But of course, you couldn’t do that in Japan! Part One
An old post of mine about the thorny issue of how and why teachers may want – or need – to tackle issues surrounding diversity in the classroom was recently quoted in a very interesting post on similar issues, but from a Belgian perspective. In a piece on the excellent BELTA website, Eef Lenaers wrote about the frustration she sometimes experiences when her students come up with gross over-generalisations about other cultures and what can be done about this. Now, all of this got me thinking about an old talk I used to do on the conference circuit ten or so years ago, which tried to address similar issues, and I figured that as I’ve been utterly useless at blogging of late, amidst various madness that’s been visited upon me, it might be a good idea to dig that old talk up and turn it into a post. Better than nothing, eh? So here goes . . .
Frequently after classes, my students will come up to me and ask “But where are you from? You’re not very English!” Over the years, I’ve learned to delude myself into taking this as a compliment: it must be down to my warm, out-going personality, I assure myself; or perhaps it’s the fact I’m not that bad with languages, that I’m chatty, and possessed of a lust for life. These moments help me stave off the sad fact that really I’m scruffy, prone to mumbles and rants, and somehow inherently shabby in the way that only those reared on bacon sandwiches and milky tea can ever truly be!
At home, however, it’s often a totally different story. I have a non-British partner, and the last line of attack, the riposte to which there is no return, is always “God! You’re so bloody ENGLISH!” This can mean anything from you’re the kind of sad, repressed person who walks out of the room to break wind to why on earth can’t you phone someone just because it’s after 10 in the evening! It could be quiet rage at my not wanting to talk about sex – or even really talk at all very much full stop, or else anger at my refusal to ever admit to feeling down or pissed off when the brown stuff starts hitting the ventilation. Whatever, it still comes as really quite confusing. I am English by birth and by upbringing. I feel intensely connected to certain aspects of life in Britain, repelled and appalled by others. And yet in the eyes of the outside observer, I seem to flit back and forth across a line of some supposed cultural finality.
The first point to make here is that both national identity and the notion of culture that it is so frequently associated with are far more complex than the simple retorts above suggest. However, it still tends to be the trite and the simplistic which prevails within EFL. Culture in English Language Teaching materials is a simple black and white affair; or rather, it is all too often simply white: antiseptic, anodyne, bleached and sanitised and bland. As a teacher trainer, this becomes most apparent when watching trainees use widespread EFL materials. Trainees generally come to the classroom with little or no experience and thus view the coursebook as an expert source of knowledge and as somehow implicitly right. The notion of culture as propagated in coursebooks tends to either revolve around the presentation of literature as a vehicle for culture, so the old Headway Pre-Intermediate, which I once used on a CELTA course, had, for instance, an extract from Dickens which includes such choice lines as “The mild Mr. Chillip sidled into the parlour and said to my aunt in the meekest manner ‘Well, ma’am, I’m happy to congratulate you’”. The many hours of fun to be had by watching trainees on their second teaching practice slot trying to explain to bemused students what a parlour is or how exactly you sidle is tempered only by an awareness that this is singularly useless vocabulary for learners of this level to be learning!
Another angle on the culture issue crops up in a text in an Upper-intermediate book called ‘Soho: My favourite Place”. I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with the wonderful mess that is Soho, but the last time I looked, it was still as full of drug dealers, gay bars, meat-head bouncers policing dubious late-night binge-drinking establishments, transvestites and menacing-looking characters lurking in shadows as it has ever been. Not in Headway, though, of course! Oh no! The nearest any of this comes to impinging on the antiseptic world of the coursebook is the admission that “the place is a bit of a mess”, whilst readers are coyly told that there are “surprises around every corner”. Those of you familiar with a bit of classical mythology may also be surprised to learn that Eros apparently celebrates “the freedom and friendship of youth”! This is culture as a kind of white-washed national tourist board ad.
All of this is then compounded by a persistent triteness which reduces people from other countries down to their crudest stereotypes, as in yet another text from a well-known coursebook that looks at ‘Minding your Manners Around The World’. Here, trainees get to inform students that if they are expecting the arrival of foreign business colleagues, they can be sure that Germans will be bang on time, Americans will probably be fifteen minutes early, Brits will be fifteen minutes late and as for the Italians! Well, you’d best allow them anything up to an hour! The supposed veracity of these gross, offensive stereotypes is not even challenged by the methodology. The kinds of questions students are asked to discuss after reading the text are almost always simply comprehension-based, so they are forced into uncovering ‘Which nationalities are the most and least punctual’, for example.
It seems to me that three broad issues arise from all this: the basic question of what exactly culture is, how trainees can be made more aware of it, and how a broader notion of culture leads to methodological changes. I strongly believe that even initial preparatory courses such as CELTA should be addressing these sensitive areas. Here, though, I’ll just try to outline some basic notions of what culture might actually involve – and look briefly at how this could impact on initial training.
The title of this particular post comes from a comment made to me early on in my teaching career. It was, presumably, intended as useful guidance to a rookie teacher and also perhaps as some strange form of protection for any mono-cultural Japanese classes that might later be encountered. The myth of the difference and uniqueness of the mono-lingual, mono-cultural context is a very damaging one in that it insists on speakers of one foreign language somehow all being equal participants in a shared, mutually agreed upon culture. Those still clinging on to such an idea might like to discuss the following exercise (later adapted for OUTCOMES Advanced) which we frequently used to do with CELTA trainees on our courses.
GOD SAVE THE QUEEN?
1. Are the following part of British culture? In what way?
2. Do any of them mean anything to you personally? What?
3. Have you seen any of them mentioned in EFL materials? In what capacity?
God Save the Queen
bacon and eggs
the Costa del Sol
a week in Provence
The Beautiful Game
French art-house films
Cockney rhyming slang
car boot sales
St. Patrick’s Day
Chinese New Year
ackee and salt fish
My own take on this is that all of the above form part of the complex fabric of modern British life in one way or another and that the degree to which each is relevant to any individual with any connection to British culture depends on the webs of micro-cultures we each weave for ourselves. As such, there is very clearly no such thing as ‘British culture’ in any monolithic sense – it is rather, as the axiom has it, horses for courses, and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. You also cannot make assumptions that, say, reggae and marijuana will always overlap or that Islam should somehow exclude fish and chips! It should also be added that not only will the same intense involvement in a wide variety of micro-cultures be the case for all foreign learners, but that often – as moneyed, globally-oriented beings – many of our students will frequently participate enthusiastically in exactly the same globalised micro-cultures as many native-speakers. This is where non-native speaker teachers, working in the countries of their origin, have a huge advantage over native-speaker teacher imports. The local teachers will almost always know far more about the macro-culture of the country they are teaching in and can thus use all of this knowledge to hook new language onto in ways that are pertinent and meaningful to their students. Once you accept that mono-lingual certainly does NOT mean mono-cultural, at least when one is thinking of culture in terms of micro-cultures, then the gap that then remains can be envisaged less as cultural and far more helpfully as a purely linguistic one, with any attitudinal differences that each participant in any micro-cultural discourse might feel then being acknowledged and negotiated through language. Such an understanding of the way we all contain and negotiate a vast variety of cultures within our day-to-day lives will hopefully result in the end of essentialising comments about what ‘Arab’ or ‘Muslim’ or ‘Chinese’ or ‘Turkish’ students can and can’t somehow cope with in classes, and will lead instead to a classroom culture in which students in ANY context are given the time, space and language to be first and foremost their own complex selves.
I’ll leave it there for now, but be warned: there’s a part two to all of this and maybe even a part three waiting in the wings.
I’ll see what comes back in response to this one first and take it from there.
Grey cardinals, rubber time and the piece of shame: speaking foreign languages in English!
This post follows on from the one I bashed out last week considering the influence of advertising on speech, and the way in which this can sometimes make life hard for even the most fluent of non-natives. It also follows on from conversations and thoughts I had during my one-week stay in St. Petersburg recently. During a typically intense conversation in a bar one night, a Russian teacher started talking about the undermind – instead of the subconscious. I was curious about the expression and wasn’t sure whether this was simply a direct translation from the Russian and was being used to paper over the fact that word subconscious wasn’t known (or because it was just being assumed that it ought to also work this way in English!), or whether it was actually a slightly different concept to the subconscious, that I myself had yet to grasp!
It turned out that the teacher simply hadn’t realised that the words would be different from Russian to English, and so was translating directly in optimism and hope, but the idea of the under mind stuck somehow because the next day, whilst presenting to a big group of teachers there, I (subconsciously!) used the phrase myself- a fact which was noted and commented on by the teacher who’d passed it my way in the first place.
Now I can already hear you thinking so what, right? Well, as you are probably all aware, we all – to varying degrees – accommodate ourselves to our linguistic environments. The theory of communication accommodation was developed in the early 1970s by Howard Giles from the University of California and basically states that “when people interact, they adjust their speech, their vocal patterns and their gestures, to accommodate to others.” The theory also explores why it is that humans tend to do this, and considers the links between language, context and identity.
All of which got me thinking about the degree to which people living outside of countries where English is the first language, and who are conversant to at least some degree with the local language, but who also spend a lot of time interacting in English with locals who speak the language well, start to pick up and use expressions which basically don’t really exist in English in any broader sense, but which work in the local language and thus also work when used in English conversations between (semi-) bilingual locals and foreigners. In other words, there must be countless EFL teachers (and other long-term peripatetic ex-pats) out there, residing in this country or that, spending much of their free time with very fluent locals and speaking a strange mashed-up hybrid that is in essence English as it’s spoken elsewhere, but all manner of locally-inflected variants.
