Six rumours and conspiracy theories in ELT

Who knows the deep dark secrets of ELT? Six Things Knows!

If you stay in the world of English language teaching long enough, especially if you move from job to job (all too common for many language teachers!), there is a strong likelihood you will come across certain rumours. Whispers in the staffroom, an overheard remark at a conference, or a moment in a teacher training course when the tutor drops his/her voice to let you in on a secret… here are six rumours or conspiracy theories I am convinced are making the rounds worldwide. I hasten to add that many of these may have an element of truth! At the end of each of these I have put my own reliabity factor based on my extensive experience in the field ;-). The reliability factors go from 5 (highly reliable and almost certainly true) to 1 (very unreliable rumour, almost certainly false) 

1. Anybody who has written a book in ELT, especially if it’s a coursebook, is rolling in money. This is a harmless little rumour which often has authors of said books uttering a hollow laugh (so as not to cry…). Not to say they are all broke, but the number of “filthy rich” authors of coursebooks and especially books for teachers is much lower than you think. Where does this rumour come from? See number 2 below for an idea. 

Reliability factor: 1

2. The authors of Headway own an island in the tropics. All the rumours about money from coursebooks lead right back to two main titles: either Headway by the Soars or Interchange by Jack Richards. These authors almost certainly are… well let’s just say well-off.  I’ve heard the island rumour about all of these authors. Is it true? Has anyone actually seen one of these islands? I don’t know. 

Reliability factor: 3

3. There is a “split-tongue” operation that Korean parents force their children to undergo so that they (the children) may speak English better.This is one of the more gruesome rumours in our field. Apparently the operation helps Korean children pronounce the “th” sound in “mother” for example. OK, I’ve never met one of these people but I have read and heard this rumour enough times to believe that there is more than a grain of truth to it.

Reliability factor: 5 (pretty scary)

4. The popularity of the English Language worldwide was a secret plan crafted by the British government after World War II to replace the English Empire with “the Empire of English”. This is great material for the conspiracy theorist inside every young liberal teacher because the more you think about it the more you can believe it is true. Want quotes and anecdotes from history to back it up? Just read Robert Phillipson’s Linguistic Imperialism and you will be convinced! Unfortunately, hegemony isn’t as simple and cut-and-dried as that. There are lots of factors accounting for the position of English.

Reliability factor: 3 

5. There are people who are spreading the Gospel and forms of Christianity through English language teaching. I overheard this one at a conference and then found out more on the web. Apparently, religious groups are using English as the bait to lure students into their schools. This practice has become so widespread that it has its own acronym in the profession: TEML (Teaching English as a Missionary Language). For any of you aspiring novelists out there, there is certainly a story in here somewhere (a “Da Vinci Code” for English grammar?)

Reliability factor: 5 (also pretty scary)

6. There have been experiments conducted on a language learner’s fluency under the influence of alcohol. This is a favourite among teacher trainers when doing sessions on things like “factors influencing fluency in spoken output”. Apparently it was found that after a few glasses of champagne, fluency increased without a decrease in accuracy. Accuracy dropped with further glasses of bubbly. 

Reliability factor: 4 (only doubtful thing is if it was champagne or another kind of alcohol; I’m pretty sure this is true though)

You are of course welcome to comment here on your own views of the reliability of these or any other conspiracy theories or rumours. However, I warn you, no libellious comments please! 

Published in: on May 21, 2009 at 2:17 pm  Comments (36)  
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  1. Thanks for the interesting posting. I have a comment on #3. I am a Korean teacher of English. I also remember hearing one friend say that some Korean parents did the surgery. At that time, I was shocked. But…. I have never seen in person any student who got the operation. Maybe, they don’t tell others about their operation. As a Korean I think I heard the new only once, and it was several years ago. For the last 4-5 years, I have never heard the same news again.

  2. RE: #5. While I’ll admit some evangelists can be a bit offputting, I wonder why you’d classify churches offering ESL classes as “scary.” What about soup kitchens and hospices? Are those necessarily scary just because there is a not-so-hidden motive of spreading a message one finds particularly inspiring? Personally, I’d be more worried about nation-based language schools (e.g. the imperialism implicit in the British Council, and no doubt equivalent US organizations). And what about “Business English”? Why should we overlook schools who offer classes with a view to promoting an alienating capitalist mode of production and the exploitation of global labour movement? (Just being polemical there). Also, Language is not merely a tool, but a core element of culture, and for many many people worldwide, religion is a very important part of their culture. In spite of the space restrictions of your blog, I think a bit more nuance is required. You’re practically equating offering language classes with a Christian bias with offering candy to children from your car! I know, I know: there are/have been some pervy priests, but let’s not paint everyone with the same brush.

