Tag Archives: Myths and misconceptions

Great advice from St. George's, London

Language Hacking: Breaking out of the Intermediate Plateau



There comes a time in the life cycle of every language learning experience where the student is hit by a brick wall. I have experienced this myself while learning, or trying to learn Irish, French, German, Spanish, Latin and Italian. I have seen other learners go through it as both a teacher and a friend. The usual course of events is this: the learner starts out by picking up a great deal of high frequency vocabulary. Vocabulary which gives them an extremely profitable return on their investment. These high frequency words are often heard and seen in reading and listening input and quickly become acquired, making the learner feel like rapid progress is being made. This happy state of affairs remains as the learner progresses through A1 and A2 levels on the CEFR and continues into intermediate stages. With each hour spent acquiring, vocabulary texts become progressively more penetrable, thus positively re-enforcing learner behaviour.

This encouraging state of affairs continues unabated right up until the quagmire that is the B1-B2 crossover point. Think of it as a dark foreboding forest where only the most valiant warriors emerge. The honeymoon phase is over. This phase creates the false impression that languages are easy to learn. Well, they are at first, that is until the learner runs out of high frequency vocabulary to learn. Then, the tables are turned, high frequency vocabulary runs out and learners became faced with the bleak prospect of learning a word which they mightn’t come across again for weeks if not months. This can happen even in a situation where the quantity of input is extremely high, such as can be found in a full immersion environment. This land of no return is well know by language learners and it’s the last stop on the line for many of them. The trains stops and they get off far out in the suburbs.

Polyglots can also experience this stage, having said that it is more rare once you’ve mastered your first second language. I will attempt to address why this is the case later.

Firstly, I want to point out that this stage, sometimes termed the intermediate plateau, is not necessarily a bad thing. This level of proficiency serves many learners well. Let’s imagine a Korean business woman in the IT industry on a trip to her company’s supplier in Vietnam, who happen to make parts for her company’s mobile phones, to oversee new standards of production. Her hosts are equally proficient in the language, and together the happy group negotiate meaning during the visit. Error counts are high- but who cares? There is no teacher around to write down their mistakes and communication, while imperfect, is mostly successful. It’s all about getting the message across and if she doesn’t happen to know how to use the present perfect tense very well-well who cares? If she doesn’t happen to have the word for a particular noun- let’s say ‘a blanket’ in the hotel that she’s staying in- well, she can just show the receptionist a picture on her mobile phone. She could go on holidays the following year to France and have a very similar experience. In short, meaning is negotiated, thrashed out if you like, between two or more willing parties.

The majority of English as a second language speakers around the world are on the plateau and are happy there. They learned the language to get by, not to understand the intricacies of assonance in Grey’s Elegy, nor watch The Godfather Trilogy without subtitles and certainly not to give a talk at a TEDX conference or publish articles in peer-reviewed journals. Their ambitions are much more modest and mediocre works just fine for them in their world thank you very much.

Sounds great, right? And remember practice makes perfect, doesn’t it? So these intermediate plateau learners (IPLs) will inevitably get better as they continue dealing with the language, right? No, that’s where we are sometimes mistaken. This isn’t my line but I wish it was, practice doesn’t make perfect but perfect practice does. If you want to progress to C1 and C2 and beyond, your learning behaviours need to change.

Before I discuss practising more perfectly, I want to quickly explore the other factor which creates the illusion that languages are easy to learn at lower levels. This is the unequal way we have divided up language learning courses into a series of levels. Be it the CEFR, IELTS bands or the old beginner to proficiency system, schools, course books and teachers do not make it clear to students that the time it takes to get from A1 to A2 is not the same as the time it takes to get from C1 to C2, not by a long shot. Think of A1-A2 as the Apollo mission to the moon and C1 to C2 as getting to Mars (and setting up a colony there). Similarly, getting from band 5 to 6 in IELTS can be done in 3 months while getting from 8 to 9 may take 3 years or 30.

Ok so language acquisition is more rapid at the beginning but once progress slows down, how can we make the time we devote to learning a language more worthwhile?
It’s not a revelation, or at least it doesn’t seem so at first, but it is. I mentioned polyglots before. They go through the intermediate plateau in their first second language as all other learners but they manage to find their way out of the forest. They master their L2. L3 is a much easier experience. The brain has been rewired to become highly attuned to acquiring. The difference between L2 and L3 for the typical polyglot is like the difference between getting a taxi from the airport to your hotel or standing in the rain waiting for a bus that’s late and trying to understand the bus maps that are in a foreign language. For the polyglot, it becomes an enjoyable experience to go from elementary to proficiency in your L3. L4 is almost done on autopilot and it gets even easier from there. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that learning a language, even your fourth is easy. On the contrary, it still takes a huge investment of time. However, what reduces is the frustration of performing learning behaviours that give little return on investment. Enjoyment increases. The pleasure of improving is felt much more often, at all proficiency levels, and there is very little of the frustration.

