Category Archives: Language and culture / ELF

Language without culture

Last weekend I was at the TEA conference in Salzburg, Austria, where I gave a talk entitled BRIDGING THE CULTURE GAP IN THE CLASSROOM. One of the claims I made was that in the vast majority of circumstances, the kind of language we teach in EFL classes has no particular geographically located cultural sub-text. As teachers, we generally have to deal with meanings pure and simple. of course we DO need to be clear in our explanations of what things mean and make it clear to students how they’re used, give extra examples, and so on, but generally cultural information is irrelevant and beyond the realm of what we do.

At the end of the talk a young native-speaker teacher working in Austria asked me whether or not I was claiming that language could be taught to a high level without really dealing with culture, whatever that might mean, at all. I answered that up to Cambridge Proficiency level, I think it’s quite possible yes, and that just a brief look at the kind of language students get tested on at CPE level is enough to prove how irrelevant ‘culture’ is to the understanding and processing of meaning. I mean, here’s a random sample from the first CPE test book I could lay my hands on this morning:

Much as I dislike her, I still . . .

An argument broke out . . .

It didn’t live up to my expectations

As far as I’m aware

He had to be restrained

It’s been earmarked for preservation

It has come a long way since . . .

The country is lagging behind

I could go on, but clearly none of this language is ‘cultural’ in the sense that it requires local knowledge in order to be explained.

The teacher who’d asked the question looked slightly deflated on hearing this and gave a very specific example, which I’ll paraphrase here:

“The other day with my Upper-Intermediate group, I wanted to teach the expression little white lies, so I began by asking the class – they’re all young adults – how I looked. I have to say, I was totally shocked by their brutal honesty. They ripped me to pieces, commenting negatively on her hair, outfit, weight and so on!”

She was so taken aback that she told the class how rude and blunt they’d been, to which they replied ‘Well, you did ask us!’

Now, personally, I think if you want to teach LITTLE WHITE LIES, there are less risky ways of doing it! I think you just set up a situation where, say, your beloved gets a nice haircut which you think looks terrible and they ask you what you think, you say how good it looks and that it really suits because you DON’T WANT TO HURT THEIR FEELINGS, so decide it’s better to TELL A LITTLE WHITE LIE. Nothing cultural there, as far as I can see.

But . . . but . . . but . . IS there perhaps something in the way certain people express negativity (or politeness) that’s somehow inherently cultural? Is the problem in the exchange between the native-speaker teacher and the brutally honest young Austrians actually the problem of the native-speaker filter? if the Austrians had been talking to Russians, say, or Germans or maybe even Indonesians, would there have been less shock and offence?

A few examples here to clarify what I mean.  My wife is Chinese-Indonesian and despite the fact we’ve been together for nigh-on eighteen years, we still have the odd row sparked by what I subconsciously process as rudeness. It’s usually something to do with requests, where maybe she’ll say ‘Pass the remote control’ or something and I’ll snap ‘Please!’ Her business partner, however, is German; they both speak incredibly good English and have lived here for many many years. When talking to each other, they’re fine and don’t process each other as rude in any way. The problem is the native-speaker filter. They both seem very conscious of this as when writing emails, for instance, to natives, they know how to, as my wife would say, ‘tart it up to keep English people happy’!

I’m reminded of the many times students have looked sort of bemused when I’ve presented chunks like I WAS WONDERING IF YOU COULD POSSIBLY . . .  and asked why on earth you don’t just ask CAN YOU . . . ?

Another German woman came to a version of the Bridging the gap talk that I did at IATEFL this year and at the end told a story about how she’d come to work on London in the hotel trade after graduating and was very upset that people complained about her being rude. What bothered her most was the fact that no-one made it clear to her for a long time that much of this was just to do with the choice of certain direct styles of asking or relating negatives rather than using more indirect variants which were more palatable to . . .  yep . . . the native-speaker filter.

There was a big story here maybe ten years ago when a leading chef said he wouldn’t be employing any more Eastern European service staff as they were, and I quote, ‘rude’. I often wonder if this was essentially a similar issue.

Which brings me to my main question, really, and it’s this: is the fact that some people deal with conflict or negotiations more or less directly or indirectly relevant to language teaching? If so, in what way?

Bridging the culture gap in the classroom

Just a brief look at how English is used is enough to suggest that CULTURE seems to permeate the way we process the world in a wide range of ways. We talk about arts and culture; we have the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; we discuss company cultures and youth culture and subcultures; we make generalizations about French or Spanish or Polish culture; we fret about high and low culture, popular culture and celebrity culture; we are told – at least in England, we are – that there’s a culture of yobbishness and violence on our streets and that we live in a culture of greed and self-interest. We talk about things being part of – or not being part of – our culture. We debate cultural values, our cultural needs, cultural shifts and the cultural dominance of the USA.

And, of course, culture seems to have started permeating the way we think about our job as teachers of English as well. We’re constantly told at conferences that we need to be thinking about culture when teaching language – and that without intercultural competence, whatever communicative competence students may develop is basically meaningless. Here are just some of the preposterous claims about the relationship between language and culture that I’ve heard being made at conferences over the last couple of years:

  • Language without culture is like a finger without a body.
  • Culture and language are intimately related. They go hand in hand during the teaching-learning process.
  • Language and culture are not separate, but are acquired together, with each providing support for the development of the other.
  • The person who learns language without learning culture risks becoming a fluent fool.

Now, I often feel with culture that the nearer we get to it, the more we look at it, the more elusive it becomes and the more it slips away from our grasp. I freely admit to finding much of the discourse around culture in language teaching both confused and confusing, and if I feel like that, as a native speaker supposedly steeped in the culture of the language and who teaches multi-lingual students in the UK, whatever that may mean, then how much more confusing must all of this be for the countless non-native teachers around the world, teaching predominantly monolingual groups who may well be using their English far more frequently with other non-natives than with natives?

