Archive for September, 2022

Motivation and research

Ljke quite a few of the topics I have explored in this blog, motivation is something about which we can all agree on its importance, but without being entirely clear about what it means. It is closely connected to a number of other human attributes – reasons for learning, goal-setting, strength of desire to achieve goals, attitudes towards and interest in English, effort and self-regulation, learner autonomy … (Lamb, 2016) and the list could be continued. In fact, it means so many things that the American Psychological Association has considered deleting the word as a search term in the main psychological database (Dörnyei & Ushioda, 2013).

In the world of language learning, research into motivation got going over 60 years ago (Gardner & Lambert, 1959), really took off in the 1990s, and has become ‘one of the most popular research topics, showing an exponential increase in quantity year after year’ (Al-Hoorie et al., 2021: 139). The main reason for this is no doubt the widely shared perception of the importance of ‘motivation’ (and demotivation), but also, perhaps, because motivation is seen as an easy topic among novice researchers (Ushioda, 2016), relying, as it typically does, on a questionnaire.

However, all is not well in this world of language motivation research. First of all, researchers are questioning whether motivation to learn a language is fundamentally any different from motivation to learn anything else (Al-Hoorie & Hiver, 2020). Some research suggests that it is not, and that the complex network of ‘identity, emotions, social and political factors, both inside and outside of school’ (Al-Hoorie et al., 2021: 141) that are seen as relevant to language learning motivation apply equally to learning maths. Attempts to carve out a particular space for language learning motivation (such as Dörnyei’s (2009) ‘L2 motivational self system’) may have much appeal, but are less convincing when studied more closely (Al-Hoorie, 2018).

All of which leaves us where exactly? The conclusion of Al-Hoorie et al (2021) is that we might gain a better understanding of language learning motivation through the lens of complex dynamic systems theory, but the complexity of any insights gained makes it unlikely that this would lead to ‘workable pedagogical recommendations’. Since the whole point of researching motivation is to generate ‘workable pedagogical recommendations’, Al-Hoorie et al’s inescapable conclusion is that motivation research should be abandoned … and that attention should shift ‘to the more tangible and actionable construct of engagement’. This view would seem to be shared by Mercer and Dörnyei (2020). But is ‘engagement’ really any more tangible and actionable than ‘motivation’? I don’t think so. The concept of ‘engagement’ unifies motivation and its activation, according to Mercer & Dörnyei (2020: 6), which means that ‘engagement’ is an even more complex concept than motivation alone.

The mantra of researchers is ‘more research needed’ (Maley, 2016), so, even when criticising the research, it’s hardly surprising that Al-Hoorie et al argue for more research … just with a different focus. So, besides abandoning ‘motivation’ and looking at ‘engagement’ instead, more research that is ‘interventional in nature’ is needed – as it is a ‘rare commodity’ (Al-Hoorie et al., 2021: 141-2).

Motivation and practice

There’s no shortage of stuff out there telling us how to do motivation in the language classroom. There are books full of practical ideas and tips (e.g. Dörnyei & Hadfield, 2013; Renandya, 2015; Thorner, 2017). There is also any amount of online stuff about motivation, the main purpose of which is to sell something: a brand, a product (such as a coursebook or an app) or an idea (such as coaching). And then there are the ‘pedagogical applications’ that come at the end of the research papers, which ‘more often than not do not logically and unambiguously follow from the results of the research’ (Al-Hoorie et al., 2021: 138).

There are two big problems with all of this. We know that motivational classroom interventions can ‘work’, but we cannot actually measure ‘motivation’. We can only measure proxies for motivation, and the most common of these is self-reported intended effort – which actually tells us very little. Achievement may correlate with intended effort … but it may not! Much of the research literature implies that motivational interventions may be helpful, but fails to demonstrate clearly that they will be (see Howard et al., 2021, as an example). Equally problematic is the fact that we don’t know which kinds of interventions are likely to be most beneficial (see, for example, Lazowski & Hulleman, 2015). In other words, we are in the dark.

This is not to say that some of the tips and practical classroom ideas are not worth trying out. Most tips you will come across will strike you as self-evident (e.g. intrinsic beats extrinsic, success breeds motivation, rewards beat punishment) and, like Renandya (2015), quite reasonably draw on mainstream motivational theory. Regarding the practical side of things, Al-Hoorie et al (2021: 147) conclude that ‘probably the best advice to give to a novice teacher is not to bury themselves in recently published language motivation research, but to simply rely on experience and trial and error, and perhaps a good mentor’. As for good, experienced teachers, they already know ‘far more about motivating students than the sum of knowledge that can be gained from research’ (Henry et al, 2019: 15).

