Archive for August, 2020

subtitlesAs both a language learner and a teacher, I have a number of questions about the value of watching subtitled videos for language learning. My interest is in watching extended videos, rather than short clips for classroom use, so I am concerned with incidental, rather than intentional, learning, mostly of vocabulary. My questions include:

  • Is it better to watch a video that is subtitled or unsubtitled?
  • Is it better to watch a video with L1 or L2 subtitles?
  • If a video is watched more than once, what is the best way to start and proceed? In which order (no subtitles, L1 subtitles and L2 subtitles) is it best to watch?

For help, I turned to three recent books about video and language learning: Ben Goldstein and Paul Driver’s Language Learning with Digital Video (CUP, 2015), Kieran Donaghy’s Film in Action (Delta, 2015) and Jamie Keddie’s Bringing Online Video into the Classroom (OUP, 2014). I was surprised to find no advice, but, as I explored more, I discovered that there may be a good reason for these authors’ silence.

There is now a huge literature out there on subtitles and language learning, and I cannot claim to have read it all. But I think I have read enough to understand that I am not going to find clear-cut answers to my questions.

The learning value of subtitles

It has been known for some time that the use of subtitles during extensive viewing of video in another language can help in the acquisition of that language. The main gains are in vocabulary acquisition and the development of listening skills (Montero Perez et al., 2013). This is true of both L1 subtitles (with an L2 audio track), sometimes called interlingual subtitles, (Incalcaterra McLoughlin et al, 2011) and L2 subtitles (with an L2 audio track), sometimes called intralingual subtitles or captions (Vanderplank, 1988). Somewhat more surprisingly, vocabulary gains may also come from what are called reversed subtitles (L2 subtitles and an L1 audio track) (Burczyńska, 2015). Of course, certain conditions apply for subtitled video to be beneficial, and I’ll come on to these. But there is general research agreement (an exception is Karakaş & Sariçoban, 2012) that more learning is likely to take place from watching a subtitled video in a target language than an unsubtitled one.

Opposition to the use of subtitles as a tool for language learning has mostly come from three angles. The first of these, which concerns L1 subtitles, is an antipathy to any use at all of L1. Although such an attitude remains entrenched in some quarters, there is no evidence to support it (Hall & Cook, 2012; Kerr, 2016). Researchers and, increasingly, teachers have moved on.

The second reservation that is sometimes expressed is that learners may not attend to either the audio track or the subtitles if they do not need to. They may, for example, ignore the subtitles in the case of reversed subtitles or ignore the L2 audio track when there are L1 subtitles. This can, of course, happen, but it seems that, on the whole, this is not the case. In an eye-tracking study by Bisson et al (2012), for example, it was found that most people followed the subtitles, irrespective of what kind they were. Unsurprisingly, they followed the subtitles more closely when the audio track was in a language that was less familiar. When conditions are right (see below), reading subtitles becomes a very efficient and partly automatized cognitive activity, which does not prevent people from processing the audio track at the same time (d’Ydewalle & Pavakanun, 1997).

Related to the second reservation is the concern that the two sources of information (audio and subtitles), combined with other information (images and music or sound effects), may be in competition and lead to cognitive overload, impacting negatively on both comprehension and learning. Recent research suggests that this concern is ungrounded (Kruger et al, 2014). L1 subtitles generate less cognitive load than L2 subtitles, but overload is not normally reached and mental resources are still available for learning (Baranowska, 2020). The absence of subtitles generates more cognitive load.

Conditions for learning

Before looking at the differences between L1 and L2 subtitles, it’s a good idea to look at the conditions under which learning is more likely to take place with subtitles. Some of these are obvious, others less so.

First of all, the video material must be of sufficient intrinsic interest to the learner. Secondly, the subtitles must be of a sufficiently high quality. This is not always the case with automatically generated captions, especially if the speech-to-text software struggles with the audio accent. It is also not always the case with professionally produced L1 subtitles, especially when the ‘translations are non-literal and made at the phrase level, making it hard to find connections between the subtitle text and the words in the video’ (Kovacs, 2013, cited by Zabalbeascoa et al., 2015: 112). As a minimum, standard subtitling guidelines, such as those produced for the British Channel 4, should be followed. These limit, for example, the number of characters per line to about 40 and a maximum of two lines.

