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.

The IATEFL Conference 2021 and the Elephant Who Is Studiously Ignored

INTRODUCTION

Thanks to the IATEFL 2021 Conference website and to messages on Twitter (in particular, the work of Jessica Mackay who does such a truly fine job of reporting), I have some idea of what happened at the 2021 IATEFL conference.

Hundreds of presentations covering various aspects of the lives of its members were given, and hardly any of them talked about new findings in SLA concerning how people learn an L2. How, I ask, can teachers do their jobs well, if they’re not informed about how people learn English as an L2? Surely the most important question for teachers is

“What is the most efficacious way of helping students learn English as an L2?”

And surely that question is answered, to a significant extent, by appeal to what we know about how people learn an L2.

In what follows, I won’t give references, but every assertion I make is supported in posts on this blog where references are given, and I’ll happily respond to requests for more references.

BACKGROUND

We know that learning an L2 is not the same as learning other subjects in a school curriculum. You learn geography, biology, etc., by learning about the subject. In contrast, you learn an L2 by doing it. There’s a difference in language learning between declarative and procedural knowledge – knowing about the language doesn’t mean you know how to use it. This basic difference was first highlighted in the early 1960s and it led to radical reform of ELT methodology in the late 1970s, with the emergence of Communicative Language Teaching, where the emphasis was put on giving students opportunities to do things in the L2 rather than being told about the L2.

These progressive tendencies were snuffed out by the emergence of the modern coursebook, of which Headway was the first example and Outcomes is a current example. They returned ELT practice to its old emphasis on teaching ABOUT the target language, rather than an emphasis on giving students opportunities to do things IN the target language. Since 1990, ELT practice has been dominated by coursebooks, by high stakes exams which give prime importance to knowledge about the language, and by teacher training programmes which emphasise teaching about the language.

ARGUMENT

Today, around the world, ELT is characterised by courses where most of the time is devoted to teaching students about the language. Teachers talk for most of the time, and individual students get few opportunities to speak in the target language; they mostly do drills, respond to display questions and very rarely speak for longer than a minute. The results are bad: most students of English as an L2 (more than a billion of them) fail to reach the ability to communicate well. In primary and secondary school education in most countries, the results are particularly bad.  

More than 60 years of SLA research suggest that basing ELT on the explicit teaching about the L2 doesn’t give the knowledge needed to use it. Quite simply: explicit teaching must take a back seat and prominence must be given to giving students the opportunities to do things in the language – not at the end of a lesson but right the way through it. There is absolutely zero support from research findings to support the argument that using coursebooks as the driver of ELT is more efficacious than using an analytic syllabus like TBLT, Dogme, CBLT, for example. None! Adapting, supplementing, tweaking coursebooks doesn’t rescue them. They are fundamentally flawed because they try to teach students things in a way that they can’t learn them. See the dozens of posts I’ve done to support this assertion and see the work of dozens of teachers and scholars I’ve cited. Here’s the argument: throw away coursebooks and focus on learning by doing.

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You may well disagree, but surely it deserves some attention, given that it’s supported by so much evidence. And that’s my point: it’s the elephant in the room. Very few at the IATEFL 2021 conference talk about it. Very little time in the 2021 IATEFL conference is given to discussion of what we know about SLA or of new findings in SLA research. Who talks about the 40 years of Interlanguage studies which demonstrate conclusively that learners follow their own non-linear trajectory towards communicative competence? Who talks about Nick Ellis’ new work on emergentism, or the push back against it?  Who talks about the general consensus that’s emerging among SLA scholars about how L2 learners are affected by their L1 and the implications about how explicit attention to certain formal features of the language is best done? Who talks about the growing ability of stats tools to help in meta-surveys of research studies? Who talks about results of crucial new tools of research such as eye-tracking? Who talks about the new results on sensitive periods, motivation, age, re-casts, modified, elaborated texts, or attempts to measure the cognitive complexity of tasks? Who talks about the really important new work being done on aptitude? Who’s right: Skehan or Robinson? What’s wrong with Tomlinson’s new account of SLA? How are lexical chunks processed? (Pace Dellar, this is an open, very interesting on-going, unresolved problem.) What’s the relationship between short term (SM) and long term memory? (Pace Smith and Conti, SM doesn’t rule.)

Most of this research points in one very clear direction: THE NEED TO BASE TEACHING ON LEARNING BY DOING. If it were taken seriously, which it should be, the current ELT paradigm would be overthrown. It’s that important: we’re teaching in the wrong damn way! There’s no silver bullet, no “right way”, despite what Conti might tell you. As always, it’s much easier to say what’s false than what’s true. We know, from SLA research, that coursebook-driven ELT is based on false assumptions about how people learn an L2. We have good reason to think that an analytic syllabus, one that doesn’t cut the L2 up into hundreds of items to be learned, but rather treats the L2 more holistically, respects learners’s interlanguage development, and gives students scaffolded opportuntiesw to learn by doing, is more efficacious.

And we also know that current ELT practice is driven by commercial interests which lead, inevitably, to the increasing commodification of education.

THE CONFERENCE

The IATEFL conference is sponsored by the powerful commercial interests who support current ELT practice and there’s little room for any real challenge to the status quo. What we get instead is hundreds of sessions that leave the fundamentally flawed basis of EFL unexamined. It’s simply assumed that coursebook-driven ELT is the way to go, and the question is how to do it better.

The most obtuse example of this is the IATEFL SIG that deals with second language teacher education (SLTE).  It’s all about identity. “Who am I? Where did I come from? Is it OK to be who I am? Why do I believe what I believe? Where did I get the ideas about teaching that mess me up? How have I been messed up? How can I grow as a human being?”  Nothing about “How can I move beyond this effing coursebook? Is my teaching efficacious?” And, even more importantly, nothing about “How can I get decent working condition and pay?” “How can I unite with my fellow workers in such a way that we challenge the status quo?”

Similarly, the materials SIG.  Rather than taking the opportunity to change the way they teach provided by the need to teach online, they confine themselves to the question of how to adapt coursebook-driven ELT to Zoom sessions. The “rear-view mirror” history of development strikes again!  

Instead of challenging the dominantion of the coursebook, materials writers in IATEFL prefer to improve the content of the texts. Tyson Seburn is a good example. Keen to make materials more inclusive, he suggests ways in which the texts and exercises provided in coursebooks and supplementary materials should reflect the myriad concerns of the LGBT communities. Not for a second does he question the status quo and the framework it provides for current ELT practice. The elephant in rainbow colours is still the elephant.

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Steve Brown’s session at IATEFL was, for me “el colmo” – the last straw. Here we have one of ELT’s best, most articulate progressive voices doing one of the most audacious “I see no elephant” acts I’ve ever seen. His presentation is called “Beyond Empowerment: ELT as a Source of Emancipation” He deconstructs a couple of pages from Outcomes Intermediate in order to show how it enshrines gender stereotypes. In my opinion, he does a good job of it. He goes on to suggest a more politically correct version, substituting all the men for a more varied cast and making careful changes to the text and the discussion topics. Bravo! I invite you to watch the presentation.

The problem is, of course, that Steve doesn’t refer to the bigger picture. Why not step back a bit and see the elephant? Why not look at the two pages he selects in terms of how well they represent what General English coursebooks are all about? Outcomes Intermediate, for all its pretensions to be a new kind of coursebook, is a typical example of the implementation of a synthetic syllabus, where items of the L2 are dealt with in a linear sequence on the false assumption that students will learn what they’re taught in this way. We may begin by asking: why talk about martial arts in the first place? Why assume that everybody in the class needs to know about martial arts? The answer is, of course, that the subject doesn’t really matter: what’s important is THE LANGUAGE AS OBJECT. Martial Arts as a topic might as well be Pottery Through The Ages or Great Philosophers or Sailing The Seven Seas. This is just a chance to hear, study, talk ABOUT the language. Who cares that nobody in the class has any interest in martial arts! It’s just a random topic, a vehicle for learning ABOUT the language. The 2 pages Steve uses do this:

  • listen to a short text,
  • see if you get it by ticking boxes,
  • study words in the vocab. box,
  • study the grammar box,
  • study pronunciation, and then
  • do a bit of “Speaking” by working in groups, finding answers to a list of questions, using questions starting with “how long, when, where, how often…”.    

Now THAT’s what’s wrong: students are involved in looking at the language as an object and then in silly exchanges. No care has been taken to assure that the content is relevant to students’ needs, and very little time is dedicated to giving students the opportunity to do things in the language, to engage in meaningful communicative exchanges. The two pages from the coursebook are a good example of a synthetic syllabus in action: certain items of vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar have been selected for teaching and these are contextualised then presented and then practiced. The assumption that this is an efficacious way of helping students on their trajectory towards communicative competence is both false and unquestioned.

Reply to Gerald’s “Twitter discussions, ways of seeing the world, and whiteness” Thread, June 1, 2021

In his June 1st thread of tweets on “Twitter discussions, ways of seeing the world, and whiteness”, Gerald explains why he occaisionally chooses to engage with “certain types” in Twitter scuffles. “These people” (later identified as “status quosaders” – a term coined by Scott Stillar) defend an ideology which, says Gerald, they probably can’t articulate. Specifically, they are unable to see past “How Things Are”. They hold to the concept that there is a binary between order and disorder, with “the latter always lower in the hierarchy”. It’s impossible to argue with these people – they’re so fixed in the fundamental belief in the justness of hierarchies and binaries that they can’t see the inherent value of a paradigm where there is no order and no real hierarchy.

Gerald continues:  

You can use whatever word you want – rigor, logic, evidence, “thin soup” – but basing your ethos on the assumption that there is One True Practice is inherently hostile to innovative ways of knowing, teaching, and languaging. (12)

Ultimately, we don’t know the best way to teach everyone, because we’re all very different, and that’s good!  We just have to keep trying to find ways that connect with and support anyone who wants to learn and be heard. (13)

And ultimately, this sort of fluidity is anathema to the binaries and hierarchies that whiteness would prefer to hold in place. It’s up to you if you want to see something new. The current way only benefits a few people and harms almost everyone else. (14)

So on one side there are people who can’t see past How Things Are and who hold to the concept that there is “a binary between order and disorder”, “with the latter always lower in the hierarchy”. These people use words like rigor, logic, evidence and thin soup; they base their ethos on the assumption that “there is One True Practice”; and they are thus hostile to innovation and to the sort of fluidity in teaching practice that encourages trying out different ways of meeting different learners’ needs.

On the other side are those who embrace the paradigm where there is no order and no real hierarchy, who embrace “fluidity” and seek change

Discussion

I suggest that this amounts to a poorly articulated misrepresentation of the real struggle between those who promote coursebook-driven ELT and those who fight it by promoting alternatives such as Dogme, CBLT and TBLT.  At least we can agree on one thing: binary thinking is faulty – people’s positions on the matters we’re discussing cluster around a non-binary, indeed fluid, range of views. But it’s Gerald who makes the binary distinction between two different, mutually opposed “paradigms”, one bad the other good.

The problem I see (and which I discuss at length in various posts on this blog) is that most teachers, teacher educators, materials writers, and the tens of thousands who work for assessment providers are largely in favour of the commodified ELT that results from its focus on profit. The majority of people involved in the ELT industry embrace the use of coursebooks which serve up what Thornbury (2010) calls ” Grammar McNuggets”, the use of the CEFR which reifies proficiency levels, and the use of high stakes exams which every year ruin hundreds of thousands of people’s lives thanks to their (frequently racist and nearly always class-based) use by university entrance boards and immigration authorities.