It is therefore just as well that it wouldn’t cross most teachers’ minds to even think of exploring this research.

Motivation and symbolic power

Hoorie et al (2021: 139- 142) observe that ‘giving advice to teachers has become de rigueur of late, which strikes us as antithetical to engaging in necessary critical reflection and the limits of available empirical evidence’. Teachers, they note, have to ‘make constant, split-second decisions to adapt to changing and evolving contexts. Asking teachers to learn how to teach from research findings is akin to asking an individual to learn how to drive or swim through reading books sans actual practice. Books might help in some respects, but in the end drivers and swimmers have to refine their skills through sustained practice and by trial and error due to the complex and unpredictable nature of context’.

In this light, it is hard not to view the discourse of language motivation research through the lens of ‘symbolic power’. It is hard not to reflect on the relation of research and practice in solving real-world language-related problems, to wonder whether such problem-solving has been hijacked by ‘professional experts’, and to wonder about the devaluation of the contribution of practitioners (Kramsch, 2021: 201).


Al-Hoorie, A.H. (2018) The L2 motivational self system: A meta-analysis. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 8 (4)

Al-Hoorie, A. H. & Hiver, P. (2020) The fundamental difference hypothesis: expanding the conversation in language learning motivation. SAGE Open, 10 (3)

Al-Hoorie, A.H., Hiver, P., Kim, T.Y. & De Costa, P. I. (2021) The Identity Crisis in Language Motivation Research. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 40 (1): 136 – 153

Dörnyei, Z. (2009) The L2 motivational self system. In Z. Dörnyei & E. Ushioda (Eds.) Motivation, language identity and the L2 self (pp. 9-42). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Dörnyei, Z. & Hadfield, J. (2013) Motivating Learning. Harlow: Pearson

Dörnyei, Z. & Ushioda, E. (2013) Teaching and Researching Motivation 2nd Edition. Abingdon: Routledge

Gardner, R. C. & Lambert, W. E. (1959) Motivational variables in second-language acquisition. Canadian Journal of Psychology / Revue Canadienne de Psychologie, 13 (4): 266 – 272

Henry, A., Sundqvist, P. & Thorsen, C. (2019) Motivational Practice: Insights from the Classroom. Studentlitteratur

Howard, J. L., Bureau, J. S., Guay, F., Chong, J. X. Y. & Ryan, R. M. (2021) Student Motivation and Associated Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis From Self-Determination Theory. Perspectives on Psychological Science,

Kramsch, C. (2021) Language as Symbolic Power. Cambridge: CUP

Lamb, M. (2016) Motivation. In Hall, G. (Ed.) The Routledge Handbook of English Language Teaching. Abingdon: Routledge. pp. 324 -338

Lazowski, R. & Hulleman, C. (2015) Motivation Interventions in Education: A Meta-Analytic Review. Review of Educational Research, 86 (2)

Maley, A. (2016) ‘More research is needed’ – A Mantra too Far? Humanising Language Teaching, 18 (3)

Mercer, S. & Dörnyei, Z. (2020) Engaging Language Learners in Contemporary Classrooms. Cambridge: CUP

Renandya, W.A. (2015) L2 motivation: Whose responsibility is it? English Language Teaching, 27 (4): 177-189.

Thorner, N. (2017) Motivational Teaching. Oxford: OUP

Ushioda, E. (2016) Language learning motivation through a small lens: a research agenda. Language Teaching, 49 (4): 564 – 577

When I last blogged about teacher wellbeing in August 2020, we were in the early throes of COVID, and Sarah Mercer and Tammy Gregersen had recently published their timely book about wellbeing (Mercer & Gregersen, 2020). Now, over two years later, it seems appropriate to take another look at the topic, to evaluate the status of the concept of ‘wellbeing’ in ELT.

Wellbeing as an object of study

The first thing to be said is that wellbeing is doing just fine. Since 1995, the frequency of use of ‘subjective well-being’ in books has increased by a factor of eight, and, across multiple languages, academic attention to wellbeing and related concepts like ‘happiness’ is growing (Barrington-Leigh, 2022). Interest in teacher wellbeing is no exception to this trend. There are, however, a few problems, according to a recent systematic review of the research literature (Hascher & Waber, 2021). There is, apparently, little consensus on how the term should be defined. There is little in the way of strong evidence that wellbeing correlates with good teaching, and, to my surprise, there is a lack of studies pointing to actual shortfalls in teacher wellbeing. Empirical evidence regarding the effectiveness of programmes aiming to foster teacher wellbeing is, less surprisingly, scarce.

