What does a red phone box have to do with learning English in 2017? by Richard Willmsen

[From the editor: this post was originally published on Richard’s blog here and is republished here with his full consent]

One of my roles in life involves testing the English language to make sure it’s working properly. It’s in this capacity that I get to fly down to Mérida for a few days, eat sopa de lima and cochinita pibil in nice restaurants, and pay a visit to an excellent language school. It’s easy to find because it has a red phone box outside. Everyone I meet there is friendly and seems competent. The owners (both English, in their thirties) greet and chat to the students as they arrive; they seem to know their names and both speak very good Spanish. As for the teachers, they are young, cheerful, and seem to be mostly English.

The school, which goes by the name of the London Academy and has been open for around two years, is “the only British language school in Mérida with 100% qualified British teachers that offers a true British cultural experience”. The images on the walls show cool young people enjoying themselves in London. It’s unlike a lot of  ‘British’ schools I’ve worked at in the past in that there’s a refreshing lack of photos of Beefeaters and the Royal Family and the atmosphere is by no means austere and reserved as it is in some anglophone learning environments. Entering the school I worked at for several years in Lisbon was like going to the dentists: staid, forbidding and snobbish. The school in Mérida is selling an updated version of the UK. It certainly needs to stand out, because there are a lot of schools in that particular suburb. When I walk round the block I count another four. Some seem to be part of chains and most are selling themselves on cost: low prices, discounts if you pay upfront for online classes and year-long courses.

Ultimately it’s a question of marketing. What the London Academy is selling is a tourist experience. For the students (or at least for their parents) the school is a corner of a foreign field. They will be immersed in the classroom in an English-only environment with a representative of the target culture. What the teachers get is a reasonably-paid job and an experience of living abroad, one which gives them the chance to learn some of the language and, if they’re lucky, become friends, or possibly very good friends*, with some of the locals. Nowadays in the world of English language teaching this is quite a retro model. It is based on the promotion of the assumption that the teacher is a monolingual native speaker with no or little knowledge of the host culture. Bringing a new cohort of teachers over every year is very expensive at a time when there is more competition from schools which use other images and associations to promote the learning of English.

There also seems to be a growing recognition that the language study trips abroad business is similarly a branch of tourism. The school I worked at for several years in London has just been bought up by a language travel organisation. It is true that there is no easier environment to learn and teach in. The students get some experience of interacting in an English-speaking setting and they also make English-language friendships with each other. This doesn’t mean that they start watching Eastenders and spend every night down the rub-a-dub. Rather they bond over their dislike of the food, the absurd rents they have to pay and the hangovers they picked up (and the fellow students they didn’t) in bars and clubs where most other customers (and the staff) are also there to improve their English. This is perfectly natural; after all, on holiday, you tend to make friends with other tourists rather than the locals. Some students do arrive with the impression that it’s all about becoming “English” (which is a useful marketing illusion), but they soon knuckle down to the more important and less confusing task of developing an English-speaking life. It’s far more important for Mehmet, who lives in Istanbul and deals with Chinese people on the phone, to understand Wei Wei from Shandong than it is for him to understand what Russell Brand says**. As for the teacher, their job largely involves creating a environment conducive to social and cultural exchange, with their role a mix of tour guide, cultural mediator, facilitator and occasional counsellor.

Sadly, thanks to a combination of international competition in the education market, arbitrary and ill-thought-out changes to visa rules and the global economic situation, the language school industry in the UK (and London in particular) has taken a hammering over the last few years, with very well-established places going to the wall and the survivors getting snapped up by international concerns. It is also possible that over the next few years the international marketing of British English by institutions such as the British Council will encounter difficulties in a world which no longer views Britain as vibrant, mobile and welcoming but rather as insular, hostile and closed. Whereas most marketing of English courses tends to sell an image of mobility – in the words of an advert I saw recently, ‘Where can you go if you don’t know English?’ – all this talk of shutting borders is designed and destined to do permanent damage to one of the very remaining industries which the UK still dominates.

Another major change in the world of English language teaching is a shift away from the notion that native speakers automatically make better language teachers. That’s not to say that the assumption is by any means dead. Browsing websites advertising teaching jobs in Mexico recently I was shocked by the number of ads looking for ‘native speakers’ and specifying ‘no experience necessary’. I’d imagine that most people learning a language would want a teacher with experience. But the rationale for this never was pedagogical. Again, it’s more to do with marketing, to the extent that one term commonly used in China for a foreign teacher is ‘dancing monkey’. Anyone ‘foreign’ will do as long as they don’t have a Chinese face or name.