Last year, I saw David Crystal talking at Spain TESOL about the way in which conversations such as those mentioned above can often be derailed by casual references to local phenomena that speakers take for granted and that they assume all participants must be aware of as they have such common currency in the local / national context. Crystal was referring more to the kind of thing my colleague Andrew Walkley has been blogging about of late – the Stephen Lawrence murder, the Leveson Inquiry, 7/7 – and so on and was suggesting that a worthwhile project would be to establish a kind of Wiki of some sort detailing and exploring the cultural meanings and significance of such condensed summarised tagging phrases. Of course, the longer one lives in a place, the more of such references one comes to understand.
But at the same time, and this is, I think, far less discussed or appreciated, one also comes to acquire a whole range of chunks, idioms and expressions that are used in the local L1 and one starts to use them freely in English as well. Thus it is that when I’m with Indonesian friends (either here in the UK or back in Indonesia) who speak good English (my own Indonesian is around B2 level, I guess) I may well joke about rubber time when they’re late, a directly translated reference to the local concept of jam karet, often used to justify or excuse lateness that by English standards verging on the psychotic!
In the same way, I’ve spent enough time with super-fluent Russians over the years to understand that if someone – usually Putin (!) – is referred to as the grey cardinal, it basically means he’s the power behind the scenes, the puppet master pulling all the strings. I’ve heard the expression used by Russians – in English – so many times that the fact it’s not actually a real English expression with currency beyond the Russian-speaking world barely registers. It’s become so that it actually feels like it IS normal English, albeit the kind of normal English one only engages in with Russians.
In the same way, I’ve heard so many Spaniards – and ex-pats who’ve lived in Spain for a fair while – offer me the piece of shame (the final piece of a particular dish designed for sharing, so the final bit of tapas, or the final biscuit on a plate or whatever), that I’ve started adopting the expression myself and have even found myself using it with other English natives or fluent foreigners of non-Spanish origin. I’ve also long since ceased looking puzzled when Japanese friends joke about sleeping dictionaries or when Swedes tell me not to paint the Devil on the wall if I’m being particularly pessimistic. As with anyone who’s spent half their life working with non-native speakers, these expressions – and many many others – have seeped into my own vernacular to the point that they almost feel ‘native’.
There must be thousands and thousands of these expressions out there, many of them maybe used by you! They maybe fill a gap that the English language doesn’t quite capture properly, or else capture a locally common concept in a particularly condensed and pithy manner. They exist in the grey areas being local pidgeonised variants and that elusive and possibly mythical beast ELF and, as with advertising slogans, basically have no place in the EFL classroom, particularly not as something one sets out to consciously teach!
However, sometimes democracy does strange things. In a Pre-Int class last year, one of my students turned up late and left the door wide open on entering. A Chinese student became very animated and shouted “OH! How long is your tail!” – a direct translation from Chinese. I laughed, as did most students, for the concept was immediately clear. I then explain that usually in English we say something like Were you born in a barn?
Even after the concept had been explained, the class remained unconvinced. The next day, when another student arrived late and left the door open, the masses had decided. Chinese English prevailed over my own preferences – and for the next few weeks in the particular micro-climate of our class How long is your tail was one of the most commonly recycled phrases!
Probably the best blog post in the world . . .
I’ve outlined my (many!) thoughts about the relationship – or lack thereof – between language and culture several times on this very blog, as many of you will already know. What may be less well known is that some time ago, over on a site run by the always provocative Chia Suan Chong, I engaged in a lengthy debate about the degree to which teaching EFL (in particular) also involved teaching culture. My answer to this oft-asked question was a fairly resounding NO! and I still very much stand by that view. Whilst language can on occasion obviously be used to express culture, or a whole host of cultures to be more accurate, these kinds of uses do not, in my opinion, belong in the EFL classroom, where the primary focus should be on helping students to use as high a level of language as they can across a range of situations, with speakers from all manner of backgrounds, both native and – increasingly often – non-native.
However, I’ve spent the last week working with a lovely group of incredibly fluent Russian teachers of English in St. Petersburg (one of my very favourite cities in the world!).
Among the many issues we covered were literature, changes to English and the use of L1 in the classroom. Now, all of this started me thinking about two areas of language use which even incredibly fluent non-natives simply wouldn’t be able to grasp without actually having lived in a particular country – or perhaps its truer to say, without having been immersed in particular aspects of what occurs there (and I should say at this juncture that it is conceivably possible that, for instance, a TV addict would actually ‘get’ some of the references I’ll go on to describe even if they’d never visited a particular ‘host’ country).
As someone steeped in the Lexical Approach, I have long been interested in the way in which the kinds of fixed and semi-fixed expressions that are so common in spoken language embed themselves in our heads and in the pragmatic functions they serve as we converse with others. However, a less obvious source of fixed expressions is the advertising industry, and it’s perhaps sobering to sit and contemplate quite how many sentences you have echoing around the dark corners of your mind that come from the evil art of the advertiser. There are hundreds, possibly even thousands. Just off the top of my head and without even trying, here are some of the first ones that spring to mind as I ponder this.
Have a break. Have a Kit-Kat.
A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play.
Anytime, any place, anywhere.
The man from Del Monte. He says Yes!
For mash get Smash!
Go to work on an egg.
You know when you’ve been Tangoed.
This is your brain. And this is your brain on drugs!
Beanz meanz Heinz (a memory that automatically triggers the predictable follow-up of Beanz meanz fartz as well!)
Every little helps.
It’s finger-lickin’ good
Refreshes the parts that other beers cannot reach!
It’s got our name on it.
The best a man can get!
As you may have realised by now, I could go on for hours. Indeed, whilst putting this post together, I discovered that the web contains a whole range of games designed to test your knowledge of obscure and sometimes fairly dated advertising slogans and got very entertainingly sidetracked for quite time as a result! How many of the ones above are familiar to you? For all I know, some of them may trigger a whole stream of Proustian memories and associations in the minds of some of you readers out there, sending you flashing back to long-forgotten outings to KFC or camping trips where the baked bean suppers had disastrous consequences as you and your brother were forced to share a small tent!
Interestingly, and this is a testament to the whole art of the advertising agency, with almost all of the slogans above, I not only remember the exact words, but I also retain the phonological envelope they were delivered to me in. I can sing the jingles in my head, or say them exactly as they were said on the original adverts. Just as with telephone numbers, we record and retain and reuse them in a particular way (oh-seven-seven-nine two //pause// three -five six //pause// double six three, for instance) and they exist as a combination of sound and language (and frequently music too).
Now, for the most part, this mass of cultural detritus simply sits in my head, taking up space, serving only as background or colour to particular memories that come bubbling up from what I’ve learned the Russians delightfully term ‘the undermind’! In other words, it’s not used or referred to (except perhaps in the odd book here and there, or maybe in a particularly random pub conversation). However, many of the catchiest slogans take on lives of their own and become part of common parlance. My colleague Andrew Walkley has written about the way the concept of something being a Marmite thing has become part and parcel of the language in the UK, all on the back of their genius advertising campaign that accepted – and celebrated – the polarising effects of God’s own spread.
However, Marmite is but the tip of a much larger iceberg. According to a Daily Telegraph survey of a few years ago, 45% of Britons use – or have used – the Guinness tagline Good things come to those who wait in their daily speech. Ronseal, a British wood stain and preservative manufacturer, are responsible for the “Does exactly what it says on the tin” phrase, created by the HHCL agency, and much used in their adverts:
It’s no surprise that such a clever, pithy, direct slogan has become so widely used in other contexts. Here are just a few examles coured from the Internet of the way the phrase has worked its way into the language:
Martin Amis appears to be taking the Ronseal approach to book titles with his next novel, State of England: Lionel Asbo, Lotto Lout, which is said to feature a “ferocious” antihero who gets his first anti-social behaviour order at the age of three.
Gordon Brown is the very opposite of a Ronseal prime minister.
I was once in a final salary pension scheme and it seemed to pass the Ronseal Test – a pension that kept pace with my earnings and grew each year I worked for the company.
Perhaps the most bizarre instance of this phenomenon I can remember happened a few years ago when I was waiting anxiously to see if the fix-it man was going to get the staffroom photocopier up and running in time for me to use it before class. he closed it, patted it and gave it a quick test run. I thanked him profusely and he replied, casually: Oh well, you know. Vorsprung durch Technik . . . as they say in Germany! What even the most proficient foreign student not au fait with recent British TV advertising trends would’ve made of this bizarre exchange is beyond me. The fact that a piece of German passed into the lexicon of even the most foreign language-phobic Brit is nothing short of a minor miracle, but pass it most certainly did. The story of this remarkable feat is relayed here, for those interested.
Nevertheless, as the world we live in becomes ever more interlinked and globalised, and ever more in thrall to mass market consumerism, perhaps access to such intertextual nuancing and subtle comedy also becomes globalised itself. The other week in class, one of my Japanese students was saying he expected to get 7.0 in his forthcoming IELTS test. other students were mocking his lofty ambitions and saying it was impossible, whereupon he suddenly looked deadly serious, stood up, put his hand across his heart and uttered the immortal line Impossible is nothing – to much laughter!