What I want to do in this session is to explore a few key questions and suggest a few tentative answers. Firstly, I’d like to ask what is it we actually mean by culture anyway. In general, I think there are two main ways we can consider culture. One is culture as PRODUCT, where culture equals the arts – music, painting, the theatre, and so on – along with history, cuisine, festivals, etc. Seen from this view, here are a few images that one might see associated with English culture.

This is essentially a STATIC view of culture.

Then there’s thinking about culture as a PROCESS, with culture as social practices and processes. Culture in this light is a site of change and conflict and revolves around the variety of languages operating within a society – the language of gesture, of clothes, of sexuality, of race, of gender and so on – and the ways in which reality is represented or constructed through a range of communication divides. In this definition, of course, you can take PRODUCTS – a skinhead haircut, football, mobile phones, a crown, a cross – and read meanings into them through an analysis of their relationships with other products, with social participants and with the products themselves in past incarnations. Looked at this way, jokes, newspaper articles, myths, archetypes, TV shows, advertising, films, street art and so on all give you windows into a culture – none of them representing a REAL culture, but all of them driven by particular cultural agendas – the writer or teller’s desire to perpetuate stereotypes in order to maintain order – as with woman driver jokes, etc. – to raise social consciousness, to whip up patriotism, to challenge long-held attitudes or stereotypes and so on. Seen this way, perhaps THESE images tell us something interesting about England:

Given all of this, some core points about culture surely emerge:

1          Culture is not static. It is fluid and dynamic.

2          Culture can basically mean almost anything and everything.

3          The notion of unified national cultures is a myth. Everything is in dispute.

4          With English, this is of course complicated by its status as global lingua franca

Now, before anyone here has an attack of rage, I should add that culture is clearly located geographically and nationally IN SOME WAYS, yet within that we’d do well to bear in mind the fact that we are all unique and we all participate in globalised cultures and orient ourselves to all of this as individuals in our own way. Ultimately, developing ourselves as inter-culturally competent and globally oriented people surely has to involve being able to word our own worlds – and being open to learning about the worlds of others – and of course this latter may involve rethinking our own assumptions, withholding judgments and becoming aware of the fact that the view contains the viewer. Realizing that we are all different, but we are also all the same.

I’ll move on to consider what this might mean in the classroom in a while, but first I want to explore one more common assumption – that teaching English must automatically mean somehow also teaching the CULTURE of England or the UK or the US – or of the people for whom English is a mother tongue.

I’ve gathered together a sample of linguistic items from a variety of big-selling global English coursebooks – Upper-Intermediate and Advanced level – and just consider to what degree you feel they are CULTURALLY rooted; in other words, to what degree would they need to be explained with reference to specific cultural phenomenon of the UK – or US.

She wanted the ground to open up and swallow her.

I can’t stand being the centre of attention.

I think I’m quite a level-headed sort of person.

Compulsory military service should be abolished.

I spent a lot of the holidays just roaming around the countryside, exploring.

She has no qualms about giving her child a head start.

That film has had a lot of hype.

They fell on hard times.

The kidnappers released him after his family agreed to pay a ransom of $100,000.

He swore under oath that he’d spent the evening at home.

Hold your breath and count to ten.

I had an interview for the job, but I blew it.

Now unless I’m missing something, there’s absolutely no cultural baggage attached to these sentences and they can be explained with reference to wherever your students happen to be – or nowhere at all. This isn’t to say that nothing in English ever requires cultural background information. Clearly to deal with any of these sentences here –

Shoom span a Balearic mix of Detroit techno, New York garage and Chicago house.

Nationalist murals started springing up in areas like the Falls Road when IRA inmates of the Maze prison began a hunger strike.

The NUT has long been run by hardcore members of the Loony Left.

– you’d need to know a fair bit of unusual cultural information – but these ARE not – and should never be – EFL material, in much the same way as students don’t need to know about presidents of the USA or the kings and queens of England.

Language can obviously be used to represent culture and sometimes certain phrases may even encode certain things that are more dominant in certain circumstances than others. Take for instance the phrase EVEN IF I SAY SO MYSELF and its close cousin EVEN IF YOU SAY SO YOURSELF. These are both relatively fixed expressions used to undercut oneself – or someone else – when you think there’s some slightly big-headed boasting going on, and this may or may not be a ‘cultural phenomenon’. Whilst these expressions may be interesting, they’re really not what most students need to get better as speakers of English as a medium for international communication.

The main point here, though, is that while language can represent culture (and particularly personal culture), it does NOT encode it. There is NO culturally correct way of doing things within English itself. Norms vary, in linguistic behaviour as in any other kind of behaviour!

So what does all this mean for what we can – or should – be doing in our classrooms?

Well, it’s pretty clear that the traditional concept of culture in English language teaching, which far too frequently involved facts and figures about Britain – though in reality this usually meant England, and a rarified upper-middle class slice of English cultural life at that – is no longer valid! The world has moved on from a time in which students could be sold visions of Windsor Castle and Bath, Stratford-upon-Avon and Stonehenge and perhaps given the occasional extract from Dickens or Shakespeare.

I think that for culture to work in the classroom, it has to be done with some basic principles in mind. It has to:

1          be a two-way process

2          be global in perspective

3          include language

4          allow space for the personal

Students are now in a situation where they are likely to travel and met people from many different corners of the world; they’re also in a globalised world where they may be eating Japanese food, watching Mexican movies, listening to Swedish music, reading Danish novelists and so on. As such, the UK – or US – should receive no higher priority than anywhere else, though I guess we do always have to bear in mind the expectation of SOME students – and, perhaps, some parents and even teachers as well – that learning English WILL involve a focus on ‘the homes’ of the language.

