All About TESOL Team Teaching

Why do it? And does it even work?

It is my belief that if you asked the average person to visualize a classroom, they would imagine a square room with about 30 students and 1 teacher. This has been the popular model throughout most of recorded time. Born from necessity instead of any kind of design, from the many children who needed an education and few people able to provide them with one, teachers logically split the workload among themselves, each taking a group of children to educate. This all officially started in ancient Greece and carried on though western civilization history, so that today it’s actually not much different from what it was 2,000 years ago.

In the twentieth century of western culture, there was an explosion of education. Class, ethnic, and other discernments aside, it is now almost taken for granted that a student will eventually attend college. There is now an abundance of educated people in the world, more than any other time in History. In fact, about 6.7% of the world population has some kind of college degree. With some quick math that makes one college educated person on Earth for every 15 people who haven’t graduate college. Having more educated people in the world also means we have more teachers. So that now, instead of having a single teacher for multiple grade levels and subjects, we now commonly have a different teacher for each grade level, and beyond a certain level, a different teacher for each subject.

It’s no surprise then that the practice of team teaching, having more than one teacher in the classroom, is starting to be implemented. Team teaching can involve a lot of things: linked course collaboration, and interdisciplinary enrichment, just to name two. But I want to focus on the ways team teaching manifests within the language classroom. It has always been my belief that teachers, like boat captains and broth cooks, should undertake their task individually; but before dismissing team teaching out of hand I wanted to examine it closely. I’ve been team teaching in English as a foreign language classes for the past year and a half. From my experience, team teaching in this context can take three different forms; and I’d like to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each.

1. Teacher / Assistant Teacher

In this scenario, one of the teachers has the primary responsibility while the assistant provides support. This means that the teacher plans the curriculum, decides the teaching methodology, gives the assignments, and chooses how to assign grades. The assistant provides unobtrusive assistance in the classroom, marks assignments and tests, and may do a portion of the lesson planning.

The advantages to this style of team teaching come when there is a large difference in experience, such as with a novice or student teacher and a veteran. The learning potential and professional development can be a great benefit to the novice. Also, the marking of tests and lesson planning by the novice can take some of the work load off of the veteran. And of course, the students get the benefit of the extra attention in the classroom.

There can be many disadvantages in this style of team teaching, especially if the aforementioned novice/veteran relationship isn’t ideal. Experience doesn’t necessarily equate to ability, so if the veteran teacher is incompetent, or not up to date with current teaching methodologies, it will create discord with a perhaps much more knowledgeable or talented novice. Conversely, if the novice is a bit too green, it can require a lot of time to properly train and supervise them, and they can find themselves being merely an observer at best. Lastly, outside the realm of teacher training, this style of team teaching is rarely preordained and usually manifests from an unequal distribution of power, which can lead to unhealthy qualities in the relationship between the teachers like resentment or apathy, which may in turn spill over into the classroom and affect the students.

2. Teachers sharing equal responsibility but dividing the teaching time

This scenario can pan out in many different ways. Ideally both (or all) the teachers work together extensively to establish the class curriculum, grading policy, and assignments. The actual teaching, however, is done separately. This can happen by teachers tag-teaming different sections of a lesson, teaching on alternating days, or dividing the classroom so that it’s like two classes are happening concurrently.

The advantage to this style of team teaching is that teachers with different skill or knowledge sets can complement each other. This can work brilliantly in a language classroom where teaching teams can consist of a native English speaker and a non-native English speaker, the typical strengths of whom lie in pragmatic and grammatical knowledge, respectively; or when teaching teams in an EFL context include a native speaker of the student’s mother tongue.

The disadvantages arise from the incongruence of teaching methodologies that come from teaching separately. If one member of the team runs a teacher-fronted class while the other is student-centered, or if there is a disagreement on how communicative or grammar-focused a lesson should be, it will increase the mental acrobatics the students have to perform to keep up. Teaching styles can also foster difficulties. Anyone who was a student knows that there are as many different teaching styles as there are teachers, and each new teacher takes some getting used to. It is difficult for a student to negotiate the styles of two teachers in a single class.

3. Teachers sharing equal responsibility and sharing the teaching time

This scenario is exactly like number two above but instead of doing the teaching separately, teacher teams teach at the same time. For this to occur, teachers have to agree on a single method for teaching, and they have to make sure their styles of teaching are compatible as well.

