Always learning

In an earlier post , I explored the use of the phrase ‘Always learning’ as a promotional tagline by Pearson. Pearson’s use of the phrase peaked in the early years of the 2010s at a time when the company, facing growing criticism for the length and aggressivity of its tentacles in US education (Ravitch, 2012; Sellar et al, 2016), was particularly keen to fashion ‘its image as a socially responsible edu-business’. Not coincidentally, ‘lifelong learning’, the big idea evoked by ‘Always learning’, saw a resurgence of interest around the same time, as the United Nations published their Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. The fourth of these was:

‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.’

This was an extension of the earlier (2000) UN Millennium Development Goal, which aimed for universal primary education. It had been recognised that this was not sufficient to break global cycles of poverty. For that, not only universal secondary education, but also post-secondary (lifelong) learning, were needed, too. The goal was criticised for being vague, over-ambitious and unrealisable, but it was so obviously a ‘good thing’ that it could do nobody any harm to be associated with it.

Lifelong learning, democracy and human capital

The idea of lifelong education may be vague, but its history can be traced back to at least Confucius who said that ‘life is limited, while learning is limitless’ (Guo-Dong, 1994). Plato advocated lifelong learning for the highest ranking members of society. Comenius promoted a more democratic version of lifelong learning, as did Condorcet during the French Revolution (Matheson & Matheson, 1996). More recent incarnations of the idea are often traced back to John Dewey (Fleming, 2011), who saw a close connection between education and democracy, and believed that learning should continue past school ‘irrespective of age’ (Dewey, 1916: 55). The UNESCO report (Faure, 1972), which did so much to establish the idea of lifelong learning in contemporary educational discourse, was very much in the democratic Dewey tradition.

In more recent discourse, the democratic veneer remains visible, but a human capital approach to lifelong learning is now clearly privileged (Fleming, 2011). Supported by international bodies like the OECD and the EU, current discourses prioritize the needs of the marketplace, and place the emphasis on learning as an individualized responsibility (Olssen, 2006). References abound to the rapidly changing nature of our contemporary world, especially the world of work, where only lifelong learning can offer the adaptability and flexibility needed for our occupational, political and ecological survival. Notions of a fuller life and self-actualization have not gone away, but interest is much more squarely centred on the part that lifelong learning can play in the development of human capital. A recent (2021) article from Pearson entitled ‘New research shows employers see lifelong learning as the ‘new normal’ as UK Government releases skills data’ https://plc.pearson.com/en-US/news/new-research-shows-employers-see-lifelong-learning-new-normal-uk-government-releases-skills is typical in this respect. In a similar vein, MOOC provider, FutureLearn (2022), has recently brought out a report into the ‘future of learning’ in which ‘lifelong learning’ is seen as ‘critical to upskilling the workforce of the future’.

Like so many other words I have looked at on this blog, ‘lifelong learning’ ‘has all the trappings of what might be termed a ‘good idea’ — it is bedecked with hurrah words and emotive terms, liberally dispersed by its proponents, and this gives it an air of conceptual solidity, together with making it more readily popular’ (Matheson & Matheson). Meaning little more than learning that is not confined to school, the best way of understanding the term is perhaps to look at what people actually do with it.

Lifelong learning and English language teaching

In the world of English language teaching, one of the early uses of the term ‘lifelong learning’ was in the title of a plenary IATEFL presentation, ‘Developing learner autonomy – preparing learners for lifelong learning’ (Dam, 2002). It was an interesting, but hardly contentious, lecture, arguing that (1) lifelong learning is necessary because schools can’t teach everything, (2) that learner autonomy is necessary for lifelong learning, so (3) our educational focus should be more on learning and less on teaching. Precisely what should be learnt in the long life of learning is left unspecified, and whether that learning should literally continue till death do us part remained equally unclear. Leni Dam was invoking the fashionable term of ‘lifelong learning’ to sell the idea of ‘learner autonomy’. But it really wasn’t needed: even month-long learning would be enough to justify the encouragement of learner autonomy.

There is, however, no disputing the potential of the term ‘lifelong learning’ in selling ideas. I recently came across the lovely phrase ‘premature ultimate’ (try googling it!) – ‘a concept or term that provokes such reverence and contains such connotative potency that its invocation tends to silence any further discussion on a matter’ (Brookfield, 1986). Great for selling, in other words, as on the website of the wonderfully named ‘Enjoy TEFL’ , ‘the Global Number 1 Accredited TEFL and Mindfulness Provider’, which manages to pack ‘lifelong learning’, ‘21st century’, ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ into just two lines. Their current promotion offers two free mindfulness courses when you buy a 120 / 180 hour TEFL course.

Linking ‘lifelong learning’ and ‘21st century skills’ is standard practice. The Lifelong Learning Programme 2007 – 2013 of the EU had rather vague objectives, but the desirable skills that were listed were largely indistinguishable from other lists of C21 skills / global skill / soft skills: communication competencies, digital competencies, social and emotional skills, and so on (Kaplan, 2016). Coupling the two concepts means that anything loosely connected with the latter can be promoted by association with the former. Two examples. Creativity and lifelong learning are associated in an article by Daniel Xerri (2017) that seeks to ‘mobilise students’ creative thinking’ and to show ‘how the English language classroom can serve as an incubator for an awareness of the need to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education, and to promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’. Xerri is certainly interested in using ‘creativity’ tasks to promote awareness of the first part of the UN’s SDG, but the ‘lifelong learning’ bit is not explored at all. In contrast, Reinders et al (2022) explore in some depth what they mean by ‘lifelong learning’, but the bottom line is the promotion of the use of digital tools in language learning. ‘Lifelong learning’ (or ‘lifewide learning[1]’, as they call it) is just one reason for advocating the use of digital technologies.

Competing with ‘Enjoy TEFL’ for the prize of the crudest invocation of ‘lifelong learning’ is Darren Nicholls, a product manager for Pearson. A promo for some new Pearson proficiency tests describes them as ‘web-based tests [that] first stream students into the appropriate class and then monitor their progress over an extended period of time. Both tests are hosted on a new platform, Test Hub, which supports lifelong learning by bringing together all proficiency assessments under one roof’. Lifelong learning would seem to mean digital homework.

Lifelong learning and CPD

I have often heard myself (and many others) saying that a good teacher is one who never stops learning. It’s the kind of wisdom of online memes. Once you stop learning you start dying, Albert Einstein didn’t actually say, but let’s not worry about attributional details. ‘Enjoy TEFL’ tries to sell its courses by appealing to the same sentiment, and they are not alone. The blurb for an IATEFL Poland webinar says ‘Being networked is of key importance to all professionally active people in the process of lifelong learning …’ A joint LTSIG and TDSIG conference in Istanbul in 2012 waxed lyrical: ‘This is an age of lifelong learning, or ‘perpetual beta’, of learning anywhere, any place, any time’. Professional development is a lifelong obligation and, for those who are super-keen, JALT (the Japanese Association of Language Teachers) has a ‘Lifelong Language Learning Special Interest Group’ which organises events and a regular newsletter.

All well and good, you may be thinking, but pause a moment to think about the way in which the discourse of lifelong learning ‘orientates education to the enterprise society where the learner (or the teacher as learner) becomes an entrepreneur of him / herself’ (Olssen, 2006). Never mind that increasing numbers of teachers are on zero-hours contracts or fail to take home the minimum wage, a commitment to lifelong professional development is expected. Where better place to start than next week’s IATEFL conference, with its free, daily mindfulness workshops? If you’re based in the UK and working at one of the many language schools that pays the minimum wage, you’ll only need to clock up about 100 hours of teaching to afford it.

References

Brookfield, S. (1986) Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey – Bass

Dam, L. (2002) Developing learner autonomy – preparing learners for lifelong learning. In Pulverness, A. (Ed.) IATEFL 2002 York Conference Selections. Whitstable, Kent: IATEFL

Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and education. New York: Macmillan.

Faure, E. (1972) Learning to be: The world of education today and tomorrow. Paris: UNESCO.

Fleming, T. (2011) Models of Lifelong Learning: An Overview. In M. London (Ed.). Oxford Handbook of Lifelong Learning (pp. 29-39). New York: Oxford University Press.

FutureLearn (2022) The Future of Learning Report 2022. London: FutureLearn https://www.futurelearn.com/info/thefutureoflearning

Guo-Dong, X. (1994) Lifelong education in China: new policies and activities. International Review of Education, 40, (3-5)

Jackson, N. J. (Ed.) (2011) Learning for a complex world: A lifewide concept of learning, development and achievement. AuthorHouse Publishing. Available at: https://www.lifewideeducation.uk/learning-for-a-complex-world.html

Kaplan, A. (2016) Lifelong Learning: Conclusions From A Literature Review. International Online Journal of Primary Education, 5 (2): pp. 43 – 50

Matheson, D. & Matheson, C. (1996) Lifelong Learning and Lifelong Education: a critique. Research in Post‐Compulsory Education, 1 (2): pp. 219-236, DOI: 10.1080/1359674960010207

Olssen, M. (2006) Understanding the mechanisms of neoliberal control: lifelong learning, flexibility and knowledge capitalism. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 25 (3): pp. 213-230.

Ravitch, D. (2012) The United States of Pearson? http://dianeravitch.net/2012/05/07/the-united-states-of-pearson-2/

Reinders, H., Dudeney, G., & Lamb, M. (2022) Using Technology to Motivate Learners. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Sellar, S., Hogan, A. & Lingard, B. (2016) Always Learning. Education International https://www.ei-ie.org/en/item/21091:always-learning

Xerri, D. (2017) Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. In Maley, A. & Peachey, N. (Eds.) Integrating global issues in the creative English language classroom: With reference to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. London: British Council, pp. 49 – 56


[1] ‘Lifewide learning’ is not a term made up by Reinders et al. The idea has been around for over 20 years, piggy-backing on lifelong learning, and referring to the fact that learning takes place in a variety of different environments and situations. For more information, see Jackson (2011). And, if you really have nothing better to do, check out ‘lifedeep learning’. I thought, at first, it was a joke, but it’s been written about in all seriousness.

There’s a video on YouTube from Oxford University Press in which the presenter, the author of a coursebook for primary English language learners (‘Oxford Discover’), describes an activity where students have a short time to write some sentences about a picture they have been shown. Then, working in pairs, they read aloud their partner’s sentences and award themselves points, with more points being given for sentences that others have not come up with. For lower level, young learners, it’s not a bad activity. It provides opportunities for varied skills practice of a limited kind and, if it works, may be quite fun and motivating. However, what I found interesting about the video is that it is entitled ‘How to teach critical thinking skills: speaking’ and the book that is being promoted claims to develop ‘21st Century Skills in critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity’. The presenter says that the activity achieves its critical thinking goals by promoting ‘both noticing and giving opinions, […] two very important critical thinking skills.’