That said, there are clearly some issues when it comes to advertising around the world – and we may well never see the day when slogans are used – or useable – universally. A Dutch friend of mine works for an ad agency here in London, specialising in researching the degree to which adverts from one country work in another. She’s been working on ad advert for Bjorn Borg’s kids’ underwear recently, and apparently in Sweden they sell using a phrase that says something like Lucky ducks. She asked me if such a phrase would work in English and if not, what the nearest equivalent would be. I replied that I found the whole concept of calling kids lucky because they had one particular brand of underwear rather than other very very weird in itself, and that if you wanted to say lucky something in English, it’d be something like lucky git or lucky bastard, neither of which really lent themselves to selling kids’ pants!
Oh, perhaps by this stage you’re wondering where the profoundly out-of-character boasting in the title of this blog post comes from, aren’t you? Well, simples, as the really annoying meerkat in the compare the market dot com advert always put it, it’s from here:
Right, I know at the start of this post, I said that I wanted to write about TWO areas of language use that even fluent non-natives simply wouldn’t be able to grasp without actually having lived in a particular country – and the astute observers among you will have noticed I’ve only really tackled one.
That’s because all this talk is making me thirsty, so I’m going to sign off for now, grab a cold beer from the fridge and come back to the second part of this later on in the week.
Twenty things in twenty years Part Six: resistance is futile – but still remarkably widespread
When I was in my mid-20s living in Jakarta and trying to learn Indonesian, I reached a point where I felt I had to start reading more about Islam. Partly this was because so many of my students were – to varying degrees – Muslim; partly it was because the practising of the religion was so deep-rooted in the day-to-day life of so much of the country; and partly it was simply because I found it interesting to try and get my head round a worldview so incredibly different to the one I’d grown up with myself. Concepts and ideas from Islam were also obviously widespread in Indonesian itself, with the words for many more abstract ideas being derived from Arabic.
One of the more fascinating notions I grappled with was the idea that the word Islam itself originally means submission or surrender in Arabic, a fact more recently made more complicated and controversial by the Ayaan Hirsi Ali film Submission, and its subsequent enthusiastic promotion by those on the right. The root of the word Islam, though, is salaam, from which can also be derived the words for peace and safety. Now, many religions have a concept of surrender to God. In Jewish history, the ancient Hebrews had a long period of prosperity and stability when they obeyed God’s commands; in Christianity, surrendering to God is a way of putting your life into more capable hands. In this sense, the idea of obeying the commands and logic of a higher power and trusting in a wisdom that may not always be apparent to one can actually be a way of bringing about peace.
Now, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with all of this, aren’t you? Bear with me, OK. Despite the fact that any discussion of submission and resistance feels decidedly dodgy in a post Jimmy Saville / post-Operation Yewtree world, where every week another of the creepy celebs that were all over the TV of childhood like a bad rash is arrested and charged with some form or other of unsavoury retrospective sexual coercion, these two concepts are actually at heart of language learning!
To this day, I can still remember the almost physical sense of relief and the easing off of tension once I finally just stopped fighting it, stopped trying to impose my own pre-programmed system onto it and simply gave in to Indonesian and its own weird internal logic. For maybe the first year or so of my time in the country, I’d been unconsciously bridling at what seemed to me to be the peculiar sentence construction, the language’s stubborn refusal to express itself in ways I expected it to, the different ways in which divided up the world, the three different versions of I and You, the way we-but-not-you was one word, kami, and we-including-you another – kita, and so on. And then one day, suddenly, luckily, the fight just fell away and I realised that there was no way i was ever going to be able to change the way things were and that either I’d have to ship on out of the kitchen or else simply embrace things as they stood, submit, surrender. And in doing so came a kind of peace. And considerably faster and less stressful progress.
Now, I see signs of this resistance all the time in my classes – and I’m sure you do too, whether you’re conscious of it or not. The questions are never-ending:
“But why is it a football PITCH? Why not football field? I mean, you call the position midfield, don’t you? Not midpitch. In my language, we use one word for these two ideas.”
“Why do you say my wife and my NEW son? This is so stupid. So if I have two sons, do I say my NEW son and my OLD son? No! You see! Stupid!”
“But it’s the same: It’s a long time I haven’t seen you and I haven’t see you for ages. Why I need to change it?”
” You mean I can’t say Alex Ferguson is A FLAG? Like a FLAG of Manchester United? No? But that’s crazy. In my language we say it like this!”
And on and on it goes. These ones are just from the last few days with my Upper-Intermediate group and so are fresh in my mind, but you’ll recognise the genre no doubt. And the stiffer the resistance, the less learning takes place, as the students are constantly waging war against an implacable, uncaring enemy that will never bend even an inch to their own futile requirements. There will only ever be one loser in this war of wills, and it won’t be the language, for sure!
As language teachers, we have a key role to play in this ongoing struggle, as our students rub up against the different, the unexpected, the inexplicable, the frustrating, the downright weird and simply wrong (to their minds). Our job is to provide the oil, to smooth the lurching uphill journey towards greater noticing, more acquisition, more (linguistic) assimilation, more acceptance of norms – and to lessen resistance at every turn. Our job is to smile and say:
“There’s no reason why we have two different words where you have one. It’s just the way it is, OK. We say MIDFIELDER, but we play on a PITCH. That’s just the way it is. We also say PITCH for cricket and rugby as well. yeah, yeah. I know! You think cricket’s crazy too. There you go. What can I say?”
“Because maybe in this context the son is very young, so he’s new to the world. How do you say this idea in your language? How would you express this concept? OK, so it’s different, but that’s how it is in English. You can also say my new job, my new girlfriend, my new flat and so on. Don’t you use NEW in these contexts? It’s the same idea.”
“Of course people will understand you if you say It’s a long time I haven’t seen you. They’d probably understand you if you say It’s a long time I didn’t see you! But it’s not English. Not really. It just sounds like you’re translating, like you’ve not learned how to say I haven’t seen you for ages. I thought you were here to learn how to say things better? Yeah? Right. So this one’s better, OK!”
“I don’t know if you’d noticed, but English isn’t Italian! Sorry to tell you, but that’s a sad fact of life. I know what you mean, though. You mean like he’s a symbol of the club or something, right? We just don’t use the word flag like that. It sounds funny!”
It never ends, and it’s essentially a million ones of saying “I know! It’s different! Ha ha. Crazy English! Who knows why? To make life hard for you – and to keep me in employment!”
Which, mercifully, it HAS managed to do thus far.
Taboo or not taboo: it’s all in the questions
Following on from my recent post about allowing the supposedly taboo topic of religion to emerge at the end of a class one day, a great post on Steve Brown’s blog and a discussion about taboo language over on the facebook page I run with my co-author Andrew Walkley, it felt like the time might be right to revisit a talk both Andrew and I gave a few times many years ago, and to adapt it into a post exploring the whole thorny issue of taboos in the ELT classroom.
As has probably become obvious to most of you, both Andrew and I have long had an interest in teaching spoken language and observing the things we talk about. To this end, we once ran an optional lunchtime course at our university on topics you don’t find in coursebooks – and the language that goes with them. We had classes on swearing, bitching, drinking, smoking, chatting people up – and, more importantly perhaps, telling men to get lost – pregnancy, birth, old age, suicide and death, more bitching about people (let’s face it, we don’t spend half as much time on complimenting people), sarcasm, politics, illegality and the like. The lectures regularly attracted 50-60 students – and they came from all ages and cultural backgrounds. Of course, in this instance, students were able to choose this particular course. They knew what they were getting, so you could argue that these topics shouldn’t be what is in a coursebook.
However, this does not actually counter the fact that these students we attracted came from very different cultures. Many of them did not smoke, drink, bitch, chat people up, get pregnant or commit suicide, but nevertheless, these topics were all things within their range of experience. Also, unsurprisingly when we consider these are first and foremost language students, what they were really interested in was the language.
When a student sees or hears a word it does not mean that they actually like or believe something. Nor does disagreeing with an idea mean that you can’t use certain language. The vegetarian cannot really describe himself without using the word meat, the atheist without the word God and, from a foreign learners perspective, you can’t really know what swearing is or what’s taboo without hearing or seeing the word fuck. For me, a fundamental principle is that words in themselves as things to know the meaning of are not actually rude, offensive or taboo. It is what we ask students about this language and what we require them to do with it that can cause offence or break taboos. Knowing so–called taboo words may actually be very important: take, for instance, my Iraqi student who thought nigger was a socially-acceptable way of referring to black people or my Japanese student who asked me after class one day what prick-tease meant! These students would’ve been done no favours by me being coy and skirting round the words.
There are perfectly sound pedagogical reasons for including words like nigger, slag and spazz in, for example, an advanced textbook. An exercise might require students to sort them – along with other words like idiot and slob – into two groups: relatively socially acceptable / far more socially unacceptable. Students could then be asked if they have ever heard anyone using any of these words – and in what circumstances.
This makes far more sense than, for example, having students fill the words in in a gap fill or asking them which ones they would use and why. The former approach allows for students to say they themselves have used them, but does not assume that they have, whilst the latter operates on the assumption that they either have or would want to use them. As with much of teaching, it’s all in the questions we ask!