Researchers in English language teacher wellbeing are well aware of all this and are doing their best to fill in the gaps. A ‘research group for wellbeing in language education’ has recently been formed at the University of Graz in Austria, where Sarah Mercer works. This is part of a push to promote positive psychology in language teaching publications, and the output of Sarah Mercer, Tammy Gregersen and their associates has been prodigious.

Next year will see the publication of a book-length treatment of the topic with ‘Teacher Well-Being in English Language Teaching An Ecological Approach’ (Herrera et al, 2023). It will be interesting to see to what extent teacher wellbeing is dealt with as a social or political issue, as opposed to something amenable to the interventions of positive psychology.

In the wider world of education, wellbeing is not as frequently seen through the lens of positive psychology as it is in ELT circles. Other perspectives exist: a focus on working conditions or a focus on mental health, for example (Hascher & Waber, 2021). And then there is neuroscience and wellbeing, which I am eagerly awaiting an ELT perspective on. I have learnt that certain brain patterns are related to lower well-being (in the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex/ praecuneus, and angular gyrus areas, to be gratuitously specific). Lower wellbeing correlates with patterns that are found when the brain is at wakeful rest, such as during daydreaming and mind-wandering (Bartels et al. 2022). All of which sounds, to me, like a strong argument for mindfulness practices. Keep your eye out for ELT publishers’ webinars (see below) and you’ll no doubt hear someone taking this line, along with some nice fMRI images.

Wellbeing and self-help

Academic study of wellbeing proceeds apace, but the ultimate justification for this research can only be found in its ability to help generate solutions to a real-world problem. In this sense, it is no different from the field of applied linguistics in general (from where most of the ELT wellbeing researchers come): it is its ability to solve problems which ‘alone justifies its existence in the first place’ (Widdowson, 2018: 142).

But here we run into something of a brick wall. Whilst it is generally acknowledged that improvements to teacher wellbeing require ‘structural and systemic levels of change’ and that ‘teachers should not have to compensate for fundamental flaws in the system as a whole’ (Mercer & Gregersen, 2020: 9), the ‘solutions’ that are proposed are never primarily about systems, but always about ‘me’. Take a look at any blog post on teacher wellbeing in ELT and you will see what could be called the psychologizing of the political. This process is at the heart of the positive psychology movement which so dominates the current world of wellbeing in ELT.

A look at the Teacher Wellbeing SIG of BRAZ-TESOL (on Facebook or Instagram) gives a good sample of the kind of advice that is on offer: write out a self-appreciation list, respect others, remember you are unique, be grateful, smile, develop emotional intelligence and a growth mindset, start with yourself, take care of yourself, look after your ‘authentic self’, set goals, believe that nothing is impossible, take small steps, pause and breathe, spend time with positive people, learn to say no, and so on. This advice is offered in all seriousness, but is not so very different from the kind of advice offered by @lifeadvicebot on Twitter (‘Are you struggling with the impact of sexism? Consider cultivating a sense of gratitude’ or ‘Worried about racism? Why not try stretching your back and shoulders?).

I don’t mean to suggest that mindfulness and the other nostrums on offer will be of no benefit to anybody at all, but, however well-intentioned such advice may be, it may be ‘rather better for its promoters than for its putative beneficiaries’ (Widdowson, 2021: 47). The advice is never new or original. It is rutted with the ‘grooves of borrowed thought’, lifting directly from the long tradition of self-help literature, of which it is yet another exemplar. Like all self-improvement literature, you don’t need any deep commitment to read it. Written in an accessible style (and in the case of the BRAZ-TESOL SIG in the form of illustrated inspirational quotes), there is a slight problem with all this advice. If you do decide to dive into it repeatedly, you will quickly discover ‘that it is not such a long way from surface to bottom’ (Lichterman, 1992: 427). Like all self-help literature, as Csikszentmihalyi (1990) observed on the back cover of his best-selling work, it will probably have no effect whatsoever. Whether you agree with Csikszentmihalyi or not, there is a delicious irony in the fact that this comment appeared on the back cover of his own self-help book. Like all positive psychologists, he thought he had something new and scientifically grounded to say.

There are also increasing numbers of wellbeing coaches – a thoroughly unsurprisingly development. Many of them are positive psychology adepts, some describe themselves as neuro-science based, and have a background in Neuro-Linguistic Processing. In the context of education, expect the phrase ‘life skills’ to be thrown in from time to time. See this article from Humanising Language Teaching as an example.