In addition to this, though, is the more complex reality that the vast bulk of students around the world will nevertheless be learning their English in classes that are monolingual. I hesitate to add ‘and mono-cultural’ because the simple fact of sharing a nationality doesn’t mean that students will necessarily share any particular thoughts or experiences or opinions. Students will operate across a range of micro-cultural worlds – or sub-cultures – unique to themselves. Indeed, in many ways, I think it’s important for students to realize and to recognize the diversity and complexity of their own local and national cultures before they can hope to understand similar issues with regard to other nations and cultures.

That notwithstanding, it still remains the case that the real way students get to develop intercultural competence is to travel, meet people, build friendships and relationships with people from more radically different backgrounds to themselves than their classmates. Given this, if students are to get the chance to think about how they would represent their own realities to others from around the world, then the materials used in the classroom have a responsibility to bring the world to them. This means looking to use cultural products and processes from around the world partly to simply teach students about the world, but also – crucially – to provide points of comparison, to serve as a springboard for cross-cultural comparisons and evaluation. There needs to be, if you like, global input but local outcomes.

So let’s explore some ways in which all of this can work in our classes. In an ideal situation, it should be possible to combine all of the areas I’ve just mentioned into one scheme of work. Let’s look at both a reading and a listening that have cultural content from around the world, that focus on some useful language and that allow plenty of space for students to respond from both a national and an individual perspective. Both these examples are from a Pre-Intermediate book, so for A2 students moving towards B1. First up, a listening-based slot from a unit called EDUCATION.


You are going to hear an interview with an English girl, Rebecca, who has a Spanish mother and an English father. They moved to Spain when she was 11 (she’s now 13) and she now goes to a Spanish school – and so does her younger brother.

A         Before you listen, discuss in groups which of the following things you think are good about school in your country:

  • the relationships between students
  • the class sizes
  • the amount of homework
  • the subjects available
  • the resources
  • the textbooks
  • the approach to teaching
  • the parent-teacher relationship
  • the school hours
  • the holidays

Next students listen to the interview with Rebecca and process it for gist – and then process it in more detail. Finally, they hear Rebecca’s father talking and process this for gist before finally having the chance to compare what they have heard with their own realities, to give their own opinions about what the dad says – and to voice their own thoughts and feelings about their own school system. Here’s the basic material:

B          Listen and find out which things in exercise A Rebecca talks about.

C          Discuss in pairs whether you think these sentences are true or false.

Listen again to check your ideas.

1          Rebecca and her brother made friends straight away.

2          She needed help with Spanish.

3          She had to do the last year of primary school in both England and Spain.

4          There are fewer years of secondary school in Spain.

5          In primary school, she had several different teachers in Spain, but not in England.

6          The approach of the teachers was different.

7          She didn’t have to do much homework in England.

8          Her friends in England seem to like school more.

9          In both England and Spain, students sometimes have to repeat a year.

D          Now listen to Rebecca’s father talking and answer the questions:

1          Which of the things in exercise A does he mention?

2          Is he positive or negative about them?

E          Read the audioscript on page 142 to check your answers.

F          Work in pairs. Discuss these questions.

  • Which system sounds more like your country?
  • Do you disagree with anything the father says? Why?
  • What would you like to be different in schools?
  • Is/was there anyone from another country in your class at school? What is/was their experience of school? ?


Finally, this all leads into some vocabulary that helps students discuss their own school experiences better next time around.

Vocabulary: students and teachers

A         Add the nouns below to the groups of words they go with.

assignment      class               school                         subject

textbook          test                  approach                        course

1          choose an optional ~ / study eight ~s / my favourite ~

2          do an ~ / set an ~ / hand in my ~ / mark some ~s

3          buy a ~ / read from the ~ / copy from the ~

4          have a ~ / study for a ~ / pass a ~ / set a ~

5          do a Maths ~ / design a ~ / fail the ~ / teach on a ~

6          give a ~ / go to ~ / pay attention in ~ / control the ~

7          leave ~ / the head of a ~ / enjoy ~ / go to a state ~

8          have a good ~ to learning / take a traditional ~ / change your ~

B          Which of the collocations above apply to teachers and which to students?

The language work can also precede culturally oriented texts, of course. Here’s the start of a lesson from a unit called Dates and History that begins with some core vocabulary for describing historical events.

Vocabulary: historical events

A         Complete the fact file about Britain with the correct form of the words in the box.

end                              become                       be defeated

invade                         gain                             be crowned

join                               rule                              be founded

*      London 1…………………. by the Romans two thousand years ago, during their occupation of Britain.

*      The Vikings first 2………………….  Britain in 786. They continued to attack the island for years and occupied half the country.

*      Britain briefly 3………………….  a republic after a civil war between Royalists (who supported the king) and Parliament. The war 4………………….  in 1649, after the Royalists 5………………….  in the Battle of Preston and the king’s execution.

*      At the height of its empire, Britain 6………………….  a quarter of the world.

*      The United States was a colony of Britain until it 7………………….  independence in 1776.

*      The longest-ruling British monarch is Queen Victoria. She 8………………….  in 1837, when she was just 18, and died 64 years later.

*      Britain didn’t 9………………….  the European Union (or EEC as it was then called) until 1973.

B          Find the nouns in the Fact File which mean:

1          a war between two groups in the same country.

2          the time a foreign power lives in and controls a country.

3          the act of killing someone for doing something wrong.