The ideology which supports this industry is the ideology of capitalist neoliberalism: free competition is the basis of social interaction; citizens are consumers whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling; everybody aspires to material prosperity, and the play of market forces is the best way to deliver these aspirations.  The “Ulterior motives” section of Gerald’s 2019 article has some good points to make on this.

Do Gerald and his supporters recognise that the current practices of ELT are parts of a status quo which promote a neoliberal capitalist ideology? In their work in ELT, do Gerald and his supporters recognise that the use of synthetic syllabuses facilitates the packaging of English courses, and that proficiency scales facilitate ordering students into convenient consumer groups, and that institutions like the British Council, Cambridge Assessment, TOEFL, and bodies like IATEFL and TESOL are powerful promoters of the status quo?

Gerald poses as a radical crusader, urging his followers on to a brighter future, while scathingly dismissing the reactionary views and practices of his critics. In fact, many of Gerald’s critics voice more radical (and certainly more articulate) views than he does, while he, and many of his supporters, give the impression of limiting themselves to identity politics. These are complicated matters which deserve serious discussion, but it’s unlikely that we’ll get far with Gerald. While he stresses what a waste of time it is to discuss matters with me, because I’m a racist only interested in winning arguments, I suggest that until Gerald gets his ideas sorted out to the point where he can succinctly articulate them, it’s hard to talk to him.    

Gerald makes a distinction between people who believe in the justness of hierarchies and binaries, and people who believe in the inherent value of a paradigm where there is no order and no real hierarchy. The question is: what’s he talking about?  

What are the binaries and hierarchies he refers to?

Take this statement:

 “They hold to the concept that there is a binary between order and disorder, with the latter always lower in the hierarchy. Or, in truth, a set of binaries in the first place.”

Or this:  

I’m staking a claim for the inherent value of a paradigm where there is no order and no real hierarchy. Yes, I focus on racism and language, but it applies to all categories.”

What do tjhey mean?

What “paradigm” bases itself on “no real order and no real hierarchy”?

I can find nothing in any of Gerald’s published texts which answers these questions. Should he not explain, if he wants to be taken seriously?

My guess is that Gerald is basing himself on an epistemological debate among scholars in the field of applied linguistics (AL) and elsewhere who adopt either (1) a realist, critical rationalist approach, or (2) a relativist “postmodern” approach. In the field of AL, those studying psycholinguistics tend to adopt a realist epistemology, which bases the investigation of phenomena on the use of logic, rational argument and empirical evidence to test hypotheses. In a broad sense, this research method can be described as the scientific method. On the other hand, many scholars researching sociolinguistics adopt a relativist epistemology, rejecting the scientific method (which they call “positivism”) and adopting various alternative research methods, such as ethnography. As I say in Jordan (2004), the relativists, mostly sociolinguists, want to throw off the blinkers of modernist rationality, in order to grasp a more complex, subjective reality. They feel that science and its discourse are riddled with a repressive ideology, and they feel it necessary to develop their own language and discourse to combat that ideology. They have every right to express such views, which usuually reflect a radical politcal position.

Science is a social construct, a social institution, and scientists’ goals, their criteria, their decisions and achievements are historically and socially influenced.  And all the terms that scientists use, like “test”, “hypothesis”, “findings”, etc., are invented and given meaning through social interaction.  Of course.  But – and here is the crux – this does not make the results of social interaction (in this case, a scientific theory) an arbitrary consequence of it.  Popper (1975) defends the idea of objective knowledge by arguing that it is precisely through the process of mutual criticism incorporated into the institution of science that the individual shortcomings of its members are largely cancelled out. I discuss all this more fully in my book (Jordan, 2004) and briefly in my post on Positivist and Constructivist Paradigms.

My point here is that Gerald contributes nothing to the interesting debate between those taking different epistemological positions, and fails to appreciate that there are many scholars – including Chomsky, White, Carroll, Doughty, Long, Crookes, Krashen, Gass, Baretta, Robinson and a host of others – who manage to combine a commitment to a realist epistemolgy (using words like rigor, logic, and evidence) with a radical political position.

Conclusion

If Gerald wants to present himself as a serious scholar dedicated to the decentering of Whiteness in ELT, then he needs to do better than this. Gerald’s argument rests on a poorly described and unexplained distinction between people “fixed in the fundamental belief in the justness of hierarchies and binaries” and people who “stake a claim for the inherent value of a paradigm where there is no order and no real hierarchy”. Such a distinction doesn’t stand up to examination and does nothing to promote his cause more widely.

And, just BTW, please note that I’m replying to a further attack on me by Gerald. The moment Gerald stops accusing me of racism, of being an obsolete part of the “statusqusaders”, etc., etc., I’ll stop replying.   

References

Gerald, JPM. (2020) Worth the Risk: Towards DecentringWhiteness in English Language Teaching. BC TEAL Journal, 5, 1, 44–54.

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

Popper, K.R. (1975). Objective Knowledge. Oxford, Clarendon.

Thornbury, S. (2010) G is for Grammar McNuggets. Retreived, 5th June, 2021, from https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2010/09/18/g-is-for-grammar-mcnuggets/

Life on Twitter Part 3

Instead of using the comments section on my post where I defend myself against charges of racism, Rob Sheppard did another thread of tweets. I replied to some of the tweets and ended up by thanking Sheppard for his engagement in the discussion. I want to repeat those thanks here. I’m grateful to him for his contributions.

James Burn, in his article The Kitsch of “Wokeness” gives the Cambridge Dictionary definition of wokeness: “the state of being aware, especially of social problems such as racism and inequality.” As Burn says, this definition implies that the woke person has correctly identified what form racism takes. In his thread of tweets replying to my post, Rob Sheppard identifies racism in a way that makes it difficult for any white person to defend themselves against accusations of being a racist. He says:

  1. You are still failing to address possibly the most fundamental insight of the anti-racist movement, one that is central to understanding Gerald’s work.
  2. You say “I do not participate in racism.” This is where you seem to be fundamentally misunderstanding Gerald’s work. You work in English language teaching. So do I. By virtue of that fact, we participate in racist systems. So, yes, we absolutely do participate in racism.
  3. Racism is baked into systems. Government, healthcare, criminal justice, policing, education, and certainly ELT. Saying you don’t participate in racism is like a fish saying they don’t participate in water. You move and act in a racist world and so you inevitably participate.
  4. This is why your emphasis on your own not being “a racist” at an individual level is pointless. I mean good, don’t be a bigot, obviously. But that’s not sufficient. But this is where systemic racism comes in. You can remove all the bigots, and the system is still racist.
  5. This is true of nearly all fields, but particularly true in our field, which is fundamentally grounded in colonialism. That the systems themselves are racist independent of the racism of individual bigots is what makes the active “anti-“ in anti-racism necessary. Just like being neutral in situations of oppression favors the oppressor, being merely “not a racist” within a racist system favors an inequitable status quo.
  6. There are power dynamics at play that now intersect with your individual behavior, regardless of your motivation. This is why you can be (and are) perpetuating racism regardless of your receipts from 40 years ago.
  7. But now you are an established white academic tearing down the work of a young Black academic. I do not think that this is motivated by individual bigotry on your part. But that’s beside the point.
  8. This is why your emphasis on your own not being “a racist” at an individual level is pointless. I mean good, don’t be a bigot, obviously. But that’s not sufficient. But this is where systemic racism comes in. You can remove all the bigots, and the system is still racist.

Discussion

1,2, 3 and 4 say: We all participate in racism. (Ergo; I participate in racism.)

5 says: We must be active in fighting racism. (I have always been active in fighting racism – I dare to say that I’ve done so more than he has, and contributed more than he has to that fight.)  

 6. says: I am perpetuating racism because of power dynamics at play that now intersect with my individual behavior, regardless of my motivation. (Decipher that for yourselves,)

7 and 8 say: Although my motivation is not individual bigotry, my attempts to show that I’m not a racist are beside the point because of the existence of systemic racism.

Given that my only concern has been to defend myself against personal accusations of racism, I hope that the weaknesses in Sheppard’s argument speak for themselves. What is troubling is the wokeness of the argument, summed up by this bit:

“Saying you don’t participate in racism is like a fish saying they don’t participate in water. You move and act in a racist world and so you inevitably participate.”

My attempts to defend myself against personal accusations of racism are doomed to fail if this sort of reply is given credence. In Sheppard’s world, the world of wokeness, the persistent, endemic racism that pervades our world makes any attack on the work of black scholars a minefield. If the person treading through this minefield is bad old me, known for making “weird” personal attacks on people, and if the victim of my criticism this time is “a young black scholar”, then I’m almost bound to tread on a mine. And when I do, it’s only right and proper that the full wrath of wokeness should descend on me. “He’s a racist!” chant the woke people – and Sheppard’s there, true to his family’s heritage perhaps, guiding the sheep towards a slightly more nuanced understanding of why they take so much delight in cheering from the sidelines as another offender’s character gets dragged through the social media slime.

Whatever my criticisms of Sheppard’s arguments, I respect him, and his attempts to fight racism. I have nothing but contempt, however, for those on Twitter who get so much perverse enjoyment (“I can’t sleep” for fuck’s sake) from making wokeness an artless, vicarious form of kitsch. Burn, cited above, quotes Kundera: “In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions.” He adds “Crucially, indulgence in kitsch brings with it the feeling that one is part of something greater—joining with others in being moved to happiness, sorrow or anger”.

My CV in Fighting Racial Prejudice

1960  Aged 16, I organised a debate at my school “This House condemns Apartheid in South Africa”.

1962 I joined the Anti Arpartheid group at LSE

1965  As President of Debates at LSE, I helped organise Malcolm X’s visit to LSE https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsehistory/2015/02/11/brilliant-rhetoric-malcolm-x-at-lse-11-february-1965/

1967-1969 I worked with  Ronnie Kasrils in London (he was at LSE for a while) to organize opposition to the  South African government.  https://jacobinmag.com/2017/11/south-africa-apartheid-sacp-london-recruits

1970- 1975 I worked in Notting Hill and Chalk Farm with various anarchist groups. We fought racism by supporting local black groups fight police busts, racist landords and racist government officials. I was part of a group in Chalk farm who went with black Londoners (mostly from the Caribbean) to fight for their rights in local magistrates courts and government departments, notably social security. I worked with a radical solicitor (Bernie Simons) on a number of cases to defend innocent black Londoners against trumped-up charges.  I was also part of a group who gave evening classes to local young people (many of whom were black) to help them with their school studies.

1972 – 1974 I worked with radical black groups in Chicago and with the San Francisco branch of the Black Panthers. I gave two series of seminars to members and followers on Marxism and Anarchism and I rode in cars with armed Panthers who followed the police to monitor their stops on black African Americans.

1960 – 1980 In the UK, I was involved in a number of conferences and workshops involving local officials and members of the government where racial prejudice was attacked and solutions proposed.

1980 – While living in Spain, I have taken an active part in various campaigns to combat racial prejudice and spoken out every time I’ve ever heard people making racist comments or treating people of colour disrespectfully.  

