Teacher Trainers and Educators in ELT

This blog is dedicated to improving the quality of Second Language Teacher Education (SLTE)

The Teacher Trainers and Educators 

The most influential ELT teacher trainers and educators are those who publish “How to teach” books and articles, have on-line blogs and a big presence on social media, give presentations at ELT conferences, and travel around the world giving workshops and teacher training & development courses. Many of the best known and highest paid teacher educators are also the authors of coursebooks. Apart from the top “influencers”, there are tens of thousands of  teacher trainers worldwide who deliver pre-service courses such as CELTA, or the Trinity Cert TESOL, or an MA in TESOL, and thousands working with practicing teachers in courses such as DELTA and MA programmes. Special Interest Groups in TESOL and IATEFL also have considerable influence.

What’s the problem? 

Most current SLTE pays too little attention to the question “What are we doing?”, and the follow-up question “Is what we’re doing effective?”. The assumption that students will learn what they’re taught is left unchallenged, and those delivering SLTE concentrate either on coping with the trials and tribulations of being a language teacher (keeping fresh, avoiding burn-out, growing professionally and personally) or on improving classroom practice. As to the latter, they look at new ways to present grammar structures and vocabulary, better ways to check comprehension of what’s been presented, more imaginative ways to use the whiteboard to summarise it, more engaging activities to practice it, and the use of technology to enhance it all, or do it online.  A good example of this is Adrian Underhill and Jim Scrivener’s “Demand High” project, which leaves unquestioned the well-established framework for ELT and concentrates on doing the same things better. In all this, those responsible for SLTE simply assume that current ELT practice efficiently facilitates language learning.  But does it? Does the present model of ELT actually deliver the goods, and is making small, incremental changes to it the best way to bring about improvements? To put it another way, is current ELT practice efficacious, and is current SLTE leading to significant improvement? Are teachers making the most effective use of their time? Are they maximising their students’ chances of reaching their goals?

As Bill VanPatten argues in his plenary at the BAAL 2018 conference, language teaching can only be effective if it comes from an understanding of how people learn languages. In 1967, Pit Corder was the first to suggest that the only way to make progress in language teaching is to start from knowledge about how people actually learn languages. Then, in 1972, Larry Selinker suggested that instruction on formal properties of language has a negligible impact (if any) on real development in the learner.  Next, in 1983, Mike Long raised the issue again of whether instruction on formal properties of language made a difference in acquisition.  Since these important publications, hundreds of empirical studies have been published on everything from the effects of instruction to the effects of error correction and feedback. This research in turn has resulted in meta-analyses and overviews that can be used to measure the impact of instruction on SLA. All the research indicates that the current, deeply entrenched approach to ELT, where most classroom time is dedicated to explicit instruction, vastly over-estimates the efficacy of such instruction.

So in order to answer the question “Is what we’re doing effective?”, we need to periodically re-visit questions about how people learn languages. Most teachers are aware that we learn our first language/s unconsciously and that explicit learning about the language plays a minor role, but they don’t know much about how people learn an L2. In particular, few teachers know that the consensus of opinion among SLA scholars is that implicit learning through using the target language for relevant, communicative  purposes is far more important than explicit instruction about the language. Here are just 4 examples from the literature:

1. Doughty, (2003) concludes her chapter on instructed SLA by saying:

In sum, the findings of a pervasive implicit mode of learning, and the limited role of explicit learning in improving performance in complex control tasks, point to a default mode for SLA that is fundamentally implicit, and to the need to avoid declarative knowledge when designing L2 pedagogical procedures.

2. Nick Ellis (2005) says:

the bulk of language acquisition is implicit learning from usage. Most knowledge is tacit knowledge; most learning is implicit; the vast majority of our cognitive processing is unconscious.

3. Whong, Gil and Marsden’s (2014) review of a wide body of studies in SLA concludes:

“Implicit learning is more basic and more important  than explicit learning, and superior.  Access to implicit knowledge is automatic and fast, and is what underlies listening comprehension, spontaneous  speech, and fluency. It is the result of deeper processing and is more durable as a result, and it obviates the need for explicit knowledge, freeing up attentional resources for a speaker to focus on message content”.

4. ZhaoHong, H. and Nassaji, H. (2018) review 35 years of instructed SLA research, and, citing the latest meta-analysis, they say:

On the relative effectiveness of explicit vs. implicit instruction, Kang et al. reported no significant difference in short-term effects but a significant difference in longer-term effects with implicit instruction outperforming explicit instruction.

Despite lots of other disagreements among themselves, the vast majority of SLA scholars agree on this crucial matter. The evidence from research into instructed SLA gives massive support to the claim that concentrating on activities which help implicit knowledge (by developing the learners’ ability to make meaning in the L2, through exposure to comprehensible input, participation in discourse, and implicit or explicit feedback) leads to far greater gains in interlanguage development than concentrating on the presentation and practice of pre-selected bits and pieces of language.

One of the reasons why so many teachers are unaware of the crucial importance of implicit learning is that so few of those responsible for SLTE talk about it. Teacher trainers and educators don’t tell pre-service or practicing teachers  about the research findings on interlanguage development, or that language learning is not a matter of assimilating knowledge bit by bit; or that the characteristics of working memory constrain rote learning; or that by varying different factors in tasks we can significantly affect the outcomes. And there’s a great deal more we know about language learning that those responsible for SLTE don’t pass on to teachers, even though it has important implications for everything in ELT from syllabus design to the use of the whiteboard; from methodological principles to the use of IT, from materials design to assessment.

We know that in the not so distant past, generations of school children learnt foreign languages for 7 or 8 years, and the vast majority of them left school without the ability to maintain an elementary conversational exchange in the L2. Only to the extent that teachers have been informed about, and encouraged to critically evaluate, what we know about language learning, constantly experimenting with different ways of engaging their students in communicative activities, have things improved. To the extent that teachers continue to spend most of the time talking to their students about the language, those improvements have been minimal.  So why is all this knowledge not properly disseminated?

Most teacher trainers and educators, including Penny Ur (see below), say that, whatever its faults, coursebook-driven ELT is practical, and that alternatives such as TBLT are not. Ur actually goes as far as to say that there’s no research evidence to support the view that TBLT is a viable alternative to coursebooks. Such an assertion is contradicted by the evidence. In a recent statistical meta-analysis by Bryfonski & McKay (2017) of 52 evaluations of program-level implementations of TBLT in real classroom settings, “results revealed an overall positive and strong effect (d = 0.93) for TBLT implementation on a variety of learning outcomes” in a variety of settings, including parts of the Middle-East and East Asia, where many have flatly stated that TBLT could never work for “cultural” reasons, and “three-hours-a-week” primary and secondary foreign language settings, where the same opinion is widely voiced. So there are alternatives to the coursebook approach, but teacher trainers too often dismiss them out of hand, or simply ignore them.

How many  SLTE courses today include a sizeable component devoted to the subject of language learning, where different theories are properly discussed so as to reveal the methodological principles that inform teaching practice?  Or, more bluntly: how many such courses give serious attention to examining the complex nature of language learning, which is likely to lead teachers to seriously question the efficacy of basing teaching on the presentation and practice of a succession of bits of language? Current SLTE doesn’t encourage teachers to take a critical view of what they’re doing, or to base their teaching on what we know about how people learn an L2. Too many teacher trainers and educators base their approach to ELT on personal experience, and on the prevalent “received wisdom” about what and how to teach. For thirty years now, ELT orthodoxy has required teachers to use a coursebook to guide students through a “General English” course which implements a grammar-based, synthetic syllabus through a PPP methodology. During these courses, a great deal of time is taken up by the teacher talking about the language, and much of the rest of the time is devoted to activities which are supposed to develop “the 4 skills”, often in isolation. There is good reason to think that this is a hopelessly inefficient way to teach English as an L2, and yet, it goes virtually unchallenged.

Complacency

The published work of most of the influential teacher educators demonstrates a poor grasp of what’s involved in language learning, and little appetite to discuss it. Penny Ur is a good example. In her books on how to teach English as an L2, Ur spends very little time discussing the question of how people learn an L2, or encouraging teachers to critically evaluate the theoretical assumptions which underpin her practical teaching tips. The latest edition of Ur’s widely recommended A Course in Language Teaching includes a new sub-section where precisely half a page is devoted to theories of SLA. For the rest of the 300 pages, Ur expects readers to take her word for it when she says, as if she knew, that the findings of applied linguistics research have very limited relevance to teachers’ jobs. Nowhere in any of her books, articles or presentations does Ur attempt to seriously describe and evaluate evidence and arguments from academics whose work challenges her approach, and nowhere does she encourage teachers to do so. How can we expect teachers to be well-informed, critically acute professionals in the world of education if their training is restricted to instruction in classroom skills, and their on-going professional development gives them no opportunities to consider theories of language, theories of language learning, and theories of teaching and education? Teaching English as an L2 is more art than science; there’s no “best way”, no “magic bullet”, no “one size fits all”. But while there’s still so much more to discover, we now know enough about the psychological process of language learning to know that some types of teaching are very unlikely to help, and that other types are more likely to do so. Teacher educators have a duty to know about this stuff and to discuss it with thier trainees.

Scholarly Criticism? Where?  

Reading the published work of leading teacher educators in ELT is a depressing affair; few texts used for the purpose of teacher education in school or adult education demonstrate such poor scholarship as that found in Harmer’s The Practice of Language Teaching, Ur’s A Course in Language Teaching, or Dellar and Walkley’s Teaching Lexically, for example. Why are these books so widely recommended? Where is the critical evaluation of them? Why does nobody complain about the poor argumentation and the lack of attention to research findings which affect ELT? Alas, these books typify the general “practical” nature of SLTE, and their reluctance to engage in any kind of critical reflection on theory and practice. Go through the recommended reading for most SLTE courses and you’ll find few texts informed by scholarly criticism. Look at the content of SLTE courses and you’ll be hard pushed to find a course which includes a component devoted to a critical evaluation of research findings on language learning and ELT classroom practice.

There is a general “craft” culture in ELT which rather frowns on scholarship and seeks to promote the view that teachers have little to learn from academics. Those who deliver SLTE are, in my opinion, partly responsible for this culture. While it’s  unreasonable to expect all teachers to be well informed about research findings regarding language learning, syllabus design, assessment, and so on, it is surely entirely reasonable to expect teacher trainers and educators to be so. I suggest that teacher educators have a duty to lead discussions, informed by relevant scholarly texts, which question common sense assumptions about the English language, how people learn languages, how languages are taught, and the aims of education. Furthermore, they should do far more to encourage their trainees to constantly challenge received opinion and orthodox ELT practices. This surely, is the best way to help teachers enjoy their jobs, be more effective, and identify the weaknesses of current ELT practice.

My intention in this blog is to point out the weaknesses I see in the works of some influential ELT teacher trainers and educators, and invite them to respond. They may, of course, respond anywhere they like, in any way they like, but the easier it is for all of us to read what they say and join in the conversation, the better. I hope this will raise awareness of the huge problem currently facing ELT: it is in the hands of those who have more interest in the commercialisation and commodification of education than in improving the real efficacy of ELT. Teacher trainers and educators do little to halt this slide, or to defend the core principles of liberal education which Long so succinctly discusses in Chapter 4 of his book SLA and Task-Based Language Teaching.

The Questions

I invite teacher trainers and educators to answer the following questions:

1 What is your view of the English language? How do you transmit this view to teachers?

2 How do you think people learn an L2? How do you explain language learning to teachers?

3 What types of syllabus do you discuss with teachers? Which type do you recommend to them?

4 What materials do you recommend?

5 What methodological principles do you discuss with teachers? Which do you recommend to them?

References

Bryfonski, L., & McKay, T. H. (2017). TBLT implementation and evaluation: A meta-analysis. Language Teaching Research.

Dellar, H. and Walkley, A. (2016) Teaching Lexically. Delata.

Doughty, C. (2003) Instructed SLA. In Doughty, C. & Long, M. Handbook of SLA, pp 256 – 310. New York, Blackwell.

Long, M. (2015) Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Oxford, Wiley.

Ur, P. A Course in Language Teaching. Cambridge, CUP.

Whong, M., Gil, K.H. and Marsden, H., (2014). Beyond paradigm: The ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of classroom research. Second Language Research, 30(4), pp.551-568.

ZhaoHong, H. and Nassaji, H. (2018) Introduction: A snapshot of thirty-five years of instructed second language acquisition. Language Teaching Research, in press.

Is Dogme “really bloody difficult”?

I’ve just come across a video by Dmitriy Fedorov called Teaching Unplugged: Scott Thornbury versus Hugh Dellar where we see both Thornbury and Dellar talking about Dogme. Federov ends by siding with Dellar’s view, which is that teaching unplugged is “a huge ask” and “really bloody difficult”. The Dellar clip used in Fedorov’s video is from a 2017 presentation: Teaching House Presents – Hugh Dellar on Speaking, during which he offers a short rant against Dogme as evidence to support his view that speaking activities need careful preparation, including anticipating what students are likely to say, so as to avoid being caught “on the spot”, unable to offer the required pedagogic support. I’ll argue that Dellar’s “evidence” puts the limitations of his own view of ELT on show, and unfairly dismisses Dogme.

