Six highly provocative quotes in ELT

In ELT, as in everything, if you want to get attention then make a controversial statement about it and kick up a fuss. Every once in awhile someone comes along and writes something that causes alarm, worry, anger or secret delight. These quotes provide fertile material as a starting point for discussion (especially in teacher education programmes) or just as food for thought. Here are six that I consider among my favourites of recent years.

1. Jenny Jenkins  “There is really no justification for doggedly persisting in referring to an item as ‘an error’ if the vast majority of the world’s L2 English speakers produce and understand it.” The Phonology of English as an International Language (Oxford University Press, 2000)

The sentence that launched a thousand MA and Diploma papers on English as a Lingua Franca (or at least I suspect so, I’ve marked a fair few myself!). The whole ELF debate seems to have calmed down a little recently, but certainly had tempers flaring at conferences. What’s correct anymore? What is an error? Is it anything goes? What place is left for the native English speaker teacher? The choice of the words “doggedly persisting” is what really stings here.

2- Scott Thornbury “Where is real communication? More often than not it is buried under an avalanche of photocopies, visual aids, transparencies, MTV clips and cuisninnaire rods. Somewhere in there we lost the plot.” A Dogma for ELT IATEFL Voices (2000).

Thornbury takes a Vow of (materials) Chastity and kick starts Dogme ELT. Firing this and other broadsides against modern coursebooks wins him no friends in the world of ELT coursebook publishing but it does garner lots of followers and fans online. Have things changed since this quote? Well, MTV hardly does music clips anymore and I haven’t seen cuisinnaire rods for ages, but otherwise I fear that Thornbury’s concern is equally valid today.

3. Mario Rinvolucri “Ambition, rage, jealousy, betrayal, destiny, greed, fear and the other Shakespearean themes are far from the soft, fudgey sub-journalistic, woman’s magaziney world of EFLese course materials.” The UK, EFLese Sub-Culture and Dialect on TEFL Farm, 1999

If Thornbury’s Vow of Chastity wasn’t provocative enough, then here Mario Rinvolucri really takes the gloves off. In a highly provocative article Rinvolucri attacks the UK EFLese subculture which includes people who are “university educated (…), white, class B (in the old system), and largely Guardian-reading.” Ouch! Say what you want about Mario, but the man has a gift with words. The TEFL Farm site was a bit… weird I thought but it had this article and, even better, the replies to it. Thornbury contributed in with “Cross Dressing and Window Dressing in the EFL sub culture” before Michael Swan and Catherine Walter weighed in with a stinging response entitled “Come off it Mario”. Fantastic reading, a real shame it’s no longer easily available online. Try Googling any one of those titles though and you should find a record somewhere. 

4. Rose Senior – “The low status of teaching in general, and of English language teaching in particular, coupled with the ease with which people can train as teachers and find jobs, is reflected in the ongoing debate about whether or not English language teaching can be described as a profession. The overwhelming consensus of opinion is that it cannot.” The Experience of Language Teaching Cambridge University Press 2006

So, there you have it. Rose Senior goes over some hard truths for language teachers but also celebrates all the great things about this profession – ahem I mean vocation. Alex Case suggested this could be the TEFL book of the decade. I found this particular quote attracted my attention (not least because she follows it with “see Clandfield and Kerr for a discussion of this issue”, a version of this discussion you can see here)

5. Robert Phillipson“…Fragmentation and marginalization are two of the four central processes in imperlialism, along with exploitation and penetration. ELT fits into the overall pattern of imperialism in every respect.” Linguistic Imperialism, Oxford University Press 1992

My parents gave me Linguistic Imperialism while I was working at a university in Mexico, two years after I had started my teaching career. When I finished it I almost chucked in the whole teaching thing right then and there. I spent several anguished nights of tequila and tobacco fuelled self-loathing (you see, I am one of those class B Guardian readers Mario talked about). This book has been heavily criticised since its original appearance, and even critical discourse analysis academics have taken issue with it. But it still makes for provocative reading and you will never see the British Council quite in the same way again. I decided to stay with English teaching though. Even worse, I wrote an international coursebook – cementing my part in the imperialist “master plan”.