All my life I have fought racial prejudice. I’ve been beaten up by cops and racists. I’ve lost jobs, been arrested and put in prison for my efforts. I have on a few occasions started fights in bars and restaurants when I’ve witnessed people being insulted or badly treated because of the colour of their skin.  

I feel obliged to defend myself in this way because recently I’ve been accused of being a racist on Twitter and other parts of the Social Media. All of the attacks stem from an exchange I had with a black American who accused me of racism because I said he was talking crap. My “guilt” was sealed by a review I did of an article that the same man wrote with two co-authors. “He’s done it again!” tweeted the now twice offended black guy.

And the same man recently said on Twitter something like “It seems that years ago he spoke truth to power, but now he’s just a sad, cranky old man, unwilling to accept his obsolescence”. He refuses to acknowledge that his accusation is false, he uses my age to insult me in a way I never insulted him, and he uses my age and whiteness to dodge the criticisms I make of his published work. His followers, and those who are only too happy to see me insulted, back him up.     

Postscript

On 31st May, Rob Sheppard tweeted the following thread about this post      

Response

My concern in this post is to support my claim that the accusations of racism made against me are wrong and unfair. I give my “CV” in order to suggest that the comments I made about Gerald’s tweets and articles are unlikely to be explained by racism. After a life dedicated to fighting racism, why would I suddenly stoop to it for the first time in my life when arguing with Gerald on Twitter?

Sheppard’s tweets seem to say “Today, we’re less concerned about people being racists and more about combating the ways that we all inevitably participate in racism. Since you frequently critique people’s work in a way that many [including Sheppard, of course] strongly disapprove of, and since you tried to “tear down” the work of a young black scholar, you should stop making all this effort to defend yourself and, instead, reflect on the consequences of your online behaviour.” The message seems to be: it’s your own fault that you’ve been called out as a racist.

First, I do not participate in racism; not in what I say, nor in what I do. However much the current turn in anti-racist work might be about combating general social attitudes and practices, I’m defending myself against a personal attack: I was personally “called out” as a racist.

Second, I think it’s an unfair exaggeration to say that I tried to tear down Gerald’s work. I supported the attempt of the authors to bring attention to the problems of what they call “Standardized English”, and suggested that they needed to build a stronger case. My remarks about Gerald’s style were seized on as evidence of racism. See my reply.

Third, I know perfectly well that many people intensely dislike many of my posts, and maybe many of them intensely dislike me. That’s OK by me. I appreciate that I’ve been rude about individuals, although I have, pace Sheppard, on a number of occasions, publically recognised and apologised for offensive remarks, and deleted the offending blog posts. Still, I recognise that I’ve “blotted my copybook”, so to speak, enough times for Sheppard’s remarks to have some force. He’s quite right to say that I too often adopt the wrong tone and that I show little sign of learning from my mistakes.

But what isn’t OK by me is being called a racist. I find the accusation abhorrent. That’s why I’ve taken the trouble to defend myself by 1) answering a series of tweets describing me as a “trash person”, … “called out for racism”, and 2) writing this “CV”.

Gerald’s accusations of racism about me are unfounded and unfair, as are similar remarks made by others. Nobody who has called me a racist has given any but the flimsiest of evidence to support these accusations, and I hope my “CV” serves as counter evidence. Of course, it’s hard to prove that you’re NOT a racist or to live with the smear, once it’s been made. Sheppard might like to reflect on that.

Summary of Beliefs

English language Teaching (ELT) should be based on what we know about how people learn a second language (an L2).  

We know that language learning relies mostly on implicit, unconscious learning. Learning English as an L2 is not the same as learning geography, biology, or most subjects that form the programmes of primary, secondary and tertiary education. Learning English as an L2 happens, mostly, as the result of using the language, of doing things in the language, rather than studying it as an object.

It follows that, while telling students about the language is helpful (depending on the way it’s done), it should not the basis of ELT.

Telling students about English is the basis of most ELT. Protests from coursebook writers and other prominent teacher educators notwithsatanding, research shows that in most ELT settings, where teachers use coursebooks, 70% plus of classroom time is taken up with teachers telling students about the language.

It follows that most ELT is inefficacious.

 The reason why this inefficacious approach to ELT persists is because it allows for the packaging and delivery of English courses for profit.  ELT, which includes materials, teacher education and testing, is a multi-billion dollar industry. ELT is commodified, to the detriment of learning.

There are better ways of organizing ELT. All of them start with rejecting the CEFR framework, the use of coursebooks which use a synthetic syllabus to get students from A1 to C2, and the use of high stake exams which falsely measure people’s communicative competence.

The “better ways” include Dogme, CCLT, and Long’s version of TBLT, all of which are more efficacious. They aren’t more widely understood and used because of the enormous power of the commercial interests that promote coursebook-driven ELT.

Current ELT practice results in the general failure of students to reach their objectives and in the appalling pay and conditions of most teachers.

Progress depends on social change. The world’s 2,153 billionaires have more wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60 percent of the planet’s population. Far from being tangental, this is central to understanding the way current ELT is carried out.

We can bring about change. The best way to do so is by informing ourselves about how people learn languages. This will lead to recognising the weaknesses of current ELT practice. Along with that, we should organise at a local level in such a way that we teach differently and fight for decent pay and conditions.

Tom The Teacher Part One

(Note: I’ve done this before, but it’s updated, and the start of a new series. I dedicate it to Sandy Millin, who, in her work as a Director of Studies (DOS), punches a huge hole in the argument.)

Tom was in a bit of a panic. He only had an hour before his first class. He was in the teachers room scrambling to get his classes together. His problem, as usual, was just how much of the Outgoes Intermediate unit that was supposed to frame his lesson he could ignore. Was his plan to concentrate on the mention of single mothers a bit too risky? Were some of the items he’d quickly put together on his supplementary vocab. slide appropriate?

  • sanctity of marriage
  • hypocrisy /prejudice / machismo
  • up the duff
  • It’s your own fault, you ….. + adj.
  • I’m quite capable of ….. ing  without ….
  • parenting
  • Just because ….. , doesn’t mean ….
  • Has it ever occurred to you that ….
  • I tell you what. Why don’t you just …….

 His work was interrupted by a tap on his shoulder. It was the DOS’ secretary.

“Jill wants to see you in her office, now”.

Jill’s office was at the top of the building.  Lots of inspirational posters (Don’t make excuses; make improvements; Teach me and I will forget, bribe me and I’ll do it; Excellence is a numbing mind set) dressed the walls, and a huge desk at the end of the room had Jill throned behind it on a plush executive chair. Tom knocked on the door, heard the order “Come!” and walked to the desk, where he sank into a sort of office deck chair designed to emphasise his lowly status. Jill swiveled the monitor screen on her desk round so that Tom could see it.

“Well, Tom, what do you make of these data?”

Tom leant forward and strained his neck up to read the information. It showed attendance at his classes, test results of his students, and results from the latest evaluation questionnaires filled in by his students (“clients” they were called in the data summaries). Highlighed bits of the myriad graphs displayed on the screen flashed in red. They indicated that in 4 out of 20 recent classes, fewer than 50% of his students had attended class; that 3 of his students had failed their mid-course test and that 23 had got less than 60% (the target set at the April Teachers’ Meeting); and that 17% of his students had given his teaching a score of 3 or worse (the target was 4, the maximum score being 5).

“Well, they show that most of my students attended most of the classes, that most passed the exams, and that most were happy with my teaching”, Tom said, attempting a winning smile at his boss.

“Any other comments, Tom?”

“Er, could do better?”

“Very droll, Tom, but don’t you think they indicate that some real improvement, some paradigm shift in your attitude towards excellence in the challenging field of contemporary ELT, is needed?”

“Right.”

“So what, Tom, are we going to do? I need hardly remind you of the economic climate we face, or of the need to lift our game so as to face with confidence the challenges we face.”

“Right.”

Tom was thinking how tense Jill looked, She looked as if she was about to have a seizure. She seemed to be making a supreme effort to smile, make eye contact, not cross her arms, not fiddle with the pencils (why would she need pencils?), do everything she had learned how to do in her MBA. He felt like going over to her and giving her a hug. 

“So what do you propose, Tom?”

“I really can’t think of anything that might, well, lead to a paradigm shift.”

“That’s a pity, Tom. I was hoping for more from you.”

“Perhaps you had something in mind?”

Jill pushed her glasses up to the bridge of her nose, and then looked down at Tom through the bottom of the lenses, as if needing a closer view.

“My job, Tom, is to lead a team. My job is to inspire us all to give 110% of ourselves. My job is to project the value of engagement in the on-going quest for betterment.  An ongoing dialogue, a frank, open and transparent exchange of views which takes place at a personal, group and institutional level can only win the prize I seek, Tom – Undisputed Number One Educational Centre in Torrecaca – if we are all on board.”

“Right.”

“And the implication is, Tom, that I need you to re-visualise your extant, faux hippy ideological foundations. I need you, that is, to re-examine your fundamentally individualistic, blinkered belief system, to confront the limitations of your woke-free, complacent, 1960s-driven liberal mindset , and to re-group towards a more clearly on-side positioning.”

“I’m not sure that I understand that.”

Jill pushed the up lever and her executive chair sprang upwards.  

“At the last Teachers’ Meeting it was agreed that we would collectively embrace a social constructivist view of ELT. This carefully fashioned pedagogic approach is built on the findings of an eminent group of teacher educators who base themselves, as it were, well, you know what I mean, no need to raise an eyebrow, Tom, on the work of academics who adopt a socio-cultural perspective, a perspective that rightly rejects the sterile, positivist, where’s-the-evidence, nit-picking nonsense of those who stand in the way of a slowly-evolving, steady-as-she-goes, socially-sensitive approach, cognizant of the legitimate expectations of all stakeholders, including of course our generous sponsors, .. Where was I? Ah yes.  “Enough!”, they rightly cry. “Away with positivistisic, retrograde thinking! On and upwards now to the existentially mediated, grounded, foregrounded impacting of a post Hegelian dialectical praxis, multidimensionally pluri-affecting reaffirmation of the ideological hegemony of a mummified status quo!” Hmm. I might not have adequately paraphrased that. So much to learn. You know what I mean.”

The front and back legs of Tom’s chair were slowly moving apart. As he slowly sank towards the floor he ventured: “Well, actually, … “

“As I said at the meeting, teachers are simply not the ones who should judge the efficacy of our carefully crafted, consumer-orientated raft of products. The management is confident that the well-ordered progression through the carefully calibrated, seventy ‘Can Do’ statements laid out in our “Seven Step” plan of courses offers a premium, life-enhancing learning experience. We stand by our use of the Outgoes series of coursebooks  – truly progressive in its use of obscure lexical chunks and off-beat tokenism – supplemented, as they are, by the universally acclaimed materials provided by Dr. Friginfranco Ponti, including Drill and Skill, Disappearing Text, Wake Me Up When It’s Over, Spot the Nonsense, Sign Here For The Next Course, Blind Mimes, Sentence Chaos and Thank God It’s Finished, which, I shouldn’t have to remind you, we pay nearly $3 a day to use.”

Now on the floor, Tom propped himself on his elbows.

 “To be fair, there are quite a lot of worries …..”

