Awareage Languness

This is a post to recount my recent attempts or (more pretentiously) my ongoing journey to understand how linguistics can help language teaching. The post was initiated by a video teaser (on linguistics and teacher education) to a talk by Bridget R. Schvarcz in the upcoming TESOL France 2018 colloquium.

I will include various prompts which led me to my current language (or communicative) awareness location as a way to illustrate my route.

My first prompt would have to be my CELTA training of 4 weeks of which a few days I vaguely remember being devoted to orthodox segregational linguistics that language can be compartmentalised into things such as parts of speech, subject verb object sentences and various other related grammar. I did not re-evaluate this basis for some time after my initial TEFL training.

Fast forward a few years to a point after many classroom incidents that kept showing me the inadequacies of my knowledge about the English language and its usefulness in helping my students. I had a vague idea of communicative language teaching or CLT (ignoring for now its basis in the segregational linguistics of speech act theory) – but marrying CLT up with my grammar knowledge was tortuous to say the least (hands up who has not tried to and/or is mandated to shoehorn grammar points into a lesson?!).

Integrational linguistics can be summed in three words – language presupposes communication.  My route to it was from the notion of meaning invariance. As teachers of language one form one meaning is obviously appealing – e.g. adding an -s to cat means there is more than one cat.

My next prompt was being aware of Columbia School Linguistics and its focus on analysing invariant meanings. For example some/any. One of the scholars associated with Columbia School Linguistics is Ricardo Otheguy whose talk here led me to discover that there exists another line of thought (held by people such as Roy Harris, Sinfree Makoni, Alastair Pennycook) which questions the validity of invariance in language.

Integrational linguistics holds signs (meaning makers) are radically indeterminate – that is both form and meaning are not fixed codes which can be plucked and used – signs do not pre-exist acts of communication but are made in the act of communication. Hence they are not determined before the act of communication itself.

Now to a language teacher this seems most unhelpful. If form-meaning pairs do not pre-exist acts of communication then how do we teach them?

Fear not, we don’t need such codes to start thinking about planning lessons. We can focus on the acts of communication themselves. Here we see echoes of approaches such as task based language teaching, comprehensible input and total physical response.

This whiggish history of my language awareness, my awareage linguness, if you will, pardon my poor joke, hopes to have piqued you into maybe asking yourself some questions posed by Bridget R. Schvarcz in her teaser video:

What influenced who you are as a teacher today?

What comes to your mind when you hear the word linguistics?

Have you ever used any of the theoretical knowledge about language structure in your teaching?

Do you think you are a better teacher because you have studied linguistics?

If you are headed to TESOL France 2018 hope to bump into you, thanks for reading.


Was I just Dogmed, did I just Do Nothing Teaching?

The three commandments of Dogme ELT include being materials light, conversation driven and emergent language, e.g.

The one principle in Do Nothing Teaching could be said to be an inverse principle, eliminate everything that is not necessary in a lesson instead of adding unnecessary things to a lesson –

What happened in a one-to-one class recently could be a case of no materials, all conversation. A class that eliminated everything but the necessities.

I had seen this student, who can be described as a B2/C1 level, the previous October. That time we had worked on verb + preposition, prepositional phrases, verb + to/-ing, adjective + preposition and written skills. Apart from the written work all the rest was based on two grammar books.

This time the class started off by her explaining the reason her company had sent her for some more English training. Her boss was apparently unsatisfied with the way she was managing her multi-national team particularly in conference calls. The student felt that she did not have the English necessary to resolve conflicts, motivate team members and get them to participate at meetings.

Yikes I thought! I ain’t no business coach! To imagine her situation I asked her about the primary stakeholders in her project teams which I white-boarded. She described four main ones. As she was doing this I was desperately trying to figure what book I could use to help. I soon realised that no book could help and when I did that I began to relax a little and decided to just see first what her real need was and see if we could explore solutions to it.

I found that we could do langauge work on the way she asked questions to her team members and the way she restated and summarised information. This language work turned out to be less important than the social skills and organisational factors at play in her “problems” in managing teams. This exploration took the large majority of the three hours.

In order to change subject we did talk about her family life, the education of her son, education in the UK and France, her passion for cooking and relaxation therapy. We also talked about the French elections and how in general people felt negatively about the meaning of the democratic vote. How their voices don’t seem to make a difference. This somehow nicely brought us back to how similarly people in work teams won’t feel invested unless they see concrete effects of their contributions.

This led onto whether her company had systems to publicly recognise contributions from employees, they did not. Which also reminded the student of an incident she had very recently where one of her project contacts was very surprised when she praised them for meeting a tough deadline. Finally she was stunned when I asked whether she recorded her conference calls, she had not thought of that, she would look into it.

To be honest I did not feel I had taught her anything but simply acted as a kind of facilatator and interested party. It was a strange feeling because at the same time we did use a hell of a lot of English with some minor corrections and recycling of language. It also did not feel like a lesson where I had coasted along, just going through the motions, watching the clock.

What had I just been through? Was it teaching? Was it just chatting? I am still at a loss to describe exactly how I feel about this “class”. Can I apply what I did to my group classes?

No materials? All conversation? Eliminate everything that is not needed?

Note – I had written this post some time ago and sent it for a possible post on another blog but obviously did not pass muster!


Mike Harrison articulates an interesting question regarding whether one does dogme or whether dogme does you!

Another update:

In fact post eventually approved for DNT challenge see here:

IATEFL 2012 – Three is a magic number

Good things (and bad things) come in threes they say, and seeing as there are still some IATEFL 2012 posts trickling in I thought I would do one last one, promise! Also I wanted to play around with seeing how easy it would be to make animated gifs from video ;).