There seems to be growing acceptance nowadays that the best attribute a teacher can have is the ability to teach, regardless of where they happen to have been born. The spread of English as a lingua franca has led to a growing recognition that it does not ‘belong’ to any one national group. Indeed, it helps to have consciously learnt the language you’re teaching. Having done so gives the teacher insights into the learning experience which allow them to give their students shortcuts and to identify potential pitfalls and misunderstandings. Non-native teachers also make more realistic role models, as the old joke about an English learner saying that when he grows up he wants to be a native speaker acknowledges. Plus it’s also true that a ‘native’ level of English is not a desirable goal. In international settings it is often British, American and Australians who have most difficulty making themselves understood, given their reliance on irony and idioms which may be lost on people who don’t share their cultural background. The trend is partly driven by economic changes – although native speakers are more profitable, non-native teachers are cheaper – but it has a positive effect as better teachers find it easier to get work.

The notion of ‘native speaker’ is problematic in any case. I’m one of them, yet there are lots of lots of ‘foreigners’ who use(d) ‘my’ language better than I do: Conrad, Nabokov, Zizek and Varoufakis all spring immediately to mind. My Italian wife writes things in her job that are much better than anything I could produce***. The idea that a ‘native speaker’ is an exemplary model has given way to a focus on proficient, competent or expert speakers. Similarly, the category of ‘mother tongue’ speaker does not take account of people who grew up speaking one language at home and another at school. Ultimately, nation state and language are just not a very good fit, especially in relation to English.

I myself found out quickly in Portugal many years ago that in a monolingual EFL classroom it’s the monolingual teacher who has problems expressing what they want, especially when dealing with teenagers. Students know their own culture and can communicate perfectly well with each other. Hence they can run rings round a teacher who has little training and almost no experience of inspiring learning and imposing discipline. Such a relationship depends partly on the personality of the teacher and partly on their ability to assert their authority over the language on the basis of their national identity. Anyone who has taught in such a context will recognise the frustrations described by George Orwell in his story ‘Shooting an Elephant‘. It is all too common for fledgling (and sometimes veteran) EFL teachers to develop the attitude of a colonial policeman and to dismiss the ‘natives’ as lazy, stupid “evil-spirited little beasts” who are out to “make (your) job impossible”.

This doesn’t mean that teaching and learning is impossible in such a context but where it does take place it tends to be by accident. My own ‘teaching journey’ has taught me that any meaningful educational experience has to be based on cultural exchange. Every teacher who sticks at it works out eventually that if you’re not learning, you’re not teaching. The model I’ve been describing is about trying to impose one identity on another. What must take place instead is a recognition and validation of each others’ identities. This involves drawing on the students’ expert knowledge of their language, their experiences, expertise and social roles rather than dismissing all of the above and relying instead on a combination of communication games, bullying and luck.

I would like therefore to put forward five suggestions for roles that EFL teachers can usefully adopt in a monolingual teaching/learning environment:

