#IATEFL2017 – A very partial commentary

The following is my very partial take of the first presenter in Outside in: bringing new technology perspectives to ELT 1. I play the role of the Muppet critics Statler and Waldorf, as this urge seems to come across me often when reading about technology in language learning. So do take it with that spirit in mind.

Ooh an image on this blog not seen that for a while, if ever

Derek, Duncan, Donald Clark asserts:
“Actually many many more people learn language outside the context of a classroom and formal courses than ever do in classrooms.”

Fair enough this seems a truism, as people do spend more time outside of school or formal learning and so potentially learn more outside of formal context. Donald Clark continues with:

“In this country we have tens of thousands of kids learning German, Spanish, Italian and French and barely any of them can come out and even ask for a cup of coffee in the target country after 8 years of sitting in a classroom.”

Assuming language classes are indeed offered for 8 years at say 2 hours a week for 38 weeks that’s 608 hours  which would arguably be enough for a low aptitude student to reach a low intermediate level of proficiency and be able to order a cup of coffee 2.

So what’s going on!? The horror!

Clark adds:
“But generally, the reason why many more people are learning English outside the classroom is because of technology. Wherever I go, I travel all over the world, I meet young people who constantly say two or three things to me when I say how did you learn your English. They say Youtube, number 1, they say music number 2, they say movies and increasingly young people around the world have access to every single video and movie by torrenting and not paying for it at all.”

When I met my wife some 13 years ago,  who is from France, and I asked her how she learned English, she mentioned listening to Beatles songs on top of working hard in English classes in school. So arguably young people today do similarly but has the increased accessibility of interesting content via technology led to more English learning? A claim to be investigated and not taken at face value.

The next bit of presentational style is:
“AI is the new UI.”

Clark goes on to point out many commercial services such as Twitter, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Amazon use AI.

“AI is the guiding hand in almost everything you do online except learning. So when you go on a VLE or Moodle it’s like stepping back into the 1990s a little bit because that is the 1990s actually. That’s where it comes from.”

Clark seems very tickled by this.

The laugh seems to be on him since if we take Google as an example when they started all their technology was from 1990’s AI work 3.

Moving on Clark says:
“Look at the things that’s happening in AI here. NLP, speech to text, text to speech all of this is entirely relevant to what you do for a living. AI is starting to tackle some serious issues around the teaching and learning of languages. So you cannot ignore this. It’s huge and it already is huge.”

One could say if we take NLP that it is has been “relevant” to teachers since the 1980s. Maybe Clark meant commercially driven relevancy? What serious issues is AI starting to tackle in the teaching and learning of languages? Is it serious issues such as lack of teachers which is being tackled by say video conferencing in projects like Plan Ceibal? Probably not what Clark is pushing. Side note the “huge” remark somehow reminded me of the “massive” remark by a well loved ELT bod 4.

Clark goes on to talk about bots in various enterprises:
“Bots are everywhere. Duolingo is an AI driven system out of Carnegie Mellon, it’s worth half a billion dollars, it’s got a 150 million people on it. If you don’t think AI is coming at your market, think again. It’s been there for a while. And of course they’ve added bots onto this as well.”

Adding without any seemingly obvious sign of irony, referring to bots:

“Don’t get too carried away though they are incredibly difficult things to make and not particularly effective if you get it wrong.”

Clark continues:

“Alexa..I have an immersive language system which is absolutely free sitting in my house”

He forgets to mention – sitting in your house hovering up your personal information, mind you he does add later it costs 150 “bucks” which is cheap apparently (Does he mean cheap compared to teachers?)

He talks about a “cool” maths app which is all very nice but not relevant to learning languages, a very different learning challenge.

He modestly mentions his company and a company he consults for. He mentions assessment via an hilarious meme.

““If only I had a few more papers to grade” said no teacher ever”

That is very funny that is.

One of his final comments would have made a much more interesting start to this talk:
“We have a chance as educators to change the world for the good…”

If Clark had started by describing how he thinks educators can change the world for the good via technology the talk would have certainly resonated. A direction that Professor Yvonne Rogers took well by beginning her talk with the vision of promoting collaborative learning, curiosity and playfulness. Methinks Prof Rogers has had more experience presenting to teachers than to investors.

A final comment when asked a question from the audience “Will teachers be replaced by robots?” Clark suggested that the “first wave” of replacements was seen with “Google and librarians”.

