Fact or Myth? Five questions to think about in ELT
The Pavilion ELT Live! Conference this year features three strands: Experiential Professional Development, Debunking the Myths and At the Chalkface – what really works in practice. Looking at the three strands of this year’s Pavilion ELT Live conference, I found myself drawn to ‘Debunking the Myths’ because I have always been a believer that challenging the status quo is how our industry as a whole can develop. It therefore really pleased me to see that the interactive plenary that Carol Lethaby will be giving at the event is entitled Fact or Myth? Using the brain in ELT practice.
I’m a huge fan of myths. Myths are stories that are fundamental to our industry; stories that we have been telling ourselves over time that in reality have no basis in fact. By examining the myths and the stories we tell ourselves, we get to know the things that have shaped our industry and led us to where we are today and the things we need to do to make a change.
But we are not always in agreement as to what is fact and what is a myth! In fact, that discussion alone can provoke us into thinking more deeply about some of the basics of what we do. So, in order to get the debate going, here are five of the best…
Are they myths or are they facts? You decide!
1. The use of the students’ L1 (first language) in the classroom is an absolute no-no!
After the trauma of Grammar translation, we got rid of the use of L1 because:
• it increases students’ exposure to the L2,
• it forces them to think in the L2,
• some words can’t be translated easily,
• it won’t work in multilingual classes,
• it replicates First Language Acquisition, where the target language is the only one being used.
Vivian Cook (2002) however suggests that it could be more effective and efficient using the students’ L1, where possible, in order to:
• give instructions,
• tell students off,
• explain grammar & offer a contrastive analysis,
• explain easily translatable lexis.
In discussions about translingualism, plurilingualism and translanguaging, the second language (in our case, English) is seen as a bridge for the speaker to create not a mind of two separate languages but a mind that is unified. On a more practical level, in multilingual scenarios, talk doesn’t always exist in only one language and a successful translingual is someone who is able to effectively communicate across diverse norms and codes.
2. Exams and tests are an essential part of language learning
While exams and tests:
• measure progress,
• motivate students,
• are mandatory by government bodies & institutions,
some argue that they are unnerving, unreliable and unhelpful.
It is difficult for exams to test:
• communicative competence,
• discursive/pragmatic competence,
• socio-cultural competence,
• accommodation & adaptation strategies.
Despite this, government bodies, companies & institutions still place the face validity of exams in high regard and take exam results as a true reflection of the candidate’s language ability. As a result, many English courses tend to ignore the true nature of SLA and instead revolve around preparing the learner for the exam rather than working on their communicative competence.
3. Native speaker (NS) teachers are better than non-native speaker (NNS) teachers
Many institutions and teachers put the blame on the learners for this one. They say that the learners are the ones that think NS teachers are better and so they are merely catering to the demand. As a result:
• many schools only look for NS teachers,
• exam boards prefer NS teachers,
• many NNS teachers end up feeling insecure and inferior.
However, by nature of the fact that NNS teachers had to learn the language the way their students are now learning, they are often able to:
• empathise with the students’ difficulties,
• explain the grammar in a way that works for their students (especially if their students share the same L1 as them),
• act as an achievable role model for the student.
4. There is no difference between a language teacher, a language trainer and a language coach
A closer look at the definitions of these terms suggest that they offer different things:
• A teacher teaches for general purposes of overall improvement.
• A trainer changes a person's behaviour or ability so that they can do a specific job. Training is job-oriented.
• A coach helps the learner to take advantage of the learning opportunities in their learning environments, to better understand their own strengths/weaknesses, and plan accordingly.
Some might however argue that this is all just rhetoric. The things that many teachers do and the approaches we take see an overlap with all three jobs. The true difference is how you see yourself and how you market yourself.
From a business point of view, a company or HR department might perceive the language teacher as someone who mainly focuses on grammar and vocabulary lessons, while a trainer or a coach is there to help the learner become better at their communication skills. The perception that the trainer or coach might add more value to their investment than a teacher can make a big difference to how much a business is willing to pay for that service. Labels can be important.
5. We should be teaching British English or American English
Many of our learners are now learning English in order to communicate internationally. They are no longer learning English to assimilate into a native-speaker culture or to exclusively speak to native speakers. English is now a tool for communication amongst those who do not share the same first language, and some even suggesting that 85 percent of English language use around the world is between non-native speakers.
Arguing that British and American English should not be the only standards that learners have to model themselves after, some ELF (English as a lingua franca) academics believe that learning to speak like a native speaker can be ‘unnecessary, unrealistic and harmful’ for the learner. (Jenkins, 2000) and using localised native-speaker idioms in international interactions can cause ‘unilateral idiomaticity’ (Seidlhofer, 2004) – a situation where only one party in the interaction understands the idiom and therefore creates a situation of non-understanding. If English is now a global language, then surely the standards and models we use should somehow incorporate the global community?
This hugely controversial topic has had many disputing these claims, maintaining that we should not be teaching or accepting sub-standard English from our learners and that most learners themselves want to speak like a native speaker.
Did any of these statements generate an emotional reaction within you? Where do you stand on them? Are they myths or facts?
Come to Pavilion ELT Live! on the 22nd June and let’s discuss!
Cook, V. (2002) Portraits of an L2 User. Multilingual Matters.
Jenkins, J. (2000) The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford University Press.
Seidlhofer, B. (2004) ‘Research Perspectives on Teaching English as a Lingua Franca’. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, pp:209-239.
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