4          a short fight which is part of a longer war.

5          a royal leader such as a king or queen.

6          a large group of countries controlled by another country.

Again, the UK features, but certainly isn’t the main focus of this particular lesson. That comes next and is introduced via this short text:


You are going to read an article from a newspaper series called Around the world in 300 words.

A         Read the introduction and discuss the questions in pairs.

1          Do you know anything about the country? What?

2          Why do you think UK people don’t know much about it?

Ask most people on the streets of the UK what they know about Kazakhstan and the only thing they can say is “We played them at football.” Ask where it is, and they may mention it’s near Russia, but that’s all. Yet Kazakhstan is huge – the 9th largest country in the world and the size of Western Europe. We think it’s time people got to know it better. Oh, and yes, it is near Russia – they share a border of 6846 kilometres!

This then moves into the main comprehension questions and the text itself.

B          Read the article and answer these questions.

1          How many years have people lived there?

2          How has the Kazakh lifestyle changed?

3          When did the country finally become independent?

4          What’s the main industry?

5          What’s the most interesting information for you?

6          If you know the country (or know about it), is there anything important that isn’t mentioned? Would you change anything in the text?

C          Discuss your answers in groups.


Around the world in 300 words…


People have lived in the region since the Stone Age. The society was nomadic – Kazakh comes from a word meaning ‘free spirit’ – with different groups living off seasonal agriculture and animals such as goats, sheep and horses, that fed on the steppe grassland. For many centuries, the Silk Road trade route went through the region, which led to the founding of cities such as Talaz, now 2000 years old.

Islam was introduced by the Arabs in the 8th century, and Genghis Khan’s Mongol army invaded in 1219. Over the next 200 years, a distinct Kazakh language, culture and economy emerged, although still based on nomadic life.

This traditional lifestyle changed during the 1800s, when the country was occupied by Russia. The political and economic changes and a growing population caused by people settling in the region resulted in hunger and tension. It eventually led to fighting in 1916, followed by a civil war.

In 1920, Kazakhstan became part of the communist Soviet Union. Over the following decade, the last Kazakh nomads were forced to live on farms or work in industry. Other people within the Soviet Union, including Germans, Ukrainians and Koreans, were also sent to work there.

After gaining independence in 1991, Kazakhstan’s economy grew rapidly. It’s now the 11th largest producer of oil and gas as well as an exporter of many other natural resources.

Population: 16.4 million.

Capital: Astana (changed from Almaty in 1997)

Place to visit: The Charyn Canyon.

Big building: The Pyramid of Peace, Astana. The cultural centre aims to bring together all the great religions.

Special day: 22nd March. Nauriz celebrates Spring, friendship and unity. It was banned during Soviet rule.

Firsts: The horse was first tamed in this region.

The oldest and largest space launch site in the world is Baikonur Cosmodrome. It is leased to Russia.

Next week: Kenya

There’s then some grammar work that derives from the text –

Grammar: prepositions and nouns / -ing forms

Prepositions go before nouns. If we need a verb to follow a preposition, we use use an -ing form to make the verb into a noun.

After gaining independence in 1991, Kazakhstan’s economy grew rapidly.

Some verbs are followed by particular prepositions.

Economic changes … resulted in hunger and tension.

It eventually led to fighting in 1916 followed by civil war.

A         Match the verbs to the prepositions with nouns or preposition -ing forms.

1          lead                             a        from the Stone Age

2          result                          b        on support from the king

3          depend                       c        of corruption

4          date                             d       to a revolution

5          be accused                 e       in people leaving the country

6          be opposed                 f         for joining NATO

7          be caused                   g        to joining NATO

8          be involved                h            people from playing music

9          ban                              ij           in the independence movement

10        vote                             jl           by economic problems

B          Write five true sentences about events or people in history, using verbs and prepositions from exercise A.

and finally a task that has a local outcome again.


Work in groups. Discuss the following:

A         What you would put in Around the world in 300 words for your country?

What would be the most important events?

What places would you mention? Why?

What would go under the headings Place to Visit, Big Building, Special Day and Firsts?

With these kinds of tasks, there’s obviously a large degree of flexibility in terms of how teachers exploit them. They can just be discussions in class time, with maybe some time built in for individual planning; they can be homeworks – with web searches encouraged – that lead into presentations; they can be blog entries on a class blog, and can include pictures, videos even, and can even be shared with other schools around the world if the teacher is class-twinning in some way with other international classes.

The notion of project work is something I’ve become much more enthused about as a teacher over the last 12 months or so, and is something that the Internet makes much more manageable. Whether you’re just using something relatively simple to set up like a class blog on wordpress or blogspot or whether you’re using something more sophisticated like voicethread, which allows you to place all kinds of texts, images, videos and documents online and to have conversations based around them, these kinds of sites allow students a real opportunity to practise wording their worlds, to develop their ideas and cultural ideas in the privacy of their own homes and in their own home, and to dig deeper into issues that we simply don’t have time to explore more in class. At their best, they also allow for the beginnings of the kinds of cross-cultural interaction that would have been unimaginable in a pre-Internet age.

ELF – and other fairy tales!

As the use of English as a Lingua France – or as an International Language, take your pick – spreads, and as more and more people around the world come to speak at least some degree of English, so the arguments about appropriate norms and models for the classroom – and about the relationship between language and culture – has rages long and hard.

The main thrust of these arguments, as they have been put forward in varying ways by Luke Prodromou, Jennifer Jenkins, Barbara Seidlhofer, Vivian Cook et al is that as more conversations in English are now held between non-native speaker and non-native speaker, the imposition on English language teaching of a tyranny of NATIVE SPEAKER norms, standards and cultural values is no longer appropriate or justifiable. Instead, we all need to be teaching Globish – Global English – or EIL – English as an International Language or even ELF: English as a Lingua Franca.

