Richard Chapman, The University of Ferrara, Italy

What is to be Done? Responsibilities in English Language Teaching in the Twenty-first century


This paper reflects on the sometimes complex moral questions that all English language teachers find themselves facing in their work, be it in public or private institutions, in very different locations all over the globe and in hugely varying economic contexts. The aim is to open up debate in a hotly-contested field and to remind practicing teachers that we have a right and a duty to critique assumptions, and to highlight the issues we face in our work. Inevitably we will find more questions than easy answers to thorny debates, but the article concludes with some pointers as to how we might develop our professional conduct in an ethically valid way.


The dilemmas

Language teaching throws up significant moral dilemmas almost every day. Recently, I have been forced to ask myself uncomfortable questions such as

•    Do I encourage CLIL in my institution? And if so, how much, and how hard?
•    Should I correct American/Irish/non-standard forms in my students’ work?
•    What sort of English do my students really need to know? ELF? US English? RP?
•    What is a ‘good accent’ for learners of English? Can I teach this?
•    What is the place of translation?

Of course there are many more tricky issues we might be faced with, any day of the week. Nagging doubts about accuracy and fluency, the criteria we use to assess performance, or the role of grammar and vocabulary never go away. But before we throw our hands up in despair, it is worth recognising that it is exactly these problems which underline the importance of the role of a language teacher and the substantial possibility for doing some good that lies in our hands.

These personal dilemmas actually conceal some of the most significant moral and political questions in the history of English language teaching. Any list of these would probably include: native/non-native-speakers (as teachers and trainers, but also users and learners); linguistic imperialism (Phillipson, 1992 and 2009); the neglected role of translation (Cook, 2010); the part played by teachers as leader, guide, facilitator, healer or friend; globalisation, and with this the recognition of English as a Lingua Franca (Jenkins, 2007); the place of examinations and “the power of tests” (Shohamy, 2001). Perhaps it is worth noting here that all these issues have received substantial analysis and critique over the years, but that they all remain with us as perennial questions. 

Many of these issues can be understood (and perhaps even resolved) when they are seen in the context of the hegemony of the English language. Indeed, we might suggest that all English teachers should always keep in the forefront of their minds an awareness of the power of English in its reach and scope, its economic importance and political clout. If we do not, we risk becoming mouthpieces for a view of the world we do not actually share. I would like to suggest that a healthily critical attitude towards the assumptions associated with this dominant language will help us to make ethically sound judgements in our contexts and our classrooms. 

This hegemony is perhaps best illustrated when we think of the native/non-native debate. Despite a productive and insightful analysis during the 1980s and 90s (see especially Medgyes, 1992), the ‘myth of the native-speaker teacher’ is still alive and kicking today. Courses on the internet are regularly offered with the assurance of support or correction from native-speakers (though, of course, the native speaker is notoriously hard to define), and language schools in many countries advertise their native-speaker teachers as a unique selling point. It is clear that a magical aura of authority still clings to the native speaker almost by birth, and this grants advantage or power in the market place for jobs and other life chances. 

The natural, born English speaker is just so lucky, it seems. And here we can see the acuteness of the situation. There is a not-so-well-hidden ideology at work on a global level in business, education and political discourse that includes implicit claims about efficiency, neutrality, professionalism, freedom and fair-play that are all supposed to be peculiarly ‘English’ characteristics, deriving from a vague view of history and an indulgent view of the language. We may agree with Phillipson (1992) and see this as the result of intentional government policy and planning, or conclude that these are the effects of predominant, centre-oriented discourses (Holliday, 2009).

But for us the complexities of international political theory might not be the priority: we need to know what to do in the classroom and how to help our students as much as we can. Does this help mean equipping learners to be as savvy as possible and simply (if reluctantly) accepting the status quo? Are we as teachers to go so far as to find ourselves aping the enthusiastic proponents of “the world’s default common tongue” (Dunton-Downer, 2010, p. xv), or passively accepting the role of English as “a linguistic fact of life”? The situation is such that even the critics are forced to express their arguments in English, or risk their voice being lost. 

A moment’s reflection on the current international situation makes this an unpalatable proposition. The importance of ability in English is emphasised when we see highly politicised descriptions of migrants as anything from ‘refugees’ and ‘asylum seekers’ to outlaws and threats to our safety. And the migrants themselves often have to use what English they have to tell their stories. Demonstrations around the world are very often bilingual, with placards in the local tongue and in English for an international audience. Ability in English is certainly useful, often advantageous, and sometimes a life-saver.

