Category Archives: Commentary

Recently Read: The Lingua controversy

This week’s ‘big story’ undoubtedly was the mass resignation of all the editorial board and the reviewers of Lingua, a prestigious journal published by Elsevier. For those of you who may have missed it, here are some highlights.

What happened?

Last July, the editors of Lingua asked Elsevier to renegotiate the way the journal worked. Like all academic journals, Lingua publishes articles written by researchers, whose salaries are paid by universities or research grants. These are submitted for free to the journal, and they are reviewed by unpaid volunteers. For their part, the publishers provide some services, such as proofreading and typesetting, often of somewhat uneven quality, and then they resell the content to university libraries through opaque deals, at what are arguably exorbitant prices. Alternatively, Elsevier might make individual articles publicly available under an Open Access model, in exchange for which they levy substantial Article Processing Charges, or APCs.

In a letter to Elsevier, the editors suggested the Lingua should become a fully Open Access journal with modest APCs. Here’s a relevant quote:

First of all, we would like Elsevier to transfer the journal to full Open Access status. We understand that the current Article Processing Charges (APCs) at Elsevier are in the amount of 1800 euros. We believe that this amount is too high under current market conditions, and would like to ask that the APCs be lowered to a maximum of 400 euros.

Predictably, Elsevier was reluctant to make such concessions, at which point all six editors and the 31 academics who made up the editorial board resigned their posts, and announced their plans to launch a new academic journal, called Glossa. Apparently, they already have a Twitter account:

Johan Rooryck, who has been editing the journal since 1998, made the following comments to International Higher Education:

By quitting his position, Rooryck will give up his current compensation from Elsevier, which he said is about 5,000 euros (about $5,500) a year. He said the pay is minimal for the two to three days a week he works on the journal. “I would be better off going to flip burgers in that time,” he said.

Rooryck expects to earn nothing when Glossa launches — and he’s fine with that. “I’m doing this for purely idealistic reasons. I’ve had it. I think you have to move forward and it might as well be linguistics” that does so. Rooryck said that while he is particularly bothered by Elsevier’s policies, the criticisms extend to other corporate publishers. He said that some of his colleagues are already talking to editors of other journals, and hope that they will follow the lead of Lingua and that “linguistics can be a model for other disciplines” in standing up to publishers.

The Empire Strikes Back

For their part, Elsevier have brushed off concerns. In a public statement that was issued on Wednesday, they pointed out that “they are are managing the activities of 80,000 editors for 2200 journals”, and that the small number of dissenters who handed in their notice will be replaced. They also presented their own account of events:

The editors of Lingua wanted for Elsevier to transfer ownership of the journal to the collective of editors at no cost. Elsevier cannot agree to this as we have invested considerable amount of time, money and other resources into making it a respected journal in its field. We founded Lingua 66 years ago.

There are many who might take issue with the last statement. Johan Rooryck, for instance, had the following comments to make:

It does not come down to what “we” means. It comes down to what “found” means. […] Elsevier seems to retroactively and transitively claim that North Holland, hence Elsevier, set up and established Lingua. Now please consult the introduction of the first volume of Lingua in 1949 […] North Holland is not even mentioned anywhere, it is simply the printer of the journal. So there is no way Elsevier can claim to have “founded” the journal 66 years ago. That claim is demonstrably false.

But the claim is also interesting, as it is revealing of the hubris of publishers today. Elsevier seems to believe that, because it has legal ownership of the title of the journal and the copyright of the articles, it can also claim intellectual ownership of the journal and of its articles. This is not so. Scientific results belong to their authors and to the public. Research is paid for with public money. Private companies should not make exaggerated profits on goods produced with public money.

What next?

It remains to be seen how successful Glossa becomes, both in terms of commercial sustainability, and in terms of academic reputation. I think it will do both. More importantly, it remains to be seen whether we are at the brink of a paradigm shift in academic publishing.

Patrick Dunleavy, writing in the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog, argued that unless there is a substantial reduction in APCs, universities could reclaim scholarly publishing for the academic community. Here’s his take on what an alternative model might look like.

