A brief description of the development of the English language and the implications for T.E.S.O.L
Fundamental insights into the development of language conventions
The Phrasal-Syntax method
The actual learning materials
A brief essay on what I consider to be appropriate behaviours while teaching in someone else’s school
Business proposal for in-house English language programs: Superior English Systems
A brief description of the development of the English language and the implications for T.E.S.O.L
Today English is used as a first or second language by over 1 Billion people, in 112 of the 232 internationally recognised territories. ‘English’ is considered to be around 1500 years old. Of course when we say this, we are referring to that language spoken on the territories known as ‘England’. The languages that contributed to this language of course developed prior to, and parallel to, the ‘English’ language. So let us return to England, in the 5th Century.
Friesland is in the far north of Germany, bordering on Denmark and the North Sea. Even before the 5th Century Friesians had begun migrating to Britain across the North Sea, bringing their Germanic Dialects with them. In the 5th Century more Germanic tribes, Jutes, Franks (who in the 6th Century would conquer Gaul, lending their name to the modern state of France), Frisians, Angles, and Saxons, invaded and/or settled a land that the Romans had begun withdrawing from. The ‘locals’ of the time were Celts and Britons. The Angles and Saxons came to dominate around half of England. The Saxon kingdoms came to be known as West, East, and South Saxony i.e Wessex, Essex, and Sussex. The Angle kingdom in the East became known as East-Anglia. The Angle-Saxon dialect became the dominant spoken language amongst these Germanic tribes. From this we have the concept of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ as an ethnic grouping. The name ‘England’ may derive from the older term ‘Angle-land’. Alternatively ´Angle-land` may be translated from the old dialects as `End-land`. Medieval documents refer to England as ‘Aengla-land’.
The linguistic roots of English are, for this reason, defined as ´Germanic´. The earliest written forms of Angle-Saxon consisted of runes carved in wood and stone, and were very limited in scope. The written word was seen to have power. Runes often had ‘magical’ functions. Runic ‘graffiti’, short messages, were carved in stone and wood. The examples that are still to be found today are those carved on personal posessions such as weapons, on the entrances to dwellings, on tombstones and boundary markers, and on standing stones marking sacred sites. Language was seen to have magical properties, able to invoke the benevolence of the gods. This is the source of our modern notion of ‘magic spells’.
Today we tend to associate runes with the Scandinavian Vikings. In fact the early Angle and Saxon dialects were similar enough to the Scandinavian Old Norse of the 5th Century to encourage a linguistic ‘mixing’ of the languages when the Vikings later invaded. Around 900 terms ‘borrowed’ from Old Norse survive in the modern English language. These include common verbs such as to die, to call, to give, to take, and nouns such as birth and sky. Other Old-Norse loan-words include they, their, them, and are.
We should remember that the local population of England at the time of the Viking invasions and settlements referred to all Vikings as ‘Danes’.
In AD 597 England´s often forced ‘conversion’ to christianity began, by means of ´fire and the sword`. The local We should note here that the Celts had already had contact with the Latin speaking Romans in England, and the Germanic tribes had also had contact with the Romans on the European mainland. In the 7th Century missionaries introduced the Latin alphabet, and the use of parchments and ink. These were the precursors to books. The church became the dominant power structure. Clergy and religious leaders formed the scholarly and administrative elites. Latin became the language of the educated classes. The written language of Britain came to be Latin. It was the language in which records were kept, legal documents were made, and the church and state were administered.
The ‘Lingua-Franca’, the language of the powerful, of government and administration, of the legal system, and of the civil institutions, was Latin.
Hence the official language of England in the 7th Century was in fact Latin.
Bead’s famous “History of the English Speaking Peoples” was written in Latin. It did, however, incorporate some Angle-Saxon runes, and phonetic representations of Angle-Saxon, in order to incorporate some Angle-Saxon concepts, expressions and vocabulary.
The common spoken language of the masses was Angle-Saxon. This is the ‘English’ language which developed over the centuries, against the background of invasions, conquests, religious upheavals, politics and trade, and which ultimately emerged as the official language of England. During this development it embraced language elements from more than 50 of the languages that it interacted with.
