Category Archives: Non-native speaker teachers

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.


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

Balti curries                                      



the Costa del Sol

a week in Provence                          


the Proms                                                   


Old Labour                                                  

Conceptual Art

The Beautiful Game                        

The Environment

bowler hats                                        

Notting Hill                          

French art-house films                 

Irvine Welsh

Cockney rhyming slang               



Sunday school



Direct Action                                     


car boot sales                                            

St. Patrick’s Day

kebab shops                                     


Chinese New Year                                   

ackee and salt fish

ackee 5

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!

What have corpora ever done for us?

Following a conversation over on the facebook page I use for talking about teaching and language, I’ve decided to post a talk I did at IATEFL many moons ago. I do remember, with a faint smile, that Dave Wills himself came along to watch this one, but at some point became overcome with either rage or tedium and flounced out, thus allowing me to make the cheap jibe about Elvis having left the building before carrying on. Were this post to generate even a tenth of that heady level of excitement, I’d be delighted!

Written maybe ten years ago, at the height of the corpora promo boom, it was intended as a partially tongue-in-cheek critical overview of corpora linguistics. And yes, for those of you that were wondering, the title WAS inspired by this rather splendid Monty Python sketch:

With that in place, here goes nothing . . .

The use of computers to store and help analyse language has obviously revolutionised many aspects of language teaching, and corpora linguists have become an ever-present feature at IATEFL and other similar conferences. Obviously, much good has come from this. We have had a whole new generation of much-improved dictionaries, all of which contain better information about usage, collocation and frequency; superb new reference books such as the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English have been made possible, and, perhaps inadvertently, corpora linguistics helped to launch the Lexical Approach and to thus help to move language at least some way back towards the centre of language teaching. Nevertheless, it seems to me that despite all these advances, corpora linguistics has also had several negative side-effects on the way teachers perceive their roles, and that they have actually enslaved us in ways which are not entirely healthy. I would like to move on to consider the ways in which I feel this has occurred.

The fallacy of frequency

Corpora linguists repeatedly promote their products with often highly-detailed reference to frequency counts and the idea that frequency is central has become a common one. However, should a Pre-Intermediate learner wish to be passed the salt over dinner, simply knowing the infrequent item ‘Salt’ will facilitate this in a way that knowing the far more frequent ‘Could’, ‘you’, ‘pass’, ‘the’ and ‘please’ would not. Generally, it’s not the most common words which carry core meanings; rather, it’s the far rarer items that do. Simply knowing the 800 most common words in the language makes you only able to say a lot about not very much. In the same way, failure to learn word which may well be low-frequency generally, but which are possibly much higher frequency within specific types of conversations condemns you to not being able to say very much about a lot!! Frequency tells us nothing more than what is frequent. It cannot tell us what’s useful, what’s necessary or even what’s teachable.

There are deeper problems here to do with the way in which frequency is actually calculated. Corpora remains word-obsessed and the process of lemmatisation compounds this. Hence, an idiom like ‘You’re a dark horse’ is entered not as a two-word idiom, but rather as one example of ‘dark’ and another of ‘horse, thus defaulting on two fronts.  Similarly, plural nouns are currently counted as other examples of singular ones, which is a rather major oversight. Is, for instance, the singular of ‘Many Happy Returns’ ‘A Happy Return’? ‘Meetings’ is not simply  the plural of ‘meeting’, and it collocates with different words. Finally, knowing that, say, ‘get’ is a very common word does little to help teachers know whether ‘get on with it’ is more frequent that’ Let’s get down to business’. Sadly, until corpora start sorting by chunk they will remain of limited relevance.

The fallibility of human endeavour.

That corpora need to be approached cautiously and with one’s intuition fully tuned is made apparent by a cursory glance at the word ‘thaw’ on several published CDs. Should one access the word, wishing to know whether snow melts or thaws, one would be surprised to learn that a far more frequent example of the word, and thus – if we follow the logic of corpora linguists – a more useful collocate for our students is actually John, as in John Thaw, the late, great British actor.

