Call for contributions: Innovative writing in English language teacher education and development

Of all the calls for papers that find their way in my inbox, I think that this one is one of the most original: English Language Teacher Education and Development (ELTED), the open access peer-reviewed journal published by produced by the Language Learning, Teaching and Assessment (LLTA) Research Group of the Centre for Applied Linguistics, University of Warwick, are asking for contributions for a special issue titled Innovative Writing in English Language Teacher Education and Development.

The purpose of the special issue is to give space for new, creative and unconventional ways through which “teachers and teacher educators can communicate about their experience, finding their own voices and expressing themselves”. These might include narratives, podcasts, short fiction, poems, hyperlinked material, comic strips, as well as conventional articles on non-conventional writing.

Expressions of interest should be emailed to Dario Banegas (D.Banegas[at]warwick[dot] and Richard Smith (R.C.Smith[at]warwick[dot] by 10 September 2015.  These proposals should be around 200 words long and should state the content of the proposed contribution, its basic structure, what will make it innovative, and why this innovation is justified. Both the expressions of interest and the full contributions which will follow will be peer-reviewed.

Tentative timeline
Deadline for expression of interest 10 September 2015
Notification of acceptance 10 October 2015
Full submission due 10 February

Featured image credit: eye/see @ flickr,  CC BY-NC-ND

On Grexit and Solidarity

There are two reasons for writing this post: One is to express my sincere gratitude to colleagues and friends who have come forward with generous offers of help, at what has been a challenging time for people in Greece; and the other is to pass along a very kind offer that may be of interest to Greece-based scholars whose publication plans have been disrupted by recent economic developments.

When information about the imposition of capital controls on the Greek banking system broke out, coupled with information about an impending Grexit, I was genuinely touched to receive multiple messages from friends abroad, who offered to help me by providing short-term liquidity or picking up the bill for various internet-based services until I was allowed to make international payments, and who even suggested paying for the plane tickets for an upcoming visit to the UK. What was even more touching than the offers of material solidarity was the overwhelming feeling of affective support and sympathy from people that mean a lot to me. For all this, I am grateful.

Now to the second part of this post: One of the less obvious implications of the recent financial crisis is that researchers in Greece no longer have access to subscription-based journals, because HEAL-link, the consortium that manages subscriptions for Greek universities, no longer has access to its funds. Moreover, international transactions are all-but-impossible, which means that researchers who prefer to take the Open Access route to publication cannot pay for Article Processing Charges (APCs). In the face of these difficulties, it was very encouraging to read that ScienceOpen are generously offering to waive APCs for any authors funded by Greek research institutions for the rest of 2015. Here are some relevant extracts from their announcement:

These unprecedented financial constraints have also caused Greek researchers to lose access to newly published research. This is because the Hellenic Academic Libraries Link (HEAL-Link) has terminated all licenses after being unable to collect the remaining half of the subscription budget for the current year. Although not a like-for-like replacement, ScienceOpen offers a valuable Open Access aggregation service with over 1.5 million articles that are freely available for everyone to use. We urge the Greek community to make full use of it now and in the future.

For Greek (and all) researchers who wish to have their voices heard in the international research community, we provide opportunities for those with five or more peer-reviewed publications on their ORCID to participate in Post-Publication Peer Review (PPPR) and share their expertise with the world.

For Earlier Career Researchers (ECR) in Greece, stymied by the lack of jobs and mobility, we pledge to make a special effort to highlight any articles published on our platform through social media and blog posts to elevate their visibility within the global community. You may find some more thoughts about ScienceOpen, Open Access, and PPPR for ECR in our blog roll here.

We hope that this offer goes some small way to demonstrating to the Greek research community that they are not alone and that our offices in Berlin, Boston and San Francisco stand in unity with them. We welcome other publishers to join this initiative.

Alexander Grossmann

I am sure that I speak on behalf of everyone I know in the Greek research community when I say that we are all truly thankful for this gesture of solidarity.

Featured Image: “Open Access promomateriaal”, by biblioteekje @ Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Call for papers: 13th International Conference of the Association for Language Awareness (ALA 2016)

The 13th International Conference of the Association for Language Awareness (ALA 2016) is to be held at the Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien (Vienna) on 19-22 July 2016. The topic of this year’s conference is Languages for Life: Educational, Professional and Social Contexts.