The date of the writing of Beowulf has been placed at somewhere between the 7th and 10th Centuries. It has been described as the first great poem written in ‘English’. The author is unknown. Beowulf narrates the adventures of a heroic warrior-King, Beowulf, who battles with the monster Grendell.
Beowulf is, however, mostly incomprehensible to anyone literate in modern English.
We must be clear that Modern English did NOT develop logically and incrementally, evolving greater sophistication and complexity from basic roots, whilst maintaining an essential integrity as a discrete language.
If we used the analogy of a species, we would say that it had bred with other species so thoroughly that, rather than evolving as a species over time, it actually evolved into a new species, a hybrid. Little of what was defining in the Angle-Saxon Germanic dialects remains discernible in the modern English language. The new species would in fact recognise its French and Latin cousins more readily than its German ones!
Modern English is the outcome of a large number of interactions over time, all able to be traced to particular geographical limits, that is, the territory of modern England. These interactions took the form of various military and cultural invasions and conquests, and international trade. If you can ignore the questions of geography for a moment, and seek out the ‘roots’ of the English language as we know it today, you will find its roots in over 50 nations, including France, Germany, Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Arabia.
From 870 onwards, the Vikings conquered and settled most of the North and the East of England. Utlimately the ‘Danes’ conquered all of England except Wessex, and ruled most of England from 1016 to 1041. They invaded East Anglia, Sussex, and Essex. They brought their Old Norse Danish language with them.
The Danish occupation of most of England lead to the adoption and adaptation of many Danish language elements into the ‘English’ language of the time.
King Alfred the great, the Saxon king of Wessex, eventually did battle with these occupying ‘Danes’, signed a peace treaty with Denmark, and established a Southern and Western Saxon kingdom. Under the terms of the treaty the Danes maintained ‘Danelaw’ in the North and East of England. Trade and cultural exchanges between the North and South would continue the interaction between the Danish Old Norse and the ‘English’ language.
The ‘English’ language of this time would be mostly unintelligible to those who speak 21st Century English. It was in fact a combination of the Friesian and Angle-Saxon of the Germanic invaders and settlers, the Latin of the ‘Christians’, and the Old Norse of the Danes.
King Alfred, late in the 9th Century, wanting to make books and learning more accessible to the general population, had many books, including works of history and philosophy, translated from Latin into the common 9th Century Angle-Saxon (English) language. The written documents from this time give us an idea of the state of the ‘English’ language of the 9th Century.
In the 9th Century the Normans, the North-men, the Vikings from Scandinavia, had been given territories in the North of France by the French King. These territories became known as Normandy. This was done with the understanding that they would stop raiding and pillaging in the rest of France. The Normans adopted the language and customs of the French.
In 1066 a certain ´bastard´, William, Duke of Normandy, conquered Angle-Saxon Britain, with the aid of mercenaries given ´absolution´from the Roman Catholic Pope for any rape, murder, and pillage committed within the first three days of victory. William replaced the Anglo-Saxon nobility with his own Norman lords. The language of the Norman court was French. French and Latin became the ‘lingua-franca’ of Norman Britain, the official languages of the court, of civil administration, of law, and of religion. That most famous tax audit document, the ‘Domesday book’, was a record of all the inhabitants and their possessions at the time of the Norman Conquest. It was written in Latin.
From the 11th to the 14th Century, Angle-Saxon would be relegated to the status of a third language, the spoken language of the common people.
Around 10,000 French terms and expressions filtered ‘down’ from the Norman Nobles’ French into the commoners’ language, the Angle-Saxon-Danish-Old Norse-Latin that had accumulated since the Angle-Saxon, Christian, and Danish conquests of ´England´.
All legal, trade, and official court business was conducted in French. Of course many Norman nobles married or otherwise `consorted` with the local women, who would have spoken’English’ with their children, legitimate or otherwise. At this point the only official written languages in England were French, for all matters of state and trade, and Latin, for all Church business.
Between the 5th and the 12th century, around 85% of the ‘Old English’ vocabulary fell out of use, leaving a vocabulary that has been estimated to have been around as high as 24 thousand words. Also, the letters g, j, q, r, s, th, v, w, x and z became only rarely used.