Here’s the clip. To start, click on the arrow, and to stop, click anywhere inside the video frame.

Here’s a transcript:

In Dogme teaching you’re kind of working from what the students say.

Seems a lovely idea, but it’s really bloody difficult to do because what you need to be doing is

  1. getting the students speaking
  2. listening to them all as they’re speaking and wandering around cajoling those who aren’t speaking
  3. noticing gaps in their language
  4. thinking about how to say those things better in a more sophisticated way
  5. getting that language on the board while they’re still talking
  6. thinking about what you’re going to gap on the board, what questions you’re going to ask about it, how you’re going to get the students to use some of that language

And you’re going to have to do all of that on the spot. It’s a huge ask and it’s one of the reasons why Dogme doesn’t exist outside of Scott Thornbury’s head.   

Let’s start at the end. Dellar’s jokey remark that Dogme doesn’t exist outside Scott Thornbury’s head was made five years ago, by which time Dogme was already famous. Today, a Google search on “Dogme and language teaching” gives approx. 327.000 results in half a second. Thousands of articles, blog posts, podcasts, and discussion groups attest to the growing popularity of Dogme among language teachers around the world. Among the first fifty results of the Google search I did, I found these:

  • Nguyen & Bui Phu’s (2020) article “The Dogme Approach: A Radical Perspective in Second Language Teaching in the Post-Methods Era”, which gives an interesting discussion of Dogme,
  • Coşkun’s (2017) article “Dogme: What do teachers and students think?”, which presents the findings of a study carried out at a Turkish school exploring the reactions of EFL teachers and their students to three experimental Dogme ELT lessons prepared for the study. Coşkun’s study includes detailed accounts of the lessons, and it serves to highlight the poverty of Dellar’s description of Dogme as “kind of working from what the students say”.

It’s important to note that, in a 2020 interview, Thornbury said he thought it had been a mistake to make conversation part of the  three pillars of Dogme. “What really should be said, is that Dogme is driven not by conversations, but by texts… texts meaning both written and spoken”. Meddings and Thornbury have made clear in a number of publications and interviews that the Dogme approach does not, pace Dellar, involve teachers strolling unprepared into class and asking students what they fancy talking about. It involves planning and extensive use of a wide variety of oral/ written / multimodal texts, some created by the students and some provided by the school. It also includes a lot of attention to different kinds of feedback, including attention to vocab., lexical chunks, pronunciation and grammar.

Dellar’s dismissal of Dogme as too bloody difficult stems from viewing it through the distorting lens of his own approach to teaching. He thinks that if teachers don’t have a coursebook to lean on, a coursebook that organises speaking activities around pre-selected bits of the language, provides lead-ins and warm-ups and post-speaking follow-up and consolidation work, then they’ll have to do all this stuff “on the spot” – which is, he thinks, “a huge ask”. In their book “Teaching Lexically”, Dellar & Walkley recommend working with a coursebook – one of the Outcomes series, for example – which provides a syllabus made up of activities designed to teach pre-selected bits of language (“items” as they call them) in a pre-determined sequence. The teacher uses the coursebook to lead students through multiple activities in each lesson, few of them lasting for more than 20 minutes and even fewer giving students opportunities to talk to each other at any length. The English language is presented to learners, bit-by-bit. via various types of grammar and vocab. summary boxes, plus carefully-designed oral and written texts. Activities include studying these language summaries, comprehension checks, fill-the-gap, multiple choice and matching exercises, pattern drills, and carefully-monitored speaking activities. The special thing about Dellar & Walkley’s coursebooks is that they pay particular attention to lexis, collocations and lexical chunks, and the special thing about Dellar is that he’s particularly enthusiastic about explicitly teaching as many lexical chunks as possible. The upshot of this approach is that the majority of classroom time is devoted to explicit teaching, i.e., to the teacher telling the students about the target language.

Dellar treats education as the transmission of information, a traditional view which is challenged by the principles of learner-centred teaching, as argued by educators such as Paul Friere, and supported in the ELT field by Thornbury, Meddings and other progressive educators. Compare this transmission of information view of education (the “banking” view as Friere called it) to the Dogme approach, where education involves learning by doing. Dynamic interaction among the teacher and the students and the negotiation of meaning are key aspects of language teaching. Students often chose for themselves the topics that they deal with and they contribute and create their own texts; most of classroom time is given over to tasks which involve using the language communicatively and spontaneously; the teacher reacts to linguistic problems as they arise rather than introducing, explaining and practicing pre-selected bits of the language.   

Dogme teachers reject the view that each lesson should specify in advance what items of the language will be taught, and they reject the view that some explanation of the new items is a necessary first step. Instead, they use a task -> feedback sequence, where working through multi-phased communicative tasks involves pair and group work which takes up at least half of classroom time. The unplanned language that emerges during the interaction among students and teachers as they work through tasks includes errors and communication breakdowns. Teachers use recasts and other types of punctual intervention to help students express themselves, and they subsequently provide more lengthy, explicit information about the lexis and the pronunciation and grammar issues which arose during the task peformance in the feedback session.

An example of a Dogme lesson is given in Meddings & Thornbury (2009, p. 41)

Slices of life

  1. Teacher draws a pie chart on the board and splits it in three: like, don’t like, don’t mind.
  2. Students ask teacher about their likes / dislikes. Teacher replies and students put things into the three categories depending on the response.
  3. Students then work in pairs repeating the same activity with each other, while the teacher moves around from one pair to the next, helping students with their language.
  4. The whole class comes together and different students’ likes and dislikes are compared.
  5. Teacher gives language feedback.

Also, see Coskun’s (2017) description of the 3 lessons involved in her study (the article is free to download).  

If we look again at the list of all the things that Dellar thinks a teacher “needs to be doing” when “working from what the students say”, it clearly reflects his belief in the importance of explicit instruction; it indicates that he’s thinking about the sort of speaking activities you find in coursebooks like Outcomes; and it suggests that he has little grasp of what a Dogme approach entails. Why should it be so difficult to deal with students speaking? When the class is together – in Part 2 of the Slices of life task above, for example – students speak one at a time, and the teacher can deal quickly with language problems as they arise, through prompts and recasts, putting new vocabulary and short grammar notes on the board. During pair or group work – Parts 3 & 4 of the example – the teacher moves from group to group, listening in, giving help with vocabulary and pronunciation, and making some quick comments on errors – through recasts, for example. The teacher takes notes of useful vocabulary and of pronunciation and grammar issues and these can be written on the board while the students finish up their discussion by going back over the main points. When the whole class comes back together to report on how they did the task and discuss their different likes and dislikes – Part 5 – the teacher reacts to what they say as in Part 2. In the final part of the lesson, the teacher goes through the points that have been highlighted during the session and makes a few final remarks.

There is a fast-growing collection of literature contradicting Dellar’s insinuation that a Dogme approach makes unreasonable demands on teachers. The evidence shows that increasing numbers of teachers find the Dogme approach not just more stimulating and enjoyable than using a coursebook, but also less complicated and less stressful.  When their students are engaged in a communicative task, Dogme teachers don’t report getting stressed out trying to think of “better”, “more sophisticated” ways of expressing what the students are saying, because they don’t share Dellar’s dedication to explicit teaching. While students work together in groups talking about a problem or topic they’ve been asked to discuss, Dogme teachers don’t wander around the classroom trying to think of the most appropriate language to fill the gaps they’ve noticed, or what gapped sentences they should write on the board, or what questions they should ask, or how they’re going to get the students to use the language they come up with. In other words, while the students are doing a task, Dogme teachers are not doing all the things that Dellar thinks they need to be doing.

The communicative tasks which make up a Dogme lesson don’t have the same aim as the speaking activities found in coursebooks. While the speaking activities in coursebooks are attempts to automate previously taught declarative knowledge, the communicative tasks that provide the backbone of Dogme teaching aim to give rise to unpredictable, spontaneous, emergent language which pushes the students’ developing interlanguage. Using current language rescources to carry out these tasks is how most of the learning happens; it’s the key to interlanguage development. It’s learning by doing – learning how to use the language by using texts and participating in authentic communicative exchanges, not by being told about it. This implicit learning leads directly to the procedural knowledge needed for listening comprehension, spontaneous speech, and fluency. So while Dellar’s question “How am I going to get the students to use this language?” is an important one for teachers using coursebooks, it’s a redundant question for Dogme teachers.

Still, we know that certain types of teacher intervention can speed up the rate of interlanguage development, and that it’s not enough to just get students talking about things in class. To do Dogme well, teachers need their bosses’ support: it’s not the teacher’s job to design and provide the curriculum. So they need access to a materials bank which includes a variety of texts to provide rich input, and a variety of tasks suitable to the varying needs and current levels of proficiency of the students. They also need experience in scaffolding tasks and giving feedback, and that calls for some expert training, on-going PD, including collaboration among colleagues, and lots of practice. But no teacher should be disuaded from putting down the coursebook and trying Dogme just because Dellar thinks it’s all “a huge ask” and too bloody difficult.  

References        

Coşkun, A. (2017). Dogme: What do teachers and students think? International Journal of Research Studies in Language Learning, 6(2), 33-44. http://doi.org/10.5861/ijrsll.20.

Dellar, H. & Walkley, A. (2016) Teaching Lexically. Delta.

Meddings, L, & Thornbury, S. (2009). Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Delta.

Nguyen, N.Q., & Bui Phu, H. (2020). The Dogme Approach: A Radical Perspective in Second Language Teaching in the Post-Methods Era. Journal of Language and Education, 6(3), 173-184. https://doi.org/10.17323/jle.2020.10563

Thornbury, S. (2020) Interview -go to the Wikipedia page on Dogme and click on Fottnote 8.

English Language Teaching: Now and How it Could Be

I’m very grateful to Paul Walsh who recently interviewed me about the book. Our publisher has asked me to plug it, so here’s a quick summary.

The most important “rationale” for the book is our belief that to teach languages well, you need to know how people learn them. Not only does current ELT practice largely ignore robust findings from 60 years of SLA research, it relies on systematic and deliberate misreprepresentation of these findings, in order to defend the inefficacious teaching practices required by the use of General English coursebooks.

So Section One of the book consists of six chapters which offer an up-to-date, accessible discussion of recent developments in knowledge about second and foreign language learning.

  • We describe Interlanguage development and the pathways that learners follow, and offer an explanation for such trajectories.
  • We then discuss questions relating to the rate of L2 development, the vexed issue of ultimate attainment, and the latest research findings on the long term aeffects of various types of insruction.
  • In Chapter 5, we offer an overview of the cognitive processes and products involved in SLA, paying particular attention to the roles of implicit and explicit learning and knowledge.
  • Finally, in Chapter 6, we look at the implications of research findings in SLA for instruction. Most importantly, we stress the need to prioritize incidental and implicit learning through the use of an analytic, rather than a synthetic syllabus, thus challenging the twin foundations of explcit teaching and synthetic syllabuses on which coursebook-driven ELT rest. 

Section 2 takes a detailed look at how adults are taught EFL and ESL and at how we got to the lamentable situation we find ourselves in today. Beginning in the early 1960s with  Situational Language Teaching, we trace the development of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) and describe how the bright sparks of CLT were effectively snuffed out by the emergence of the modern General English coursebook. A critique of the domination of coursebook-based ELT is then offered, which leads to Chapter 8: “How English could be taught much better: TBLT”. Chapter 9 examines immersion approaches to ELT, particulalry “Content and Language Integrated Language Learning” and “English as the Medium of Instruction”. Three “pre-CLIL” empirical studies and three “post-CLIL” empirical studies are given detailed attention, leading to a discussion of three important new research questions.

Chapter 10 deals with how teachers are trained and evaluated today, and how it could be done better. This is a particularly important area, in our opinion, bringing together many of the criticisms I’ve made in this blog of the way in which Second Language Teacher Education (SLTE) is organised and carried out.

Section 3 is dedicated to the way that English language learning is evaluated. A historical overview of how language testing has changed leads into a discussion of “The dark side of language testing”, where the Cambridge Assessment Group, the IELTS tests, the English Testing Service and the washback effects of high stakes English proficiency tests are examined and critiqued. The section ends with suggestions on how assessment could be done much better.

Finally, Section 4 deals with political and socioeconomic issues. Here’s a bit from Part 2 of my interview with Paul Walsh .

The ELT industry has an annual turnover of close to US $200 billion. Apart from the huge profits made by publishers, examination boards, teacher training outfits and public and private educational institutions, there is the enormous “soft power” exerted by nation states through language policies.

To paraphrase Chapter 12 of the book, most language teaching involves the language of powerful nations being taught to speakers of less powerful ones. English has been the principal language of the two most economically dominant nation states of the past 300 years – first the UK, and then for the past 150 years, the USA – and not coincidentally, of the most powerful armies required to procure and maintain those colonies and economic dominance.

As a result of this history of savage imperial conquest, there are now roughly 400 million native speakers of English in the world, and over four times that number, 1.75 billion, for whom English is a second or auxiliary language. Already huge, the second group is growing fast, with more than two billion speakers projected by 2025. The ability to determine which shall be a country’s national language, or in the case of many multilingual societies, its lingua franca, is a vital source of power for nation states and for elites within them.

