ELT slogans

Posted: January 20, 2022 in Discourse
Tags: , , , , , ,

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

Comments
  1. Adam says:

    Great post.

    Martin Amis described bullshit in a Guardian article as ‘nonsense intended to deceive’ which I think I slightly prefer to the definition you ascribe to Frankfurt, which I think de-emphasises the inaccuracy of bullshit.

    Pearson’s video reminds me of this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2YBtspm8j8M

  2. Ben Knight says:

    Thanks, Philip, for another original and thought-provoking post! I’d really like to hear from some marketing professionals on this- the ones who develop such slogans and campaigns. They are clearly not aiming to be informative or analytical. What impact are they aiming for, on whom? How successful are they with such slogans (and how do they know)? And thirdly why do such slogans/campaigns work (if they do)?
    Ps love the generic brand video that Adam mentioned

    • philipjkerr says:

      I wonder the same questions. I think people sometimes forget that marketing textbooks is a little different to, say, marketing a football club. But maybe I am wrong, even very wrong.

  3. […] an earlier post , I explored the use of the phrase ‘Always learning’ as a promotional tagline by Pearson. […]

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