“The number of librarians in the world has dropped and it’s not a neo-liberal plot. People don’t go to libraries any longer and that’s the truth of the matter”.

If we can take US trends as similar to world trends then:
“If libraries receive more public funds, more people use them. And if governments invest less in its libraries (as they have since 2009), fewer people visit—though the drop in visits from disinvestment isn’t as strong as the rise from investment would be.” 5

So maybe it is a neo-liberal plot after all, and that’s the truth of the matter.

Thanks for reading.


  1. IATEFL2017 Outside in: bringing new technology perspectives to ELT

2. [http://www.languagetesting.com/how-long-does-it-take]

3. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_artificial_intelligence]

4.Massive video

5. [https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/04/americans-like-their-libraries-but-they-use-them-less-and-less-pew/477336/]

#IATEFL2017 – Stopping the buck

The interviews with Andy Hockley 1 and Marek Kiczkowiak 2 discuss the issue of native speakerism –

a pervasive ideology within ELT, characterized by the belief that ‘native-speaker’ teachers represent a ‘Western culture’ from which spring the ideals both of the English language and of English language teaching methodology3.

Marek Kiczkowiak who campaigns on this via TeflEquity Advocates 4 responded to the interviewer’s question of the reception of his pre-conference talk to academic managers and directors of studies (DOS’s):

Most of those DOS’s that came here today are very supportive of non-native speakers, they are interested in equal opportunities but they do find that very often that their hands are tied. Because sometimes the way agents sell the courses to the students who then come to the UK to their school is very different to what their school offers. The school offers a very diverse staffroom but the way the agents have sold the course is that they will have the class with your typical white western looking native speaker.” (my emphasis)

I was surprised that Marek accepted what he has called in the past the TEFL blame game 5 – native speakerism is due to market demand, what students and parents want. If we look at the issue of agents we could point out that a lot of the major schools have an agent procedure. So these big schools could apply positive pressure to what their agents sell. Similarly the British Council who accredit language schools can also play a big part, since agents often only work with BC accredited schools.

The systemic bias that is evident in the current setup of ELT has to be examined alongside the individual bias. Some glimpses of this systemic or structural bias are seen in the interview with Andy Hockley. Initially individual biases are mentioned, for example:

hire ethically, don’t have biases
people who come to this conference are not among the most biased
the majority of those who come to the conference are converted let’s call it
in smaller schools, in smaller places there is this unconscious bias that native speakers are better than non-native speakers

Andy Hockley then mentions his research on academic managers where “increasingly educational organizations are merging, are becoming bigger and more corporate”. Managers complain “they have to do so much corporate number stuff, kpi’s and all these things, they don’t have time to focus on education”.

KPIs are organizational metrics called key performance indicators, which have been critiqued as performativity i.e. “indicators of quality that are taken as definitions of quality”. 6 Andy makes this point when he says “people read data with their own biases in the first place so the data is not really relevant” and “I don’t think, at least so far, that the data is telling us much about what is going on in the classroom”.

Here the organizational reasons, the managers who talked to Andy gave, show the nature of the challenge for TEFL Equity Advocates and other groups such as TaWSIG 7 to organize for fairer and more equitable working conditions.

So let’s stop passing the buck and start hitting it.


  1. IATEFL 2017 Andy Hockley interview:

2. IATEFL 2017 Marek Kiczkowiak interview:

3. Holliday, A. (2006). Native-speakerism. ELT journal, 60(4), 385-387. [https://academic.oup.com/eltj/article/60/4/385/499514/Native-speakerism]

4. TEFL Equity Advocates [https://teflreflections.wordpress.com/]

5. The TEFL blame game continued [https://teflreflections.wordpress.com/2015/02/21/the-tefl-blame-game-continued/]

6. Biesta, G. (2015). Education, Measurement and the Professions: Reclaiming a space for democratic professionality in education. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 1-16. [http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/11141]

7. TaWSIG [http://teachersasworkers.org]

C’est compliqué: TESOL France 2016, Fractals and things

TESOL France Colloquium 2016 starts this Friday 19 November and no doubt the star attraction is linguist Diane Larsen-Freeman who will be doing a plenary and a Q&A session on the Saturday.

Her talk is titled “Patterns in Language: Why are they the way that they are?”