This is the single biggest reason why ELT is so important. When one country invades or annexes another, it is common for command of a particular, standardized form of the invader’s language to be required, officially or unofficially, of any members of the subjugated population seeking access to political power, employment, and key social services, especially education, or even for immigrant visas or citizenship. The newly imposed standardized form of the language sometimes not only displaces indigenous languages, but drives them, and often their speakers, close to extinction, as happened, for example, with Hawaiian, and many native-American and Australian aboriginal languages.

The book concludes with Chapter 13: “Signs of struggle: Towards an alternative organization of ELT”. We discuss:

Despite Mike Long’s clout, it was difficult to find a publisher for this book. We’re grateful to Cambridge Scholars for taking it on, and I hope it will conribute to the fight for a better future for ELT. The fight is a practical one. It involves organisation which begins at the local level and slowly builds an international network uniting progressive workers in the ELT industry who share a common political viewpoint.

Here in Catalonia, I look forward to the next meeting of the SLB Cooperative on July 1st., where I’ll give a 10 minute presentation of the book and join in the always convivial, sparky, conversations that ensue. See the SLB twitter feeds for more information and the chance to win a copy of the book.     

A Summary

This blog is mostly about the failure of teacher educators (TEs) in ELT to do their job well.

I here summarise three findings from psycholinguistic SLA research which have implications for ELT, and then review how some of today’s leading teacher educators have failed to deal with these findings.

Part 1: Implications for ELT of SLA research

1. Interlanguages

By the mid-1980s, research had made it clear that learning an L2 is a process whereby learners slowly develop their own autonomous mental grammar with its own internal organising principles. Today, after hundreds more studies, it is well established that acquisition of grammatical structures, and also of pronunciation features and many lexical features such as pre-fabricated lexical chunks, collocation and colligation, is typically gradual, incremental and slow. Development of the L2 exhibits plateaus, occasional movement away from, not toward, the L2, and U-shaped or zigzag trajectories rather than smooth, linear contours. No matter what the order or manner in which target-language structures are presented to them by teachers, learners analyze the input and come up with their own interim grammars, the product broadly conforming to developmental sequences observed in naturalistic settings. The acquisition sequences displayed in IL development have been shown to be impervious to explicit instruction, and the conclusion is that students don’t learn when and how a teacher decrees that they should, but only when they are developmentally ready to do so.

2. The roles of explicit and implicit knowledge and learning

Two types of knowledge are said to be involved in SLA, and the main difference between them is conscious awareness. Explicit L2 knowledge is knowledge which learners are aware of and which they can retrieve consciously from memory. It’s knowledge about language. In contrast, implicit L2 knowledge is knowledge of how to use language and it’s unconscious – learners don’t know that they know it, and they usually can’t verbalize it. (Note: the terms Declarative and Procedural knowledge are often used. While there are subtle differences, here I take them to mean the same as explicit and implicit knowledge of the L2.)

In terms of cognitive processing, learners need to use attentional resources to retrieve explicit knowledge from memory, which makes using explicit knowledge effortful and slow: the time taken to access explicit knowledge is such that it doesn’t allow for quick and uninterrupted language production. In contrast, learners can access implicit knowledge quickly and unconsciously, allowing it to be used for unplanned language production.

Three Interface Hypotheses

While it’s now generally accepted that declarative and procedural knowledge are learned in different ways, stored separately and retrieved differently, disagreement among SLA scholars continues about this question: Can the explicit knowledge students get from classroom instruction be converted, through practice, into implicit knowledge? Those who hold the “No Interface” position answer “No”. Others take the “Weak Interface” position which argues that there is a relationship between the two types of knowledge and that they work together during L2 production. Still others take the “Strong Interface” position, based on the assumption that explicit knowledge can and does become implicit, and that explicit explanation of the L2 should generally precede practice. In this view, procedural knowledge can be the result of declarative knowledge becoming automatic through practice.

The main theoretical support for the No Interface position is Krashen’s Monitor theory, which has few adherents these days, despite the reappraisal discussed in my previous post. The Strong Interface case gets its theoretical expression from Skill Acquisition Theory, which describes the process of declarative knowledge becoming proceduralised and is most notably championed by DeKeyser. This general learning theory clashes with evidence from L1 acquisition and with interlanguage findings discussed above. The Weak Interface position is adopted by most SLA scholars, including those who support the emergentist theory of SLA championed by Nick Ellis. Ellis agues that adult learners of English as an L2 are affected by their L1 in such a way that they don’t implicitly learn certain features of the L2 which clash with their L1 (see the section on maturational restraints below). Consequently, in this view, explicit instruction of a certain sort can draw attention to these features and thereby “re-set the dial”, allowing for the usual implicit learning of further instances of these features to re-enforce procedural knowledge. 

 Whatever their differences, there is today a consensus among scholars that implicit learning is the “default” mechanism of SLA. Wong, Gil & Marsden (2014) conclude that implicit knowledge is in fact ‘better’ than explicit knowledge; it is automatic, fast – the basic components of fluency – and more lasting because it’s the result of the deeper entrenchment which comes from repeated activation. Doughty (2003) concludes:In sum, the findings of a pervasive implicit mode of learning, and the limited role of explicit learning …, point to a default mode for SLA that is fundamentally implicit, and to the need to avoid declarative knowledge when designing L2 pedagogical procedures.  

Neither Wong et.al., nor Doughty challenge the important role that explicit knowledge plays in SLA. However, what they firmly reject, as do most of their colleagues, is the view that declarative knowledge is a necessary first step in the SLA process. 

3. Maturational constraints on adult SLA

The limited ability of adults to learn a second language implicitly as children do brings us to “Critical Period” research. Long (2007) in an extensive review of the literature, concludes that there are indeed critical periods for SLA, or “sensitive periods”, as they’re now called. For most L2 learners, the sensitive period for native-like phonology closes between age 4 to 6; for the lexicon (particularly lexical chunks, collocation and colligation) between 6 and 10; and for morphology and syntax by the mid-teens. While this remains a controversial area, there’s general consensus that adults are partially “disabled” language learners who can’t learn in the same way children do. And that’s where explicit learning comes in. As suggested above, the right kind of explicit teaching can help adult students learn bits of the language that they are unlikely to learn implicitly. Long calls these bits “fragile” features of the L2 – features that are of low perceptual saliency (because they’re infrequent / irregular / semantically empty / communicatively redundant / involving complex form-meaning mappings), and he says these are likely to be late, or never, learned without explicit learning.

Implications

From all this research, a picture of ELT emerges where teachers help students to develop their interlanguages by giving them scaffolded opportunities to use the L2 in communicative activities where the focus is on meaning. The Dogme approach does this, so do some types of immersion and CLIL courses, and so do strong versions of Task-based Language Teaching. During the performance of tasks, modified, enhanced, multi-modal written and spoken texts give the rich input required, and teachers give students help with aspects of the language that they’re having problems with by brief switches to what Long calls “focus on form” – reactive attention to formal aspects of the L2 that the students indicate, through their production, are impeding their progress. In most forms of TBLT, tasks are divided into 3-stages: pre-task -> task -> post task, and as a general rule, we can say that the more explicit instruction is given priority, the weaker the TBLT version is.

From the research discussed, it follows that a relatively inefficacious way of organising ELT courses is to use a General English coursebook. Here, the English language is broken down into constituent parts or “items” which are then contextualized, explained, and practiced sequentially, following the scale laid down in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), which is based not on empirical research into interlanguage development, but rather on teachers’ intuitive ideas of an easy-to-difficult progression in L2 learning. The teacher’s main concern is with explaining and practicing bits of grammar, pronunciation and lexis by reading and listening to short texts, studying boxes which summarise grammar points, doing follow-up exercises, talking about bits of the language, giving summaries, engaging in IRE (Initiation-Response-Feedback) exchanges with students, and then monitoring students’ activities which are supposed to practice what has been taught. Typically, in such courses, teachers talk for 70%+ of the time, and students’ speaking turns last for less than a minute.

For example, if we look at Unit 2 from Outcomes Intermediate, we see this:

  1. Vocab. (feelings) →
  2. Grammar (be, feel, look, seem, sound + adj.) →
  3. Listening (How do they feel?) →
  4. Developing Conversations (Response expressions) →
  5. Speaking (Talking about problems) →
  6. Pronunciation (Rising &falling stress) →
  7. Conversation Practice (Good / bad news) →
  8. Speaking (Physical greetings) →
  9. Reading (The man who hugged) →
  10. Vocabulary (Adj. Collocations) →
  11. Grammar (ing and ed adjs.) →
  12. Speaking (based on reading text) →
  13. Grammar (Present tenses) →
  14. Listening (Shopping) →
  15. Grammar (Present cont.) →
  16. Developing conversations (Excuses) →
  17. Speaking (Ideas of heaven and hell).

(Note that “Developing Conversations” are not oral activities.) Given that teachers must cover this unit in approx.10 hours, and given the amount of work students are expected to do studying the language, how much opportunity will students get to use the language for themselves in spontaneous communicative exchanges which push their interlanguage development? Like most General English coursebooks, Outcomes Intermediate focuses on explicit teaching, based on the false assumption that students will learn what they’re taught in this way. The most usual defense of coursebooks (apart from their convenience) is that they are “adapted” in a myriad of ingenious ways by teachers. Mishan (2021) cites Bolster’s (2014, 2015) study of teachers using an English for academic purposes coursebook, which showed that there was a spread of “25% to 100% of changes made to the published material, with an average percentage of adaptation of 64.5’ (p. 20).  If only 35%  of the coursebook’s content are used, one wonders just how convenient they are! Teachers are to be congratulated for the way they ameliorate the deficiencies of coursebooks, but it remains the case that they are forced to follow the synthetic syllabus laid down in the coursebook they use, which means they are making impossible demands of students and spending far too much time on explicit teaching.

In brief, research suggests that L2 learning is mostly a process of the unconscious development of interlanguages which is best helped by giving students opportunities to use the language in such a way that they work out how the L2 works for themselves. Teachers can best help this development by following a syllabus which supplies rich input, interesting, relevant tasks, and which counts on timely feedback and support from the teacher. The implication is that, when it comes to ELT, using an analytical syllabus will be more efficacious than using the synthetic syllabuses implemented in General English coursebooks. (For more on synthetic versus analytic syllabus types, see the 2 posts ‘Synthetic and Analytic Syllabuses 1′   and ‘Synthetic and Analytic Syllabuses Part 2′   Se also the post ‘Why Teach Grammar’.

Compare these two views. Caroll (1966: 96) articulated the “old” view:

Once the student has a proper degree of cognitive control over the structure of a language, facility will develop automatically with the use of the language in meaningful situations.

Hatch (1978: 404) was one of the first scholars to articulate the current view:

Language learning evolves out of learning how to carry on conversations. One learns how to do conversation, one learns how to interact verbally, and out of this interaction syntactic structures are developed.

Hatch’s work in SLA research was influential in promoting the communicative language teaching approach, an exciting new flame which burned brightly for a few years in the 1980s, only to be snuffed out by the arrival of modern coursebooks in the early 1990s. 

Part 2: The Contribution of Teacher Educators  

Teacher educators teach the teachers: they’re the purveyors of today’s lamentable Second Language Teacher Education (SLTE) programmes. They give “pre-service courses” for those wanting to start a teaching career, and “in-service courses” for those already teaching. Given the British Council’s (2015) conservative estimate of 12 million teachers working in ELT, training them is obviously a multi-billion dollar industry. The most popular pre-service courses in many parts of the world are CELTA and Trinity College’s Cert TESOL. Neither of these courses gives any serious attention to how people learn an L2 – the SLA research findings outlined above are largely ignored. Both courses concentrate on the practical job of preparing teachers, as best they can in the limited time provided, to implement the synthetic syllabuses used in the vast majority of schools and institutions offering courses of English as an L2. While the teacher educators who run these courses are not obliged to recommend using a coursebook, in practice, most of them do, and they use coursebooks for the teaching practice modules.  In brief, both courses give almost no attention to how people learn an L2. And both are based on the unquestioned, but demonstrably false assumption that explicit teaching of the formal elements of the L2 is the key to efficacious teaching.  

In the USA, China and other countries, teachers need to have a university degree, and then do a post graduate pre-service course. Some do a Masters in TEFL or TESOL, while others do a post-graduate Certificate or Diploma. In these programmes, more attention is paid to second language learning, but there is enormous variety among the programmes, making it difficult to generalise. Certainly in the USA, the pre-service courses seem more likely to have a positive affect on teaching practice than CELTA or the Cert TSOL. In China and other countries training non-native speaker (NNS) teachers, it seems that once they start their jobs, teachers often ignore what they were told about the importance of implicit learning, and the value of a communicative language teaching approach. Two explantions are suggested. First, there is a strong tendency among teachers to teach the way that they themselves were taught. Second, most NNS teachers admit to having difficulties expressing themselves accurately and fluently in English. Ironically, their difficulties mainly spring from the way they were taught, but still, the combination of bias and insecurity push teachers to adopt a “teacher tells the class about the language” approach where most of the time is dedicated to using a coursebook to instill declarative knowledge about English grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary.