Serious, big universities will be thinking, are already thinking – why don’t we publish digitally and open access ourselves?  All that academics at (for instance) Stanford, Harvard, Imperial or LSE get from being published in prestigious journals is the certification of peer review, itself an increasingly battered and replaceable currency. Yet top universities could organize their own conventional peer review processes economically and effectively, much as they do for PhD examining in the UK, using a system of mutual service and support. All the rest of the piece – getting articles publicized by twitter and blogs, providing a well-edited product, delivering the article to any PC, phablet or colour printer in the world – can be done easily and cheaply by universities themselves.

There are already many signs that academic publishing is nearing a crisis point. Universities across the world are increasingly unwilling to pay extortionate prices for access to research [1, 2, 3], and many academics are wary of providing free labour to profit-making entities (e.g. the Cost of Knowledge campaign). I wouldn’t be surprised, or saddened, if the hard line adopted by Elsevier precipitates such a change.

Featured Image: University of Nottingham @ Flickr,  CC-BY-NC

“I honestly can’t understand what’s so bad about taking a language test!”

“I honestly can’t understand what’s so bad about taking a language test!”

This remark, uttered in genuine exasperation, was delivered by a member of the governing board (Επιστημονικό Εποπτικό Συμβούλιο) of the University of Ioannina Model & Experimental Schools, where I used to work a while ago. We had been in a long meeting, during which the motion had been tabled to encourage our Year 6 pupils to take a language proficiency examination, and to use our school’s resources to help them prepare for the test.

The idea was, we were told, that pupils would then leave primary school with a “valuable” certificate proving that they had attained the A2-level of the Common European Framework. Plus, they would have gained useful experience in test-taking, which, in the exam-oriented context of Greek education, was a skill of self-evident value. Less obviously, the project would also provide a raison d’ être for the stillborn Level A of National Language Proficiency Certificate (Κρατικό Πιστοποιητικό Γλωσσομάθειας), a language test that had been developed by the Universities of Athens and Thessaloniki a couple of years before, and had failed to attract much commercial interest.

In the meeting, I argued fiercely against the proposal, and managed to block the initiative at that time, but judging from the governor’s exasperated remark, I must have been less successful in explaining why I thought that this was a terrible idea.

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Fast forward to 2015

Over time, testing has become a somewhat more prominent part of language teaching, in Greece at least, and I suspect in other settings as well. In my thesis, I noted that for many Greek students, getting a language certificate such as Cambridge FCE is thought to be more important than actually learning the language (p. 152 et seq.). A similar observation is reported in a paper by Jo Angouri, Marina Mattheoudakis and Maria Zigrika, who tell us that:

[a] parent mentioned to one of the authors recently, “I told my daughter I expect you to get (names certificate); you can learn the language later when you need it” (p. 192)

Added to this, there is a widespread public perception that regular universal testing can help to restore some accountability to the Greek education system. In fact, just yesterday, it was suggested to me that the solution to many problems that Greek education faces involves “taking certificates, e.g., for foreign languages at every level (primary school [should confer an] FCE)”

Much as the public’s confidence in language testing has increased, there appears to be growing skepticism about their effects and effectiveness, among some professionals at least. This skepticism is, in part, pragmatic: there is mounting frustration as education professionals realise that emphasis on testing has failed to deliver a betterment in learning, and may in fact be associated with possible compromises in the quality of teaching. In part, it is also associated with the ‘critical turn’ of ELT, i.e., an increased readiness to ask questions about who benefits and who is harmed by our professional choices.

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So what is wrong with language testing?

I suppose that this is the point where I would be expected to list my objections to language testing. Rather than do that, however, I will draw on a recent blog post by Richard Smith, in which he summarises his contribution to the ELT Journal debate at this year’s IATEFL convention. Just as a reminder, the motion for the debate was that Language testing does more harm than good, and you can find a great summary in Lizzie Pinard’s blog.