David Graddol – “Although EFL has become technologised, and has been transformed over the years by communicative methods, these have led only to a modest improvement in attainment by learners. The model, in the totality of its pedagogic practices, may even have historically evolved to produce perceived failure.” English Next, British Council 2006.

It turns out that all my anxiety about coursebooks, about converting the world to English was unfounded! At best we have made merely a “modest” impact. This little book, available free online here, was most provocative when not only did it suggest that EFL was a failure but that by the year 2050 it would no longer exist as most of the world would already be speaking English. Anyone EFL teacher reading it, or attending one of Graddol’s powerpoint-rich talks was left with a very uneasy feeling about the future. If you’re like me, you did a rapid mental calculation of your age in 2050 and came to the conclusion that you would either be dead or very close to dead so perhaps it doesn’t matter. And besides, by 2050 there will be no more oil or clean water and we will be 10 billion crammed together on this planet. EFL might very well be the least of our worries.

Does anyone else want to contribute a published quote they found provocative? No rude comments or quotes please!

Published in: on April 24, 2009 at 5:22 pm  Comments (26)  
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  1. A caveat: I have to confess here that I deliberately left out the blogosphere and restricted myself to print media (with the exception of Mario in TEFL Farm). There is no shortage of provocative ELT stuff online, that’s for sure. The now defunct Englishdroid would be one such site, and I’d also give a nod to the TEFL Tradesman as a top provocateur…
    But as for quotes, I’m sticking to printed stuff, that might get “cited”.

  2. “So-called native speakers are non-native in many contexts and all speakers are…in a permanent state of learning.” (Michael Hoey in ‘Lexical Priming’; Routledge 2005)

    Is this provocative? Perhaps not, as I haven’t yet come across anyone who disputes it. Also, to me at least it now seems blindingly obvious, but I suppose that’s true of all great insights. In any case, it (and the theory associated with it) has profoundly affected how I think of language and language teaching, which I think makes it worth posting here!

    • Nice quote! I think your explanation makes the case for it being provocative… it certainly provoked you to post it. Thanks!

    • Mark, you say that you haven’t come across anybody who disputes the tosh spouted by Michael Hoey, but … maybe that’s because you have not come across anybody who actually understands it!?

      What does all that mean – “native speakers are non-native in many contexts”? Example please?! How can an NS become a … Non-NS?

      As for “all speakers are … in a permanent state of learning” – what does that really mean, and how does it affect us as EFL teachers? Does it even matter to us in the slightest?

      Just tell my Mum, who’s 86, that she’s still in a state of learning, and has been for the past 86 years, and I suspect you’ll get a truly NS comment in return (monosyllabic, of course).

      • To be fair to Hoey, his is a theory of language not language teaching, but I think there are clear(ish) implications for what we do in the classroom. I think his point is that every time we consciously encounter written or spoken English our personal picture of the language changes to some degree, and that this is true whether we are ‘native’ or ‘non-native’ speakers, 16 or 86. A crude example would be the fact that I have ‘learnt’ the phrase ‘credit crunch’ within the last 18 months or so, and the phrase ‘quantitative easing’ more recently still. Hoey isn’t disputing the fact that English is our first language, our mother tongue whereas for our students it isn’t. What he’s saying is that as long as we are aware of the language we encounter we are all ‘learning’ the language from the day we are born until the day we die, which stands to reason if we accept that the language itself is evolving all the time. As L1 speakers our knowledge of English is rooted in a much more complex, and more advanced, network of linguistic primings than is that of our students, which is what gives us the authority to teach them.

        Hoey’s theory has mattered to me because it has made me see myself not so much as a vehicle for imparting information about the language to my students but rather as a member of an expedition party of which my students are also members. My status of ‘mother-tongue speaker’ entitles me to be the leader of the expedition, and whilst I use my knowledge and experience to direct and guide my students as they make their own discoveries about the language, I am also constantly making discoveries of my own. It’s made me more confident as a teacher because I no longer feel I should be expected to have all the answers. Some of them, yes, but not all of them!

