quinta-feira, 4 de outubro de 2012

Not much of a help

Correction is part of teaching but sometimes it can just make things worse.

Many thanks to Married to the Sea.

quarta-feira, 8 de fevereiro de 2012

Are Americans afraid of living in a multilingual country?

Many students of English may be surprised to learn that the U.S. has no offcial language. The use of language is of course part of the "common law" but has never received a federal regulation. The movement in favor of English as the official U.S. language is not new but has aparently gained a new strengh given the national debate on illegal immigration.
In the border city of San Luis, Arizona, a candidate for a seat in the city council was disqualified to run based on the fact (perception?) that her language skills were nor sufficient for the job. Monolingual speakers of English are a small minority in the city. One may wonder if she was leading the polls. I guess that if she were a just a minor candidate with little chance to get a seat at the council, the opponentes wouldn't care about her English language skills at all.

Probably linguistic prejudice is the most widespread kind of prejudice among all cultures. We are perhaps too aware of accents, vocabulary, etc. and how people express their identities through language. The problem is when we take such perceptions too seriously and use them to prevent people from enjoying their rights. So my question to all readers is why monolinguals should be afraid of multilinguals. Any guesses?

segunda-feira, 19 de julho de 2010


There are many ideological concepts that have influenced the field of English teaching. One of them is the position of the native speaker. The ethnocentric concept of the native speakers as the source of the language is obviously convenient for the English teaching industry and its training programs, publishing companies, proficiency tests and so on, once this industry has the U.S. and the U.K. as headquarters (see, for example, Pennycook, 1994, p. 176).

Shocking as it may be, a connection between language and ethnicity is also a possible assumption that comes from the native-speaker centered view. Amin (1997) has researched about the perceptions of Canadian teachers who belonged to ethnic minorities and the idea that foreign students in Canada had that a native speaker must be a Caucasian. Taken to the Brazilian classroom context, would there be any similar perception about race and ability to teach English as far as Brazilian teachers are concerned?

The position of the native speaker as a role model for the learner has as an obvious outcome the privileged position of the native-speaker teacher above the non-native one, an ideological construct that has been called native-speakerism. A dominant practice in the English teaching world market, native-speakerism is essentially discriminatory against non-English speaking individuals and cultures:

An underlying theme is the ‘othering’ of students and colleagues from outside the English-speaking West according to essentialist regional or religious cultural stereotypes, especially when they have difficulty with the specific types of active, collaborative, and self-directed ‘learner-centred’ teaching–learning techniques that have frequently been constructed and packaged as superior within the English speaking West. (HOLLIDAY, 2006, p. 385)

There is much to do in order to have a non-discriminatory view of the relation between ethinicity, nationality and language and the task must be taken by those who are in the periphery of the world and have experienced the concrete effects of discriminatory views.

sábado, 1 de agosto de 2009

Preventing real communication in class

Patiently correction leaves us all alone
(Tranquilize, by The Killers and Lou Reed)

Teacher-student interaction is an essential element of classroom discourse and one of the aspects that influences students the most concerning their attitude to schooling and future educational choices and opportunities (Hall, 2001:78; Hall and Walsh, 2002:186-187). According to sociocultural theory, learning is a process that happens through interaction, when one of the participants is – at least at that certain moment or for that specific task - more competent and able to help the less experienced participant, scaffolding the other’s knowledge or competence. Although, this does not apply exclusively to schools, no better description could be given to the classroom environment and the relation between teacher and students. When applied to language classes, the concept of interaction becomes even more crucial and complex since languages are not only the means of interaction, as in any other class, but also the subject itself being studied and practiced.

In this sense, “Classrooms are more than open spaces with furniture - they are cultural sites where children and adults enact a series of cultural practices” (Bloome et al., 2004:51). These cultural practices include “mutual understandings of their [teachers’ and students’] roles and relationships, and the norms and expectations of their involvement as members in their classrooms” (Hall and Walsh, ibidem: 187). Classes therefore should be understood as real social contexts where real people interact with each other as a community.

If interaction is such a natural part of learning, one should avoid the empty use of this word to say, for example, that we need to promote interaction in class and other statements that have become clichés in teaching in general and language teaching in specific. When students and teacher feel satisfaction with the activities they perform in class, this is a result of interaction; when a student (or teacher) is prevented from talking, this happens because a certain kind of interaction was present in class; if a student (or teacher) is ridiculed, this is interaction as well. We could go at lengths to imagine all the possible situations that may occur in a classroom and all of them would still be a result of interaction. So, once interaction is part of any class, instead of talking generally about the importance of interaction, one should be concerned primarily about the quality of interaction and its effects on learning.

