All cut up

October 15, 2014

Just after my son started in primary school his teacher called me over one day as I was picking him up. Damn! In trouble already I thought. But no, it was simpler: “you know he is left handed?” she asked. Indeed I did know. I had noticed. He is my son.

She then asked me why he hadn’t a scissors for left-handers. I had to tell her I didn’t know the answer to that. After over twenty years in Spain (and I hope pretty good Spanish) I still speak with a distinctly foreign accent so she took a step back and started speaking very slowly. My Spanish was not good enough for her to understand what I was saying: or at least, that was what my accent was telling her. The reality was, in any language, I just didn’t know there were special scissors for left-handed people and that was what she had to explain to me.

It is curious how accent can make you appear dumb. Words, attitude, social norms can cover it up but it remains, when meeting people for the first time at least, a striking identifying feature and can often lead native speakers to view you in a negative fashion. Regional accents can, of course, within groups of native speakers, have the same effect!

scissorsAs teachers we spend (or should spend) a lot of time on pronunciation and intelligibility is essential. Nevertheless, sounding like a “native” speaker is probably beyond the ability of most “non-natives”. That shouldn’t be a problem but as Robin Walker highlights in this post, perhaps native listeners also need to demonstrate less prejudice when it comes to “judging” a non native speaker solely on the basis of their pronunciation. Judgments based on skin colour or the shape of your eyes can be classed as racist: should we be equally carefully when sizing up a person on the basis of their accent? The speaker has to make an effort to be intelligible: but listeners may also need training to understand intelligibility.

My son remains left-handed: my Spanish accent remains deficient … but I can and have done more things in Spanish than I have in my “native” language. Maybe I just need the right kind of scissors.

September 23, 2014

warpeaceI have read War and Peace: flying to and back from Hawaii. In The End of Absence Michael Harris reflects on how hard it is nowadays to find time to concentrate on something that scale. Constant interruptions, the need to check emails and messages just to prove you are loved and wanted and maybe even important keep us from devoting time to larger projects, from being absent in a digital world. It is a thoughtful insight into the demands on our attention the modern world holds.


And I think it has lessons for the classroom also. Do we over fuel our students? Spice them up and push themselves and us until there is no respite? Would they learn from our absence? What I mean is letting them get on with it rather than teachers (and often nowadays technology) being the focus of attention. Teachers obviously are responsible for organizing their classes but I do wonder if we take this too far: if our need to fill every minute with an “interesting” and “motivating” activity actually blocks out real participation and hampers our ability to stand back and observe what is happening in our classes and how students are reacting to our lesson plans.


Many years ago in the Sudan friends arrived at their house to find written on the wall outside by the door: “we came and met your absence”. My students pay too much money to find my absence, physically; but they might learn a lot more if I step back and allow them to take a more dominant role. It really is War and Peace all over again.

The politics of language

September 5, 2014

Here is a short post to start the new academic year on a topic which could go on for ever … or maybe it has!

How important is accent? And for a moment let’s forget about students and think of “native” speakers.


Where is English going in India? Read this.

Regional accents in America, particularly Southern? Read this.

Now it is back to class (upper, middle, lower?? can you tell by the accent???).

Good luck.



The Present is never Perfect

July 14, 2014

10,000 hours may be necessary to master the violin according to a recent Economist article. Nevertheless, while it can be argued that with enough practice anything is possible, research may prove otherwise. Unless you have a musical ear, years of practice may just not be enough!


As teachers I think we must agree that the same applies to language learning: practice will certainly help and, indeed, is essential but it may not make you perfect. Twenty some years on I still speak (pretty good) Spanish with an awful foreign accent, and it is not from a lack of practice.

It is humbling to realise I may never be perfect and gratifying, encouraging even to realise many of our students won’t be either. But that is no reason to stop teaching or learning. 10,000 hours can never go to waste, can they? That would be too ironic: even Alanis Morissette might agree.

Original article at



July 7, 2014

imagesCAQQPPYIMove over the Common European Framework as Pearson introduce a global scale for marking langauge proficiency on a scale of 10 to 90. I think I am without words, probably below 10 on the scale! I would score high on Friends but have yet to see Breaking Bad. My twelve year old daughter enjoys the Big Bang Theory in English so she must be close to 90.

Ok, this may be a great idea, it may even work, but all sounds like money to me … so I am back too a zero. I just knew my language skills weren’t up to international marketing.

The problem in Spain right now is that nobody wants to learn a language: people only want B1 or B2. You cannot sell a general English course to adults: it has to be exam orientated. Exams have put learning in their place! Will this new iniative help?

More information here.

Building bricks

July 2, 2014

holeWhen younger my son went through a phase of wanting to do everything independently, by himself. If you are not in a hurry and trying to get a kid out of the house, it can be entertaining to watch a little boy struggle into his trousers back to front.

Sugata Mitra’s plenary at IATEFL this year continues to generate controversary; indeed, his work in general does as he promotes the idea of students teaching themselves (the famous “Hole-in-the-wall” experiment) and more recently his idea of Self Organising Learning Environments (SOLEs). A search for any of these terms on YouTube or TED will give you an idea of how radical some of his claims may seem, and how persuasive he himself can be!

Some years ago I was involved in organising a TESOL Symposium on Learner Autonomy in the University of Seville. One of the speakers, Leni Dam, spoke about how much teacher work goes into developing learner autonomy! It is not something that happens automatically or even naturally. I am not sure Sugbata Mitra would agree but I think I do.

Michal B. Paradowski has a comprehensive article on the debate in the recent issue of IATEFL Voices. It can be read online and the references at the end also provide excellent follow up, particularly the comments made by Hugh Dellar and Jeremy Harmer.

My son is now autonomous when it comes to dressing. But it took time, and I don’t think he learned all by himself. Parents seem to have some small role in kids development. Teachers probably do as well: even in the future. Sometimes people need to be taught how to brick up that hole in the wall before winter kicks in although, by the same token, I think Pink Floyd had a song about the dangers of bricking everything out.

Not dead yet

June 23, 2014

This blog is essentially a fórum for discussing the role of technology in education and in aprticular, language teaching. So here is something to consider:

– Trams are back in fashion!

– Ballpoint pens killed off the fountain pen but they sell quite well again!

– Sales of the good old vinyl LPs plunged to virtually nothing in the early 1990s but are now at more than 6m in the USA alone.

Disruptive technologies such as the digital camera can put a company like Kodak out of busniess in a flash but old technologiers don’t always completely die out. The examples above are just three of re-emergent technologies.


And the message for teaching? Well I think we have already seen IWBs fall back into place and the value of a good old White or black board continue to shine through. More importantly, now matter how far technology advances what we keep coming up against are the vital importance of the  two old fashioned concepts of teacher and teacher training. Looking good: I might just make retirement!