From her abstract:

Drawing on my contention that language is a complex, dynamic system, I will demonstrate that the shape of patterns in language are fractal.

Larsen-Freeman, 2016:15

The claim that language is a “complex, dynamic system” has been critiqued by Kevin Gregg (2010) and supported, albeit with important caveats, by William A Kretschmar (2011) when both reviewed the book Complex systems and applied linguistics by Diane Larsen-Freeman and Lynne Cameron.

Gregg thinks it is false that language, when seen from a narrow viewpoint, as linguistic competence, is dynamical. Everyone learning their first language reaches a steady state and for second language learners there is also the state of fossilisation. He also argues that seeing language in more general terms as an entity in a complex dynamic system is incoherent as language is not a thing but rather an abstraction.

Possible question to Larsen-Freeman 1 – How are you demarcating language when applying dynamic systems theory (DST)?

Kretzschmar who has his own, more plausible, account of DST for speech or language in use, takes issue with Larson-Freeman-Cameron (LFC) for conflating complex systems  and chaotic systems. Chaotic systems cycle through a very large number of states whereas complex systems are on the edge between fixed states and chaos. This can be seen in the difference between Mandelbrot Koch Island fractals and Mandelbrot San Marco Dragon fractals. The former are well-ordered and are a simple collection of basic patterns which form self-similarly at different scales, whereas the latter goes through a series of many states, tracing a “long orbit of successive positions” (Kretzschmar, 2010).

Possible question to Larsen-Freeman 2 – What kind of fractals are you talking about?

Kretzschmar points out that Larson-Freeman’s study of individuals using DST breaks an assumption that complex systems needs numerous interacting elements. Apart from one example given by LFC which does seem to use a DST term appropriately Kretzschmar is highly critical of the general uses of terms from the DST field made by LFC.

I said earlier that in my (very) shallow reading of Kretzschmar I found his account of applying DST to speech much more plausible. One of the reasons is that he keeps with the linguistic tradition of Saussure’s notion of langue and parole, or Chomsky’s concept of competence and performance. He comments on the Five Graces Group which promotes DST in second language acquisition, of which prominent members include Larson-Freeman and Nick Ellis:

…the Five Graces Group is right to insist on usage as what builds a speaker’s cognitive sense of a language, but are not credible in their assertion of a direct connection between speech and grammar as a network of categories…Grammar…when it is defined as a network or hierarchy of categories or rules is something essentially different from the output of the complex system of speech, something only indirectly related to language in use.

Kretzschmar, 2015:91

Possible question to Larsen-Freeman 3 – How does your application of DST to language compare to Kretzschmar?

I hope attendees to the colloquium will find these three suggested questions of use. All errors and omissions mine. Do pop further questions in the comments.

For more info on the critical side have a read of https://criticalelt.wordpress.com/2016/03/20/larsen-freeman-lost-in-complexity-bullshit-baffles-brains/.

Edit: Thanks to Geoff Jordan for reminding me of another one of his essential posts a review of Larsen-Freeman’s talk at IATEFL 2016 https://criticalelt.wordpress.com/2016/04/19/larsen-freemans-iatefl-2016-plenary-shifting-metaphors-from-computer-input-to-ecological-affordances/

Enjoy the conference and thanks for reading.


Gregg, K. R. (2010). Review article: Shallow draughts: Larsen-Freeman and Cameron on complexity. Second Language Research, 26(4), 549-560. DOI: 10.1177/0267658310366582

Kretzschmar, W. A. (2010). Language variation and complex systems. American speech, 85(3), 263-286. DOI: 10.1215/00031283-2010-016

Kretzschmar, W. A. (2011). Book Review: Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics. By Diane Larsen-Freeman & Lynne Cameron. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008. xi+ 287. ISBN 978-0-19-442244-4. Journal of English Linguistics, 39(1), 89-95. DOI: 10.1177/0075424210366194

Kretzschmar Jr, W. A. (2015). Language and complex systems. Cambridge University Press. https://books.google.fr/books?id=r5fwCAAAQBAJ&lpg=PR9&ots=jtFmWnsRQB&dq=Language%20and%20Complex%20Systems%20By%20William%20A.%20Kretzschmar%2C%20Jr&lr&pg=PA91#v=snippet&q=graces%20group%20is%20right&f=false