For reasons that I’ll come on to, learners should be able to switch easily between L1 and L2 subtitles. They are also likely to benefit if reliably accurate glosses or hyperlinks are ‘embedded in the subtitles, making it possible for a learner to simply click for additional verbal, auditory or even pictorial glosses’ (Danan, 2015: 49).

At least as important as considerations of the materials or tools, is a consideration of what the learner brings to the activity (Frumuselu, 2019: 104). Vanderplank (2015) describes these different kinds of considerations as the ‘effects of’ subtitles on a learner and the ‘effects with’ subtitles on learner behaviour.

In order to learn from subtitles, you need to be able to read fast enough to process them. Anyone with a slow reading speed (e.g. some dyslexics) in their own language is going to struggle. Even with L1 subtitles, Vanderplank (2015: 24) estimates that it is only around the age of 10 that children can do this with confidence. Familarity with both the subject matter and with subtitle use will impact on this ability to read subtitles fast enough.

With L2 subtitles, the language proficiency of the learner related to the level of difficulty (especially lexical difficulty) of the subtitles will clearly be of some significance. It is unlikely that L2 subtitles will be of much benefit to beginners (Taylor, 2005). It also suggests that, at lower levels, materials need to be chosen carefully. On the whole, researchers have found that higher proficiency levels correlate with greater learning gains (Pujadas & Muñoz, 2019; Suárez & Gesa, 2019), but one earlier meta-analysis (Montero Perez et al., 2013) did not find that proficiency levels were significant.

Measures of general language proficiency may be too blunt an instrument to help us all of the time. I can learn more from Portuguese than from Arabic subtitles, even though I am a beginner in both languages. The degree of proximity between two languages, especially the script (Winke et al., 2010), is also likely to be significant.

But a wide range of other individual learner differences will also impact on the learning from subtitles. It is known that learners approach subtitles in varied and idiosyncratic ways (Pujolá, 2002), with some using L2 subtitles only as a ‘back-up’ and others relying on them more. Vanderplank (2019) grouped learners into three broad categories: minimal users who were focused throughout on enjoying films as they would in their L1, evolving users who showed marked changes in their viewing behaviour over time, and maximal users who tended to be experienced at using films to enhance their language learning.

Categories like these are only the tip of the iceberg. Sensory preferences, personality types, types of motivation, the impact of subtitles on anxiety levels and metacognitive strategy awareness are all likely to be important. For the last of these, Danan (2015: 47) asks whether learners should be taught ‘techniques to make better use of subtitles and compensate for weaknesses: techniques such as a quick reading of subtitles before listening, confirmation of word recognition or meaning after listening, as well as focus on form for spelling or grammatical accuracy?’

In short, it is, in practice, virtually impossible to determine optimal conditions for learning from subtitles, because we cannot ‘take into account all the psycho-social, cultural and pedagogic parameters’ (Gambier, 2015). With that said, it’s time to take a closer look at the different potential of L1 and L2 subtitles.

L1 vs L2 subtitles

Since all other things are almost never equal, it is not possible to say that one kind of subtitles offers greater potential for learning than another. As regards gains in vocabulary acquisition and listening comprehension, there is no research consensus (Baranowska, 2020: 107). Research does, however, offer us a number of pointers.

Extensive viewing of subtitled video (both L1 and L2) can offer ‘massive quantities of authentic and comprehensible input’ (Vanderplank, 1988: 273). With lower level learners, the input is likely to be more comprehensible with L1 subtitles, and, therefore, more enjoyable and motivating. This makes them often more suitable for what Caimi (2015: 11) calls ‘leisure viewing’. Vocabulary acquisition may be better served with L2 subtitles, because they can help viewers to recognize the words that are being spoken, increase their interaction with the target language, provide further language context, and increase the redundancy of information, thereby enhancing the possibility of this input being stored in long-term memory (Frumuselu et al., 2015). These effects are much more likely with Vanderplank’s (2019) motivated, ‘maximal’ users than with ‘minimal’ users.

There is one further area where L2 subtitles may have the edge over L1. One of the values of extended listening in a target language is the improvement in phonetic retuning (see, for example, Reinisch & Holt, 2013), the ability to adjust the phonetic boundaries in your own language to the boundaries that exist in the target language. Learning how to interpret unusual speech-sounds, learning how to deal with unusual mappings between sounds and words and learning how to deal with the acoustic variations of different speakers of the target language are all important parts of acquiring another language. Research by Mitterer and McQueen (2009) suggests that L2 subtitles help in this process, but L1 subtitles hinder it.