    • Fair enough, Jonathan. Just goes to show my secular bias perhaps. However, what makes it “scary” is that the agenda is not “not-so-hidden”. In other words, it is covert. There is a short article here by someone sympathetic to faith schools who also finds it disturbing.

      • Just noticed that Troy, below, seems to have seen this more first-hand. See his reply for another associated problem with TEML… the undercutting of other teachers through cheap rates (or free, in some cases).

    • Missionaries posing as teachers are more than ‘offputting’, they are downright dangerous. By hiding their real intentions they put other well meaning teachers at risk in countries where the locals might not take so kindly to being told that their God isn’t as great as the Christian deity.

      Unfortunately a fundamentalist whackjob isn’t going to ask questions when walking into an English academy with a Kalashnikov. They indeed will ‘paint everyone with the same brush’ and this directly affects those who might not share the peculiar delight at being martyred expounding their faith. With this in mind, I would go further than equating it with offering candy from a car.

      Business English classes and schools that offer them do not hide what they are teaching. Like the ideology or not, there is no obfuscating what is happening in the class.

      The deception and the need to do so is scary in my books.

      And what about soup kitchens and hospices? What do these have to do with language teaching?

      If the message is so inspiring, why the need to cloak it?

  3. Ah, but there’s a seventh one, and it’s particularly dastardly (as all seventh ones tend to be). However, I’m keeping it STRICTLY to myself.

    Well, I just might share it with a large bottle of Jamiesons…

  4. TEML…now that is brilliant! You do give it a 5, but I can also testify that it is absolutely true. I’ve seen it in the strangest of places…Yemen…Libya…Jehovahs in Azerbaijan, Korean Christians in Laos.

    Now that most countries have stopped the ‘ol missionary visa and are only accepting non-proselytizing NGO’s,the faithful are flooding in through the TEFL gates. A real pet peeve of mine.

    Not only does it make it more dangerous for those of us there to only teach English, but their more-often-than-not free (or very cheap) classes also undercut well trained local teachers.

    • Free lessons: I have this issue to deal with right here in the United States, but it’s not just churches. In addition to churches offering free ESL classes, the county also does, as well as some educational institutions. The churches and county use volunteers. Some may be ESL trained, but others are not. It’s hard to compete against free, so I really have to emphasize quality.

  5. In reference to Point 2:
    I hear Raymond Murphy has become a multimillionaire. Is it true?

  6. I heard that everyone involved in Straightforward got given a Baby Bentley

    • Damn! The secret is out. Yes, it was a baby bentley… mine was a black one. Really cool. It’s on my desk next to my model Dalek. 🙂

      • Maybe I should give up TEFL and become a straight man

  7. I met Jack Richards once at a conference in Ecuador and he wasn’t wearing Gucci or Armani, as you’d expect, he was also quite warm and funny & not at all arrogant… which made me slightly doubt whether or not he was a multi-millionaire. LOL.

    I think we also tend to forget that textbooks prices do fluctuate depending on where in the world the book is selling and thus, so does the author’s fees (or is that a rumor too, L?)

    If anyone’s raking in the cash in this business it’s probably the owners of the ELT publishing houses.

    And speaking of rumors, no doubt unfounded, have heard that one of the big 5 in ELT leads on backwards through the paper trail to Murdoch…

  8. I don’t know about other countries but here, in Russia, Murphy’s books are something of English Grammar Bibles. They are sold at the rate of hundreds per day notwithstanding the fact that they are rather expensive.

  9. There must be a possible conspiracy theory about Onestopblogs, surely, publishers trying to control us or something…

    TEFLtastic blog-

    • I received in the post, the other day, a little computer microchip from Onestopblogs. They have asked me to insert it underneath the skin in the back of my neck and assure me that it will help me get more hits and become part of the new Onestopmatrix project. Have you had yours yet Alex?

      • Not that I remember, but maybe it wasn’t the San Miguel that was responsible for that gap in Saturday night…

      • All true.
        I also heard that Alex Case has had to employ an army of ghostwriters in a Korean ELT sweatshop in order to keep up the breathtaking pace of his blog. This is the real reason why ELT teachers are so poor. Apparently, Nik Peachey has the unit nextdoor.

      • Well, if the Simpsons can do it, why shouldn’t we? Just remembered that one of my underlings had a go at a TEFL conspiracy theory a while ago:

  10. As this blog entry demonstrates, scepticism remains the good friend of sane English teachers. Remember extraordinary claims require exceptional amounts of proof. Occam’s razor remains as sharp in the 21st century as ever.

  11. #4
    i recommend you to read about American public diplomacy documants about this item. What philipson wrote might seem quite reasonable then!!