However around 10,000 words of French derivation were added. Around 75% of these French words survive in modern English. The greatest number of French ‘borrowings’ actually occured between 1250 and 1400, after French became a ‘foreign’ language in Britain. When English actually became the official language of ´England´ the ruling classes conversed amongst themselves in French, and dealth with the `commoners` in the current ‘English’ language of the day.
This occured afterthe Norman King of England decided to focus on his English Estates, rather than seek to defend estates in both France and England. In this way the Normans became exclusively ‘English’ in the 13th Century. French became a ‘foreign’ language.
In the earlier and later crusades Arabic terms were ‘imported’ into the then current English language, along with many new products that the Crusaders brought back with them, such as sugar, cotton, and the superior scientific knowledge they had gleaned from the Arabs, including that concerning optics. The `crusaders` also adopted many of the notions of courtly love, chivalric romance, and the exquisitely romantic architecture that we today associate with medieval France, from the Arabs. The Arabic ‘imports’ included what we today recognise as modern mathematical principals. These include that, to some medieval church leaders demonic numeral, zero, and algebra. The numbers we use today are actually Arabic numerals. Earlier we had used the X V I’s and so on of Roman numerals.
King Edward made ‘English’ an official language of England in a symbolic way, to unite the ‘English’ against King Phillip of France. Language is, after all, a political tool, to identify a group of people as different from other groups. The complex grammatical rules imposed on languages may in fact be deliberate attempts to identify locals from ‘foreigners’, through their language usage.
The language the English spoke at this time is mostly identifiable to modern English speakers, ironically, by its French and Latin terms. Remember that thousands of French expressions, words, and concepts, around 10 thousand in fact, had been adopted by the inhabitants of England directly from the French. They might read strange, to readers of modern English, their spelling having changed within the ‘English’ language that adopted them, yet they sound similar, in many cases identical.
Apart from the French and Latin terms, and some Germanic-Nordic ones, the language current in England at this time is not yet intelligible as modern English.
The plagues of the early 1300’s killed about a third of the population. The conditions in the towns were ideal for rats, and so the plague decimated the more densely populated towns. The peasants, living in isolated farms, were less affected. The Monasteries suffered similarly, due to the close living conditions of the relgious orders. Once one person caught the plague, they were likely to infect the others they lived in close contact with. Proportionally, and absolutely, more of the educated elites died in the plague than did the ´common´folk. The commoners experienced a great acceleration in upward mobility, filling the voids, those social and political positions left empty by the death of a large proportion of the elites. The average worker was able to negotiate better working conditions. Land has little economic value if there is no labour to produce value with it. The ‘commoners’ brought their language with them into the higher socio-economic-status spheres. The common ‘English’ language of the day went on to replace French and Latin as the official language of the courts, business, and government, including the new Parliament.
So, the peoples’ language emerged in the 14th Century as the official English language. It was now a written language, using the Latin alphabet, and containing a disproportionately large amount of French vocabulary and expressions.
Chaucer’s famous “Canterbury Tales”, written in 1387, exemplifies the London ‘English’ of the day. When the tales are read according to the pronunciation used in 1387 London, they sound to the modern English speaker like a French person reading English. Remember that the ‘English’ of the time was mostly a mixture of Angle, Saxon, Old Norse Danish, French, and Latin. Chaucer both re-introduced pre 1100’s Angle-Saxish language elements, and introduced additional French words into the then current ‘English’. He used the lay, everyday language usage of late 14th Century Londoners. His characters reflect the different socio-economic-status groups present in London at the time.
They ‘speak’ in their authentic ‘voices’, both coarse and refined. His tales became widely published and read, and his language usage became a sort of standard for the time. If you read the original text, what you will recognise as modern English is in fact what it had adopted from the French, and Latin. The spelling will appear strange, however you will recognise many modern terms and expressions.
The first ‘English’ speaking King since 1066, Henry Duke of Lancaster, came to power in 1399. It was, however, the ‘English’ language of the time. Again, the parts of it that ‘English’ speakers would comprehend would be, mostly, those that were adopted from the French and Latin.
Between the 12th and late 15th Centuries ‘English’ lost the inflexions common in modern German, including the nominative, dative, and genitive. For this reason English as no inflexions, for example, for gender. English has no equivalent forms of Der, Die, Das, Den, Dem and so on.