But self-help literature treads familiar ground. Work on the self may seem like ‘an antidote to the anxiety-provoking uncertainties of [our] economic and social order’ (McGee, 2005: 43), but it has nowhere to go and is doomed to follow its Sisyphean path. If research into teacher wellbeing in ELT cannot shake off its association with positive psychology and self-help, its justification (and interest in it) will soon slip away.

Wellbeing as a marketing tool

Wellbeing is ideally positioned as a marketing trope … as long as the connections between low wellbeing and pay / working conditions are not dwelled on. It’s a ‘new’ and ‘virtuous’ topic that sits comfortably beside inclusivity, sustainability and environmental awareness. Teaching is a caring profession: a marketing focus on wellbeing is intended to be taken as a sign that the marketers care too. They have your best interests at heart. And when the marketing comes in the form of wellbeing tips, the marketers are offering for free something which is known to be appreciated by many teachers. Some teacher wellbeing books, like the self-published ‘The Teacher’s Guide to Self-Care: Build Resilience, Avoid Burnout, and Bring a Happier and Healthier You to the Classroom’ (Forst, 2020), have sold in considerable quantities.

BETT, which organises a global series of education shows whose purpose is to market information technology in education, is a fascinating example of wellbeing marketing. The BETT shows and the website are packed with references to wellbeing, combining the use of wellbeing to market products unrelated to wellbeing, at the same time as marketing wellbeing products. Neat, eh? Most of these uses of ‘wellbeing’ are from the last couple of years. The website has a wellbeing ‘hub’. Click on an article entitled ‘Student Wellbeing Resources’ and you’ll be taken to a list of products you can buy. Other articles, like ‘Fostering well-being and engagement with Microsoft education solutions’, are clearer from the get-go.

All the major ELT publishers have jumped on the bandwagon. Some examples … Macmillan has a ‘wellness space’ (‘a curated playlist of on-demand webinars and practical resources to specifically support your well-being – and for you to return to as often as you like’). They were also ‘delighted to have championed mindfulness at the IATEFL conference this year!’ Pearson has a ‘wellbeing zone’ – ‘packed with free resources to support teachers, parents and young people with mental health and wellbeing – from advice on coping with anxiety and exam stress, to fun activities and mindfulness’. Last year, Express Publishing chose to market one of its readers with the following introductory line: ‘#Reading for pleasure improves #empathy, #socialrelationships and our general #wellbeing’. And on it goes.

Without going as far as to say that these are practices of ‘wellbeing washing’, it is only realistic, not cynical, to wonder just how seriously these organisations take questions of teacher wellbeing. There are certainly few ELT writers who feel that their publishers have the slightest concern about their wellbeing. Similarly, we might consider the British Council, which is ‘committed to supporting policymakers, school leaders and teachers in improving mental wellbeing in schools’. But less committed, it would seem, to their own teachers in Kabul or to their staff who went on strike earlier this year in protest at forced redundancies and outsourcing of jobs.

How long ‘wellbeing’ will continue to be seen as a useful marketing trope in ELT remains to be seen. It will be hard to sustain for very long, since there is so little to say about it without repetition, and since everyone is in on the game. My guess is that ‘wellbeing’ will soon be superseded by ‘sustainability’. ‘Sustainability’ is a better hooray word than ‘wellbeing’, because it combines environmental quality and wellbeing, throwing in ‘lifelong learning’ and ‘social justice’ for good measure (Kapranov, 2022). The wellbeing zones and hubs won’t need to be dismantled just yet, but there may well be a shift towards more sustainable self-care. Here are some top tips taken from How To Self-Care The Sustainable Way on the Wearth website: snooze your way to wellbeing, indulge and preen your body, grab a cuppa, slip into a warming bath, mindfully take care of your mind, retail therapy the wholesome way. All carbon-neutral, vegan and cruelty-free.


Barrington-Leigh, C. P. (2022) Trends in Conceptions of Progress and Well-being. In Helliwell, J. F., Layard, R., Sachs, J. D., De Neve, J.-E., Aknin, L. B. & Wang, S. World Happiness Report 2022.  New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Bartels, M., Nes, R. B., Armitage, J. M., van de Weijer, M. P., de Vries L. P. & Haworth, C. M. A. (2022) Exploring the Biological Basis for Happiness. In Helliwell, J. F., Layard, R., Sachs, J. D., De Neve, J.-E., Aknin, L. B. & Wang, S. World Happiness Report 2022.  New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row

Forst, S. (2020) The Teacher’s Guide to Self-Care: Build Resilience, Avoid Burnout, and Bring a Happier and Healthier You to the Classroom. The Designer Teacher, LLC