But what can we do, as individual teachers struggling to communicate a language we love to learners, faced with this complex environment? Perhaps we should take a couple of fundamental, urgent issues and by tackling them see if we can discern a principled way forward.


English as a global lingua franca?

The connection between English and hegemony might be attenuated or resolved if it becomes a lingua franca. Indeed ELF has been touted as the solution to the difficulties of international communication: it is seen as an easy-to-learn and easy-to-use tool that is available to all and aims to be truly ‘of the world’ and so not burdened by issues of history or geopolitical power struggles. It will enhance trade and human understanding and will level the playing field with its open, tolerant interpretation of grammar, spelling and punctuation, thus curtailing or eliminating the privileges of the British or American (or Australian etc.) native-speaker (for a description of ELF, see Jenkins, 2007). The optimists’ case is mostly clearly put by Widdowson (2004, p. 361):

…it enables its users to express themselves more freely without having to conform to norms which represent the socio-cultural identity of other people

I think few of us would question the potential value of such a development, but can English as a lingua franca really fulfil this arduous task? Or are we being excessively optimistic? Teachers should be deeply aware of the current debate about the role(s) of English, and their teaching should be significantly influenced by the contribution of the lingua franca movement (e.g. the move towards ‘translanguaging’; tolerating, or even encouraging variation; calling into question the issue of ‘ownership’ of English). But we must also attempt to be professionally honest, and this necessitates asking difficult questions about ELF:

•    Is it worth the investment? i.e. should we spend to learn a language that claims to be less powerful?
•    What will the cultural and social content of the language be? (And its history and literature?)
•    Can cooperation between speakers (rather than status/competition) be assumed?
•    What will the relationship between ELF and British or American forms be? One of equals?
•    What rhetorical skills and resources will be allowed or encouraged by ELF?
•    Are the pragmatics of ELF culture specific or somehow internationalised? 
•    Will English be “the last lingua franca” (Ostler, 2010)?

My personal view is that ELF offers a great many advantages and should certainly alter the way (and ‘the what’) we teach in the future, but I would add a word of caution: precisely because of its admirable ambitions (which largely come down to social equality in language), ELF risks failure if it ignores the dangers and complexities of the issues it is dealing with. Deference to the native speaker is unlikely to die away of itself, accents may well remain deeply influential pointers to identity, and political and economic power might still dictate linguistic behaviour. Perhaps our role is to face these issues in an informed, transparent way, exploiting the best of what ELF offers our learners but not kidding ourselves that the immediate solution to centuries of hegemony is at hand.


CLILing me softly?

At the chalkface, the most influential new development in English language teaching is probably CLIL, especially in Europe. Significant changes to the teaching of English are occurring all over Europe (and, of course, beyond) as content subjects are being taught via English as the medium of instruction. We find ourselves as teachers of English being asked to design or help with courses, to advise teachers of other subjects, to adapt our courses to help classes that will also have CLIL instruction, or even to train and prepare CLIL practitioners. Anecdotal evidence suggests CLIL is very effective in language development, but as governments dive precipitately into national projects it is well to keep in mind some of the unresolved issues associated with CLIL:

•    Does CLIL risk having a negative effect on local languages?
•    Testing and CLIL require more theoretical attention. Objectives must be clearly stated and should inform examination content and procedures (rubrics only in English? Tests scored for content, or for both content and linguistic performance?)
•    How can CLIL methodology empower students in critical thinking and questioning?
•    Is there a theoretical basis for deciding which courses should be ‘CLILled’?
•    Does CLIL risk improving students’ English at the price of increasing the hegemony of English?

It is worth remembering here that there is no reason why CLIL should be in English, and indeed there are CLIL courses in French, Spanish etc. but the vast majority tend to be English and there is a pervasive assumption when talking about CLIL that English will be the medium. The issue of subjects chosen is important, and it is perhaps indicative of the unprincipled thinking that can sometimes come into play: rather than just choosing the subject that happens to have a teacher able to teach in English, an institution should have a clear, theoretical basis for the decision. It might be suggested that history lends itself particularly well to a CLIL approach as cultural and interpretative differences presented in a different language will be an added value. Others might argue that the supposed neutrality of the hard sciences makes them more suited to CLIL. The point is that we should address this.


And so, what is to be done?