Interestingly, Mohammed’s Koran described the Old Testament of the Bible in Arabic, perhaps for the first time, in the 14th Century. We should remember that it was the Arabs who we have to thank for conserving many priceless Classical Greek texts that may otherwise have been lost forever, after the destruction of the Library at Alexandria in Hellenic Egypt. If not for the early Arabian respect for learning and culture, we may have lost a huge part of our Western European written heritage.
Henry the fifth was the first to use ‘English’ in official dispatches. Up until this groundbreaking act, all military and royal dispatches had been written in French. His dispatches from that famous battle at Agincourt, where the English, armed with their cutting edge military technology, the bow and arrow, and aided by the muddy and boggy conditions which hampered the heavily armoured French knights, defeated a hugely numerically superior French Army, were the first ones ever made in English. He continued to use the English of the day after returning to court in England. It was a political act, defining the English nation and nobility as English, and distancing themselves from the French.
We should remember that at this time there was still no common, consistent, Standard English as such. There were many dialects and different language usages across the realm. There was no common spelling or syntax.
The adoption of the then current English by the civil service required that it be standardised to some extent across the entire country. This lead to attempts to standardise the various dialects across the nation.
By the 1500s the language became more like what we would recognise as modern English. The current vowel usages were adopted, in what became known as ´The great vowel shift´.
Caxton, adopting the technology of Gutenberg, the printing press, began publishing documents in ‘English’. His publications became so widespread that the language usages he used became more or less standard for the whole of England.
In the 14th and 15th Centuries, the Church was the dominant power in Britain. The language of the Church was exclusively Latin. Those who could read Latin, the educated elites, had a monopoly on reading and interpreting the bible. They had the powers of reading and writing the ‘magic spells’ of their time. The general population would have to take the word of the Priests when it came to knowing and interpreting ‘God’s’ will. This monopoly provided a huge source of power and wealth to the elites. It seems ´God` never bothered to correct the hegemonic order`s self-serving interpretations of the bible.
At the end of the 14th Century one person sought to challenge this monopoly,arguing that everyone should have the right to read the bible, and interpret it for themselves. He translated the bible, in secret, into the English language of the day. He introduced a further 1000 or more Latin words into the then current English language, while transcribing his bible from the Latin of the elites, into the language of the average, ‘lay’ person. It would be hard for most people to recognise how radical a threat this was to the power, in fact virtual ‘hegemony’, of the church. He was condemned as a heretic, and persecuted. A parliamentary ban was laid on all his ‘English language bibles’. His bones were dug up in 1428, burned, and the ashes scattered in a stream.
During the reign of Henry the 8th, Tyndale, at the age of 29, published his English language translation of the bible. He moved to Cologne, Germany. He translated his bible from Hebrew and Greek texts. 6000 copies of his bible were printed and distributed. This was defined as a criminal act. Henry the 8th tried to intercept copies of the bible as they travelled across to England. An English Bishop in fact bought as many copies as he could and burnt them. Tyndale had no problem with this, as it allowed him to finance an even better English translation of the bible.
The authorities tried to eliminate his bible, but around 1000 copies got into circulation. He was eventually kidnapped, and taken to The Netherlands where he was imprisoned, then later strangled and burnt at the stake. Tyndale coined the still apt phrase…”a prophet has no honor in his own country”…
Only later did Henry the 8th establish the Church of England. If only Tyndale had waited a few years, he may well have been rewarded as a hero, rather than persecuted and victimised as a ‘heretic’. Tyndale had threatened the church’s monopoly on ‘god’, and the power and privileges this gave it. If anyone could read could interpret the bible for themselves, they wouldn’t need ‘the firm’, the church, to ‘interpret’ ‘god’s’ will for them. Worse still, they might see through the political dogma contained in it, and reject it as a politically, rather than divinely, inspired text. The power and privilege of the Church was, then as it is now, dependant on keeping most people ignorant about the history, politics, and contents of the hundreds of different, conflicting versions of what we ironically refer to as ‘the’ Bible.
After the establishment of ‘The Church of England’, the first ‘legal’ translation of the bible was published, in 1535. This Coverdale bible was in fact translated from German into English, which was now the one and only official language of the Church of England, and the Protestant English state. This is apparently the first nation state with one language, one official religion, and one King.