Similarly, I once saw a Jane Willis talk wherein she suggested that one of the most common three-word lexical items in the English language was ‘Princess of Wales’. It was only when pushed during questioning that she actually admitted that the corpora she had taken this data from was based almost exclusively on a couple of radio phone-in programmes. In the same, way, the actual construction of corpora-based materials – dictionaries and the like – also inevitably involve a degree of hammering out by researchers, often by means of a vote or a fudge. Corpora are by necessity human constructs based on limited samples of data, are easily skewed by input and thus are best viewed sceptically.

The limitations of what corpora can offer

While spoken language, conversation, may well form the basis – even the majority – of many corpora, what corpora can’t show us is what typical conversations look like. It’s not possible, for instance, to access ten typical conversations had by people talking about what they did last night or to look at the 20 most common ways of answering the question “So what do you do for a living, then?”. As such, if we want to present our students with models of the kinds of conversations they themselves might actually want to have, we are forced to fall back on our (actually ample) experience of such conversations in order to script them. However, I would argue that it is precisely because we have got such broad experience of such conversations that we do tend to know how they work and sound and look.

For teaching purposes. we need to be able to script conversations that aren’t so culturally and spatially bound as to exclude students; we need to ensure the conversations students are exposed to still somehow facilitate intra-class bonding. Input needs to be proto-typical and to include items which are easy for us to systematise and for learners to appropriate and assimilate. Corpora cannot do this for us.

Corpora and the non-native speaker teacher

It is often claimed – mainly by those who are employed to make, package and sell corpora – that corpora are an invaluable aid for the non-native speaker teacher. I would personally argue that the opposite is far too often true and that as they stand, corpora massively favour native speakers.

One understandable reaction many teachers, both native and non-native, have to the notion that they should teach more spoken English is the ‘but I’d never say this or that bit of language” response when faced with a spoken text. Ironically, written texts never elicit a similar “But I’d never write that myself” response, and there are several reasons for this, I feel. There is possibly an assumption that writing is a more creative realm where anything goes; there’s also the fact that the grammar and the lexis of the written language have already been codified and disseminated and are thus more familiar to teachers; thirdly, I think, there’s the fact that we pin our identities on our speech – our idiolect, our regional, class-based, age-oriented, in-group, gender-based grasp of lexis and grammar – far more profoundly than we do on what we write. We are so aware of differences in the way we speak that we usually fail to notice the massive similarities. A good example of this is the fact that every EFL book which focuses on the UK / US divide fails to note that the vast majority of the language used in both countries is remarkably similar, and instead frets over the present perfect, sidewalks versus pavements and the correct pronunciation of aluminium. Yet for every “It can out of the blue” / “It came out of left-field’ divergence, there must surely be ten other idioms we all have in common.

Given this, I personally feel it doesn’t take much to persuade non-native speaker teachers to stick to the already familiar, tried-and-tested formula of written texts and comprehension questions and structural grammar. By spending so much time pointing out relatively obscure quirks and neologisms, such as the fact that ‘like’ is being increasingly used to report speech (as in “He was like ‘Hi’ so I was like ‘Bye’) , corpora linguists are inadvertently making spoken English more of a foreign language for non-native speaker teachers than is perhaps wise for people who claim to believe – as I do – that spoken English should become much more a part of General English than is currently the case. Too relentless a focus on the new, the odd, the interesting, the different obscures the wealth of English that unites us all.

I also feel that it is not only many non-native speaker teachers who would never use ‘like’ in this way, but also many native speakers too. The vast majority of language teachers do NOT need corpora to tell us that this is a relatively unuseful piece of lexis, so long as it remains still relatively unused. Indeed, my own rule of thumb would be that if YOU don’t say it, don’t TEACH it. English as a foreign language is NOT English as the corpora knows it. If you believe, as I do, that the kind of model conversations coursebooks provide for teaching purposes should be better modelled on the information provided by corpora than is currently the case, then I find it hard to see how you couldn’t also support the idea that corpora specialists should concentrate more on insights which will be of direct use to coursebook writers and teachers alike. Indeed, given the problematic status of spoken language within the classroom at present, I’d go so far as to say assert that failure to do anything less serves to sabotage attempts to spread a methodology based on spoken language (and here, of course, I’m compelled to acknowledge my own interest in this area as a coursebook writer).