Of the three modalities team teaching can take, this one is the most advantageous. Students get the benefit of a class that is well planned and prepared, as well as teachers whose styles and methodologies are in harmony. When done properly, the teachers can bring the full benefit of their individual knowledge to their students while simultaneously observing each other and working towards mutual improvement.

Although this style of team teaching is the most advantageous, it is also the most difficult to manage. This style has been described as “two teachers, one mind”, which shows the astronomical amount of communication that needs to occur between the teachers. Also, not just anyone can partner up and do this. Teachers who want to work together at this level have to have some form of pre-existing compatibility, whether that be in style, methodology, or personality.


There can be a lot of benefits to having two teachers in a language classroom; for example, teachers can effectively model conversations for their students, they can have a higher diversity of language to display (e.g. different dialects, accents, or second languages), and they can also pay much more attention to the students and the effectiveness of their own lessons because one teacher will always be observing while the other is teaching. But from my experience, team teaching is like communism, it looks great on paper, and that’s about it.

Many studies on the effectiveness of team teaching conclude that the benefits are negligible and that team teaching should be used with caution. But the executive decision to implement team teaching must come from something. As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, there is an abundance of educated people in the world; is team teaching merely a reaction to that abundance? If so, why not reduce class sizes by half instead of having two teachers in one class? The answer is that team teaching is implemented because it’s believed that the addition of a second teacher is also the supplement of additional expertise. This in turn leads one to believe that team teaching is a reaction to teachers who are inadequate by themselves and require additional support.

Regardless of the reason why team teaching is implemented, how it is implemented is of primary importance. From my above observations on the three scenarios team teaching can have, only the third scenario is ideal; sadly, this is also the scenario that is the rarest. Administratively assigning teachers to work as a team will undoubtedly lead to scenario number one, a teacher / assistant relationship. Only colleagues who mutually agree to put forth the effort to achieve true teamwork should attempt team teaching.

My final message is this: There is no “I” in team.



Actually my final message is this: Don’t do team teaching. But if you do it, take the time to do it right.


Speak No Evil

A tongue-in-cheek critique of the three types of people who show their faces when it comes to grammar.

Is it just me or has grammar become rather popular lately? Weird Al’s newest album topped the charts with its song about grammar recently. The Oatmeal has several comics specifically about grammar. And the level of memes I’ve seen that condemn people’s mistakes with your and you’re is mind staggering. What’s going on here? Grammar used to dredge up thoughts of dusty books and equally dusty teachers, boring students to within an inch of their lives. So is it cool now? Short answer: yes. And with all things cool, kids are sticking their hands in it. These types can be classified into three groups: grammar mavens, grammar nazis, and grammar connoisseurs.



Weird Al is a grammar maven. He’s all about repeating the grammar rules his teacher taught him in the 3rd grade. He resists any kind of change in the English language. It seems to me that Weird Al is concerned with a decline of the English language. That Internet and text message vernacular such as using b for be and u for you, or abbreviating phrases like lol and brb are destroying the language. It’s no secret that many people believe this, not just Weird Al. However, calling it a decline or a destruction exposes them as a bit dogmatic; attaching a subjective evaluation to what is objectively only a change. And if there is one permanent characteristic of English, it’s that it changes. In any event, people nowadays do seem to worry that English is becoming something less desirable for them. I wonder if the Modernists lamented this same change from Victorian English, or if the Victorians longed for Shakespearean English, or if Shakespeare wanted to talk like Chaucer, or if . . . well, you get the picture.

No, not him...

No, not him…

However, most people who are spouting grammar rules all over the internet aren’t concerned with a decline of the English language; they just want to sound superior over someone. These are the Grammar Nazis. Ripping apart someone’s grammar gaff on the internet is the highlight of their day. These are the people behind all those malicious memes. But who are these memes targeted at? The incompetent native speakers? Ignorant non-native speakers? Or simply the average person who’s being a little sloppy. It’s all of them, of course, but the first and last groups are the ones who produce the errors people seem to get so angry over (your for you’re, or misusing literally). When it’s a learner of English making goofs it’s obvious they don’t know better, due to the nature of the error (subject verb agreement or misplaced adjectives). Being a grammar nazi is not cool. You never want to be compared to a Nazi. In fact, most grammar nazis can probably be fooled into making gaffs themselves. The next time you find yourself confronted by one of these types, ask them what it means to ‘peruse with an air of decadence’. If they say to ‘browse with the quality of refined culture’, then you can haughtily correct them, it really means to ‘examine in detail with a quality of decay or moral degeneration’. Or give them one of the hundreds of Shakespeare’s sentences that bend grammar every which way; such as using nouns as verbs, creating unheard of compounds, or using multiple negations.