As to in-service training, often referred to as Continuous Professional Development (CPD), there are literally thousands of private commercial concerns offering courses in every aspect of ELT, making this another multi-billion dollar part of the ELT industry.

Who are the teacher educators (TEs)? Right at the top, we have figures such as David Nunan and Jack Richards, both successful academics who have, over the past 40+ years, given hundreds of university courses and hundreds of plenaries at international conferences. They have worked as consultants for national governments, written more than 20 books each covering various aspects of learning and teaching an L2, and they have also both written more than a dozen series of General English coursebooks, some aimed specifically at the huge, expanding Chinese market. Both are multi-millionaires. Richards was always conservative, while Nunan only slowly grew to be so. In the 1980s at least, Nunan was an articulate, innovative scholar, as can be appreciated in some of articles in his Learner-Centered English Language Education collection. Nunan also supervised the PhD dissertations of many who went on to make innovative advances to theories of SLA and to ELT practices. I attended courses given by Nunan which pushed me towards a TBLT approach and I was impressed with his scholarship and his unfailing willingness to shot the breeze with his students.

 Whatever their academic records, both Richards and Nunan made significant contributions to the new generation of coursebooks in the late 1990s, when publishers responded to new conditions with a  multi-million-pound revamp that ushered in the ‘global coursebook’ – a new, glossier, multi-component package aimed at the global market, but often carefully tweaked for more local teaching contexts. This “advance” effectively put an end to any version of CLT worth the name. To my knowledge, in the last 20 years neither Richards nor Nunan has given any courses on, or made any serious attempts to promote an interest in, the mounting evidence from SLA which I outlined above. As a result, I think they are partly responsible for the reactionary, commercially-driven character of current SLTE.

 The majority of today’s most successful TEs are, like Richards and Nunan, coursebook writers. Alas, they have to content themselves with six figure incomes – the money coming from their coursebook series is no longer enough to make them millionaires. This is thanks to publishers’ new business plans, where an overseeing editor designs the coursebook series and its components, and then farms out the work to the lucky winners  who are chosen to do the real work for scraps. In exactly the same way as most employers in our neoliberal world treat their employees, the editor commissions “independent collaborators” to write various bits of the coursebooks following strict editorial guidelines for a set fee, and that’s all they see of the pie.  While Richards and Nunan, like Mr. and Mrs. Sears of Headway fame, have already banked millions of dollars from sales of their coursebooks, and the royalties still roll in, more recent TE coursebook writers are less fortunate. They make a small fraction of the money that used to be made from a best-selling coursebook series, and they now have to fight in a much more competitive market than their predecessors when trying to boost their incomes by writing supplementary materials and “How to Teach” books. Like their predecessors, they get further monies from fees paid to them for a wide range of CPD offerings, ranging from conference plenaries to giving presentations, workshops and short courses on “How to improve your teaching” all over the planet, sold to the highest bidder.

Two examples of today’s TEs are Jeremy Harmer and Hugh Dellar. Harmer has published more than 30 books on ELT, and made a few rather unsuccesful attempts to get into the coursebooks market. He is often referred to as “El Maestro”. His seminal work, The Practice of English Language Teaching is now in its 5th edition, has sold millions, and is required reading for teachers doing not just CELTA but also DELTA courses. The book is also listed in the bibliographies of most Masters courses in TESOL / TEFL offered by universities around the world. The book is 550 pages long, yet just one small chapter is devoted to language learning – another chapter devoted to classroom seating arrangements is longer! The chapter on language learning misrepresents the work of most of the leading scholars of SLA, including Krashen, Pienemann, Gass, Long and N. Ellis. Suffice it to say, in summary, that Harmer has done very little to inform teachers about the matters discussed in Part 1 of this essay.

Dellar is the co-author of the Outcomes and Innovations series of coursebooks, and also of one of the books in the Roadmap series. His Teaching Lexically book, co-written with Walkley, offers by far the worst summary of how people learn an L2 that I’ve ever read. I’ve written a post that reviews the book, so let me just say here that the “explanation” of L2 learning it gives is ridiculous. It paves the way for an approach to ELT that is remarkable for its emphasis on teaching students about the language, No other teacher educator today insists as much as Dellar does on the importance of explicit learning.

Let’s look briefly at a few more prominent teacher educators

Gianfranco Conti

The “MARS-EARS” framework for L2 teaching attempts to justify an “Explain-first-and-practice later” approach to teaching L2s. Conti has built himself into a brand. He spends enormous effort on promoting the brand and he tours the world promoting himself and his method. Conti and Smith are co-authors of of  a book on memory which badly misreprents research findings and blatantly promotes the “MARS-EARS” framework. See my post on the book Memory and Teaching and my post on Conti’s approach, Genius for a fuller discussion.

Jason Anderson

I’ve discussed Anderson’s work in a few posts – put “Anderson” in the Search box on the right. Common to all Anderson’s work is a defense of coursebook-driven ELT. Anderson’s work relies on cherry-picking SLA research findings and has little depth or critical acumen.

Rachel Roberts

Roberts is a quintessential example of a TE. She now concentrates on wellness training, but she has a history of teaching teachers that spans decades. She has never, in her long career – described by the British Council as “illustrious” – given the slightest importance to SLA research. Examine her work and search in vain for any serious attention to how people learn an L2.  

Tyson Seburn

Seburn was until recently the coordinator of the IATEFL Teacher Development Special Interest Group. In my opinion, he’s a good example of all that’s wrong with the way teacher educators see their jobs. Like Roberts, Seburn has never shown any interest in SLA research or in its implications for ELT. For Seburn, teacher development is primarily about identity, about “how I came to be who I am”, “how to be the best person I can be”, and all that stuff.

Scott Thornbury

Here’s the exception, the star who shines in the dull, lack-luster TA firmament. I’ve done a few posts criticising Thornbury’s work – his Natural Grammar, his ill-informed criticisms of Chomsky, his wild attempts to describe and promote emergentist theories – but he remains a splendid beacon, shining through the fog, demanding change. He knows his stuff (mostly!) about SLA, and he’s a brilliant speaker, the best performer on the big conference stage since the wonderful John Fanselow. Thornbury has never published a coursebook series, indeed, he’s a leading critic of them, the one who coined the term “Grammar McNuggets” which so acutely captures the way that coursebooks chop up, sanitise and process the life out of the English language.

Thornbury, along with his co-author Meddings, is the man behind Dogme, an approach to ELT that rejects the use of synthetic syllabuses and adopts an approach that gives full recognition to the research findings outlined in Pat 1 above. Thornbury gets it, he understands what research tells us about how people learn an L2, he recognizes that we learn by doing, and he strives to implement a radical alternative to ELT.  He sponsors the Heads Up project, he goes wherever he’s invited to talk to teachers about Dogme and he somehow makes few enemies among those who work so hard to maintain the status quo. He’s my hero, as he is for tens of thousands of forward-looking teachers.

The Three Neils

Neil McMillan is the founder of the SLB cooperative. There’s an important political dimension to his work – involvement in the local community, social change, teachers’ rights – but when it comes to teaching, he walks the talk about a strong version of TBLT. I’m proud to have worked with him on courses for teachers interested in TBLT, and I’m looking forward to further projects with him, where we further explore how ELT can respond to local needs.

Neil Anderson and Neil McCutcheon are the co-authors of Activities for Task-based Learning. They start from a well-considered appreciation of SLA findings. They show a sensitive appreciation for the contexts in which teachers have to work, and they propose a variety of practical ways in which teachers can move towards a new, better way of doing their jobs. They’re pragmatists, realists you could say, but there’s an undeniably progressive tone to their work, and I’m sure that we’ll hear more from them soon. They’re inspiring, they give me hope.

Conclusion

ELT is a huge, multi-billion dollar industry. It’s not surprising that commercial interests shape the way it’s done. But it’s inefficacious: most students of English as an L2 fail to achieve communicative competence. To be clear: most students of English as an L2 leave the courses they’ve done without the ability to use English well enough to easily cope with the demands they meet when they try to use English in the real world. They’ve been cheated. They’ve been led though a succession of courses where they’ve been taught about the language and denied sufficient opportunities to use the language in ways that help them develop communicative competence.

Leading teacher trainers have a vested interest in protecting the inefficacious model of coursebook-driven ELT – they write coursebooks, after all. The way towards a more efficacious model of ELT, depends on the dismantling of the current established paradigm for ELT which is based on the CEFR scale of language proficiency. Learning English as a second language has very little to do with the imagined progression from A1 to C2 enshrined in the CEFR, and thus, very little to do with the coursebook series which adopt the same daft idea of l2 learning.

ELT must change. It must recognize that learning English as an L2 is mostly done by using it, not by being told about it. Teacher trainers today, with a few exceptions, stand in the way of change.

References

Anderson, N. & McCutcheon, N. (2021) Activities For Task-Based Learning. Delta.

Carroll, J. B. (1966). ‘The contribution of psychological theory and educational research to the teaching of
foreign languages’ in A. Valdman (ed.). Trends in Language Teaching. McGraw-Hill, 93–106.

Doughty, C. J. 2003. ‘Instructed SLA: Constraints, compensation, and enhancement’ in C. J. Doughty,
and M. H. Long (eds.),The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Blackwell, 256–310.

Dellar, H. & Walkley, A. (2017). Teaching Lexically: Principles and practice. Delta.

Harmer, J. (2015) The Practice of English Language Teaching. McMillan.

Hatch, E. (ed.). (1978). Second Language Acquisition: A Book of Readings. Newbury House.

Long, M. (2007). Problems in SLA. Lawrence Erlbaum.

Meddings, L. and S. Thornbury. (2009). Teaching Unplugged. Delta.

Mishan, F. (2021). The Global ELT coursebook: A case of Cinderella’s slipper? Language Teaching, 1-16.  

Whong, M., Gil, K. H., & Marsden, H. (2014). Beyond paradigm: The ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of classroom research. Second Language Research, 30(4), 551-568.     

A Review of Part 3 of “After Whiteness”

Part 3 of After Whiteness by Gerald, Ramjattan & Stillar is now free to view on the Language Magazine website. It’s as bullshit-rich and content-poor as the first two parts; another mightily-righteous, mini-sermon which has the authors standing on the same flimsy pedestal (a rickety construction of parroted bits of Marxism, punitive moral dictums on racism and straw-man arguments) in order to preach to the choir. It’s about as edifying as a Chick tract. I’ll give a summary of the article and then comment.    

The article has 5 sections.

Introduction

Part 1 looked at pedagogical ways of challenging Whiteness. Part 2 “re-imagined” training and labor in English language teaching. Part 3 will look at ideas for “how the broader ELT industry could evolve” if “Whiteness” were “successfully decentered”.

Action Research as a Goal

A post-Whiteness ELT, we’re told, should be part of a post-Whiteness world in which ELT practitioners “strive for some micro- or meso-level changes in their contexts to combat Whiteness“. The only information offered about these new world “micro- or meso-level changes” is about pronunciation teaching, where in the post-Whiteness world, teachers would pay attention to “how their students’ racialization in society can shape external perceptions of their intelligibility and how these perceptions have material consequences”. One “material consequence” is alluded to:   

white “foreign-accented” job applicants are typically perceived as more intelligible/employable than their racialized counterparts, thereby suggesting that there are racial hierarchies when it comes to assessments of employability in relation to speech accent (Hosoda and Stone-Romero, 2010).  

To challenge these inequalities, “teachers need to use their pedagogy”.  For example,

teachers and students could engage in some sort of action research where they interrogate and challenge local employers’ aversion to hiring racialized “foreign-accented” applicants, which has the potential to substantively shift hiring policies in students’ communities.

“some sort of action research”? Really?

The Un-Canon of Lived Experience

This section suggests that “the canon” of ideas about English should be “removed, but not replaced”. This involves using “extensive student-generated input” to “dismantle linguistic and racialized hierarchies within the conceptualization of English”. Students can be asked to note how their neighbors and relatives use English and share the data with classmates as part of an “epistemological shift”, aimed at overcoming the idea of the “ownership of English”. Widdowson (1994) (sic) is cited to support the claim that standardized English is the property of White native speakers from the global North who shape the language as they see fit. Such a “White supremacist, capitalist notion of language” must be replaced by the view that English belongs to nobody: it is a community resource. This illuminating example is offered:

… when we see the word prepone, a word in so-called Indian English meaning to move an event ahead of schedule (Widdowson, 1994), it is important to remember that this is not a “made-up” word but rather a concise and useful antonym for postpone. If you were teaching students who needed to interact with Indian English users, why would you not want to teach such an innovative word?

That last sentence is the funniest example of a rhetorical question I’ve seen for quite some time!

Teaching the Perceiving Subjects

The section begins by redressing the deficit which results from “idealizing Whiteness and the ideologies that descend from it” (sic) through the imposition of standardized English. While teaching students different Englishes might help redress this deficit, the authors want to go much further. Why not, they ask, treat “minoritized varieties” as “the ideal”? They don’t explain what this radical proposal entails. What “minoritized varieties” would be included? How would these varieties form “the ideal”? What would it look like and sound like?