Classroom implications?

The literature on subtitles and language learning echoes with the refrain of ‘more research needed’, but I’m not sure that further research will lead to less ambiguous, practical conclusions. One of my initial questions concerned the optimal order of use of different kinds of subtitles. In most extensive viewing contexts, learners are unlikely to watch something more than twice. If they do (watching a recorded academic lecture, for example), they are likely to be more motivated by a desire to learn from the content than to learn language from the content. L1 subtitles will probably be preferred, and will have the added bonus of facilitating note-taking in the L1. For learners who are more motivated to learn the target language (Vanderplank’s ‘maximal’ users), a sequence of subtitle use, starting with the least cognitively challenging and moving to greater challenge, probably makes sense. Danan (2015: 46) suggests starting with an L1 soundtrack and reversed (L2) subtitles, then moving on to an L2 soundtrack and L2 subtitles, and ending with an L2 soundtrack and no subtitles. I would replace her first stage with an L2 soundtrack and L1 subtitles, but this is based on hunch rather than research.

This sequencing of subtitle use is common practice in language classrooms, but, here, (1) the video clips are usually short, and (2) the aim is often not incidental learning of vocabulary. Typically, the video clip has been selected as a tool for deliberate teaching of language items, so different conditions apply. At least one study has confirmed the value of the common teaching practice of pre-teaching target vocabulary items before viewing (Pujadas & Muñoz, 2019). The drawback is that, by getting learners to focus on particular items, less incidental learning of other language features is likely to take place. Perhaps this doesn’t matter too much. In a short clip of a few minutes, the opportunities for incidental learning are limited, anyway. With short clips and a deliberate learning aim, it seems reasonable to use L2 subtitles for a first viewing, and no subtitles thereafter.

An alternative frequent use of short video clips in classrooms is to use them as a springboard for speaking. In these cases, Baranowska (2020: 113) suggests that teachers may opt for L1 subtitles first, and follow up with L2 subtitles. Of course, with personal viewing devices or in online classes, teachers may want to exploit the possibilities of differentiating the subtitle condition for different learners.


Baranowska, K. (2020). Learning most with least effort: subtitles and cognitive load. ELT Journal 74 (2): pp.105 – 115

Bisson, M.-J., Van Heuven, W.J.B., Conklin, K. and Tunney, R.J. (2012). Processing of native and foreign language subtitles in films: An eye tracking study. Applied Psycholingistics, 35 (2): pp. 399 – 418

Burczyńska, P. (2015). Reversed Subtitles as a Powerful Didactic Tool in SLA. In Gambier, Y., Caimi, A. & Mariotti, C. (Eds.), Subtitles and Language Learning. Principles, strategies and practical experiences. Bern: Peter Lang (pp. 221 – 244)

Caimi, A. (2015). Introduction. In Gambier, Y., Caimi, A. & Mariotti, C. (Eds.), Subtitles and Language Learning. Principles, strategies and practical experiences. Bern: Peter Lang (pp. 9 – 18)

Danan, M. (2015). Subtitling as a Language Learning Tool: Past Findings, Current Applications, and Future Paths. In Gambier, Y., Caimi, A. & Mariotti, C. (Eds.), Subtitles and Language Learning. Principles, strategies and practical experiences. Bern: Peter Lang (pp. 41 – 61)

d’Ydewalle, G. & Pavakanun, U. (1997). Could Enjoying a Movie Lead to Language Acquisition?. In: Winterhoff-Spurk, P., van der Voort, T.H.A. (Eds.) New Horizons in Media Psychology. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden.

Frumuselu, A.D., de Maeyer, S., Donche, V. & Gutierrez Colon Plana, M. (2015). Television series inside the EFL classroom: bridging the gap between teaching and learning informal language through subtitles. Linguistics and Education, 32: pp. 107 – 17

Frumuselu, A. D. (2019). ‘A Friend in Need is a Film Indeed’: Teaching Colloquial Expressions with Subtitled Television Series. In Herrero, C. & Vanderschelden, I. (Eds.) Using Film and Media in the Language Classroom. Bristol: Multimedia Matters. pp.92 – 107