still a bit uppity

still a bit uppity

So is there a correct way to espouse grammar on the internet? Sure there is, just look at The Oatmeal. First off, The Oatmeal isn’t attacking anyone, he’s just putting out some helpful (and humorous) grammar guides because, I assume, it’s obvious to him that many people could use them. Also, he’s gone out of his way in a couple of comics to denounce grammatical grievances about language that don’t cause communication breakdowns; which is much more eloquently conveyed in his quote about using irony: “If someone misuses it, you probably knew what they meant and you’re just sharpshooting their example to make yourself look smart. Instead, shut your useless pie hole and go find something better to do.” I think I’ll proposition The Oatmeal to begin a party of grammar liberals, so we can have revelry together, and joke at the expense of grammar conservatives.

But in any event, whether you’re a grammar maven, Nazi, or a connoisseur, here are three tips to keep in mind for your (and my) sanity:

  1. Just because someone used your when they should have used you’re, doesn’t meant they don’t know the difference; Give them a break, we all make mistakes.
  2. Before you shudder with disgust when you see someone using literally to mean figuratively, think to yourself if you’ve ever used the words awesome, terrific, or fabulous, because they are also all used contrary to their original definitions.
  3. Unless the mistake was on a resume, an academic paper, or a love note, you gotta let it go. Mistakes in Internet comments or remarks on social media should be the least of your worries.

The Effect of Alcohol on Language Learning

It doesn’t take long for some folks to get bored with what they’re doing and decide to throw alcohol into the mix. But do alcohol and language learning really mix?

Many humans are desperate to find any redeeming qualities of alcohol consumption; from the glass of wine a day maxim, to alcohol improves your sex life, to drinking helps you speak foreign languages better. Wait, what’s that last one? Actually, it’s true, the effects of alcohol on second language learning have been well documented and it turns out that small amounts can help; but before we all get tight on absinth and do foreign language tricks, let’s take a closer look at the research.

One of the most famous studies, and as far as I know one of the first, was conducted by Guiora et al. at the University of Michigan in the early 70’s. Back then they were emerging from under the umbrella of the audio-lingual method of language education, which overemphasized pronunciation in second language learning. Yet even though they were operating under a whole other TESOL paradigm in the 70’s, their findings are still of value. The groundwork for the study was this: They theorized that learning a new language was like taking on a new identity, and the more you were willing to adapt to this new identity the more accurately you would be able to pronounce the sounds of the language you were learning. They hypothesized that if a learner could increase their empathy toward their interlocutor they would more easily transition into this new identity and would therefore improve their pronunciation. The final element was they hypothesized that alcohol would induce this empathy in a subject. Thus the groundwork for an experiment is laid.

The actual experiment involved several university students who were given some basic instruction in a foreign language. Some of the students were then given alcohol and some were given a placebo (yes, this means they were given ‘fake’ alcohol and simply thought they were drunk) and they were given pronunciation tests in this new language. To be accurate, they had to choose a language that had very different sounds than English. Luckily there was a young Ph.D. student at the university, finishing up his dissertation, who had been born in Asia and was fluent in a Thai. This man was psycholinguist Tom Scovel. He taught the students some Thai and then monitored their pronunciation after they increased their empathy (my new favorite euphemism).

“I’m going downtown with the boys to increase my empathy”

The result was that after 1 or 2 drinks the subjects’ Thai pronunciation significantly increased. (That’s the statistical significance of course, and not a superlative.) So yes, at about 1 to 1.5 ounces of alcohol consumption we become better at pronouncing foreign sounds. Any more than that, and you can probably guess, our pronunciation decreases dramatically as we begin to slur our words. But what does that really mean? The experiment wasn’t actually designed to see if alcohol consumption improved pronunciation; it was designed to see if empathy (and by proxy, the willingness to assume a new identity) increased pronunciation ability. Alcohol was merely the tool they used to induce empathy. Of course when the study was published, it was immediately marketed by journalists as “alcohol helps you learn foreign languages!”, which isn’t entirely true, but I suppose if you’re trying to trick people into reading your article it’s the way to go.

So those initial effects of alcohol, where we feel friendlier than usual and maybe a bit less inhibited are good for language learning but we don’t have to rely on alcohol to bring that side of us out. Some people have a natural tendency towards the “language ego” and take up the identity a new language offers easily. Those who aren’t so open to identity-malleability may need help from language teachers.