“Listen, Tom. Despite our exemplary SLTE programme, where, again at great expense, we get the finest educators in the field, like Byson Sunburnt, for example, to help them reflect on the dissonance between their thought-to-be, maybe, and if-only-I-could-stop-drinking-would-be selves, they continue to voice doubts about what we’re doing. The effort involved in social constructivist pedagogy, Tom, is always linked to an epistemological relativity where social determinants intervene and where each of us, as the great Byson Sunburnt puts it, extrapolates its “meaning-for-us-where-we-are-nowishness”, its interactive, contextualized praxis, if you will, in our own idiosyncratic way. With this, Tom, I mean that social constructivist pedagogy is not, as you mistakenly seem to think, a license for an “Anything goes” approach, but rather an injunction to diversely interpret an ongoing engagement with a fluid but nonetheless mutually constraining road map.”

“Catchy title for a coursebook series” Tom blurted out, hand on chin, looking up from the floor.

“The constraints, Tom”, continued Jill, ineffectually pushing the down button on her executive chair in an attempt to get up close and personal with her employee, “include being on the same page”.

“And I bet that, for once, you’re not using a metaphor”, said Tom, already, once again, imagining working somewhere else.

“If it’s Tuesday, Tom, you teach the present perfect, because that’s on page 23 of the testament, I mean the textbook. You’re free to do it in your own way, but do it. Then move to page 24. Why? Because it enhances the sense, illusory as it might be, of progress, because it rescues us from uncertainty, because it stops students babbling on in ineffectual attempts to express themselves and because we’ve got a well-planned course to get through for God’s sake. Those of us who adopt a socio-cultural perspective are pragmatic, inclusive, LGBTFYT aware, progressive educationists, pushing boundaries, inexorably moving goalposts, but if I hear that you’ve skipped more than two pages in the unit again, well let me just say this ……. ”

The down button on Jill’s chair abruptly responded to her frantic force on it, and down she went, leaving her eventually with her chin on the desk, unable to see Tom, who couldn’t see her either.

“Are you OK?” asked Tom, getting to his feet.

Jill disentangled herself from the chair.

“Well, I’m glad we’ve had this little get together, and I hope to see results. OK Tom?”

“OK.”

“Good, Splendid. Excellent. Thank you, Tom.”

It was over. Tom went back to the Teachers’ Room, collected his stuff, and went to class.

To be continued

Life on Twitter Part 2

A review I wrote recently of an article by Gerald et. al on Whiteness caused some concern on Twitter. Here are a few of the comments:  

I can’t believe he did it again. And yeah, “Gerald et al.” (Gerald)

White British academic living in Spain fretting about POC having a voice in the TEFL field. The last gasp of empire. He’s irrelevant. (Doctura Daymundra)

You’re right, all garbage. (A.R. Shearer)

Don’t waste your time on him. He’s a human vampire who feeds off the energy and time others expend on dealing with his endless miserable trolling. Been there. Done that. (Dellar)

Don’t. Feed. The. Troll. ( Dellar)

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Gerald says “I can’t believe he did it again”. I take Gerald to mean that I’ve given further evidence that I’m a racist, i.e., antagonistic towards him because he’s a black American. He says I did it “again” because, months ago on Twitter, I said he was talking crap, which he claimed was clear evidence of racism. This time, the evidence is that I refer to “Gerald et. al” in my review, rather than Gerald, Ramjattan and Stillar. When three or more authors write a published article, it’s the convention in APA to cite them as I did; it surely can’t fairly count as evidence of a personal attack, motivated by racism. Just to be clear, I’m not antagonistic towards Gerald because he’s a black American.

As for Dellar’s remarks, I invite you to read my reviews of his work – see the Menu on the right. Can they fairly be dismissed as miserable trolling? Dellar’s repeated explanation for my criticisms is that they’re motivated by repressed lust – I fancy him. If Gerald’s explanation for my criticisms of his published work is that they’re motivated by racial prejudice, then he’s being equally ridiculous.

The review was so troubling to Hampson that he felt the need to sit up half the night and write a long attack on it.

I liked a response to this (I won’t name the author because he’s rightly sick of the whole thing)  

Really? You can’t sleep because of a blog post – and now we need a Twitter pile-on? I’ve just skimmed both articles in question and perhaps maybe there is something, EVEN ONE THING, to be learned from both. Or maybe just write a response on your own blog but ‘I can’t sleep’?

Anyway, Hampson wrote a thread of tweets laying out his reasons for describing the review as “trash”.

Trash Thing One

Ok trash thing one: It’s weird to insist on comment on people’s writing style every time you write a ‘review’ of someone’s work.

As someone with a learning difficulty, reading ‘Stuff like ‘Gerald’s articles give me the impression that his attempts at elegant prose (rarely successful) compensate for lack of scholarship.’ are nasty and would also make me not want to write publicly.

What does he mean by “weird”, I wonder? Supernatural; unearthly, odd, fantastic, ..?  I think he means “nasty”. He states that I do this weird / nasty stuff of commenting on people’s writing style every time I write a review. The statement is false. I’ve done more than 60 reviews on books and articles, and I comment on style in relatively few of them. When I do comment on the style of the text, in many cases, I praise the style. In the cases where I make negative comments, I do so because I think the style has a bad effect on the force and intelligibility of the argument. The works of Harmer and Dellar are examples. I’ve done half a dozen reviews of their books and presentations because both of them are highly influential authors. Their published work is, IMHO, a disgrace, and their style plays a part in the abysmal quality of their work. Just as a counter example, I disagree with Jim Scrivener’s view of ELT, but I think he writes beautifully, and I’ve said so in posts on this blog. As for Gerald’s texts, I see serious stylistic weaknesses. I think he imitates the awful, obscurantist style that’s so evident in the work of socio-cultural academics, and I think it contributes to the impression of poor scholarship and bullshit. That’s my opinion. As with fans of Harmer and Dellar, there will be many who see nothing wrong with Gerald’s style, just as there are millions who see nothing wrong with the way Dan Brown writes.

Furthermore, I’m not aware that Gerald has any learning difficulties, and I’m pretty sure that my comments will not put him off wanting to write publicly. If my comments encourage him to consider the way he writes, well great. If, on the other hand, my comments make him even more determined to write the way he does, so be it. In any case, I reject Hampson’s “Trash Thing One” entirely. Making critical comments on Gerald’s style with little concern for the effects it might have on his self-confidence is, I suggest, not a good reason to calll the article trash.

Trash Thing Two

Trash thing two: The person writing this: – Recently I got called out for my racism against the person their criticising. – Has no lived experience of being a scholar of colour. – Has been repeatedly told to go away by the person their writing about.

And despite all that thought ‘Yeah, it’s probably my place to chip in some thoughts here.’ Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man I guess?

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Note Hampson’s argument: the review is trash because the person who wrote it is trash. The person who wrote it is trash because he’s been accused of racism, is not black himself, and carries himself with the confidence of a medicre white man.

First, I was “called out” for racism by Gerald himself, and his accusation was repeated by Hampson and others. But that doesn’t mean I’m guilty as charged. I deny the charge, and Hampson should recognise that not everybody agrees that Gerald’s accusation is fair and well-founded.

Second, I had no contact with Gerald for months until I commented on his article last week. Gerald did not repeatedly tell me to “go away”. Gerald wants to promote this lie, but it is, nevertheless, a lie.

Third, Hampson’s remark “Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man I guess?” speaks for itself.

Trash Thing Three

Trash thing three: Pro tip: If you keep singling out one person in an article for attack and ignore their co-authors, it makes it look like you are only writing the article because that person made you sad on Twitter one time or something.

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I published an abridged version of the article to make it clear that I don’t single out Gerald for attack, or ignore the co-authors. Most of the review deals with the views expressed by all three authors, and I continuously refer to “the authors” and to what “they” said. Hampson’s accusation is false. The suggestion that I only wrote the article because Gerald “made you sad on Twitter one time or something” is also false.

Trash Thing Four

Trash thing four: Getting mad at an article that is part one of three for not covering the entirety of a subject is VERY funny to me. However, it’s also a trash thing to do.

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I didn’t get mad at the article, and I didn’t ignore the fact that it’s part one of three. The authors explained that the three parts would address 1) Classrooms; 2) Training and labor; 3) The industry. I addressed the “Classroom” issues. Pace Hampson’s suggestion that it’s a trash thing to do, in fact t’s quite usual for reviews to be written on Part One of a series of articles. I look forward to Parts 2 and 3; if they clarify the two blurred snapshots of classroom practice offered in Part One, I’ll acknowledge that and respond.   

Trash Thing Five

Trash thing five: If you’re a self described anarchist who lives in a nation state, you don’t get to make ‘You’re anti-academic language, but you have used academic language at points while doing a PhD, CHECKMATE’ arguments. Sorry.

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I’m not sure what being an anarchist and living in a nation state has to do with it, but I didn’t make the argument Hampson attributes to me. I made the point that if Gerald says that we must banish “Standardized English” from ELT, then he should confront the problem of the mismatch between this injunction and the way he himself, as “a rare Black voice in the field” uses English in his published work. And I also suggest that the article is weak (“thin soup”) because the three authors don’t give enough attention to the problem that they choose to focus on namely Standardized English. As I say , unless a more thorough attempt is made to address the issue of what non Standardized English entails, and how it can be taught, all the rhetoric is mere hand waving.

To return to the issue of the mismatch. Gerald himself recognizes the problem. In a reply to a question by me, he says in the Comments section:

there IS a legitimate discussion to be had about the fact that we do tend to use standardized English in our own writing, and how that can reify the same structures. I don’t believe you are making that point in good faith, but what to do about the fact that others are less familiar with unstandardized English is a genuine complexity worth exploring. Not in this piece, though maybe in the final installment later in the year. 

And in a reply to Mura he says:

“I’m writing towards this in my book a small amount – how can I change things while using this language? – but ultimately it’s a bit like driving to a protest. Sometimes you have to get there however you can”.

Note, also, that while I questioned this reply (which I consider disingenuous), I also said:

Just in case you misinterpret my comments above, I make them in good faith.

First, I’m keen to understand your argument, and I don’t think you make it clearly. Examples of classroom exchanges using alternatives to standardized English would help, as would discussion of whether there are any limits to an “anything goes” attitude, and if so, what they are. Obviously, we need to ensure mutual intelligibility.

Secondly, I’d really like to see a version of this article written in a voice that you haven’t been forced to adopt. I appreciate it’s difficult, that you probably wouldn’t get it published in any “respected academic journal” that you have every right to be heard in such journals, etc., but it would be informative. The question at the end of my first comment, above, was not intended to be “dismissive”, quite the opposite, in fact.

I’m very tempted to make a few comments about Hampson’s Twitter presence – the motivation for his “defence of the wronged”; his ethics; his style, even – but I’ll refrain.

A Review of “After Whiteness”, Abridged.

Given the objections to my comments on Gerald’s style in the original version, I offer this abridged version which leaves them out. I think I should be allowed to make the comments I made without being accused of writing trash, of being a troll, and, inevitably, of being a racist, and I’m not bowing to the pressure of those who make these accusations. But by leaving out the “offensive” bits, I hope to make it clear that the bulk of my criticisms are aimed at the weaknesses of the article itself, and that the review is not intended as a personal attack on Gerald.

The article, by Gerald, et. al (2021) is the first part of “a vision of a possible future for English language teaching” and it discusses how English language teaching (ELT) might be practiced if Whiteness were to be decentered.

