physical substance, either liquid or solid, was instantiated in a number of comments:

8. I agree that a good teacher does make all the difference as to whether the information sticks.
9. Drilling stores that information somewhere
10. At least my mind holds on to information I can associate with real life application better than abstract ideas.
11. Each method has some effect on each kid, but for each kid, one of those methods would really cement the information in their minds.

Alternatives to absorbing information included taking it in and retaining it:

12. If you [find] that the students are learning and retaining information, there is no need to change how they learn that information
13. Students intake information based on their individual needs or circumstances.
14. [I] find this interesting from a teaching viewpoint because you see how different information is garnered by the students
15. I subscribe more to the connectivist idea that you learn by taking in information over and over again

teacher dixon 02.jpegAnd, it’s hardly surprising to note that this somewhat passive view of learning was matched by an active, transmissive view of teaching, whereby information is delivered in some form or other:

16. It is my role to present information about the language, whether it be grammatical rules, vocabulary, or cultural situations
17. I have since learned to trim up my syllabi, as well as the information that is directly given to students so as to lessen anxiety
18. We are given a textbook and it is up to us to convey the information in whatever manner we choose.
19. Teachers then have to get that information out using other mediums such as handouts or PowerPoints

Teaching-as-transmission is a way of conceptualizing education consistent with the so-called ‘conduit metaphor’ of communication (Reddy 1979: 288), in which information, encoded in words, is transmitted from speaker to listener who ‘must find the meaning “in the words” and take it out of them so that it gets “into his [or her] head”’.  Likewise, as Barnes (1976: 142) described it, the transmission teacher ‘sees it as his [or her] task to transmit knowledge and to test whether the pupils have received it. To put it crudely, he [or she] sees language as a tube down which knowledge can be sent; if a pupil catches the knowledge he [or she] can send it back up the tube’.

The question is: are there other ways of thinking about (and hence talking about) language, and about the teaching-learning process, that don’t presuppose a conduit metaphor?

What I found slightly dispiriting about the ‘absorbing information’ comments on the discussion board was that they persisted the length of the course, even after we had spent some time looking at alternative models of language acquisition, including the ‘participation’ metaphor (Sfard 1998). Which left me wondering: Is the transmission model so inextricably lodged in the minds of teachers? What alternative metaphors are there? What might it take to ‘change the chip’?


Barnes, D. (1976) From Communication to Curriculum, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Reddy, M.J.  (1979)  ‘The conduit metaphor: a case of frame conflict in our language about language’, in Ortony, A. (ed.) Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sfard, A. (1998) ‘On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one,’ Educational Researcher, March, 4-13.

Illustrations from Dixon, F.G. (n.d.) Método Práctico de Inglés: Primer Libro, Barcelona: Massé, 15th  edition and 33rd edition.