Hascher, T. & Waber, J. (2021) Teacher well-being: A systematic review of the research literature from the year 2000–2019. Educational Research Review, 34

Kapranov, O. (2022) The Discourse of Sustainability in English Language Teaching (ELT) at the University of Oxford: Analyzing Discursive Representations. Journal of Teacher Education for Sustainability, 24 (1):35-48

Pentón Herrera, L. J., Martínez-Alba, G. & Trinh, E. (Eds.) (2023) Teacher Well-Being in English Language Teaching: An Ecological Approach. Abingdon: Routledge

Lichterman, P. (1992) Self-help reading as a thin culture. Media, Culture and Society, 14: 421 – 447

McGee, M. (2005) Self-Help, Inc. Oxford: OUP

Mercer, S. & Gregersen, T. (2020) Teacher Wellbeing. Oxford: OUP

Widdowson, H. G. (2018) Applied linguistics as a transdisciplinary practice: What’s in a prefix? AILA Review, 31 (1): 135- 142

Widdowson, H. G. (2021) On the Subject of English. Berlin: De Gruyter

This post is a piece of mediation – an attempt to help you understand the concept of mediation itself. In order to mediate this concept, I am engaging in an act of linguistic mediation, helping you to understand the language of the discourse of mediation, which may, at times, seem obscure. See, for example, the last sentence in this paragraph, a sentence which should not be taken too seriously. This is also an act of cultural mediation, a bridge between you, as reader, and the micro-culture of people who write earnestly about mediation. And, finally, since one can also mediate a text for oneself, it could also be argued that I am adopting an action-oriented approach in which I am myself a social agent and a lifelong learner, using all my plurilingual resources to facilitate pluricultural space in our multidiverse society.

Mediation has become a de-jour topic since the publication of the Companion Volume of the CEFR (North et al., 2018). Since then, it has been the subject of over 20 Erasmus+ funded projects, one of which (MiLLaT, 2021), (funded to the tune of 80,672.00 € and a collaboration between universities in Poland, Czechia, Lithuania and Finland), offers a practical guide for teachers, and which I’ll draw on heavily here.

This guide describes mediation as a ‘complex matter’, but I beg to differ. The guide says that ‘mediation involves facilitating understanding and communication and collaborating to construct new meaning through languaging or plurilanguaging both on the individual and social level’. Packed as it is with jargon, I will employ three of the six key mediation strategies to make this less opaque. These are streamlining (or restructuring) text, breaking down complicated information, and adjusting language (North & Piccardo, 2016: 457). Basically, mediation simply means helping to understand, in a very wide variety of ways and in the broadest possible sense. The mediation pie is big and can be sliced up in many ways: the number of categories and sub-categories make it seem like something bigger than it is. The idea is ‘not something new or unknown’ in language teaching (MilLLaT, 2021).

What is relatively new is the language in which mediation is talked about and the way in which it is associated with other concepts, plurilingualism and pluricultural competence in particular. (Both these concepts require a separate mediating blog post to deconstruct them.) Here, though, I’ll focus briefly on the kinds of language that are used to talk about mediation. A quick glossary:

  • facilitating collaborative interaction with peers = communicative pair / group work
  • facilitating pluricultural space = texts / discussion with cultural content
  • collaborating in a group – collaborating to construct meaning = group work
  • facilitating communication in delicate situations and disagreements = more group work
  • relaying specific information in writing = writing a report
  • processing text in writing = writing a summary

See? It’s not all that complex, after all.

Neither, it must be said, is there anything new about the activities that have been proposed to promote mediation skills. MiLLaT offers 39 classroom activities, divided up into those suitable for synchronous and asynchronous classes. Some are appropriate for polysynchronous classes – which simply means a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous, in case you were wondering.

To make things clearer still, here is a selection of the activities suggested in MiLLaT. I’ll spare you the lengthy explanations of precisely which mediation skills and strategies these activities are supposed to develop.