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2016). Patterns in Language: Why are they the way that they are? Paper presented at TESOL France Colloquium, Paris, France. Retrieved from http://www.tesol-france.org/uploaded_files/files/Full%20TF%20Colloquium%20Programme.pdf

Chomsky, he’s not the messiah, he’s a very misquoted linguist

Sean Wallis runs a great corpus linguistics blog. So I was intrigued as to a recent click bait post titled Why Chomsky was wrong about Corpus Linguistics. I thought initially he was going to go over the history that has been rightly critiqued by Jacqueline Léon in Claimed and Unclaimed Sources of Corpus Linguistics (pdf). In fact he uses an interview given by Chomsky in 2001. Further in developing his first point he takes as given Christina Behme’s assertion that Chomsky “acts now as if no data can challenge his own proposals”.

I think Wallis’ article about some major issues in corpus linguistics stands on its own well and does not need the Chomsky angle.

The part Behme quotes to the question What kind of empirical discovery would lead to the rejection of the strong minimalist thesis? is All the phenomena of language appear to refute it, she even emphasises the All!

I looked up the fuller quote she uses to make her claim about Chomsky dismissing any data that goes against his theory:

AB&LR:: What kind of empirical discovery would lead to the rejection of the strong minimalist thesis?

NC: All the phenomena of language appear to refute it, just as the phenomena of the world appeared to refute the Copernican thesis. The question is whether it is a real refutation. At every stage of every science most phenomena seem to refute it. People talk about Popper’s concept of falsification as if it were a meaningful proposal to get rid of a theory: the scientist tries to find refuting evidence and if refuting evidence is found then the theory is given up. But nothing works like that. If researchers kept to those conditions, we wouldn’t have any theories at all, because every theory, down to basic physics, is refuted by tons of evidence, apparently. So, in this case, what would refute the strong minimalist thesis is anything you look at. The question is, as in all these cases, is there some other way of looking at the apparently refuting phenomena, so as to preserve or preferably enhance explanatory power, where parts of the phenomena fall into place and others turn out to be irrelevant, like most of the phenomena of the world, because they are just the results of the interactions of too many factors?

Chomsky (2002), On Nature and Language, pg. 124

Looking at it one can clearly see Chomsky is expounding on the nature of scientific enquiry not denying data to his own theories. This pattern of Chomsky critics misquoting him for their own polemic appears often. I was still surprised that this one was so blatant. I did leave a comment on the Behme post so will update this post in the event of a response.

Thanks for reading and remember, Chomsky, he’s not the…ah you get the point.


Christina Behme responds, I think she accepts she was misquoting (if it makes me happy). You can read responses and decide for yourself, do comment either here or there should you wish to.


Chomsky, N. (2002). On Nature and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

TESOL France 2014 – thoughts, poster, handout and links

TESOL France 2014 flew by again over the weekend (14-16 November). This year I presented a poster on using PirateBox in class. I felt there was quite a strong interest in this and pleased that some may take up the challenge of using it. I know of one teacher in Germany,  paulw @josipa74, who has set up the open-wrt version on a portable router. Hoping to read about more take-ups in the future. The poster handouts went quickly and I had more which I had forgotten to replace!

I had an interesting question about the security of PirateBox for Android from one conference attendee, he was concerned with technically able students being able to look at other folders on his phone. It was a good question that I had not thought of it before. I guess any system is open to security holes, I should pose this question on the PirateBox forums. Oh and I won the poster prize competition (many thanks to Kevin Stein ‏@kevchanwow for great feedback on poster and Ela Wassel ‏@elawassell for letting me know via twitter as I could not make the closing sessions).

Stephen Krashen and Carole Read were plenary speakers. I caught Krashen’s non-plenary talk (see presentation 1 notes below) on the Friday where he amongst other things repeated his click-bait assertion that EAP teaching was a dead duck. What I found surprising is that he did not really angle his talk for a hall full of teachers who I assume wanted to know about pedagogy. There seemed to be a lot of headnodding and ELT amens and hallelujahs after certain assertions amongst the crowd. There were certain notable dissenters such as Hugh Dellar, for example.

By contrast Carole Read’s plenary on Saturday (see blog post below) was oriented to teaching concerns, in particular on teacher  development, and was harmless enough though there was some language that skirted on and even at one point referenced NuLP, Neurolinguistic Programming.