I find it particularly interesting to note that the constructors of corpora – or at least their backers – seem as yet very reluctant to work on a corpus of English as used by non-native speakers. Obviously, this would be in essence the same corpus, but with much left out. This is precisely the point : that which is left out by competent non-native speakers has no real place in most – and especially most pre-Advanced – teaching materials.

Animal Farm (or Beware of the oppressive tendencies of those who come claiming to liberate us!!)

It would be churlish to deny that corpora have provided us with some useful insights into such features of language as the fact that would is three times more common when talking about past habits than used to is, but at the same time it must also be added that the way in which corpora have been presented has all-too often intimidated us into pretending that we didn’t already know much – if not most – of what they confirm. For example, Mike McCarthy, at IATEFL Brighton 2001 spent half an hour blinding us with the statistics that showed – entirely unsurprisingly – that ‘take the mickey’ is far more common than ‘mickey-taker’ or ‘mickey-taking’. Surely any fluent speaker of the language could have guessed this (dubiously relevant) fact themselves, based on their own intuitions about the language.

The relentless emphasis on the finality of corporal truth no only denies the reality of the classroom practitioner who has to get in there each and every day and try to give their students information about the language being studied, but also refuses to acknowledge the fact that we all have heard and read millions and millions more words than any corpus will ever hold and thus have good hunches about words as a result. Sure, hunches about language can be wrong, but more often than not, they aren’t. I personally really resent the notion that not only are corpora useful for showing us the errors of our ways, but also for confirming when we’re right. The implication is that we are not right UNTIL we’ve checked! This way lies madness – and the deskilling of us all!!


Obviously, it is important that teachers do keep themselves up-to-date with corpora findings and adapt their understanding of the way language works accordingly. Here I totally agree with Ron Carter that one thing corpora has helped us become more aware of is the fact that grammar is much broader than sentence-based / tense-based grammar would seem to suggest. Words have their own micro-grammar and so lexis needs to continuously be grammaticalised in typical ways. Nevertheless, it is also vital that teachers are encouraged to believe that they can tap into and trust their own inner corpora.

If Carter and McCarthy can proclaim that the more students are encouraged and trained to notice, the more they actually will notice, then the same much surely be true for us as teachers. Indeed, the true sign of corpora-work well done is its own eventual redundancy. This really brings me to my final point – one of the great ironies of corpora is that they have actually unwittingly made teachers more intuitive, not less. What corpora have done is to place language back at the centre of classrooms and, as such, we all now have to think much more about how we actually use language.

To a degree, corpora and teachers exist in a parent-child relationship, and many teachers are now ready to leave home. Thanks Mum and Dad – you’ve done a great job, we may be back to visit every now and then, but we’ve basically already got the message!

However, lest we forget, corpora are bank-rolled by major publishing houses and have endless spin-off publications derived from them in an effort to recoup much of this investment. As such, maybe I’m expecting too much by asking those in receipt of the publisher’s pound to loose the reins on much of their power and place it back where it rightly belongs – back in the hands of the humble classroom practitioners!!!

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 answersMari 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 makanannyaI’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.

Conversation practice

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.

In praise of non-native speaker teachers part three: modelling

It’s a wet and windy Monday night – in June (!!) – and I’m sick to the back teeth of the ridiculous Jubilee nonsense that’s all over the TV, so now seems as good a time as any to pen my third eulogy in praise of the potential powers of non-native speaker teachers. As with the two earlier posts in this little series, what I’m trying to do here to lay out ways in which non-natives working in monolingual situations, teaching students with whom they share an L1, can outshine native speakers, especially those who do NOT share the same first language as their students and / or who have only recently arrived in the country they are teaching in.