What do polyglots do then that’s different? Well, for one they tend to be extremely disciplined. Just like physical exercise, a little bit on a regular basis goes a long way. They stay relaxed and do not stress to much about their level or undergo anxiety during production. They’re constantly trying out what they know and taking feedback on board, always  trying to do better next time. However, they can be happy to remain silent and simply soak up what’s going on around them. They look at grammar only on a need to know basic and don’t make the mistake of trying to learn the third conditional before they’ve even noticed it during input. They have modest goals, at least at first. These might be to have a enough Italian to order food in a restaurant or hold a conversation about football in German. They find input that’s comprehensible. And of course they keep motivated, which brings me to the key ingredient: avoiding boredom.

Boredom is the mortal enemy of acquisition. Polyglots have developed techniques for avoiding this boredom and its associated frustration on the intermediate plateau. One of the ways of achieving this is to change the learning source frequently. For example, if you’ve been doing French on Duolingo for a few months and have made a lot of progress but are getting a bit fed up with the routine of it all? Say you’ve read all the graded readers in your local library, you’ve got all of Axelle Red’s CDs and you’re sick of trying to read Camus’ L’étranger. Well, try another source- read BBC Afrique, watch TV5 and France 24 and listen to Europe 1. Download some podcasts. Find a TV programme from the Francophone world that you like, for example ‘Un Village Français’, have a look on YouTube for an interesting French language blogger- why not one from Cameroon? Find a language swap in your town. Find 10 of them. In short, change the channel and when you get bored: change again, stay on the same language but change the channel. Find a new French class, watch a documentary in French about a topic that you’re familiar with. Listen or watch to whatever you like so long as it’s in French and so long as you find it interesting. Watch things that you enjoy multiple times. That’ll make it more comprehensible with each listen. Acquisition is INEVITABLE once you stay relaxed, avoid boredom and keep that input comprehensible. Oh an get copious amounts of it: between 2 and 4 hours every day. C’est facile, non?


A Short Tour of Babel: Language Change and the Emergence of New Varieties.

(PIE Language Tree image above created by Minna Sundberg for the ‘Stand Still. Stay Silent’ webcomic, P196 http://www.sssscomic.com/comic.php?page=196)
The infinite variety

It is often thought that languages evolve in much the same way as Darwinian natural selection acts upon life on Earth. In this argument, dialects can be seen as the intermediary stages in the evolution of a ‘proper’ language such as French, Japanese, or Tamil or are hybridised versions thereof. In the same way that the ancestors of modern whales can be considered to be half hippo-like creatures and half aquatic mammals. This tantalising parallel does, however, not reflect the reality. Languages develop in a way that is wholly alien to how life evolves. Notwithstanding, languages and dialects do have their own versions of the blind watchmaker. So what are these mechanisms that create new languages? How did French spring from Latin? And Hindi from Sanscrit? Danish from Old Norse? And what is the difference between a dialect and a language?

A very human question-where do languages come from? The Biblical version of the emergence of language variety: The Tower of Babel (Pieter Bruegel)


Through a glass, darkly

We all instinctively understand what a language is. Most of us speak more than one. However, dialect has a more nuanced meaning. There is a lack of consensus in precisely what a dialect is because, a bit like Einsteinian physics, it depends on a given observer’s frame of reference. The traditional definition of a dialect is that it is a variant which is mutually understandable with another variant. For example, Gallego is a dialect both of Spanish and of Portuguese as it is a variant of each these languages and is mutually intelligible with speakers of either tongue. However, from the perspective of a French speaker, Spanish, Portuguese and Gallego are all languages for the same reason. In short, it’s complicated. What we consider serious enough to be given the haughty status of a language and what is regulated to merely being a dialect depends on many forces, among these being nationalism, history and politics.

Sometimes we think of ‘proper’ languages as having standardised grammars and dialects do not. If by ‘standardised’ grammar it is meant one which is universally accepted by its speakers, then every dialect has a standardised grammar, in the sense that all speakers of a given dialect use the same grammar. Of course they do, as do speakers of pidgins and creoles, even if the grammatical rules they abide by never get written down, and exist solely in the heads of their speakers. And even if they appear to be using ‘bad grammar’ to someone else. Similarly, if by ‘standardised’ we mean grammar which has been formalised and taught in schools, then languages that we often think of as dialects, such as Toscano, have a standardised grammar, so does Gallego and many others.