Now, personally, I stopped believing in Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy when I was a kid, and my belief in ELFs is also non-existent. And I suspect I am not the only one, for the bulk of the arguments that have dominated conferences over recent years is founded on a series of myths and misrepresentations of reality, and it is my aim in this post to strip away some of the misconceptions surrounding the subject, explore the damage they can do and suggest some alternative ways of viewing the inexorable spread of English.

The idea that native-speaker English somehow exerts a tyrannical hold has become increasingly popular over recent years – and yet where is this dominance reflected? Are our coursebooks really full of Cockneys saying ‘Cor Blimey Guv’nor’ and Geordies saying ‘Wa-Hey man’?  Now, of course, the majority of actors who record EFL CDs and cassettes for a living are indeed native speakers, and many of the biggest-selling coursebooks are both written and published by native-speakers, but speaking as a native speaker myself, I can honestly say that the vast majority of EFL material is many, many miles away from the English I frequently encounter in exclusively native-speaker-only contexts. I mean, have the people who rant about native-speaker dominance ever actually been in a classroom and taught from the dominant coursebooks? What, for instance, is native-speaker like about this little exchange?

Your surname’s Jones, isn’t it?

> Yes, it is.

And you’re 27, aren’t you?

> Yes, that’s right.

You weren’t at home last night at 8, were you?

> No, I wasn’t. I was at the pub.

But you don’t have any witnesses, do you?

> Yes, I do. My brother was with me.

Your brother wasn’t with you, was he.

> How do you know?

Because he was at the police station. We arrested him last night.

Or this?

It must be very strange to be back home after such a long time.

> Yes, it is. I . . . I mean, it’s lovely to see everybody and I really appreciate my bed.

Let’s have a look at these photos, then.

> Well, they’re all mixed up at the moment. I’ve got to sort them out.

Um, this looks nice. Where is it?

> Where do you think it is?

Ah, well . . . it must be somewhere really hot. It looks like paradise. I suppose it could be Thailand or Bali, or it could even be India.

> No. I’ll give you a clue. It’s an island in the Pacific Ocean.


> No, I didn’t go to Hawaii.

Oh right. I thought you’d been everywhere. It’s probably Fiji, then.

> That’s right. Oh, it was lovely. This man wanted me to marry his daughter. She was beautiful.

EFL material is littered with similar examples and those of us who have been teaching long enough develop very good radar for sensing the exact points at which normal, native-like conversation ends – and grammar-dominated nonsense takes over. Now, I am NOT saying that EFL materials SHOULD be based completely on native-speaker norms – and that’s a point I will move on clarify in due time – but what I am saying is that the accusations of native-speaker norms dominating ELT are really not borne out by the evidence.

The screeching about the dominance of native-speaker English has had a seriously detrimental effect on the way teachers view their jobs. In his book World Englishes, Andy Kirkpatrick claims that he feels “sorry for poor learners of English who spend hours of classroom time trying to master the RP sounds of /th/ and /th/, as these are difficult sounds to learn if they do not exist in your own language and, it turns out, they are not used in many varieties of English anyway.” My first thought on reading was where on earth are these classes where students spend HOURS trying to learn these things. In most classes I observe, you’re lucky if you see any pronunciation at all being taught, let alone whole hours devoted to minimal pairs! So, again, I feel, the nature of reality is being distorted here to suit a particular kind of argument. My second thought, then, was how easily these kinds of comments can lead to teachers feeling it’s simply not worth the effort. That there’s no point bothering with all manner of aspects of English as students “might not need it anyway, especially in conversations with other non-natives and that, besides, some natives don’t even bother with this stuff at all.” At heart, I fear much of the current debate about ELF has an anti-teaching sub-text close to its core.

Obviously, these are slippery slopes for us to start to go down, but ones I think many teachers find themselves on and I see evidence of it all over the place. At a recent conference I attended in Poland, I heard someone put forward the notion that “in international contexts, the simpler, the better”. It put me in mind of Orwell’s monstrous Doublespeak, the language imposed upon us in some parallel or futuristic totalitarian world where words are to kept to a purely functional minimum and where we end with ‘good’, ‘ungood’, ‘plus good’ and ‘doubleplusgood’. A world few of us really want to inhabit, surely.

This desire to simplify and strip away the language we teach runs deep among the ELFers – and, of course, at lower levels we obviously do need to ensure that things are kept simple for students – and that we don’t end up teaching things with only limited utility when items that are more useful, items with broader surrender value, are available instead. However, it seems to me that one of the most problematic areas for the proponents of ELF or Globish lies in their attitudes towards level – and what should be taught at each level. Jennifer Jenkins writes of an Advanced-level French student who uses the word ‘chill out’ instead of ‘relax’, and she suggests that this is a “native-like” form. She claims that this student may well be rewarded in exams for use of such language, but that in the real world, when he engages in conversation with other non-natives, he’d be at a disadvantage as he would not be accommodating himself to the listener, who might well not understand the expression. Similar arguments have cropped up again and again in recent years. Luke Prodromou has argued that as corpora based on conversations between non-native speakers shows far less use of phrasal verbs and idioms than corpora based on the language of NATIVE speakers, these areas of the language have no real place in ELT materials. Such ideas were echoed by a teacher at a school I did a talk in last year who said “I see in your Advanced-level book, you have some idioms. Well, what happens if my German student learns, say, “I felt like a fish out of water” and uses it with a Greek speaker who doesn’t understand him?”