One of the most common mistakes that a teacher can make in a language class is to forget about the language as a mean of interaction and approach it only as a subject. This usually happens when the focus on form does not lead to a better understanding of meaning, but it is done to the detriment of it. The language being taught becomes then something unnatural and difficult, in the students’ perception, and the class an environment where actually communicating something is not allowed or made possible.

The following excerpt is from an English class observed in a private language institute in Porto Alegre, Brazil, with eight 13-year old students. After complaining about the use of Portuguese by the students, the teacher addresses Paulo, who was the most talkative at that moment.

1 T: So, ask me something. Ask ME something.
2 Sara: Tenho que elaborar uma. [I have to elaborate one]
3 T: Alright.
4 Sara: Eu elaborei uma com [inaudible][I elaborated one with]
5 Paulo: Ah, como é que é “voltar”, sora? “Voltar”? [How do you say "voltar", teacher? "Voltar"?]
6 T: “Come back”
7 Sara: [inaudible] pegar água lá, [inaudible][get some water there]
8 Paulo: “Voltar” é “come back”? [Is "voltar" "come back"?]
9 T: “Come back.”
10 Paulo: Would you like to come back to the United States?
11 T: Ah... No.
12 Sara: Não? [No?]
13 Regina: Óóóó… [Expression of surprise]
14 T: “Would you like to go back”
15 Sara: Ah, achei que tu não quisesse ir... voltar... {I thought you didn't want to go... go back...]
16 T: “Would you like to GO back to?” No “come back” because I’m not there, I’m here. “Come back…”
17 Paulo: Voltar pros Estados Unidos”, não é? [Voltar to the United States, right?]
18 T: Não, tipo... “back”... [No, like... "back"...]
19 Paulo: Ah, não, ah, pára, tá, tá. [Oh, no, stop, enough, enough]
20 T: [inaudible]
21 Paulo: Ah, eu tentei. [I tried]
22 T: Yeah, yeah. You are doing fine. So, if I would like to go back to the United States, yes, sure. I would. But now I think that just for vacation. [She laughs]

After being requested to participate of the task and making a question that was correct according to the information provided and confirmed by the teacher (lines 6 and 9), Paulo first thinks that the teacher’s utterance in line 11 is an actual answer to his question, when in fact the teacher is ignoring the conversation to point an error in the question. While Sara is able to understand what is happening after the teacher recasts the question (lines 14 and 15), Paulo is not the only one to understand the teacher’s “no” as a real answer to his question, as Regina’s exclamation of surprise seems to indicate (line 13). Having his question unanswered and perhaps still unsure if he is being corrected or not, Paulo again tries to recover the conversation referring to the information he had requested from the teacher, this time in his mother tongue (line 17). As "go back" and "come back" are expressed by the same verb in Portuguese, "voltar", the mistake made by Paulo - as he is guided by the teacher - becomes the focus of the interaction in the teacher's view.

Paulo’s frustration in face of the teacher’s response is strong (lines 19 and 21), up to the point he suggests he is giving up his participation in that interaction with the teacher. His words express a refusal of the teacher’s attitude and the exposure he had trying to speak the target language and being corrected in unclear terms. Even though the teacher states “You are doing fine”, her attitude demonstrates that her opinion is just the opposite. She does not recognize or apologize for having contradicted her answer about “come back” and the topic is ended there as she moves to another student.

Not only was Paulo frustrated and disrespected in his role of a speaker, but the whole group was not allowed to discuss the topic that was about to arise from his question. In sum, real communication was prevented by the teacher as she endangered the quality of class interaction, approaching the language as subject instead of means of communication. Discussing about patterns of interaction in class, Hall and Walsh state that “teacher contributions that evaluated rather than encouraged tended to suppress student participation. (op. cit.: 191)

One could also question why the teacher asked Paulo to make a question. Was it so he could practice asking questions? If such was the aim, he did well, once the structure of his question was perfect. Was it to give the teacher a chance to talk about herself? If so, she did not take full advantage from the opportunity, given the lack of explanation in her answer or further development of the topic suggested by the student. One is therefore led to conclude that the teacher wanted the student’s participation in class – what meant speaking English at that moment – and that she was not actually interested in what he was asking her. While the student was asking a genuine question based on the knowledge of his teacher’s experience abroad, she was focusing on the exercise proposed and the language form being used.