The authors explain that “Whiteness is centered in the teaching of the English language, and the ELT field serves as an arm of racist and capitalist oppression while claiming it as a force for positive change, with detrimental implications for students and educators of color”. Not a lot is said in the article to support this preliminary assertion, but it is dealt with, to some extent anyway, in an article by Gerald (2019), who cites the work of Bell (1995); Bourdieu (2005); Canagarajah (1999), Bonfiglio, (2002), and Phillipson (1992), among others, to help him argue that English is the language of capitalist power, used to support a neoliberal ideology which sustains the status quo. ELT professionals promise non-whites, the racialized, that they can save themselves from the “precarity and pain endemic to powerlessness” by learning “Standardized English”, i.e., a manner of using English which white people use. The promise is an empty one, since whiteness is an ideology that depends upon exclusion, and thus the best that students can hope for is, as Gerald et. al put it in this article, is “to pantomime a reasonable facsimile of whiteness without full equity”.

I recommend these further texts: Phillipson & Skutnabb-Kangas (2009), Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2000), Skutnabb-Kangas & Cummins 1988), and Skutnabb-Kangas et. al (1995), and that the authors go into more depth about precisely how they are using the construct of Whiteness. In as far as I understand their use of the construct, I agree that it’s an issue that deserves to be more widely discussed and I agree that radical change is required to deal with it.  

The main part of the article is devoted to answering the question “What would ELT look like after Whiteness had been decentered?”. To do this, they set out to “re-envision” the classroom and current ELT practice. They insist that the “entry point” to this new vision is the dismissal of linguistic prescriptivism “(i.e., the idea that grammar and language should be corrected and regulated)”, and the adoption of “counterprescriptivism”.

In a post-Whiteness version of ELT, racialized students should be empowered and encouraged to challenge their White teachers if and when they are told the way they are using the language is incorrect. Meaning-making is ultimately a negotiation of power, and if a student can convey the meaning they seek, they should be able to assert their intent in the face of possible correction. This would be a deeply post-structural way to approach language teaching, but part of dismantling Whiteness is dissolving artificial and coercive hierarchies, and sharing corrective power between both teachers and students is one valuable way to ensure Whiteness remains decentered.

They go on to provide “select snapshots” of what counterprescriptivism might look like. The problem is that the “snapshots” are extremely blurred. First up is the suggestion that, since ELT must stop framing standardized English as the only desirable form of the language, it follows that teachers should be “direct” about what they’re teaching.

If we began to call ourselves “standardized English teachers,” we would then have the choice to consciously teach not just the language but also the features of its standardization and the decisions behind why certain types of languaging are valued more highly than others. We could also choose not to teach standardized English and instead teach the varieties surrounding a school’s location, comparing the equally valuable differences. For example, a school near where Gerald lives in New York could teach the New York versions of African-American English and Dominican English.

Let’s agree that we should not, in the ideal future of ELT practice that the authors envisage, choose to teach standardized English. Let’s suppose instead that the school near where Gerald lives in New York teaches the New York versions of African American English and Dominican English. What would that look like? Well, it would “relegate standardized English to a decentered role within the larger ecosystem of the field while elevating other forms of the language”, by encouraging students “to use the entirety of their translingual and cultural resources to aid in the learning process”.

OK, but what would it look like? We don’t expect a detailed description, but surely we have the right to expect a clear, well-focused snapshot. A sample lesson perhaps, or an outline syllabus, or something that would indicate the radical differences that are claimed to ensue. What would be taught? How? What does the teacher (following a radically changed syllabus, one supposes) do to encourage students to use the entirety of their translingual and cultural resources to aid in the learning process? Nothing is suggested; instead we are told that if the school near where Gerald lives in New York taught the New York versions of African-American English and Dominican English (whatever that might involve) “ideologies that tether Whiteness to a standardized form of the English language” would be recognized as “nothing more than attempts to standardize Whiteness itself”.

The second snapshot involves “rethinking Intelligibility”. In the re-visioned ELT world, teachers would relax their expectations about how students should use the language. For example, regarding pronunciation, if students learn the varieties of English of where they live, they’ll appreciate that “deficient-sounding” features of pronunciation are actually common and thus do not need to be changed in order to ensure successful oral communication. Moreover, teachers would help students to focus on “critical listening”, so that students appreciate that “certain racialized accents are not inherently unintelligible, but rather are made unintelligible by ears conditioned by ideologies of White supremacy”.

And that’s it; that’s the second snapshot and the end of the article, apart from a short final paragraph.

Discussion

“Thin soup” is how I’d describe this article. It begins:

From the canon to hiring practices to the classroom, we would be speaking about an entirely different field of English language teaching (ELT) if Whiteness were no longer centered, and although we are years of hard work away from this possibility, any calls for radical change are well served by pointing toward a possible future, and as such it is valuable to entertain the idea”.

The pointers this article gives towards the ideal future ELT that the authors have in mind consist of two blurred and poorly described “snapshots”, more notable for their rhetoric than for their substance. Two particular issues need addressing.

First, how, in a post-Whiteness version of ELT, can racialized students be empowered and encouraged to challenge their White teachers if and when they are told the way they are using the language is incorrect? What does it mean to say that if a student can convey the meaning they seek, they should be able to assert their intent in the face of possible correction? All of us interested in radical change to current ELT practice accept the need to revise the “what” of English language teaching, so as to move beyond “Standardized English”. The question is what do we put it in its place? What knowledge of the grammar, lexis and pronunciation of English should we teach? As many local varieties as possible? A “formal” (Standardized) and “informal” (local) variety? What? This boils down to a question of the limitations of an “Anything goes” approach: what are the limitations on this splendid injunction? What do we do to ensure that people using English as a lingua franca enjoy easy, mutually intelligible communication with each other? Seen through the lens of a raciolinguist, how do we reform the current version of English so as to rid it of Whiteness? Without proper attention to these questions, all the stuff in this article is little more than hand waving.

Second, how does Gerald – in his own words “a rare Black voice in the field” – reconcile the way he uses English in his “published scholarship” with his insistence that standardized English, the language of the oppressor, must be banished from ELT? In a reply to a question from Mura Nava on Twitter, who asked Gerald about this mismatch, Gerald acknowledged the problem, and said:

“I’m writing towards this in my book a small amount – how can I change things while using this language? – but ultimately it’s a bit like driving to a protest. Sometimes you have to get there however you can”.

In my opinion, Gerald needs to tackle the problem by paying more attention to what version of English those involved in ELT should use. It’s a difficult question, and I don’t think this article gets very far in answering it.    

References

Bell, D. (1995). Who’s afraid of Critical Race Theory? University of Illinois Law Review, 893–910.

Bonfiglio, T. P. (2002). Race and the Rise of Standard American. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Bourdieu, P. (2005). Language and symbolic violence. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Canagarajah, A. (1999). Resisting linguistic imperialism in English language teaching. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Gerald, J.P.B. (2020). Worth the Risk: Towards Decentring Whiteness in English Language Teaching. BC TEAL Journal, 5, 1, 44-54. Retrieved from: https://ojs-o.library.ubc.ca/index.php/BCTJ/article/view/345

Gerald, J.P.B, Ramjattan, V.A., &  Stillar, S. (2021).After Whiteness. Language  Magazine, May 17, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.languagemagazine.com/2021/05/17/after-whiteness/#comment-637475

Hesse, B. (2016). Counter-Racial Formation Theory. In Conceptual Aphasia in Black: Displacing Racial Formation, P. Khalil Saucier and Tryon P. Woods (eds.), vii–x. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Phillipson, R. (1988). Linguicism: structures and ideologies in linguistic imperialism. In J. Cummins, J., & Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (eds.), Minority education: From shame to struggle. Avon: Multilingual Matters.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

 Phillipson, R., & Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2009). The politics and policies of language and language teaching. In Long, M. H., & Doughty, C. J. (eds.), Handbook of language teaching (pp. 26-41). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Sekimoto, S., and Brown, C. (2016). “A Phenomenology of the Racialized Tongue: Embodiment, language, and the bodies that speak.” Departures in Critical Qualitative Research, 5(2), 101–122.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2000). Linguistic genocide in education – or world diversity and human rights? Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T., & Cummins, J. (eds.) (1988). Minority education: From shame to struggle. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T., Phillipson, R., & Rannut, M. (1995). Linguistic human rights: Overcoming linguistic discrimination. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

A Review of “After Whiteness” by Gerald, et. al 2021.

 

The article is the first part of “a vision of a possible future for English language teaching” and it discusses how English language teaching (ELT) might be practiced if Whiteness were to be decentered.

The authors explain that “Whiteness is centered in the teaching of the English language, and the ELT field serves as an arm of racist and capitalist oppression while claiming it as a force for positive change, with detrimental implications for students and educators of color”. Not a lot is said in the article to support this preliminary assertion, but it is dealt with, to some extent anyway, in an article by Gerald (2019), who cites the work of Bell (1995); Bourdieu (2005); Canagarajah (1999), Bonfiglio, (2002), and Phillipson (1992), among others, to help him argue that English is the language of capitalist power, used to support a neoliberal ideology which sustains the status quo. Given this premise, Gerald argues that ELT professionals promise non-whites, the racialized, that they can save themselves from the “precarity and pain endemic to powerlessness” by learning “Standardized English”, i.e., a manner of using English which white people use. The promise is an empty one, since whiteness is an ideology that depends upon exclusion, and thus the best that students can hope for is, as Gerald et. al put it in this article, “to pantomime a reasonable facsimile of whiteness without full equity”.

While I think Gerald has managed to find a good position for himself in the field of raciolinguistics by focusing on his chosen construct of “whiteness”, his argument seems to me to be still embryonic and sketchy. Gerald’s articles give me the impression that his attempts at elegant prose (rarely successful) compensate for lack of scholarship. There’s a lack of substantial content, a tendency to showy froth, in the texts. Compare them with the work of Phillipson himself, and those of Phillipson & Skutnabb-Kangas (2009), Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2000), Skutnabb-Kangas & Cummins 1988), and Skutnabb-Kangas et. al (1995), for example. Still, I agree with Gerald’s position, as far as I understand it. I agree that it’s an issue that deserves to be more widely discussed and I agree that radical change is required to deal with it.   

The main part of the article is devoted to answering the question “What would ELT look like after Whiteness had been decentered?”. To do this, the authors set out to “re-envision” the classroom and current ELT practice. They insist that the “entry point” to this new vision is the dismissal of linguistic prescriptivism “(i.e., the idea that grammar and language should be corrected and regulated)”, and the adoption of “counterprescriptivism”.

In a post-Whiteness version of ELT, racialized students should be empowered and encouraged to challenge their White teachers if and when they are told the way they are using the language is incorrect. Meaning-making is ultimately a negotiation of power, and if a student can convey the meaning they seek, they should be able to assert their intent in the face of possible correction. This would be a deeply post-structural way to approach language teaching, but part of dismantling Whiteness is dissolving artificial and coercive hierarchies, and sharing corrective power between both teachers and students is one valuable way to ensure Whiteness remains decentered.

They go on to provide “select snapshots” of what counterprescriptivism might look like. The problem is that the “snapshots” are extremely blurred.

First up is the suggestion that, since ELT must stop framing standardized English as the only desirable form of the language, it follows that teachers should be “direct” about what they’re teaching.