Again, as with the previous widely distributed ‘English’ publications, the language usages adopted in this text would be repeated, and come to form some sort of standard language usage.
The King James the First Bible of 1611 was a ‘standardised’ version of a number of then current English language bibles.
During the 16th and 17th Centuries, 10 to 12 thousand new words entered into Elizabethan English, having been adopted, through cultural and trade exchanges, from over 50 ‘foreign’ languages, including Spanish, French, Portuguese, Dutch, Flemish, Chinese, Malay, Tamil, Turkish, Persian, Arabic, and Italian.
During the 16th Century “Renaissance”, yet many more thousands of Latin terms were incorporated into the English language, and Latin inspired terms were ‘coined’. (In the 20th Century over 25% of the current English vocabulary was ‘coined’ in a similar fashion, often using Latin and Greek words as their basis!) This lead to highly ironic and ignorant debates about the ‘pollution’ of the English language away from its ‘pure’ Germanic roots, through the introduction of so many new Latin terms. Of course your awareness of the history of the language spoken in England over the centuries makes the notion of such ‘debates’ fatuous!
In 1604, 800 years after the first Arabic dictionary was published, the first English Dictionary was published. It contained only 2543 words of mostly Latin, Hebrew, Greek and French origin. It was meant to explain the meanings and usages of newly introduced words, rather than explain everyday ones.
Words often change their meaning over time. In the King James version of the bible, for example, the word Allege means ‘prove’, and let means ‘hinder’. The hebrew word damage used to mean ‘repair’.
Of course it was at the end of the 16th Century that the greatest ambassador of the English, whether alone or as the agent and ‘producer’ for Thomas Marlowe, gave us those timeless classics of drama that qualified English as a world language. Shakespeare apparently had a 21,000 world vocabulary at his disposal. His language usage set the standard for Elizabethan English.
Although much of the ‘Shakespearean English’ is not intelligible to native speakers of modern English without footnotes and explanation, it is identifiable as English. It combines the language of the court, and the language of the street. In fact many argue that it was in fact the well educated and previously critically acclaimed Marlowe who wrote the plays attributed to the poorly educated Shakespeare. They claim that Shakespeare merely added some final touches; the street language which gives some of the plays greater authenticity and credibility. Marlowe had been forced to fake his own death, and escape to Venice, to avoid being condemned to death as a Catholic sympathiser by the Protestant authorities.
English became the dominant language of North America after Swedish, Dutch, Spanish, Russian, and French would-be colonisers were defeated militarily, or bought off, by the British. Of course the British Colony then took up arms against its colonial master, England, defeating them in the so called ‘Battle for Independance’. The ´Americans´ wanted to maintain and increase slavery, and to steal everything from the Native `Indians`. The British were banning slavery, and appeared intent on honouring their treaties with the native Indians.
Samuel Johnson published his 43,000 word dictionary in 1755. Many of his definitions were in fact wrong even at the time, and still more words have changed in meaning since that time.
Around this time there were calls for an Academy of English, similar to the ones in France and Italy, in order to definitively and for all time ‘set in stone’, all English language usages and definitions. Johnson was counted among those who were against this, reasoning that language could not be ‘set in stone’, as it was a living, growing, adapting thing. No ‘Academy’ was founded.
This is in fact the strength of the English language, its ability to constantly adapt new language elements, both ´borrowed´and `coined`, to current needs. English has developed as a world language, incorporating language usages from all the languages of the world, so it is appropriate that it is today the international language.
English is a language that is made up of vocabulary, expressions, language formulations, and concepts, from over 50 languages. Never having been formally ‘set in stone’, the English language continues to adapt and grow.
In 1828 Noah Webster’s dictionary was published, and went on to sell over 60 million copies. It standardised ‘English’ spelling across North America. It was Webster and ‘Teddy’ Rooseveldt who ‘rationalised’ American English spelling. They took the u out of colour and honour, the double letters out of waggon, changed theatre and centre to theater and center, defense to defence, and so on.
Of course there are also many English figures of speech, and forms of slang, argot, or street vernacular. While this is not unique to the English language, it does add to the subtle complexity of the English Language. I will get back to the problem of figurative language later in this discussion.