However, I am no longer innocent enough to believe that such exercises will ever make it into print – even in a second edition of INNOVATIONS ADVANCED, should one ever come into creation! There remain strong impulses among publishers to avoid any possibility of offence. This is something I’ve found in the process of writing our coursebooks. For example, in Innovations Intermediate, we wrote a text about making mistakes when learning a foreign language and this text featured two true stories that had been passed onto us by students whilst discussing the area of embarrassing mistakes in class – one involved an Italian student asking his English host family “Where shall I leave my shit?” – the old shit / sheet joke in action! – whilst the other happened to a Korean woman who was learning Spanish and who inadvertently asked for fried penis (polla frita) instead of fried chicken (pollo frito) on a trip to Madrid!
Neither story seems offensive or abusive to me – and both came up in class unprompted. I’m afraid, though, publishers don’t see things like this. Of course, I can understand why – and I have no interest in unselling books I’ve spent a long time writing – but the problem then is that in removing language and stories such as these from a book, the whole balance of register about what is acceptable or slang then shifts.
A similar parallel is the way the Labour Party swung violently to the right once the far-left Militant tendencies were removed at the end of the 1980s!
As a result, things which seem perfectly anodyne, childish even, end up standing out on the extremes. Thus, we had a reworked version of the aforementioned text questioned by a different editor because it contained the word bum!
Other words we have had fights and rows over include get pregnant and get addicted to drugs (both of which stayed), It sucks! (which had to go because of its apparently possible sexual connotations – go figure!), Damn! (which also bit the dust, to be replaced with Oh no! And this was despite our argument that Damn! in itself is an already softened version of what many of us would choose to say in the circumstances), burp and fart (the burping stayed, the farting didn’t!), You idiot! (it stayed, despite fears it ‘may be offensive in Scandinavia’, where apparently, the local version is used in the same way as You mong! or You spazz! is here in the UK – not that we were teaching Swedish, of course!! Nobody ever said such editorial meetings were logical!) and on the toilet. Long gone are the days when we struggled to sneak condoms and tampax into listenings covertly!
These arguments and the snipping of the censor’s scissors come as no real surprise. An incident that occurred a while back when Andrew was doing a version of this post as a talk should help to illustrate why. He was challenged by one teacher at the end of the talk and told that “some people” wouldn’t want any language like this in a class. He mentioned several instances where his own students had been more than happy to talk about such language, but was told, “Well, in London, that’s as may be, but in some countries they wouldn’t want to”. When he asked which countries and which students these might be, his nemesis simply countered “Some students” and then said an interesting thing: “Maybe it’s OK to talk about this language, but people don’t want their noses rubbed in it, (so to speak), they don’t want to see it written down.”
My personal view on this incident is that actually she herself – the teacher – was the one who wouldn’t want to talk about it. While publishers are most certainly driven by a fairly conservative forces – and are not about to change overnight – I feel that as teachers we have to begin to be more open in our discussions about what is acceptable to be taught in the class, and as teachers we need to be much more led by our students.
One common problem, as previously alluded to, is that teachers often do not let their students talk freely or away from tightly-controlled practice activities at all, whilst on other occasions they may actually be unwilling to provide seemingly taboo language for students – even when students themselves are asking about it or trying to express it (as I felt was the case with the facebook discussion mentioned above). As such, it seems important that materials at least leave spaces in which good teachers can exploit areas and get onto taboo topics briefly – if their students wish to take up the chase.
What I’d like to do now is to broaden the discussion of taboo out into thinking more about coursebook content. To do this, I’m going to look at a text which provoked a lot of heated discussion a few years back at INNOVATIONS’ editorial meetings. I think it usefully highlights the arguments publishers will put forward for editing out – and allows me to put some counter arguments.
We were writing a text for Unit 4 of our Intermediate-level book, a unit entitled Feelings, and our first draft included the following lesson and text:
Read the following text and see how the couple met.
Do you think they will stay together? Why / why not?
The day that changed my life
When I saw Abdullah on the news – Jim, as he was called back then – I didn’t recognise him to begin with. He looked really really thin and his hair was falling out. When I heard the reporter say his name, though, I looked a bit more closely and then I realised it was him. I just burst out crying. I was really surprised, because we were never really friends when we were at school together. He could be a bit loud sometimes and we were just very different, I suppose, but to see him there, looking so lost and alone, begging on the street!! Well, it was just so upsetting. It broke my heart, it really did!
The next thing I knew, I was ringing the TV station who’d run the report. I don’t really know why – I just did it on impulse. Anyway, they gave me the address of a hostel for homeless people. I went down there the following day and it was really depressing. It was filthy and the whole place stank! Half the people there were either drunk or mad – or both! One of the workers showed me to where Jim was sleeping. What really amazed me was that he recognised me at once and said “Oh, Fatime. It’s you.” His voice sounded so sad, but, at the same time – and I can’t really explain this very well – it was like I could feel something pulling us together. I really felt like it was Allah’s will. It has really strengthened my faith, and it obviously touched Jim as well.
I’d like to say that things have been easy for us since then and that love has run its true course, but life doesn’t work like that, does it? What happened to Jim when he became homeless was incredibly painful and he’s had to really fight to overcome his addictions. At first, my parents didn’t want anything to do with him and even since he’s converted to Islam, things have still remained tense. My mother says she’s not coming to the wedding.
We’ve had a lot of support from people who’ve seen our story in the papers, but we’ve also had lots of hate mail too. Also, the media have actually put a lot of pressure on us. I know Abdullah doesn’t see it this way, but even now it still makes me angry the way the papers and the TV people treat people. I just think back to that first story. Here was this completely broken man, living on the streets. They came along and did their story on him, and do you know what they gave him? Ten pounds and a cup of tea! That’s it! And then they got back into their big cars and drove off, leaving him to go back to that awful hostel. They do these stories, but none of them really care about people. I can’t forgive them for that.
Anyway, despite all that, we’ve managed to survive together. He’s a good man, and I love him with all my heart.
Now go back and underline any expressions which are new to you. Underline only whole expressions – not single words!
Compare what you have underlined with a partner.
2 True or false
Decide if the following statements are true or false. Why do you think so?
a Jim was living on the streets when he first met Fatime. T / F
b Fatime thought carefully before ringing the TV company. T / F
c Jim changed his name to Abdullah because he became a Muslim. T / F
d Some people got angry when they read about Fatime and Abdullah. T / F
e Abdullah and Fatime agree that the media sometimes treats people badly. T / F
Is there much homelessness in your home town? Why? How do you feel about it?
Do you ever give money to people who are begging?
Do you agree with Fatime that the media sometimes exploits people?
Do you know anyone who’s found religion? What happened?
Why do you think people sent Abdullah and Fatime hate mail?
Our editors were immediately touchy about the text and warned us that describing a Muslim as homeless could be offensive. When we pointed out the very obvious fact that when Jim was homeless, he was not actually a Muslim and that after he converted, he actually got his life together, we were then told that it was best not to run the risk of any Muslims possibly finding it offensive. We countered this by pointing out we’d both done versions of the text in class with students from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia and so on and no-one had ever found it even remotely offensive. Indeed, if anything, the opposite was true. One of my Iranian students had once come up after class and said how nice it was to see a positive story about Islam in class! Nevertheless, amongst our editors, some of whom had never taught – and had possibly not even met many Muslims – the stereotype of the touchy Muslim prevailed.
We were then told the text may cause arguments in class and that whilst we, as experienced teachers, could deal with this, some younger, less experienced teachers might not be able to. That’s what photo-copiable materials were for, we were told – to allow teachers to bring touchy subjects into class if they wished to! Yet again we countered: what was there in the tasks that could possibly lead to a row? And anyway, even inexperienced teachers are skilled at dealing with conflict in their day-to-day lives outside of class. We all come to class with years and years of experience of conflict management and avoidance. On top of this, if we fail to allow the odd conflict to develop in class, we deny ourselves the opportunity of ever learning how to get better at channeling it and turning it into language-teaching opportunities in class.
As a last resort, we were told we were pushing a political agenda – as if censoring and whitewashing were somehow apolitical activities! In the end, we compromised – or sold out, if you prefer (!) – and re-wrote this text as the tale of a rich girl who falls for a poor boy from a broken home with a jailbird dad, despite her parents’ better instincts!
Does it really matter that texts such as this – and words like tampax and fart – end up being edited out of classroom material? Well, in some ways, yes, it does. If we end up with materials in which even everyday words like pregnant have to be argued over, then we run the risk of denying good teachers the chance to ask students questions like ‘Do you know anyone who’s pregnant at the moment?’ and thus denying any students who might want to ask how to say have an abortion.
Despite all of this, I do also believe that a duty lies with us as classroom teachers to get at language like this through our interaction with our students and through letting them dictate where the class goes from time to time.
Below are five examples of language either Andrew or I have ended up writing on our whiteboards, giving students the things they themselves were trying to say.
1. We were driving home from the north of the country to the south and we got ambushed by some guerrillas. They started shooting at us. I thought I was going to die, but some soldiers came to help us and there was a big fight and then the guerrillas ran off. A friend of mine got killed.
2. I once passed out on the train home. I’d been drinking with some friends and I got really pissed and I passed out and missed my stop and ended up in the middle of nowhere. It was the middle of the night, so I had to call out my parents to pick me up and take me home. Before they got there, I passed out again in the street and when I came round I was in the car. I was convinced I was being abducted or something and so I started screaming at the driver to let me out of the car. It took my dad a couple of minutes to convince me it was him.