Our idea of what is a language and what is merely a dialect is tied up with the development of the European nationalism. Delacroix’s La liberté guidant le peuple (Liberty leading the people)
A matter of perspective
To help get to grips with this double standard, an often quoted definition, attributed to the best known figure in Yiddish linguistics, Max Weinreich, is that “a language is a dialect with its own army and navy”. In other words, a language is what is spoken by the person who carries a gun, waves a flag and wears a uniform. These power brokers also name the language. English, when named wasn’t spoken in all of England, nor was it the only place where it was spoken, it had a large number of speakers in Scotland, Southern Wales, Eastern Ireland and further afield. Spanish is more accurately described as Castilian. There are many other languages which are native to Spain and might also be called Spanish, for example Basque & Catalan. What we now call Italian is simply a variety which was, and still is, spoken in Florence. What we refer to as German is known as High German, Hochdeutsche Dialekte, in Germany, the most prestigious variety maybe, but nonetheless just one of the competing versions of German. Other varieties of German exist elsewhere, most notably in Switzerland, where Swiss German is often referred to as a dialect. The ‘Arabic’ of Morocco is very hard to understand for someone who speaks the local Arabic dialect of Saudi Arabia. Chinese has literally hundreds of versions or ‘dialects’. All this should serve to illustrate that the distinction between a language and a dialect, from the point of view of the objective observer, is pretty redundant.
Languages of Italy- note: these are not dialects of Italian in any sense. (image: Pellegrini’s ‘Dialetti parlati en Italia’)
“Allons enfants de la Patrie, Le jour de gloire est arrivé!”
So we can see that the very idea of a ‘language’ as separate and distinct and ‘proper’ is very recent and European and is tied up with the idea of the nation-state and a centralised political power structure. For a new one to develop, its speakers need to be cut off in some way from their neighbours. This isolation can be artificial, as in nation states, and usually involves the establishment of an official standard and the suppressing of competing variants. The English of the chancery in London shows how standard spelling and grammar sprung forth from the quill of a collection of government officials. More often, and much more naturally, languages come about because of geographical isolation, for example the languages of the island of Borneo, and develop independently within a few generations, quickly becoming unintelligible to their linguistically related neighbours.

A few of the ways in which languages change:

  • Their morphology and pronunciation changes.

The development of new forms of suffixes and prefixes appear such as adding -ism to make a generic noun, Trump and Trumpism being a recent instance. They undergo sound change, illustrated in the case of the hard /k/ sound of ‘cicer’ (chickpeas) of Classical Latin being replaced by a softer affricate (the sound represented by ‘ch-‘ in English) of modern Italian’s ‘cici’. Another example of this sound change is the early medieval pronunciation of the word ‘night’ , which was phonetic, i.e. said as it is written, and comparable in sound to its cognate in modern German ‘nacht’ but phonetically more akin to another German word ‘nicht’ (no). This medieval pronunciation of night morphed into the modern pronunciation of the word /naɪt/ following the Great Vowel Shift, GVS. (See below for further examples)

The Great Vowel shift ‘feet’ /fe:t/ became the modern /fi:t/ (graphic from the University of  Duesseldorf)


Some examples of the Great Vowel Shift: (Theodora Bynon, Historical Linguistics. Cambridge: CUP 1977, 82)
  • New grammar develops.
Or existing grammar takes on new work. Compare how the ‘passé composé’ of French is used to the ‘perfect’ in Latin or Spanish. ‘J’ai vécu à Paris’ means I lived in Paris not I have lived in Paris (for three years). Languages can develop in other ways too. ‘Synthetic’ languages, those with a high morpheme per word ratio, such as modern German, can sometimes cast off these complex morphological systems, becoming more ‘analytical’ languages. English is an example of an analytic language where word order (syntax), articles and prepositions have replaced the need for the accusative, locative, genitive, dative, nominative and vocative cases. This type of development, going from synthetic to analytic is what happened when those six cases of Classical Latin were lost in modern Romance languages such as Spanish, French and Portuguese.
  • Languages gain new lexis.

Said more simply, vocabularies expand profusely. New words are borrowed from neighbouring tongues. English happens to be greedy borrower, it loves the ‘je ne sais quoi‘ feel of foreign words, particularly Latinate ones such as ‘information’ or ‘circumspect’, Greek ones such as ‘anachronistic’ and ‘idiosyncratic’ and French words such as ‘city’, ‘accuse’ and ‘parliament’. Other words are created by combining two or more existing words, e.g. ‘Picture-postcard’, or by adding morphemes such as in ‘selfie’ and others still are coined seemingly from scratch or are onomatopoeic e.g. ‘bling’. New lexis are also created by reworking some of its existing lexicon.

