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.

quinta-feira, 16 de julho de 2009

"Multiligual speakers of English"

Below is an interesting food for thought on (and for) non-native teachers. Suresh Canagarajah questions the dichotomy native versus non-native and says that teachers that are "multilingual speakers" must "move from the periphery of the profession to the center".

Ana Wu:
You have written various articles about NNES issues. What do you think of the label "Non-native speaker" of English? Is there anything you would like to see the NNEST Caucus do or initiate?

Professor Canagarajah: The label served a purpose at one time to draw attention to those who spoke English from outside the dominant Anglo communities that traditionally claimed ownership over English. As globalization, the migration of people, and hybridizing of identities and communities become more pronounced, I don’t think the term is useful anymore. Scholars are questioning if there is anything called a pure native speaker in English. English is part of the linguistic repertoire and identity formation of millions of people from their birth. I grew up with English, Tamil, and Sinhala from my childhood. It is difficult for me to say if I spoke English or Tamil first. I can call myself a native speaker of Sri Lankan English if the terms are stretched a bit!

More importantly, the positive experience of being a multilingual is perceived in a defensive and negative way when we use the term “non-native” to describe ourselves. We don’t have to be some “nons”! We can label ourselves more positively and affirmatively. Besides, in using the label “non-native” we are still giving power and meaning to the outmoded concept of native speaker.

The time has come for the NNEST professionals to move from the periphery of the profession to the center. It is time for us to argue that we represent the experience that is the norm for the majority of English speakers around the world—i.e., multilinguals for whom English is an additional language in their speech repertoire and identity. It is time for us to reshape pedagogy and linguistic theories to address the concerns of those who enjoy (or those who desire to develop) hybrid proficiencies and identities as we all do. The time to be defensive, apologetic, and even confrontational is gone. There are no more battles to be fought. There is the serious task of living up to our responsibility of making knowledge that is relevant to the majority of people in the world—multilinguals. Perhaps that’s the label we have to start using—not nonnative speakers of English but multilingual speakers of English.

To read the complete interview by Ana Wu, click here. Another interesting interview with Canagarajah is vailable here on The Other Journal.

sábado, 11 de julho de 2009

Humor in class

Humor is a natural part of human interaction in many environments. As teachers and learners of English, most of us are used to experiencing some moments of joking and laughing in our classrooms. But what is the role of humor in the language class? Does it have any implication for learning itself?

Humor in class can benefit teacher-student interaction, as it motivates the student’s participation and help them

to build on and sustain their interpersonal relationships as a community of English language learners
(…) (Hall & Walsh, 2002:193)

Once that learning in our classrooms is accomplished through interaction, humor can create an environment where students may feel they belong to and overcome the natural barriers that they face in learning a foreign language as it relates to their self-image, etc.. That means that the use of humor in class can be an inclusve tool to promote participation and learning.

This humor many times may happen as a playful approach to the language itself:

The final characteristic of the language used in successful lessons is that of richness and occasional playfulness as well ... The teachers in successful classes tended to use language in ways that called attention to the language itself. (idem: 194)

Because of some Latin roots that Portuguese and English share in many cases, it is interesting to see my students in Brazil playing with the use of some suffixes of Latin origin. For example, they will add -ation to an English verb or adjective and see if it works as a noun, as in modernization or acceleration. But in case the process fails to produce an existing word in English, the outcome is a humorous play with the target language, moving away from the labels right and wrong. The same happens when they translate idiomatic expressions or pronounce local words with an English pronunciation.

As Simon Andrewes points out,

The intervention of the mother tongue in the foreign language learning process through such actvities as code switching, free and direct translation (...) can be
extremely enlightening, as well as enjoyable
(2007: 8)

Given the bias that still exists in our field concerning the use of mother tongue, however, this humor and playfulness using or refering to elements of the mother tongue may be perceived by some teachers as not beneficial to learning or, at least, a waste of time. That is of course a misconception.

Humor can not only "break the ice", but also raise awareness about the language, and focus on it as a real means of communication.


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

Andrewes, Simon English, Foreign languages and language. Modern English Teacher (2008) Volume 16, number 04.