Gambier, Y. (2015). Subtitles and Language Learning (SLL): Theoretical background. In Gambier, Y., Caimi, A. & Mariotti, C. (Eds.), Subtitles and Language Learning. Principles, strategies and practical experiences. Bern: Peter Lang (pp. 63 – 82)

Hall, G. & Cook, G. (2012). Own-language Use in Language Teaching and Learning. Language Learning, 45 (3): pp. 271 – 308

Incalcaterra McLoughlin, L., Biscio, M. & Ní Mhainnín, M. A. (Eds.) (2011). Audiovisual Translation, Subtitles and Subtitling. Theory and Practice. Bern: Peter Lang

Karakaş, A. & Sariçoban, A. (2012). The impact of watching subtitled animated cartoons on incidental vocabulary learning of ELT students. Teaching English with Technology, 12 (4): pp. 3 – 15

Kerr, P. (2016). Questioning ‘English-only’ Classrooms: Own-language Use in ELT. In Hall, G. (Ed.) The Routledge Handbook of English Language Teaching (pp. 513 – 526)

Kruger, J. L., Hefer, E. & Matthew, G. (2014). Attention distribution and cognitive load in a subtitled academic lecture: L1 vs. L2. Journal of Eye Movement Research, 7: pp. 1 – 15

Mitterer, H. & McQueen, J. M. (2009). Foreign Subtitles Help but Native-Language Subtitles Harm Foreign Speech Perception. PLoS ONE 4 (11): e7785.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007785

Montero Perez, M., Van Den Noortgate, W., & Desmet, P. (2013). Captioned video for L2 listening and vocabulary learning: A meta-analysis. System, 41, pp. 720–739 doi:10.1016/j.system.2013.07.013

Pujadas, G. & Muñoz, C. (2019). Extensive viewing of captioned and subtitled TV series: a study of L2 vocabulary learning by adolescents, The Language Learning Journal, 47:4, 479-496, DOI: 10.1080/09571736.2019.1616806

Pujolá, J.- T. (2002). CALLing for help: Researching language learning strategies using help facilities in a web-based multimedia program. ReCALL, 14 (2): pp. 235 – 262

Reinisch, E. & Holt, L. L. (2013). Lexically Guided Phonetic Retuning of Foreign-Accented Speech and Its Generalization. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0034409

Suárez, M. & Gesa, F. (2019) Learning vocabulary with the support of sustained exposure to captioned video: do proficiency and aptitude make a difference? The Language Learning Journal, 47:4, 497-517, DOI: 10.1080/09571736.2019.1617768

Taylor, G. (2005). Perceived processing strategies of students watching captioned video. Foreign Language Annals, 38(3), pp. 422-427

Vanderplank, R. (1988). The value of teletext subtitles in language learning. ELT Journal, 42 (4): pp. 272 – 281

Vanderplank, R. (2015). Thirty Years of Research into Captions / Same Language Subtitles and Second / Foreign Language Learning: Distinguishing between ‘Effects of’ Subtitles and ‘Effects with’ Subtitles for Future Research. In Gambier, Y., Caimi, A. & Mariotti, C. (Eds.), Subtitles and Language Learning. Principles, strategies and practical experiences. Bern: Peter Lang (pp. 19 – 40)

Vanderplank, R. (2019). ‘Gist watching can only take you so far’: attitudes, strategies and changes in behaviour in watching films with captions, The Language Learning Journal, 47:4, 407-423, DOI: 10.1080/09571736.2019.1610033

Winke, P., Gass, S. M., & Sydorenko, T. (2010). The Effects of Captioning Videos Used for Foreign Language Listening Activities. Language Learning & Technology, 1 (1): pp. 66 – 87

Zabalbeascoa, P., González-Casillas, S. & Pascual-Herce, R. (2015). In Gambier, Y., Caimi, A. & Mariotti, C. (Eds.), Subtitles and Language Learning. Principles, strategies and practical experiences Bern: Peter Lang (pp. 105–126)


Barely liveable hourly wages, no job security because there is no permanent contract (so employment may be terminated at short or no notice), no social security, paid health care or pension, struggling to meet everyday needs, such as food and accommodation … this is the situation for at least one in five workers in the UK and similar figures exist in many countries (e.g. one in six in New Zealand). As Bourdieu (1998: 81ff.) noted, job insecurity is now everywhere.