Moving quickly on, the authors ask the further question:

 “How might the White perceiving subject (Flores and Rosa, 2015) be taught to perceive more effectively?”

Again, they don’t explain what they’re talking about. What does the “White perceiving subject” refer to? Perhaps they assume that all readers are familiar with the Flores and Rosa (2015) article, or perhaps they’ve seen Flores’ helpful tweet:

The white listening subject is an ideological position that can be inhabited by any institutional actor regardless of their racial identity. It behooves all of us to be vigilant about how hegemonic modes of perception shape our interpretation of racialized language practices.

or perhaps they’ve read Rosa’s (2017) follow-up, where he explains that

the linguistic interpretations of white listening subjects are part of a broader, racialized semiotics of white perceiving subjects.

Anyway, let’s take it they mean that white subjects (whoever they are – noting that they’re not restricted to people with “white” features) should try to empathize with “racialized” people. Returning to the teaching of pronunciation, the authors suggest that teachers should be given time to practice listening to different Englishes so that they gain a certain level of experience with the population they might want to work with.  And this somehow demonstrates that until ELT practitioners are “freed from the monolingual cage they’re in”, so long as “raciolinguistic ideologies” are in place, the “racialized languagers” will always fail.

Conclusion

The authors admit that what they sketch out in their three articles is “something of a dream”, but they believe it can become reality “if we take the leap to a world that doesn’t yet exist”. Their ideas are born of love, not hatred. Their goal is to replace the “harmful, oppressive and, at heart, ineffective” practices which keep “racialized learners and languagers in their place below the dominant group”.

Discussion
What does this view of how the broader ELT industry could evolve if “Whiteness” were successfully “decentered” amount to?   

The first section on Action Research doesn’t make any sense. In a “post-Whiteness wold” where Whiteness has been swept away, surely there’s no longer any need for teachers to “strive for some micro- or meso-level changes in their contexts to combat Whiteness”, or to fight against job adverts that discriminate against NNSs. Apart from this incongruity, the only content in this section is the lame, undeveloped suggestion that teachers and students engage in “some sort of action research”, where the goal is to challenge employers’ prejudice against “foreign-accented” applicants.  

The “Un-Canon of Lived Experience” section proposes that the English language belongs to nobody: it’s a community resource. Apart from the bizarre example of promoting the use of the word “prepone”, this is little more than a motherhood statement until it’s properly developed. The authors assert that before we get to the hallowed post-Whiteness society, we must sweep away “Whiteness ideologies” which adopt a “White supremacist, capitalist notion of language”, and yet nowhere in their three-part series do they make any attempt to unpack the constructs of “ideology” or “capitalism” so as to explain what they mean when they say that language is a capitalist notion. Even less do they show any understanding of Marxism, or any other radical literature which makes coherent proposals for how capitalism can be overthrown and how that might lead to radical changes in education.

The “Teaching the Perceiving Subjects” section proposes that ELT should replace the teaching of standardized English with teaching English where “minoritized varieties” are used as “the ideal”. I’ve already suggested above that this is an empty proposal. Until the vague idea of making “minoritized varieties” form “the ideal” for English is properly outlined and incorporated into some minimum suggestions for new syllabuses, materials, pedagogic procedures and assessment tools, it’s no more than hand-waving rhetoric, typical of the lazy, faux academic posturing which pervades the “Against Whiteness” articles.

The re-education programme for “White perceiving subjects” doesn’t explain who the “subjects” are, and it doesn’t explain how they are to be re-educated; it sounds a bit scary to me, a bit too close to the views of Stalin, Mao and others determined to stamp out “wrong thinking”. Still, as usual, we’re not told what’s involved, except for the perfectly reasonable suggestion that teachers should be more aware of, and sympathetic to, different Englishes.

The 3-part series of articles Against Whiteness fails to present a coherent, evidence-supported argument. Students of instructed SLA will find absolutely nothing of interest here, unless they want to deconstruct the text so as to reveal the awful extent of its empty noise. Likewise, radical teachers looking for ways to challenge the commodification of education, fight racial discrimination, and move beyond the reactionary views of English and the offensive stereotyping which permeate ELT materials and practices, will find nothing of practical use here. They should look, instead, to the increasing number of radical ELT groups and blogs that offer much better-informed political analyses and far more helpful practical support. In stark contrast to Gerald, Ramjattan & Stillar, such groups and individuals not only produce clear, coherent and cohesive texts, they also DO things – practical things that make a difference and push change in the ELT industry. The SLB Cooperative; ELT Advocacy, Ireland; the Gorillas Workers Collective; the Hands Up Project; the Part & Parcel project; the Teachers as Workers group; the on-line blogs, social media engagement and published work of Steve Brown, Neil McMillan, Rose Bard, Jessica MacKay, Ljiljana Havran, Paul Walsh, Scott Thornbury, Cathy Doughty, David Block, Pau Bori, are just a few counter examples which highlight the feebleness of the dire, unedifying dross dished up in the After Whiteness articles.       

Re-visiting Krashen

The first 2021 issue of the Foreign Language Annals Journal has a special section devoted to a discussion of “Krashen forty years later”. The lead article by Lichten and Van Patten asks “Was Krashen right?” and concludes that yes, mostly he was.

Lichten and Van Patten look at 3 issues:

  • The Acquisition‐Learning Distinction,
  •  The Natural Order Hypothesis,
  • The Input Hypothesis.

And they argue that “these ideas persist today as the following constructs:

  • implicit versus explicit learning,
  • ordered development,
  • a central role for communicatively embedded input in all theories of second language acquisition”.

The following updates to Krashen’s work are offered:

1.  The Acquisition/learning distinction

The complex and abstract mental representation of language is mainly built up through implicit learning processes as learners attempt to comprehend messages directed to them in the language. Explicit learning plays a more minor role in the language acquisition process, contributing to metalinguistic knowledge rather than mental representation of language.

2. The Natural Order Hypothesis

This is replaced with the ‘Ordered Development Hypothesis’:

The evolution of the learner’s linguistic system occurs in ordered and predictable ways, and is largely impervious to outside influence such as instruction and explicit practice.

3 The Input Hypothesis

The principal data for the acquisition of language is found in the communicatively embedded comprehensible input that learners receive. Comprehension precedes production in the acquisition process.

Pedagogic Implications

Finally, the authors suggest 2 pedagogic implications:

1. Learners need exposure to communicatively embedded input in order for language to grow in their heads. …Leaners should be actively engaged in trying to comprehend language and interpret meaning from the outset.

2. The explicit teaching, learning, and testing of textbook grammar rules and grammatical forms should be minimized, as it does not lead directly or even indirectly to the development of mental representation that underlies language use. Instructors need to understand that the explicit learning of surface features and rules of language leads to explicit knowledge of the same, but that this explicit knowledge plays little to no role in language acquisition as normally defined.   

Discussion

Note the clear teaching implications, particularly this: the explicit learning of grammar rules leads to explicit knowledge which plays “little to no role” in language acquisition.

What reasons and evidence do the authors give to support their arguments? They draw on more than 50 years research into SLA by those who focus on the psychological process of language learning, of what goes on in the mind of a language learner. They demonstrate that we learn languages in a way that differs from the way we learn other subjects like geography or biology. The difference between declarative and procedural knowledge is fundamental to an understanding of language learning. The more we learn about the psychological process of language learning, the more we appreciate the distinction between learning about an L2,and learning how to use it for communicative purposes.

All the evidence of SLA research refutes the current approach to ELT which is based on the false assumption that learners need to have the L2 explained to them, bit by bit, before they can practice using it, bit by bit. All the evidence suggests that language is not a subject in the curriculum best treated as an object of study. Rather, learning an L2 is best done by engaging learners in using it, allowing learners to slowly work out for themselves, through implicit development of their interlanguages, how the L2 works, albeit with timely teacher interventions that can speed up the process.     

Translanguaging: A Summary  

Translanguaging is baloney. There’s almost nothing in all the dross published that you should pay attention to. It’s a passing fad, a blip, a mistake, a soon to be forgotten episode in the history of ELT and applied linguistics.

Translanguaging, as presented by Garcia, Flores, Rosa, Li Wei and others is an incoherent, political dogma, i.e., ‘a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true’. There’s no way you can challenge translanguaging: you either accept it or get branded as a racist, or a reactionary, or, what it really comes to, an unbeliever. When you read the works of its “top scholars”, you’re bombarded with jargon and obscurantist prose that disguises a disgraceful lack of command of the matters dealt with. These people demonstrate an abysmal lack of understanding of Marx, or Friere, or Foucault, for example, or of Halliday even. They demonstrate an ignorance of philosophy, of political thought, of the philosophy of science, and even of linguistics, for God’s sake. They’re imposters! They talk of colonialism, capitalism and neoliberalism as if the very use of the words is evidence enough that they know what the words mean. They nowhere – I repeat nowhere – give any coherent account of their political stance. I bet they don’t know Gramsci from granola.

Furthermore, they give few signs of any understanding of how people learn languages, or of how ELT is currently organised and structured. Perhaps worst of all, they show a general ignorance of what’s actually going on in ELT classrooms; they contribute little of practical use to progressive teaching practice; and they are mostly silent when it comes to support for grassroot actions by teachers to challenge their bosses. They’re theorists, seemingly unconnected to the “praxis” they claim to champion. What, one has a right to ask, has translanguaging ever done to promote real change in the lives of those who work in the ELT industry?   

And that’s the top echelons – that’s the established academics! Go down a few hundred steps in the pecking order and take a look at what the academic wanabees like Ramjattan, Stillar, Gerald and Vas Bauler are doing. They don’t publish much in academic journals, but they’re busy on Twitter and other social media channels. I invite you to go to Twitter and see what they have to say. They delight their thousands of followers with a nausiating flow of “us-versus-them, we’re-right-they’re-wrong” tweets, plus blatently self-promtional bits of junk about how their eagerly-awaited book is coming along, and polite requests for money to help them keep writing. This is where you’ll see translanguaging at its rawest: thousands of people, all in a bubble, all convinced of their righteousness, all “liking” the baloney churned out by their scribes – a motley crew of puffed-up imposters.  

On Flores (2020) From academic language to language architecture: Challenging raciolinguistic ideologies in research and practice

Flores (2020) uses the term ‘academic language’ 35 times in the course of his article, and yet never manages to explain what it refers to. He claims that scholars (e.g. Cummins, 2000 and Schleppegrell, 2004) see academic language as “a list of empirical linguistic practices that are dichotomous with non-academic language”. Nowhere does Flores clearly state what an “empirical linguistic practice” refers to, and nowhere does he delineate a list of these putative practices. Meanwhile, Flores attributes “less precise” definitions to educators. For them, academic language “includes content-specific vocabulary and complex sentence structures”, while non-academic language is “less specialized and less complex”. Thus, Flores offers no definition of the way he himself is using the term ‘academic language’.

Seemingly unperturbed by this failure to define the key term in his paper, Flores sails on, using the clumsy rudder of “framing” to guide him. Flores asserts that scholars and educators use a “dichotomous framing” of academic and home languages, such that

academic language warrants a complete differentiation from the rest of language that is framed as non-academic.

Flores proceeds to claim that academic language is not, in fact, a list of empirical linguistic practices (as if anyone had ever succinctly argued that it was), but rather “a raciolinguistic ideology that frames the home language practices of racialized communities as inherently deficient” and “typically reifies deficit perspectives of racialized students”.

Academic Language versus Language Architecture

As an alternative to ‘academic language’, Flores outlines the perspective of “language architecture”, which

frames racialized students as already understanding the relationship between language choice and meaning through the knowledge that they have gained through socialization into the cultural and linguistic practices of their communities.

To illustrate this perspective in action, a lesson plan built around a “translingual mentor text” is offered, to serve “as an exemplar” for teachers. The text “incorporates Spanish into a text that is primarily written in English that students could use to construct their own stories”. The goal is for students “to make connections between the language architecture that they engage in on a daily basis and the translingual rhetorical strategies utilized in the book in order to construct their own texts (Newman, 2012)”.

Having described how a teacher implements part of the lesson plan (or “unit plan”, as he calls it), Flores comments

To be fair, proponents of the concept of academic language would likely support this unit plan.

But there’s a “key difference” – language architecture doesn’t try to build bridges; instead, it assumes that “the language architecture that Latinx children from bilingual communities engage in on a daily basis is legitimate on its own terms and is already aligned to the CCSS”.

Discussion

Flores’ 2020 article is based on a strawman version of Cummins’ term ‘academic language’ (see, for example Cummins & Yee-Fun, 2007) which Cummins uses to argue his case for additive bilingualism. As noted in my earlier post Multilingualism, Translanguaging and Baloney, Cummins denies García and Flores assertion that his construct of additive bilingualism necessarily entails distinct language systems. In his 2020 paper, Flores wrongly imputes to Cummins the “dichotomous distinction” between “academic language” and “home languages”, where academic language is defined as “a list of empirical linguistic practices that are dichotomous with non-academic language”. Note that Flores also suggests that Cummins’ work perpetuates white supremacy, and that, by extension, all those (scholars and teachers alike) who see additive approaches to bilingualism as legitimate ways of attacking problems encountered by bilingual students are guilty of perpetuating white supremacy. It often seems, particularly from the rantings of some of Flores’ supporters on Twitter, that only tirelessly vigilant promotion of translanguaging (whatever that might entail) is enough to exempt anyone “white” from the accusation of racism.