Role play can be a key classroom activity to help students take on new identities; when students are pretending to be a different person (e.g. a waiter taking an order, a doctor diagnosing an illness) it is an opportunity for them to experiment with language identity as well. Also, teachers who can create a classroom environment where students feel safe in their language use (i.e. willing to make mistakes) will undoubtedly be less inhibited and friendlier. And for learners themselves, finding low stress situations to practice your language can help, such as speaking with anonymous strangers on the internet on language exchange sites.

Overall, second language acquisition is a complex thing with a lot of affective and social variables, adding alcohol into the mix probably isn’t the best thing. Instead, be knowledgeable and open minded about how learning a second language affects your identity, and use that knowledge and open-mindedness to be a more adaptive learner.

On the Plight of Journalists and the Myth of Linguistic Determinism

Raise your hand if you ever find yourself bored and looking for entertainment on the Internet. The Internet, ah yes, did you know the Internet is supposed to have a capital letter? I’m not sure why; perhaps to avoid confusion when someone is talking of some other inter connected network. We use the Internet for everything, but with the advancement of pocket-internet devices such as smartphones, one of the more interesting ways we use the Internet is to fact-check. When we’re having a discussion (argument) with our friends about the meaning/cause/significance of (insert anything here) it doesn’t take long for someone to whip out their phone to consult Google, and then proudly point their screen at their interlocutor, glowing with the answer.

There’s nothing really wrong with this I suppose, except of course when the Internet is wrong. I mean, who’s fact-checking the fact-checkers? I recently encountered a poignant example of the Internet being wrong. And, as you’ll see for yourself in a moment, it can be very hard to know the difference between an actually true fact and a “fact” that the Internet just wants to be true.

I encountered the Internet’s grievous error in a cracked.com article on how our language affects the way we think. Now I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is no, I don’t take what I read on a website called “cracked.com” to be ultimate fact. However, they do talk about some interesting things and usually have source articles to back them up. One such thing was the “fact” that speakers of languages which don’t have a future tense are better at preparing for the future. That is to say, speakers of Mandarin for example, who don’t grammatically mark the future, will save more money, smoke less, use condoms more, and exhibit other ‘future-oriented behavior’ more than speakers of English would, who have a future tense. The idea that our language affects the way we think is called linguistic determinism. I’ll go into more detail of the study in a bit, but the important thing here was that I read that article and said “huh, that’s interesting,” and then, I don’t know, surfed my way to Facebook or something. I didn’t question the veracity of the article at that time; my brain was simply looking to be distracted by a fun article and wasn’t in ‘critical mode.’ And therein lays the danger of these types of articles.

Sometime later I was surfing through TED talks and ran across the man responsible for the study behind the cracked.com article giving a talk about the very same research. This time, however, my brain was in critical mode, as it usually is when I’m watching those talks. The man is Keith Chen, and he’s an economist at Yale. Now right away you should be feeling a tingling sensation in the back of your critical-mode mind: if he’s an economist, why is he publishing studies on language and cognition? But more on that later. After I saw his TED talk I found yet another video by Fractl that espoused his research. Now we’re up to three separate sources on the Internet that are supporting Keith Chen’s research, and a quick search brings up many more, even on such websites as BBC news.

I’m not sure how these journalists are operating. TED, I believe, looks for anyone making unique ripples in a field of study to come talk. However, in Chen’s case, he’s a single researcher that wrote up a single study, so it’s strange to me that a venue as reputable as TED would propagate findings based on so little evidence. And clearly the Fractl video was inspired by the TED talk, so perhaps the journalist responsible for that video didn’t even consult Chen’s raw research. But the cracked.com article links directly to the paper where Chen explains everything about what he did in minute, academic detail; so they certainly can’t be excused, albeit their mission is one more for entertainment than information.

But let’s get into Chen’s research itself. The idea that our language can affect the way we think has been around for a while and was brought into popularity by Benjamin Whorf and his mentor Edward Sapir in the late 1930’s early 1940’s. Since then, linguists have studied the concept from a thousand angles, because, as you can imagine, there are serious implications to the notion that our languages affect how we think. A popularly known adage loosely based on this idea is that Eskimos have many more words for snow than English speakers, and therefore it follows that they perceive the world differently. Chen’s research is just the latest to make a stir. Before we go on, it’s important to understand a bit of what a study in linguistic determinism would look like. For a legitimate demonstration of linguistic determinism, three things would have to be shown, which Steven Pinker articulates very well in his 2007 book The Stuff of Thought. The first is that speakers of one language find it impossible, or at least extremely difficult, to think in a particular way that comes naturally to the speakers of another language. Secondly, the difference must involve genuine reasoning, and not subjective judgments. And lastly, the difference in thinking must be caused by the language, rather than arising from other reasons and simply being reflected in the language, and/or the language and thought pattern being an effect of the surrounding culture or environment. No study to date has met all three criteria, including Chen’s.