Richard begins by making a useful distinction between classroom-based assessment, which can be valuable to teachers and learners alike, and the large-scale, high-stakes tests that are provided by commercial enterprises or national school systems. Of the latter, he notes that these tend to dominate and constrain teaching. Moreover, they are associated with adverse psychological effects, including even suicides. In addition, they are used as instruments of neoliberal policies, and often result in excluding the weaker and less privileged students from education and the workforce. Quoting Bernard Spolsky (1995: 1), he points out that language testing is not really about ‘helping students learn’, and that examinations are used instead ‘as a method of control and power – as a way to select, to motivate, to punish’.

He also notes that language testing adversely affects education in at least two ways:

First, as UK- or US-based test producers increasingly succeed in selling their tests and accompanying ‘systems’ to education authorities and institutions worldwide, there is a Trojan Horse effect – the utilitarian goal of ‘proficiency’ comes to predominate at the expense of other, less obviously testable but important educational values, for example, intercultural understanding, language learner autonomy and literary appreciation (cf. Paran and Sercu 2010). Secondly, these global tests – however technologically innovative, scientifically based and ‘adaptive’ they may seem to be (Kerr 2014) – are acting increasingly as a conservative brake on attempts to innovate away from native speaker norms in favour of more flexible, dynamic and localized conceptions of language-in-use (Original emphasis).

Richard concludes his remarks with a call for holding the power of English Language testing to account and resisting it – but he acknowledges that it is far from clear what form such resistance might take.

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An example of resistance

Going back to that meeting I described at the beginning of the post, I managed to prevent the introduction of the new policy by agreeing to implement it – provided four conditions were met:

  1. No resources would be taken away from the teaching provision. If the board insisted on their idea for exam preparation, they would have to timetable additional hours.
  2. The language test would be selected following a thorough and transparent review of all commercial options. In other words, the examination that the ministry and the board were keen to impose would not be selected by default, unless they waived examination fees.
  3. Student participation would require informed consent from students and their parents; at minimum, I expected a meeting where the benefits and drawbacks of the test would be explained in detail.
  4. Poor performance at the test would entitle students to remedial teaching, and funding would have to be ringfenced for remedial teaching provision.

The governors who were in favour of introducing the examination backed down when confronted with these arguments, suggesting that their ideological commitment to testing was not matched by a commitment to bearing the cost for the test. I should also note that this, and similar, acts of resistance eventually meant that I had to move on from that school, so I would not readily recommend them – although personally, I have no regrets.

Featured Image: ‘Examination’ by Thomas Galvez @ Flickr, CC-BY-2.0

Revisiting the Target Language Democratisation narrative

Back in the early days of English Language Teaching, teachers were keen to make all learners speak the Queen’s English and viciously suppressed linguistic diversity. Thus, they perpetuated Imperial rule long after the Empire had imploded. Then, in the 1980s, Braj Kachru argued that some varieties of English had become established in post-colonial settings, and it was deeply unfair to exclude them from teaching. Adherents of the ‘Standard Language Ideology’, like Randolph Quirk, fought back in defence of that ‘single monochrome standard’ which ‘looked as good in speech as it did in writing’, but Kachru held his ground, and his view eventually prevailed. Then, in 2000, Jennifer Jenkins published The Phonology of English as an International Language, which legitimised ‘foreign’ accents, and introduced a new, even more democratic and even more inclusive way of thinking about English. This means that we can now teach English unencumbered by possible feelings of guilt. 

Or so the narrative goes… It is a neat, linear, plausible story, with clearly-defined heroes and villains, and a predictable happy end. It is a narrative found in many accounts of the historical development of ELT, and is often repeated in the English as a Lingua Franca literature. As a matter of fact, and in the interest of full disclosure, it is the story that I narrate in Chapter 2 of my own thesis.

So what’s wrong?

But it would seem that this account, which I will provisionally call the Target Language Democratisation narrative, may not be entirely consistent with the historical record. And this is just a fancy way to say that it could very well be sham.

Earlier today, I was reading The Linguistic Sciences and Language Teaching, a book written by M.A.K. Halliday, Angus McIntosh and Peter Strevens in 1964, and here’s what I came across in pp. 203-204 (emphasis added).