  1. The students’ knowledge of their own language is an essential classroom resource. This means that both the teacher and the students sometimes need to play the role of translators. It also implies a ceding of control and a certain amount of humility on the part of the teacher. My students know their own languages better than I do and sometime meanings have to be negotiated and dictionaries referred to. This has the advantage of reflecting real language use; in any given human interaction where more than one language is involved discussions over corresponding forms, functions and meanings are ever-present and sometimes other authorities have to be invoked. Clearly there are activities where this is not appropriate, and the teacher needs to establish when and why only the target language should be used. In a cooperative environment with purposeful activities students will be happy to go along with this.
  2. Tip number 1 implies that the teacher should speak or be learning the language of their students. There are, bizarrely, language teachers who have no experience of learning another language or who have never done so successfully. Such teachers are not able to understand and relate to the frustrations and ritual humiliations their students are exposing themselves to. Several times in my teaching career I have been put on the spot by a student asking me to perform a task I have asked them to do. Such experiences have helped me to reflect on how useful and how ‘doable’ the activity I’m imposing is. Once, with a class of Italian teenagers who were traumatised by the prospect of their Trinity Exam, I did the task myself in very imperfect Italian, getting them to play the role of examiners. A light bulb went on. They realised that they didn’t need to be completely fluent and that it was fine to make mistakes as long as they basically made themselves understood. They all went on to pass the exam. In order to be a teacher you also need to be a learner. This is a role no teacher should ever stop playing; there are always new things to learn.
  3. If you are teaching in another country you are also a model of someone immersed, out of their depth, occasionally thrown in at the deep end, experiencing anxiety, and sometimes losing face. Your ability to articulate these feelings and reflect on those experiences in English will be better than that of your students****. This involves drawing on your own experiences.  This paragraph itself could generate a very useful lesson for students struggling to articulate their own experiences with the language. It doesn’t mean that the teacher is an exemplary language learner but as someone who learns and also thinks about language a lot you do have insights to offer.
  4. A teacher needs most of all to be a teacher, with a range of approaches and techniques to suit each particular class. Hence our role is not that of an oracle on our language and culture. Both students and teachers have gaps in their knowledge of the world. That is fine. A classroom can be a very useful place to identify things that we don’t know and to figure out how we can find out. It very often happens that I learn new things in English*****, and when that happens I point it out to my students. As a language teacher I know that some students fail to understand that one’s command of a language is never total. Pointing it out by using yourself as an example helps students to recognise that their English need not and can not ever be ‘perfect’. I am there in the classroom because of my teaching experience and ability, and not as a proxy for the Queen or for Cambridge University.
  5. Teachers should also facilitate sharing of emotional experiences. We can help the students visualise their learning experience and identify specific examples of progress. One excellent way to do this is to explore learning metaphors: are they on a journey, climbing a mountain, working out in a gym, hanging out with some friends once a week? In tackling such themes the teacher is playing the role of a counsellor. In order for this to be effective the teacher needs to work constantly on creating an encouraging and forgiving environment based on an ethic of cooperation rather than on shaming people who make mistakes.

These tips are written with the teaching of English in mind. Some of them also apply to other languages. For example, I can’t say that the list of characteristics of various French supermarkets I spent ninety minutes learning in an intermediate French class a few years ago has helped me a great deal when talking to recent Senegalese immigrants in Rome. The same applies to Spanish and to an extent Portuguese; there’s not much point learning to lithp or to use o senhor appropriately when you’re off to live in Mexico or Brazil. Some other-language courses I’ve encountered have confused language competence and grammatical knowledge, with little room for error and a very narrow definition of success. The teaching of English does have something to offer language teaching in general given that there is simply more practise and research taking place.

It’s different with, say, German, Italian, Japanese or Finnish, since almost all speakers of these languages are from those countries or have spent time there. Then learning things like the names of personalities and radio advertising jingles is important. At the moment I live in Italy, where what hinders my comprehension most is a lack of knowledge of the (admitedly very complex) culture. It is, however, only one of many possible experiences. In past I’ve tended to assume that my own learning experiences are the only or the ultimate model, which is clearly not the case.

Several years ago in London there was a best-selling book/CD for English language learners called ‘Get Rid Of Your Accent‘. The cover featured a woman who looked like Agatha Christie and sounded like Lord Reith’s elocutionist. As David Crystal points out, learners do need a pronunciation role model but the notion there is one way of speaking is absurd. People certainly need to have a command of Standard English, but in a globalised world intelligibility is the main issue. The same goes for local varieties of grammar. A former colleague used to teach his newly-arrived elementary students to ask everyone they met “What do you do work-wise?”, a question guaranteed to draw a blank look from Akiko from Kyoto. It can be useful to teach students to understand local accents in questions like ‘wotjado?’ and ‘naamean?’, but it’s pointless and unfair to ask them to speak in that way. Sometimes over the years my lessons have been about making students talk just like me. That,to briefly use a particularly British English term, is bollocks.

* In some cases, very many very close friends.

** Mind you, there’s a wonderful story about teaching TEFL from the man himself here.

*** This is not meant to suggest that I have a number of wives from different countries. Maybe I should ask her how to rephrase it to make it more clearer.

**** If it isn’t, you may have wandered into an INSET session by mistake.

***** Such as how to spell ‘bizarrely’.

richard-willmsenI’m an DELTA-qualified English teacher and IELTS examiner from the UK and I’ve taught in Ireland, the UK, Portugal, Spain, China and Mexico. I’m currently working at a university in Rome. I post regularly about EFL, languages, politics and whatever else takes my fancy at www.infinite-coincidence.com.