In the interaction transcribed above, the participation of the student was requested but not valued by the teacher what reminds us that the participation of all students doesn't guarantee an interaction that fosters and promotes learning. Participation is not an end in itself. To promote learning, it is necessary that participation in class has a meaningful and respectful reception by the teacher who must be committed to support each student to attain full membership in the community that exists in the classroom. In a language class, communication must be above any other aspect, and the pursuit of language accuracy is only meaningful in the process to facilitate communication and not to prevent it.


Bloome, David et al. (2004) Discourse analysis and the study of classroom language and literacy events. Routledge.

Hall, Joan Kelly and Walsh, Meghan. “Teacher-student interaction and language learning”. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics (2002) 22, 186-203. Cambridge University Press.

Hall, Joan Kelly. (2001) Methods for teaching foreign languages: creating a community of learners in the classroom. Merril Prentice Hall.

sábado, 25 de julho de 2009

Global English and the CLT - part 2

This post is the second and final part of a reflection about the limitations of the Communicative Language Teaching concerning the present reality where English has become the new lingua franca. The fist part is here.

As CLT misses the point about pour present world, so it does concerning the classroom. Once the typical CLT class aims to prepare students for “real life” situations, the classroom itself tends to be seen as an artificial environment. This very conception endangers the quality of classroom interaction as the real communication is assumed to happen later, out there. One enters a new paradigm when sees that the classroom “is in fact a real social context – only too real, sometimes, for young people who spend such a large part of their lives there!” (Andrewes, 2005b.:4-5). It should be added that for a teacher who spends about 40 hours a week in classrooms, the class cannot be anything else but a real social context either.

As probably many English teachers around the world, I have questioned myself why I was supposed to give so much importance to topics such as asking and giving directions and other tasks that are typically part of materials produced by followers or proponents of CLT when teaching students who do not have plans to travel abroad or welcome speakers of English in Brazil. Instead of “real life”, these tasks may seem unreal to many of our students.

What are the benefits of following such syllabus? Should we just follow what is assumed as necessary by an author, publisher or language institution? It seems quite obvious that classes should meet our students’ needs. But should we not also help the students to understand their own needs? Certainly there is a necessity to assess and rethink what we have been taught to teach in terms of content.

The idea of teaching either a second, foreign or additional language assumes that the learner already has at least one language that he/she uses to communicate. CLT has traditionally created a problem in its view of the non-native’s mother tongue, going “as far as to consider the L1 as a dangerous source of contamination of the target language” (Andrewes, 2007:9). In other words, the traditional thinking could be summarized as follows: “The two languages cannot inhabit the same space. It is either the one or the other” (Rajagopalan, idem: 16). If one considers that learning happens through experiencing the new knowledge in contact with the previous knowledge, how unrealistic is the idea that a student has to forget his/her language to acquire or learn another.

From this brief overview that outlined some of the limitations CLT presents in our day, it is clear that a new paradigm for language teaching is needed and such shift has to start with the understanding of English as a global language.

Illustration by Jared Chapman.

domingo, 19 de julho de 2009

Global English and the CLT

I am posting the first of a series of reflections that try to assess the Communicative Language Teaching approach in face of English as the new lingua franca.

From a historical perspective, the CLT was a reaction against the previous focus on drilling and the mastering of linguistic structures that once dominated the field of language teaching through the Audiolingual method. Different from other methodological attempts that also reacted against the previous mainstream methodologies and were in fashion in the 1970’s, as the Total Physical Response, the Silent Way, Suggestopedia, etc., the CLT was not a method in the strict sense of the word, but rather an approach; it was grounded on more solid and reliable views of language and learning that gave it the status of “a generally accepted norm in the field” of language teaching (Brown, 2001:42, emphasis added).