What happens in the real world is exemplified by a conversation I overheard in Istanbul airport last December. My flight got delayed and I was killing time when a German man approached the counter near where I was sitting and asked the woman on the desk “Excuse me. Is there an ATM machine near here?” The woman looks slightly scared and said “Please?”. The German guy tried again “A cash machine? To get money?”. “Sorry. I no English” came the response. At this point, the German guy took his card out and acted putting it into a cash machine and asked once more “Money?”. At this, the woman replied “Oh! Yes! Yes!! Go there” and waved with her arm.

Now, this conversation was clearly an example of English being used as a Lingua Franca by two non-natives in order to conduct a transactional exchange. What can we conclude from this exchange? Should we deduce that the German guy has somehow learned too much English and is adopting too “native-like” a model of English? This would seem to be the conclusion that many of ELF’s proponents would draw. If we follow the logic of Jennifer Jenkins’ claims, a seething can of worms opens before us. If an ADVANCED student should use ‘relax’ instead of ‘chill out’, are students also wrong to use – and are we as teachers, by extension, wrong to teach – items such as “great”? Surely “very good” will suffice! And what about “boiling”? Why bother when you can just say “very hot”? Let’s forget about “Do you mind if I?” with its strange positive response of “No, not at all” – and let’s just stick to “Is it OK if I . . .?”. Let’s purge the syllabus of “I can’t stand it” and “I love it” and stick to “I don’t like it” and “I really like it”!! Whole areas of the lexicon can go as they are essentially other ways of saying simpler concepts: so it’d be goodbye to ‘SPARE time/key/room’, no more ‘I overslept’, forget ‘sort out’ and why worry about ‘unemployed’ when you can just go for ‘He doesn’t have a job!’.

Obviously, there is an absurd reductionism about such arguments and it leads to a kind of Basic English no-one in their right mind would suggest would be sufficient to allow non-natives to carry out all the many and varied conversations they may wish to have amongst themselves!

I would suggest instead that perhaps we should admire the German man’s ability in this instance to accommodate himself to his listener, to paraphrase his meanings and grade his language down when required to – and I would deduce that perhaps it’s the Turkish woman here who needs to work on her language.

The point here surely is that whether we are native OR non-native speakers, when talking to others, we HAVE TO start from the assumption that they speak English at roughly the same level that we do. To do anything other than this is to patronize the person we are talking to. What would Jenkins and co suggest the German man should do in this conversation? START by just asking “Money?” What would YOU think if he started like this? Presumably you’d assume that HE couldn’t speak English! And how would you THEN feel when you discovered that he could? Talked down to, at the very least!

Starting from the assumption that the people we are talking to speak English at roughly the same level as ourselves doesn’t mean we will necessarily always be understood, but it does suggest that if we find that we AREN’T, we are all capable of grading down. In fact, I would suggest that in general fluent NON-natives are often better at doing this than many NATIVE speakers! In general, the more language we know, the better we are at paraphrasing and stripping our language down.

There is, however, a wider – and more complicated issue that also arises from Jenkins’ comments about ‘chill out’ and that is that the difficulty students face with language – and the degree to which they perceive items as idiomatic or “native-speaker-like” depends to a considerable degree on the learner’s own first language. In French, for example, I am reliably informed that “chill out” is actually used – as a loan word that has become very common. On top of that, “chill out” has also become an international word through music. In other words, the French speaker, far from trying his hardest to be a native speaker, could well have just been using the word which came most naturally to him in the circumstances!

To complicate this matter further, whether we are aware of it or not, students themselves often seek out idioms and colourful expressions in English. All languages contain idioms, expressions and metaphorical or unusual ways of saying things, and learning equivalent ways of saying these things in English is part of what makes language learning fun and interesting. In a recent Pre-Intermediate level class, one student arrived late – and left the door open, letting a draught in. One of my Chinese students became very animated and asked “How to say in English? In Chinese, have expression: How long your tail!” “Oh yes. I know what you mean. We usually say “Were you born in a barn?” I’ll write it up on the board.” “Oh. Very useful.” In this instance, of course, the idioms were quite different from one language to another, but in many, many cases, as with “I felt like a fish out of water”, for instance, you find that the expressions are very similar in Arabic, French, Spanish, Chinese, English . . . which is always nice to know.

An additional problem revolves around the fact that students often simply translate directly from their own language and don’t realise that things are not always the same in English – and this occurs even when they are talking to other non-natives. What would the anti-“native-like” teachers do, for instance, when a German student shouts to a Japanese “Huh? Do you think I have cucumbers on my eyes?”. Even if this sentence is intelligible from context, which wasn’t the case when this happened in one of my Upper-Intermediate classes, there’s then the risk that the other student will think this is the actual ENGLISH expressions and learn this, when they’d be much better off – if you believe that students should be learning things that have maximum utility among fluent users of English, the expression “Do you think I was born yesterday?” or “Do I look like I was born yesterday?”

One ELF argument has been that a student who uses an expression like “Do you think I have cucumbers on my eyes?” or, say, “He drinks like a horse” is somehow being creative or else expressing their cultural identity and that to correct these utterances is to stifle both identity and the creative impulse. For me, this is to willfully misunderstand what creative means. There is nothing creative about simply translating an idiom word for word from L1 – or to misuse a common idiom such as “eats like a horse”. Creativity surely comes from KNOWING idioms and expressions in the first place and THEN subverting them. Anything else is simply interlanguage!

Note, by the way, that I am NOT saying here that I believe that idioms like “Were you born in a barn?” or “Do you think I was born yesterday?” should necessarily form part of coursebook material or be in the syllabus at these low levels. Simply that there are often times when as teachers we are forced by circumstance to make principled decisions about them in the classroom.