Faced with so many difficult, global issues, teachers might feel powerless, but there are strategies we can and should employ in order to help our learners. Lingual abilities are paramount and as language teachers we can contribute to their development (perhaps most of all in learners’ mother tongues). We should always aim to help our students to become skilled users of language. Translation is a vital life skill and one that has been neglected over the past forty years or so for understandable reasons (i.e. the move away from grammar-translation and a greater emphasis on communication). Translation aids deep appropriation, is excellent cognitive training, helps develop contrastive analysis and opens up rich experience of texts. Translation also forces us to recognise and accommodate ambiguity: a significant ability in itself. It is an unnatural mistake to banish it from the classroom (Cook, 2010). We should work on developing critical skills and awareness of pragmatics, and language offers great opportunities for this. Lastly, we can continue to identify and develop good practice in the classroom: on a down-to-earth level, good teaching is good teaching whatever the ideology, and memorable or stimulating experiences can be fostered in all sorts of situations. If we manage to instil and enhance a love of language then we will have done our job.


Do no harm?

Besides these admittedly not especially original suggestions, it is perhaps easier to avoid some of the pitfalls that the language teacher faces in the 21st century. Firstly, our stance should be critical, but constructively so. I suggest we avoid ideological positions of any sort if they render our message slanted or intolerant. Accusations of ‘cultural laziness’ are to be avoided at all costs: this may seem a ‘no-brainer’ but comments as to the inadequacy of local instruction or national linguistic performance are surprisingly common and invariably as inaccurate as they are insensitive. Thirdly, we must never lose sight of the complexity of content in language use: it is always many-layered and hardly ever purely ‘transactional’. This means that we must be aware of the social implications of linguistic behaviour (e.g. having a heavy accent or being grammatically imprecise).  In other words, when we correct or demand certain behaviour in our students it should as a product of our understanding of the pragmatics of English use and the norms of the social context. Lastly, we should be aware of the ‘league table fallacy’: the educational world is bedevilled by international classifications (universities, levels of English spoken, success in examinations etc.). But the criteria for these tables may well be described as Anglo-centric (hegemony raising its head again?), and the idea of comparing wildly different contexts and socio-economic realities is of itself problematic. League tables, even if they appear informative and convincing, must be taken with a large dose of salt. International language testing is a more focused and personally significant facet of the same reality. While the advantages of international examinations are obvious (granting internationally recognised qualifications in a globalised context), we might question whether testing should always be international, overriding local language realities (cf. Pennycook, 2010). In this regard it is perhaps interesting to note that the lasting effect of the internet might be to reinforce local language practices and variations rather than impose linguistic homogeneity on all of us.



As teachers we are dealing with crucial issues in troubled times. War, migration, natural resources and the environment all have significant linguistic aspects. Indeed, the success of coming generations in dealing with these challenges might rest to a substantial degree on how well equipped we are in language terms to understand, manage and negotiate difference and to handle crises, with the right words, spoken in the right way, at the right time. We must be aware of the vastly different needs of learners, and we must insist on having the tools (and the examinations) that help users to gain from ability in English as a second, other or even a first language. Our task is to develop the widest and most appropriate linguistic resources in our learners. To this end I would propose that all training or certification courses in English language teaching include an ethics module to assist participants in their search for the ways to ‘do a god job’ in class, while being fully aware of the powerful forces lurking (not so far) in the background. Fully-fledged teachers and trainers must feel able to ensure CLIL is beneficial, translation is sensitive and that any version of the lingua franca will be truly open and liberating.  

This might also take the narrative element in language use into account: we tell a story when we speak, and our every utterance contributes to the story others believe about us (Bruner, 1989, pp. 110-116). These ‘micro-narratives’ participate in meaning and construct memory; and, as Blommaert (2005 and 2010, chapter 3) shows us, they can be decisive in our own life stories. Language effectively learnt and used can empower our students and assist them in their understanding of the world. The “inevitable” hegemony English currently enjoys should and can be limited and modified and perhaps teachers are among those most able to bring this about. 



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Holliday, A. (2000). The role of culture in English language education: key challenges. Language and Intercultural Communication
Jenkins, J. (2007). English as a lingua franca: Attitude and identity. Oxford: OUP 
Medgyes, P. (1992). Native or non-native: who’s worth more? English Language Teaching Journal. Oxford: OUP
Ostler, N. (2010). The Last Lingua Franca. English until the Return of Babel. London: Allen Lane
Pennycook, A. (2010). Language as a Local Practice. Abingdon: Routledge
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Widdowson, H. G. (2004). "A perspective on recent trends” In A.P.R. Howatt and H. G. Widdowson. A History of English Language Teaching (second edition). Oxford: OUP

0 comments | 13 March 2019 | | Thom Kiddle

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