English is a greedy borrower of words. It loves the ‘je ne sais qoui’ feel of imported lexis (source unknown)


Semantic Change
Existing vocabulary can take on new meaning. Linguists sometimes refer to this as semantic change. Sometimes the old meaning of a piece of vocabulary is still retained while it is simultaneously re-purposed to a new use. Compare the modern meaning of ‘wireless’, i.e. ‘WiFi’, to the meaning that was attached to that word in the beginning of the last century, where a wireless meant a machine that played radio stations’ broadcasts. Friend, which used to be just a noun, now can be used as a verb as well as in e.g. “He just friended me”. Sick used to mean ill, now it can mean that something is amazing as in “Man, that new Kendrick Lamar tune is sick!”
Semantic change: How the meaning of the English word ‘silly’ changed from its 16th century meaning of referring to someone who is blessed & innocent to its present day meaning of foolish.
Karma Chameleons
Languages can become different in other ways too, for example spelling, but there are too many to discuss in any detail here. What can be said, however, is that all aspects of a given language are in constant flux. Things like having a literate society slows this constant flux down but it is always going on, the motor of language change purring away in the background. However, as noted, they do not evolve in the same way that species do. Although they may give the illusion of having evolved, they simply change because of these drivers, without any particular purpose. They don’t change to become more suited to their environment as plants and animals do.
Shall I stay or shall I go now
Languages can be conservative, such as Icelandic, or Lithuanian, retaining more of the features of their ancestor languages, in this case old Norse and Proto-Baltic respectively. This happens because of geographic or cultural isolation or because the language is surrounded by speakers of a tongue from different language trees, as is the case with Romanian, which has retained much of the complex case system of Latin. Similarly, they can be innovative, such as French or Modern English, where because of complex socio-economic reasons, mass migration or war and invasion, they end up mixing profusely with other languages, and change in ways which are analogous to some of the linguistic features of those languages they encounter. This is what happened in the aftermath of the Norman invasion of England by William the Conqueror in 1066. The old Anglo-Saxon aristocracy was replaced by a new French-speaking one. It is no secret that Old English borrowed profusely from French but what isn’t so well known is that it also became influenced by French morphologically. For instance, it picked up the ‘-s’ morpheme to mark plurals from French, losing, for the most part, the plural markers of old English such as -an in words such as ‘naman’ , which becomes modern English ‘names’. Interestingly, vestiges of this old plural marker remain in modern English, for example in the words ‘children’, ‘brethren’ and ‘oxen’.
William the Conqueror (1028-1087) who brought the French Language to England. (image DKFindout)
Birds of a feather and the wall flowers

The other truism about languages is that they are very rarely unrelated to their neighbouring tongues. The Indo-European family is the best known linguistic branch containing among others, the Germanic, Slavic, Greek, Celtic, Anatolic, Indic and Romance lines. Anomalies occur, languages which appear to be unrelated to many others. Basque is one particularly well known orphan, although Korean and Sumerian are also anomalies. These languages are known as isolates and are much more common than you would expect, in fact they constitute 30% of all language families.

Endangered Languages around the World (UNESCO)
Endangered species
The other constant is that as one language is born, another dies. According to Ethnologue, of the (roughly) 6,909 languages which are spoken in the world today, 3,000 of these are spoken by fewer than one thousand people and are in severe danger of extinction. When a language dies, an extremely valuable part of the cultural inheritance of humanity is lost. We may struggle to preserve them, and record them for posterity, but are we merely putting off the inevitable?
A Phoenix from the flames? Can we recover endangered or even dead languages (source unknown)

A Phoenix from the flames?

To end on a more optimistic note, languages, like phoenixes, can rise from their own ashes. They can be reborn or if not reborn then resurrected and given new life, having spent hundreds, or sometimes thousands of years, on the deathbed. The reemergence of Hebrew in Israel as the Lingua Franca gives me hope that we can further recover Irish as the language of everyday communication on the island of Ireland, alongside English. A quick glance at the map below shows how Gaeilge (as its speakers refer to it) was the spoken language of the majority of the population (over 4 million of a total population of over 8 million) before the Great Famine of 1845-50. Due to mass immmigration, death from starvation and disease, the native Irish-speaking population was decimated, becoming about 250,000 by 1922. Since the founding of the state, various, sometimes half-hearted attempts have been made to reintroduce it as the community language in a wider proportion of the country but these initiatives have only had moderate success at best. The tide seems to be turning finally and I am happy to see this beautiful language being spoken more and more today. Much work needs to be done, however, to truly give it renewed vitality as we move towards the middle of the 21st century. I, for one, would love to see a truly bilingual Ireland. How can this be achieved? This is perhaps a question best answered in another blog post.Thanks for reading.

The pre-famine (1845) dominance of the Irish language is clear to see here. Can the language be brought back as the language of everyday communication? image: A History of Ireland in 1,000 objects.

Click on the link below to listen to the author, Robert William McCaul, discuss the topics presented in this article with Marek Kiczkowiak on the TEFL show:

Dialects, Language Change, Death and Revival


Photo under CC by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig from flickr.com

A NNEST perspective on teacher development: a complicity of silence?