The next issue to address here is the fact that the French student who used “chill out” was an ADVANCED student! One of the major problems that ELF / Globish people face is the whole issue of vocabulary. Who gets to decide that something is “native-like” and who gets to say what is supposedly more “neutral”? If we are teaching ELF, should we just never teach “chill out”? If so, what DO you teach at Advanced level? And how do our students ever get to be like the non-native speakers such as Barbara Seidlhofer who speak incredible English? How do they end up becoming like the any number of businessmen or politicians such as Javier Solano, Ban-Ki Moon or Kofi Annan – or other high-fliers such as Pedro Alonso or Arsene Wenger? As an Italian guy said at a conference I attended recently, “You must remember, International English is what you speak when you are trying to speak something else!”

To move closer to the heart of what models are most appropriate for our students, let’s consider the notion that the majority of conversations our students engage in will be with other non-native speakers. Despite the fact that this may well be true, it certainly doesn’t mean they will NEVER talk to native speakers. Take Spain, for example. Over 1 million Americans and SEVENTEEN million British people visit Spain on holiday every year – and obviously many tens of thousands of Spaniards travel to Britain or the States. Every year, around 100,000 British people leave the UK and join the 1 million-plus Brits already living in Spain, whilst the UK hosts around 100,000 long-term Spanish residents. Now, all of these movements of people are bound to result in people talking to each other! When you start doing the maths, that’s several million conversations a year in which non-native Spaniards will find themselves engaged in all manner of conversation with native-speakers, conversations which will cover all manner of subjects and which are bound to be both transactional AND interactional – and obviously the better the Spaniards English (and, of course, the better the native-speakers ability to grade language down, where necessary), the more smoothly these conversations will go.

Add to this the fact that many, many Spaniards themselves already speak something approaching native-like English – and that they may well often engage in conversation with other non-natives who speak similarly excellent English – something that happens all the time at conferences like this one, for example – and you do really have to start questioning exactly what kind of English ELF fans would like us to teach.

One of the many problems I have with ELF / Globish proponents is that it is never entirely clear whether they are actually arguing for greater tolerance of variation from Native-Speaker norms or some alternative model. My hunch over the last few years has been that it’s the latter. Andy Kirkpatrick, in World Englishes, argues that the variations in Native Speaker English make it invalid as a model and many other writers have suggested that far more attention be paid in classrooms to World Englishes – or Emerging Englishes as they are also often called. However, as I have already suggested, whilst the fact that English is used a global Lingua Franca is beyond doubt, the notion that there might be such a thing as ELF is far more contentious. Any attempt to define ELF as an entity distinct from native-speaker norms is doomed from the outset. If native speakers are no longer to be the model, who is? Kofi Annan? Angela Merkel? You non-native speaker teachers out there? And, if so, then WHICH of you? Or is the Nigerian security guy at my university who almost none of my students ever seem to be able to decipher? Or is it the Somali cab driver I had drive me to the airport last week, who spoke broken pidginised English? Alternatively, as some suggest, should we just be exposing our students to all of the above and more, liberally sprinkling Singaporean English, Malay English, Nigerian English – whatever these labels may mean – and so on into our classroom stews – and leaving our students supposedly free to decide which they wish to copy?

Ivor Timmis, who works at Leeds Met, has carried out some quite extensive research into the attitudes of both non-native students AND teachers around the world. Intriguingly, but perhaps not that surprisingly, he found that the vast majority of both – though especially of STUDENTS – see native-speaker competence as their goal, regardless of their ability – or lack of – to reach such lofty heights and also regardless of whether they envisaged themselves in the future talking to natives OR non-natives. Of course, such research does not go into what we actually mean by NATIVE-SPEAKER English, but there is no doubt that for almost any serious student of any foreign language, the educated native speaker remains both the desired model and also the ultimate goal. Much as well-meaning liberals may pretend that all versions of the language are equal – honestly! – if only we weren’t all so prejudiced – the reality is that that some forms are more equal than others and it is useful for our students to learn the models which most grant them insider-status!

Similar arguments to these have flared around the issue of how best to teach working-class kids in the UK and African-American kids in the US. In the 60s and 70s, there was a well-meaning, but severely misguided, attempt to teach working-class British kids in their own dialects, whilst the Ebonics movement in the US had similar aims for black Americans. This idealistic dream led black activist and politician to claim that there was a conspiracy afoot which was both “foolish and insulting to black students throughout the United States” and that the result was “teaching down to our children”.

My feelings about ELF are very similar. Whilst Jennifer Jenkins may well be correct that certain sounds are not necessary in order to be understood whilst speaking English in an international context, and whilst Barbara Seidlhofer may well also be correct when she notes that communication is not hindered if students drop such “nativised” grammatical annoyances as the 3rd person -s or if they confuse who and which, add redundant prepositions, use definite and indefinite pronouns differently or warp the use of tag questions, we have to ask ourselves is merely “being understood” what students want in the word of globalised English. Last term, for instance, I had an Indian couple in my Proficiency class, Manooj and Praena. They both spoke exceptional English and had been using the language since they were children. They were planning to go back to India after a six-month stay in London. When I asked why they felt it necessary to continue studying a language they already spoke so well, Manooj looked at me like I was crazy and said “I do not want to sound like a curry shop waiter! If I can sound more like you, it will be very good for me and my career back home”.

Obviously, there is a huge difference between haranguing students for making these grammatical and pronunciation mistakes and imposing endless correction on them (which I personally believe happens very infrequently) – and deciding to consciously not teach them. I feel that a lot of the ELF rhetoric has come about simply as a response to bad teaching. If there really are teachers out there who spent hours on /th/ and /th/, then they should stop it! If you do what one of my elderly colleagues used to do with her Elementary students and lecture them for half an hour on the difference between ‘bath’ and ‘bathe’, then don’t! If you spend hours and hours at the same level fretting about whether or not students use the third person -s in all given contexts, then you’re wasting both their time and your own.