As mentioned above, Chen looked at the peoples whose languages differed in how they refer to the future. So that, for example, English speakers who (sometimes) grammatically mark the future with words like “will” or “be going to” are contrasted with Mandarin speakers who don’t use grammar, but rely on context, to know when someone is talking about a future event. This difference, he concluded, causes those speakers of a strong future-time reference (FTR) language (like English) to think of the future as being more distant (and therefore less threatening), and weak FTR- language speakers (like Mandarin speakers) to think of the future as being closer in time (and therefore more consequential for the present). This difference in thinking about the future allegedly affects the behaviors of these people, a claim he supports with other data that shows the average amount of savings upon retirement, smoking rates, and condom usage, amongst other things that demonstrate a person’s level of thought about the future, which showed weak FTR-language speakers to be more future orientated.

Now that we have a general idea of Chen’s study, let’s look at the problems. Unlike 99.9 percent of studies that try to prove or disprove linguistic determinism, Chen never actually does any experimentation. Chen’s paper is entirely based on observations and on statistical data collected by other entities. So right away Chen’s research is victim to the barn-side marksman fallacy, which is illustrated by a gunman who blindly opens fire at the side of a barn and afterwards paints a bull’s-eye around the tightest grouping of bullets holes. Except for the fact that Chen never fired a shot, he merely found a barn with a bunch of bullet holes in its side before getting out his bull’s-eye paint. In order to take Chen’s research seriously, I need to see his conclusion supported by laboratory experimentation.

Next is Chen’s lack of linguistic expertise. As an economist, his research is strong with statistical data about the future orientated behavior of people, but weak on the description of the linguistic-behavioral relationship that a trained linguist would be more predisposed to enunciate on. In fact, the entire relationship between the behavior data collection and his linguistic observations rests on a weak conjecture in a single section of the paper.

“While no studies (to my knowledge) have directly examined the effects of how a language treats time, a large literature has found that language with more precise “basic color terms” cause their speakers to hold more precise color beliefs … If this linguistic-precision effect is also true for time perception, then strong-FTR speakers will be less willing to save” (Chen, 2011, pp. 8-9).

The study of basic color terms is a classic method of demonstrating linguistic determinism. These studies provide support for a mundane version of the linguistic determinism hypothesis. That is, when asked an inconsequential question such as which two color chips belong together out of three color chips evenly spaced on a spectrum (like blue, greenish blue, and green) you may select the chips that can be described with a single word in your language; technically this is an example of language affecting thought since language goes into interpreting the experimenter’s ambiguous question, but it says little about reasoning in problems that have real-life consequences (Pinker, 2007). On top of that, one of the color chip studies Chen cites, which made big waves in the 1960’s, was found to be based on fallacious experimentation. That Chen decided to include it as evidence demonstrates that he is not well-versed in linguistic studies. Finally, to make the leap that color perception and time perception are equal is pretty fantastic.

A third qualm I have with Chen’s study is that he claims to have accounted for every other possible factor that might influence a person’s future orientated behavior, such as religion, employment availability, family values, or any other of the multitude of things that culture and individual idiosyncrasies can contribute. An amazing feat, if he in fact accomplished it, but he never explains in detail how he found language to be the sole contributing factor to this anomaly in future orientated behavior. It’s entirely too easy to make a mistake when you’re juggling a thousand variables.

Chen’s suspicious leap from correlation to causation here should have alarmed anyone sensible enough to examine it. Yet Chen’s research still managed to become popularized on the Internet, for millions of entertainment and information seeking people to absorb as fact. Of course, a responsible web surfer is a bit critical when consuming information from the internet, but what about those quickly checking facts, or how about when we simply zone out and just read what’s in front of us? It needs to be said that Chen’s paper has not been officially published, nor has it been reviewed by his peers; thus far it’s simply his own personal project (and on a side-note, we therefore shouldn’t antagonize him for any transgressions just yet). So why have journalists taken this and popularized it on the web?