Confirmed plenary speakers include:

Call for Papers

Proposals are invited for papers and posters reporting on research on language awareness. Proposals focussing on the following themes are especially welcome:

  • Language Awareness in Language Learning and Language Teaching
  • Language Awareness in the Workplace and Business
  • Language Awareness and Awareness of (New/Social) Media and Literacies
  • Language Awareness, Intercultural Awareness, Communication Awareness
  • Critical Language Awareness
  • Awareness and Attitudes concerning Languages and Varieties

Abstracts (300 words max., excl. of references) are to be submitted via EasyChair, by 15th November 2016. Each author is limited to a single-authored paper and one co-authored one. The abstracts will be reviewed anonymously, and notification of acceptance is expected in early 2016.

All abstracts should be written in English, but the actual presentation may also be in other languages. In the event of a non-English contribution, visual support (e.g., PowerPoint slides) should be in English or bilingual; in these contributions, the title of the abstract should be given in the original language, with the English translation in brackets.

Additional information can be found at the conference website, or by emailing the conference organisers at ala2016[at][dot]at.

Featured Image: “das Gebäude der Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien in Wien-Alsergrund” [The Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien building in Vienna-Alsergrund], by Priwo @ Wikipedia, (public domain)

Tissue rejection

It seems that it’s been a while since I wrote an ‘Asked and Answered’ post, but here’s an interesting question that found its way into my inbox:

What is meant by tissue rejection in language teaching methodology?

‘Tissue rejection’ is an evocative metaphor that was used by Adrian Holliday (1992) to describe what happens when a teaching method, which is known to work in a particular educational setting, is introduced into a different setting where it fails to catch on.

In Holliday’s early writings, a distinction was made between what he called BANA and TESEP models of instructed language learning. In BANA (British, Australasian and North American) settings, learning tends to take place in private language schools or language learning centres affiliated to universities, and there is often ‘relatively clear contract between institutes and mainly adult groups who come specifically to learn English’. By contrast, in the TESEP model, derived from the words Tertiary, Secondary and Primary, language learning does not usually have an instrumental objective (Holliday 1998: 12). Holliday has since moved on from this rigid binary distinction, but I will continue to use it in this post because it helps to more clearly illustrate the ’tissue rejection’ metaphor.

Each of these two models has evolved different methods, which are in line with local cultural expectations, learning materials and resources, classroom arrangements and so on. For instance, BANA education is often underpinned by what Holliday defined as the ‘learning group ideal’, which sets the conditions for ‘a process-oriented, task-based, inductive, collaborative, communicative English language teaching methodology’ (ibid: 54). TESEP educational settings, on the other hand, might privilege a more traditional, transmissive, form-focused approach to language learning, which is closer to the norms of mainstream education in those settings.

The problem, Holliday argues, is that there is a tendency for TESEP to be perceived as less-than-effective, and the remedy is thought to be the adoption of BANA models. This is, in a sense, similar to a situation where a patient undergoes an organ transplant. However, when such innovations take place, we do not (and cannot) replicate the entire BANA model in the new setting. Rather, what is transferred is a limited selection of methods, which often do not fit very comfortably in the new context where they are transplanted. The new method (the ’tissue’), which was effective in its original setting, then becomes a source of disruption in the new setting.

Tissue Rejection
Figure 1. Relative positions of the language learning ideal in different environments (from Holliday 1994: 105)

A common scenario of ’tissue rejection’ is when a language teacher tries to introduce pair-work or group-work activities in a class where learners have been accustomed to working individually, under their teachers’ guidance. In such a case, it’s likely that the learners start engaging in off-task behaviour, or become disruptive; fellow teachers might complain about the noise levels in the language class; and parents might question the language teacher’s professionalism. The key thing to remember in this case, is that the problem does not stem from the teachers’ classroom management skills. Rather, it is rooted on the mismatch between the culture from where the method originated, and the culture where it is being implemented. Returning to Holliday’s metaphor, it is similar to what happens when a patient’s immune system attacks an otherwise perfectly good organ that has been transplanted into to said patient’s body.