Noticing (or observation) and giving opinions are often included in lists of critical thinking skills, but, for this to be the case, they must presumably be exercised in a critical way – some sort of reasoning must be involved. This is not the case here, so only the most uncritical understanding of critical thinking could consider this activity to have any connection to critical thinking. Whatever other benefits might accrue from it, it seems highly unlikely that the students’ ability to notice or express opinions will be developed.

My scepticism is not shared by many users of the book. Oxford University Press carried out a scientific-sounding ‘impact study’: this consisted of a questionnaire (n = 198) in which ‘97% of teachers reported that using Oxford Discover helps their students to improve in the full range of 21st century skills, with critical thinking and communication scoring the highest’.

Enthusiasm for critical thinking activities is extremely widespread. In 2018, TALIS, the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (with more than 4000 respondents) found that ‘over 80% of teachers feel confident in their ability to vary instructional strategies in their classroom and help students think critically’ and almost 60% ‘frequently or always’ ‘give students tasks that require students to think critically.’ Like the Oxford ‘impact study’, it’s worth remembering that these are self-reporting figures.

This enthusiasm is shared in the world of English language teaching, reflected in at least 17 presentations at the 2021 IATEFL conference that discussed practical ideas for promoting critical thinking. These ranged from the more familiar (e.g. textual analysis in EAP) to the more original – developing critical thinking through the use of reading reaction journals, multicultural literature, fables, creative arts performances, self-expression, escape rooms, and dice games.

In most cases, it would appear that the precise nature of the critical thinking that was ostensibly being developed was left fairly vague. This vagueness is not surprising. Practically the only thing that writers about critical thinking in education can agree on is that there is no general agreement about what, precisely, critical thinking is. Lai (2011) offers an accessible summary of a range of possible meanings, but points out that, in educational contexts, its meaning is often rather vague and encompasses other concepts (such as higher order thinking skills) which also lack clarity. Paul Dummett and John Hughes (2019: 4) plump for ‘a mindset that involves thinking reflectively, rationally and reasonably’ – a vague definition which leaves unanswered two key questions: to what extent is it a skill set or a disposition? Are these skills generic or domain specific?

When ‘critical thinking’ is left undefined, it is impossible to evaluate the claims that a particular classroom activity will contribute to the development of critical thinking. However, irrespective of the definition, there are good reasons to be sceptical about the ability of educational activities to have a positive impact on the generic critical thinking skills of learners in English language classes. There can only be critical-thinking value in the activity described at the beginning of this post if learners somehow transfer the skills they practise in the activity to other domains of their lives. This is, of course, possible, but, if we approach the question with a critical disposition, we have to conclude that it is unlikely. We may continue to believe the opposite, but this would be an uncritical act of faith.

The research evidence on the efficacy of teaching generic critical thinking is not terribly encouraging (Tricot & Sweller, 2014). There’s no shortage of anecdotal support for classroom critical thinking, but ‘education researchers have spent over a century searching for, and failing to find evidence of, transfer to unrelated domains by the use of generic-cognitive skills’ (Sweller, 2022). One recent meta-analysis (Huber & Kuncel, 2016) found insufficient evidence to justify the explicit teaching of generic critical thinking skills at college level. In an earlier blog post https://adaptivelearninginelt.wordpress.com/2020/10/16/fake-news-and-critical-thinking-in-elt/ looking at the impact of critical thinking activities on our susceptibility to fake news, I noted that research was unable to find much evidence of the value of media literacy training. When considerable time is devoted to generic critical thinking training and little or no impact is found, how likely is it that the kind of occasional, brief one-off activity in the ELT classroom will have the desired impact? Without going as far as to say that critical thinking activities in the ELT classroom have no critical-thinking value, it is uncontentious to say that we still do not know how to define critical thinking, how to assess evidence of it, or how to effectively practise and execute it (Gay & Clark, 2021).

It is ironic that there is so little critical thinking about critical thinking in the world of English language teaching, but it should not be particularly surprising. Teachers are no more immune to fads than anyone else (Fuertes-Prieto et al., 2020). Despite a complete lack of robust evidence to support them, learning styles and multiple intelligences influenced language teaching for many years. Mindfulness, growth mindsets, grit are more contemporary influences and, like critical thinking, will go the way of learning styles when the commercial and institutional forces that currently promote them find the lack of empirical supporting evidence problematic.

Critical thinking is an educational aim shared by educational authorities around the world, promoted by intergovernmental bodies like the OECD, the World Bank, the EU, and the United Nations. In Japan, for example, the ‘Ministry of Education (MEXT) puts critical thinking (CT) at the forefront of its ‘global jinzai’ (human capital for a global society) directive’ (Gay & Clark, 2021). It is taught as an academic discipline in some universities in Russia (Ivlev et al, 2021) and plans are underway to introduce it into schools in Saudi Arabia. https://www.arabnews.com/node/1764601/saudi-arabia I suspect that it doesn’t mean quite the same thing in all these places.

Critical thinking is also an educational aim that most teachers can share. Few like to think of themselves as Gradgrinds, bashing facts into their pupils’ heads: turning children into critical thinkers is what education is supposed to be all about. It holds an intuitive appeal, and even if we (20% of teachers in the TALIS survey) lack confidence in our ability to promote critical thinking in the classroom, few of us doubt the importance of trying to do so. Like learning styles, multiple intelligences and growth mindsets, it seems possible that, with critical thinking, we are pushing the wrong thing, but for the right reasons. But just how much evidence, or lack of evidence, do we need before we start getting critical about critical thinking?

References

Dummett, P. & Hughes, J. (2019) Critical Thinking in ELT. Boston: National Geographic Learning

Fuertes-Prieto, M.Á., Andrés-Sánchez, S., Corrochano-Fernández, D. et al. (2020) Pre-service Teachers’ False Beliefs in Superstitions and Pseudosciences in Relation to Science and Technology. Science & Education 29, 1235–1254 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-020-00140-8

Gay, S. & Clark, G. (2021) Revisiting Critical Thinking Constructs and What This Means for ELT. Critical Thinking and Language Learning, 8 (1): pp. 110 – 147

Huber, C.R. & Kuncel, N.R. (2016) Does College Teach Critical Thinking? A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research. 2016: 86 (2) pp.:431-468. doi:10.3102/0034654315605917

Ivlev, V. Y., Pozdnyakov, M. V., Inozemtsez, V. A. & Chernyak, A. Z. (2021) Critical Thinking in the Structure of Educational Programs in Russian Universities. Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, volume 555: pp. 121 -128

Lai, E.R. 2011. Critical Thinking: A Literature Review. Pearson. http://images.pearsonassessments.com/images/tmrs/CriticalThinkingReviewFINAL.pdf

Sweller, J. (2022) Some Critical Thoughts about Critical and Creative Thinking. Sydney: The Centre for Independent Studies Analysis Paper 32

Tricot, A., & Sweller, J. (2014) Domain-specific knowledge and why teaching generic skills does not work. Educational Psychology Review, 26, 265- 283.

In May of last year, EL Gazette had a story entitled ‘Your new English language teacher is a robot’ that was accompanied by a stock photo of a humanoid robot, Pepper (built by SoftBank Robotics). The story was pure clickbait and the picture had nothing to do with it. The article actually concerned a chatbot (EAP Talk) to practise EAP currently under development at a Chinese university. There’s nothing especially new about chatbots: I last blogged about them in 2016 and interest in them, both research and practical, dates back to the 1970s (Lee et al., 2020). There’s nothing, as far as I can see, especially new about the Chinese EAP chatbot project either. The article concludes by saying that the academic behind the project ‘does not believe that AI can ever replace a human teacher’, but that chatbots might offer some useful benefits.

The benefits are, however, limited – a point that is acknowledged even by chatbot enthusiasts like Lee et al (2020). We are some way from having chatbots that we can actually have meaningful conversations with, but they do appear to have some potential as ‘intelligent tutoring systems’ to provide practice of and feedback on pre-designated bits of language (especially vocabulary and phrases). The main benefit that is usually given, as in the EL Gazette article, is that they are non-judgemental and may, therefore, be appropriate for shy or insecure learners.

Social robots, of the kind used in the illustration for the EL Gazette story, are, of course, not the same as chatbots. Chatbots, like EAP Talk, can be incorporated into all sorts of devices (notably phones, tablets and laptops) and all sorts of applications. If social robots are to be used for language learning, they will clearly need to incorporate chatbots, but in what ways could the other features of robots facilitate language acquisition? Pepper (the robot in the picture) has ‘touch sensors, LEDs and microphones for multimodal interactions’, along with ‘infrared sensors, bumpers, an inertial unit, 2D and 3D cameras, and sonars for omnidirectional and autonomous navigation’. How could these features help language acquisition?

Lee and Lee (2022) attempt to provide an answer to this question. Here’s what they have come up with:

By virtue of their physical embodiment, social robots have been suggested to provide language learners with direct and physical interactions, which is considered one of the basic ingredients for language learning. In addition, as social robots are generally humanoids or anthropomorphized animal shapes, they have been valued for their ability to serve as familiar conversational partners, having potential to lower the affective filter of language learners.

Is there any research evidence to back up these claims? The short answer is no. Motivation and engagement may sometimes be positively impacted, but we can’t say any more than that. As far as learning is concerned, Lee and Lee (2022: 121) write: involving social robots led to statistically similar or even higher [English language learning] outcomes compared with traditional ELT contexts (i.e. no social robot). In other words, social robots did not, on the whole, have a negative impact on learning outcomes. Hardly grounds for wild enthusiasm … Still, Lee and Lee, in the next line, refer to the ‘positive effectiveness of social robots in English teaching’ before proceeding to enumerate the ways in which these robots could be used in English language learning. Doesn’t ELT Journal have editors to pick up on this kind of thing?

So, how could these robots be used? Lee and Lee suggest (for younger learners) one-on-one vocabulary tutoring, dialogue practice, more vocabulary teaching, and personalized feedback. That’s it. It’s worth noting that all of these functions could equally well be carried out by chatbots as by social robots.

Lee and Lee discuss and describe the social robot, NAO6, also built by SoftBank Robotics. It’s a smaller and cheaper cousin of the Pepper robot that illustrates the EL Gazette article. Among Lee and Lee’s reasons for using social robots is that they ‘have become more accessible due to ever-lower costs’: NAO6 costs around £350 a month to rent. Buying it outright is also an option. Eduporium (‘Empowering the future with technology’) has one on offer for $12,990.00. According to the blurb, it helps ‘teach coding, brings literature to life, enhances special education, and allows for training simulations. Plus, its educational solutions include an intuitive interface, remote learning, and various applications for accessibility!’

