Category Archives: About this blog

Year in Review

It’s that time of the year again, when one takes stock of the previous 12 months. This year’s post is less introspective than the previous one, but here goes anyway…

As always, wordpress has helpfully provided an annual traffic report, according to which I this blog was visited 110,000 times in the past twelve months. This is, perhaps, a surprising number considering the lack of posting activity in the summer (because I was looking for a job), and in the last couple of months (because I found one).

A large number of visitors come to this blog for the statistics content, which I continue to find both bizarre and frustrating. Other, less popular and probably better posts, that were written this year include the following:

My rant about discriminatory hiring

The position taken here(…) is that the very concept of Native vs. Non-Native teachers should be irrelevant to teaching discourse, just as dichotomies between male and female teachers, or between attractive and plain-looking ones. To quote Adrian Holliday again, these labels “really have not always been there, and we really don’t need them”.

In January 2015, I came across an article where it was argued that there was nothing discriminatory about exclusively hiring native teachers of English. I immediately wrote a brief, and somewhat angry, response here. In the post, I outlined three reasons why such thinking is linguistically flawed and ethically problematic. Despite being written in some haste, the post turned out to be reasonably coherent, and to my surprise, it led to the largest number of views in a single day – a record that would last till the end of September, when I announced my new job.

Introduction to complexity

Readers of this blog will know that I have an interest in Complex Systems Theory, and I do on occasion blog about it. In spring 2015, I was involved in organising the Manchester Roundtable on Complex Systems Theory and ELT, an informal gathering of teachers and academics that aimed to exploring how Complexity can be used to bridge the perceived gap between theory and practice in language teaching. In anticipation of that event, I wrote a short primer on complexity, which you can find here. The plan to make this a series of five posts discussing different aspects of complexity and ELT didn’t quite materialise, partly because I didn’t feel confident enough in my ability to describe complexity in non-technical terms, but this introductory post is a reasonably good entry point into complexity.

Is there a talent for learning languages?

We should not assume, on the basis of our continuing research,(…) that there are individuals who are not capable of learning languages.

Many of the posts in this blog are inspired by conversations I have with friends who want to learn more about language and language learning. This post, on language learning aptitude, or the ability to learn languages effortlessly, is a good example of such a post. It was triggered by a long conversation with a good friend, over a bottle of good wine, during which we debated whether there is such a thing as a ‘talent’ for learning languages. In the post, which summarises the better parts of that conversation, I argue that there seems to be such a thing as ‘aptitude’, and I explain what it consists of; but I also point out that it is not the most important factor determining success.

Some thoughts on teaching and testing

Another example of a post inspired by an informal conversation, on Twitter this time, was the one where I discuss the relation between language learning and testing. In brief, I argue that the two are not always compatible, and look back at a critical incident from my language teaching days. In September 2015, when this post was written, I had made up my mind to leave Greece, and some of my frustration and resentment over my previous employment seems to have made its way into the post. Such imperfections aside, I think that the content of the post is useful, and can serve as one example of how we might, ever so briefly, use professional knowledge and our sense of integrity in the interest of our students.

Looking into predatory publishing

It seems unethical to make hiring and promotion decisions conditional on a publication model that creates unrealistic output expectations for honest researchers, and profit opportunities for unscrupulous publishers.

Predatory publishing, roughly defined, is the practice of separating researchers from their money, by publishing scholarly work in journals of dubious quality. Uneven levels of academic expertise, poor regulatory practices, and gullibility are important factors in explaining the rise of predatory publishing, but they may not be the only ones. In this post I discuss how academic advancement regulations in certain contexts (*cough*Greece*cough*) tend to encourage submission of mediocre papers to low-quality journals. Although neither this post nor a follow-up outlining alternatives were very widely read, I have included it in this list because I think it is a topic that warrants reflection and discussion

And more…

In addition to the above, I have used this blog to record events and milestones that were noteworthy to me in one way or another. One of these events was the Teaching English to Young Learners panel, which I co-organised, in IATEFL 2015. You can read more about the panel members in this post, and about our talks in this one. Another one was the workshop on practitioner-led research, which I co-presented in ELT Connect 2015. You can find our slides and a handy how-to guide for planning research projects here. Last but not least, in this post you can find a copy of a chapter that I co-authored with Juup Stelma, which was recently published in New Directions in Language Learning Psychology (Gkonou et al., 2016).