Because the idea that our language affects the way we think is fascinating. The idea is so fascinating, in fact, that any shred of research done under the umbrella of linguistic determinism is instantly devoured by journalists and made available to the masses in those user friendly formats journalists are so good at. It doesn’t matter to them if Chen’s research is sound or not, it simple begs the possibility that linguistic determinism is true; that our distinct languages breed unique ways of thinking, that we all have a special lens through which we see the world; all hail diversity. I don’t blame the journalists for doing this, but I do blame the consumers for believing in it.

Chen’s research does prove one thing: many people want linguistic determinism to be verified and true. Unfortunately it’s nowhere close to being those things. Words are not the same as thought. Human memories are stored in a form far more complex than sentences. We also know that if a language doesn’t match the conceptual demands of it’s speakers, the speakers don’t just scratch their heads and go extinct, they change their language. And ultimately, we all had to learn language in the first place, which places language apart from our core mental functioning.

If you pay attention, you’ll often see articles that champion linguistic determinism flutter to the surface of the Internet for everyone to see. Be wary, dear reader. And for that matter, be wary of anything on the internet (absence of capitalization intended), including this.


Pinker, S. (2007). The Stuff of Thought : Language as a Window Into Human Nature . New York, NY: Viking.



The 5 Best TED Talks on Language

TED has hours of interesting videos to watch on almost any subject matter. Here's some of my favorite that deal with language.

I discovered TED talks roughly ten years ago, and promptly went on a borderline unhealthy binge of watching every one I came across. TED has since gone through a transformation, sprouting limbs such as TEDx, TEDactive, and TEDglobal, to name a few; and I haven’t adapted to their whole scheme, but they still produce some gems, and the classics are still as relevant as they ever were. I wanted to share with you some of the talks that have helped transform my own thinking about language and have contributed to my growth as an English teacher. I hope you Enjoy them!


1. Stephen Pinker: What our language habits reveal

Pinker is a personal hero of mine. Few people on this earth can match his level of erudition. He’s got his hands into all kinds of fields of study but he’s most famous as a linguist; and listening to him talk about language is mesmerizing. This TED video was later abridged by RSAnimate and given some nice visuals, and although RSAnimate’s video is a bit more entertaining, it cuts out some of Pinker’s examples and points. So I encourage watching the original first.

2. Anne Curzan: What makes a word “real”

A lexicographer, amongst other things, Curzan makes transparent the “authority” behind dictionaries: us. I was told that ‘ain’t’ wasn’t a word when I was growing up, which confused my young brain. If it wasn’t a word, then how did I say it? The fact of the matter is, all words aren’t words, until you say them. Just look at Shakespeare for example, he made up words all the time; whenever he found English unsuitable in describing something, he fixed it. Although I feel people went a bit overboard with this, making English the most verbose language on the planet (I mean, who really needs YOLO? we already have carpe diem), it’s one of the aspects of a living language that gives it the ability to adapt to global proportions.

3. Deb Roy: The birth of a word

The amount of effort that went into collecting the data used for Roy’s (et al.) research is mind staggering.  To codify sociolinguistic patterns of language use, as well as language development in a newborn is a remarkable achievement. Also his “space time worms” are the closest depiction of the 4th dimension I’ve ever seen. Although his contribution to linguistics isn’t game changing (yet) his big achievements here are in the developments and the advancements he and his team made in how to collect and represent linguistic data.

4. Patricia Ryan: Mind your words

English can be a golden ticket that whisks you right through the door of the chocolate factory, but it can also be the boot in your face that keeps you right where you don’t want to be. Having a global language which we can all learn and be able to communicate in is certainly invaluable, yet this unfortunately has lead to global language attrition, or language “death”. What do we lose when a language dies? More than we can know. A balance needs to be found between accessibility, necessity, and diversity.

5. Patricia Kuhl: The linguistic genius of babies

Psycholinguistics and first language acquisition are two of my favorite fields of study. Kuhl gives us the best of both with her research on sound discrimination in newborns. We’ve probably all heard about the “critical period” on some level or other, but what does that period really entail? Little is new of what Kuhl tells us, and she also fails to make a distinction between the ability to learn a language being due to pronunciation issues (directly associated to infant sound discrimination) and vocabulary or grammar development. But to be honest, this is the first time I’ve seen all this information compiled in one place with contemporary research to back it all up, and explained so beautifully.