It’s easy enough to understand why EL Gazette uses clickbait from time to time. I’m less clear about why ELT Journal would print this kind of nonsense. According to Lee and Lee, further research into social robots ‘would initiate a new era of language learning’ in which the robots will become ‘an important addition to the ELT arsenal’. Yeah, right …

References

Lee, H. & Lee, J. H. (2022) Social robots for English language teaching. ELT Journal 76 (1): 119 – 124

Lee, J. H., Yang, H., Shin D. & Kim, H. (2020) Chatbots. ELT Journal 74 (3): 338 – 3444

In the latest issue of ‘Language Teaching’, there’s a ‘state-of-the-art’ article by Frank Boers entitled ‘Glossing and vocabulary learning’. The effect of glosses (‘a brief definition or synonym, either in L1 or L2, which is provided with [a] text’ (Nation, 2013: 238)) on reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition has been well researched over the years. See Kim et al. (2020) for just one recent meta-analysis.

It’s a subject I have written about before on this blog (see here), when I focussed on Plonsky ad Ziegler (2016), a critical evaluation of a number of CALL meta-analyses, including a few that investigated glosses. Plonsky and Ziegler found that glosses can have a positive effect on language learning, that digital glosses may be more valuable than paper-based ones, and that both L1 and L2 glosses can be beneficial (clearly, the quality / accuracy of the gloss is as important as the language it is written in). Different learners have different preferences. Boers’ article covers similar ground, without, I think, adding any new takeaways. It concludes with a predictable call for further research.

Boers has a short section on the ‘future of glossing’ in which he notes that (1) ‘onscreen reading [is] becoming the default mode’, and (2) that ‘materials developers no longer need to create glosses themselves, but can insert hyperlinks to online resources’. This is not the future, but the present. In my last blog post on glossing (August 2017), I discussed Lingro, a digital dictionary tool that you can have running in the background, allowing you to click on any word on any website and bring up L1 or L2 glosses. My reservation about Lingro was that the quality of the glosses left much to be desired, relying as they did on Wiktionary. Things would be rather different if it used decent content – sourced, for example, from Oxford dictionaries, Robert (for French) or Duden (for German).

And this is where the content for the Google Dictionary for Chrome extension comes from. It’s free, and takes only seconds to install. It allows you to double-click on a word to bring up translations or English definitions. One more click will take you to a more extensive dictionary page. It also allows you to select a phrase or longer passage and bring up translations generated by Google Translate. It allows you to keep track of the items you have looked up, and to download these on a spreadsheet, which can then be converted to flashcards (e.g. Quizlet) if you wish. If you use the Safari browser, a similar tool is already installed. It has similar features to the Google extension, but also offers you the possibility of linking to examples of the targeted word in web sources like Wikipedia.

Boers was thinking of the provision of hyperlinks, but with these browser extensions it is entirely up to the reader of a text to decide how many and which items to look up, what kind of items (single words, phrases or longer passages) they want to look up, how far they want to explore the information available to them, and what they want to do with the information (e.g. store / record it).

It’s extraordinary that a ‘state-of-the-art article’ in an extremely reputable journal should be so out of date. The value of glossing in language learning is in content-focussed reading, and these tools mean that any text on the web can be glossed. I think this means that further research of the kind that Boers means would be a waste of time and effort. The availability of free technology does not, of course, solve all our problems. Learners will continue to benefit from guidance, support and motivation in selecting appropriate texts to read. They will likely benefit from training in optimal ways of using these browser extensions. They may need help in finding a balance between content-focussed reading and content-focussed reading with a language learning payoff.

References

Boers, F. (2022). Glossing and vocabulary learning. Language Teaching, 55 (1), 1 – 23

Kim, H.S., Lee, J.H. & Lee, H. (2020). The relative effects of L1 and L2 glosses on L2 learning: A meta-analysis. Language Teaching Research. December 2020.

Nation, I.S.P. (2013). Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Plonsky, L. & Ziegler, N. (2016). The CALL–SLA interface: insights from a second-order synthesis. Language Learning & Technology 20 / 2: 17 – 37

The pandemic has affected all learners, but the more vulnerable the learner, the harder they have been hit. The evidence is very clear that Covid and the response of authorities to it has, in the words of UNESCO , ‘increased inequalities and exacerbated a pre-existing education crisis’. Learning poverty (a term coined by UNESCO and the World Bank), which refers to the ability to read and understand a simple text by the age of 10, is just one way of looking at these inequalities. Before the pandemic, 53% of children in low and middle income countries (and 9% in high income countries) were living in learning poverty. According to the World Bank (Azevedo et al., 2021), the pandemic will amplify this crisis with the figure rising to somewhere between 63% and 70%. The fear is that the recovery from Covid may be ‘similarly inequitable and that the effects of COVID-19 will be long-lasting’ (ibid.).

Inequity was not, of course, the only problem that educational systems faced before the pandemic. Since the turn of the millennium, it has been common to talk about ‘reimagining education’, and use of this phrase peaked in the summer of 2020. Leading the discoursal charge was Andreas Schleicher, head of education at the OECD, who saw the pandemic as ‘a great moment’ for education, since ‘the current wave of school closures offers an opportunity for experimentation and for envisioning new models of education’. Schleicher’s reimagining involves a closely intertwined privatization (by ending state monopolies) and digitalization of education (see this post for more details). Other reimaginings are usually very similar. Yong Zhao, for example, does not share Schleicher’s enthusiasm for standardized tests, but he sees an entrepreneurial, technology-driven, market-oriented approach as the way forward. He outlined this, pre-pandemic, in his book An Education Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste (Zhao et al., 2019), and then picked up on the pandemic (Zhao, 2020) to reiterate his ideas and, no doubt, to sell his book – all ‘in the spirit’, he writes, ‘of never wasting a good crisis’.

It was Churchill who first said ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’, but it is often attributed to Emanuel Rahm, Obama’s Chief of Staff, who said the same thing in reference to the financial crisis of 2009. As we have seen in the last two years, crises can be good opportunities to push through policy changes. Viktor Orbán provides a good example. Crises can also be a way to make a financial killing, a practice known as ‘disaster capitalism’ (Loewenstein, 2017). Sometimes, it’s possible to change policy and turn a tidy profit at the same time. One example from the recent past shows us the way.

Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, education was massively disrupted in New Orleans and the surrounding areas. Arne Duncan, who became Obama’s Secretary for Education a few years after Katrina, had this to say about the disaster: “Let me be really honest. I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that ‘We have to do better.’” The reform that followed, inspired by Milton Friedman, involved replacing New Orleans’ public school system with privately run charter schools. The change took place with ‘military speed and precision’, compared to the ‘glacial pace’ with which levees and the electricity grid were repaired (Klein, 2007: 5). Nearly 5000 unionized teachers were fired, although some of the younger ones were rehired on reduced salaries. Most of the city’s poorer residents were still in exile when the changes took place: the impact on the most vulnerable students was entirely predictable. ‘The social and economic situation always bleeds into the school, said one researcher into the impact of the catastrophe.

Disaster capitalism may, then, be a useful lens through which to view the current situation (Moore et al., 2021). Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary for Education, stated that the pandemic was an opportunity to ‘look very seriously at the fact that K-12 education for too long has been very static and very stuck in one method of delivering and making instruction available’ (Ferrari, 2020). What DeVos, who was famous for having described public education as a ‘dead end’, meant by this was privatization and digitalization, and privatization through digitalization. Although the pandemic is far from over, we can already begin to ask: has the crisis been wasted?

Turning from the US to Europe, a fascinating report by Zancajo et al (2022) examines the educational policy responses to Covid in a number of European countries. The first point to note is that the recovery plans of these countries is not fundamentally any different from pre-pandemic educational policy. The Covid-19 pandemic has simply ‘served as a catalyst to accelerate preexisting digitization policies in education systems’. Individual states are supported by the European Commission’s Digital Education Action Plan 2021–2027 (European Commission, 2021) which lists three main priorities: making use of technology, the development of digital skills for teachers and learners, and the increased use of data to improve education. The focus of attention of education policy in the national recovery plans of individual EU countries is almost completely monopolized by digitalization. Covid has not led to any reimagining of education: it has simple been ‘a path accelerator contributing to strengthening policy instruments and solutions that were already on the agenda (Zancajo et al., 2022). Less overtly obvious than digitalization has been the creeping privatization that occurs when a greater proportion of national education budgets is spent on technology provided by private companies.

Creeping privatization has been especially noticeable in British universities, which, for years, have been focusing on the most profitable ‘revenue streams’ and on cutting the costs of academic labour. The pandemic has been used by some (Leicester and Manchester, for example) as a justification for further restructuring, cost-cutting and the development of new digitally-driven business models (Nehring, 2021). In schools, the private technology providers were able to jump in quickly because the public sector was unprepared, and, in so doing, position themselves as essential services. The lack of preparedness of the public sector is not, of course, unsurprising, since it has been underfunded for so long. Underfund – create a crisis – privatize the solution: such has long been the ‘Shock Doctrine’ game plan of disaster capitalists. Naomi Klein has observed that where we have ended up in post-Covid education is probably where we would have ended up anyway: Covid accelerated the process by ten years.

Williamson and Hogan (2020) describe the current situation in the following terms:

The pivot to online learning and ‘emergency remote teaching’ has positioned educational technology (edtech) as an integral component of education globally, bringing private sector and commercial organisations into the centre of essential educational services. […] A global education industry of private and commercial organisations has played a significant role in educational provision during the Covid-19 crisis, working at local, national and international scales to insert edtech into educational systems and practices. It has often set the agenda, offered technical solutions for government departments of education to follow, and is actively pursuing long-term reforms whereby private technology companies would be embedded in public education systems during the recovery from the Covid-19 crisis and beyond it in new models of hybrid teaching and learning. […] Supported by multilateral policy influencing organisations and national government departments, these companies have integrated schools, teachers and students into their global cloud systems and online education platforms, raising the prospect of longterm dependencies of public education institutions on private technology infrastructures.

And where is educational equity in all this? Even the OECD is worried – more assessment is needed to identify learning losses, they say! A pandemic tale from California will give us a clue. When schools shut down, 50% of low-income California students lacked the necessary technology to access distance learning (Gutentag, 2020). Big Tech came riding to the rescue: donations from companies like HP, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Google made it possible for chromebooks and wifi hotspots to be made available for every student, and California legislators and corporations could congratulate themselves on closing the ‘digital divide’ (ibid.). To compensate for increased problems of homelessness, poverty, hunger, and discrimination, the most vulnerable students now have a laptop or tablet, with which they can generate data to be monetized by the tech vendors (Feathers, 2022).