Over the centuries, Angle-ish, and Saxish had combined into Angle-Saxish. Angle-Saxish had interacted with the ‘Danish’ Old Norse. The product of this Angle-Saxish-Old Norse had interacted with Latin and then French. This Angel-Saxish-Old Norse-Latin-French had then went on to ‘adopt’ expressions, words, and concepts from over 50 other languages, from Hebrew to Greek to Chinese and Spanish.
Attempts were made in late 19th Century England to ‘standardise’ English, resulting in the famous ‘RP’ or Recieved Pronounciation’ that was promoted by and in the Public Education System. However it was generally merely an ‘ideal’ which few English speakers conformed to. RP English set up the English accents, pronounciations, and language useage of the British Aristocracy as a sort of ideal English which all were to conform to. It has been rejected by most English speakers as pompous and irrelevant. Our modern models and heroes are pop stars and sporting idols, most of whom have working class accents. Today a working class accent is more a badge of honor than any RP accent reminiscent of old notions of class and status is. RP accents are more likely to be considered ridiculous than desirable.
Our interest in all of this has been to demonstrate that you cannot expect to optimally learn English by seeking out grammar rules, let alone spelling rules. The English language has adopted so many foreign words and expressions that there are few reliable rules of grammar.
The English language does not lend itself to compression!
Of course each of the languages from which English has ‘borrowed’ or ‘adapted’ have their own conventions for spelling as well. The English language has adopted these conventions. Webster may have attempted to standardis(z)e English spelling, and for this reason American spelling often makes greater sense than the British English spelling, but the spelling of words can NOT reliably and consistently, to any degree useful for the learner, be predicted from the sound of words, and vice versa.
Further, English is made up of figures of speech that have been adopted from all over the world, from all sorts of situations, from the world of gambling, the American wild west frontier, Indian, African and Australian colonies, naval slang, native American Indian, and on and on. English is full of such ‘figurative speech’. Even native speakers are often baffled by ‘figures of speech’. Few people have any idea of the origins of even the simplest figures of speech. They merely use them without thought, as conventions, having once grasped their meaning. There is no need for Wittgenstein-ian philosophising here. We use terms based on a collective consensus as to what they ´mean´. Language is that set of shared expressions and meanings which are current at any point in time, in any social or geographical area. Every new edition of an English dictionary contains `new` expressions, or new definitions for old ones, and dispenses with some expressions which have gone out of use.
The phrase O.K is a good case in point. Few people are aware that it stems from the Dutch term ‘Olles Klar’, which German speakers will recognise as ‘Alles klar’. Ask an English speaker to explain the etymological roots of the phrase O.K, and the best even few can do is to state that some famous U.S politician once used the term, and it became adopted by others.
Words and phrases are coined, borrowed, and adapted to allow people to express themselves more and more precisely, succinctly, or colorfully. Language items become popular or are abandoned according to popular conventions, and official attempts at standardisation. Terms can become confused in meaning over time, and often come to have the opposite meaning to how they were ‘originally’ used.
Did you know that the term “kangaroo” actually means, in Koori, an Australian Aboriginal dialect, “I don’t understand your language”? A British botanist asked a local what the name of that famous Australian animal was, and the local replied with; “kangaroo”, i.e. “I don’t understand your language”. From then on, that animal has been known as a ‘kangaroo’.
So how should we go about teaching a relatively anarchic language that is more or less a composite of many languages? How do we teach a language which frequently uses figures of speech that native speakers find as equally baffling as the Non-English speaker?
To further add to the challenge, once you begin to learn English you will notice that the meaning of words depends on the context in which they are used. Words often have wildly different, totally unconnected, meanings, depending on the context in which they are being used.
In one phrase or context the word means one thing, and in another, a totally unrelated thing. The learner thinks they have learnt the meaning of a word, only to come across it in a different context, phrase, or sentence, and find the meaning either ineffable, or impossible. Open a dictionary and look at the possible meanings of any particular word if you have no experience of what I am talking about.
A tip for students of the English language. NEVER assume you understand what a term means. ALWAYS check in a dictionary to see what the term means in the particular context in which you are using it, or it is being used.
Informed by all of the above, I will now recommend an approach that I will call the ‘phrasal-syntax’ approach to English teaching and learning.