Throughout his work, Flores implies that practically all language teachers in English-speaking countries (and perhaps further afield) treat “the home language practices of racialized communities” as “inherently deficient”. They are thus complicit in perpetuating white supremacy. Cummins has repeatedly denied Flores’ accusations against him, and I dare say that teachers would similarly regard Flores’ accusations as wrong and unfair, if not offensive. Flores’ article raises the following questions:

  1. Is it fair for Flores to accuse “white” teachers of perpetuating white supremacy by behaving as “white listening/reading subjects” who “frame racialized speakers as deficient”? Is that really what they do?
  2.  Are teachers’ extremely varied, nuanced and ongoing efforts to use rather than proscribe their students’ L1s through code-switching, translation and other means best seen as perpetuating white supremacy?
  3. Do teachers’ attempts to “modify” the “language practices” of their students provide convincing evidence of their complicity in prepetuating white supremacy?
  4. What exactly are the differences in terms of pedagogical practice between Flores’ example of a teacher using a predominantly English text containing Spanish words and the suggestions made by Cummins (2017)?
  5. What exactly is the “new listening/reading subject position” that Flores wants teachers to adopt? How does it become “central” to their work?
  6. What changes should they ask their bosses to make in the syllabuses, materials and assessment procedures they work with?
  7. And what are the implications for the rest of us, the majority, who work in countries where English is not the L1? Does Flores even recognise that we are in a context where many of his assumptions don’t apply?
Choir-master leading a rural congregation singing hymns. Hand-colored woodcut of a 19th-century illustration

Preaching to the choir

The fact that Flores gives even a rough sketch of translangaging in action in his 2020 article is in itself worthy of note – anyone who has trudged through the jargon-clogged, obscurantist texts that translanguaging scholars grind out will know that such practical examples are hard to come by. It prompts the question “Who do Flores, and other leading protagonists such as García, Rosa, Li Wei, and Valdés, think they’re talking to?”. My suggestion is that they’re “preaching to the choir” – talking, that is, to a relatively small number of people who share their relativist epistemology, their socio-cultural sociolinguistic stance, and their same muddled, poorly-articulated political views. Just BTW, I have yet to see a good outline of the political views of translanguaging scholars by ANY of them. The case of Li Wei is particularly stark. How does the author of Translanguaging as a Practical Theory of Language reconcile the views supported in that article (e.g., “there’s no such thing as Language”) with his job as the dean and director of a famous institute of education with a reputable applied linguistics department which sells all sorts of courses where languages are studied as if they actually existed? The answer, I suppose, is that few of those who might take offence at Li Wei’s opinions have even the foggiest idea of what he’s talking about.

Conclusion

I think it’s fair to say that translanguaging is, and will remain, irrelevant to all but the most academically inclined among the millions of teachers involved in ELT, because its protagonists, pace the titles of some of their papers, show little interest in practical matters. None of the important things that teachers concern themselves with – the syllabuses, materials, testing and pedagogic procedures of ELT – is addressed in a way that most of them would understand or find useful.

Phllip Kerr, in his recent post Multilingualism, linguanomics and lingualism uses Deborah Cameron’s (2013) description of discourses of ‘verbal hygiene’ to describe the work of the translanguaging protagonists. Cameron says that these ‘verbal hygiene’ texts are    

linked to other preoccupations which are not primarily linguistic, but rather social, political and moral. The logic behind verbal hygiene depends on a tacit, common-sense analogy between the order of language and the larger social order; the rules or norms of language stand in for the rules governing social or moral conduct, and putting language to rights becomes a symbolic way of putting the world to rights (Cameron, 2013: 61).

He adds:

Their professional worlds of the ‘multilingual turn’ in bilingual and immersion education in mostly English-speaking countries hardly intersect at all with my own professional world of EFL teaching in central Europe, where rejection of lingualism is not really an option.

If teachers are to be persuaded to reject lingualism, they’ll need better, clearer arguments than those offered by Flores and the gang.

References

Cummins, J. (2017). Teaching Minoritized Students: Are Additive Approaches Legitimate? Harvard Educational Review, 87, 3, 404-425.

Cummins J., Yee-Fun E.M. (2007) Academic Language. In: Cummins J., Davison C. (eds) International Handbook of English Language Teaching. Springer International Handbooks of Education, vol 15. Springer, Boston, MA.

Flores, N. (2020) From academic language to language architecture: Challenging raciolinguistic ideologies in research and practice, Theory Into Practice, 59:1, 22-31,

Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing Appropriateness: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and Language Diversity in Education. Harvard Educational Review, 85, 2, 149–171.

Rosa, J., & Flores, N. (2017). Unsettling race and language: Toward a raciolinguistic perspective. Language in Society, 46, 5, 621-647.

Coming Soon

I.V. Dim & F. Offandback (2022) Of Baps and Nannies and Texts that Go Off Overnight. Journal of Pre-School Languaging Studies, 1,1, 1 – 111.

Abstract

In this article, we offer an existentially-motivated, pluri-dimensional contribution to the on-going interrogation of reactionary expressions of whiteness, framed by colonial practices aimed at the perpetuation of white supremacy through the overdetermination of racialized otherness and deficit languaging policies which seek to misrepresent, muffle, gag, sideline and otherwise distort holistic ethnographic encounters with socially-constructed micro and macro narratives by marginalized communities which function inter alia to decentralize and destabilize whiteness and the misogynistic, reactionary, expressions of harmful views obstructing the free expression of emerging as yet unheard voicings of counter-hegemonic knowledges and lifeways. We adopt a “from the inside out” perspective, trialed and recommended by progressive tailors everywhere, which permits and encourages the framing of a challenge to two specific obstacles to the optimum development of the language and overall underdetermined educational praxis of toddlers attending pre-school educational and wellness centers in Hudson Yards, New York, and Hampstead, London. Using mixed and embedded ethnographic qualitatively authenticated and triangulated methodological procedures, we challenge the utility and ethicality of the use of standardized overdetermined academic language practices to implement the synchronic distribution of macadamia butter baps by plurilingual nannies, many of whom engage with the children in code-switching and other reactionary linguistic practices associated with the discredited practices associated with additive bilingualism.

Decolonialized educational praxis must center non-hegemonic modes of “otherwise thinking” which promote, encourage and legitimize the translanguaging instinct, consonant with multiple semiotic and socio-cultural adjustments which act as multi-sensory conduits guiding children towards a transformation of the present, anticipating  reinscribing our human, historical commonality in the act of translanguaging and leading to the metamorphosis of language into a muultilingual, multisemiotic, multisensory, and multimodal resource for sense-and meaning-making. Data include 3-D imaged representational olfactory enhanced modellings of the macadamia butter baps and multi-modal rich transcripts and 6th level avatar re-enactments of the nannies’ quasi-spontaneous interventions.       

Quick Version of the Review of Li Wei’s (2018) Theory of Language

Li Wei (2018) seeks “to develop Translanguaging as a theory of language”.

Key Principles:

1 The process of theorization involves a perpetual cycle of practice-theory-practice.

2 The criterion for assessing rival theories of the same phenomena is “descriptive adequacy”.  The key measures of descriptive adequacy are “richness and depth“.

3 “Accuracy” cannot serve as a criterion for theory assessment because no one description of an actual practice is necessarily more accurate than another.

4 Descriptions involve the observer including “all that has been observed, not just selective segments of the data”.

5 A theory should provide a principled choice between competing interpretations that inform and enhance future practice, and the principles are related to the consequentialities of alternative interpretations.

Section 3 is headed “The Practice”.

 Li Wei gives samples of conversations between multilingual speakers. The analysis of the transcripts is perfunctory and provides little support for the assertion that the speakers are not “mixing languages”, but rather using “New Chinglish” (Li 2016a), which includes

ordinary English utterances being re-appropriated with entirely different meanings for communication between Chinese users of English as well as creations of words and expressions that adhere broadly to the morphological rules of English but with Chinese twists and meanings.

His examples are intended to challenge the “myth of a pure form of a language” and to argue that talking about people having different languages must be replaced by an understanding of a more complex interweaving of languages and language varieties, where boundaries between languages and concepts such as native, foreign, indigenous, minority languages are “constantly reassessed and challenged”.

Section 4 is on Translanguaging

Li Wei’s leans on Becker’s (1991) notion of Languaging, which suggests that there is no such thing as Language, but rather, only “continual languaging, an activity of human beings in the world “(p. 34) and on ‘ecological psychology’, which challenges ‘the code view’ of language, and sees language as ‘a multi-scalar organization of processes that enables the bodily and the situated to interact with situation-transcending cultural-historical dynamics and practices’ (Thibault 2017: 78). Language learning should be viewed not as acquiring language, but rather as a process where novices “adapt their bodies and brains to the languaging activity that surrounds them”.  Li Wei concludes “For me, language learning is a process of embodied participation and resemiotization.”  

Li Wei makes two further arguments:

1) Multilinguals do not think unilingually in a politically named linguistic entity, even when they are in a ‘monolingual mode’ and producing one namable language only for a specific stretch of speech or text.

2) Human beings think beyond language and thinking requires the use of a variety of cognitive, semiotic, and modal resources of which language in its conventional sense of speech and writing is only one.

The first point refers to Fodor’s (1975) seminal work The Language of Thought. Li Wei offers no summary of Fodor’s “Language of Thought” hypothesis and no discussion of it, so the reader might not know that this language of thought is usually referred to as “Mentalese“, and is described very technically by Fodor so as to distinguish it fro named languages.

Li Wei states:”there seems to be a confusion between the hypothesis that thinking takes place in a Language of Thought (Fodor 1975) — in other words, thought possesses a language-like or compositional structure — and that we think in the named language we speak. The latter seems more intuitive and commonsensical”. Yes, it does, but why exactly this is a problem, (which it is!) and how Fodor’s Language of Thought hypothesis solves it (which many say it doesn’t) is not clearly explained.

As for the second argument, this concerns “the question of what is going on when bilingual and multilingual language users are engaged in multilingual conversations”. Li Wei finds it hard to imagine that they shift their frame of mind so frequently in one conversational episode let alone one utterance. He claims that we do not think in a specific, named language separately, and cites Fodor (1983) to resolve the problem. Li Wei misinterprets Fodor’s view of the modularity of mind. Pace Li Wei, Fodor does not claim that the human mind consists of a series of modules which are “encapsulated with distinctive information and for distinct functions”, and that “Language” is one of these modules. Gregg points out (see comment in unabridged version) that Fodor vigorously opposed the view that the mind is made up of modules; he spent a good deal of time arguing against that idea (see e.g. his “The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way”), the so-called Massive Modularity hypothesis. For Fodor, the mind contains modules, which is very different from the view Li Wei quite wrongly ascribes to him.

Li Wei goes on to say that Fodor’s hypothesis “has somehow been understood to mean” that “the language and other human cognitive processes are anatomically and/or functionally distinct”. Again, Fodor said no such thing. Li Wei does not cite any researcher who “somehow came to understand” Fodor’s argument about modular mind in such an erroneous way, and he does not clarify that Fodor made no such claim. Li Wei simply asserts that in research design, “the so-called linguistic and non-linguistic cognitive processes” have been assessed separately. He goes on to triumphantly dismantle this obviously erroneous assertion and to claim it as evidence for the usefulness of his theory.

Section 5: Translanguaging Space and Translanguaging Instict

This section contains inspirational sketches which add nothing to the theory of language.

Translanguaging Space

Li Wei suggests that the act of Translanguaging creates a social space for the language user “by bringing together different dimensions of their personal history, experience, and environment; their attitude, belief, and ideology; their cognitive and physical capacity, into one coordinated and meaningful performance  (Li  2011a:  1223)”. This Translanguaging Space has transformative power because “it is forever evolving and combines and generates new identities, values and practices; …. by underscoring  learners’  abilities to push and break boundaries between named language and between language varieties, and to flout norms of behaviour including linguistic behaviour, and criticality” (Li 2011a,b; Li and Zhu 2013)”.

As an example of the practical implications of Translanguaging Space, Li Wei cites García and Li’s (2014), vision “where teachers and students can go between and beyond socially constructed language and educational systems, structures and practices to engage diverse multiple meaning-making systems and subjectivities, to generate new configurations of language and education practices, and to challenge and transform old understandings and structures”.

Translanguaging Instinct

Li Wei’s construct of a Translanguaging Instinct (Li 2016b) uses arguments for an ‘Interactional Instinct’, a biologically based drive for infants and children to attach, bond, and affiliate with conspecifics in an attempt to become like them (Lee et al. 2009; Joaquin and Schumann 2013).

This natural drive provides neural structures that entrain children acquiring their languages to the faces, voices, and body movements of caregivers. It also determines the relative success of older adolescents and adults in learning additional languages later in life due to the variability of individual aptitude and motivation as well as environmental conditions”.