3. AIDS isn’t just a gay disease. I think straight people can get it, can’t they, if they don’t practise safe sex or have anal sex or whatever.
4. When I go to an important meeting, I should eat onions beforehand. Then, when someone says something I don’t like, I could fart and stomp out of the room.
5. They were shagging
None of the language in 1-5 came directly from a discussion of the taboos themselves. It is also worth noting that the students trying to express the meanings above included a Somali Muslim (1), a young Japanese woman (2) and a middle-aged Chinese female civil servant (4). What follows is a brief summary of the starting point for each and how we worked together with our students towards the production of these final statements.
1. This was an Elementary class. One Chinese student was late and tried to explain – in very broken English – that he’d had problems getting on the tube because it had been really packed, and that, once on, he thought he was going to die because it was so full! Andrew paraphrased this, and noticed the class seemed particularly taken with the phrase ‘I thought I was going to die’, so asked them to discuss a time when they’d felt like this in pairs. The Somali student volunteered this story. He was asked if he wanted it re-written and up on the board and he said Yes, as he knew he’d want to re-tell it later.
2. The word ‘passed out’ had come up in a text. I’d explained it and then just quickly asked the class in pairs to talk about any time they’d passed out or seen someone passed out. This was one of the stories that emerged.
3. A Taiwanese civil servant in his mid-forties ventured this opinion during a very heated whole class debate sparked off by one Iraqi student asking, “Aids is caught by kissing, isn’t it?” We had arrived at this point after reading a text on Health and Illness which included the word ‘infection’. One student asked what it meant and then another asked what the difference between ‘infect’ and ‘transmit’ was. This led on to, among other things, ‘sexually-transmitted diseases’, which sparked the whole thing off.
4. The class had read a text about The Anti-Onion League – a web-based organisation dedicated to the downfall of the onion!! Among the reasons listed for why onions should be avoided was the fact that they give you wind. One Chinese woman in her fifties, a senior civil servant, became quite animated at this point and produced this gem!
5. The lexical item ‘I got woken up’ had come up in an exercise, and one student asked about it. I explained it and then asked the class what kind of things they might get woken up by – the usual suspects came up: a car alarm going off, the phone ringing – before a Korean man said he’d been woken up recently by the people in the next room – they’d been shagging!
At this stage, it is important to reiterate that I am NOT advocating the kind of confrontational exercises in student-baiting so popular amongst the recently-qualified, wherein learners arrive for their morning lessons only to be assaulted with questions like “So what do you think about abortion, Chie?” or “Hussein, how do you feel about Islam’s terrible record of human rights abuses towards women?”
The key point here is that all of the taboo-breaking and boundary-pushing utterances in 1-5 arose from actually very innocuous exercises or texts and arose without any undue prompting from the teacher. Rather, they came into being simply because students wanted to say them – and, as a teacher, I was happy to help them do so.
Hopefully, this post will encourage some more of you out there to feel happy doing something similar the next time the moment arise in your own classrooms! If, that is, you’re not doing so already.
Opening the heavens: religion, reformulation and reasons to roll with it
So much of teaching is about the second-by-second set of decisions we make, whether consciously or unconsciously, and the decisions we make are shaped by intuition, which as we all know is the product of our cumulative experience this far – or expertise, if you prefer – rather than being some nebulous innate talent.
So anyway there I was, twenty-five minutes from the end of a class with my upper-intermediate group the other day, more or less at the end of a reading – a Chinese folk tale about money. I was just rounding up some vocabulary that students had asked about while reading, vaguely wondering if ideally wanted to rush on to the injected grammar (I wish with past perfect and past simple) or whether there might be some other more upbeat way of winding up when opportunity knocked.
One of the items that had come up was THE HEAVENS – as in He clung onto the rope and was lifted up to the heavens. I’d explained that it basically meant ‘the sky’ and had given another example – The heavens suddenly opened and it started pouring with rain – when a student asked what the difference between ‘the heavens’ and ‘the heaven’ was. I told the class we don’t use articles with heaven – or hell – and that aside from their literal meanings, they’re often used metaphorically: it’s my idea of heaven / hell.
There was some banter about how going to see Justin Bieber was one student’s idea of heaven, but everyone else’s idea of hell and then a Moroccan student asked “So what about paradise?” “That’s usually used to talk about a wonderful beautiful place, like maybe Bali or somewhere, that’s maybe sold as a tropical paradise” before the student then explained that for Muslims it refers to the highest part of heaven, where the prophet resides. The student then jokingly added that he wouldn’t ever reach such heights and would be lucky to reach the bottom part of heaven. Another student, a Spanish guy called Mohammed, suggested that hell was a more likely destination at which point Sosan, a Saudi woman, demanded he retract this and claimed you should never say this! I pointed out it was a common joke among friends in English and, curiosity piqued, put students in pairs to discuss whether or not they talked about heaven and hell in their own languages. Out of this the most interesting thing that emerged was a discussion about the differing concepts of angels on shoulders that seemed to exist in different cultures: the Christian notion of good angels and bad angels giving you advice – and the Muslim idea of an angel on your right shoulder recording your good actions and another on your left noting down the bad (but only after an eight-hour pause which allowed the chance of repentance and righting the wrong), all of which were to be weighed on Judgement Day. Mohammed noted that with his Spanish-Moroccan friends it was common to joke that the left-shoulder angel was compiling a library, which aroused laughter from most of the class and looks of slight shock from the more devout Saudi and Senegalese women in class.
The other thing that became apparent was that many students didn’t know how to ask ARE YOU RELIGIOUS (AT ALL?) and had gotten by thus far with their own bizarre improvised versions (“You have religion?” and the like!). For the next five minutes, students changed pairs and asked and answered this question before we rounded up with some board-based reformulation. On the board we ended up with:
She’s / he’s very devout.
He used to be Muslim / catholic, but he converted to Buddhism.
I was brought up Muslim / Buddhist / Catholic, but I don’t really practise.
All religions have lots of different branches.
I don’t really believe in God, but I do believe there’s some kind of higher power.
And that was that.
The grammar waited till the following day and students left the room still asking each other questions about each others’ beliefs.
So what, you may well be wondering? Why am I telling you all of this? Well, for a whole host of reasons, I think. Partly to illustrate how we ad teachers can take advantages of moments that present themselves – what Scott Thornbury has termed affordances – and how being alert to such moments can allow us to explore interesting , and sometimes less travelled, roads; partly to reiterate the fact that frequently the best way of doing this is via the exploration and exploitation of language that emerges from texts – what I’ve elsewhere termed ambient vocabulary. Partly also to remind the sceptics that a lexical approach to language – particularly one that takes on board the idea of working from what students TRY to say and helps them say it better, and one which reworks things in fully contextualised utterances, ensures far more exposure to – and far grater opportunities to engage with – grammar than traditional grammar-led approaches frequently do.
But maybe more controversially to demonstrate how similar people – and the languages they speak – actually are, whilst also acknowledging how fascinating the slight and subtle differences can be. Further to this, to show how different people within what are often perceived as monolithic cultural blocks (‘Muslims’) can be – and maybe most of all to suggest that supposedly taboo topics such as religion can actually be tackled in an interesting way.
Despite the almost complete absence of reference to the realm of religion in most published ELT material and despite the fact that many oublishers explicitly ban any mention if its very existence, no one died during this part of the class, no rows erupted, views were exchanged and whole sides if students’ lives not typically allowed existence within TEFL-ese were given space to emerge.
Not bad for an ad libbed, improvised closing flourish to a lesson intended to explore a totally different semantic – and lexical – realm.
Thank heavens for intuition! Where in God’s name would we be without it?
England, English and the English: tackling diversity in the classroom
Having grown up in an era during which the prominence of the National Front forced you to take sides in a very ugly and frequently violent national debate about who could and couldn’t be considered to ‘belong here’, and in which the first brave black players to play for the English national football team were greeted, by some sections of the crowd with bananas, monkey grunting and banners proclaiming that ‘There ain’t no black in the Union Jack’ (sic.), it’s always been a point of principle for me that anyone born and raised in England is by definition English – and that to oppose this notion is essentially a form of fascism based on ridiculous, outmoded and unscientific folksy notion of racial purity and blood and land.
Of course, there’s what I may believe and hold to be true and there’s what students believe, and clearly the two can sometimes be at wildly divergent odds . . . as I found out in class yesterday. One of my students is a lovely woman who always calls herself Russian, despite the fact she was born and bred in Latvia. Now, having been to the country a couple of times, I’m all too aware of the tensions between ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians, and I can understand why people might choose to adopt such taxonomy. In the coffee break, chat turned to her fiance, who she calls Russian too. It emerged that he too was born and bred in Latvia, despite having one Russian parent and one parent who was born and raised in Azerbaijan. I commented that for me this meant he was Latvia, whereupon I was told that even if they had kids which were born and brought up here in London, they’d still be Russian. I laughed and said ‘They’d be Anglo-Lativian-Russian-Azeri, but they’d be English, to me at least’ . . . and all hell broke loose.
There then followed a lengthy discussion about what it means to be English, during which it became clear (a) that for many – perhaps almost all – students the notion of Englishness is still very much connected to the idea of being white and to the idea of having deep family roots in the soil. How deep those roots need to be, how many generations they need to go back, varied from student to student, but the message seemed clear – and it seemed disturbingly similar to that propagated by the NF when I was younger, albeit in a far less aggressive or politicised manner, of course – and (b) the construct of Englishness that prevails seems rooted in a general shock at the wilder excesses of a small section of London youth. One student, a Sicilian with a sister living in the UK, married to an Indian with whom she has two kids, claimed that her nephew and niece, despite the fact they’re growing up here, would never be ‘English’ because of ‘cultural differences’ such as not going out dressed half-naked to get violently drunk and have sex in the street on a Tuesday night!