Prescriptive Grammar: fueling a culture of native speaker elitism

I took part in a discussion a while ago that arose from a grammatical survey on which of two sentences sounded correct. These were the sentences:

A) Mary was seen entering the building last night.


B) Mary was seen to enter the building last night.

It was an entirely casual survey given to a group of assistant English language teachers (ALTs). The complaint that brought this survey to us was that one ALT was sure that sentence A was correct but all of her Japanese, English teaching co-workers, were equally sure that sentence B was correct. Thus, she posed the question to an audience of ALTs to get their opinion. Unsurprisingly, all 84 of the ALTs who responded to the survey selected sentence A as being correct. It’s unsurprising because ALTs are all native (or near native) speakers of English (NES). But why are we dismissing the opinion of the Japanese teachers of English, who are undoubtedly all non-native English speakers (NNES)? Is their use of English less valid or somehow deficient in comparison to a NES’s English? Who is right? If you’re correcting a student’s writing for grammar, and they use sentence B, do you mark it wrong or not?

A discussion on this topic will quickly involve prescriptive and descriptive grammar teaching. As Wikipedia puts it, prescriptivism is the practice of championing one variety, or manner of speaking a language, against another. It’s a way of recommending how a language should be used. This is contrasted by descriptivism, which is an objective describing of how a language is used. In regards to our above sentences, saying that one is correct and the other isn’t, is prescriptive grammar. Saying that both are correct and are used by different groups of people in varying frequency is descriptive.

Prescriptive and descriptive grammar teaching is not inherently good or bad. In fact, I would say that almost all language teaching is predominantly prescriptive, due to the fact that each language teacher has their own idiolect from which they will make subconscious choices on what they say, teach, or deem as correct in the classroom. But a good teacher is an aware teacher; and awareness that your specific style of English is not ‘more correct’ than a different style is what separates the good teachers from the bad ones.

Some of the teachers who participated in the discussion about the survey said that they wouldn’t want to teach something that would sound awkward to a native speaker. Well, that’s a valid point. If something sounds awkward to you, perhaps you shouldn’t teach it. But if the ‘awkward’ sentence appears in the student’s textbook, should you tell them that it’s wrong? Absolutely not. Unfortunately, I fear that many teachers are telling their students that that sentence is wrong. This comes from what I believe to be a culture of native-speaker elitism.

But it's in the book!

But it’s in the book!

If you look at job postings for English language teachers, 90% of them will ask specifically for a ‘native speaker’. There is an unfortunate, long running belief, that NESs possess flawless English and are held as the prime example of how a learner should speak. But let’s look at the numbers. There are 1.2 billion people in the world that speak English, only 350 million of those are native speakers. That means that there are 850 million non-native speakers, outnumbering the native speakers by well over double. The odds are that a NNES will use their English with other NNESs much more frequently than they will with NESs. Yet despite this, the native speaker’s English carries the most prestige. This prestige comes from the fact that most NESs come from America, the UK and Australia; all highly developed countries that have a lot of socioeconomic power and influence in the world. Somehow this fact bleeds over to how our language is perceived, despite the fact that the Englishes of those three countries are extremely different; they are even very different within the countries themselves, just look at American southern English and American mid-west English for example.

Despite the reproachful preference for native-speaker English, the fact remains that native speakers are held on a pedestal, and this has unfortunately, for a few of us, gone to our heads. What baffles me even further is how a NES teacher can be blind to just how varied their language is. Far too few of us understand that English is a living language; perhaps due in part to the false authority given to grammar books as all-encompassing rule books. Actually, English grammar books are typically produced by one or two Ph.D.’s who have compiled an extensive list of linguistic observations on English. No two grammar books will agree on everything, the best will provide reasons (not rules) why English functions the way it does, and some will actually provide opinion polls on certain constructions that are used by different groups of English speakers.

Darn office workers and their preference to use 'family' as a plural noun!

Darn office workers and their preference to use ‘family’ as a plural noun!

This lack of standardization is very different from other major languages in the world. French has the Académie Française, which is in charge of publishing the French standard dictionary and is the ultimate decider on what’s ok in the French language. The Academy of the Arabic Languages does much the same thing with Arabic for the Arab League nations. In fact, there are over a hundred languages that have some kind of regulating body; this is a form of what is known as linguistic purism. Linguistic purism is recognizing one variety of a language as being the best. Some cultures feel this is important for maintaining cultural identity, or for religious reasons, as with Modern Standard Arabic which is based on the language of the Qur’an. But this is impossible for a global language like English. There can’t be an authorized standard form of English because nobody owns English, or more specifically, everybody who uses English has ownership of it.