16 thoughts on “What does a red phone box have to do with learning English in 2017? by Richard Willmsen

  1. Peter Pun says:

    ‘It is also possible that over the next few years the international marketing of British English by institutions such as the British Council will encounter difficulties in a world which no longer views Britain as vibrant, mobile and welcoming but rather as insular, hostile and closed’
    Fair point. What would be your solution? I teach from various coursebooks that use BrE as standard (at the British Council), should this change? If so, how? Do you propose an international English standard for coursebooks, or a preference for AmE instead? If we devised local and regional ‘standards’ rather than going with traditional (and perhaps archaic) global ‘standard’ varieties, how do you ensure a level of linguistic pluralism? I always find this tough to think about, and never arrive at an answer! Cheers for your views!

    • Joe P says:

      To be fair, I think the publishers have been pretty good at representing a variety of Englishes in books recently, although I’ve got to say, I think the British books are far better at this than the American ones. I had a listening not too long ago from an American book in which what was supposed to be a scientist from Tokyo was talking in what was obviously a native American accent (no not that sort of Native American). But I used a listening from English Unlimited the other day and not one of the speakers was a native speaker. Native accents are represented too of course, but most listening texts have one native and one non-native speaker speaking in an international context. Interestingly, I’ve only noticed this trend with adult books. Most children’s books are still exclusively native speakers, and I’m not sure why that might be the case. Difficulty getting non-native child actors?

      Interestingly, there is still often an emphasis on British/American culture because of something else we’re told is important: authentic texts. Publishers are keen to tie up deals with the BBC or a British newspaper and so end up with a textbook full of distinctly British content, or at least international content from a British perspective. I’m not entirely sure this is a negative thing, given the importance of students having compelling input in the language. The reality is that a lot of the students are accessing British and (particularly) American content in their own languages anyway. Might as well exploit their enthusiasm for the subject matter and encourage them to explore it in English too. It seems ridiculous to me, for example, that I’ve never seen a copy of Harry Potter in an ESL library. Or The Hunger Games. Or Twilight. Or books featuring any number of comic book characters whose films are constantly topping the charts. But obviously we can still choose content that has international Englishes represented where possible.

      But I’ve gone off on one a bit there. Going back to the textbooks, the area where I think they still haven’t caught up is the pronunciation activities themselves, which still often focus on things like weak forms, that aren’t vital for international communication, but are useful for people moving to English-speaking countries. Although I’ve never really found pronunciation is dealt with well in textbooks anyway, because it’s often quite L1 specific.

      • Peter Pun says:

        Perhaps course books should use the Lingua Franca Core as a basis for providing relevant pronunciation input? Mind you, it might not be important to produce things like weak forms in international communication, but noticing them is important for listening. So these features that you suggest are non-vital may still be worth highlighting to learners.
        In your post you mentioned the British Council’s bias towards BrE. interestingly, part of their rationale for the global adult General English product is to ensure listening texts include a broad range of international varieties of English across the syllabus. The YL products still mostly use BrE though.
        Cheers for thorough answer by the way!

        • Joe P says:

          I’m not actually sure the British Council is as prescriptive about teaching British English as people assume. True, anything with their logo on it is expected to be in British English, but that’s more for marketing and official communications rather than teachers. I don’t know any American teachers who attempt to use British English in the classroom, and given the amount of materials sharing that goes on, I get to see a lot of other people’s lessons. And on more than one occasion, the assigned book for a course has been American English. I’d say a far bigger focus at the council these days (other than not referring to it as “the council”) is on diversity. Hell, you only have to look at their advertising to see this. I think they are very much positioning themselves as a global company rather than a specifically British one. The only time I specifically see images being used of the English-speaking world is in advertising IELTS, where the focus is on studying in these countries.

          • Peter Pun says:

            Yeah Joe I agree… Maybe it’s to do with the status change of British Council teaching centres a few years back, they have more autonomy perhaps.

      • Richard Willmsen says:

        There’s that book out there called ‘Pronunciation for Listening’, plus Jennifer Jones’ stuff about a phonemic core, and I think both have been influential. Interesting what you say about some of the logistical aspects of coursebook writing. I’ve been involved in writing coursebooks and exams and difffernt levels and now I come to think of it the lower-level texts I used and invented were much more centred on everyday-life situations from the (ahem) ‘target culture’. I’m not so familiar with recent coursebooks for kids but given that you and Peter make the same point about British English models it must be a trend I’ve used English Unlimited before and like you I did appreciate the variety of models. In my (obviously limited) experience EFL libraries and ranges of graded readers are improving to take account of international publishing successes, although while I encourage students to tackle the books you mention and graphic novels I have had the odd student learning English through 50 Shades of Gray, which makes me feel slightly ill. I’ve also seen a copy of ‘The Art of the Deal’ in an IH library which I was tempted to remove and dispose of. Still though, in terms of the level and variety of language it wouldn’t be too much of a challenge. Actually that’s an interesting post to be written: how will the image of English be affected by the fact that the most prominent ‘native speaker’ on the planet has such a limited command over the language? I’ve mentioned that Theresa May isn’t a great advert for British English, but what about Trump in relation to English as a whole?