References

Azevedo, J. P. W., Rogers, F. H., Ahlgren, S. E., Cloutier, M-H., Chakroun, B., Chang, G-C., Mizunoya, S., Reuge,N. J., Brossard, M., & Bergmann, J. L. (2021) The State of the Global Education Crisis : A Path to Recovery (English). Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group. https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/416991638768297704/pdf/The-State-of-the-Global-Education-Crisis-A-Path-to-Recovery.pdf

European Commission. (2021) Digital education action plan 2021-2027. Resetting Education, Brussels

Feathers, T. (2022) This Private Equity Firm Is Amassing Companies That Collect Data on America’s Children. January 11th, 2022 The Markup https://themarkup.org/machine-learning/2022/01/11/this-private-equity-firm-is-amassing-companies-that-collect-data-on-americas-children

Ferrari, K. (2020) Disaster Capitalism Is Coming for Public Education. Jacobin 14 May 2020 https://jacobinmag.com/2020/05/public-education-schools-covid-coronavirus-charter-teachers

Gutentag, A. (2020) The Virtual Education Shock Doctrine. The Bellows https://www.thebellows.org/the-virtual-education-shock-doctrine/

Klein, N. (2007) The Shock Doctrine. New York: Metropolitan Books

Loewenstein, A. (2017) Disaster Capitalism. London: Verso Books

Moore, S. D. M., Jayme, B. D., Black, J. (2021) Disaster capitalism, rampant edtech opportunism, and the advancement of online learning in the era of COVID19. Critical Education, 12(2), 1-21.

Nehring, D. (2021) Is COVID-19 Enabling Academic Disaster Capitalism? Social Science Space 21 July 2021 https://www.socialsciencespace.com/2021/07/is-covid-19-enabling-academic-disaster-capitalism/

Williamson, B., & Hogan, A. (2020). Commercialisation and privatisation in/of education in the context of Covid-19. Education International, Brussels.

Zancajo, A., Verger, A. & Bolea, P. (2022) Digitalization and beyond: the effects of Covid-19 on post-pandemic educational policy and delivery in Europe, Policy and Society, puab016, https://doi.org/10.1093/polsoc/puab016

Zhao, Y. (2020) COVID-19 as a catalyst for educational change. Prospects 49: 29–33. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11125-020-09477-y

Zhao, Y., Emler, T. E., Snethen, A. & Yin, D. (2019) An Education Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste. New York: Teachers College Press

There’s a wonderful promotional video for Pearson English https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6o1s8U88N8 that packs as many clichéd slogans and images into one minute as you could ever wish for. Here’s the script:

Great things happen when you dare to dream / Learning is a journey filled with challenge, wonder and discovery / Educators not only inspire the future they also define it / We partner with the learning community to change futures / It’s our passion / Together we can inspire / Together we can empower / Together we can achieve / Change is happening all around us, faster than ever / Let’s empower change / There’s an exciting future ahead / Expect great things / Pearson English / Dare to learn, dare to change / Pearson always learning

How futures will be changed, what exactly can be inspired or empowered, what great things we can expect, what we might dare to learn or change – all these minor details are left unanswered. It is a wonderful example of advertising language, aka bullshit, defined by philosopher Harry Frankfurt (2005) as discourse that is only intended to persuade, without any concern for truth. It’s language where meanings are not shared, but where emotional responses are desired.

Pearson refers to its slogan ‘Always learning’ as their ‘brand tagline’. It is, they say, ‘Short, bold, and memorable, “Always Learning” encapsulates our learners and ourselves. It highlights Pearson’s commitment to constantly be discovering, learning and improving ourselves. And it describes what we enable our learners to do–to keep learning, whenever, wherever and however it suits them, throughout every stage of their lives’. The company provides detailed advice to its employees about how the slogan can be used: when, where, when not, colour combinations, good and bad examples of use, translations, etc. All of this makes for fascinating reading, which, strangely, is available online (at least, for the time being!).

Bullshit is a wise approach in advertising ELT products. If you get too specific / meaningful, you run the risk of coming out with bullshit of the non-philosophical kind. Macmillan English, for example, has the new slogan ‘Advancing learning’ and says: As technology opens new doors for teachers and students, we use our expertise to create products that suit different learning styles and design innovative new tools for teachers and students.

With ELT conference season getting underway in some parts of the world, slogans, clichés and buzzwords are vying for our attention in the marketing of these events. There are ELT conferences of a commercial, predatory kind (‘guaranteed publication of your work in the conference proceedings’) where the slogans are clearly bullshit (in the philosophical sense). The upcoming ‘4th International Conference on Modern Research in Education, Teaching and Learning’ (22 – 24 April in Barcelona) has the marvellous slogan ‘The only of all English language teaching conference’ and can be attended for only €320 (much cheaper if you just want to listen without presenting).

But for conferences organised by teachers’ associations, it would be inaccurate and inappropriate to describe their choice of slogans as bullshit. This doesn’t mean, however (as an entertaining blog post at ELT Rants, Reviews and Reflections in 2015 described them), that they are not ‘buzzword-heavy word salads [that] are rinsed, re-used, and repeated ad nauseum’. Here’s a small current selection for you to take your pick from. The resemblance, in many cases, to the language of the Pearson promo video is striking.

ELT in the digital era and beyond: innovation, engagement, and resilience (ThaiTESOL)

The hybrid transition: emotional, social and educational impacts on language learning (TESOL Kuwait)

Connecting teachers, empowering learners (BBELT)

Innovating changes: a world of diversity (TESOL Spain)

Translanguaging and multilingualism in language teaching (TESOL Arabia)

Inspiring collaboration (BELTA)

For me, the standout slogan is definitely TESOL Arabia, since it is the only one that seems to be about something specific. But perhaps I’m wrong. Both translanguaging and multilingualism can mean quite a few different things. When you put the terms together, my thoughts turn first to questions of social justice, and the idea of a conference in which social justice is discussed in the Hyatt Regency hotel in Dubai is fairly surreal. As in most of these examples, conferences for ELT teachers tend to opt for broad themes which aim to include almost everyone in the field (Raza, 2018) and will usually index innovation, excellence, empowerment, and / or wellbeing.

A good slogan will include words that are themselves sloganized (Schmenk et al., 2019). ‘Innovation’ and ‘empowering’ are good examples here. Neither can truly be understood without familiarity with extensive co-texts which confer connotational meaning and rhetorical force. ‘Change’ (for ‘innovation’) and ‘helping’ (for ‘empowering’) don’t quite have the same heft, even though they basically mean the same.

It’s important that buzzwords don’t mean too much, but the ‘key processing features of successful slogans are simplicity, memorability and emotionality’ (Pavlenko, 2019: 146). By ‘emotionality’, Pavlenko means words that carry an upbeat / positive message. In this sense, TESOL Kuwait’s ‘emotional, social and educational impacts’ all sound rather neutral and academic. I think that ‘engagement, diversity and outcomes’ might resonate better. Similarly, ‘hybrid’ still needs to shake off some negative associations: ‘digital’ sounds more positively modern. Hats off to ThaiTESOL, whose ‘the digital era and beyond’ sounds positively visionary.

Even though slogans shouldn’t mean too much, they only work as slogans ‘as if their meaning were obvious’ (Schmenk et al., 2019: 4). In their exploration of sloganization in language education discourse, Schmenk et al (2019) look at ‘communicative language teaching’, ‘learner autonomy’, ‘innovation’, ‘multiple intelligences’, ‘intercultural / transcultural language learning’, ‘input’, ‘language commodification’ and ‘superdiversity’. In this blog, I’ve considered ‘innovation’, ‘resilience’, ‘translanguaging’ and ‘multilingualism’, among others. These buzzwords come and go – the field of language teaching is as keen on current trends as any other field – and they can usually be grouped into broader trends, which academics like to call ‘turns’. There’s the ‘social turn’ (Block, 2003), the ‘intercultural turn’ (Thorne, 2010), the ‘multilingual turn’ (May, 2013), the ‘critical turn’ (Dasli & Diáz, 2017), the ‘emotional turn’ (White, 2018), and these are just for starters. If you’re quick, you won’t be too late to register for the 2nd International Conference on Linguistic, Literary and Pedagogical Turns at the University of Wah. The conference doesn’t have a slogan, but my suggestion would be ‘The Turn Turn’.

Schmenk et al (2019: 3) note that language education is an inherently interdisciplinary field so it is not surprising to find so many of its current trends drawn from other disciplines. This has not always been the case. If we go back 30 / 40 years, the hot topics included corpora, task-based learning, and lexical approaches. Now, in the choice of slogans, ELT conferences are not dissimilar from other professional conferences in sales and marketing, management and leadership – see for example this website offering advice about organising such events.

Slogans and buzzwords are, of course, a marketing tool for ELT conferences and publishers, but they also play an important role in academic branding – the personal brand you construct for yourself as an academic. Aneta Pavlenko (2019: 1488 – 151) offers a useful set of strategies for this kind of academic branding, but similar strategies can also be used by ELT freelancers

  • Adopt a slogan / buzzword (simple, memorable and positive)
  • Link it to your work (easiest if it was either your idea in the first place or you were one of the first to import the idea into language education)
  • Institutionalize the slogan by organising conferences, courses, journals, supervising dissertations, and so on
  • Recycle the slogan endlessly (especially in the titles of publications)
  • Keep things pretty vague so you can’t be criticised too much
  • Frame the phenomenon in question with words like ‘radical’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘hugely complex’, ‘tremendously important’

Quoting the work of Michael Billig (2013), Pavlenko (2019: 160) suggests that we should not necessarily be asking ourselves what slogans and buzzwords mean. A better question is: what is the person who is using these words attempting to do with them?

My favourite ELT slogan is an anti-slogan slogan. It is Bo Cai Zhong Chang (‘assimilating merits of different teaching approaches for our own use’) which was used in China to advocate for a ‘methodological approach appropriate to the specific sociopolitical realities of the country’ (Feng & Feng, 2001). China has a long history of powerful slogans, of course, with ‘Dare to think, dare to act’ being the key phrase during the Great Leap Forward. Did the people at Pearson have this in mind when they came up with ‘Dare to learn, dare to change’?