With this topic, it’s easy for me to go on for quite some time, I think it’s very interesting because it deals with so many different aspects of language teaching, but I’m going to conclude here leaving a lot unsaid. But let’s look back at our original problem of sentences A and B. Will using either sentence lead any competent user of English into a misunderstanding? Extremely doubtful, so let it be. If you see something in your student’s text book that sounds weird, awkward, or unfamiliar, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. So what’s a language teacher to do? We can’t say that anything goes in the classroom. I like how Diane Larsen-Freeman puts it: It’s up to the learners to decide what’s important for them.

Communicative Activities for Beginners

Just a few information gap activities in case you were looking for something to do in your language class today.

Many teachers struggle with finding ways to get beginner ELLs to use English communicatively in the classroom. Often teachers get stuck on things like repetition or reading out loud that may sound like the student is using English when actually they’re just mindlessly producing sounds that mimic English.

One of the best ways to break away from these activity types is by putting the students in situations where they have to construct their own utterances to complete a task. This is very difficult for beginners who may not have the English language resources to construct full utterances, but with the right help we can set them on the path that leads to these resources so that, by the end of the lesson, they will be able to produce full utterances.

The following are three information gap activities I’ve adapted for beginner EFL students in Japan. Each lesson took about 60 minutes and they are probably best used with students aged 14 and above. Each activity is followed by a brief explanation and an overview of the lesson. Feel free to adapt these to your own specific purposes or use them in any way you’d like. Also, some prior lessons may be required for scaffolding before these activities can be used, depending on student level.

#1 Bank Robbers info gap

This info gap activity mainly teaches students to ask and answer questions about people’s physical descriptions. On this handout I drew a little stick figure bank-robber at the top before making copies to help with visualizing the practice step.

-I started this lesson with a warm up by putting a picture of a person up for the class to see and then asked what words would describe that person. I listed the words the class used and made sure everyone understood what they meant.
-I then used their description words and created questions. I asked each student a question regarding a different descriptive characteristic of the person (e.g. What color is his hair?).
-I then had the students get into pairs and gave each pair the activity sheets (1 complementary set) and told them not to look at their partner’s paper.
-We did the practice component as a class, going through each question and answer. I transcribed a brief dialogue on the board for them to reference during the activity.
-Next I explained the task and had them begin. I circulated and helped where needed.
-10 minutes before the class ended I called their attention and we processed our answers together.

#2 Shopping Spree info gap

This activity focuses on asking and answering wh- questions regarding numbers (prices), and retail items. I tried to keep the math simple but it may be necessary to employ calculators. Also, I used the dollar for the currency in the activity but this can easily be changed to whatever you want.

-Warmed up with a brief conversation about my last trip to the local market and what I bought. I asked a few students about their last trips to the store as well.
-Worked on number pronunciations (e.g. $4.25 as “four twenty five” OR “four dollars and twenty five cents”).
-I made pairs of the students and passed out the sheets. Then, I explained the activity.
-We did the first receipt (Osaka bakery) together as a class. After, the students worked in pairs to finish the task. I circulated during this time and helped where needed.
-10 minutes before the end of class we processed our answers together.

#3 Daily routine info gap

I put this info gap activity 3rd for a reason. This one is slightly more advanced than the previous two because it requires students to derive the necessary wh- question from the context. That being said, it’s still fairly easy when given the proper instructions. It mainly focuses on times and schedules. This lesson mostly requires the simple present, but that’s flexible.

-Used the basic warm up of “what did you do today?” but also asked several follow up questions about specific times such as “When did you leave for work?” or “When did you eat lunch?”
-Next we practiced using an imaginary character whose brief schedule I wrote on the board. We took turns asking and answering questions about the schedule (e.g. When does he get home?, What does he do after school?, How does he get to work?). I just made sure to get a variety of wh- question types into the practice.
-Next I paired up the students and passed out the sheets. I explained the process, which can be done either by having one person fully complete their worksheet then the other, or taking turns after each questions (recommended). I circulated as the students did the task.
-After the task, if there’s time, have the students interview each other about their own daily schedules using the questions types they learned during the activity.
-10 minutes before the class ends, process the answers.

There are plenty more activities like these out there, and can quickly be found with a little time on Google. The brevity of my explanations and procedures was intentional as these things change so easily in different contexts. I hope you find these useful!