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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