On the Friday I went to a talk on spoken discourse analysis by Carole Ann Robinson where she described using out of context language and asking her high level students to put back the context they thought was appropriate. Inevitably a lot of context will be culturally loaded and as a colleague pointed out with French students such tasks would have to be set up very carefully and would necessarily be limited by the French context. Nevertheless there were some good activities to consider using limited language as prompts.

On Saturday before lunch I attended a talk on the TOEIC exam by Miles Craven, which was good though I wished the presenter had spent more time on the examples he used in the book he was selling. Some of them I had not really considered and would have liked to have seen more details on it.

The talk I attended after lunch on Saturday on team teaching by Paul Wheal was very interesting from what I managed to gather as I had missed the first thirty minutes (blame the lunch). It was on how he taught and corrected English in parallel with a content expert who was delivering the subject matter. There was a nice video interview with the subject-matter expert exploring the benefits and challenges of team teaching.

The final talk I attended on the Sunday was a panel discussion and presentation of a national survey of working conditions of English teachers/trainers in France. The numbers seemed to back up what the audience already perceived as the grim present and future prospects for the industry here. I may do a separate post on this.

As ever I am very grateful to all the hardworking volunteers who make this conference possible, thank you!

For more reading on TESOL France 2014 check out some of the posts below by Fab Englishteacher ‏@fabenglishteach:

Review- Carol Read’s Plenary: Reflections on how to become a highly efficient teacher

Workshop Review -Esra Girgin Gümüstekin – Teach Empowered

Workshop Review : Sophie Handy – Top Tips For Teens

My TESOL FRANCE workshop –: L1 – How to avoid it and ways of using it in the language classroom.

Stephen Krashen has put up notes of his three talks:

Presentation 1: TESOL France – Compelling Comprehensible Input

Presentation 2: TESOL France – Animal language

Presentation 3: TESOL France – controversies

Judith Dubois @judyldubois has written about:

My Encounter with Stephen Krashen

Mark Hancock  @HancockMcDonald  ponders why some teachers like to hear about the demise of teaching:

Stephen Krashen at TESOL France

and reports on:

Carol Read at TESOL France

TESOL Times Magazine interview with Stephen Krashen

You should have the body!

Mark Hancock has a nice write-up of a talk given by Mike McCarthy on spoken English. The write-up concludes with an interesting metaphor of a corpus being a corpse, language that is no longer alive. It asks whether only using corpus examples is the best way of trying to improve a learner’s use of English.

Very few corpus folks would suggest only using corpus examples, and furthermore a lot of corpus work goes beyond the purely quantitative to also consider the teaching implications.

For example there is a great paper Listening for needles in haystacks: how lecturers introduce key terms by Ron Martinez, Svenja Adolphs, and Ronald Carter on the spoken language of academic lecturers.

They extracted lexical bundles from a spoken corpus of 1.7 million words and then went through those manually to keep only the pedagogically interesting ones. e.g. in other words (kept) vs er this is a (discarded).

Manual review of the list also showed them a hitherto under-emphasized aspect of spoken lectures – the introduction and definition of new terms.

Their analysis split these up into the more transparent but less frequent cues such as call and mean, e.g. …what theorists call.., …what do we mean by… and the less transparent but more frequent cues like basically and essentially e.g. …which are basically…, …so it’s essentially

Further they also showed how complex the delivery of a lot of the definitions or concepts were i.e. there was a lot of rephrasing sometimes using the word or but many times using no signposting language and key definitions usually came at the end of a series of connected points (back-loading).

In addition they found that often lecturers did not explicitly refer to their power point slides which could make it difficult for students to pick out the key terms.

A corpus may be like a corpse but like on the crime show CSI there is an awful lot that dead bodies can reveal.

Habeas corpus, you should have the body! 🙂

Minimal evidence tweets?

A quick thought related to the recent attention paid to evidence in education e.g. ResearchED 2013. What would constitute the minimum evidence for you to consider tweeting/linking to an intervention claiming to improve or beat a traditional one?

How about this link titled Artificially Intelligent Textbook Helps Students Learn, Boosts Test Scores? Fairly threadbare on relevant info no? What about this New Scientist link to the same story? The intelligent textbook that helps students learn. More info on the treatment and control groups yet no info on say statistical significance, if groups randomly assigned or how blind the study was?

Then what do we find when we get to the company website January 2012 evaluation – <<result was not statistically significant>>. :/

What for you would be a minimal evidence tweet?