I wrote in my last post about ways in which non-natives are perhaps best able to explain and get students to practise using new lexis by rooting it firmly in local contexts and today I’d like to suggest an extension of sorts of this idea: another way NNSTs can root the language more firmly in local contexts is through modeling. Now, modeling is often described and discussed as involving simply saying target sentences – especially grammatical ones – during PPP-based presentation stages, so that students can ‘copy’ the model and repeat, supposedly with better pronunciation that before. In this sense of the word, the non-native teacher is particularly disadvantaged – or at least made conscious of any insecurities they may have – as their sole role here is to model pronunciation of a structure – weak forms, elision, assimilation and all – and to then get students to repeat what they hear.

When I talk about modeling here, I mean something rather different – taking your own turn at a speaking task before students are asked to. This might mean, for instance, that before students discuss some personalized questions about lexis just taught, the teacher could ask the class to choose one or two questions to ask them – or it could simply be the teacher explaining a speaking task of some other kind and beginning by saying “OK. For example, for me . . . ”

Now, modeling is a good thing for a number of reasons: it helps to make clear to students what you want them to do; if well graded, it exposes them to useful lexis and grammar that may both help consolidate what they have learned already and that also suggests what may be useful for the turn they themselves will shortly be making; and it also shows that you as a teacher are also a human being. These reasons alone should be sufficient reason to consistently model speaking tasks for students, but in addition to all of this, what we choose to say when we model can offer a key way of rooting the language of the classroom in a local setting, thus making it more real for students.

Let’s look at a classroom-based example here to clarify what I’m on about! A couple of terms back, I was using Cutting Edge Intermediate one day a week with a class I shared with two other teachers. One lesson, we started a unit called Life Stories, which began with a list of vocabulary like leave home, start work, retire, move house, settle down, etc. that students had to sort chronologically. Once they’d done this, there was a short speaking exercise asking them to find four things which they’d done already or were doing at the moment; four which they’d like to do one day; four they would NOT like to do and four they could do at any time in their lives – and to then compare answers with a partner. Without modeling on the part of the teacher, these kind of ‘compare your answers’ tasks can often fall flat and result in students doing just that – comparing answers – and little more!

I started by saying “OK. For example, for me . . . I went to university between 1988 and 1991. I did my degree IN English Literature At Goldsmiths College in New Cross, in south London. It’s part of the University of London. Believe it or not, I graduated with a first-class degree, but to be honest, once I’d got my degree, I didn’t really have much idea about what I wanted to do. I never went to university with a career plan in mind. I just did a degree that I found interesting. In fact, after I graduated, I started working – and my first job was making sandwiches in a factory in Plumstead, right out in Zone 5 in south-east London: I worked a twelve-hour day, doing really dull and monotonous work! The money was awful . . . and all the other people there made fun of me and called me The Professor!”

Obviously, on one level, this could be seen as simply personalizing the coursebook, and admittedly, there’s a fine line between personalizing and localizing – and in some ways it’s not a distinction that’s really worth exploring as both acts help to make the book more real to the students. However, for our purposes today, the aspect of the above that interests me is the fact that the task roots the impersonal language of the book in a geography that is familiar to the students – and if this is true for me, with my multi-lingual students in the UK, then imagine how much more true it is for a NNST with mono-lingual students, most of whom will be studying in their hometown. These kinds of stories send subliminal messages: English is not just for talking about Britain and the British; it can also be a way for us to tell each other – and thus to tell the world – about OUR realities and our lives.

In praise of non-native speaker teachers part Two: localising lexis

Here’s the second of what I’m hoping will be five short posts in praise of non-native speaker teachers. Following on from some of the comments on the first post I did here, I should make it clear that in a sense I’m talking about the IDEAL of a non-native speaker teacher here in many ways. What I’m interested in trying to capture is what I think NNSTs are capable of, what it is they can do in monolingual contexts that natives would find nigh-on impossible, and what best practice might involve in a predominantly L1-oriented situation.