So three things that struck me were firstly  research such as that described by Chia Suan Chong  on politeness in ELT; secondly niche ELT electronic publishing  as explained by Lindsay Clandfield and Luke Meddings; and finally Robert O’Neill representing some ELT fire!

ELT Research

ELT e-publishing

ELT Fire!

If you know other IATEFL 2012 videos which you feel fits one of the above three categories, please let me know. Or any IATEFL 2012 videos which you think may look good animated :). Or do some yourself and let me know!

Note: this post inspired by The Go-Getter an online digital story from digital storytelling course at  Find all the original videos at

Waiting for Babel – some thoughts on using translation

I was made aware of a recent trend in the use of translation in class via this post by Willy Cardoso which in turn linked to the work of Philip Kerr.


I had done a lesson a couple of years back which involved using a French pop music video where someone had already translated the lyrics into English. The students tried to match the French lines to the translated English lines.

The video itself was interesting to the students and the task itself called for use of dictionaries and my occasional support. But before, during and after the task I had a niggly feeling about whether it was okay to use translation. At the time the school I work in (funnily enough not so much now) insisted that students be discouraged from using their native language in class. Also monolingual dictionaries are heavily promoted there. In addition my French then and now is shaky at the best of times.

My doubts got the better of me even though the actual experience demonstrated the benefits of using translation and consequently I never used translation as the main task in a lesson until recently.


From  my casual readings into the reasons for translating, the principal one in my view is  that of ‘support’ whether in terms of cognitive support (learners naturally use L1 in understanding L2) or motivational support (using material that they may be exposed to in their daily lives outside of the English classroom).

So with two groups of multi-media students I asked them to ‘help your teacher learn French‘ by translating two episodes of a very popular comedy show called “Bref” which is ideal to use since each episode lasts from 1 to 2 mins. Each group (each in turn split into four subgroups) translated a different episode that I assigned.

Also I did not give them a deadline for the work – I wanted to include some measure of motivation which I thought I could gauge by whether the groups would do the task as soon as they could.

The task also included doing a subtitle file for their translation so they also had to look up how to make subtitle files.

What was clear in class was that by framing the task as ‘help your teacher to learn French’ certainly made them curious and managed to spark their interest.

Language points

By the following week one main group had done the translations, and two subgroups from this had done it in the form of a subtitle file. The second main group had not finished the translation.

I took one of the sub-groups’ translation, projected it on the board and went through it. I asked the other subgroups to check how it differed from theirs. After a short discussion of this, which raised some useful language points, I also asked them to share with each other new words and phrases they had learnt.

The language points raised in class included use of no articles, vocabulary choice, use of tense.

I plan to use the translations the groups produced in a reverse translation exercise when I see them next, whereby I would give the translations made by group 1 to group 2 and vice versa and ask them to use Google to translate the English back into French then further revise this into acceptable French.


One limit to using translation appeared when I read the translations after class – the issue of translating humour and in particular play on words type of humour. With an advanced class maybe exploring pragmatics and context in language discourse could be useful but with lower levels the complexity involved would overwhelm. Of course I am assuming this and I may well be wrong!

In any case I would be interested in comments from bi-lingual readers able to translate the bolded words in the following which appears at the start of an episode called ‘I took the metro’:

Le tournage de cet épisode n’a pas été autorisé dans les transports en commun. Il a donc été réalisé sans transports en commun. Ne tentez pas de reproduire cela chez vous.

My attempt so far:

‘The shooting of this episode was not allowed on the public transportation system. So don’t expect it to make you laugh. And don’t try this at home.


Asked this on and best one seems to be:

The filming of this episode in the public transit system was not authorized. Therefore, don’t expect to be carried away by it.

suggested by member pointvirgule.

Reflections on using Interactive Fiction 9.05

Following my  introduction to using interactive fiction as a learning tool I wanted to jot down some thoughts from my experience of using it recently with a couple of groups.

Explaining what Interactive Fiction(IF) is to students is an essential first step. Instead of using Interactive Fiction I decided to go with the term Adventure Game, then added the modifier Text-Based. Most of the group (whose average age is 18/19) knew the concept of an adventure game but few about text-based ones. Only then did I add that nowadays these are called Interactive Fiction.

I then explained that you needed to know some one word commands to direct your character in the story, and handed them a list of common verbs.

Showing an example is the next step, I used 9.05 which is ideal as a starter since it is based on everyday world context (i.e. not ones with dragons and such) and relatively short time to complete. Using the start screen I dictated the text and stopped at any unusual words or phrases to check understanding (in this case – spare, haphazardly).

Asking the groups to vote for what to do as the first step in the game always seems to pique their interest and generate a bit of heated discussion as to what is the best move.

I then told the students to work in pairs, with one person typing the commands and the other person taking note of what commands were typed and what happened as a result. They were also instructed to note down any new/difficult words they find.

As they started to play the game I needed to give them some help e.g. a very useful command is Inventory to see what items you are carrying. Further help needed was to get them to notice that certain actions must happen before others e.g. students spent some time examining the dresser before realising they needed to open it.

The atmosphere generated by using this game was clear enough, students were much more engaged than if you had just given them a static story to read.

To try to gauge a recorded outcome as homework I told them to briefly write-up what they had done in the game and to note down difficult words. Unfortunately I had not known at the time that there is a command Transcription which exports all game moves to a file. This can provide a good opportunity for some analysis.

So if you are still hesitating about using IF in class don’t, just dive in, you won’t regret it!

More info on the whys and wherefores of IF in language teaching can be found at Joe Pereira’s site.