This method will teach the target language conventions, including phrases, syntax, and sentence structure, so that students actively gain the skills required to formulate authentic sentences, verbally and in writing. It will directly target the mechanics of enunciation and pronunciation i.e. the movements of the mouth, lips, and tongue.
Teachers will need to abandon the traditional program of trying to rationalise, to ‘compress’, the English language. They will stop wasting time, energy, and resources seeking rules and laws within a language that has few reliable rules which are useful, or useful rules which are reliable. This will require that students be trained to accept that English is not like their native languages. No matter how hard they wish for rules and an ‘understanding’ of the English language, no matter how they yearn and long for rules that they can simply learn and then apply, they will have to accept that everyone has to learn English like the native speaker does, phrase for phrase. This means that they will have to give up on notions of consistent and predictable grammar, and accept that they will have to ‘absorb’ the syntax, rhythm, and feel for language formulation in the English language, on a case by case basis.
This will of course come as an unwelcome shock to many students and teachers. The teacher will lose their position of authority, of having ‘expert’ knowledge. The students will have to abandon the comfort of the relative predictability of their native language, and jump into the chaos and anarchy of the English language.
Many students will only come kicking and screaming.
Many teachers will be unwilling to lose their authority as experts. Many have of course invested 5 or more years in a Masters degree in ´Philology`.
No-one can be expert of the English language! You can merely teach and learn its conventions, on a more or less case by case basis.
Doing anything else is wasting your student’s time with false promises, and unproductive processes. It is either ill-informed or dis-honest.
Fundamental insights into the development of language conventions
We should remember that all languages are initially merely spoken or verbal. In the case of Korean, a king actually chose a particular dialect being spoken in one area of Seoul, the capital. He set about representing this language via iconic representations of the movements of the mouth, tongue, and the expulsion of air from the throat, as symbols on parchment.
As such grammar rules are always an artefact that comes after the language already exists as a spoken dialect. In the case of Korean, the only ‘scientifically’ formulated language I can think of, the language has been constructed logically and ‘scientifically’.
High German is relatively predictable, when compared with English. You can anticipate grammar and spelling and syntax once you have understood the basics. You can predict things, or deduce language syntax and formulation, from more or less consistent rules. As such German does lend itself to some degree of ‘compression’.
Of course some things are not predictable, such as the gender of a pencil or a chair. In this sense, the written German is a conglomerate of lots of more or less arbitrary spoken conventions. Sadly at some point those in charge got overambitious and tried to reconcile lots of spoken conventions and dialects and impose grammar rules on them. German grammatical rules are imposed rules in which the written formalised grammar rules are enforced over the natural rhythm, intonation, and flow of speech. This is fatuous. It ignores the basic fact that language was always originally spoken, and only much later in its development did it take on written forms. Only much later did people attempt to impose artificial grammar rules upon the language.
English is perhaps the least ‘scientific’ of all the languages. This is, perhaps, its ultimate strength as a means of expression and communication. This is also why it is perhaps the hardest language to learn, the most confusing, the most irrational, and the least predictable and consistent.
The nature of the language must determine the nature of the methods used to teach and learn it.
Where a language is more or less logical, consistent, predictable, and reducible to more or less consistent rules, and therefore deducible from them, a grammar-translation method will be the optimal approach to learning it. This does not apply to English. Unfortunately the traditional approach, applicable to ‘traditional’ European languages, has been imposed upon the learning and teaching of English, for reasons of tradition, comfort, and familiarity, on the part of teachers and students.
The fundamental differences between English and many of the native languages of those people seeking to learn English, means that a fundamentally different approach is called for.
This is why what I call a ‘phrasal syntax’ approach to the teaching and learning of English is more optimal than the more traditional methods which have been used, and continue to be used, by many institutions, teachers, and students.
They are naively unaware that much of their frustration and failure come from the fact that the nature of the methods and approaches they have adopted are not compatible with the nature of the language they are seeking to teach and learn.
Students and teachers alike often assume that methods and approaches are transferable from the learning of their native language to the learning of the target language, English.