Today I’d like to suggest that non-natives working in their own countries of origin teaching students they share a nationality with have a definite advantage when it comes to explaining and exemplifying new language as they will now far more about both the macro-culture of the country in which they work as a whole as well as about the many micro-cultural worlds their students reside in. This knowledge can – and should – be used to hang new language onto. Just as knowing about Japan helps me explain what right-wing means to a student from Nagasaki through reference to the ultra-right uyoku groups there and knowing about Hikikomori – Japanese kids who become bedroom recluses in their teens – helps me explain what a recluse means, so NNSTs can refer to local cultural phenomenon, characters, events, TV shows, musicians and trends to help their students find English more memorable. What this does is filter the classroom material – whether it be a local or global coursebook or some other kind of material brought into the class – through a local perspective, thus making the language more real to the learners and rooting it in realities closer to their own.

I’ll give you a more concrete example of how I have rooted my own classroom practice in my students’ shared reality of London to show you what I mean.

I was recently teaching an Advanced class and in the midst of a listening (from Innovations Advanced, as it happens) about tourism in Estonia was the sentence:

The food still leaves a bit to be desired – it tended to be quite stodgy and there wasn’t a huge amount of choice, but otherwise, I certainly had nothing to complain about.

Students asked about desired. I explained that if something leaves a bit to be desired, it’s a polite, mildly humorous way of saying it could be better, it’s not as good as you’d like it to be or as it should be. Given that we were in the middle of the worst and wettest April in living memory, I then added that the English weather leaves a bitor leaves somethingto be desired – a locally pertinent example!

The previous day we’d looked at the word bully, and two of my students had given me written homeworks to correct overnight, which I hadn’t yet given them back, so I then – in a mock dramatic way – explained that if I was a bit of a bully, I’d throw the essays back at the students saying Their writing left a lot to be desired – an example connected to the micro-culture of the class itself.

Once the explanations have been given, and the meanings have hopefully been grasped, the next way in which we can facilitate some kind of connection with the language is through our boardwork. I wrote up on the board the following examples:

The food there                                        a bit     

The weather here             leaves         something          to be desired.

Your writing                                          a lot

Once the explanation and the examples have been given, the way to encourage personalization is to ask students to think of other things that maybe leave a bit to be desired. For this group, multi-lingual students studying in England, I asked them to think of things about London / England and also things about their hometown / their own countries that fit the pattern above.  I gave the group a minute or two thinking time on their own and then asked them to compare and explain their ideas in small groups. As they talked, I walked around and picked up on things they were trying to say, but didn’t quite have the language to do so – and used this as further input.

After two or three minutes, I stopped the group and drew their attention to the board, where we had the following:

Public transport here leaves a lot to be desired. The trains are a……….! Half of them are falling to ………… . Plus, it’s a r…..-…..! The cheapest tube ……… is four pounds!

 The media back home leaves a bit to be desired. We like to pretend it’s free and ob…………., but we all know there’s still a lot of c………… and certain things are t………. / off-l……… .

 To elicit the missing words, I basically re-told the stories I had heard students telling, paraphrasing their words and explaining the words in the gaps as I did so.

You might be thinking that this all seems a bit long-winded and will result in a lot of boardwork and a lot of time spent waiting for students to write things down. Well, obviously this WILL be slightly more time-consuming than simply writing up to leave s/thg to be desired on the board, but I’d argue that it’s time well spent. The longer examples make the meaning clearer, they allow interaction with the class – and this means recycling of grammar and vocab comes built-in to each and every class – and crucially they mean that what students then go away with written in their notebooks becomes a kind of record of the way the class manage to negotiate the content of the coursebook. As such, these examples are hopefully more relevant – and thus potentially more memorable – to students than the language found in the coursebooks themselves.

This way of rooting vocabulary in the realities of the class and local cultures also makes it easier when students forget things. Should anyone in the class, on later encountering this piece of lexis again, have forgotten it and need to ask what it means, I can simply say “You remember what we were saying about London transport? Or about Aziz’s writing last week?” Job done.