One of the most important changes that took place in the period between 1950 and 1960 was the acceptance that ‘to speak like an Englishman’ was not the obvious and only aim in teaching English to Overseas learners (as far as speaking ability was imparted at all): in this respect British acceptance of variations of accent in English used overseas has run ahead of American views. Although linguistic theory was applied to language teaching by American workers long before it became a widespread practice to do so in Britain, the linguistic consequences of social and political changes, and especially of newly won political independence, have been recognised and accepted by the British while many American language teachers remain troubled but unconvinced. Some American language teachers accept only American forms of English, but in the eyes of the British language-teaching profession one or other of the varieties of English that are growing up may in specific cases be of a kind more appropriate to the local educational systems than any form current in the British Isles. This acceptance is accorded to varieties of English such as those labelled ‘Educated Indian English’, ‘Educated West African English’.

If this account is true, it seems that Quirk’s objections notwithstanding, there was already a strong tradition in British ELT of accepting and tolerating diversity in ELT. And this trend began at least 30 years before Braj Kachru wrote about World Englishes. This passage also seems to cast doubt on narratives such as the one found in Phillipson’s (1992) Linguistic Imperialism, that claim that ELT had always been hostile to vernacular varieties of English, and that the ‘centre’ of the English speaking world (the Anglophone West, that is) had always been keen to impose its norms on the ‘periphery’. While a single source cannot constitute proof, the extract above is hard to reconcile with Phillipson’s version of ELT history.

Why should this matter?

These may seem to be trivial points, and I will readily concede that they make little substantial difference to actual teaching today. But still, I think that there are two somewhat important implications which should not be overlooked. Firstly, the discrepancy between the Target Language Democratisation narrative and the account found in this book from the early 1960s, calls into question the extent to which canonical versions of ELT history are grounded on historical data. This is disturbing question, which has also been posed by Richard Smith elsewhere, and which perhaps needs to be asked more persistently.

Secondly, such discrepancies raise the question of how and why ahistorical accounts of ELT come to be established. As critical professionals, we need to ask ourselves why the nuanced statements made by Halliday, McIntosh and Strevens have failed to register in the history of the profession. I can only speculate that our understandings of the past are always mediated by the perceptions of by those who came in prominence more recently, perceptions which may have been oversimplified in the context of the heated lingua-political debates of the 1980s. If the invectives sometimes found in the English as a Lingua Franca literature are any indication, some of us have been rather too eager to reduce alternative viewpoints to straw-men arguments. While this tendency may be problematic in the context of scholarly debate, raising such oversimplified accounts to historical status is even more troublesome.

And what about fixing this mess? To me, it sees that there’s a need to retell the history of our profession – this time drawing on the findings of a rigorous, data-driven research agenda. We need to go back to the original documents, the books and writings of previous times, and we need to interview those people who were involved in giving the profession its shape. there’s lots of work to be done, so if there’s anyone out there looking for a PhD topic, this might be a worthwhile one.

Featured image by Hindrik Sijens @ Flickr | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

Using YouTube to communicate research findings

A frequent, and fair, criticism of academic research is that it is often inaccessible, either because of the way in which it is written, or because it is often locked away behind paywalls. As a result, alternative formats, such as academic blogs, social media and podcasts have become increasingly popular, but they are still far from mainstream and are sometimes viewed with scepticism.

Maria Jesus Inostroza, a PhD candidate from the University of Sheffield, recently showed me yet another original and creative way to share her research: an animated YouTube video. Maria has been using Complexity Theory to understand the challenges faced by ELT professionals in Chile, and in the video that follows she talks about her PhD research.

I thought it was quite interesting, and it certainly motivated me to learn more about her research. (And, to be perfectly honest, I also felt slightly envious that my digital skills are not quite as sophisticated as hers. There, I’ve said it!). So, what do you think about this way of reaching out? Can it be used to disseminate research findings in more detail, or is it best used as an attention-getting technique? Can, and should, universities encourage researchers to experiment more with such alternative formats? Are there any possible implications for the ways in which junior researchers are perceived?