Recently, there’s been quite a lot of debate about initial teacher training programmes such as CELTA or CertTESOL and how adequately they prepare people to enter ELT profession. For example, Hugh Dellar argues in this post that such courses are biased towards native speakers. The article sparked quite a bit of a debate, so I’d recommend reading the comments below it, as well as this critique by Anthony Gaughan. On the other hand, James Taylor takes a much more positive view of the CELTA in this article. And if you feel more like listening rather than reading, then you can check out this podcast by The TEFL Show where Rob McCaul and I discuss the pros and cons of the CELTA.

So where do I stand in this debate? Well, I acknowledge that there are some really good things about CELTA or CertTESOL:

  • they’re cheap in comparison to an MA
  • they’re short
  • they’re internationally recognised
  • they’re practical

Now that we’re done and dusted with the positives, let’s look at some criticisms. I take a much more critical view of these courses for a number of reasons. I can’t discuss all of them in one post, so I decided to focus on one, the Non-Native English Speaking Teacher (NNEST) perspective, which is partly related to Hugh’s argument. I expand his argument to talk about teacher development in ELT more general, but all of the points I make also refer specifically to initial teacher training programmes.

[NB: This article originally appeared in IATEFL Teacher Development SIG Newsletter (73), p. 8-9. You can download a pdf copy of it from my academia.edu profile here. I’d like to thank Adam Simpson and Willy Cardoso for their comments and suggestions on the initial draft of the article.]


When I was originally asked to write this article for IATEFL Teacher Development Special Interest Group newsletter on Teacher Development (TD) for NNEST, I thought that the whole premise was somewhat divisive. I don’t really buy Medgyes’ (1992) argument that “NESTs and non-NESTs use English differently and, therefore, teach English differently” (p. 346). Treating the two groups as if they were separate entities can lead to creating even more stereotypes (read this article by Michael Griffin). After all, both NESTs and NNESTs need to undergo pedagogical training and to participate in TD programs if they are to be successful teachers, for “teachers are made rather than born” (Phillipson, 1992, p.14).

However, the more I pondered the topic, the more I realised that there is indeed a NNEST perspective on TD (see Mahboob, 2010 for NNEST lens). While NNESTs have and still continue to make significant contributions to our profession, they have for decades been treated as second-class citizens. And despite the growing NNEST movement and support for it, there seems to remain a certain reluctance to embrace the idea of equality between NESTs and NNESTs (Holliday, 2005); a certain complicity of silence, if you will.

Photo under CC by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig from flickr.com

Indeed, as far as TD is concerned, the issue of native speakerism in ELT barely ever receives any attention during CELTA, DELTA or in-house TD programs. So, this article will outline some of the ‘silenced’ issues and argue that they must feature more prominently in TD if our profession is to ever extricate itself from the unprofessional and damaging grip of native speakerism.

For the purposes of brevity, the four main issues will be summarized here. I acknowledge the criticisms of NEST and NNEST labels, but for want of better terms use them here. Finally, this article should not be construed as a ‘rant’ against ELT, but rather as a suggestion for areas that I think should be discussed more openly and regularly during TD sessions. For “racism, as well as native speakerism, only survive if they are constantly reinforced through daily discourses that make them seem natural” (Ruecker, 2011, p.407).

Hiring policies

CELTA’s promise of “open[ing] the door to exciting teaching opportunities all over the world” should be taken with a pinch of salt, as research (e.g. Selvi, 2010; Ruecker & Ives, 2014; Mahboob & Golden, 2013) shows that approximately 75% of all job ads published online are for NESTs only. Not only does this mean that a NNEST with CPE grade A, CELTA, DELTA and a BA in English Studies will not even be considered, but also that any application from a NEST from the ‘Outer Circle’ (e.g. Zimbabwe, India) may well be rejected too. In fact, in certain countries (e.g. South Korea), NES status is further ‘refined’ to being white and Western-looking. This has its obvious negative effect on the importance of professionalism in ELT. However, what I find more damaging is that not discussing this issue during TD programs creates a vicious circle. NNESTs are not given support or tools to fight such prejudice. Conversely, NESTs find this advantageous, and thus have little incentive to openly question such policies.

One ingenious initiative to address this was started by @StudyCELTA. They inform their candidates about discriminatory job ads and direct them to @TEFLwork job board which only accepts equal opportunities ads.