Le Wei extends this idea in what he calls a Translanguaging Instinct (Li 2016b) “to emphasize the salience of mediated interaction in everyday life in the 21st century, the multisensory and multi- modal process of language learning and language use”. The Translanguaging Instinct drives humans to go beyond narrowly defined linguistic cues and transcend culturally defined language boundaries to achieve effective communication. Li Wei suggests that, pace the Minimalist programme (sic!), a “Principle of Abundance” is in operation in human communication. Human beings draw on as many different sensory, modal, cognitive, and semiotic resources to interpret meaning intentions, and they read these multiple cues in a coordinated manner rather than singularly.

Li Wei’s discussion of the implications of the idea of the Translanguaging Instinct use uncontroversial statements about language learning which have nothing relevant to add to the theory. 

Discussion

So what is the Translanguaging theory of language? Despite endorsing the view that there is no such thing as language, and that the divides between the linguistic, the paralinguistic, and the extralinguistic dimensions of human communication are nonsensical, the theory amounts to the claim that language is a muultilingual, multisemiotic, multisensory, and multimodal resource for sense-and meaning-making.

The appendages about Translanguaging Space and a Translanguaging Instinct have little to do with a theory of language. The first is a blown-up recommendation for promoting language learning outside the classroom, and the second is a claim about language learning itself, to the effect that an innate instinct drives humans to go beyond narrowly defined linguistic cues and transcend culturally defined language boundaries to achieve effective communication. Stripped of its academic obcurantism and the wholly unsatisfactory discussion of Fodor’s Language of Thought and his work on the modularity of mind, both bits of fluff strike me as being as inoffensive as they are unoriginal.  

Theories

What is a theory? I’ve dealt with this in Jordan (2004) and also in many posts. A theory is generally regarded as being an attempt to explain phenomena. Researchers working on a theory use observational data to support and test it.

Li Wei adopts the following strategy:

1. Skip the tiresome step of offering a coherent definition of the key theoretical construct and content yourself with the repeated vague assertion that language is “a resource for sense-and meaning-making”,

2. Rely on the accepted way of talking about parts of language by those you accuse of reducing language to a code,

3. Focus on attacking the political naming of languages, re-hashing obviously erroneous views about L1s, l2s, etc. and developing the view that language is a muultilingual, multisemiotic, multisensory, and multimodal resource.

He thus abandons any serious attempt at theory construction, resorts instead to a string of assertions dressed up in academic clothes and call it a “theory of practice”. Even then, Li Wei doesn’t actually say what he takes a theory of practice to be. He equates theory construction with “knowledge construction”, without saying what he means by “knowledge”. Popper (1972) adopts a realist epistemology and explains what he means by “objective knowledge”. In contrast, Li Wei adopts a relativist epistemology, where objective knowledge is jettisoned and “descriptive adequacy” replaces it, to be measured by “richness and depth”, which are nowhere defined.

How do we measure the richness and depth of competing “descriptions”? Is Li Wei seriously suggesting that different subjective accounts of the observations of language practice by different observers is best assessed by undefined notions of richness and depth?

The poverty of Li Wei’s criteria for assessing a “practical theory” is compounded by his absurd claim that researchers who act as observers must describe “all that has been observed, not just selective segments of the data”. “All that has been observed”? Really?   

Finally, the good bits. I applaud Li Wei’s attempt, bad as I judge it to be, to bridge the gap between psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic work on SLA. And, as I’ve already said in my post Multilingualism, Translanguaging and Theories of SLA, there are things we can agree on. ELT practice should recognise that teaching is informed by the monolingual fallacy, the native speaker fallacy and the subtractive fallacy (Phillipson, 2018).  The ways in which English is privileged in education systems is a disgrace, and policies that strengthen linguistic diversity are needed to counteract linguistic imperialism. Translanguaging is to be supported in as much as it affirms bilinguals’ fluent languaging practices and aims to legitimise hybrid language uses. ELT must generate translanguaging spaces where practices which explore the full range of users’ repertoires in creative and transformative ways are encouraged.

References

Cook, V. J. (1993). Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition.  Macmillan.

Ellis, N. (2002). Frequency effects in language processing: A Review with Implications for Theories of Implicit and Explicit Language Acquisition. Studies in SLA, 24,2, 143-188.

Gregg, K.R. (1993). Taking Explanation seriously; or, let a couple of flowers bloom. Applied Linguistics 14, 3, 276-294.

Gregg, K. R. (2004). Explanatory Adequacy and Theories of Second Language Acquisition. Applied Linguistics 25, 4, 538-542.

Jordan, G. (2004). Theory Construction in SLA. Benjamins.

Li Wei (2018) Translanguaging as a Practical Theory of Language. Applied Linguistics, 39, 1, 9 – 30.

Phillipson, R. (2018) Linguistic Imperialism. Downloadable from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/31837620_Linguistic_Imperialism_

Popper, K. R. (1972). Objective Knowledge.  Oxford University Press.

Schmidt, R., & Frota, S. (1986). Developing basic conversational ability in a second language: A case study of an adult learner. In R. Day (Ed.), Talking to learn: Conversation in second language acquisition (pp. 237-369). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

See Li Wei (2018) for the other references.

Li Wei (2018) Translanguaging as a Practical Theory of Language

In his 2018 article, Li Wei seeks “to develop Translanguaging as a theory of language”. Along the way, he highlights the contributions that Translanguaging makes to debates about the “Language and Thought” and the “Modularity of Mind” hypotheses and tries to bridge “the artificial and ideological divides between the so-called sociocultural and the cognitive approaches to Translanguaging practices.”

Section 2

After the Introduction, Section 2 outlines the principles which guide his “practical theory of language for Applied Linguistics”. They’re based on Mao’s interpretation of Confucius and Marx’s dialectical materialism (sic). Here are the main points, with short comments:

1 The process of theorization involves a perpetual cycle of practice-theory-practice.

Amen to that.

2 The criterion for assessing rival theories of the same phenomena is “descriptive adequacy”.  The key measures of descriptive adequacy are “richness and depth“.

No definitions of the constructs “richness” or “depth” are offered, no indication is given of how they might be operationalized, and no explanation of this assertion is given.

3 “Accuracy” cannot serve as a criterion for theory assessment: “no one description of an actual practice is necessarily more accurate than another because description is the observer–analyst’s subjective understanding and interpretation of the practice or phenomenon that they are observing“.

No definition is given of the term “accuracy” and no discussion is offered of how theoretical constructs used in practical theory (such as “languaging”, “resemiotization” and “body dynamics”) can be operationalised.

4 Descriptions involve the observer including “all that has been observed, not just selective segments of the data”.

No explanation of how an observer can describe “all that has been observed” is offered. 

5 The main objective of a practical theory is not to offer predictions or solutions but interpretations that can be used to observe, interpret, and understand other practices and phenomena.

No justification for this bizarre assertion is offered.  

6 Questions are formulated on the basis of the description and as part of the observer–analyst’s interpretation process. Since interpretation is experiential and understanding is dialogic, these questions are therefore ideologically and experientially sensitive.

No explanation of what this means is offered.

7 A theory should provide a principled choice between competing interpretations that inform and enhance future practice, and the principles are related to the consequentialities of alternative interpretations.

No explanation of exactly what “principles” are involved is offered, and no indicators for measuring “consequentialties” are mentioned.  

8. An important assessment of the value of a practical theory is the extent to which it can ask new and different questions on both the practice under investigation and other existing theories about the practice. Yes indeed.

Section 3 is headed “The Practice”.

 Li Wei explains that he’s primarily concerned with the language practices of multilingual language users, and goes on to give samples of conversations between multilingual speakers. The analysis of the transcripts is perfunctory and provides little support for the assertion that the speakers are not “mixing languages”, but rather using “New Chinglish” (Li 2016a), which includes

ordinary English utterances being re-appropriated with entirely different meanings for communication between Chinese users of English as well as creations of words and expressions that adhere broadly to the morphological rules of English but with Chinese twists and meanings.

His examples are intended to challenge the “myth of a pure form of a language” and to argue that talking about people having different languages must be replaced by an understanding of a more complex interweaving of languages and language varieties, where boundaries between languages and concepts such as native, foreign, indigenous, minority languages are “constantly reassessed and challenged”.

Section 4 is on Translanguaging

Li Wei starts from Becker’s (1991) notion of Languaging, which suggests that there is no such thing as Language, but rather, only “continual languaging, an activity of human beings in the world “(p. 34). Language should not be regarded ‘as an accomplished fact, but as in the process of being made’ (p. 242). Li Wei also refers to work from ‘ecological psychology’, which seees languaging as ‘an assemblage of diverse material, biological, semiotic and cognitive properties and capacities which languaging agents orchestrate in real-time and across a diversity of timescales’ (Thibault 2017: 82). Such work challenges ‘the code view’ of language, urges us to ‘grant languaging a primacy over what is languaged’, and to see language as ‘a multi-scalar organization of processes that enables the bodily and the situated to interact with situation-transcending cultural-historical dynamics and practices’ (Thibault 2017: 78). The divides between the linguistic, the paralinguistic, and the extralinguistic dimensions of human communication are thus “nonsensical”. So language learning should be viewed not as acquiring language, but rather as a process where novices “adapt their bodies and brains to the languaging activity that surrounds them’, and in doing so, ‘participate in cultural worlds and learn that they can get things done with others in accordance with the culturally promoted norms and values’ (Thibault 2017: 76). Li Wei concludes “For me, language learning is a process of embodied participation and resemiotization (see see also McDermott and Roth 1978; McDermott et al. 1978; Dore and McDermott 1982; and Gallagher and Zahavi 2012)”.

Next, Li Wei explains that he added the Trans prefix to Languaging in order to not only have a term that captures multilingual language users’ fluid and dynamic practices, but also to put forward two further arguments:

1) Multilinguals do not think unilingually in a politically named linguistic entity, even when they are in a ‘monolingual mode’ and producing one namable language only for a specific stretch of speech or text.

2) Human beings think beyond language and thinking requires the use of a variety of cognitive, semiotic, and modal resources of which language in its conventional sense of speech and writing is only one.

The first point refers to Fodor’s (1975) seminal work The Language of Thought. Li Wei offers no summary of Fodor’s “Language of Thought” hypothesis and no discussion of it. So the reader might not know that this language of thought is usually referred to as “Mentalese“, and that very technical, but animated discussions about whether or not Mentalese exists, and if it does, how it works, have been going on for the last 40+ years among philosophers, cognitive scientists and linguists. Without any proper introduction, Li Wei simply states: “there seems to be a confusion between the hypothesis that thinking takes place in a Language of Thought (Fodor 1975) — in other words, thought possesses a language-like or compositional structure — and that we think in the named language we speak. The latter seems more intuitive and commonsensical”. In my opinion, he doesn’t make it clear why the latter view causes a problem, why, that is, “it cannot address the question of how bilingual and multilingual language users think without referencing notions of the L1, ‘native’ or ‘dominant’ language”, and he doesn’t clearly explain how Fodor’s Language of Thought hypothesis solves the problem. All he says is

If we followed the argument that we think in the language we speak, then we think in our own idiolect, not a named language. But the language-of-thought must be independent of these idiolects, and that is the point of Fodor’s theory. We do not think in Arabic, Chinese, English, Russian, or Spanish; we think beyond the artificial boundaries of named languages in the language-of-thought”.

I fail to see how this cursory discussion does anything to support the claim that Translanguaging Theory makes any worthwhile contribution to the debate that has followed Fodor’s Language of thought hypothesis.

As for the second argument, this concerns “the question of what is going on when bilingual and multilingual language users are engaged in multilingual conversations”. Li Wei finds it hard to imagine that they shift their frame of mind so frequently in one conversational episode let alone one utterance. He claims that we do not think in a specific, named language separately, and cites Fodor (1983) to resolve the problem. Li Wei reports Fodor’s Modularity of Mind hypothesis as claiming that the human mind consists of a series of modules which are “encapsulated with distinctive information and for distinct functions”. Language is one of these modules. As Gregg has pointed out to me (see the comment below) “Fodor did not think that the mind is made up of modules; he spent a good deal of time arguing against that idea (see e.g. his “The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way”), the so-called Massive Modularity hypothesis. For Fodor, the mind contains modules; big difference” (my emphases). Worse, Li Wei says that Fodor’s hypothesis “has somehow been understood to mean” something that, in fact, Fodor did not say or imply, namely that “the language and other human cognitive processes are anatomically and/or functionally distinct”. Li Wei does not cite any researcher who somehow came to understand Fodor’s argument about modular mind in that way, but simply asserts that in research design, “the so-called linguistic and non-linguistic cognitive processes” have been assessed separately. He goes on to triumphantly dismantle this obviously erroneous assertion and to claim it as evidence for the usefulness of his theory.

Section 5: Translanguaging Space and Translanguaging Instict

“The act of Translanguaging creates a social space for the language user by bringing to- gether different dimensions of their personal history, experience, and environment; their attitude, belief, and ideology; their cognitive and physical capacity, into one coordinated and meaningful performance  (Li  2011a:  1223)”. This Translanguaging Space has transformative power because “it is forever evolving and combines and generates new identities, values and practices”.  It underscores multilinguals’ creativity, “their abilities to push and break boundaries between named language and between language varieties, and to flout norms of behaviour including linguistic behaviour, and criticality —the ability to use evidence to question, problematize, and articulate views (Li 2011a,b; Li and Zhu 2013)”.