Many English language teachers, especially those working for private schools or universities operating like private schools, belong to what has been termed the global educational precariat. In addition to language school and university language teachers, there are hundreds of thousands of teachers, mostly American and British, working in English-medium schools ‘international schools’ around the world (Bunnell, 2016). Besides financial insecurity, many of these teachers also suffer from a lack of agency and a marginalisation of their professional identities (Poole, 2019). There’s a very useful article on ‘precarity’ in ELT Journal (Walsh, 2019) that I’d recommend.

Even teachers with reasonable pay and job security are facing attacks on their pay and working conditions. A few weeks ago in Jordan, security forces shut down the teachers’ union and arrested leading members. Teachers union leaders have also been imprisoned recently in Iran and Cambodia. The pages of the website of Education International , a global federation of teachers’ trade unions, catalogue the crises in education and the lives of teachers around the world.

Teacher bashing, in particular attacks on teacher unions, has been relentless. Four years ago, it was reported that teacher bashing had ‘reached unprecedented levels’ in the US (Saltzman, 2017: 39), where there has been a concerted attempt, over many years, to blame teachers for shortcomings in the educational system (see, for example, Kumashiro, 2012). Although it may have been the US that led the way, closely followed by Australia and the UK, attacks on teachers have become a global phenomenon. Mary Compton and Lois Weiner’s book, ‘The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers and their Unions’ (Compton & Weiner 2008), gives examples from China to South Africa, from Denmark to Mexico, of how teachers’ pay and conditions have been eroded. The reason? Quite simply, it is because teachers have stood in the way of so-called ‘reforms’ (e.g. pay cuts). It is because they have, as they are doing now in times of COVID-19, stood in the way of what governments have wanted to do. In an earlier post, I wrote in more detail about the ways in which the World Bank has spearheaded the drive towards privatized, lower cost education around the world.

COVID-19 has, of course, made matters worse, much worse. As often as not, the pandemic has been used as an excuse to accelerate attacks on teachers that were well under way long before.


In the circumstances, it is not surprising that teacher wellbeing has recently become a more talked-about topic. Precisely because there is so little of it about.

The publication earlier this year of a book about teacher wellbeing (Mercer & Gregersen, 2020) for language teachers is very timely. The authors acknowledge that real change for wellbeing [must] addresses structural and systemic levels of change and is not just a matter for individual teachers to cope with alone. They acknowledge that teachers should not have to compensate for fundamental flaws in the system as a whole that undermine their wellbeing, and they express concern about the risks associated with discussing teacher wellbeing at the individual level and not acknowledging that the systems in which teachers work may be at fault (Mercer & Gregersen, 2020: 9). But, with these caveats out of the way, the matter is closed, and the whole book is about how individuals can improve their wellbeing. Indeed, the book begins: As you read the title of this chapter, you might have thought how self-seeking or egocentric it sounds: It’s all about me? Our response is, ‘Yes, you!’ Throughout this book, we want you to focus your attention on yourself for a change, without any guilty feelings (Mercer & Gregersen, 2020: 1). Mindfulness techniques, tips for time management, ways of thinking positively and so on – it’s a compendium of self-help advice that may be helpful for language teachers. The real ravages of precarity, the real causes of so much lack of wellbeing, these do not get a mention.

Banksy_-_Grin_Reaper_With_TagPositive psychology

Mercer and Gregersen’s approach is directly inspired by the work of Martin Seligman, often referred to as the founder of ‘positive psychology’ (see, for example, Seligman, 2011; 2018). Positive psychology and Seligman’s ideas about wellbeing are not uncontested (see, for example, Bache & Reardon, 2016; Bache & Scott, 2018). The nub of the critiques is that positive psychology chooses to focus on happiness or wellbeing, rather than, say, justice, solidarity or loyalty. It articulates an underlying individualism and narrow sense of the social (Cabanas & Illouz, 2019: 68) and it is, therefore, not entirely surprising that much of the funding that made the rapid growth of positive psychology possible came from the ultra-conservative and religious institution, the John Templeton Foundation (Cabanas & Illouz, 2019: 20).

Mercer and Gregersen are not unaware of such critiques (see, for example, MacIntyre et al., 2016: 375). They mention the critiques of Barbara Ehrenreich (Ehrenreich, 2009), but, to the best of my knowledge, they have never troubled to respond to them. They have a very clear agenda – the promotion of positive psychology ideas in language teaching / learning contexts – which is made explicit in MacIntyre and Mercer (2014). A slew of articles, books and conference presentations have followed since then, and ‘Teacher Wellbeing’ is one of them. Mission seems to have been achieved.