Picture by Marc Ducrest

domingo, 21 de junho de 2009

Classroom research

I have just been introduced to the idea of classroom research in my postgraduate course. I am excited about the possibilities it can bring and my shifting from a "passive" role in the field of language teaching to one of finding and sharing knowledge that can enhance my own teaching and other's as well.

The following quote from Brown (2001, p. 431) gave me some good food for thought on the subject:

Research is a scary word for many of us. We are happy to leave it in someone else's hands because it involves statistics (which we hate), experimental design (which we don't know), and the interpretation of ambiguous results which we think is best left to "experts"). Even so, leaving all the research in the hands of researchers is an upside-down policy, as Anne Meek (1991:34) noted:

The main thing wrong with the world of education is that there's this one group of people who do it - the teachers - and then there's another group who think they know about it - the researchers. The group who think they know about teaching try to find out more about it in order to tell the teachers about teaching - and that is so reversal.

Teachers are the ones who do it and, therefore, are the ones who know about it. It's worth getting teachers to build on what they know, to build on what questions they have, because that's what matters - what teachers know and what questions they have. And so anybody who wants to be a helpful researcher should value what the teachers know and help them develop that.

BROWN, H. Douglas (2001) Teaching by principles: an interactive approach to language pedagogy (2nd edition) Longman

quarta-feira, 27 de maio de 2009

Burning down the house: Canagarajah’s views on Lingua Franca English

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

In his thought-provoking article, Suresh Canagarajah challenges traditional views of language learning and the status of English in a globalized world, proposing a new understanding of English as a lingua franca that allows communication in multilingual contexts among speakers who have English as an “additional language” and who do not take native-speaker varieties as target models.

A professor at Pennsylvania State University, Canagarajah is originally from Sri Lanka, a former British colony in Asia where multilingualism is widespread. The author’s background seems to drive his research, as issues such as identity, multilingualism and non-Western scholarship are present all over the article.

The article starts reviewing Firth and Wagner’s (1997) questioning of traditional dichotomies such as learner versus user, non-native versus native speaker and interlanguage versus target language, stating that there is a bias that holds the second element in each pair as superior. The author then calls for an SLA research that considers a broader context outside language classes and homogenous communities, overcoming what he considers the traditional Western emphasis on concepts such as cognition, innateness and form.

Lingua Franca English (LFE) is said by the author to be difficult to describe since its form is negotiated in interaction. As LFE does not belong to a limited geographical area, it is part of a virtual community in where all speakers, according to Cangarajah, have native competence. Here, the concept of native competence or proficiency is not fully developed as it applies to LFE. Because of the existence of speakers from different national, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, LFE is characterized by constant variation and active negotiation in each interaction. As a consequence, use and learning cannot be separated in LFE, according to the article. However, one could question if this indissoluble relation is not present in every language learning process, instead of being exclusive to LFE.

As form becomes less important than pragmatic strategies, error also receives a different significance in the context of LFE – error is a failure in communicating meaning, something that, according to the author, seldom happens in LFE. One could point out that Canagarajah does not provide evidences for many of his statements.

In one of the few insights that apply directly to classroom, Canagarajah reminds us how students can use different identities in class and even “subvert” activities that underestimate their identities, an observation that can - or should – affect the way teachers approach classroom material and routines.

A worth-reading article, “Lingua Franca English, Multilingual Communities, and Language Acquisition” makes us question many topics that have been taken for granted in our field and helps us ponder about ideological aspects of English that perhaps we may have wanted to avoid as language professionals and especially as English teachers. As we read it, however, it is impossible to stay indifferent to the iconoclastic perceptions it provides.

More about Suresh Canagarajah here.

For a discussions on the implications of global English to teaching methodologies, click here.

Teaching and learning Global English

There can be little doubt about the fact that in the last decades English has become a global language. In science or entertainment, on the internet or in conferences, in former colonies or in countries where it had never been historically present – such as Brazil -, English is now used to overcome national limits and provide communication among people from different nationalities that do not necessarily have the native speaker of English as a role model or a certain national variety as a target or measuring reference to one’s fluency in the language.

In this context where native speakers have become a minority, there is a necessity to question many traditional concepts that have been considered as proven facts and move to a new paradigm that may enable us to more accurately understand what English is today. From the popular assumption that English is likely to replace national languages to the questioning if the present “hegemony of English” is not going to be “replaced by an oligarchy of languages, including Spanish and Chinese” (GRADDOL, 1997, p.3), attempts to assess the issues related to global English vary widely, as well as the definition of global English itself.