      • Why not read the book?

        It does make sense.

        And of course, aging brings lots of learning.


  3. Mmm, and how many of those people mentioned above, the Tefl gurus, have to teach the language day in, day out, to the hordes of people who want to learn English? How relevant are their pseudo-academic and pseudo-intellectual posturings to the every day life of the average guy or gal who just wants to get on with the job of teaching EFL? Answers on the back of a postage stamp, please…

    It might strike some of the posers above as strange, assuming they have never considered it, but there have been people keen on learning (and teaching) languages for centuries, and no amount of dissing of the subject will put them off – not even mad Jenny telling us off for telling our students off, or trendy Dave (who had rather bad breath when I questioned him after one of his lectures a year or so back – what HAD he been up to the night before?!) and his forecasts (i.e., fortune-telling).

    At least Scott and Rose retain the true perspective of the classroom practitioner, and have provided Teflers with something useful over the years – the rest of ’em can go scratch my butt, for all their self-congratulatory and preening witterings are worth!

    • I’ve always wondered that myself, meaning…where do these people live and work? The vast majority seem to limit themselves to workshops among ELT teachers and think that if it flies there it will fly anywhere. I remember once using an elementary course book in Yemen where one of the first 50 words they were introduced to was….Skiing!

      Too true that Scott seems to be one of the only ones who actually works for a living…though with all his writing I wonder where he finds the time.

    • What is pseudo-academic about Hoey’s work?

      I guess he makes a living as most of us–producing value for society. Hoey’s work, if we ever get to pay attention to it, might revolutionize ELT.
      Discourse analysis and especially corpus linguistics, which informed Lexial Priming 100%, is almost pure empirical science.

      Thornbury’s reference to Lewis (Natural Grammar) who has included Hoey (Teaching Collocation) should caution us to think that teaching practice can be happily ignorant of theory. And as unplugged as Thornbury comes across, he is certainly not un-theoried (Conversation: From Description to Pedagogy).

      In fact, I have been arguing the point in my work environment that we have a lot of pseudo-teaching going on in classrooms precisely because we are not fully aware of Hoey’s findings. Students are kept busy with nice activities (edutainment: a word that makes my fingernails curl), but they are not learning (acquiring, remembering, storing, recalling, automatizing> priming)language.



  4. ..we are much less original in using language than we like to believe. Much of what we say, and a significant proportion of what we write, consists of prefabricated multi-word items.’

    Michael Lewis – Implementing the Lexical Approach 1997

    I think that this was pretty provocative when it first came out. I read it at the time when I was splitting up with my first wife, and re-evaluating my relationships. This book forced me to totaly re-evaluate my relationship with grammar and vocabulary in the classroom.

  5. Some more Lewis-isms for Nick (from The Lexical Approach, 1993)

    “The fact is the PPP paradigm is, and always was, nonsense” (p. 11).

    “Grammar is not the basis of language acquisition, and the balance of linguistic research clearly invalidates any view to the contrary” (p. 133).

    “I am dismissive of, and regard as fundamentally theoretically unsound, much that currently passes for grammar practice” (p. 162).

    (Hope these don’t trigger another marital breakdown, Nick!)

    • And I love them all.

      (on your own quote, has Marshall McLuhan’s idea of the “media being the message” come to mind? Also, Neil Postman and Amusing Ourselves to Death on degeneration of public discourse?…25 years after publication I attended a workshop, today 08.2010, on using cell phones in the classroom to engage student interest. Topic to be addressed: poetry!)


  6. Very nice list Lindsay, I might have to start calling you the wonderful walking quotapedia from now on -though Scott does have you beat.

    Everywhere you go in weblandia he’s able to list off who said what -and they’re always perfectly fitting.

    How are you doing this Scott, are you referencing them and storing them in an excel spreadsheet, with tabbing? Curious as all get-out.