Positive psychology has not only been criticised for its focus on the individual. Others have focused on its foundational assumptions, including decontextualized and ethnocentric claims; theoretical oversimplifications, tautologies and contradictions; methodological shortcomings; severe replicability problems; exaggerated generalizations; and even its therapeutic efficacy and scientific status (Cabanas & Illous, 2019: 29). Probably the most important of these critics was Richard Lazarus, whose work is certainly familiar to Mercer, Gregersen and their collaborators, since Lazarus’s criticisms are listed in MacIntyre and Mercer (2014) and elsewhere. These include:

  • the over-use of crosssectional research designs
  • a tendency to treat emotion too simplistically as either positive or negative
  • inadequate attention to both differences among individuals within a group as well as the overlap between groups when discussing statistically significant group differences
  • poor quality measurement of emotions.

However, as with the critiques of Ehrenreich, I have yet to find any examples of these authors actually addressing the criticisms. Instead, they prefer to talk about how problems such as those listed above need to be avoided in the future. For example, there is no doubt that the future development of the [positive psychology] approach within SLA can learn from these and other criticisms, write MacIntyre and Mercer (2014:161), and they see the future of positive psychology in language learning / teaching as being fundamentally grounded in science.

Empirical science

Acknowledging, but without actually addressing, past criticisms of the scientific shortcomings of positive psychology, MacIntyre and Mercer (2014: 15) insist that positive psychology is the empirical study of how people thrive and flourish […] it represents a form of “rebirth” for humanistic psychology, but with a stronger emphasis on empirical research. The word ‘empirical’ appears 4 times on this page and another 5 times in the article. In their follow-up book, ‘Positive Psychology in SLA’ (Macintyre et al., 2016), there is a whole section (over a third of the book) entitled ‘Empirical’. In a historical survey of positive psychology in foreign language teaching, written by close collaborators of Mercer, Gregersen and MacIntyre (Dewaele et al.,2019), the same focus on empirical science is chosen, with a description of positive psychology as being underpinned by solid empirical research. The frequency of this word choice is enough to set alarm bells ringing.

A year before the MacIntyre and Mercer article (2014), an article by Brown et al (2013) questioned one of the key empirical foundations of positive psychology, the so-called ‘critical positivity ratio’ (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005). Wikipedia explains this as the ratio of positive to negative emotions which distinguishes “flourishing” people from “languishing” people, and the ratio was 2.9013. A slightly later article (Brown et al, 2014) further debunked the work of Fredrickson, arguing that her work was full of conceptual difficulties and statistical flaws. Wikipedia now describes the ‘critical positivity ratio’ as ‘a largely discredited concept’. In contrast, Mercer and Gregersen (2020: 14) acknowledge that although the exact ratio (3:1) of positivity has been called into question by some, they reassert the value of Fredrickson’s work. They neither cite the criticisms, nor rebut them. In this, they are following a well-established tradition of positive psychology (Rhyff, 2003).

Given growing scepticism about the claims of positive psychology, MacIntyre et al (2016) elected to double-down. Even if empirical evidence for positive psychology was in short supply, it was incumbent on them to provide it. Hence, the section in their book entitled ‘Empirical’. Personally, I would have advised against it. The whole point of positive psychology, as outlined by Seligman, is to promote ‘wellbeing’. But what, exactly, is this? For some, like Mercer and Gregersen (2020: 3), it’s about finding meaning and connection in the world. For others, it’s not a ‘thing’ that needs research to uncover its essential nature, but as a social and cultural construction which is interesting as such, not least for what it can tell us about other social and cultural phenomena (Ereaut & Whiting, 2008). We may agree that it’s ‘a good thing’, but it lacks solidity as a construct. Even Seligman (2011: 15) comes to the conclusion that ‘wellbeing’ is not ‘a real thing. Rather, he says, it is a construct which has several measurable elements, each a real thing, each contributing to well-being, but none defining well-being. This, however, simply raises the question of how much of a ‘thing’ each of these elements are (Dodge et al., 2012). Seligman’s elements (Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment (PERMA)) form the basis of Mercer and Gregersen’s book, but none lend themselves to clear, workable definitions. In the absence of construct validity, empirical research evidence will prove hard to find.