  • Students read texts and watch videos about malaria, before working in groups to develop a strategy to eradicate malaria from a particular village.
  • Students do a jigsaw reading or video viewing, discuss the information they have come across and do a follow-up task (e.g. express their own opinions, make a presentation).
  • Students read an article / watch a video (about Easter in another country), do some ‘lexical and comprehension activities’, then post messages on a discussion forum about how they will spend Easter.
  • Students read a text about Easter in Spain from an authentic source in Spanish, complete a fill-in-the-blanks exercise using the information and practising the vocabulary they learned from the text, then describe a local event / holiday themselves.
  • Students read a text about teachers, discuss the features of good/bad educators and create a portrait of an ideal teacher.
  • Students read extracts from the CEFR, interview a teacher (in L1) about the school’s plurilingual practices, then make a presentation on the topic in L2.
  • One student shows the others some kind of visual presentation. The rest discuss it in groups, before the original student tells the others about it and leads a discussion.
  • Students analyse a text on Corporate Social Responsibility, focusing on the usage of relevant vocabulary.
  • Students working in groups ‘teach’ a topic to their group members using figures/diagrams.
  • Students read a text about inclusive writing, then identify examples of inclusive language from a ‘Politically Correct Bedtime Story’, reflect on these examples, posting their thoughts in a forum.
  • Students watch a TED talk and write down the top five areas they paid attention to when watching the talk, share a summary of their observations with the rest of their group, and give written feedback to the speaker.
  • Students read a text and watch a video about note-taking and mindmapping, before reading an academic text and rendering it as a mindmap.
  • Students explore a range of websites and apps that may be helpful for self-study.
  • Students practise modal verbs by completing a gapped transcript of an extract from ‘Schindler’s List’.
  • Students practise regular and irregular pasts by gap-filling the song ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’.
  • Students practise the present continuous by giving a running commentary on an episode of ‘Mr Bean’.

You could be forgiven for wondering what some of this has to do with mediation. Towards the end of this list, some of the examples are not terribly communicative or real-world, but they could legitimately be described as pedagogical mediation. Or ‘teaching’, for short.

Much could be said about the quality of some of the MiLLaT activities, the lack of originality, the (lack of) editing, topics that are already dated, copyright issues, and even the value of the activities. Was this really worth €80,000? However, the main point I’d like to make is that, when it comes down to classroom practicalities, you won’t find anything new. Rather than trawling through the MiLLaT documents, I’d recommend you splash out on Chiappini and Mansur’s (2021) ‘Activities for Mediation’ if you’re looking for some ready-made mediation ideas. Alternatively, take any tried and tested communicative classroom task, and describe it using some mediation jargon. If you do this, you’ll have the added bonus of practising your own mediation strategies (you could, for example, read the CEFR Companion Volume in a language other than your own, mentally translate into another language, and then amplify the text using the jargon from the CEFR CV). It will do wonders for your sociolinguistic, pragmatic, plurilingual and pluricultural competences.

Now that we have mediation etherized upon a table, there is an overwhelming question that cannot be avoided. Is the concept of mediation worth it, after all? I like the fact that mediation between two or more languages (Stathopoulou, 2015) has helped to legitimize interlingual activities in the ELT classroom, but such legitimization does not really require the notion of mediation. This is more than amply provided for by research into L1 use in L2 learning, as well as by the theoretical framework of translanguaging. But beyond that? I’m certainly not the first person to have asked the question. Bart Deygers (2019), for example, argues that the CEFR CV ‘does not truly engage with well-founded criticism’, and neither does it ‘refer to the many empirical studies that have been conducted since 2001’ that could have helped it. He refers to a ‘hermetic writing style’ and its use of ‘vague and impressionistic language’. Mediation, he argues, would be better seen ‘as a value statement rather than as a real theoretical– conceptual innovation’. From the list above of practical activities, it would be also hard to argue that there is anything innovative in its classroom implementation. Mediation advocates will respond by saying ‘that is not what we meant at all, that is not it, at all’ as they come and go, talking of North and Piccardo. Mediation may offer rich pickings for grants of various kinds, it may seem to be a compelling topic for conference presentations, training courses and publications, but I’m not convinced it has much else going for it,


Chiappini, R. & Mansur, E. (2021). Activities for Mediation. Delta Publishing: Stuttgart

Deygers, B. (2019). The CEFR Companion Volume: Between Research-Based Policy and Policy-Based Research. Applied Linguistics 2019: 0/0: 1–7

MiLLaT (Mediation in Language Learning and Teaching). (2021). Guide for Language Teachers: Traditional and Synchronous Tasks and Guide for Language Teachers: Asynchronous and Polysynchronous Tasks

North, B. & Piccardo, E. (2016). Developing illustrative descriptors of aspects of mediation for the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR): A Council of Europe Project. Language Teaching, 49 (3): 455 – 459

North, B., Goodier, T., Piccardo, E. et al. (2018). Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. Companion Volume With New Descriptors. Strasbourg: Council of Europe

Stathopoulou, M. (2015). Cross-Language Mediation in Foreign Language Teaching and Testing. Bristol: Multilingual Matters

In the campaign for leadership of the British Conservative party, prime ministerial wannabe, Rishi Sunak, announced that he wanted to phase out all university degrees with low ‘earning potential’. This would mean the end of undergraduate courses in fashion, film, philosophy, English language and media studies. And linguistics. More of an attention-grabbing soundbite than anything else, it reflects a view of education that is shared by his competitor, Liz Truss, who ‘is passionate about giving every child basic maths and science skills’ as a way of driving the contribution of education to the economy.