Clearly, we only have a limited amount of time to spend in class, and we all do need to make decisions about what we think is useful for our students. As such, it’s seems sensible to ensure that what we teach is language which is as widely used as possible. This means that raw native-speaker data is not actually that useful. Rather, we need to be informed by educated native speaker usage and to make decisions about how best to ‘cook’ it for students’ consumption based on informed intuition. If that means, for example, that we end up teaching I’m meeting a friend tonight instead of I’m meeting up with a friend tonight . . . or I just need to finish some work instead of the more native-speaker-like I just need to finish off some work, then that’s fine by me – especially at Pre-Advanced levels. In the same way, I would personally always opt for teaching a standard range of question tags over the lower-class London standard one-size-fits-all tag of ‘Innit’. And I would tend to prefer “There ARE lots of problems” over the increasingly common “There’s lots of problems”.  There may well be aspects of native-speaker speech you decide not to teach – perhaps because they’re too high level, perhaps because they’re regarded as too lower class, or perhaps because they’re regionalisms. This may be especially true if you’re teaching in a non-English speaking country. Does this mean, however, that such items should be completely removed? Even at Advanced and Proficiency levels? I am not so sure. In the end, of course, I can only decide what goes on in my classrooms and what goes into my coursebooks. It is the educated, often non-native speaker, teachers who then have to make the decisions about what to teach in their own classes. I hope that what I have done today, if nothing else, is to make the choices teaches face just a little bit more principled and informed.

Quick fixes, ELF and dumbing down in ELT!

In his 2009 book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell claimed that around ten thousand hours of deliberate practice makes a superstar. Failing that, at the very least, 10,000 hours of practice is the key to mastery – and putting the hours in is far more important when it comes to creating – or realising – success than any innate talent. As you’d expect, Gladwell provides plenty of pop culture examples – The Beatles played together in Germany for nearly 10,000 hours before they emerged seemingly fully formed to conquer the world; Tiger Woods had put in his 10,000 hours on the golf course before he was even old enough to learn how to drive a car,  and so on.

Now, I have no idea how valid the research Gladwell bases his claims on is, nor any way of – or interest in – counting the exact number of hours The Beatles spent playing to drunk seamen on the Reeperbahn, but there’s surely something in this claim: the notion that nothing comes of nothing, and that any degree of success in anything requires a considerable amount of hard graft!

Yet how counter to much of our contemporary culture such claims run! We live in an age of instant gratification, of the belief that money buys us access to whatever it is we most desire, of shortcuts and of blagging. You see it everywhere, from the Pop Idol wanna-bes who crave fame for simply being themselves, and hope for a career in music without first having done the long hard hours learning their craft and gigging out on the road, to the folk who’ve learned a bit of Photoshop and think this makes them a graphic designer and in the desperate CVs we get sent at work from people who’ve not even done a CELTA but have instead done a two-day taster course somewhere and yet who think this entitles them to teach English in a university (I’m reminded here of the applicant a few years ago who, on being informed that we usually only took on teachers with DELTAs as a minimum requirement, spat back at us with “But I don’t want to be a teacher trainer or anything. I only want to teach!”). Examples are easy to find almost everywhere.

And the English Language market has been quick to capitalise on the myth of instant success. The web is full of courses that promise that you too can learn English in ten days – or effortlessly or even in your sleep! Published material and even schools are also quick to make such rash promises in search of student dollars. Naturally, students themselves are desperate to buy into these quick fix ideas. We’ve all met the students who think that simply working through Murphy’s English Grammar In Use (often for the third of fourth time!) – or translating and memorising random lists of single words – will unlock the door to fluency, or the students who arrive at Pre-Int level demanding IELTS 6.5 by the end of the term, and who are very very resistant to the message that increasing just 0.5 in the exam will take a MINIMUM of 150 study hours!

And when the industry is not busy promising the world, we as teachers are all too often simply downgrading our standards and hoping that getting by with less will become the new fully fluent! As I’ve already said elsewhere, I think the roots of this are complex and socio-culturally and historically rooted, but I do also feel that much of the debate around Globish / English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) over the last decade or so has inadvertently fed into a latent laziness on the part of many (frequently native-speaker) teachers! How can it be that such a well-intentioned (but I would argue misguided and flawed) project can have had such an impact?

Well, by attempting to list the elements of speech which are deemed to be non-essential to international communication (the third person -s, say, or the different /th/ sounds in mother or theoretical) and by stressing the fact that much use of English in the modern world will be between non-natives, the ELF theoreticians have inadvertently created a monster, feeding directly into the ‘why bother’ school of thought that afflicts teachers for whom teaching still sits awkwardly with their sense of self. Why bother correcting grammar if I can already understand what students are on about? Why bother with idioms or awkward sophisticated bits if lexis I’m not sure of myself if they’re only going to be talking to Greeks or Chinese or Germans? Why bother with the endless corrective drills of /th/ sounds? Let’s just focus on acceptable communication and activities and fun and be done with it. So the cries go up! And so the goals and targets that we teach towards go down!

I’ll be blogging more about ELF and the pernicious influence the whole debate surrounding it has had in the week to come, but hope there’s enough here to spark at least some kind of a debate.

I’d like to know how YOU feel about the value and purpose of the ELF project, the degree to which you think it’s been harmful / beneficial to the field and whether or not I’m right in my paranoid assertions that students are becoming more desperate in their hunt for shortcuts to success.