If we began to call ourselves “standardized English teachers,” we would then have the choice to consciously teach not just the language but also the features of its standardization and the decisions behind why certain types of languaging are valued more highly than others. We could also choose not to teach standardized English and instead teach the varieties surrounding a school’s location, comparing the equally valuable differences. For example, a school near where Gerald lives in New York could teach the New York versions of African-American English and Dominican English.

Let’s agree that we should not, in the ideal future of ELT practice that the authors envisage, choose to teach standardized English. Let’s suppose instead that the school near where Gerald lives in New York teaches the New York versions of African American English and Dominican English. What would that look like? Well, it would “relegate standardized English to a decentered role within the larger ecosystem of the field while elevating other forms of the language”, by encouraging students “to use the entirety of their translingual and cultural resources to aid in the learning process”.

OK, but what would it look like? We shouldn’t expect a detailed description, but surely we have the right to expect a clear, well-focused snapshot. A sample lesson perhaps, or an outline syllabus, or something that would indicate the radical differences that are claimed to ensue. What would be taught? How? What does the teacher do (following a radically changed syllabus, one supposes) to encourage students to use the entirety of their translingual and cultural resources to aid in the learning process? Nothing is suggested; instead we are told that if the school near where Gerald lives in New York taught the New York versions of African-American English and Dominican English (whatever that might involve) “ideologies that tether Whiteness to a standardized form of the English language” would be recognized as “nothing more than attempts to standardize Whiteness itself”.

The second snapshot involves “rethinking Intelligibility”. In the re-visioned ELT world, teachers would relax their expectations about how students should use the language. For example, regarding pronunciation, if students learn the varieties of English of where they live, they’ll appreciate that “deficient-sounding” features of pronunciation are actually common and thus do not need to be changed in order to ensure successful oral communication. Moreover, teachers would help students to focus on “critical listening”, so that students appreciate that “certain racialized accents are not inherently unintelligible, but rather are made unintelligible by ears conditioned by ideologies of White supremacy”.

And that’s it; that’s the second snapshot and the end of the article, apart from a short final paragraph.

Discussion

“Thin soup” is how I’d describe this article. It begins:

“From the canon to hiring practices to the classroom, we would be speaking about an entirely different field of English language teaching (ELT) if Whiteness were no longer centered, and although we are years of hard work away from this possibility, any calls for radical change are well served by pointing toward a possible future, and as such it is valuable to entertain the idea”.

But the pointers this article gives towards the ideal future ELT consist of two blurred and poorly described “snapshots”, more notable for their rhetoric than for their substance.

Two particular issues need addressing.

First, how, in a post-Whiteness version of ELT, can racialized students be empowered and encouraged to challenge their White teachers if and when they are told the way they are using the language is incorrect? What does it mean to say that if a student can convey the meaning they seek, they should be able to assert their intent in the face of possible correction? All of us interested in radical change to current ELT practice accept the need to revise the “what” of English language teaching, so as to move beyond “Standardized English”. The question is: ‘What do we put it in its place?’. What knowledge of the grammar, lexis and pronunciation of English should we teach? Should we teach as many local varieties as possible? Or maybe a “formal” (Standardized) and “informal” (local) variety? What? What are the limitations on the splendid injunction “Anything goes”? What do we do to ensure that people using English as a lingua franca enjoy easy, mutually intelligible communication with each other? Seen through the lens of a raciolinguist, how do we reform the current version of English so as to rid it of Whiteness? Without proper attention to these questions, all the stuff in this article is little more than hand waving.

Second, how does Gerald – in his own words “a rare Black voice in the field” – reconcile the way he uses English in his “published scholarship” with his insistence that standardized English be banished from ELT? Gerald’s published articles, both of them, use a highly stylized version of Standardized English which has all the hallmarks of the preferred style of academics who adopt a socio-cultural framework: “plain English” it most certainly is not. Does Gerald, I wonder, recognize the irony of referring to racialized students as those who, at best, can “pantomime a reasonable facsimile of whiteness”? Does he not come across as one of those awful revolutionaries who knows what’s best for the rest? On Twitter, Mura Nava asked Gerald about this mismatch. Gerald acknowledged the problem, and said:

“I’m writing towards this in my book a small amount – how can I change things while using this language? – but ultimately it’s a bit like driving to a protest. Sometimes you have to get there however you can”.

“Sometimes”? “However you can”? Really? It strikes me that Gerald consistently and deliberately chooses to drive to the protest not “however you can”, but rather in a gaudy stretch limo, which, just maybe, is unfit for purpose.      

References         

Bell, D. (1995). Who’s afraid of Critical Race Theory? University of Illinois Law Review, vol.1995. 893–910.

Bonfiglio, T. P. (2002). Race and the Rise of Standard American. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Bourdieu, P. (2005). Language and symbolic violence. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Canagarajah, A. (1999). Resisting linguistic imperialism in English language teaching. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Gerald, J. P. B. (2020). “Worth the Risk: Towards decentring whiteness in English language teaching.” BC TEAL Journal, 5(1), 44–54. https://doi.org/10.14288/bctj.v5i1.345

Gerald, J.P.B, Ramjattan, V.A., &  Stillar, S. (2021).After Whiteness. Language n Magazine, May 17, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.languagemagazine.com/2021/05/17/after-whiteness/#comment-637475

Hesse, B. (2016). Counter-Racial Formation Theory. In Conceptual Aphasia in Black: Displacing Racial Formation, P. Khalil Saucier and Tryon P. Woods (eds.), vii–x. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Phillipson, R. (1988). Linguicism: structures and ideologies in linguistic imperialism. In J. Cummins, J., & Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (eds.), Minority education: From shame to struggle. Avon: Multilingual Matters.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

 Phillipson, R., & Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2009). The politics and policies of language and language teaching. In Long, M. H., & Doughty, C. J. (eds.), Handbook of language teaching (pp. 26-41). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Sekimoto, S., and Brown, C. (2016). A Phenomenology of the Racialized Tongue: Embodiment, language, and the bodies that speak. Departures in Critical Qualitative Research, 5, 2, 101–122.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2000). Linguistic genocide in education – or world diversity and human rights? Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T., & Cummins, J. (eds.) (1988). Minority education: From shame to struggle. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T., Phillipson, R., & Rannut, M. (1995). Linguistic human rights: Overcoming linguistic discrimination. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Memory and Teaching an L2

Memory: What Every Language Teacher Should Know is an attempt to persuade  teachers of an L2 that the best way to teach is by presenting and then practicing carefully selected bits of the language using Delayed Dictation, Drill and Skill, Sentence Stealer, Disappearing Text, Sentence Builders, Shadow reading, Blind Mimes, Rhyming Pairs, Zero Prep Retrieval Starters, Match Up, Spot the Nonsense, Spot the Error, Sentence Puzzles, the Keyword Method, Sentence Chaos, and the MARS-EARS sequencing of lessons.

The book gives an inadequate and incomplete discussion of how memory affects second language learning; it over-emphasises the importance of explicit teaching and is likely to encourage teachers to believe that the Presentation-Practice-Production (PPP) approach is supported by evidence from cognitive science and from evidence from research into SLA. In this review, I begin with a summary of the book and then discuss the authors’ underlying view of language and second language learning. The Notes in brackets are my annotations.

Chapter 1 begins by describing some key terms.

Implicit learning is ‘learning without awareness’. It’s how children pick up their first language(s), with no intention to learn. It’s unconscious. It’s also the most powerful process in second language acquisition. In contrast, explicit learning happens consciously, with intention.

The result of implicit learning is implicit or procedural knowledge – knowing how to do something without necessarily being able to explain it. In contrast, the result of explicit learning is explicit or declarative knowledge – being able to describe what you know, for example being able to say that we usually form the plural in English by adding an ‘s’.

Explicit knowledge develops differently and, although it’s a hotly debated issue, some researchers (for example DeKeyser, 1995), and most teachers, believe that with enough practice, explicit knowledge can become implicit. (Note: Most SLA researchers reject this view.)

The focus in the book is partly on explicit (conscious) learning.

So, what is memory?

The brain records, very quickly, all the information it is bombarded with in a sensory register. This is a sort of ultra-short term memory for each of the five senses. This initially encoded information is sub-conscious. But when we pay conscious attention to something, it is transferred from the sensory register into memory.

Working (or short term) memory holds the information in mind, unwanted information is filtered out so as to allow us to focus on what is worth processing. This allows us to process information more efficiently.  

Long-term memory, on the other hand, is like a huge warehouse where you can access all the things you know about the world, whether it be the capital of Spain, the price of a litre of milk or the meaning of the fact that French adjectives agree with nouns.

Memory can be seen is as a large, leaky bottle with a very narrow neck and huge body. Working memory is the neck which only a small amount of liquid (information) can enter at a time (Baddeley, 2000). If you pour liquid into it too fast much will be lost. The implications of this are clear enough. We need to be really careful to limit the amount of new language presented and practised, especially with beginners, in order for it to pass through the neck of the bottle. (Note: It doesn’t take long for the authors to make their view of language teaching clear: teaching consists of presenting and practicing language. Those who reject basing teaching on implementing a synthetic syllabus reject this view. What’s more, the (false) implication, right from the start, is that language acquisition depends crucially on input passing through working memory.)    

Working memory is defined as:

those mechanisms or processes that are involved in the control, regulation and active maintenance of task-relevant information in the service of complex cognition, including novel as well as familiar, skilled tasks” (Miyake and Shah, 1999, p.450).

We only use working memory when we process new information or carry out tasks consciously. When we perform routine tasks or process familiar information, we use subconscious processes which by-pass working memory. Long-term memory plays an integral role in working memory. Think of a complex, dynamic two-way relationship between working and long-term memory. (Note: the authors acknowledge here that not all language learning relies on the processing of information in working memory. However, the book as a whole gives the strong impression, in my opinion, that SLA relies on the processing of information in working memory – of getting input through the very narrow neck of the bottle. Such an argument is plain wrong.)

The term automaticity comes from a skill acquisition model of learning proposed by John Anderson. The idea is that, with practice, knowledge can be become automatically retrievable without having to think about it (Anderson, 1982). This means that, when we perform a complex task, the brain can bypass working memory, calling on automatised knowledge from long-term memory. So the main point is this: working memory capacity is very limited and language learners, especially beginners, don’t have much long-term memory knowledge to help them deal with incoming language. Work focused on automaticity can speed up retrieval and lighten the load on working memory. (Note:  Anderson’s ACT theory is almost impossible to test empirically and is rejected by most SLA research scholars.)

Every operation the brain performs when decoding a message takes place in working memory. Take vocabulary learning: any rehearsal we do when trying to commit vocabulary to long-term memory (for example, repeating aloud) is performed in working memory, which temporarily holds that information for as long as we rehearse it. In speaking and writing, all the operations needed to put ideas into words, all the while monitoring for accuracy, happen in working memory too.

As new information is noticed, it interacts with all sorts of information held in long-term memory (phonological, lexical, grammatical and semantic). The new information is processed, combined with pre-known information and creates new memories. It’s a highly complex, fast process, in constant flux.