As this debate shapes and generates many others in education, linguistic policies, culture and politics, one cannot expect it to be a neutral one. On the contrary, it is a discussion permeated by ideology and interest, as the predominance of English itself is in fact a result of complex economic and political contexts of the 20th century.

The language of British colonialism and American imperialism has become “independent of any form of social control” (CRYSTAL, 2002, p. x), escaping from the hands of the native speakers, so to speak, up to the point that it is appropriated by cultures at the periphery of the world as a tool to foster development and have admission in a globalized world. One could question, however, if this is actually a process of appropriation or just a new version of colonization that is welcomed by the people being colonized. Who benefits most from this global English?

In this paper, I try to address the following questions: what are the implications of this global English to language teaching? How does one deal with a global language living in a country where just a small minority speaks it? Is global English a natural outcome of learning English in a non-English speaking country? How are English teachers expected to deal with this new phenomenon?

What is global English? And what makes a language global?

As David Crystal states, “a language has traditionally become an international language for one chief reason: the power of its people – especially their political and military power”. (CRYSTAL, 2002, p. 9) The development of English as an international language is a direct outcome of British colonialism and, in more recent times, the position obtained by the United States after the Second World War. The status acquired and or attributed to English therefore is not apart from the entire historical context of the last 60 years:

Had Hitler won World War II and had the USA been reduced to a confederation of banana republics, we would probably today use German as a universal vehicular language, and Japanese electronics firms would advertise their products in Hong Kong airport duty-free shops (…) in German (ECO, 1995, p. 331 apud GRADDOL, 1997, p. 8)

The English language was then closely associated to the American culture and lifestyle. Students from a traditional language institution in Porto Alegre, for example, reported that in the 1980’s they were taught how to greet Americans and the appropriate distance to keep, etc. Text books and other didactic materials also reproduced the same ideas promoting English as an American language.
English became an international language as American influence became stronger around the globe. Americans (and in less degree in our hemisphere, British) were seem as the source and owners of the language. This perception may still exist among English teachers in Brazil, even though there is a tendency to develop a more critical thinking concerning our relation to the English language and culture.

The end of the Cold War and what was then understood as the hegemony of the American power also ratified the status of English as the most important international language. On the other hand, in the last decades it became more evident that English was not an American or British language anymore, and beyond all national Englishes there was now a global language used in many aspects as a lingua franca.

In recent years, I have listened many times to teenage students saying how they hate Americans. They would then portrait Americans in very stereotyped terms. As someone who was probably seen as a kind of representative of that foreign language and culture, I had to explain my views of English as a language that does not depend on a national culture, at the same time I questioned their biased perception of uniformity among Americans asking them how they though Americans would picture a Brazilian person.

These experiences in classroom helped me to understand this phenomenon as an overreaction to the world inequality and injustice that those students associated with the American institutions, a kind of perception that has become more and more common after the September 11 events and the Bush administration. Is it being now minimized with the election of Obama?

Governments and institutions have also responded to this new scenario. In Brazil, it was during the Bush administration that Itamaraty decided to attribute less importance to its English test in admissional exams for the future Brazilian diplomats, in a clear ideological refusal of a supposed acceptance of “imperialism”.[1] A few years ago, Mongolia made English its official second language in a controversial measure. [2] The British Council has sponsored research on the topic, including the book The future of English?, by linguist David Graddol (1997).

Scholarly research has attempted to assess the issues related to global English, in which the role of non-native speakers is of notice. Suresh Canagarajah (2007), for example, stresses the role of what he calls Lingua Franca English in multilingual contexts where speakers have native competence in this additional language (not “second” or “foreign”). However, it seems necessary that a more accurate and detailed research is carried out to assess global English in contexts where there is no widespread multilingualism and English is taught as a foreign language as we do in Brazil.

In terms of the language teaching market, so far, there has been a shy attempt to recognize the existence of global English, since it seems to avoid a shift from the American English versus British English dichotomy. Some books will just add “foreign accents” to audio materials to give a global “flavor”. Many schools advertise their connection to a national variety and in many countries there is a high demand for native teachers. In some cases, the criteria do not include any previous teaching experience or degree in language, being the condition of native speaker the only requirement. [3]

I believe that such a shift will never happen completely, given the marketing power that “American “English” has as a label or a symbolic product to be sold. However, we do need in fact a more realistic view of English and better approaches to its teaching that can consider it as a global language and effectively provide students with a tool for real communication.