A Translanguaging Space shares elements of the vision of Thirdspace articulated by Soja (1996) as “a space of extraordinary openness, a place of critical exchange where the geographical imagination can be expanded to encompass a multiplicity of perspectives that have heretofore been considered by the epistemological referees to be incompatible and uncombinable”. Soja proposes that it is possible to generate new knowledge and discourses in a Thirdspace. A Translanguaging Space acts as a Thirdspace which does not merely encompass a mixture or hybridity of first and second languages; instead it invigorates languaging with new possibilities from ‘a site of creativity and power’, as bell hooks (1990: 152) says. Going beyond language refers to trans- forming the present, to intervening by reinscribing our human, historical com- monality in the act of Translanguaging” (Li Wei, 2018, p. 24).

As an example of the practical implications of Translanguaging Space, Li Wei cites García and Li’s (2014), vision “where teachers and students can go between and beyond socially constructed language and educational systems, structures and practices to engage diverse multiple meaning-making systems and subjectivities, to generate new configurations of language and education practices, and to challenge and transform old understandings and structures”. Stirring stuff.

Li Wei’s construct of a Translanguaging Instinct (Li 2016b) draws on the arguments for an ‘Interactional Instinct’, a biologically based drive for infants and children to attach, bond, and affiliate with conspecifics in an attempt to become like them (Lee et al. 2009; Joaquin and Schumann 2013).

This natural drive provides neural structures that entrain children acquiring their languages to the faces, voices, and body movements of caregivers. It also determines the relative success of older adolescents and adults in learning additional languages later in life due to the variability of individual aptitude and motivation as well as environmental conditions”.

Le Wei extends this idea in what he calls a Translanguaging Instinct (Li 2016b) “to emphasize the salience of mediated interaction in everyday life in the 21st century, the multisensory and multi- modal process of language learning and language use”. The Translanguaging Instinct drives humans to go beyond narrowly defined linguistic cues and transcend culturally defined language boundaries to achieve effective communication. Li Wei suggests that, pace the Minimalist programme (sic!), a “Principle of Abundance” is in operation in human communication. Human beings draw on as many different sensory, modal, cognitive, and semiotic resources to interpret meaning intentions, and they read these multiple cues in a coordinated manner rather than singularly.

In the meantime, the Translanguaging Instinct highlights the gaps between meaning, what is connected to forms of the language and other signs, and message, what is actually inferred by hearers and readers, and leaves open spaces for all the other cognitive and semiotic systems that interact with linguistic semiosis to come into play (Li Wei, 2018, p. 26).

Li Wei’s discussion of the implications of the idea of the Translanguaging Instinct might have been written by an MA student of psycholinguistics. Below is a summary, mostly consisting of quotes.  

Human beings “rely on different resources differentially during their lives. In first language acquisition, infants naturally draw meaning from a combination of sound, image, and action, and the sound–meaning mapping in word learning crucially involves image and action. The resources needed for literacy acquisition are called upon later”.

“In bilingual first language acquisition, the child additionally learns to associate the target word with a specific context or addressee as well as contexts and addressees where either language is acceptable, giving rise to the possibility of code- switching”.

“In second language acquisition in adolescence and adulthood, some resources become less available, for example resources required for tonal discrimination, while others can be enhanced by experience and become more salient in language learning and use, for example resources required for analysing and comparing syntactic structures and pragmatic functions of specific expressions. As people become more involved in complex communicative tasks and demanding environments, the natural tendency to combine multiple resources drives them to look for more cues and exploit different resources. They will also learn to use different resources for different purposes, resulting in functional differentiation of different linguistic resources (e.g. accent, writing) and between linguistic and other cognitive and semiotic resources. Crucially, the innate capacity to exploit multiple resources will not be diminished over time; in fact it is enhanced with experience. Critical analytic skills are developed in terms of understanding the relationship between the parts (specific sets of skills, such as counting; drawing; singing) and the whole (multi-competence (Cook 1992; Cook and Li 2016) and the capacity for coordination between the skills subsets) to functionally differentiate the different resources required for different tasks“.

One consequence of the Translanguaging perspective on bilingualism and multilingualism research is making the comparison between L1 and L2 acquisition purely in terms of attainment insignificant. Instead, questions should be asked as to what resources are needed, available, and being exploited for specific learning task throughout the lifespan and life course? Why are some resources not available at certain times? What do language users do when some resources become difficult to access? How do language users combine the available resources differentially for specific tasks? In seeking answers to these questions, the multisensory, multimodal, and multilingual nature of human learning and interaction is at the centre of the Translanguaging Instinct idea” (Li Wei, 2018, pp 24-25).

There’s hardly anything I disagree with in all this, apart from the dubious, forced connection made between all this elementary stuff and the “Translangaguing perspective”.

Discussion

So what is the Translanguaging theory of language? Despite endorsing the view that there is no such thing as language, and that the divides between the linguistic, the paralinguistic, and the extralinguistic dimensions of human communication are nonsensical, the theory amounts to the claim that language is a muultilingual, multisemiotic, multisensory, and multimodal resource for sense-and meaning-making.

The appendages about Translanguaging Space and a Translanguaging Instinct have little to do with a theory of language. The first is a blown-up recommendation for promoting language learning outside the classroom, and the second is a claim about language learning itself, to the effect that an innate instinct drives humans to go beyond narrowly defined linguistic cues and transcend culturally defined language boundaries to achieve effective communication. Stripped of its academic obcurantism and the wholly unsatisfactory discussion of Fodor’s Language of Thought and his work on the modularity of mind, both bits of fluff strike me as being as inoffensive as they are unoriginal.  

Theories

What is a theory? I’ve dealt with this in Jordan (2004) and also in many posts. A theory is generally regarded as being an attempt to explain phenomena. Researchers working on a theory use observational data to support and test it. Furthermore, it’s generally recognised that, pace Li Wei, we can’t just observe the world: all observation is “theory-laden”; as Popper (1972) puts it, there’s no way we can talk about something sensed and not interpreted. Even in everyday life we don’t – can’t – just “observe”, and those committed to a scientific approach to language learning recognize that researchers observe guided by a problem they want to solve: research is fundamentally concerned with problem-solving, and it benefits from a clear focus in a well-defined domain. Here’s an example of how this applies to theories of language:  

Chomskian theory claims that, strictly speaking, the mind does not know languages but grammars; ‘the notion “language” itself is derivative and relatively unimportant’ (Chomsky, 1980, p. 126).  “The English Language” or “the French Language” means language as a social phenomenon – a collection of utterances.  What the individual mind knows is not a language in this sense, but a grammar with the parameters set to particular values. Language is another epiphenomenon: the psychological reality is the grammar that a speaker knows, not a language (Cook, 1994: 480).

And here’s Gregg (1996)

… “language” does not refer to a natural kind, and hence does not constitute an object for scientific investigation. The scientific study of language or language acquisition requires the narrowing down of the domain of investigation, a carving of nature at its joints, as Plato put it. From such a perspective, modularity makes eminent sense (Gregg, 1996, p. 1).

 Both Chomsky and Gregg see the need to narrow the domain of any chosen investigation in order to study it more carefully. So they want to go beyond the common-sense view of language as a way of expressing one’s thoughts and feelings (not, most agree, following Fodor, to be confused with thinking itself) and of communicating with others, to a careful description of its core parts and then to an explanation of how we learn them. Now you might disagree, in several ways. You might reject Chomsky’s theory and prefer, for example, Nick Ellis’ usage-based theory (see, for example Ellis, 2002), which embraces the idea of language as a socially constructed epiphenomenon, and claims that it’s learned through social engagement where all sorts of inputs from the environment are processed in the mind by very general learning mechanisms, such as the power law of practice. But Ellis recognises the need to provide some description of what’s learned and I defy most readers to make sense of Ellis’ ongoing efforts to describe a “construction grammar”.  Or you might take a more bottom-up research stance and decide to just feel your way – observe some particular behaviour, turning over and developing ideas and move slowly up to a generalization. But even then, you need SOME idea of what you’re looking for. Gregg (1993) gives a typically eloquent discussion of the futility of attempts to base research on “observation”.    

Or you might, like Li Wei, adopt the following strategy:

1. Skip the tiresome step of offering a coherent definition of the key theoretical construct and content yourself with the repeated vague assertion that language is “a resource for sense-and meaning-making”,

2. Rely on the accepted way of talking about parts of language by those you accuse of reducing language to a code,

3. Focus on attacking the political naming of languages, re-hashing obviously erroneous views about L1s, l2s, etc. and developing the view that language is a muultilingual, multisemiotic, multisensory, and multimodal resource.

 If so, you abandon any serious attempt at theory construction, resort to a string of assertions dressed up in academic clothes and call it a “theory of practice”. Even then, Li Wei doesn’t actually say what he takes a theory of practice to be. He equates theory construction with “knowledge construction”, without saying what he means by “knowledge”. Popper (1972) adopts a realist epistemology and explains what he means by “objective knowledge” (accepting that all observation is theory-laden). In contrast, we have to infer what Li Wei means by knowledge through the reason he gives for dismissing “accuracy” as a criterion for theory assessment, viz., as already quoted above, “no one description of an actual practice is necessarily more accurate than another because description is the observer–analyst’s subjective understanding and interpretation of the practice or phenomenon that they are observing”. This amounts to a relativist epistemology where objective knowledge is jettisoned and “descriptive adequacy” replaces it, to be measured by “richness and depth”, which are nowhere defined.

How do we measure the richness and depth of competing “descriptions”? For example we have (1) Li Wei’s descriptions of conversational exchanges among his research participants, and (2) Schmidt and Frota’s (1986) description of an adult learner of Portuguese. The two descriptions of the learners’ utterances serve different purposes, they don’t amount to competing arguments, but how do we assess the descriptions and the analyses? How about: “I prefer (2) because the description of the weather outside was richer”. Are these two “descriptions” not better assessed by criteria such as their coherence and their success in supporting the hypothesis that informs their observations? Schmidt and Frota are addressing a problem about what separates input from intake (the hypothesis being that “noticing” is required), while Li Wei is addressing the problem of how we interpret code-switching, and his hypothsis is that it’s not a matter of calling on separately stored knowledge about 2 rigidly different named languages. Is Li Wei seriously suggesting that different subjective accounts of the observations of language practice by different observers is best assessed by undefined notions of richness and depth?

The poverty of Li Wei’s criteria for assessing a “practical theory” is compounded by his absurd claim that researchers who act as observers must describe “all that has been observed, not just selective segments of the data”. “All that has been observed”? Really?   

But wait a minute! There’s another criterion! “A theory should provide a principled choice between competing interpretations that inform and enhance future practice, and the principles are related to the consequentialities of alternative interpretations”. As noted, we’re not told what the “principles” are, and no indicators for measuring “consequentialties” are mentioned. Still, it’s more promising that the other criteria. And, of course, it’s taken from a well-respected criterion used by scientists anchored in a realist epistemology: ceteris paribus, the more a theory leads to the practical solution of problems, the better it is.   

Finally, the good bits. I applaud Li Wei’s attempt, bad as I judge it to be, to bridge the gap between psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic work on SLA. And, as I’ve already said in my post Multilingualism, Translanguaging and Theories of SLA, there are things we can agree on. ELT practice should recognise that teaching is informed by the monolingual fallacy, the native speaker fallacy and the subtractive fallacy (Phillipson, 2018).  The ways in which English is privileged in education systems is a disgrace, and policies that strengthen linguistic diversity are needed to counteract linguistic imperialism. Translanguaging is to be supported in as much as it affirms bilinguals’ fluent languaging practices and aims to legitimise hybrid language uses. ELT must generate translanguaging spaces where practices which explore the full range of users’ repertoires in creative and transformative ways are encouraged.

References

Cook, V. J. (1993). Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition.  Macmillan.

Ellis, N. (2002). Frequency effects in language processing: A Review with Implications for Theories of Implicit and Explicit Language Acquisition. Studies in SLA, 24,2, 143-188.

Gregg, K.R. (1993). Taking Explanation seriously; or, let a couple of flowers bloom. Applied Linguistics 14, 3, 276-294.

Gregg, K. R. (2004). Explanatory Adequacy and Theories of Second Language Acquisition. Applied Linguistics 25, 4, 538-542.

Jordan, G. (2004). Theory Construction in SLA. Benjamins.

Li Wei (2018) Translanguaging as a Practical Theory of Language. Applied Linguistics, 39, 1, 9 – 30.

Phillipson, R. (2018) Linguistic Imperialism. Downloadable from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/31837620_Linguistic_Imperialism_

Popper, K. R. (1972). Objective Knowledge.  Oxford University Press.

Schmidt, R., & Frota, S. (1986). Developing basic conversational ability in a second language: A case study of an adult learner. In R. Day (Ed.), Talking to learn: Conversation in second language acquisition (pp. 237-369). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

See Li Wei (2018) for the other references.