I guess that’s all for this year… As always, thanks for reading, and have a great New Year!

Featured Image: Andrea Parrish – Geyer @ Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0


Recently Read: Drunken Aussies, Upgrading to PhD, and the REF

I’ve been in my new post in Graz for a month now, and life seems to be settling back into a pattern of regularity. This means that I now have time to read more broadly about things academic and professional. What follows is a selection of highlights from last week’s readings, which I found interesting.

David Crystal on ‘drunken Aussie’ accents

This story was quite widely circulated on social media last week, so chances are that you may have already come across it, but it’s too good not to quote. Apparently, David Crystal was recently asked to comment on a report that Australian English derives from the drunken speech patterns of convicts exiled to Australia by the British justice system. According to this post in his blog, he was not impressed:

I commented, all right. I used an ancient linguistic technical term: it’s complete bollocks. Rubbish, I added, helpfully. That wasn’t enough, it seemed. I then had to spend the best part of an hour doing my best to persuade the journalist, who had obviously fallen for this story hook, line and sinker, (a) that it had come from an Australian academic, Dean Frenkel, who, though described as a ‘speech expert’, doesn’t seem to have any backround in the relevant disciplines of historical sociolingustics and phonetics  […] Was my long conversation with the journalist worth it? Not in the slightest. When the article appeared, she quoted a couple of lines from me about the diversity of accents in the UK, and allowed the story to come across as if it were gospel. ‘So if the Aussie accent is down to booze, why do other parts of the world speak English so differently?’ The word ‘rubbish’ didn’t appear at all. Nor the other word.

This incident may be worth bearing in mind when reading ‘science’ journalism.

More to read: Incidentally, here’s some advice on dealing with journalists, in case you are asked to weigh in on a topic.

Thinking about the lessons we teach

Moving from linguistics to ELT, Sandy Millin has written a very useful contribution for the British Council TeachingEnglish blogs section, in which she suggests questions that we can use when reflecting on any lesson we have just delivered lesson. You can read the full list by following this link, and here’s a sample to persuade you to visit:

  • What did the students know by the end of the lesson that they didn’t know at the start? Is that what I expected them to learn?
  • What did I learn about my students today?

More to read: As some of you may know, Sandy Millin also owns an excellent blog where she shares thoughts about ELT. I strongly recommend following it, if you aren’t subscribed to it already.

Women in ELT

Some of you may recall a controversial talk delivered in IATEFL 2015 by Russ Mayne and Nicola Prentis, where they argued that women are underrepresented in the top of the ELT profession. As these things tend to do, the talk sparked some debate, and the thesis put forward by Mayne and Prentis did not seem to be unanimously accepted. Regardless of how one positions themselves on this debate, I think there is much value in a recent initiative by Mayne and Prentis:

While we think it’s certainly possible to find female speakers in a profession largely made up of them, it might be true that there isn’t one easy place to find who they are and what they speak about. We want to provide that reference and compile a directory of women who speak at conferences, or would like to, and their availability and areas of interest.

We can contribute to this directory by adding the names of female speakers who are interesting to listen to. The contact form, and the full text describing the initiative can be found here.

More to read: Some reactions to Mayne and Prentis’ talk included posts by Scott Thornbury (P is for Power), and Steve Brown (He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!).

Upgrading to a PhD

And here’s something for those of you who are working towards an academic qualification. Rachel Handforth, who is doing her PhD at Sheffield Hallam University, has shared some interesting thoughts about what they call the ‘upgrade’. This is an variously-named interim examination held in most UK universities early in the PhD process (in Manchester we used to call it the ‘progression panel’, although I think this has changed now).  It can be a stressful event, and Rachel’s post helps to demystify it. She also makes the following useful remark:

For those of you who are concerned about the upgrade, try not to worry too much. Even though everyone had told me that it would be straightforward, I worried and prepared and moaned about it anyway- but it really was fine in the end. Have confidence in your work and faith in your ability to justify what you’ve done. And for those of you who have recently passed the upgrade, take this opportunity to celebrate. In the PhD you don’t get many formal milestones, so make the most of the chance to enjoy your achievement, and reflect on everything you’ve learned so far.