The ’tissue rejection’ image is a powerful metaphor that helps us to understand the social and cultural intricacies involved in teaching English worldwide. Although the premises on which it was originally grounded (i.e., the existence of two incompatible English Language Teaching models) have given way to more nuanced thinking, the spectre of tissue rejection is still relevant in at least two ways. Firstly, it highlights the need for language educators to be aware of, and sensitive to, the subtleties of local educational cultures. And secondly, it serves to remind us of the complex, and often unpredictable, ways in which different cultures of learning interact.

Featured image by Rob Ireton @ Flickr, CC BY 

Is there a talent for language learning?

Not too long ago, I was caffeinating at an academic conference, when I was joined by a few friends who introduced me to one of the student assistants. “This is Kevin”, they told me. “He’s a hyperpolyglot: he can speak with everyone in this room in their native language!” Upon learning that I was Greek, Kevin looked down in embarrassment and said that he didn’t know much Greek – and then his face suddenly lit up, and he embarked on an animated chant: “Greek lover, Greek lover, me triha san pullover [your chest hair’s like a jumper]” He followed up with a stream of profanity, which he delivered with the eloquence and creativity of a drill instructor. Much merriment ensued.

What prompted me to remember this story was this newspaper article which claims that the ability to learn languages is determined by our genetic endowment. The usual caveats against scientific journalism apply, but the article does raise an interesting question. If some individuals have exceptional language learning abilities, what exactly are these traits and how do they contribute to learning? Despite the claims made in the article, our level of understanding in genetics and neurolinguistics is just nascent, which means that we can’t answer this question with any degree of certainty. With this in mind, what I aim to do in this post is discuss what little we do know about language learning aptitude.

What is Language Learning Aptitude?

Language learning aptitude (LLA) is the ability to effortlessly learn languages, which can lead to high language learning outcomes. In the words of Peter Skehan (1989), it is a “pre-programmed autonomous language learning ability” (p. 33). The first thing to note about this definition is that aptitude and outcomes are distinct. That means that there are many individuals who possess high LLA, but have not had the opportunity or motivation to learn additional languages. Conversely, there are individuals whose impressive linguistic capabilities are the product of effort rather than predisposition. That said, however, LLA can predict learning outcomes to some extent.

Another important distinction to make is that LLA is not quite the same thing as general intelligence. A number of empirical studies have found that LLA has a low moderate correlation (0.4 to 0.45) with measures of intelligence, indicating that the two constructs are related but not identical (Gardner & Lambert 1972, Skehan 1982). It also seems that most individuals with outstanding linguistic performance have above-average intelligence, but not outstandingly so (Skehan 1998). Moreover, there have been several reports in the literature, about individuals who have mental retardation and yet are highly proficient in several languages (e.g., Smith & Tsimpli 1995).

Aptitude research was quite popular in the 1950s and 1960s, at which time a number of aptitude tests were developed, with a view to using them to inform language teaching. The best known of these was the Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT), which was developed by John Caroll and Stanley Sapon in 1959. This was originally used for screening applicants for the US Foreign Service Institute. Another version of the test, the MLAT-Elementary, was used for selecting and streaming children in language programmes in primary education. The Pimsleur Language Aptitude Battery, or PLAB, was another aptitude test used in secondary education settings. However, the decline of structural linguistics, on which these tests were based, and the arguably non-democratic ways in which LLA testing was being used, meant that aptitude testing fell into decline in more recent years.

Components of Language Learning Aptitude

So far I have discussed Language Learning Aptitude as a singular construct, and this makes sense in the interest of efficiency. However, LLA research has always viewed aptitude as a composite construct, which brings together several components. An influential model of language learning aptitude, which has been put forward by Peter Skehan (1998), distinguishes between three main components: phonemic coding ability, language analytic ability, and memory (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Components of Language Learning Aptitude (Skehan 1998: 217)
Figure 1. Components of Language Learning Aptitude (Skehan 1998: 217)
Phonemic Coding Ability

Perhaps counter-intuitively, different languages make different distinctions between sounds: e.g., Russians do not distinguish between /f/ and /θ/, and to a Greek /i:/ (as in “sheep”) and /ı/ (as in “ship”) sound the same. Roughly speaking, the Phonemic Coding Ability refers to the ability to tell certain sounds apart, even if one’s mother language does not discriminate between them. It appears that at the early stages of instruction, individuals with a highly developed Phonemic Coding Ability strongly outperform their peers, but this advantage wears off in the higher levels of linguistic proficiency. In other words, it seems to function as a threshold of sorts, which is necessary but not sufficient for high linguistic outcomes.