How well does the ‘Empirical’ section of Positive Psychology in SLA (MacIntyre et al., 2016) stand up? I don’t have space here to discuss all 7 chapters. However, I’ve selected the first of these, ‘Positive Psychology Exercises Build Social Capital for Language Learners: Preliminary Evidence’ (Gregersen et al, 2016) because it includes ‘evidence’ in the title and because it was written by two of the book’s editors. The research reported in this chapter involved five volunteer women, aged 20 -23, in an English program at an American university, who took part in a number of positive psychology exercises (PPEs) which entailed laughter, exercise, interaction with animals, listening to music, expressing gratitude and engaging in altruism. The data collected was self-rating questionnaires and some self-reflection discussion. The results indicated that the PPEs led to more positive emotions, with exercise and laughter leading to the greatest gains (but since the order of the PPEs was not randomized, and since the sample size was so small, this doesn’t really tell us anything). Some of the participants doubted the value of some of the PPEs. However, the participants developed better relationships with their partners and this may have led to gains in confidence. The authors conclude that although the present data-set is small, we see preliminary evidence of all three pillars of positive psychology supporting positive outcomes (p.164).

My own view is that this is wishful thinking. The only thing that this study does is to indicate that in this particular context with these particular learners, feeling good about what you are doing may help things along a bit. In addition, this has absolutely nothing to do with ‘social capital’, which the authors seem to have misunderstood. Citing an article by Nawyn et al (2012), they describe ‘social capital’ as emerging friendships that provide learners with positive emotional experiences and intangible resources for language acquisition (Gregersen et al, 2016: 147). But this is a misreading of the Nawyn et al article, which adheres fairly closely to Bourdieu’s notion of social capital as fundamentally about power relations, but extends it beyond purely economic power relations. Given the connections between the lack of teacher wellbeing and precarity, and given Bourdieu’s writings about precarity, the authors’ attempt to bring Bourdieu into their justification of positive psychological experiences, best undertaken at the individual level (Gregersen et al., 2016: 149), is really quite extraordinary. And if this is empirical evidence for anything, I’m a positive psychologist!

Cui bono?

It may be that some of the exercises suggested in Teacher Wellbeing will be of benefit to some, even many, teachers. Maybe. But the claims of empirical science behind this book are questionable, to say the least. More beneficial to teacher wellbeing would almost certainly be strong teacher unions, but these are only mentioned in passing. There is, incidentally, some recent evidence from the U.S. (Han, 2020), that highly unionized districts have higher average teacher quality and improved educational outcomes. But positive psychologists seem unwilling to explore the role that unions might play in teacher wellbeing. It is not, perhaps, coincidental that the chapter in Teacher Wellbeing that deals with teachers in their workplaces contains three recommendations for further reading, and all three are written for managers. The first on the list is called Build It: The Rebel Playbook for World-class Employee Engagement (Elliott & Corey, 2018).

The problems that teachers are facing, exacerbated by COVID-19, are fundamentally systemic and political. Mercer and Gregersen may be aware that there is a risk associated with discussing teacher wellbeing at the individual level and not acknowledging that the systems in which teachers work may be at fault, but it’s a risk they have chosen to take, believing that their self-help ideas are sufficiently valuable to make the risk worthwhile. I agree with a writer on the National Education Association blog, who thinks that self-care is important but argues that it is an insufficient and entirely too passive way to address the problems teachers are encountering today.

There are other ways of conceptualising teacher wellbeing (see, for example, the entries on the Education International website with this tag) and the Mercer / Gregersen book may be viewed as an attempt to ‘claim the field’. To return to Paul Walsh, whose article about precarity I recommended earlier, it is useful to see the current interest in teacher wellbeing in context. He writes: Well-being has entered ELT at a time when teachers have been demanding greater visibility and acceptance of issues such as mental health, poor working conditions, non-native speaker and gender equality. Yet to subsume these issues under a catch-all category does them a disservice. Because as soon as we put these issues under the well-being umbrella, they effectively vanish in a cloud of conceptual mist—and lose their sharp edges.

In this sense, a book like Teacher Wellbeing, although well-meaning, may well contribute to the undermining of the very thing it seeks to promote.


Bache, I. & Reardon, L. (2016) The Politics and Policy of Wellbeing: Understanding the Rise and Significance of a New Agenda. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar

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