ELF and World Englishes

I only came across these two terms (for a detailed discussion see Jenkins, 2007) six years into my teaching career, having by that time done both CELTA and DELTA. I can’t remember them having been discussed in any of the two courses, nor any in-house TD workshops I’d attended. The fact that most interactions in English nowadays take place in situations where no Native English Speaker (NES) is present is crucial, as it allows us to question the idea that students or teachers should aspire to a rather idealised NES model from the ‘Inner Circle’ (e.g. the UK, the US). It can be quite liberating for those NNESTs who have already developed the “impostor syndrome” (Bernat, 2008), simultaneously aspiring to comply with NES norms while being aware of the near impossibility of the task. For a NEST it is also vital to become aware of the fact that the English they speak is just one of a multitude of Englishes, and thus what is deemed correct or an error becomes much less clear cut. If we are to adequately prepare our students for interacting in English outside the class, we need to acknowledge and embrace the fact that “the standard English is no longer the preserve of a group of people living in an off-shore European island […]. It is an international language” (Widdowson, 1994, p.8).

Teaching methods

There seems to be a silent agreement within ELT to view teaching methods as neutral, apolitical, universally applicable and having sound theoretical or empirical foundations. Yet, these assumptions have been questioned on numerous occasions (see Pennycook, 1994 for a comprehensive discussion). In fact, if one examines the countless ELT methods that have over the years “roll[ed] out of Western universities and through Western publishing houses” (Kumaravadivelu, 2006, p. 20) and have been propagated with “an evangelical zeal” (Kachru, 1990, p.15), it is difficult not to notice the economic, political and cultural interests of the Centre lurking in the background (Pennycook, 1994, p.152). The “active, collaborative, and self-directed ‘learner-centred’ teaching–learning techniques” (Holliday, 2005, p.1) have been promoted as clearly superior to other methods, despite an acute lack of empirical evidence, and a disregard for local educational traditions. While TD courses certainly teach you how to best apply these ‘superior’ methods in class, they show little attempt at cultivating a more critical approach to ELT methodology. Thus, in their vast majority, courses such as CELTA produce teachers who are unaware of the underlying Anglocentricity of most ELT methodology, and who will “work within the confines of the institutions of the existing hegemonic order” (Kumaravdivelu, 2014, p.12) helping to perpetuate the privileged position of NS. On the other hand, what these courses should aim to do if we are to move beyond the pervasive ideology of native speakerism (see Holliday, 2006 for a brief discussion), which still imbues our profession, is to cultivate active and critical members of ELT profession.

Students want NESTs?

We’re constantly told by recruiters (e.g. Edge, 2011; Mahboob et al. 2004) that it’s all due to market demand. Students want NESTs, so schools can’t hire NNESTs, unless they pretend to be NESTs – as some colleagues have had to do. However, as Cook (2000) put it, “Nowhere is there an overwhelming preference for NS teachers. Being an NS is only one among many factors that influence students’ views of teaching” (p. 331). The majority of students want good teachers. It seems then that there is a profound disjunction between what many ELT professionals believe students want (i.e. a NEST at all costs, regardless of everything else) and what the majority of students actually want. There is also a belief that as far as the demand for NESTs is concerned the client is always right. On the other hand, we are prepared to question countless other misconceptions about learning and teaching languages that our students might have. This not only further undermines NNESTs’ confidence in their own abilities, but also buttresses the dominance of NESTs in ELT. Exploring this during TD is crucial as it can help us move the focus away from L1 as the most important and sought-after ELT ‘qualification’ to a discussion “about critical competencies of effective teachers and effective teaching regardless of that teacher’s background”(Farrell, 2015, p.3). Finally, it allows for an exploration of the qualities that students really value in English teachers, and of how these can be fostered in teachers.


I started this article with the premise that ELT is still imbued with native speakerism; that is the belief in inherent superiority of NESTs. While there are various other reasons why, despite over 20 years of NNEST scholarships and advocacy, native speakerism is “alive and kicking” (Phillipson, 2012). A very important factor seems to be that, as far as TD is concerned, there is a complicity of silence, a certain unwillingness to discuss and question it. Looking back at my career, I am convinced that if the four issues discussed here had been put on the table much earlier on, before I found out the hard way what effects native speakerism has on job prospects, for example, I would have been much better prepared to question the assumptions behind it and to defend my own rights. I also think that many more NESTs would also speak out against native speakerism, defending not only their NNEST colleagues, but also the value of their own professionalism, experience and qualifications.

PS: If you are concerned about professional equality between native and non-native speakers in ELT, check out and support TEFL Equity Advocates work here.

Designed by @tekhnologicblog


Bernat, E. (2008) Towards a pedagogy of empowerment: The case of ‘impostor syndrome’ among pre-service non-native speaker teachers. TESOL. English Language Teacher Education and Development Journal, 11, 1-8. Retrieved October 21, 2015 from: http://xa.yimg.com/kq/groups/16022259/699956107/name/impostor_syndrome_native_speakerBernat2008.pdf

Cook, V. (2000). The author responds… TESOL Quarterly, 34(2), 329-332. Retrieved October 21, 2015 from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.2307/3587957/references

Edge, J. (2011) The Reflexive Teacher Educator in TESOL. New York: Routledge.