The limited capacity of the Phonological Loop means that a novice second language learner can hold fewer words in working memory than in their first language as they pronounce the words more slowly. The more rapidly a second language speaker can utter a word or phrase, the less space it takes in working memory. So the more you know, and the more fluently you can speak, the easier the job becomes for working memory. This means that teachers need to carefully control the amount and difficulty level of language that students hear and read. (Note: it means no such thing. Not everything, by a very long stretch, we learn about the L2 passes through working memory.)  

For memory, students need to hear lots of comprehensible target language. The more you know and can say fluently, the less space is taken up in working memory. Particular attention is needed to deal with discrepancies between the phonotactics of different languages and to ensure learners get regular practice hearing and using utterances beyond the single word level.

Chapter 5 discusses Visual Space Memory, and I’ll leave it out, but note that the authors fail to discuss the advantages of multi-modal texts.

Chapter 6 is on Cognitive Load Theory (CLT). CLT is based on the limitations of working memory. Given these limitations, the argument is that new information presented to working memory can soon overload it. Sweller’s model of cognitive load claims that there are 3 types of load involved when processing new information: intrinsic, extraneous and germane (Sweller, 1988).

Intrinsic load = how many new, interacting things a student has to do to simultaneously in order to complete a task.

Extraneous load = demands placed on students by the teacher through the way they choose resources, present information or design teaching activities.

Germane Load= the load needed to build knowledge schemas in long-term memory and increase learning. In the case of language teaching, it refers to the process of linking new information with information already stored in long-term memory in order to create new schemas (for example, chunks of language). So when learning a new verb tense, you may call on knowledge of an existing tense. Germane load can be seen as a measure of the extra load imposed by the teaching activity which supports learning. It is where metacognitive strategies come into play; where students are aware of their thinking processes and able to adapt new information accordingly. In sum, you could say it’s where the real learning happens! (Note: you could, but it isn’t. See Discussion, below)

There follow lots of sections which are, not surprisingly, to do with explicit teaching. Examples are:

  • the information store principle;
  • the borrowing and reorganising principle;
  • the randomness-as-genesis principle;
  • the narrow limits of change principle;
  • the environmental organizing and linking principle.

The chapter goes on to look at “Factors affecting cognitive load”, and there are a lot of them, including the “Worked Example Effect”, which is well-discussed in the literature. The way the authors use it is, I think, a good indication of their whole approach. Just as in maths a teacher might work through a problem on the board to show how it is solved, they say, a language teacher can work through how to solve a translation by applying grammatical knowledge. In a two- way process, suggestions can be sought, questions asked, prompts provided and explanations offered. Sentence builders (the bright star in the Smith and Conti teaching almanac, also known as substitution tables) can be used as part of the process. Other effects discussed include

  • the modality effect,
  • the transient information effect,
  • the temporal congruity effect,
  • the segmentation effect,
  • the pre-training effect,
  • the variability effect.

As if this weren’t enough, the next chapter s devoted to considering in more detail teaching hints for managing cognitive load when teaching students new information that is processed in working memory. Sections include:

  • Building phonological memory;
  • The skilled use of questioning;
  • Working step by step;
  • Preventing divided attention;
  • The role of comprehensible input;
  • Chunking the input, including the use of sentence builder frames and knowledge organisers;
  • Learnability and processability;
  • Preventing inattentional blindness;
  • Metacognitive strategies;
  • Managing cognitive load in Task-Based Language Teaching;
  • Cognitive fatigue.

Finally, Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction are applied to language learning. (Note: These give a good indication of the authors’ inclination towards imparting declarative knowledge, as if they were teaching any other subject in a school curriculum, as if learning an L2 were the same as learning Geography, for example. It’s all about declarative knowledge.)  

Barak Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction

1.         Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning.

2.         Present new material in small steps with student practice after each step.

3.         Ask a large number of questions and check the responses of all students.

4.         Provide models.

5.         Guide student practice.

6.         Check for student understanding.

7.         Obtain a high success rate.

8.         Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks.

9.         Require and monitor independent practice.

10.       Engage students in weekly and monthly review.

Chapter 8 deals with long term memory.  

If we don’t pay attention to information, it is not consciously available, so it can’t enter working memory at all and cannot pass into long-term memory by that route. To reiterate, however, some of the information we don’t pay attention to may potentially pass directly into long-term memory through implicit (unconscious) learning. (Note: it is not that some of the information we don’t pay attention to “may potentially” pass directly into long-term memory, but rather that most of the process of becoming a competent user of an L2 consists of implicit learning. I will return to this vital point later.)

Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis (Schmidt, 1990; 2001) claims that attention is crucial for input to become intake. What is noticed becomes intake. Intake cannot happen without some level of awareness. It’s worth noting that there remains a good deal of debate about what ‘noticing’ actually means and that students seem to be able to pick up new language without appearing to have noticed it at all (implicit learning). As researcher Lourdes Ortega puts it, “the jury is still out on the question of whether learning can happen without attention” (Ortega, 2013, p. 96). (Note: Ortega acknowledges that this is not true. Schmidt admitted that learning can and does happen without attention. Nick Ellis, who the authors are fond of quoting when it suits them, 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” Ellis, 2005).

Even if you pay attention to something and notice it you may not end up storing it properly in memory. As far as language teaching is concerned, language has to be transferred from working memory to long-term memory. For this to happen a process of maintenance rehearsal is needed – reviewing material over and over again. (Note: this a truism, based on a false assumption. Only if teaching (wrongly!) concentrates on declarative knowledge, does what is taught (explicitly) have to be transferred from working memory to long term memory.)  

The Schmidt Noticing Hypothesis claims we usually need to notice patterns in the language to internalise them. Research suggests that students can also pick up patterns implicitly. Students find it very hard to focus on the form and meaning of language at the same time. We cannot assume students will notice patterns unless we get students to look for them or point them out. Input can be manipulated to encourage students to notice patterns. On balance it seems that listening to music with lyrics while studying is distracting, but research supplies mixed messages on this subject. For memories to become more permanent, maintenance rehearsal is needed. The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve is a clear reminder of how quickly students can forget language. Regular distributed practice is usually needed for memories to stick. (Note: this comes close to distilling all that’s wrong with the whole book. It’s a classic example of covering all bases while insisting on an erroneous argument, namely that concentrating on the limitations of working memory is the key to successful second language learning.)

Chapter 9: Declarative and Procedural Knowledge

Nick Ellis (2017) points out that implicit and explicit learning are distinct processes; humans have separate implicit and explicit memory systems; there are different types of knowledge of and about language; these are stored in different areas of the brain. This ties in with what cognitive psychologists call declarative memory and procedural memory. Broadly speaking, explicit learning tends to produce declarative knowledge (‘knowing that’, for example, knowing the endings of a verb), while implicit learning tends to produce procedural knowledge (‘knowing how’ – being able to use those verb endings without having to think about it).

The relationship between explicit/declarative and implicit/ procedural knowledge may not be simple. One question is whether, in second language learning, declarative knowledge can become procedural. In the literature about SLA, the term interface is used to denote the potential barrier between declarative and procedural learning. Researchers disagree about the extent to which the interface can be crossed, with most believing that it can, under certain conditions, for example, N. Ellis (2005) and Ullman (2006). Our own belief is that by combining explicit teaching with repeated implicit exposure, students do gradually internalise language patterns.

Priming This brings us to a really important concept for language learning: priming. Speaking our first language at normal speed seems pretty effortless. We’re able to do this because every time we utter a word or phrase we are sub-consciously associating it with previous and possible future words or phrases. Our vast experience with the language gives us a huge range of possibilities since we’ve heard or read a myriad of possible combinations. So when we’re about to utter the next word or phrase, in a fraction of a second (around 50 milliseconds to be precise), we subconsciously choose the right one from the range of possibilities. This subconscious process of words affecting the following ones is called priming. One word or phrase primes the next. (Note: this is a bizarre account of priming. I’ll discuss it later.)

There are two main types of priming which have powerful learning effects: Perceptual priming and conceptual priming. Priming is known to activate the brain areas in the cortex associated with the thing being primed. So (Note: “So”? Really???) priming the word transport causes all the areas of the brain associated with transport to become active for a brief moment. This extra bit of activity makes it easier for additional information to be activated fully. (Note: Truly bizarre!)  

Manipulating the language input is likely to lead students to use and remember structures more successfully. That’s why it’s a good idea to repeatedly use high frequency grammatical patterns in the expectation that students will pick them up both in the short and long term. This can be done, for example, by means of sentence builders, question-answer sequences or audio-lingual style drills, as well as flooding input language with the patterns you want students to pick up.

We have seen that priming means repeating the presentation of something affects the way it’s processed a second time. If students are frequently exposed to a repertoire of chunked language it is more likely that one word, phrase or sentence will prime the next, allowing fluency to develop. In time-poor classroom settings, to achieve the amount of recycling needed for priming effects to develop, it’s wise to limit the amount of language input. You might like to think of it this way: at the start you have a small snowball of language. Over time, as new language is added, the snowball gets larger and larger as you add new language to the existing repertoire.

There are two types of learning happening in language lessons, implicit (unconscious) and explicit (conscious). The more comprehensible language that students hear and read, the more chance there is for implicit learning to occur. Priming is a type of implicit learning where previous learning events affect those in the future, or one word or pattern influences the next. (Note: the authors concede that priming is implicit learning – nothing to do with working memory.)  

It is sometimes said, therefore, that language learners have an in-built syllabus which affects what they can and can’t easily acquire. But this is a much debated and messy area of research and more recently doubt has been cast on the extent to which natural orders apply in second language acquisition (discussed in Kwon, 2005). Perhaps other factors such as frequency, inherent difficulty of grammar and differences between the first and second language come into play (see below). Others have pointed out that the social context may have an effect on sequence of acquisition, for example whether the language being learned is in a formal classroom or in other social settings (Ellis, 2015). However, it is safe to say one thing: teaching can only have at best a partial effect on the order in which learners acquire grammar. Remember that by acquire we mean possess the internalized (automatised) ability to use grammar, not just explain it. In other words the grammatical system needs to be in procedural long-term memory and this takes time. In sum, whether students are immune to the order in which you teach grammar or not, it’s important to have a sense of whether students are developmentally ready to acquire new grammar. (Note: this concession actually challenges the main argument of the book. Furthermore, I’ve never seen such a poor treatment of interlanguage development. )

Pienemann’s Processability Theory

The basic idea underlying second language acquisition researcher Manfred Pienemann’s Processability Theory is that at any stage of development a learner can produce and comprehend only those second language linguistic forms which the current state of the ‘language processor’ in the brain can handle. A student may be ready to acquire a new structure, or not ready. Knowing if a student is ready or not for a structure is therefore hard to gauge and, in the end, comes down to the teacher’s knowledge of each class and each student. In reality, because the range of natural aptitude and achievement in any class is considerable, deciding when to move on is bound to be a compromise because a traditional grammatical syllabus fails to take account of a student’s current state of second language development, you have to select the most important structures, supplement the text book and build in more practice. (Note: Another crass misrepresentation of a scholar’s work. I’ll say more in the discussion.)

To get around the difficulty of internalising grammar, some researchers, writers and teachers (including ourselves) suggest that combining vocabulary and grammar through a chunking approach makes learning easier, particularly for students learning a language in school settings. As a reminder, this is termed a lexicogrammatical approach (combining lexis – vocabulary – with grammar) to provide learners with lots of ready- made language chunks which they can learn and manipulate communicatively.