In the ensuing discussion, I tried to point out that there really isn’t – and has never been – one kind of ‘English’ person and that the English differ in their attitudes, morals, behaviour, politics, lifestyles, etc as much as anyone else. Some English people are totally behind gay marriage; others oppose it vehemently; some are Buddhist, some Muslim, some absolutely atheist; some love football, others loathe it and so on and on! At this point, a Spanish student called Mohammed chipped in saying this was exactly what he’d been fighting and arguing about all his life, as a first generation Spanish-Moroccan and as the first kid of Muslim origin to attend a Catholic school in Malaga. Despite strong family ties to Morocco and despite a recognition of the fact that he had cultural roots that were different to many other Spaniards, he sees himself defiantly as Spanish – as well he might!
So where do we go with all of this and why am I blogging about it? Well, firstly, if we are to take the Common European Framework seriously, then we have a responsibility to ensure that through our teaching of language we help students “to achieve a wider and deeper understanding of the way of life and forms of thought of other peoples and of their cultural heritage.” If this is to happen, then perhaps the first step towards recognising / accepting / discussing the diversity that exists within students’ own cultures is to have their vision of Britain complicated for them. Perhaps such discussions can act as a mirror inwards and give pause for reflection? Of course, London may a special case in many ways given that 37% of its inhabitants – my students included, of course (!) – were born outside of the UK, but what’s happening in London also happens everywhere: people travel, relationships form, kids are born, cultures change.
Secondly, it’s clearly of vital importance for many many teachers and students alike that these issues are aired. An ever-increasing number of native-speaker teachers are of mixed-race or non-white origin and thus more likely to be prejudged – often negatively – by foreign students demanding what they perceive to be ‘native’ native speakers of English! In addition, there are many students who come from complex families and whose right to self-definition and determination is a basic human one. In my time at work, I’ve met Swedes with Afghan, Eritrean and Iranian roots; Swiss students from all manner of interwoven backgrounds; a young Polish lad who’d grown up in a very rural area as the only mixed-race kid for many many miles, and so on. These students’ stories and lives deserve to be validated and recognised.
So what can we do? Well, for a start, we can at least have exactly the kinds of discussions I outlined above, should the opportunity / need arise.
In addition to this, I then sent an email round my class – as I do after every lesson – containing some follow-up links and things to read. Here’s what I included:
Next up, that series I was telling you about called 100% English.
It’s an incredible view and I’d really recommend you watch at least one episode.
It’ll hopefully complicate your ideas of what ‘English’ or even ‘white’ means!!
Connected to this is this amazing article about a guy in Scotland whose DNA traces directly back to the first woman in East Africa. Fascinating story.
I then asked the class to record a Vocaroo each detailing what they felt they were a product of. This was an expression that had come up in a reading we did, wherein a mother lamented the fact that her slightly unruly fifteen-year-old son was the product of a very liberal age, and I’d discussed my own roots and formative influences briefly on my own recording that I mailed out to announce the homework.
Small steps and I’m realistic enough to know that such steps are unlikely to bring about any sea change in attitudes or prejudices, but also small steps that slowly lead to somewhere else, and ultimately it’s a belief in the power of dialogue and discourse that allows me to retain a rosy, optimistic slant on these matters even when things seem particularly cloudy!
The road to hell is paved with good intentions (or Much Ado About Nothing?)
As a teacher and as a coursebook writer, one of the (many) things I’ve always been interested in is trying to present a broader and more nuanced view of the world to students than is often attempted. As I’m sure you’ll all be aware, publishers often have fairly strict guidelines on what can – and cannot – be included in material aimed for a global mass market. In essence, what this far too frequently means is that potential Middle Eastern sales – and the sensitivities of the region (both real and imagined by overly-sensitive EFL editors!) dictate what the whole world gets to read about. One common acronym often used for describing what remains taboo is parsnips, standing for politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms (such as communism or atheism), and pork. Given these strictures, what then all too often occurs is writers themselves want an easy life, want to maximize sales and don’t want to rock the boat in order to get repeat commissions and so the cloyingly bland little world of ELT materials repeats itself ad infinitum.
For many teachers, this prompts a lurch away from published materials towards so-called ‘authentic’ materials, a move I’ve argued against elsewhere. For me as a writer, it presents its own kind of challenge. How can I get interesting and relevant issues in through the back door? How can I leave space for potentially interesting debate and discussion to emerge? And how can my material affect or impact upon students – and perhaps alter or modify their ways of thinking? Obviously, this is a vast area and one out of which many, many posts could emerge. However, this particular thought piece is based on watching a class yesterday which used a subversively-intentioned text I’ve long been quite proud of – and the depression and shock which ensued from seeing what the class did with it! As the title has it, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
This was a listening-based lesson from OUTCOMES UPPER-INTERMEDIATE Unit 16 – Business. The basic gist is that it revolved around reality TV shows and in particular a radio programme about two new Afghan reality TV shows: an Afghan version of Dragon’s Den and Afghan Idol! The hope was that it might afford students a more sophisticated and complex view of a country that’s not exactly had a great press in recent years. The lead-in is based on a short text about the boom in reality TV and some discussion of shows students have seen (see below).
Read the short extract below. Then discuss the questions.
Dragon’s Den is a popular reality TV programme in Britain. Each week, would-be entrepreneurs who want to set up their own businesses present their plans to a panel of five successful business people, with the aim of persuading the five to invest a certain amount of their own money in exchange for a stake in any new company the entrepreneurs are then able to start. After the entrepreneurs have pitched their ideas, they are then subjected to questioning from the panel, as a result of which each of the business people either offer to give the money the entrepreneur has asked for or declare that they are not interested. There is no negotiation on the amount that is invested, but the entrepreneurs and business people can negotiate what percentage of the new company the business people will end up owning.
1 Does a programme like Dragon’s Den exist in your country? Is it a programme you would watch? Why? / Why not?
2 Discuss other reality TV shows you know in the following areas. What do they involve? Do you like any of them? Why? / Why not?
– living with a group of other people
– survival or dealing with difficult situations
– music or dance
– romance and dating
It then moved onto the following exercises, which were predominantly based on the listening embedded here.
You are going to hear a radio report about a reality TV programme in Afghanistan.
A Before you listen, work in groups. Discuss what you know about Afghanistan.
B Now listen and answer these questions.
1 What is the programme?
2 Why is it important there?
3 What is different about the programme compared to its British equivalent?
B Listen again and decide if the following statements are true or false. Then compare your answers with a partner.
1 The show was originally devised in Britain.
2 The Afghan economy has not been sustaining itself.
3 Most people in Afghanistan work for the state.
4 More people need to learn about aspects of business.
5 Faisulhaq Moshkani has an electricity company.
6 His company is unique in Afghanistan.
7 There are two reality TV shows on Afghan TV.
8 In Afghanistan, women weren’t allowed to have paid jobs in the past.
The group was a small one and the teacher decided to conduct the discussion of the first question – exercise A above – with the whole group. This was the cue for a Ukrainian student to launch into a rant about how everything that Afghanistan had was a result of Russia having provided it for them, that the main field of work there was drug-production and drug-dealing, and that essentially all Afghans were violent and barbaric Taliban wanna-bes who treated all women worse than dogs. These comments completely threw the (admittedly relatively inexperienced) teacher and went unchallenged by other students. Indeed, one other student – a young Romanian lad – simply chuckled along at the outpouring. The teacher did try to say that maybe it was a bit harsh and that you couldn’t really say a whole country was violent, just that people were violent. This well-intentioned attempt at encouraging personalisation and discouraging sweeping generalisations resulted in the response: “Yes, the people are very violent!”
Then whilst the teacher was rounding up the answers to the true or false questions that accompanied the second listening, the same student replied that number 8 must be true – not because of anything that had been heard, but because ‘They are all Muslims, and that’s how they are. They don’t let women do nothing. So of course it’s true.’
Now, were I teaching this class myself, I’d pick up on this, challenge it, explore it, complicate it, explain what I felt was wrong with such outbursts, but in this instance I was merely an observer. And the experience raised some complicated questions: does any of the above really actually matter is perhaps the hardest question. Is it simply that as a well-intentioned left-of-centre bleeding-heart British liberal, I expect the world to be a better place than it clearly is, and that the reality is that many many of our students hold views I perceive to be odious and unsavoury and yet which, when aired in multi-lingual classes, often go unchallenged or get agreed with – possibly even by other teachers themselves? Also, by making material which raises these issues, albeit in a discrete way, am I inadvertently facilitating such bile? Or is it better that it exists and can thus be used as a springboard by some teachers to challenge, explore and complicate – and that others who don’t, with students who think similarly to the student described above, remain essentially unchanged and continue as they would have anyway? In other words, is the feeling of discomfort I experienced essentially a luxury, an irrelevance?