Language Analytic Ability

The second component of LLA is Language Analytic Ability. This is defined as “the capacity to infer rules of language and make linguistic generalizations or extrapolations” from linguistic input (Skehan 1998: 204). As seen in Figure 1, the Language Analytic Ability appears to have a linear and monotonic relation to linguistic proficiency. That is, the greater the Language Analytic Ability an individual possesses, the likelier it is that this individual will have a high linguistic proficiency. However, because this relation is linear, it seems that the Language Analytic Ability cannot adequately explain the outstanding linguistic proficiency of hyperpolyglots, unless additional factors are taken into account.


The missing factor is memory. At the lower levels of proficiency, it appears that the relation between memory and linguistic proficiency is linear. However, among individuals with high levels of linguistic proficiency, small differences in memory can create enormous advantages, i.e., its role increases disproportionately.


So far, in this post I’ve looked into what Language Learning Aptitude is, and into its components. Moving forward, I’d now like to ponder on some implications for ELT practice and research. Firstly, I think that there is enough empirical evidence to suggest that language learning aptitude correlates with learning outcomes. Furthering our understanding of the construct and its impact on learning, and raising teachers’ awareness of the topic both seem like useful goals – at least as useful as the study of other learner differences, like multiple intelligences, differentiated learning styles and others. In other words, we should not assume, on the basis of ideological assumptions, that all learners are identical and that aptitude can be disregarded.

Equally, we should not assume, on the basis of our continuing research, that differences in language learning aptitude mean that some individuals are a better fit for language education programmes than their peers. In other words, while a high language learning aptitude may provide some students with an advantage in learning, it cannot and should not be assumed that there are individuals who are not capable of learning languages.

More to read

Two of the more accessible introductions to language learning aptitude are Peter Skehan’s Cognitive Approach to Language Learning (1998, Chapters 8 & 9), on which I have drawn extensively for this post, and the section on aptitude in Rod Ellis’s Study of Second Language Acquisition (1994, pp. 494-499). For an overview of more recent research, you may want to consult the state-of-the-art article by Richard Sparks and Leonore Ganschow (2001), which covers literature spanning from 1991 to 2001. There are also a couple of interesting articles by Peter Robinson and Peter Skehan in a volume edited by Robinson (2002). John Carroll’s (1993) Human Cognitive Abilities, by one of the pioneers of aptitude research, offers some additional information, which is perhaps dated, but still quite useful.

There are a number of interesting case studies of individuals with exceptional LLA, some of whom were mentally challenged. Here’s a sampling:

  • Curtiss, S. (1977). Genie: A psycholinguistic study of a modern day ‘wild child’. New York: Academic Press.
  • Curtiss, S. (1988) ‘The special talent of grammar acquisition’. In L. Obler and D. Fein (eds.). The exceptional brain: Neuropsychology of talent and special abilities. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Smith, N. and Tsimpli, X. (1995). The mind of a savant: Language, learning and modularity. Oxford: Blackwell.

If you can get your hand on the original aptitude tests, they are actually quite fascinating (there is a copy of the MLAT at the University of Manchester library, complete with test papers, answer sheets, a cardboard marking mask and instructions). The references of the tests I’ve discussed in this post are below, in case you need to cite them:

  • Carroll, J.B. and Sapon, S. M. (1959) Modern Language Aptitude Test. New York: Psychological Corporation.
  • Pimsleur, P. (1966) Pimsleur Language Aptitude Battery (PLAB). New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Featured image by Man vyi (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Αχιλλέας Κωστούλας Ιστοσελίδα και Ιστολόγιο


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