Farrell, T.S.C. (2015). It’s Not Who You Are! It’s How You Teach! Critical Competencies Associated with Effective Teaching. RELC Journal, 46 (1), 1-10. Retrieved October 21, 2015 from: http://rel.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/01/27/0033688214568096.abstract

Holliday, A. (ed.) (2005) The Struggle to Teach English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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‘ELF and TESOL: A change of subject?’ summary of Prof. Widdowson’s plenary

Finally, I managed to get my act together and write another blog post. It’s been too long! But the PhD in TESOL I started recently has swallowed up what had previously been called free time. You might also have noticed a flurry of activity around The TEFL Show podcasts, which I co-author, and which you can find now on their brand new website here. So, I was delighted when last weekend I managed to get away for a weekend to go to TESOL Italy convention in Rome. So for the next couple of posts I’ll be writing up summaries of some of the sessions I’ve seen. We’ll start it off not with the first talk, but with perhaps the one I’d been looking forward to most: Prof. Henry Widdowson’s plenary at the end of Day 1. NB: this summary has been edited following Prof. Widdowson’s suggestions and feedback.

The third plenary session that I saw during TESOL Italy 2016 was given by Prof. Henry Widdowson. Having read many of his books and papers I was really looking forward to finally seeing him live giving a talk. As you can see from the photo below, I wasn’t the only one looking forward to this opportunity – the room was absolutely packed (you might be able to see Barbara Seidlhofer and Diane Larsen-Freeman sitting in the first row). I actually had to ‘borrow’ a chair from the terrace area and sneak in right beside the podium to be able to see the talk.


As the title suggests, the talk proposed that the Teaching of English as a Second/Foreign Language needs to undergo a paradigm shift from teaching English as a language ‘belonging’ to and ‘owned’ by Native English Speakers (NES), to teaching English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). This issue has been widely discussed recently in academic publications, and was explored in-depth in two books Defining issues in ELT by Widdowson himself and in Understanding ELF by Barbara Seidlhofer.

The talk started with a historical overview of the shift away from a Structural Language Teaching (SLT) to Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) which took place in ELT starting in the late 70s and early 80s. Many might think of this change as a profound paradigm shift from a structure, grammar and correctness oriented approach to a focus on productive skills, communication and interaction. However, Prof. Widdowson points out here that in fact very little changed. The subject being taught remained essentially the same. So did the basic assumptions behind teaching.

In fact, in certain basic respects we haven’t moved on at all. The (idealised) NES competence was the subject of SLT and still is that of CLT. The two approaches might seem radically different at the surface, but they’re underlying assumptions remain exactly the same. And as a result of these assumptions, learners are only labelled as successful provided they conform with the NES models.

It is true that in SLT the focus of teaching was slightly different as the emphasis was placed on linguistic terms. In addition, English was thought of as radically different from students’ L1, which made it seem really difficult to learn. Students had to internalise this foreign and alien code. A lot of SLT also focused on differences in form between L1 and L2.

The introduction of CLT was said to lead to a radical shift in how English was to be taught, and what aspects of it. Radical at face value only, however. For example, it is true that communicative competence, as opposed to the linguistic or structural one, started to be viewed as paramount. Communicating meaning in interactions was emphasised over ‘dry’ grammar. All of this reflected a similar change in linguistics. However, it is not true that language taught through SLT was decontextualized. SLT DID focus on meaning too. The difference was that in SLT the context was subservient to the code or the linguistic structure. On the other hand, in CLT the linguistic structure is viewed as subservient to the context.

But if we examine the underlying assumptions of the subject matter (English language) to be taught and the context in which it is to be presented, it becomes clear that actually no shift had taken place. After all, it was still the (idealised) NES norms of language use which were to reign supreme and had to be abided by if a NNES was ever to be deemed a successful learner. While CLT focused on context and SLT on linguistic structure, they were both underscored by the same assumption: there was to be only one correct context or structure, of course that of a NES. And it is an orthodoxy that is still followed. The C in CLT is highly misleading, because the method is not concerned with communication per se, but rather with communication in conformity with NES norms. It seems then that CLT was not a radical shift at all, but rather a quick and somewhat superficial make over.

If we then examine the acronym TESOL/TEFL, it becomes self-evident that the E can only mean one thing. English of NES, that of Inner Circle speakers. So the only correct English belongs to NES, and the communicative competence so cherished by CLT is of course that of a NES too. That is, a successful learner in CLT has to conform with how English is used in communicative situations by NES. We could say then that what CLT has done is to have doubled the difficulty faced by learners: they now not only need to use English correctly, i.e. conform with the NES linguistic code; but also appropriately, i.e. conform with the NES communicative and interactional rules. For, as Prof. Widdowson put it, it was believed that “Otherwise you’re communicatively disabled”.