Now, if I can do this using my students’ generally fairly shaky knowledge and understanding of London and the UK, how much more effectively might a non-native speaker teacher steeped in the world of their students be able to manage this in a non-English speaking country?






The Open English advert debacle: In praise of non-native speaker teachers Part One

Over the last couple of weeks, some of you may have encountered an advert by a relatively new online school based in Brazil called Open English. The advert became semi-viral among many in the ELT community thanks to facebook and Twitter and this sweeping sense of outrage seems to have its intended effect as it’s now been removed from YouTube and I couldn’t find a copy anywhere on the web. For those of you that didn’t manage to see the advert in its true horror, the dialogue runs like this:

These two want to speak English. One of them goes to a traditional school, the other one studies at OpenEnglish. One of them studies with the same textbook his mother studied with, the other one studies online with multimedia lessons. One has classes with Joana (a Brazilian teacher who’s shown to be dumpy and fairly unattractive – and is also, more fatally,  miming a chicken and generally epitomizing a total lack of cool whilst singing “the book is on the table”), the other one has classes with Jenny (who just happens to be a stereotypically ‘hot’ Californian blonde!), who ends the ad by turning seductively to the camera and asking “How about you? What is your choice?”

Quite rightly this ad caused a real stink in Brazil, with even the president of BrazTESOL penning a few critical words on the matter. All of this is well and good and shows the power of the Web at its best. What’s depressingly predictable, though, is the fact that this kind of trash not only still gets made and aired, but still (presumably) sells courses by tapping into age-old prejudices and myths. Whilst to any sane reader, this whole artificial dichotomy seems nonsensical, and we all know that a good teacher is a good teacher, regardless of where they happened to grow up or learn their English, it nevertheless remains a fact of life that there are unscrupulous folk out there making money out of these myths, and that there are also – sadly – both natives and non-natives that buy into such rubbish.

Whilst it’s easy to insist that good teaching is good teaching, I think that the reality is actually slightly more complex that this – and there that are, in fact, several important things that non-natives can do which native-speaker teachers find either impossible or else nigh-on! If we are to finally kill off these kinds of perpetuations of prejudices, then perhaps we need to be rather more appreciative of what it is that the non-native can offer students, and especially monolingual students they share the same L1 with (lest we forget, of course, this is the way the vast majority of EFL classes around the globe are delivered). What I intend to do over the next few posts here is to sing the praises of the non-native speaker teacher and to explore in slightly more depth exactly what these abilities might be.

Before I begin, though, I should make it clear that simply because non-natives CAN do these things, it obviously doesn’t mean that every non-native IS doing them. As such, my aims here are threefold: to highlight excellent practice that non-natives do – or else could – take advantage of; to heighten native speaker teachers’ awareness of these advantages and then to hopefully do my little bit towards ensuring no more NNSTs ever have to be as insulted again as I know they have been by the OpenEnglish advert!

As you all know, there remains in the ELT world a lot of prejudice against NNSTs. All too often, parental expectations lead to a demand for native speakers; this has a knock-on effect on school employment policies, which in turn affects the relative earning power of native and non-natives speaker teachers. Then there is the thorny issue of what qualifications are necessary before one can start teaching. I myself benefited from this mad disparity by flying off to Asia at the tender age of 23, armed only with a CTEFLA certificate following a 4-week course, but officially ready and able to earn many times more than my local counterparts, despite the fact most of them possessed both degrees and Master’s in English and English-language Teaching. In many countries I have visited, a system of semi-apartheid operates, whereby native speakers get the plum fluency and conversation classes, whilst NNSTs are relegated to bilingual grammar lessons. Fairly understandably, as a result of all this obvious bias, many NNSTs end up with an inferiority complex – and, sadly, many native-speakers end up with the opposite! This series of posts will hopefully start to redress this imbalance.

