Against Intellectual Sloth, Part 2.

In Part 1, I looked at the first part of Dellar’s post Five things I’ve Learned from running-the “English Questions Answered” group, so as to comment on his claims about NNESTs. In this second part, I’ll look at the post as a whole.

The first thing Dellar learned was Language awareness is not something you’re born with. This invites the questions: What does “language awareness” refer to?; and: What’s the point of saying that it isn’t something you’re born with? Neither question is answered in the text.

The second thing he learned was Difference in meaning is inseparable from different usage. Again, we may ask: What does this mean? Following Widdowson (1979), a distinction is usually made between rules of usage (the rules for making language, i.e. syntax) and rules of use, which consider the communicative meaning of language. I presume Dellar just picked the wrong word, and is, in fact, referring to different uses. If he is, then the point seems to be that when trying to tease out the differences between closely-related words, it’s a good idea to not just look at dictionaries, but to “give examples of what the words are used to do – and to show the other words that often go with them”. I quite agree, and I’m sure you do too.

And I agree with points 3,4 and 5, too. Notions of correctness are more complicated that we may realise; some things are more worth worrying about than others; and tensions between descriptivists and prescriptivists remain high. Dellar’s remarks on all three points are reasonable enough, but his approach to the issues remains vague. In the case of notions of correctness, for example, Dellar says “we need to recognise and accept diversity and the fact that it’s often far easier to say what’s most normal than what’s ‘correct’”. OK, but how are teachers to decide the correctness or “acceptability” of particular sentences, or collocations, or pronunciation patterns? For example, when students ask “How do you pronounce the word ‘grass’?”, what should teachers say? Hugh says [gra:s] and Andrew says [græ: s]. Should teachers teach both? Or teach how they themselves pronounce it? Or use Jenkins’ ELF guide? Or assume that their students want to be taught British English RP / American Standard English? Similarly, Dellar chides “prescriptivist” teachers, but does little to address the frustration he admits they might feel when they’re told to be more “descriptive”. To say that “most of the old rules and generalisations remain”, but that we must consider emerging  “new norms” is not very helpful. What are the old rules and generalisations that teachers can continue to use, and how do teachers decide which new norms to incorporate?

Dellar’s reflections on the 2019 postings among his teachers’ group show his on-going confusion about language, and about language learning. The inability to distinguish between Hoey’s and N. Ellis’ use of the key constructs of priming and noticing is again in evidence, as is the habitual vagueness. In ELT, there’s no doubt that familiarity with formulaic language of all kinds, collocations included, is essential, but the vital question of how best to facilitate learning different kinds of formulaic language remains deeply problematic, as scholars including N. Ellis (2017), Long (2015), and, perhaps above all, Boers (e.g., Boers & Webb, 2018), all agree. Most importantly, they agree that trying to explicitly teach the thousands of “chunks” that learners need for a proficient use of English is quite simply out of the question; yet Dellar continues to extol teachers to do precisely that. He gives only the vaguest answers to questions such as: “What principles guide the choice of the chunks that we should teach? How can enough of these notoriously difficult-to-learn chunks be learned by students? What balance between explicit and implicit teaching and learning is required?” In this latest post, Dellar seems to prefer to muddy the water some more, rather than make the effort needed to address the issues.


Boers, F., & Webb, S. (2018) Teaching and learning collocation in adult second and foreign language learning. Language Teaching, 51, 77-89.

Ellis, N. C. (2017) Chunking. In Hundt, M., Mollin, S, and Pfenninger, S. (Eds.) The Changing English Language: Psycholinguistic Perspectives (pp. 113-147), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Long. M. (2015) Second Language Acquision and Task-Based Language Teaching. Malden, MA. Wiley.

Widdowson, H.G. (1979) Explorations in Applied Linguistics. Oxford, Oxford University Press.


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