  12. As an American, I deplore the surreptitious use of the English language by “Christians” to draw “sinners” into their frivolous fold. Worst yet, I find it appalling that many Christian organizations won’t feed a hungry or starving person, unless those unfortunates are willing to remit their souls!

    • Really, “many” Christian organizations won’t feed a hungry or starving person, unless they convert? I have never heard of such a thing. I have heard of Muslim groups doing this, but not Christian.

  13. Regarding #3, “split-tongue” isn’t the best way to describe it. It’s a tongue lengthening procedure. The belief is that the Korean (or Chinese in the below link) tongue is too short to pronounce the English language like speakers in countries such as the US, Canada, and UK. Therefore, they opt for snipping the muscle under the tongue, which allows it to protrude a couple mm extra. Of course, proponents of this surgery ignore the fact that millions of ethnic east Asians raised in English speaking countries sound just like everyone else around them.

    This is not to say that there might not be some benefits of the surgery, but I’ve never seen any research done on it. I doubt that there is any research. I can see a possibility some gains could be achieve based on either a placebo effect (increased confidence, reduced anxiety) or even the fact the the surgery would require a period of muscle retraining, which is really what is needed in the first place.

    Some articles on the topic:
    (1) Chinese find learning English a snip
    (2) Seoul tries to shock parents out of linguistic surgery

    As you’ll notice from the dates of these articles, this seems to have subsided in the last 5 years….either that or nobody is reporting on it. Possibly just another in a long line of fads.

  14. Alcohol in SLA? Shure – it worksh, too (hic). See the research that Alexander Guiora did in the early 70s. Pretty logical, if you start with the effects of inhibition on WTC and carry on from there… It is said that Guiora wanted to involve barbiturates in the study too, but was prevented.

  15. #5 (not exactly, though): A few years ago I had a student who had started learning English at a language school but she found it a bit strange. As it turned out, the school was run by the Church of Scientology and the “teachers” were members too. Of course, this was not at all made clear to the students, though they didn’t deny it when she asked them. Now this *is* scary.

  16. […] Six rumours and conspiracy theories in ELT […]

  17. In fact, Guiora *did* do a study with pronunciation and Valium:

  18. What a great post!

    Rumour number 1: Definitely not true (repeating that hollow little laugh you very accurately mentioned).

    Rumour number 3: Definitely true, but no longer popular (it was isolated to the rich suburb of Kangnam in Seoul, already a popular place for plastic surgeries of all kinds). There was a huge uproar over it in the media in Korea) – though just because you don’t meet students who admit to this crime doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. A massive number of Korean girls get an eyelid cut to open their eyes and make them look larger, but you won’t often see clear evidence of it and hardly any women will want to admit it to you directly.

    Rumour Number 5: Definitely true, saw direct evidence of it in Korea numerous times – even missionaries in shopping centres directly offering “English lessons from the Lord”. A bit scary sometimes.

    Rumour Number 6: I hope it’s true, because I have a huge stack of anecdotal case studies to add and help triangulate their data.

    ~ Jason

    • Hi Jason
      Thanks for coming along, and a big thanks for backing up and clarifying some of these rumours. I had heard so much about number 3, interesting to know this dihappen. As for number six and your anecdotal evidence, I would have to “see it for my own eyes” :-). Maybe even take part in such experiments myself? First round is on me…

  19. Mr Clandfield!

    You are hilarious!:)

    I love reading your posts and keep coming back for more!

    Thank you for writing about the conspiracy theories. I’ve always had similar feelings about the authors of Headway 🙂
    And yes, the missionaries are out there! Had a chance to meet two of them a few years ago in Poland and it was scary!

    Off the record, thanks for inspiring me to start a blog back in Budapest. I really hope I’ll have a chance to listen to you again 🙂

    Greetings from Istanbul,


    • Why thank you very much! You’re always welcome here. Hopefully next year I’ll be making a trip to Istanbul for a conference, so perhaps will see you there. Meanwhile, good luck in blogging!

  20. Sorry folks, but it’s Betty Azar who owns [edit: lives on] an island off the northwest coast of the US.

    Re: one of the big 5 owned by Rupert–unless he’s got a majority in one of two private equity firms (one of us was sold in 2007) that one’s not true. That would be more than a little amusing.

    • Really? Amazing how well grammar books can do. When I lived in Canada we all swore by Betty Azar. I knew her books before Murphy.

  21. hello,
    I’ve heard of the one about the islands and i really think they are just made up .
    As for the one about champagne and alcohol, reading your article makes me feel that what you think is the same as what I think !!
    But I am thinking, how d’you get 6 rumors ?
    I’ve heard of few !?

  22. […] in the very same discussion by linking to issues of Christian missionaries and ELT (first raised by Lindsay Clanfield’s blog, Six Things). Of course we would prefer not to be a simple off-shoot of everything Alex and his contributors do […]

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