So here goes . . . the first great advantage that I believe non-natives have over their native colleagues is the fact that NNSTS are actually far better – and more realistic – aspirational models of English than natives could ever be! EFL students can possibly aspire to becoming their non-native teacher – a very fluent, articulate speaker of English as a foreign language, able to talk to a wide range of friends and colleagues – by no means just native-speakers, but also Greeks, Germans and so on. However, short of reincarnation, they can NEVER become me – or any other native speaker teacher! Even if I have learned the students’ L1, which does obviously help to set a good role model for them as language learners, it’s still not quite the same as vice versa. Non-native speaker status inevitably means that teachers have actually LEARNED English – as opposed to having just picked it up through fluke of birth. NNSTs also speak their own L1 and are thus far more aware than I could ever be of the kinds of problems – both lexical and grammatical – that students who share their own L1 will have while learning English. These pitfalls and problems are felt in the blood, in the bones.

Of course, a native who has lived in a particular country and who has learned the local language to a good level will also have a considerable degree of similar knowledge. Indeed, any teacher, native or non-native, who teaches students from particular language groups over a long enough period of time, and regardless of whether they speak any of these languages or not, starts to develop an understanding of what impact the various first languages have on users when they attempt to speak English. Only non-natives, though, feel it quite so deeply and can say they have been through the exact same experiences their students are going through in front of them. At their best, these teachers can intuitively feel why a false friend is sounding strange in English, or where the root of a particular repeated / fossilized grammar error may lie – and may well be able to frame this understanding (whether in English or in L1!) in such a way that helps learners grasp their errors most immediately.

Much of the advertising nonsense that exploits the supposed advantage of having a native-speaker teacher plays on the fear that somehow a non-native’s English is bound to be deficient in some way.There are so many flaws in this way of thinking that I don’t know where to begin: with the assumption that knowing loads of language and being able to use it has anything much to do with being able to explain and exemplify clearly? With the way this line of thought deliberately obscures the advantages discussed above? With the notion that what the native may know and that the non-native may not is actually of any use to any EFL student?

I speak English with most of my friends. I read a lot – and all of it in English. I probably know a whole raft of slang and idioms and obscure lexical items that most non-natives don’t. Well, all I can say about that is so what? If you sit and watch a desert with a camel walking across the horizon, from second to second, it’ll be the camel that attracts your attention, despite the fact that it is only maybe 5% of your actual field of vision. We naturally – and, possibly, for good evolutionary reasons – notice difference rather than similarity. As such, many non-native speaker teachers fixate on that which divides us – the 5% – rather than that which UNITES us – the 95%! Much of the 5% that’s specific in my own speech may well be very low frequency among NATIVE-speakers themselves and thus of little – if any – use to EFL students. Possibly, in fact, some of it may even be totally idiosyncratic to me! It takes many natives a while to realise that, and many of us – present company very much included – spent much of our early career thinking that any random idiomatic titbit that springs to mind must automatically be of utility and relevance because . . . well, because it’s somehow ‘real’! One crucial step for any native speaker to really becoming a fully-fledged teacher is to recognise this urge and modify and curtail it!

Finally, I think another fear connected to this whole area is a fairly deep-rooted concern that many NNSTs have: the fear of getting caught out! ‘What if the coursebook I’m using has phrases I’ve never seen before?’, ‘What if students ask me questions about an idiom that I’ve got no idea about?’, ‘What if I try to reformulate what my students are saying on the board and it’s wrong – by native-speaker standards?’

Well, hello?! Welcome to being a teacher! ALL native-speaker teachers find themselves on the spot with alarming regularity. We are all too often asked questions by students that we simply don’t know the answers to, and there is only sane response to this – confess and be done with it! Committing the following fixed phrases to memory has helped me through countless potentially embarrassing moments in the classroom. I recommend you try the same!

“I’m not sure, but I THINK this is how it’s used”

“I’ve never heard that in my life – so it can’t be very useful!”

Oh, and if you REALLY want good adverts for language schools, I would personally suggest that very few could top this banned Dutch one . . .

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.