I’ve always felt that as teachers we have two responsibilities that pull against each other at times like these: on the one hand, we have a responsibility to help our students express themselves better in English – even if we find their opinions repellent. After all, they have paid us to help them learn better English! At the same time, I also feel all teachers have a right – perhaps even a duty – to challenge on a personal level opinions they find disgusting. I’ve never really felt these were mutually exclusive desires, and have long managed to more or less balance them.
However, by sending material that opens the world up the classes out there into the classrooms of others, I suppose I simply have to accept that material can be used to challenge, but can also end up simply reaffirming, prejudices and biases that students come with. In saying this, I start to feel like an NRA gun freak claiming that it’s not guns that kill, it’s people, but fear that in this instance (though NOT, of course, when it comes to guns!), that’s just the way it has to be. Maybe we just have to accept that bigots and racists have a right to their viewpoint and that in the end, even being challenged or critiqued may well do very little to dent their world views. While conversation CAN be transformative, it can also simply be a reaffirmation of previously held beliefs, whatever our political inclinations. And that my angst is ultimately much ado about nothing very much.
In praise of non-native speakers part five: localizing texts
So here we go with the fifth and final installment in a series of posts initially inspired by a desire to counter the appalling Open English advert – and to point out the many potential advantages that non-native speaker teachers, especially those teaching monolingual groups with whom they share a first language, possess. Following on from the last post on translation, which generated a real flurry of responses and debate, I’ve been loath to wrap this series up for fear of going out with a whimper, rather than a bang, but here goes nothing.
The final way in which non-natives (or, of course, bilingual natives who’ve lived in situ for some considerable period of time) can offer students superior value for money – certainly when compared to rabidly monolingual recent arrivals – is through the way teachers tackle texts. All too often texts are included in coursebooks to convey facts about the world outside – and are treated as little more than factual entities to be analysed, ‘comprehended’ and processed, but not really responded to or related to the local environment.
In Britain in the late 70s / early 80s, there was a school of thought dubbed Critical Pedagogy, led by people such as Norman Fairclough, which advocated encouraging students to adopt a critical approach to the teaching materials and methods they were exposed to. Whilst I am not suggesting this is a realistic – or even desirable – goal for most teachers, there are aspects of this approach that can help us bring texts to life for our students, especially in non-native / bilingual contexts.
The most fruitful way to think about the role of texts in the classroom is to see them both as vehicles for useful or interesting language, and also as points of comparison with students’ own cultures and life experiences. Sadly, however, not all globally available classroom material shares this perspective – and this is where the local teacher can step in and help to bring otherwise neutral (or possibly even alien) material to life. Often texts can be fruitfully exploited with the addition of a few simple questions along the lines of: what do you think is the same and what’s different here? / does anything in the text remind you of any stories you have heard about? – and so on. As ever, the teacher who is most aware of the local context will be able both to frame these questions in a way which may well work best with local students, whilst also being more conscious of what kind of answers students might typically come up with, and thus what kind of language would be most worth feeding in.
Let’s look at a concrete example: earlier this year, I was using Headway Pre-Intermediate with a multi-lingual group in London and one particular day, I had the slightly dubious pleasure of teaching a text called Supervolcano – about the Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming: a perfect example of the kind of factual ‘global knowledge’ texts that dominate many books nowadays and that seemingly have little point of entry for students. Whilst the book does have personalized questions leading into the text – what famous volcanoes are there in the world? How many can you name? Are they active or extinct? What do you know about them? – and out of the text – Where do you think there might be other eruptions in the future? If an eruption did happen, what do you think you could do to try and survive? – there’s nothing that relates to students’ locale.
Simply asking students what they would tell foreigners about the most famous natural features of their own countries, any extreme weathers they have to deal with and any natural disasters that have affected their hometowns or countries serves as a far more meaningful lead-in and makes students more willing to then engage with a text about somewhere that may very well be outside their realms of experience. Of course, whilst students are chatting, you can wander round, monitoring, picking up on problem areas and using their ideas as a source of board-based input during your round-up stage, thus once again helping them to word their own worlds.
These small but significant localizing twists can be added in to classes time and time again – and all help the local bilingual teacher to bring the coursebook closer to the worlds of their students AND the worlds of the students closer to being realised through English.
In praise of non-native speaker teachers part four: Translation
Used wisely, translation can be one of the best weapons in the non-native speaker teacher’s armoury. Yet whilst it may have been undergoing something of a renaissance over the last few years, translation has certainly not always a good rep in ELT. Indeed, my own path to recognizing its potential has been a long and winding one. Back in 1993, when I did my four-week CELTA course, there was certainly no mention of it, and in the two main bibles that I read at the time in order to glean ways forward – Jeremy Harmer’s PRACTICE OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE TEACHING and Jim Scrivener’s LEARNING TEACHING – there wasn’t much to get me thinking about translation either. In the latter, there was no mention of the phenomenon at all, whilst in the Harmer, I was told it was “a quick and easy way to present the meaning of words,” but then immediately warned that it was “not without problems” – it’s not always easy to translate words, and even where translation IS possible, it may make life a bit too easy for the students by discouraging them from interacting with the words.
Having not learned how to make life easy for my students, I set off to a monolingual school in Indonesia to get started on my teaching career – and quite soon I started noticing a strange thing happening. Students would ask me what a word meant, I’d go through contortions to act it, draw it and explain it and after a few minutes of killing myself, students would suddenly look pleased. I’d think “Finally. They understand what a frog is and say to each other, for example, “Oh! Kodok!”
As I was learning Indonesian myself, I learnt a lot of it from hanging out with English and American friends who had lived there longer and who spoke the language better. I’d often find myself asking them So how do you say . . . in Indonesian? and essentially teaching myself chunk by translated chunk. I also started slowly realising that a lot of the problems I was having were down to having learned a word and thinking it’d always work the same in Indonesian. I learned, for instance, how to say in Indonesian to my low-level classes OK. Let’s check the answers – Mari kita periksa jawabannya – and so logically assumed that the Indonesian word periksa must therefore be equivalent to the English word check. However, when Indonesian friends came round for dinner and I told them Saya akan periksa makanannya – I’ll check the food – they’d laugh and correct me and say coba makanannya – which for me meant try rather than check.
Once back in the UK, I noticed the same thing the same thing happening in reverse. In classrooms, I’d frequently be trying to elicit a missing word – say, for instance, here:
He’s got a really good job. He ………… a hundred thousand a year.
and students would shout out WINS! WINS!! and I’d end up retorting “Maybe in Portuguese, yes, but in English anyone?”
As time went by, I also started to recognise very common mistakes from certain language groups of learners, which I realised must be down to poor word-for-word translation, so my Japanese students would say I was stolen my mobile / bag, while Spanish speakers during tutorials would enthusiastically report that was a course very interesting.
So as you can see, I’d spent many years skirting round the fringes of the translation in language teaching issue, but had never really paid that much mind to it, if truth be told. What really made a convert of me was actually one little feature we wanted to include when writing OUTCOMES – a section called Language Patterns. The idea was that we somehow wanted to focus on lexico-grammatical patterns that weren’t strictly grammar, but that were definitely beyond single words – the kind of thing you can see below:
Mongolia is known as ‘the land of the horse’.
Shanghai is known as ‘the Paris of the East’.
Aubergines are also known as eggplants.
The area is known for its oysters.
The village is well known for its leather goods.
This rare species of shark is known to inhabit fresh water.
Very few details are known about this rare species.
And we wanted to encourage teachers to get students to notice them. Now, you’re all undoubtedly aware of the importance of noticing – it’s been central to theories of how language is acquired for over twenty years now. Back in 1990, Schmidt stated that while noticing does not automatically guarantee acquisition, it nevertheless remains true that features of the language cannot be learned UNLESS they are first noticed. Schmidt was talking more about structural grammar in its traditional sense, but Rod Ellis went further in 1997 and stressed the importance of drawing students’ attention to items that do not conform to expectations and that may therefore not otherwise be noticed.
Noticing is so central to learning that you could quite easily claim it is one of only four or maybe five things that needs to happen for any item or structure to be acquired. Essentially, to learn a language people need to:
• hear or see the language
• understand the meaning of what they hear or see
• pay attention to the language and notice aspects of it
• do something with that language – use it in some way
• repeat these steps for the same language repeatedly over time
The question was, though, what was the most useful way of trying to encourage noticing when space in the book was limited and when these were not the kind of core structures that teachers expected to find in the book. Was it enough to simply sort structures, show them to students and ask them to ‘notice’ the patterns? What might encouraging noticing actually involve and how could a teacher say with any degree of certainty that their students had noticed?
As we were to find out, facilitating noticing in class proved far more problematic that we’d initially anticipated. Initially, our rubric for these sections was simply Which patterns can you see in these sentences? Now, you think about how you might answer that question with particular reference to this particular set of language patterns from OUTCOMES below:
It’s hardly the same thing!
Hardly an instant solution then!
It’s hardly surprising people are concerned about it.
Hardly a day goes by without hearing one of these stories.
I hardly know anyone who agrees with it.
There’s hardly any funding available for research into it.
What WE noticed when we asked students to do this and to then share their insights in pairs or groups was that (a) they didn’t actually notice all that much and (b) it was hard to verbalise whatever awareness of underlying patterns they might’ve become aware of in this manner. Even if both of these barriers were overcome, there was then still the nagging doubt that none of this would lead to better production; that the noticing would all essentially be in vain. We then tried translation and in one particular class I had my eureka moment. Now, again, you might like to stop here and try the previous exercise, but this time with the following rubric: Write the sentences in your language. Translate them back into English. Compare your English to the original.