Featured Image by Patrick Breitenbach @ flickr, CC-BY-2.0

Non-Native Speakers of English need not apply

A while ago I wrote a post where I argued that the preferential hiring of Native Speaking English Teachers is discriminatory, and having made my case I thought that there would be no reason to revisit the issue. In part, this is because such discussions have a way of quickly becoming unproductive, especially when carried out online. More importantly, I think that there is a danger of focussing too much on the perceived differences between the two groups of teachers (native and non-native speakers), and thus perpetuating a distinction which is, in my opinion, unhelpful.

I think that, fortunately and despite occasional counter-examples, instances of discourse that supports ‘native-speakerism’ (: the preferential treatment of native speakers of English) are not as frequent as they used to be in the past; and that there is greater awareness, in the profession, of what constitutes discrimination, as well as less willingness to tolerate it. It has also been my experience that embarrassing attempts to legitimise unjust practices are usually dealt with by the teaching community swiftly and appropriately.

This is why I was genuinely stunned to learn about the casual and crude discrimination practised by the University of Athens and the Greek Institute of Educational Policy (Ινστιτούτο Εκπαιδευτικής Πολιτικής), who are jointly responsible for developing the new Foreign Language Curriculum for Senior High Schools. According to the job advertisement (in Greek only), they were interested in contracting four ELT methodology specialists, who will create learning materials, reading comprehension tasks and grammar awareness testing activities, ranging from B2 to C1 level of the Common European Framework of Reference (p. 3). The person specification expressly excluded non-native speakers, as it was stipulated that being a native speaker of English was an essential qualification (p. 4, my translation) :

Essential qualifications:

  • A humanities degree
  • Native speaker of English
  • Proven professional experience in creating learning materials for teaching and learning English, and/or assessing linguistic proficiency (in print and/or in electronic media)
Person specification from RCEL website, stipulating that non-native speakers will be excuded
Extract from the job specification for ELT methodology specialists (p. 4)

Elsewhere in the same document, a position was described for an ELT methodology specialist who will be responsible for creating listening tasks. They too, must be native speakers of English (p. 6). Then, on pp. 16-17, there’s a position for two voice actors (male and female), who not only need to be native speakers, but also have to speak with “a British pronunciation”.

Oddly, these native-speakerist specifications appear to be specific to the positions associated with the English language. The positions for French and German language specialists seem to have been written with a very different professional profile in mind, as seen in the extract below (p. 14, my translation and emphasis).

Essential qualifications:

  • A first degree from a Department of French Language and Literature
  • A Masters degree in French Language Teaching or Translation, or a PhD focussing on French Language Teaching
  • Linguistic proficiency at a native-speaker level
  • Proven professional experience in creating learning materials for teaching and learning English, and/or assessing linguistic proficiency (in print and/or in electronic media)
Extract from a job specification for a French language specialist
Extract from a job specification for a FLT methodology specialist (p. 14)

There are multiple reasons why this advert is so frustrating. One is that it is signed by academics who have often described their work as “counter-hegemonic”, “pluricentric”, and promoting a “multilingual, heteroglossic and polyphonic” ethos. What these impressive words index is an ideological position that allegedly challenges native-speaker privilege, and which is sometimes referred to as ‘critical applied linguistics’. It is unclear to me whether this discrepancy stems from lack of awareness about how language and politics come together in critical theory, or if it is an instance of hypocritical applied linguistics. Just as disturbingly, it reveals a disconnect from scholarship on applied linguistics (Isn’t English an international lingua franca and are there implications for nativeness?) and pronunciation research (What is a “British pronunciation” anyway, and why is it preferable?). This lack of scholarly sophistication is surprising for a research cell that purports to specialise on ELT methodology.

Most importantly, it is disheartening to be confronted with structural inequality that is so deeply ingrained and so blatantly expressed, when one does not know how to effectively address it. In instances like this, one can always rely on Widdowson for a pithy and apt bon mot. In Defining Issues in English Language Teaching, he writes that “applied linguistics is not in the business of recommending, but of pointing things out” (p. 180). What I have tried to point out, in this post, is that as the profession is slowly making its way towards a more inclusive practice, there are institutional enclaves that seem entrenched in racist ideologies. Because such institutions exercise power, they pose a significant obstacle to the continuing democratisation of ELT.

Featured Image: The University of Athens, by Badseed @ Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0