It’s a view that is shared these days by practically everyone with any power and influence, from national governments to organisations like the EU and the OECD (Schuller, 2000). It is rooted in the belief that what matters most in education are the teachable knowledges, skills and competences that are relevant to economic activity (as the OECD puts it). These competences are seen to be essential to economic growth and competitivity, and essential to individuals to enhance their employment potential. Learning equals earning. The way for societies to push this orientation to education is to allow market forces to respond to the presumed demands of the consumers of education (students and their sponsors), as they seek to obtain the best possible return on their investment in education. Market forces are given more power when education is privatized and uncoupled from the state. For this to happen, the market may need a little help in the form of policies from the likes of Sunak and Truss.

This set of beliefs has a name: human capital theory (Becker, 1993). Human capital refers both to the skills that individuals ‘bring to bear in the economy and the need for capital investment in these’ (Holborow, 2012). It is impossible to overstate just how pervasive this theory in contemporary approaches to education is. See, for example, this selection of articles from Science Direct. It is also very easy to forget how recently the lens of human capital has become practically the only lens through which education is viewed.

Contemporary language teaching is perhaps best understood as a series of initiatives that have been driven by human capital theory. First and foremost, there is the global ‘frenzied rush towards acquiring English’ (Holborow, 2018), driven both by governments and by individuals who see that foreign language competence (especially English) ‘might […]open up new opportunities for students [and] assist them in breaking social barriers’ (Kormos & Kiddle, 2013). Children, at ever younger ages (even pre-school), are pushed towards getting a headstart in the race to acquire human capital, whilst there has been an explosive growth in EMI courses (Lasagabaster, 2022). At the same time, there has been mushrooming interest in so-called 21st century skills (or ‘life skills’ / ‘global skills’) in the English language curriculum. These skills have been identified by asking employers what skills matter most to them when recruiting staff. Critical and creative thinking skills may be seen as having pre-Human Capital, intrinsic educational worth, but it is their potential contribution to economic productivity that explains their general current acceptance.

Investments in human capital need to be measured and measurable. Language teaching needs to be made accountable. Our preoccupation with learning outcomes is seen in the endless number of competency frameworks, and with new tools for quantifying language proficiency. Technology facilitates this evaluation, promises to deliver language teaching more efficiently, and technological skills are, after English language skills themselves, seen to be the most bankable of 21st century skills. Current interest in social-emotional learning – growth mindsets, grit, resilience and so on – is also driven by a concern to make learning more efficient.

In all of these aspects of language teaching / learning, the private sector (often in private-public partnerships) is very visible. This is by design. Supported by the state, the market economy of education grows in tandem with the rising influence of the private sector on national educational policy. When education ministers lose their job, they can easily find well-paid consultancies in the private sector (as in the case of Sunak and Truss’s colleague, Gavin Williamson).

One of the powers of market-economy ideologies is that it often seems that ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA). There are, however, good reasons to try to think in alternative terms. To begin with, and limiting ourselves for the moment to language teaching, there is a desperate lack of evidence that starting English language learning at very young ages (in the way that is most typically done) will lead to any appreciable gains in the human capital race. It is generally recognised that EMI is highly problematic in a variety of ways (Lasagabaster, 2022). The focus on 21st century skills has not led to any significant growth in learning outcomes when these skills are measured. There is a worrying lack of evidence that interventions in schools to promote improvements in critical or creative thinking have had much, if any, impact at all. Similarly, there is a worrying lack of evidence that attention to growth mindsets or grit has led to very much at all. Personalized learning, facilitated by technology, likewise has a dismal track record. At the same time, there is no evidence that the interest in measuring learning outcomes has led to any improvement in those outcomes. For all the millions and millions that have been invested in all these trends, the returns have been very slim. Perhaps we would have done better to look for solutions to those aspects of language teaching which we know to be problematic. The obsession with synthetic syllabuses delivered by coursebooks (or their online equivalents) comes to mind.