Surprise drives learning. Rescorla and Wagner hypothesised that the brain learns only if it perceives a gap between what it predicts and what it receives (cognitive conflict). (Note: this is an inadequate treatment of the important matter of parsing, which I’ll discuss below.) Long’s Interaction Hypothesis claims we need to test our utterances with other speakers to get feedback and to notice when we make mistakes in order to improve. When a student makes a mistake they are trying out a hypothesis. Corrective feedback tells them if it was right.

Allowing students to make errors is more productive than creating the conditions where errors are avoided at all costs (as in the behaviourist model). Deliberately using errors in input is a productive practice for language teachers, but needs careful timing and implementation. Recasts and prompts are two ways to provide feedback. The latter may be more effective, notably with beginners. Research is unclear about the timing of error feedback, but experience suggests it’s best to focus on only a very few major errors at one time. Although feedback can improve memory, language teachers can easily overestimate the value of correcting errors and may spend too much time doing so.

A selection of grammatical structures has to be made, sequenced in some coherent way, but this doesn’t necessarily mean organising your whole curriculum around an ordered sequence. Research offers little support for a curriculum based on ‘the grammar point of the day’ (a so-called synthetic syllabus). As we previously explained, students become developmentally ready to acquire grammar at different points. In addition, although teachers may find grammar fascinating, this is not necessarily the case for our students. One way around this, as we have mentioned before, is to incorporate grammar and vocabulary through a lexicogrammatical approach. This means presenting and practising language in communicative chunks in a way which is more appealing to students and corresponds better with how memory works. In a lexicogrammatical approach the grammar emerges from the language chunks used in communication. Grammatical points are explained and practised once students have had repeated receptive exposure through flooded input.

If learning a new language is largely a natural, unconscious, implicit process then it’s clear that our main role is to provide language input, allow learners to interact with it, nature will take its course and long-term memory will grow. On the other hand, if learning is a conscious process involving working memory, one where declarative knowledge becomes procedural, then teaching has to take this into account. Our own belief is that, in school settings, both learning routes are necessary to maximise both implicit and explicit learning. (Note: this sums up the “have your cake and eat it” argumentation that characterises the whole book.)

Finally, some motherhood statements conclude the book.

  • Make sure students receive as much meaningful, stimulating input as possible. Make sure students have lots of opportunities to practise orally, Use a balanced mixture of the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing.
  • Promote independent learning outside the classroom.
  • Select and sequence the vocabulary and grammar you expose students to. Do not overload them with too much new language at once. Focus on high frequency language.
  • Be prepared to explain how the language works, but don’t spend too much time on this.
  • Aim to enhance proficiency – the ability to independently use the language promptly in real situations.
  • Use listening and reading activities to model good language use rather than test; focus on the process, not the product.
  • Be prepared to judiciously and sensitively correct students and get them to respond to feedback. Research suggests negative feedback can improve acquisition.
  • Translation (both ways) can play a useful role, but if you do too much you may neglect general language input.
  • Make sensible and selective use of digital technology to enhance exposure and practice.
  • Place a significant focus on the second language culture.

Discussion

Here’s what I say in my blog:

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.

Now, while the book under discussion covers its back, so to speak, by recognizing the importance of implicit learning, its message is clear: explicit teaching of bits of language and their underlying grammar is the name of the game, and thus, considerations of the limitations of working memory are vital. Hence the overriding importance given to the discussion of cognitive load. And hence so much reliance on all the stuff, the awful jargon-ridden, anacronym-clogged  stuff, that characterises Conti’s confident “Here’s the Way to Do It” prescriptions that he goes round the world promoting. The book sends a clear message to readers: follow Conti and the MARS-EARS approach to teaching.

Conti’s approach is wrong. I’ve discussed his approach elsewhere, and I’ve argued in several posts that Long’s TBLT approach is better. As McLaughlin (1990) says, a cognitive description of second language learning provides a partial account and needs to be linked to linguistic theories of second language acquisition. “By itself, for example, the cognitive perspective cannot explain such linguistic constraints as are implied in markedness theory or that may result from linguistic universals. These specifically linguistic considerations are not addressed by an approach that sees learning a second language in terms of the acquisition of a complex cognitive skill” (p. 126).  

An important weakness of the book is how it deals – or fails to deal – with the constructs of input and intake. Smith and Conti talk about input going through working memory and into long term memory. But what is “input”? Without bothering much to define input, everybody agrees that “comprehensible input” is the key term. And what is comprehensible input? It’s that part of the language which the learner hears or reads and comprehends! This, of course, begs the question of what “the language they understand” consists of. In fact, input is noise, or stuff that hits the retina when you read, plus stuff you feel in your gut, and so on. So here’s the crucial point: we don’t get language from the environment, we get sensory stimuli. Jumping the gun a bit, when Schmidt claims that input becomes intake as the result of being “noticed” he uses three constructs that make up a circular argument. Sensory input from the external environment does not include nformation about the formal properties of a language which can be either ignored or noticed. You cannot notice from input that “went” is the irregular past tense form of the verb to go. Something already in your mnd has to do something quite special for that to happen

What you do, of course, is infer things from sensory stimului. The question is: What helps you make these inferences?  The two big contenders for an answer to this question are Chomsky’s UG theory and usage-based theories, perhaps articulated best these days by Nick Ellis. Personally, I think that William O’Grady’s theory of SLA and Suzanne Carroll’s theory of SLA are both much better than those that rely entirely on UG or on emergentism, but let’s keep it simple. Chomsky says that language learning relies on the workings of a special module of the human mind. Human beings are born with an innate capacity to make sense of the stimuli they get from the environment. This innate ability enables humans to make sense of stimuli thanks to a module of mind devoted to parsing all the stimuli we call language, informed by principles that underly all languages, plus parameters that further refine the principles. So we don’t really learn languages, any more than we learn how to use our lungs – we just grow into proficient users. Note: we’re talking about L1 acquisition. Chomsky didn’t really care that much about developing a complete theory of anything. What he was interested in was describing the underlying grammar that unifies all human languages; a truly magnificent task which has had extraordinarily widespread practical results.  The most powerful argument in favour of Chomsky’s view is the “Poverty of the stimulus” argument: children know more about their L1 than can be explained by an appeal to their encounters with the language they’ve been exposed to. Given the knowledge children show of their L1, which could not have come from their exposure to it, we conclude that the knowledge they demonstrate is innate. This is called “inference to the best explanation” (see Hacking for the best discussion) and I’ve yet to see a good reply to it.

On the other hand, there are various theories, these days put under the umbrella of “usage-based” theories, that explain all language learning as the result of much more general, very simple, operations of the mind. The most extreme of these theories wants to return to true empiricist principles, where any suggestion of a mind is outlawed. This “behaviorism revisited” view has been dolled up in various ways, most fancifully by Larsen-Freeman, who somehow manages to keep a straight face while explaining how flocks of birds and bits of broccoli support her new view of SLA. Such is Larsen-Freeman’s clout, or maybe, such is his gullibility, that my hero, Scott Thornbury, was heard for a while almost parroting this “chaos-theory” nonsense. Scott talked of how Descartes got uncomfortably stuck in a non-existent bit of himself, how the corporal body leans (or was it “sways”?) naturally towards the present perfect when talking of things present, how a proper appreciation of the definite article and two-letter prepositions can slowly release the whole rich grammar of English, and other mystic flights of thought.

The usage-based school is more reasonably represented by Nick Ellis, and I’m dismayed to see that he has such enormous support these days. Nick (I use his first name only to avoid confusion with Rod Ellis, whose own position is as clumsily ambiguous as always) makes a necessarily complicated case (I mean that there’s no simple case to be made for it) for his view that we should see language as one more tool in an evolving set of skills that has emerged in our attempts to communicate with each other. Language is not just a tool for social interaction. How about your innermost emotional musings, the way you think and talk to yourself, your half remembered thoughts when you wake up from a torrid dream, or the unwritten thoughts of your granny, or Socrates or Wittgenstein, for example?  Silly examples, but language is not, pace Holliday and the rest, only a tool for communication. I agree with Pinker that you don’t need language to think, but language is more than a tool for communication. Furthermore, Nick Ellis has still not given any good reply to Gregg’s (2003) resounding criticism. “Emergentists have so far failed to take into account, let alone defeat, standard Poverty of the Stimulus arguments for ‘special nativism’, and have equally failed to show how language competence could ‘emerge’.”

Whatever theory of SLA you fancy, they all agree on one thing: language learning is mostly implicit: it’s a question of learning by doing and letting whatever processes of the mind you want to hold responsible take their course. My own view is that the stimulii that make up the L2 are parsed by various processors which are tuned to the L1. When the parsers hit a problem, various interventions occur, trying to solve the various parts of the problem. Teachers explaining things can help, but what they can’t do is give their students procedural knowledge by telling them about the language. It follows that teachers should find out what their students need to DO with the L2 and then help them do it through scaffolded practice. That’s my view, and it’s why I advocate a TBLT approach and criticise General English Coursebooks.

Smith and Conti ‘s book fails to discuss the vexed, but essential question of the roles of explicit and implicit learning of a second language. It suggests to teachers that declarative knowledge about the L2 can be converted into procedural knowledge of how to use the L2 by careful attention to cognitive load. It fails to discuss the way that LTM stores linguistic information, ignores the evidence that suggests the fundamental division between declarative and procedural knowledge, and ignores the evidence that learners develop their own idiosyncratic interlanguage in a way that is impervious to explicit teaching. It serves the purpose of promoting teaching practices that do almost nothing to reform the classic PPP approach that blights current L2 teaching practice.

Notes:

  1. I promised to talk about Smith & Conti’s use of priming and didn’t do so. See this post for a discussion
  2. As to Pienemann’s work, I disuss it in this post, one of the SLA series of posts
  3. Cognitive load is narrowly discussed in this book. It’s an interesting subject, poorly dealt with in the book, which only looks at its effects on presenting bits of language and the effects on working memory. Much more interesting, IMHO, are the discussions of cognitive load when applied to tasks in a TBLT syllabus. Long (2015) insists that cognitive load should refer to the demands of pedagogic tasks, which ask students to do things with the language in order to achieve an identified target task, like giving a presentation, or writing a report, for example, So it’s the complexity of the task, not its putative linguistic complexity, that is the organising principle of the syllabus. I think he’s absolutely right. We should sequence pedagogic tasks by slowly increasing their cognitive demands, and these demands have to do with their effects on CAF – the complexity, accuracy and fluency of production. Long inclined towards Robinson’s (2005; 2007) complicated theory of task compexity (which assumes that learners will respond to the increasing demands of successively more demading tasks unhindered by restrictions of working memory), but later agreed more with Skehan’s (1998; 2003) “trade-off” view, which is based on considerations of the limitations of working memory. Smith and Conti’s book touches on these issues, but doesn’t discuss them well. The diferences in the postions of Robinson and Skehan, when talking about the way communicative tasks should be sequenced, is very interesting. I think Skehan’s right to say that Robinson’s theory is fanciful, I agree with Skehan about trade offs, but I think Skehan is wrong when he sides with Willis, emphasising the importance of explicit teaching. All very interesting stuff, none of it properly discussed in the book under review. I predict that the authors, if they respond to this review, will point to that bit of the book which gives a table of task types (open / closed, etc.) and their different demands. If they do, let them tell us more than the book does.

References

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