The real radical shift in ELT might come from ELF, which aims to change the paradigm of dependence on NES norms, of viewing learners as constant failures.  For what the use of ELF shows is how the resources of the language can be strategically exploited in non-conformist ways to achieve communication as appropriate to different contexts and purposes. Such non-conformist uses correspond in many ways to so-called learner ‘error’, which can also be seen as attempts to make the language being taught communicatively real and in correspondence  with the learners experience of their own language. From the learning perspective, the E of TESOL/TEFL/ELT would then become the E of ELF, not the E of NES. Hence, the proposed change of subject.


You might wonder, though, why we should be looking forward to the ELF shift. Hasn’t CLT been successful enough? On the superficial level, perhaps yes. However, when we look at the underlying native speakeristic assumptions behind SLT and CLT, the picture becomes much less optimistic.

The first corrosive effect of relying on NES norms is that learners are doomed to failure from the very beginning. They are made to conform with communicative norms and structural rules of native- speaker English, and their performance is constantly being evaluated in terms of their inability to conform with these norms and rules. In other words, learners remain forever locked in a state of linguistic and communicative disability. Hence, as Prof. Widdowson summarised it, ELT methodologies “have amounted to a pedagogy of failure”.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves why students do not conform, where the errors come from. Learners will have the pragmatic awareness from their L1 and learning will always involve transfer from L1 experience. However, there is no valid reason why it should be seen as a negative interference. Functionally, then, these errors could be seen as communicative transfer. The student focuses on what is communicatively important or salient, and filters out what has little pragmatic value. Yet, teachers spend hours trying to correct these ‘errors’, to eradicate the interference which at the end of the day has little communicative importance. As a result, the natural learning of communicative capability  is hindered by teacher’s insistence on conformity with the NES norm.

On the other hand, ELF relates English more closely to the learners. From a foreign and alien tongue impossible to master, English becomes more familiar and real, a language that is actually learnable, that can be appropriated by the learner, made their own. ELF removes the necessity to conform with NES norms which dooms all learners to a painful and demotivating failure. It moves the focus to pragmatic and communicative capability  per se, rather than the NES communicative competence of CLT.

Prof. Widdowson concludes the talk by highlighting that the insistence on conformity with NES norms actually hinders the development of learner autonomy, a concept which we as teachers supposedly go into great pains to develop. After all, the student is faced with an irresolvable dilemma: practising the newly learned language outside the class (i.e. learner autonomy) will inevitably lead to making errors, and hence failure. What this creates is that just as employers have employees, teachers have teachees, who must conform with the rules set by the teacher, and are not allowed to experiment with the new language. However, students should be allowed to develop communicatively. We need to cease to judge learners success or failure in view of the errors they make. Instead of this ‘pedagogy of failure’, ELF focuses on the positive, on the “development of the potential to use English” ie of a communicative capability.

As teachers, we need to change how we think of English as a subject. Why teach a competence that so few learners can achieve?

Why not instead teach a more realistic model. Set realistic objectives, which reflect learning, not failure. Objectives which are achievable.

If we continue with the pedagogy of the NES ideal, we teach learners to fail. We stigmatise them as incompetent, forever communicatively disabled.

However, if we accept the reality of the English language, which is no longer the sum of NES norms, the purpose of teaching becomes the development of students’ capability to use English with whichever linguistic resources at hand, whether conforming to NES norms or not.

Henry Widdowson is an authority in the field of applied linguistics and language teaching, specifically English language learning and teaching. Widdowson is perhaps best known for his contribution to communicative language teaching. However, he has also published on other related subjects such as discourse analysis and critical discourse analysis, the global spread of English, English for Special Purposes and stylistics. The Routledge Encyclopedia of Language Teaching and Learning calls him “probably the most influential philosopher of the late twentieth century for international ESOL” (674). Widdowson is Emeritus Professor of Education, University of London, and has also been Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Essex and Professor of English Linguistics at the University of Vienna. He is the Applied Linguistics adviser to Oxford University Press and series adviser of Oxford Bookworms Collection. Widdowson is co-editor of Language Teaching: A Scheme for Teacher Education. He is the series editor of Oxford Introductions to Language Study and the author of Linguistics (1996) in the same series. He has also published Defining Issues in English Language Teaching (2002), and Practical Stylistics: An Approach to Poetry (1992). His most recent book is Text, Context, Pretext. Critical Issues in Discourse Analysis (2004), published by Blackwell’s (from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Widdowson).

Language learning tips

LOGO FINALIn this The TEFL Show podcast we give several tips for learning languages more effectively. We’ve both learned various languages over the years, discovering along the way that it is much easier, faster and more enjoyable than you might think, as long as you follow a few basic rules.

What has your language learning experience been like? Have you found any of the tips we discussed useful? Do you have any others? Let us know what you think by commenting below and rating the podcast on iTunes here. And if you’re interested in learning languages, check out this section of the blog.

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