More to read: Many members of our PhD community at the University of Manchester have described their experience of preparing and passing the Progression Panel. The Language Teacher Education Researcher Network blog has accounts by Bona Maandera, Susan DawsonSutraphorn Tantiniranat and Siti Fitriyah

Kant and the REF

And, closing this week’s collection, here’s an article from the Guardian comparing the modern university to its past incarnations. The article looks into the scholarly output of Immanuel Kant, René Descartes and Gottfried Leibniz, and examines how well they would do in present day assessment exercises, such as the Research Excellence Framework (or REF). Here’s Kant’s assessment:

Immanuel Kant might look worthy of the nod – his three Critiques shaped a lot of the philosophy that came afterwards. However, those works were preceded by an 11-year hiatus in which he published nothing whatsoever – which means there would have been an entire Ref (sic) cycle for which he would not have been eligible. We may presume that his justification for this career break – that he had used that time to wake up from his dogmatic slumber – would have cut little ice with his (admittedly fictional) research coordinator.

More to read: Criticisms about the limitations of the REF abound in the web. Here’s a selection of reactions published in Times Higher Education, the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog and the Guardian.

Featured Image: ‘Reading in the park’ by Vincent Brassinne @ Flickr, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 

How I became a book salesman

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that, in recent posts, whenever I mention a book, I link to rather than Google Books. Here’s what this is all about:

Maintaining this blog involves two kinds of investments. The first is an investment in time, for researching, writing and publicising the posts. Your readership, support and kind comments are more than ample reward for this investment. The second one is a monetary cost, which I pay to WordPress for hosting the blog. WordPress also offer a free hosting option, but I prefer not to use it, because they reserve the right to display adverts at the end of every post. These adverts make the posts rather slower to load, look rather ugly, and I  have no control over them, so I cannot block objectionable content. For these reasons, I prefer to keep the blog advert-free, in exchange for paying a modest amount of money.

For the next six months, I am trying out the Amazon Associates programme, to see whether I can make this blog ‘revenue neutral’, i.e., to find out whether this blog can fund itself. The way the programme works is that, for every purchase of an product that is made following a referral from an affiliated website, the owner of the referring website gets a small percentage of the product’s cost. It is my understanding that customers are not charged more money than they would normally have paid if they had directly visited Amazon’s website. So, here’s how I think this might work for this blog:

What I will do
  • Whenever I need to cite a book, I will link to its page in I will do so unobtrusively, with a simple text link.
  • I will only link to books when I need to cite them; that is to say, I will not spam my posts with links to books for promotional purposes.
  • As long as the readability of the post is not compromised, I will post reminders about what these links do. Here’s an example of how a post with affiliate links might look like.
What you can do
  • If you are interested in buying a copy of a book that I’ve mentioned, I expect you to compare prices with other online book stores and independent shops in your neighbourhood. If you find a better deal, by all means make your purchase there.
  • If you prefer to buy the book from Amazon, please consider following the link from my post to their site. This will then count as a referral from me, and my account will be credited with approximately 4% of the cost (exclusive of any tax or postage and handling).
What will happen

This programme will run for six months, i.e, until June. At that time, there will be three possible outcomes:

  • If no sales have been made, the programme will be terminated. The blog goes on as it used to, and there are no hard feelings.
  • If the money made from the programme are lower than, or equal to, the amount charged by WordPress for six months of ad-free hosting, I will use the proceeds to fund the blog.
  • In the rather unlikely event that I end up with more money than I need to fund the blog, I donate the excess money to charity. Alternatively, I will use it to buy one or more copies of Resistance to the Known (which includes a chapter by yours truly), to give away to blog subscribers.

To be frank, I do feel rather apprehensive about all this. I have always thought of this blog as a means to share, rather than sell, but I do think that this kind of ‘affiliate’ programme is a reasonable way of covering some of the blog’s expenses while continuing what I’ve been doing anyway. Thanks for your consideration.

Preview of things to come

The name of this month derives from the name of the Roman god Janus, protector of beginnings, whose two faces symbolically surveyed the past and looked towards the future. Janus, we are told, was associated with “the beginning of the day, month, and year, both calendrical and agricultural”, and though we may be said to have evolved past such superstition, I am attracted to the idea of simultaneously considering past and future, as one makes one’s way past a milestone.

I have already blogged about the past year, both from a personal perspective and in relation to this blog, so rather than reiterate, I will just say that it was a year of steady growth in terms of competence and confidence; and that your constant support and encouragement has been greatly appreciated.

Looking into the future, my overall goal is to publish approximately four posts a week, ranging from short announcements to more substantive comments. As a rough guide, here’s how I expect them to appear: Continue reading Preview of things to come