References

Billig, M. (2013) Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Block, D. (2003) The Social Turn in Second Language Acquisition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

Dasli, M. & Diáz, A. R. (Eds.) (2017) The Critical Turn in Language and Intercultural Communication Pedagogy. New York: Routledge

Feng, A. & Feng, A. (2001) ‘Bo Cai Zhong Chang’ – A slogan for effective ELT methodology for College English education. English Language Teaching, 1: 1 – 22

Frankfurt, H. G. (2005) On Bullshit. Princeton: Princeton University Press

May. S. (Ed.) (2013) The multilingual turn: Implications for SLA, TESOL and Bilingual education. New York: Routledge

Pavlenko, A. (2019) Superdiversity and Why It Isn’t: Reflections on Terminological Innovation and Academic Branding. In Schmenk, B., Bredibach, S. & Küster, L. (Eds.) Sloganization in Language Education Discourses. Bristol: Multilingual Matters. pp. 142 – 168.

Raza, K. (2018) The Alignment of English Language Teacher Association Conference Themes to Research Agendas: An Investigation of TESOL International Association and IATEFL. In A. Elsheikh et al. (Eds.), The Role of Language Teacher Associations in Professional Development, Second Language Learning and Teaching. Cham: Springer pp. 117 – 129

Schmenk, B., Bredibach, S. & Küster, L. (Eds.) (2019) Sloganization in Language Education Discourses. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Thorne, S. L. (2010) The ‘Intercultural Turn’ and Language Learning in the Crucible of the New Media. In Helm, F. & Guth, S. (Eds.) Telecollaboration 2.0 for Language and Intercultural Learning. Bern: Peter Lang. pp. 139 – 164

White C.J. (2018) The Emotional Turn in Applied Linguistics and TESOL: Significance, Challenges and Prospects. In: Martínez Agudo J. (Eds) Emotions in Second Language Teaching. Cham: Springer

You have probably heard the following joke, or a version of it. What do we call a person who speaks three languages? A trilingual. And a person who speaks two languages? A bilingual. And someone who only speaks one language? An American. For the joke to work, even mildly, the listener has to buy in to the idea that multilingualism / plurilingualism is a ‘good thing’, and that too many Americans are monolingual.
Not everybody would share these views. Some would prefer the US (and other countries of immigration) to be more of a language graveyard than less of one. Negativity about multilingualism can be extreme, as in the wrath of those on Twitter who found a Coca Cola advertisement profoundly un-American, supportive of communism and terrorism. The advert in question showed a multicultural bunch of people sharing a Coke in perfect harmony while singing a multilingual rendition of ‘America the Beautiful’. To make things even worse, the commercial was shown at that homage to all things American, the Super Bowl.
Enthusiasm for multilingualism is, in part, a liberal reaction to the reactionary monolingualism of the ‘if-you-can’t-speak-our-language-go-back-to-your-own-fucking-country’ variety. Countering the post- 9/11 rise in monolingual linguistic prescriptivism in some countries (Cameron, 2013), tolerant multilingualism indexes visions of perfectly harmonious communities and the rhetoric of human rights and autonomy (Gramling, 2016: 205). It values diversity for its own sake.
It is also, in part, a reaction (see, for example, the Wikipedia entry or Maher, 2017) to a number of clearly widespread myths and misconceptions (e.g. that multilingual societies are less harmonious than monolingual ones or that bilingually raised children are cognitively disadvantaged). Going further than mere rebuttals, advocates of multilingualism argue, with some evidence, that it is good for critical and creative thinking, beneficial for problem-solving and decision-making, makes us more open to new ideas, more tolerant, more embracing of divergent thinking, and it can help stave off dementia. What is there not to like?
Most enthusiasts of multilingualism will list and expand on all the advantages of multilingualism that I have already mentioned, but many will also be interested in its market potential. Linguanomics, the title of a book by Gabrielle Hogan-Brun (2017), is the exploration of the economic aspects of multilingualism, the links between linguistic diversity and economic growth, and the ways in which linguistic capital may be converted into monetary capital. Citing Hogan-Brun, a blog post (Hardach, 2018; see also Hardach, 2021) for the World Economic Forum suggests that companies which invest more in languages do better in export markets; that countries with better language skills have higher GDP; and, therefore, countries should do more to tap the ‘vast, linguistic resource [of] migrant families’. Diversity has become human capital. Multilingualism is not just an end in itself, but a tool ‘in global collaborations to make the world a better place’ (Stein-Smith, 2021b) primarily through economic growth. In this framing, becoming multilingual (i.e. learning another language) is acquiring the ultimate 21st century skill (Stein-Smith, 2021a), so long, of course, as the language has value in the market place. English, for example.
Like all 21st century skills, multilingualism appears to have a readily obvious meaning, but does not, in fact, lend itself easily to a simple definition. Perhaps the defining feature of all 21st century skills is precisely the lack of precision, allowing the idea to be embraced by different people, from critical theorists to investment bankers, for different reasons. The European Commission (2007:6) defines the term as: ‘the ability of societies, institutions, groups and individuals to engage, on a regular basis, with more than one language in their day-to-day lives’. It leaves unanswered the key questions of what a language is, which languages are being referred to, and in which aspects of people’s day-to-day lives. But answers of a sort can be found when we look at the reasons for the European policy of multilingualism. In addition to the importance of diversity and respect for identities, the policy is intended (1) on a collective basis, to contribute to European unity (reflecting the EU’s motto ‘United in Diversity’) and (2) on an individual basis, to develop human capital and job mobility.
Can a policy of multilingualism be both a celebration of diversity and a tool for linguanomics – the development of human capital through languages? Problems arise when we look for the answer to the question of which language. Are we differentiating languages and dialects, and, if so, how? When the European Commission (2005: 4) says that it would like all European citizens to have ‘practical skills in at least two languages in addition to his or her mother tongue’, it’s fairly clear that this means ‘foreign languages’. And if part of the purpose of learning ‘foreign languages’ is to develop human capital, the language of choice is likely to be English most of the time. A particular kind of English. Closely related is the question of what is meant by ‘mother tongue’. If your home language is not the national language of the country in which you live, you’re unlikely to get much help from European states in developing your competencies in it. In practice, when development of human capital is weighed against diversity, the former takes precedence every time. Multilingualism in this European context is overridingly concerned with languages associated with nation states and is tied ‘to a future anterior of successful language learning among new citizens’ […] it ‘fulfils all the characteristics of neoliberal self-making: horizontal, voluntaristic, entrepreneurial, opportunity-rich, privatizable, decentralized, team-oriented, and, at turns hopeful or mute about structural poverty and other forms of socio-economic precaritization’ (Gramling, 2016: 204). In other words, interest in diversity may only be skin-deep: advocacy of multilingual policies may, in fact, be mostly about ‘targeting the anxiety within the [white, privileged, monolingual] majority about social and linguistic pluralism’ (McNamara, 2011: 38).
‘Language’, ‘diversity’ and ‘multilingualism’ are all strategically deployable shifters (Moore, 2015): their meanings shift in relation to the purposes for which the terms are being used. Multilingualism can stand in opposition to the bigotry of people in MAGA caps, but it can also stand in opposition to ‘unassimilated’ monolingual, migrant populations who haven’t learnt the language of the ‘host nation’. This is all rather problematic for those who do not want their espousal of multilingualism to be associated with xenophobia or a neoliberal agenda, and for those who want to dissociate diversity from human capital (Flores, 2013). Multilingualism, therefore, needs to be disambiguated, so that the multilingualism that is oriented towards social justice is not appropriated by those whose main interest in language learning is linguanomics (Katznelson & Bernstein, 2017).
This, I think, is what is behind the so-called ‘multilingual turn’ in applied linguistics, a turn that tries to bring social justice to the fore. In an attempt at terminological smash-and-grab, critical applied linguists set about reclaiming the term (May, 2013; Conteh & Meier, 2014). There are differences in interpretation between them (Meier, 2017), but the common denominator is a desire to redefine ‘language’ – not as a fixed and largely territorial system owned by native-speakers, but as a dynamic, complex, social, deterritorialized practice owned by its users. There is ample evidence to indicate that various forms of linguistic intermixing are more characteristic of everyday spoken communication than the orderly use of what we might call ‘monolanguages’ – separate, individual, named languages. The multilingualism of the multilingual turn contends that lingualism (Block, 2013) – the belief in the existence of monolanguages – is contrary to the evidence, and must be dispensed with in order to get away from the social injustice of native-speaker norms, of accentism, and linguistic prejudice.
In this light, the term ‘multilingual’ is problematic. It denotes countability and plurality. If we want or need to distance ourselves from lingualism – the idea of languages as bounded entities (e.g. English, Hebrew, Xhosa), ‘language’ needs to become a verb: ‘languaging’ or ‘translanguaging’ (see my previous post). The multilingual turn has led us to translanguaging and ‘few voices in applied linguistics have found fault with this positive counter-distinction of translanguaging over multilingualism’ (Gramling, 2021: 29). It is translanguaging, rather than multilingualism, that is now being offered as a, even the, theory of language (Li Wei, 2018).
For a strong critique of the idea that named languages (like English) do not exist, you could do worse than read a recent post by Geoff Jordan. Or you could simply try asking someone who’s about to take a TOEFL exam what they think of the idea (Gramling, 2021: 26). Even if we cannot clearly define the boundaries of what constitutes a named language like English, we cannot simply disinvent it. Our lives can be shaped by language exams, our online interactions are shaped by our choice of named language, and many of us invest a significant part of our identity in a named language. You may go along with Li Wei (2021) in disapproving of lingualism, but it won’t be going away any time soon. Quite how we are supposed to dispense with lingualism also remains less than clear. Perhaps Li Wei might begin by trying to get rid of the PGCE in Languages, or the MAs in TESOL or French at his own university, or its language proficiency requirements for students from countries that are not ‘majority English-speaking’. I suspect, though, that his institution’s linguanomic dispositive of multilingualism might prevent that happening.
Lingualism is at the heart of much English language learning, of English medium instruction, and of Li Wei’s own university (UCL) where nearly half the student body has paid to benefit from the linguistic capital that is on sale there. Lingualism may be (but is not necessarily) ‘indifferent to social justice, migration, asylum, refuge, immigration, decoloniality, or liberation from the strictures of monolingualism’ (Gramling, 2021: 66), but multilingualism of the translanguaging kind is unlikely to make much of a dent in our monolingualising world, either. It certainly isn’t going to help anyone who has to take a gate-keeping language test (Cameron, 2013). For all the noise about translanguaging in TESOL, it’s worth noting (Gramling, 2021: 70) that the overwhelming majority of current research into multilingualism comes, not from TESOL or applied linguistics, but from computational engineers and Natural Language Processing specialists. Compared to multilingual linguanomics, the ‘multilingual turn’ is a very niche affair. Most people have never heard of it, and never will.
Academic handbooks on multilingualism stretch to over a thousand pages, and there are countless journals devoted to the topic. Attempts have been made to condense the topic to 130 pages (Maher, 2017), and even 15 pages (Cenoz, 2015), but multilingualism is a discursive construct, a category in the process of continuous reinvention (Gramling, 2021). Discourses about monolingualism and multilingualism are what Deborah Cameron (2013) has called discourses of ‘verbal hygiene’ – the normative practices through which people attempt to improve languages or regulate their use. Such discourses, whether coming from xenophobes, neo-liberals, or those with more liberal perspectives, are:
linked to other preoccupations which are not primarily linguistic, but rather social, political and moral. The logic behind verbal hygiene depends on a tacit, common-sense analogy between the order of language and the larger social order; the rules or norms of language stand in for the rules governing social or moral conduct, and putting language to rights becomes a symbolic way of putting the world to rights (Cameron, 2013: 61).
Cameron adds that verbal hygiene is a response to the anxieties of a specific moment and place, and that we should be wary of assuming that preoccupations about, say, multilingualism and monolingualism will have the same symbolic meanings in different times and places. With that in mind, I know I need to be careful about the way I react to the writings of Li Wei, Ofelia García, Nelson Flores, or Guadalupe Valdés. Their professional worlds of the ‘multilingual turn’ in bilingual and immersion education in mostly English-speaking countries hardly intersect at all with my own professional world of EFL teaching in central Europe, where rejection of lingualism is not really an option.