    Now, Mario. I think I’ll just go and get married to him. I’ve hated textbooks with a bit of passion for a while now, keep asking myself why can’t they be “real.” (Sorry, Lindsay, Straightforward is good). Wonder if the old guy still has the energy to keep up with me.

    Too right re Graddol, that’s exactly what I did – checked the math, figured I’ll have a job ’til the end of my days.

    Because, actually, don’t really agree with Graddol anyway – he’s not taking into account that English is not math and formulas, it’s music and if it’s not practiced regularly the ability dies – they’ll still be needing English teachers to do this (er, because Jenkins doesn’t take into account that our learners prides would prefer them not to be making errors that their counterparts can hear – yes, errors) and so er…ummm… English Conversation teachers like me are good for a while yet.


    • Coming back to mad Jenny, I s’pose if half the world’s learners chose to spell English words differently (I guess I mustn’t say ‘incorrectly), then that’s OK too? Why does she have this mad fixation with numbers – does the majority always have to be right? Could it possibly be that an informed and educated minority (=elite!) know better?!

  7. Btw, Lindsay, I haven’t seen cuisinnaire rods much either, although I’ve seen a few cuisenaire ones in my time. 😉

    • I think this editing thing has gone to his head!
      What ever happened to creative spelling?

      • Oh dear Scott, you’ve walked right into this one. The spelling of cuisinnaire rods also struck me as strange, but I direct you to You will find the original quote from your article of almost ten years ago… HAS THE SAME SPELLING. I suppose I should have put (sic) next to your original quote.
        Don’t worry though Scott, these things happen to the best of us. 😉

  8. Oops! Hoist by my own cuisenaire rod! Oh well, as Oscar Wilde might have said, better to be misspelt than not spelt at all!

  9. I remember reading Linguistic Imperialism as well before setting out on my TEFLy adventure…sure did come as a shock to my left-wing-Latin-American literature-lovin’ self…then the self-loathing fades into a more pragmatic, semi-numb complacency, or something.

    I reckon it’s better for people to go ahead and get used to the idea of the power structure implicit in teaching English in many sociopolitical contexts by reading about it, rather than have it sneak up and slap them in the face without them being ready to deal with it.

    • I hear you compañero!

      • Well, we can always justify it by blithely stating that “we wuz just obeyin’ orders, matey” – or summat like that.

      • From a review of LI on Amazon:

        While Phillipson [the author] raises many interesting points (the fallacies of ELT among them) his overall thesis has to be rejected on the following grounds (toname but a few):* on its in-built power asymmetry, that is that the devloping countries are seen as being incapable of independent decisions. * the fact that linguistic imperialism is not falsifiable: there is no scenario where Phillipson would admit that English DOES fulfill a useful role in a third world country.* Phillipson’s left-wing terminology and tone: imperialism itself is a left-wing term.* a country’s linguistic ecology is too complex to fit into Phillipson’s neat “black and white” scenario. Phillipon’s book can thus be only a start for a discussion on global English. For further reading I recommend Kachru’s “The Alchemy of English”, Crystals “English as an International Language” (critical reading necessary) and Pennycook’s “The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language.”

      • I think you’re right on many of those points there Sandy, in fact it was only reading some other progressive critiques of Phillipson that I realised myself some of those fallacies. I had been initially seduced by the book’s premise and his style of argument. I recommend Controversies in Applied Linguistics (which I want to use for a list one day…) for more on Phillipson and his critics. And yes, I also agree wholeheartedly with you about the other reading you suggest.

  10. EEEK! And I thought the most provocative thing I had ever read regarding TEFL was from Lewis when he says,airily in his amazing, The English Verb, “…English verbs have only two tenses”. On closer scrutiny and some rather more analytical thought than the blind nodding that indicates unquestioning acceptance, of course, he is right. But try telling that to a bunch of newly CELTA’d bright eyes and you have your work cut out for you!

  11. […] Six highly provocative quotes in ELT […]

  12. […] Six highly provocative quotes in ELT. Seeking a topic for an MA thesis? Seek no further! Any one of these would serve as a great […]

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