Whether or not we train our Brazilian students to perfectly pronounce the th sound or teach them the native-speakers’ culture behind the language without a critical viewpoint, they will still be Brazilians learning English. This means that the outcome of their learning is not likely to be American or British English but global English.

English teachers should be more realistic about the use of English that happens so frequently in conversations with non-native speakers or through the internet. Much more needs to be pondered and discussed about what makes global English and all its implications in classroom as it is in fact a new concept that challenges our understanding of English learning and teaching.


[1] Articles from Brazilian newspapers about the Itamaraty’s decision

[2] Located between China and Russia, Mongolia is a former communist country where the study of Russian was widespread before the debacle of the Soviet Union.

[3] Some brief reflections on native and non-native teachers are available here

Social practices and Good Language Learners

In Changing Perspectives on Good Language Learners [1], Norton and Toohey (2001) assess different approaches that try to explain success in second language acquisition (SLA) and affirm the importance of social practices within a community as means to enhance or constrain learning.

Early research on good language learning focused on the importance of personal motivations, attitudes and cognitive styles as determining to a learner’s success. Environment and social interaction were not focused.

More recent research, however, has brought into SLA studies an emphasis on sociocultural aspects. This approach stresses that learning takes place within a “community of practice” where there are opportunities and relations established that foster or prevent more effective learning.

Norton and Toohey propose that the sociocultural conditions include the learner’s perception of the language and its accompanying relations of power and symbolic constructions. Such are evident in their case study of immigrants in Canada.

The authors observed two female Polish immigrants – a 5-year-old child, Julie, and a young woman, Eva – that were highly successful English learners. The authors investigated how these two immigrants' social practices could facilitate, or not, their L2 acquisition, as well as how they negotiated their acceptance into the social network around them.

Working in a fast-food restaurant, Eva found an environment where long conversations were not expected between employees and costumers and even talk between co-workers was short and limited. At first, she was assigned to tasks that required little, if any, speaking, such as cleaning the floor. That situation constrained her access to language practice and put her in a low social position. However, with her participation in the monthly activities sponsored by the company outside the workplace, Eva started being seen from a different angle where her personality and youth constituted positive symbolic features. As a result, she later had other jobs in the restaurant that offered more interaction opportunities.

At kindergarten, Julie had speaking as a requirement and participated of activities in group. Giving Julie communicative opportunities and scaffolding her learning were responsibilities of the teacher, who would also help her deal with social difficulties in class, something that Eva did not have at her workplace.

Julie’s and Eva’s agency was determinant not only to enter their peer networks but to affirm their identities as respectable and desirable members. They were able to overcome attempts to exclude or subordinate them through intellectual and social resources.

In terms of intellectual resources, Eva’s knowledge of Italian and European countries was impressive to her Canadian peers and was a way to resist subordination or isolation. With a similar outcome, Julie tried to teach classmates some Polish words. Also, her previous knowledge of classroom dynamics acquired in a Sunday school made her a recipient of “valued information” about classroom routines and activities.

An important social resource Eva and Julie had were their “allies”. Eva had a Polish boyfriend who used to drive her co-workers to the monthly activities, while Julie had the teacher and some of her peers helping her. The perception their peers had of these allies as desirable people was also significant to their acceptance. If the perception about them had been negative, it is likely that this social strategy would not have been successful. These strategies helped both Eva and Julie to establish strong identities in those contexts, where the possibilities offered to interact with the group were met by their personal choices and strategies.

Norton and Toohey conclude stressing the importance of considering the social practices involved in L2 acquisition and questioning how other factors can also be influential on this matter. The fact that Eva and Julie were Caucasian, with blond hair and blue eyes, able-bodied, slim and well-dressed could have affected their interaction in a very positive way within their communities. The authors then suggest for further developments in SLA research a closer consideration on how ethnicity and physical appearance may influence this process of social interaction and language acquisition.

[1] See the original article here

quarta-feira, 14 de janeiro de 2009

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