References
Block, D. (2013) Moving beyond ‘Lingualism’: Multilingual embodiment and Multimodality in SLA. In May. S. (Ed.) (2013) The multilingual turn: Implications for SLA, TESOL and Bilingual education. New York: Routledge. pp. 54 – 77
Cameron, D. (2013) The one, the many, and the Other: Representing multi- and mono-lingualism in post-9/11 verbal hygiene. Critical Multilingualism Studies, 1 (2): 59 – 77
Cenoz, J. (2013) Defining multilingualism. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 33: 3 – 18
Conteh, J. & Meier, G. (Eds.) (2014) The multilingual turn in languages education: Opportunities and challenges. Bristol: Multilingual Matters
European Commission. (2007) Final report: High level group on multilingualism. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities
European Commission (2005) Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the Economic and Social Committee, and the Committee of the Regions. A New Framework Strategy for Multilingualism, COM(2005) 596 final. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:52005DC0596
Flores, N. (2013) The Unexamined Relationship Between Neoliberalism and Plurilingualism: A Cautionary Tale. TESOL Quarterly, 47 (3): 500- 520
Gramling, D. (2021) The Invention of Multilingualism. Cambridge: CUP
Gramling, D. (2016) The Invention of Monolingualism. New York: Bloomsbury
Hardach, S. (2018) Speaking more than one language can boost economic growth. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/02/speaking-more-languages-boost-economic-growth/
Hardach, S. (2021) Languages are Good for Us. London: Apollo Books
Hogan-Brun, G. (2017) Linguanomics: What is the Market Potential of Multilingualism? New York: Bloomsbury
Katznelson, N. & Bernstein, K. (2017) Rebranding Bilingualism: The Shifting Discourses of Language Education Policy in California’s 2016 Election. Linguistics and Education, 40: 11 – 26
Li Wei. (2021) Translanguaging as a Political Stance: Implications for English Language Education. ELT Journal, ccab083, https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/ccab083
Li Wei. (2018) Translanguaging as a Practical Theory of Language. Applied Linguistics, 39 (1): 9 – 30
Maher, J. C. (2017) Multilingualism: A very short introduction. Oxford: OUP
May. S. (Ed.) (2013) The multilingual turn: Implications for SLA, TESOL and Bilingual education. New York: Routledge
McNamara, T. (2011) Multilingualism in Education: A poststructuralist critique. The Modern Language Journal, 104 (1): 430 – 441
Meier, G. S. (2017) The multilingual turn as a critical movement in education: assumptions, challenges and a need for reflection. Applied Linguistics Review, 8 (1): 131-161
Moore, R. (2015) From revolutionary monolingualism to reactionary multilingualism: Top-down discourses of linguistic diversity in Europe, 1794-present. Language & Communication, 44: 19 – 30
Stein-Smith, K. (2021a) Multilingualism as a Global Competency: Skills for a 21st Century World. Saarbrücken: LAP Lambert Publishing
Stein-Smith, K. (2021b) Multilingualism for Global Solutions and a Better World. Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 12 (5): 671-677

The world of language learning and teaching is full of theoretical constructs and claims, most of which have their moment of glory in the sun before being eclipsed and disappearing from view. In a recent article looking at the theoretical claims of translanguaging enthusiasts, Jim Cummins (2021) suggests that three criteria might be used to evaluate them:

1 Empirical adequacy – to what extent is the claim consistent with all the relevant empirical evidence?

2 Logical coherence – to what extent is the claim internally consistent and non-contradictory?

3 Consequential validity – to what extent is the claim useful in promoting effective pedagogy and policies?

Take English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), for example. In its early days, there was much excitement about developing databases of ELF usage in order to identify those aspects of pronunciation and lexico-grammar that mattered for intercultural intelligibility. The Lingua Franca Core (a list of pronunciation features that are problematic in ELF settings when ELF users mix them up) proved to be the most lasting product of the early empirical research into ELF (Jenkins, 2000). It made intuitive good sense, was potentially empowering for learners and teachers, was clearly a useful tool in combating native-speakerism, and was relatively easy to implement in educational policy and practice.

But problems with the construct of ELF quickly appeared. ELF was a positive reframing of the earlier notion of interlanguage – an idea that had deficit firmly built in, since interlanguage was a point that a language learner had reached somewhere on the way to being like a native-speaker. Interlanguage contained elements of the L1, and this led to interest in how such elements might become fossilized, a metaphor with very negative connotations. With a strong desire to move away from framings of deficit, ELF recognised and celebrated code-switching as an integral element in ELF interactions (Seidlhofer, 2011: 105). Deviations from idealised native-speaker norms of English were no longer to be seen as errors in need of correction, but as legitimate forms of the language (of ELF) itself.

However, it soon became clear that it was not possible to describe ELF in terms of the particular language forms that its users employed. In response, ELF researchers reframed ELF. The focus shifted to how people of different language backgrounds used English to communicate in particular situations – how they languaged, in other words. ELF was no longer a thing, but an action. This helped in terms of internal consistency, but most teachers remained unclear about how the ELF.2 insight should impact on their classroom practices. If we can’t actually say what ELF looks like, what are teachers supposed to do with the idea? And much as we might like to wish away the idea of native speakers (and their norms), these ideas are very hard to expunge completely (MacKenzie, 2014: 170).

Twenty years after ELF became widely used as a term, ELF researchers lament the absence of any sizable changes in classroom practices (Bayyurt & Dewey, 2020). There are practices that meet the ELF seal of approval (see, for example, Kiczkowiak & Lowe, 2018), and these include an increase in exposure to the diversity of English use worldwide, engagement in critical classroom discussion about the globalisation of the English language, and non-penalisation of innovative, but intelligible forms (Galloway, 2018: 471). It is, however, striking that these practices long pre-date the construct of ELF. They are not direct products of ELF.

Part of the ‘problem’, as ELF researchers see it, has been that ELF has been so hard to define. Less generously, we might suggest that the construct of ELF was flawed from the start. Useful, no doubt, as a heuristic, but time to move on. Jennifer Jenkins, one of the most well-known names in ELF, has certainly not been afraid to move on. Her article (Jenkins, 2015) refines ELF.2 into ELF.3, which she now labels as ‘English as a Multilingual Franca’. In this reframed model, ELF is not so much concerned with the difference between native speakers and non-native speakers, as with the difference between monolinguals and multilinguals. Multilingual, rather than ‘English’, is now the superordinate attribute. Since ELF is now about interactions, rather than ELF as a collection of forms, it follows, in ELF.3, that ELF may not actually contain any English forms at all. There is a logic here, albeit somewhat convoluted, but there’s also a problem for ELF as a construct, too. If ELF is fundamentally about multilingual communication, what need is there for the term ‘ELF’? ‘Translanguaging’ will do perfectly well instead. The graph from Google Trends reveals the rises and falls of these two terms in the academic discourse space. After peaking in 2008 the term ‘English as a Lingua Franca’ now appears to be in irreversible decline.

So, let’s now turn to ‘translanguaging’. What do Cummins, and others, have to say about the construct? The word has not been around for long. Most people trace it back to the end of the last century (Baker, 2001) and a set of bilingual pedagogical practices in the context of Welsh-English bilingual programmes intended to revitalise the Welsh language. In the early days, translanguaging was no more than a classroom practice that allowed or encouraged the use (by both learners and teachers) of more than one language for the purposes of study. The object of study might be another language, or it might be another part of the curriculum. When I wrote a book about the use of L1 in the learning and teaching of English (Kerr, 2014), I could have called it ‘Translanguaging Activities’, but the editors and I felt that the word ‘translanguaging’ might be seen as obscure jargon. I defined the word at the time as ‘similar to code-switching, the process of mixing elements form two languages’.

But obscure jargon no longer. There is, for example, a nice little collection of activities that involve L1 for the EFL / ESL classroom put together by Jason Anderson http://www.jasonanderson.org.uk/downloads/Jasons_ideas_for_translanguaging_in_the_EFL_ESL_classroom.pdf that he has chosen to call ‘Ideas for translanguaging’. In practical terms, there’s nothing here that you might not have found twenty or more years ago (e.g. in Duff, 1989; or Deller & Rinvolucri, 2002), long before anyone started using the word ‘translanguaging’. Anderson’s motivation for choosing the word ‘translanguaging’ is that he hopes it will promote a change of mindset in which a spirit of (language) inclusivity prevails (Anderson, 2018). Another example: the different ways that L1 may be used in a language classroom have recently been investigated by Rabbidge (2019) in a book entitled ‘Translanguaging in EFL Contexts’. Rabbidge offers a taxonomy of translanguaging moments. These are a little different from previous classifications (e.g. Ellis, 1994; Kim & Elder, 2005), but only a little. The most significant novelty is that these moments are now framed as ‘translanguaging’, rather than as ‘use of L1’. Example #3: the most well-known and widely-sold book that offers practical ideas that are related to translanguaging is ‘The Translanguaging Classroom’ by García and colleagues (2017). English language teachers working in EFL / ESL / ESOL contexts are unlikely to find much, if anything, new here by way of practical ideas. What they will find, however, is a theoretical reframing. It is the theoretical reframing that Anderson and Rabbidge draw their inspiration from.