Similar to what had happened to the establishing of the Audiolingual method in the U.S., the CLT also counted on academic and governmental funding and support:

The rapid adoption and worldwide dissemination of the Communicative Approach also resulted from the fact that it quickly assumed the status of orthodoxy in British language teaching circles, receiving the sanction and support of leading applied linguists, language specialists, and publishers, as well as institutions such as the British Council.
(Richards and Rodgers, 2001:172)

Even thought the new approach represented back then an important step towards a more humanistic and better communicative practice in language classrooms – what explains its long life -, its principles should be now questioned in terms of the historical context and goals it had or still has. So far, no solid approach or methodology has yet replaced the CLT and we do not know if such will ever take place. It has even become a cliché the statement that we now live in a post-methods era. However, as the English language itself is seem from a different perspective today, the language teaching is expected to develop further as it has developed in the past.

Most principles espoused by the CLT are based on the reality of English as a Second Language and classes filled with international students from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, who would then need to learn how to communicate with native speakers in English-speaking countries. When brought to the context of English as a Foreign Language, however, the same principles may be less appropriate or desirable. And the questioning goes even deeper if we now consider English as a global language or lingua franca. Many English teachers have taken for granted the idea of national varieties of English (American, British, etc.) and have never stopped to think about what may sound too obvious – what English is today.

As Rajagopalan reminds us,

Most of the familiar approaches to language teaching - (…) [including] communicative method (…) - have typically tended to take the identity of the language(s) in question as a given, as something more or less unproblematic.

Nowadays, the view of English as a national language spoken in certain countries is being reviewed and amplified in the light of the understanding of English as a lingua franca, a global language that allows communication among speakers from different national, cultural and linguistic backgrounds who have English as an additional language (Canagarajah, 2007). Therefore, English in this context does not belong to a limited geographical area or relate to certain national cultures. Also, the participation of a native speaker in the interaction is not a necessary condition for the use of “real” or “authentic” English.

The concept of English as a lingua franca challenges the core assumption of CLT that learners should be trained to speak to natives and deal successfully with the English-speaking culture. Explaining how culture in seem in CLT, Larsen-Freeman states that “Culture is the everyday lifestyle of people who use the language natively” (1986:134, emphasis added). This view assumes that non-natives should learn the target language and culture so that they can be understood and accepted by the natives only in the terms of the later, as if the non-native identity were less valuable. What is the culture behind a global language if not a host of different local cultures?

How much have we progressed in our field in terms of honoring the difference and particularity? Some authors have used the term imperialism to describe this perception of language and culture that still promotes a sort of colonial relationship between the center (represented in the concepts of target language and the native speaker) and the periphery (in the concepts of L1 and non-native). Therefore, unless language teachers reflect about and question these assumptions, we will be helping to perpetuate English as “the repository of the colonial spirit” (Rajagopalan, op. cit.:18).

An essential assumption of the CLT, the dichotomy of native versus non-native speakers and the virtual interlanguage that separates them, must be questioned as a valid way to approach language, given the reality of a multilingual world, where the so-called native speakers have become a minority and in many contexts the boundaries between languages are not so clear as we have imagined. In this scenario, the concept of nativeness is more likely to be useful to ideological than explanatory purposes. Or, it can only make sense when English is understood as a national language. Then, there are native speakers of American English, Jamaican English, British English and so far. But who are the native speakers of English as a lingua franca?

In his critique of CLT, Simon Andrewes points to the fact that authors “nowadays openly or tacitly agree that many of the principles of CLT methodology should be discreetly dropped or modified” (2005:5). Concerning the understanding of English as a global language, however, it should be noticed that some coursebooks have tried to add a global “flavor” using foreign accents in their audio materials or foreign names and faces on the print. However, the idea of the foreigner living in the Anglophone world continues to be almost always present.

See the second part of this discussion here.


Andrewes, S. The CLT Police: questioning the communicative approach. Modern English Teacher – MET. April 2005. 14, n. 2. 5-11. London: Pearson Education.

Brown, H. D. 2001. Teaching by Principles: An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy. 2nd ed. New York: Longman.

Canagarajah, A. Suresh. Lingua Franca English, Multilingual Communities, and Language Acquisition. Modern Language Journal, 91/5 (2007): 921-937.

Larsen-Freeman, D. 2000. Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching. 2nd. ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rajagopalan, Kanavillil. Postcolonial world and postmodern identity: some implications for language teaching. D.E.L.T.A. Revista de Documentação de Estudos em Lingüística Teórica e Aplicada. Especial 2005, 14. 11-20. São Paulo, EDUC.

Richards, J. C., and T. S. Rodgers. 2001. Approaches and methods in language teaching. 2nd. ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.