        • marekkiczkowiak says:

          Yes, but 99% of course books still rely on Standard British or General American model of pronunciation. If you look at which pronunciation features are emphasised in course book syllabai, you’ll find: weak forms, connected speech, stress timing, word stress, vowel quality; features that are either inconsequential to or actually hinder intelligibility in international contexts. I think it’s high time course book writers took into account the volumes of research into pronunciation and English as a Lingua Franca.

        • Joe P says:

          In answer to your last question, did George Bush negatively affect the image of English? He was hardly the reincarnation of Chaucer, and yet we’re all still here teaching English.

          • Richard Willmsen says:

            Good point. Although he could string a sentence together and he wasn’t absolutely openly racist. Plus the War on Being Very Scared may well have had a negative impact on the role of English in some ways, it’s unquantifiable. Certainly the EFL industry in the UK has taken a massive battering in the last few years and the global security situation must have something to do with that.

  2. Richard Willmsen says:

    Hi Peter, I think from the point of view of coursebooks the shift has already been made, you tend to find very few Beefeater-type images in your Cutting Edges and Inside Outs nowadays. I think locally-produced ones still rely on those associations but the international ones have moved on to embrace (and promote) English as a global concern. The BC is a different case in point as you say, and I don’t have a prescription as they will always have to sell ‘Britishness’ in some form, I just think the Theresa May-model will be a harder sell than the Tony Blair one based around notions of aspiration and mobility. It will be interesting to see what images they use to promote themselves from now on. As for language variety, I’m totally with David Crystal on this, I think students should be exposed to all sorts of varieties of English from all over the world, and the models should be international ones. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Global range of coursebooks but I think what they’re doing is very laudable, their models in eg listening texts are mostly ‘non-native’ (as has traditionally been defined) speakers. In terms of British or English, I guess it will continue to be based on where the book is published and in terms of classes it will depend on who’s teaching and where. I don’t think the differences between BR and AM Englishes should be overemphasised, especially at lower levels. Pretty much all students will combine elements of both into their own idiolect, which will have local features. As I say though I presume the BC will stick with a British model and IELTS students should learn the variety for wherever they’re hoping to work or study. Some random thoughts I’m afraid, as you suggest I don’t think it’s any longer possibke to arrive at a definitive answer to many of these questions in a world where English is globalised/globalized.

    • Peter Pun says:

      Hi Richard, sorry I thought Joe’s response above was from the author. I was thinking more with pronunciation in mind when responding (I guess by varieties I meant more specifically accents really). But the cultural issues re: marketing and Britishness – will be interesting to see how the BC brand evolves! Re: Global coursebook – I think there are some copies on the classroom shelves (unused at the moment) so I’ll have a good look through. Cheers!

      • Richard Willmsen says:

        There’s a YouTube interview somewhere with David Crystal in which he argues convincingly that it doesn’t really matter which variety of accent students are taught as long as it’s intelligible. Personally I think it’s a bit of a shame if a Brazilian spends all their time trying to sound like Timmy Thomas but then to be fair if I speak French I don’t want to sound like I’m from Sheffield, so I understand why people see it as important. I just there is something separate about English given its international role and students shoild be made aware of different accents without any suggestion that any are superior or inferior. They’re much better off spending their time improving their vocabulary.

        • marekkiczkowiak says:

          Here’s a nice quote from David Crystal about accents: “Sounding native is no longer the point. I can think of only one category of person who needs to sound native – ie totally lose a NS identity – and that is: spies. Everyone else should be proud of their NS identity and not wish to lose it. […] Just as I want to experience the glorious diversity of English accents and dialects in Britain, which enrich our linguistic and literary heritage, so I want to experience this diversity on the newly emerging global scene. I want to hear X-tinted English – fill in the ‘X’ by Canadian, French, Russian, Ghanaian, Brazilian… what you will. It would be a sadly denuded English linguistic world if people were being taught as if this wonderful series of varieties did not exist.”
          It’s from this interview: https://teflequityadvocates.com/2014/07/06/interview-with-david-crystal/
          What do you think?

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