The construct of translanguaging, then, like English as a Lingua Franca, has brought little that is new in practical terms. Its consequential validity does not really need to be investigated, since the pedagogical reasons for some use of other languages in the learning / teaching of English were already firmly established (but not, perhaps, widely accepted) a long time ago. How about the theory? Does it stand up to closer scrutiny any better than ELF?

Like ELF, ‘translanguaging’ is generally considered not to be a thing, but an action. And, like ELF, it has a definition problem, so precisely what kind of action this might be is open to debate. For some, it isn’t even an action: Tian et al (2021: 4) refer to it as ‘more like an emerging perspective or lens that could provide new insights to understand and examine language and language (in) education’. Its usage bounces around from user to user, each of whom may appropriate it in different ways. It is in competition with other terms including translingual practice, multilanguaging, and plurilingualism (Li, 2018). It is what has been called a ‘strategically deployable shifter’ (Moore, 2015). It is also unquestionably a word that sets a tone, since ‘translanguaging’ is a key part of the discourse of multilingualism / plurilingualism, which is in clear opposition to the unfavourable images evoked by the term ‘monolingualism’, often presented as a methodological mistake or a kind of subjectivity gone wrong (Gramling, 2016: 4). ‘Translanguaging’ has become a hooray word: criticize it at your peril.

What started as a classroom practice has morphed into a theory (Li, 2018; García, 2009), one that is and is likely to remain unstable. The big questions centre around the difference between ‘strong translanguaging’ (a perspective that insists that ‘named languages’ are socially constructed and have no linguistic or cognitive reality) and ‘weak translanguaging’ (a perspective that acknowledges boundaries between named languages but seeks to soften them). There are discussions, too, about what to call these forms of translanguaging. The ‘strong’ version has been dubbed by Cummins (2021) ‘Unitary Translanguaging Theory’ and by Bonacina-Pugh et al. (2021) ‘Fluid Languaging Approach’. Corresponding terms for the ‘weak’ version are ‘Crosslinguistic Translanguaging Theory’ and ‘Fixed Language Approach’. Subsidiary, related debates centre around code-switching: is it a form of translanguaging or is it a construct better avoided altogether since it assumes separate linguistic systems (Cummins, 2021)?

It’s all very confusing. Cenoz and Gorter (2021) in their short guide to pedagogical translanguaging struggle for clarity, but fail to get there. They ‘completely agree’ with García about the fluid nature of languages as ‘social constructs’ with ‘no clear-cut boundaries’, but still consider named languages as ‘distinct’ and refer to them as such in their booklet. Cutting your way through this thicket of language is a challenge, to put it mildly. It’s also probably a waste of time. As Cummins (2021: 16) notes, the confusion is ‘completely unnecessary’ since ‘there is no difference in the instructional practices that are implied by so-called strong and weak versions of translanguaging’. There are also more important questions to investigate, not least the extent to which the approaches to multilingualism developed by people like García in the United States are appropriate or effective in other contexts with different values (Jaspers, 2018; 2019).

The monolingualism that both ELF and translanguaging stand in opposition to may be a myth, a paradigm or a pathology, but, whatever it is, it is deeply embedded in the ways that our societies are organised, and the ways that we think. It is, writes David Gramling (2016: 3), ‘clearly not yet inclined to be waved off the stage by a university professor, nor even by a ‘multilingual turn’.’ In the end, ELF failed to have much impact. It’s time for translanguaging to have a turn. So, out with the old, in with the new. Or perhaps not really all that new at all.

The king is dead. Long live the king and a happy new year!

References

Anderson, J. (2018) Reimagining English language learners from a translingual perspective. ELT Journal 72 (1): 26 – 37

Baker, C. (2001) Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 3rd edn. Bristol: Multilingual Matters

Bayyurt, Y. & Dewey, M. (2020) Locating ELF in ELT. ELT Journal, 74 (4): 369 – 376

Bonacina-Pugh, F., Da Costa Cabral, I., & Huang, J. (2021) Translanguaging in education. Language Teaching, 54 (4): 439-471

Cenoz, J. & Gorter, D. (2021) Pedagogical Translanguaging. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Cummins, J. (2021) Translanguaging: A critical analysis of theoretical claims. In Juvonen, P. & Källkvist, M. (Eds.) Pedagogical Translanguaging: Theoretical, Methodological and Empirical Perspectives. Bristol: Multilingual Matters pp. 7 – 36

Deller, S. & Rinvolucri, M. (2002) Using the Mother Tongue. Peaslake, Surrey: Delta

Duff, A. (1989) Translation. Oxford: OUP

Ellis, R. (1994) Instructed Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: OUP

Galloway, N. (2018) ELF and ELT Teaching Materials. In Jenkins, J., Baker, W. & Dewey, M. (Eds.) The Routledge Handbook of English as a Lingua Franca. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge, pp. 468 – 480.

García, O., Ibarra Johnson, S. & Seltzer, K. (2017) The Translanguaging Classroom. Philadelphia: Caslon

García, O. (2009) Bilingual Education in the 21st Century: A Global Perspective. Malden / Oxford: Wiley / Blackwell

Gramling, D. (2016) The Invention of Monolingualism. New York: Bloomsbury

Jaspers, J. (2019) Authority and morality in advocating heteroglossia. Language, Culture and Society, 1: 1, 83 – 105

Jaspers, J. (2018) The transformative limits of translanguaging. Language & Communication, 58: 1 – 10

Jenkins, J. (2000) The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Jenkins, J. (2015) Repositioning English and multilingualism in English as a lingua franca. Englishes in Practice, 2 (3): 49-85

Kerr, P. (2014) Translation and Own-language Activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Kiczkowiak, M. & Lowe, R. J. (2018) Teaching English as a Lingua Franca. Stuttgart: Delta

Kim, S.-H. & Elder, C. (2005) Language choices and pedagogical functions in the foreign language classroom: A cross-linguistic functional analysis of teacher talk. Language Teaching Research, 9 (4): 355 – 380

Li, W. (2018) Translanguaging as a Practical Theory of Language. Applied Linguistics, 39 (1): 9 – 30

MacKenzie, I. (2014) English as a Lingua Franca. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge

Moore, R. (2015) From Revolutionary Monolingualism to Reactionary Multilingualism: Top-Down Discourses of Linguistic Diversity in Europe, 1794 – present. Language and Communication, 44: 19 – 30

Rabbidge, M. (2019) Translanguaging in EFL Contexts. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge

Seidlhofer, B. (2011) Understanding English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: OUP

Tian, Z., Aghai, L., Sayer, P. & Schissel, J. L. (Eds.) (2020) Envisioning TESOL through a translanguaging lens: Global perspectives. Cham, CH: Springer Nature.

We need to talk

Posted: December 13, 2021 in Discourse, research
Tags: , , ,

In 1994, in a well-known TESOL Quarterly article entitled ‘The dysfunctions of theory/practice discourse’, Mark A. Clarke explored the imbalance in the relationship between TESOL researchers and English language teachers, and the way in which the former typically frame the latter as being less expert than themselves. In the last 25 years, the topic has regularly resurfaced, most recently with the latest issue of the Modern Language Journal, a special issue devoted entirely to ‘the Research-Practice Dialogue in Second Language Learning and Teaching’ (Sato & Loewen, 2022). At the heart of the matter is the fact that most teachers are just not terribly interested in research and rarely, if ever, read it (Borg, 2009). Much has been written on whether or not this matters, but that is not my concern here.

Sato and Loewen’s introductory article reviews the reasons behind the lack of dialogue between researchers and teachers, and, in an unintentionally comic meta move, argue that more research is needed into teachers’ lack of interest in research. This is funny because one of the reasons for a lack of dialogue between researchers and teachers is that ‘teachers have been researched too much ON and not enough WITH’ (Farrell, 2016): most research has not been carried out ‘for the teacher’s benefit and needs’, with the consequence being that ‘the result is purely academic’. Sato and Loewen’s primary focus in the article is on ‘classroom teachers’, with whom they would like to see more ‘dialogue’, but, as they acknowledge, they publish in a research journal whose ‘most likely readers are researchers’. They do not appear to have read Alan Maley’s ‘‘More Research is Needed’ – A Mantra Too Far?’ (Maley, 2016). Perhaps the article (and the Humanising Language Teaching magazine it is from) passed under their radar because it’s written for teachers (not researchers), it’s free and does not have an impact factor?

I wasn’t entirely convinced by the argument that more research about research is needed, not least because Sato and Loewen provide a fairly detailed analysis of the obstacles that exist to dialogue between researchers and teachers. They divide these into two categories:

Epistemological obstacles: the framing of researchers as generators of knowledge and teachers as consumers of knowledge; teachers’ scepticism about the relevance of some research findings to real-world teaching situations; the different discourse communities inhabited by researchers and teachers, as evidenced by the academic language choices of the former.

Practical obstacles: institutional expectations for researchers to publish in academic journals and a lack of time for researchers to engage in dialogue with teachers; teachers’ lack of time and lack of access to research.

Nothing new here, nothing contentious, either. Nothing new, either, in their argument that more dialogue between researchers and teachers would be of mutual benefit. They acknowledge that ‘In the current status of the research-practice relationship, it is researchers who are concerned about transferability of their findings to classrooms. Practitioners may not have burning motivation or urgent needs to reach out to researchers’. Consequently, it is researchers who should ‘shoulder the lion’s share of responsibility in this initiative’. This implies that, while the benefit could be mutual, it is not mutually proportionate, since researchers have both more to lose and more to gain.

They argue that it would be helpful to scrutinize closely the relationship between researchers and teachers (they prefer to use the word ‘practitioners’) and that researchers need to reflect on their own beliefs and practices, in particular the way that researchers are stake-holders in the research-practice relationship. I was disappointed that they didn’t go into more detail here and would like to suggest one angle of the ‘cui bono’ question worth exploring. The work of TESOL researchers is mostly funded by TESOL teaching. It is funded, in other words, by selling a commodity – TESOL – to a group of consumers … who are teachers. If we frame researchers as vendors and teachers as (potential) clients, [1] a rather different light is shone on pleas for more dialogue.