But beyond the failure of all these things to deliver on their promises, there are broader issues. Although language skills (usually English) have the potential to enhance employment prospects, Holborow (2018) has noted that they do not necessarily do so (see, for example, Yeung & Gray, 2022). Precisely how important language skills are is very hard to determine. A 2016 survey by Cambridge English found that ‘approximately half of all employers offer a better starting package to applicants with good English language skills’ and a similar number indicate that these skills result in faster career progression. But these numbers need to be treated with caution, not least because Cambridge English is in the business of selling English. More importantly, it seems highly unlikely that the figures that are reported reflect the reality of job markets around the world. The survey observes that banking, finance and law are the sectors with the greatest need for such skills, but these are all usually graduate posts. An average of 39% of the population in OECD countries has tertiary education; the percentage is much lower elsewhere. How many students of a given age cohort will actually work in these sectors? Even in rich countries, like Germany and the Netherlands, between 40 and 60% of workers are employed in what is termed ‘nonstandard forms of work’ (OECD, 2015) where language skills will count for little or nothing. These numbers are growing. Language skills are of most value to those students who are already relatively advantaged. That is not to say that there are no potential benefits to everyone in learning English, but these benefits will not be found in better jobs and wages for the majority. One interesting case study describes how a Swiss airport company exploits the language skills of migrant workers, without any benefits (salary or mobility) accruing to the workers themselves (Duchêne, 2011).

The relationship between learning English and earning more is a lot more complex than is usually presented. The same holds true for learning more generally. In the US, ‘nearly two-thirds of job openings in 2020 required no more than a high school diploma’ (Brown et al., 2022: 222). Earnings for graduates in real terms are in decline, except for those at the very top. For the rest, over $1.3 trillion in student loan debt remains unpaid. Elsewhere in the world, the picture is more mixed, but it is clear that learning does not equal earning in the global gig economy.

This evident uncoupling of learning from earning has led some to conclude that education is ‘a waste of time and money’ (Caplan, 2018), a view that has been gaining traction in the US. It’s not an entirely unreasonable view, if the only reason for education is seen to be its contribution to the economy. More commonly, the reaction has been to double-down on human capital theory. In Spain, for example, with its high levels of youth unemployment, there are calls for closer links between educational institutions, and graduates themselves are blamed for failing to take ‘advantage of the upgrading in the demand for skills’ (Bentolilla et al., 2022). This seems almost wilfully cruel, especially since the authors note that there is global trend in falling economic returns in tertiary education (ILO, 2020).

But, rather than doubling-down on human capital theory (e.g. more vocational training, more efficient delivery of the training), it might be a good idea to question human capital theory itself. Both early and more recent critics have tended to accept without hesitation that education can enhance worker productivity, but argue that, as a theory, it is too simplistic to have much explanatory power, and that the supporting evidence is weak, vague or untestable (Bowles & Gintis, 1975; Fix, 2018). Language skills, like education more generally, do not always lead to better employment prospects and salaries, because ‘wider, systemic social inequalities come into play’ (Holborow, 2018). It is not because black women need to brush up on their 21st century skills that they earn less than white men.

Until recently, critics of human capital theory have been a minority, and largely unheard, voice. But this appear to be changing. The World Bank, more guilty than anyone for pushing human capital theory on the global stage (see here), has recognised that hoped-for job outcomes do not always materialize after massive investments in training systems (World Bank, 2013). Mainstream critics include the Nobel prize winners Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, and the recent OUP title, ‘The Death of Human Capital?’ (Brown et al., 2020) is likely to spur debate further. The assumption that human capital theory holds water no longer holds water.

When we turn back to English language teaching, we might benefit from some new thinking. For sure, there will be large numbers of English language learners whose only purpose in studying is utilitarian, whose primary desire is to enhance their human capital. But there are also millions, especially children studying in public schools, for whom things are rather different. A major change in thinking involves a reconceptualization of the point of all this English study. If learning English is not, for the majority, seen primarily as a preparation for the workplace, but as compensation for the realities of (un)employment (Brown et al., 2020: 13), most of the recent innovations in ELT would become highly suspect. We would have a much less impoverished view of ‘the complex and multifaceted nature of language’ (Holborow, 2018) and we would find more space for plurilingual practices. A brake on relentless Englishization might be no bad thing (Wilkinson & Gabriëls, 2021). We might be able to explore more fully artistic and creative uses of language. Who knows? We might finally get round to wider implementation of language teaching approaches that we know have a decent chance of success.


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Bentolila, S., Felgueroso, F., Jansen, M. et al. (2022). Lost in recessions: youth employment and earnings in Spain. SERIEs 13: 11–49.

Bowles, S. & Gintis, H. (1975). The Problem with Human Capital Theory – a Marxian critique. The American Economic Review, 65 (2): 74 – 83

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Yeung, S. & Gray, J. (2022). Neoliberalism, English, and spoiled identity: The case of a high-achieving university graduate in Hong Kong. Language in Society, First View, pp. 1 – 22