I had a French student in one class, who spoke very well, but often in a kind of French-in-English way, and who was also very resistant to the idea of using translation. “But I understand it all,” he would protest. “There’s no need!” “Please!” I would beg him. “Just do it for me!” “But it’s the same in French,” he would try to persuade me. “It can’t be,” I’d point out – “for starters, it’s in French! Please! Just to shut me up, try it.” So translate he did. I then kept the translations and the next class I pointed at one of his translations almost at random and asked if he could say it in English. “Of course,” he replied. “It’s Hardly a day is passing without that I hear about one of these stories.”
“Ah-ha!” I suddenly screamed. “That’s the FRENCH pattern, but you haven’t noticed the ENGLISH one!”
Translating back and forth between languages like this forces noticing in a way that nothing else does. So why, I started thinking, don’t more teachers do it? The bulk of classes around the world are monolingual with relatively bilingual teachers. And many of us who are proficient to at least some degree in two languages code switch all the time – with friends, relatives, lovers. It’s the norm rather than the exception.
Yet monolingual teaching has come to be seen as the norm, as the most desirable model! However, as Guy Cook points out in his quietly furious tome Translation In Language Teaching, the reasons behind this dominance owe far more to commercial and political imperatives than to science or pedagogy! How can this surreal state of affairs have come to pass? And how have so many teachers who could potentially benefit from a world in which their language skills were allowed fuller expression been brainwashed into believing they have to try and emulate the sad, sorry islands of monolingualism natives so often find themselves on?
In many ways, I fear, we are STILL suffering from an ongoing backlash against grammar translation, a backlash that has gone on so long and been reiterated so mindlessly that it’s become almost a subconscious knee-jerk state of mind. Grammar Translation was very much the dominant mode of language teaching right up until the tail end of the 19th century. Rooted in the teaching of Greek and Latin, with which modern languages vied for respectability, the emphasis was very firmly on writing, on grammar, on accuracy and on the ultimate aim of allowing the student to read literary classics in the language they were learning. Grammar Translation is what people often imagine either when thinking of traditional approaches to language teaching or else simply to translation in language teaching in general. As well as learners memorizing huge lists of rules and vocabulary, this method involved them translating whole literary or historic texts word for word. Unsurprisingly, new methodologies tried to improve on this. The Direct (or Natural) Method established in Germany and France around 1900 was a response to the obvious problems associated with the Grammar Translation method. In the Direct Method the teacher and learners avoided using the learners’ native language and just used the target language. Like the Direct Method, the later Audio-Lingual Method tried to teach the language directly, without using the L1 to explain new items.
The Reform Movement, which was the initial reaction against Grammar Translation, placed the primary emphasis on speech, and generally insisted on an English only approach, but still allowed some translation. These ideas were picked up and simplified – and then codified – by schools during the first great language teaching boom and Berlitz, founded at the end of the 19th century, insisted on natives only, speech only and no use of L1. Indeed, translation became a sackable offence. This led directly to the pillars of practice that haunt us to this day: monolingualism; naturalism – the idea that learning L2 can somehow mirror the ‘natural’ way we learn L1; native speakerism and absolutism – the belief (or claim) that Direct Method is the one true path!
Subsequent so-called ‘humanistic’ methodologies such as the Silent Way and Total Physical Response and communicative methodologies moved ever further away from L1, and from these arose many of the contemporary objections to translation. Sure there was the odd exception, such as Community Language Learning in the 1970s, which accepted the whole human range of approaches, including negotiation between student and counselor teacher, within which translation was seen as one tool among many, but such approaches were few and far between.
All of which brings us to our current state of play, where countless – and often groundless – fears abound: students will end up using L1 all time, when aim is use of L2; the skills involved in translation are not suitable for all learners – and may only suit those who are analytical, older or better; learners may not see the value of translation value or only see it as hard or specialised; it’s hard to set up and run in class; it requires extra motivation from students; it needs a teacher with a good knowledge of students’ L1 and culture and thus doesn’t work in multilingual classes – and on and on it goes.
At its worst, anti-TILT (Translation in Language Teaching) rhetoric is rooted in dialogue focused on monolingualism and the supression of other languages – as can be seen in the States at the moment, where folk proudly sport Speak English or Die T-shirts and where a recent airport best-seller is entitled His Panic: Why Americans fear Hispanics in the US.
Yet as I hope I have already persuaded you, there are many strong reasons in favour of using TILT. Some of the strongest are actually evidence based. For instance, in a 2008 study, Laufer and Girsai taught vocabulary to three groups using three approaches – meaning-focussed, form-focussed without translation and through contrastive analysis and translation. Both passive AND active retention was way higher with the third group.
Translation is, by its very nature, highly communicative and is a real world activity for the vast majority of students at some point in their language-using lives. On a more meta level, you could almost argue that translation makes the world go round – the UN, the EU, business, academia, and so on all rely on it. Whether we like it or not, the process of understanding L2 by looking for L1 equivalents has always been a frequently used strategy for learners. If you accept this, then there comes a need to develop it in the right way – to hone it.
Lower-level students use translation all the time – and for higher-level learners, it’s almost by definition what it means to be good! I’d be amazed if I were to go out for dinner tonight with any of you reading this and found that you were unable to translate an L1 menu, for instance!
In terms of student-centeredness, many students – especially younger ones and those at lower levels, though perhaps not only them – look more favourably upon bilingual instruction and, therefore, translation than has previously been admitted.
Irrespective of all arguments in favour of using TILT, the bottom line is that it’s the most effective way of doing stuff that needs to be done! In many ways, as well, translation is one of the most authentic tasks that we can engage in in the classroom as it’s something we all do all the time – in the so-called real world. There’s also the very real possibility that for many students, translation will be the main – or maybe even the sole – activity connected to English that they engage in later in their lives!
In addition to everything else, it’s a time-efficient way of dealing with such time-honoured problems as false friends, it requires minimal preparation – and, let’s be honest, the recommendation that foreign-language classes be taught exclusively in the foreign language remains, shall we say, ‘aspirational’ at best!
To those of you who STILL remain sceptical, look at it this way. From L2 to L1 is less an absolute act and more just part of a spectrum. When we explain new language in simplified language or with gestures, we’re already engaging in a form of translation! Given this, surely it should not be too much of a leap to then allow the principled use of L1?!
Henry Widdowson once said that that the error of monolingual teaching is that it misunderstands how learners of English engage with their new language, and the purposes for which it is being learned. He warned that to proceed as though the learners’ own languages do not exist, attempting to induct learners into a local monolingual native-like perspective, is to profoundly misunderstand what is happening. Learners will ALWAYS relate new language to their own, even if only in their own minds, and if forbidden to do so, will nevertheless continue the practice as a means of resistance!
In short, humans teach and learn by moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar, by building new knowledge onto existing knowledge. Language learning is no – or should be no – exception!
Interestingly, the grammar-plus-words model of language that still prevails in many coursebooks works least well with TILT. What works best is collocations, chunks and patterns. Lexis, in other words. What clearly rarely works at all is single words – and, to a lesser degree, grammar, especially if we’re looking for direct equivalence, though as I said earlier, it can still be useful to understand L1 transference errors.
This does all seem to suggest, then, that if we are to get the most from TILT, then the time has come to drop the dominant model of grammar plus structures and to embrace instead an approach to language that sees grammar and vocabulary as inextricably intertwined and contextually bound.
So what kind of activities can we do that might take all of this on board? Well, to close, here are five that I have done in recent months – and that you might want to try for yourselves. I should add that I work with multilingual groups in London, and have still found these tasks work fine. I expect that many NON-natives working in monolingual contexts where students share their own L1 have plenty of other ideas on how translation might be fully exploited – and I hope to read more about these in the comments section below!
1 If you come into class and students are chatting in L1, get them to write the conversation they’re having first in L2, and then translate it. Help them with any expressions they’re not sure and maybe, if you can, round up by pooling a range of new expressions / chunks that have emerged through the process of translation on the board.
2 When students lapse in L1 during freer speaking activities, note this down and then during your round-up either give or else elicit English versions.
3 Give – or ask for – translations of single words as a STARTING point, but then show ways in which these words are NOT the same! So say, for example, the sentence I’m responsible for hiring and firing comes up, you might want to say the L1 equivalent of responsible, but then say that in English, you‘re responsible FOR doing something, not responsible of.
4 Allow students to translate things that they may have to translate in ‘the real world’. Use L1 as a resource and as a bridge to L2. As Guy Cook notes, there are countless possibilities here that lend themselves to communicative / task-based activities: a company entering negotiations with foreign partners may receive documents and communications which first need translating by bilingual staff; evidence in a court case may need translating before a judgement can me made – or, as in this exercise from OUTCOMES intermediate, a menu may need to be translated before diners can decide what they want – and don’t want – to eat.
A Write a typical menu for a restaurant in your country. Write it in your own language.
B Work in pairs. Imagine you are in a restaurant that does not have an English menu. You are trying to decide what to eat.
Student A: you are visiting the country on holiday or on business. You do not speak the local language.
Student B: talk Student A through the menu.
Student A: reject at least two of the things on the menu. Explain why.
5 As a self-study device, make students aware of things like the Word Reference forums for bilingual learning communities and encourage them to use them.
Looking forward to hearing your thoughts, questions and comments on this paper.