The first step, Sato and Loewen claim, towards achieving such a dialogue would be ‘nurturing a collaborative mindset in both researchers and teachers’. And the last of four steps to removing the obstacles to dialogue would be ‘institutional support’ for both teachers and researchers. But without institutional support, mindsets are unlikely to become more collaborative, and the suggestions for institutional support (e.g. time release and financial support for teachers) are just pie in the sky. Perhaps sensing this, Sato and Loewen conclude the article by asking whether their desire to see a more collaborative mindset (and, therefore, more dialogue) is just a dream. Back in 1994, Mark Clarke had this to say:

The only real solution to the problems I have identified would be to turn the hierarchy on its head, putting teachers on the top and arraying others-pundits, professors, administrators, researchers, and so forth-below them. This would require a major change in our thinking and in our behavior and, however reasonable it may appear to be, I do not see this happening. (Clarke, 1994: 18)

In 2017, ELT Journal published an entertaining piece of trolling by Péter Medgyes, ‘The (ir)relevance of academic research for the language teacher’, in which he refers to the expert status of researchers as related to the ‘orthodox and mistaken belief that by virtue of having churned out tons of academic papers and books, they must be performing an essential service for language education’. It is not hard to imagine the twinkle in his eye as he wrote it. In the same volume, Amos Paran (2017) picks up the bait, arguing for more dialogue between researchers and teachers. In response to Paran’s plea, Medgyes points out that there is an irony in preaching the importance of dialogue in a top-down manner. ‘As long as the playing field is uneven, it is absurd to talk about dialogue, if a dialogue is at all necessary’, he writes. The same holds true for Sato and Loewen. They acknowledge (Sato & Loewen, 2018) that ‘researchers’ top-down attitudes will not facilitate the dialogue’, but, try as they might, their own mindset is seemingly inescapable. In one article that was attempting to reach out to teachers (Sato, Loewen & Kim, 2021), they managed to make one teacher trainer, Sandy Millin, feel that teachers were being unfairly attacked.

The phrase ‘We need to talk’ has been described as, perhaps, the most dreaded four words in the English language. When you hear it, you know (1) that someone wants to talk to you (and not the other way round), (2) that, whether you want to talk or not, the other person will have their say, (3) that the discussion will almost certainly involve some criticism of you, and this may be merited, and (4) whatever happens next, it is unlikely that your relationship will improve.

References

Borg, S. (2009). English language teachers’ conceptions of research. Applied Linguistics, 30 (3): 358 – 88

Clarke, M. (1994). The dysfunctions of theory/practice discourse. TESOL Quarterly, 28: 9-26.

Farrell, T. (2016). Reflection, reflection, reflection. Responses to the Chapter:  More Research is Needed – A Mantra Too Far? Humanising Language Teaching, 18 (3) http://old.hltmag.co.uk/jun16/mart.htm

Maley, A. (2016). ‘More Research is Needed’ – A Mantra Too Far? Humanising Language Teaching, 18 (3) http://old.hltmag.co.uk/jun16/mart.htm

Medgyes, P. (2017). The (ir)relevance of academic research for the language teacher. ELT Journal, 71 (4): 491–498

Paran, A. (2017). ‘Only connect’: researchers and teachers in dialogue. ELT Journal, 71 (4): 499 – 508

Sato, M., & Loewen, S. (2022). The research-practice dialogue in second language learning and teaching: Past, present, and future. The Modern Language Journal, 106 (3)

Sato, M. & Loewen, S. (Eds.) (2019) Evidence-Based Second Language Pedagogy. New York: Routledge

Sato, M. & Loewen, S. (2018). Do teachers care about research? The research–pedagogy dialogue. ELT Journal 73 (1): 1 – 10

Sato, M., Loewen, S. & Kim, Y. J. (2021) The role and value of researchers for teachers: five principles for mutual benefit. TESOL AL Forum September 2021. http://newsmanager.commpartners.com/tesolalis/issues/2021-08-30/email.html#4


[1] I am actually a direct customer of Sato and Loewen, having bought for £35 last year a copy of their edited volume ‘Evidence-Based Second Language Pedagogy’. According to the back cover, it is a ‘cutting-edge collection of empirical research [which closes] the gap between research and practice’. In reality, it’s a fairly random collection of articles of very mixed quality, many of which are co-authored by ‘top scholars’ and the PhD students they are supervising. It does nothing to close any gaps between research and practice and I struggle to see how it could be of any conceivable benefit to teachers.

Seven years ago, the British Council brought out a report (Dearden, 2014), entitled ‘English as a medium of instruction – a growing global phenomenon’. The report noted the ‘rapid expansion’ of EMI provision, but observed that in many countries ‘there is a shortage of linguistically qualified teachers; there are no stated expectations of English language proficiency; there appear to be few organisational or pedagogical guidelines which might lead to effective EMI teaching and learning; there is little or no EMI content in initial teacher education (teacher preparation) programmes and continuing professional development (in-service) courses’.

Given issues such as these, we should not expect research findings about the efficacy of EMI to be unequivocally positive, and the picture that emerges from EMI research is decidedly mixed. In some countries, learning of academic content has deteriorated, and drop-out rates have been high, but we do not have enough information to make global generalisations. Improvements in English language skills are also often disappointing, although a number of research reports indicate gains in listening. We cannot, however, assume that following EMI studies will lead to greater language gains than, say, attending fewer hours of an intensive English course. The idea that two birds can be killed with one stone remains speculative.

The widespread rolling-out of EMI programmes in higher education has led to concerns about a negative effect on the status of other languages. There is also a danger that EMI may exacerbate social inequalities. Those who are most likely to benefit from the approach are ‘those whose life chances have already placed them in a position to benefit from education’ (Macaro, 2018). It is clear that EMI has spread globally without sufficient consideration of both its benefits and its costs.

This year, the British Council brought out another report on EMI (Sahan, et al., 2021), looking at EMI in ODA-categorised countries, i.e. receivers of foreign aid, mostly in the Global South. What has changed in the intervening seven years? The short answer is not a lot. Unabated growth continues: problematic issues remain problematic. Support for EMI lecturers remains limited and, when it is offered, usually takes the form of improving teachers’ general English proficiency. The idea that EMI lecturers might benefit from ‘training in appropriate materials selection, bilingual teaching pedagogies, strategies for teaching in multilingual or multicultural classrooms, [or] an awareness of their students’ disciplinary language needs’ does not seem to have taken root. The insight that EMI requires a shift in methodology in order to be effective has not really got through either, and this, despite the fact that it is well-known that many lecturers perceive EMI as a challenge. The growing body of research evidence showing the positive potential of plurilingual practices in higher education EMI (e.g. Duarte & van der Ploeg, 2019) is not, it would appear, widely known to universities around the world offering EMI classes. The only mention of ‘plurilingualism’ that I could find in this report is in the context of a discussion about how the internationalization (aka Englishization) of higher education acts as a counter-force to the plurilingualism promoted by bodies like the Council of Europe.

The home of the Council of Europe’s ‘European Centre for Modern Languages (ECML)’ is in Austria, where I happen to live. Here’s what the ECML’s website has to say about itself:

Developing every individual’s language repertoire and cultural identities and highlighting the social value of linguistic and cultural diversity lie at the core of ECML work. Plurilingual education embraces all language learning, e.g. home language/s, language/s of schooling, foreign languages, and regional and minority languages.

To support plurilingual education, a ‘Framework of Reference for Pluralistic Approaches to Languages and Cultures’ has been developed, along with a bank of resources and teaching materials that are linked to the descriptors in the frame of reference. Plurilingualism is clearly taken very seriously, and, across the country there are many interesting plurilingual initiatives in primary and secondary schools.

But not at universities. There is steady growth in EMI, especially at master’s level. Almost a quarter of all master’s at the University of Vienna, for example, are EMI. However, this has not been accompanied by any real thought about how EMI changes things or how EMI could best be implemented. It has simply been assumed that the only thing that differentiates teaching in German from using EMI is the choice of language itself (Dannerer et al., 2021). Only when things go wrong and are perceived as problematic (e.g. severe student dropout rates) ‘does the realization follow that there is so much more to teaching in another medium than language proficiency alone’ (ibid). Even language proficiency is not deemed especially worthy of serious consideration. Dannerer et al (2021) note that ‘the skills of teachers […] are neither tested nor required before they begin to offer courses in English. Although there are English language courses for students, academic, and administrative staff, they are mainly voluntary.’ There are no clear policies ‘as to when English or other languages should be employed, by whom, and for what’ (ibid). In summary, ‘linguistic and cultural plurality in Austrian higher education is not considered an asset that brings added value in terms of institutional diversity or internationalization at home’. Rather, in the context of EMI, it is something that can be Englishized and ignored.

Higher education EMI in Austria, then, is, in some ways, not so very different from EMI in the countries that feature in the recent British Council report. Or, for that matter, anywhere else in the world, with just a few exceptions (such as a number of universities in bilingual parts of Spain). My question is: why is this the case? Why would universities not actively pursue and promote plurilingual approaches as part of their EMI provision, if, as seems highly probable, this would result in learning gains? Are they really unaware of the potential benefits of plurilingual approaches in EMI? Is the literature out there (e.g. Paulsrud, et al., 2021) beyond their budgets? Have they, perhaps, just not got round to it yet? Is there, perhaps, some sort of problem (contracts? pay? time?) in training the lecturers? Or, as the British Council report seems to suggest, is there some irreconcilable tension between plurilingualism and the Englishizing world of most EMI? And, if this is the case, could it be that plurilingualism is fighting a losing battle?

References

Dannerer, M., Gaisch, M. & Smit, U. (2021) Englishization ‘under the radar’: Facts, policies, and trends in Austrian higher education. In Wilkinson, R. & Gabriëls, R. (Eds.) (2021) The Englishization of Higher Education in Europe. Amsterdam University Press, pp. 281 – 306

Dearden, J. (2014) English as a medium of instruction – a growing global phenomenon. London: British Council

Duarte, J. & van der Ploeg, M. (2019) Plurilingual lecturers in English medium instruction in the Netherlands: the key to plurilingual approaches in higher education? European Journal of Higher Education, 9 (3) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21568235.2019.1602476

Macaro, E. (2018) English Medium Instruction. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Paulsrud, B., Tian, Z. & Toth, J. (Eds.) (2021) English-Medium Instruction and Translanguaging. Bristol: Multilingual Matters

Sahan, K., Mikolajewska, A., Rose, H., Macaro, E., Searle, M., Aizawa, I., Zhou, S. & Veitch, A. (2021) Global mapping of English as a medium of instruction in higher education: 2020 and beyond. London: British Council

Wilkinson, R. & Gabriëls, R. (2021) The untapped potentials of EMI programmes. The Dutch case, System, 103, 102639

Wilkinson, R. & Gabriëls, R. (Eds.) (2021) The Englishization of Higher Education in Europe. Amsterdam University Press.