Many students will stubbornly refuse to accept that the English language does not lend itself to the ‘traditional’ ways of learning languages that the students are comfortable and familiar with. They will insist on being taught the ‘rules’ of the language. They will insist of being provided with the rules by which they can ‘construct’ the language. Many teachers will seek to comply with this expectation. While the students may feel more comfortable with these attempts, they will not facilitate an optimal language acquisition. The opportunity costs of pandering to student and some institutional expectations are an inefficient approach to learning English, and less than optimal outcomes.
Of course many students have acquired English language skills using the traditional approaches, in spite of their inherent limitations. However much lower outcomes will be achieved than would be possible under a more appropriate approach, one that more optimally matches the nature of the language with the approach taken to teaching and learning it. This is the opportunity cost of using less than optimal approaches, based on faulty logic and/or assumptions, and misguided ambitions.
If you don’t know any better, you will accept whatever approach you are presented with. Only when you become aware of better alternatives do you begin to view your current methods with a more critical and informed awareness. Only when you become aware of the possible alternatives do you seek these alternatives out.
It is possible to reduce the frustration of learning English. It is possible to increase the ‘useability’ of the language skills you do acquire. It is possible to become motivated by your successes. The more motivated students are the more time and energy they will enthusiastically invest in learning English. It is possible to quickly gain the confidence necessary to attempt authentic interactions with native English speakers, and others who are using English as their second language, their international language.
Any prescriptions with regard to optimal teaching and learning approaches to a particular language must be informed by an awareness of the fundamental nature of that particular language.
The phrasal-syntax method
How does the phrasal-syntax method proceed in practise?
The meanings of words are dependant on the particular phrasal and situational context in which they are being used. The meanings often change according to the contexts in which they appear. For this reason the focus must be on phrases and sentences in particular contexts, rather than on the individual words themselves.
Given that few useful and/or reliable grammar rules exist, the focus must be on syntax, on authentic sentence formulation, on language conventions, on a case by case basis.
Students will be presented with contexts, or situations, and offered language formulations, phrases and sentences, with which to engage in them, to verbally interact. The teacher won’t pretend to have any secret knowledge, nor waste time seeking to impose order on the anarchy of English. The students won’t waste time in wishful thinking that there is some ‘short-cut’ to learning English.
The value that the teacher can provide is in interrogating the English language and providing the student with a framework of the simplest ways of dealing with particular contexts or interactions. This will provide them with a solid foundation, in terms of both confidence and language skills, from which to build on.
Teachers can start the students off with the most common phrases and language usages. They will be presented to the learner via more or less direct translations, or language equivalents where no direct translation is possible, with appropriate explanations in the learners’ native language.
By memorising these, and practising with them, students can develop confidence and fluency in using them. There is no avoiding disciplined memorisation. The student must put in the effort.
The teacher can actively contribute to student motivation by ‘leveraging’ their efforts, by ensuring that the student gets the greatest returns to effort. Materials must be developed with these principles in mind.
Students can then acquire new and less common phrases and language usages as they come across them, watching TV, videos, reading books, newspapers, and magazines, and interacting with people. They will have a history of success, and therefore enough confidence to attempt using new phrases and adapting them to their needs.
Language acquisition follows a natural progression. We are first, as babies, ‘immersed’ in a language. We constantly hear it, without any notion of what it is about, what it might mean. We can soon recognise discrete sounds amongst the ‘noise’. This is the first step. To recognise discrete sounds, discrete language ‘items’ within the apparent babble, the sing-song, the noise.
To put it simply, we have to be able to hear the discrete parts of the language. We have to be able to recognise that particular sounds are in fact individual sounds, words, and phrases. You probably haven’t thought about this, so do the following. Listen to a video, or TV or radio program, in a language you are totally unfamiliar with. You will hear a lot of sing song. You will not be able to ‘hear’ discrete words and phrases.
The first stage is to learn to hear, and to comprehend discrete sounds within, the foreign language, to be able to recognise them as individual words and phrases.
The next stage is to learn the meanings of the most useful and important language items. Note that the first stage is not to learn words. Why? Words can have entirely unrelated and different meanings depending on their phrasal contexts. Few words will ever be used in isolation; therefore it is more productive to learn phrases, rather than isolated words.
The next stage is to learn how to speak the language, to articulate the words and phrases with the correct pronunciation. It is important for the teacher and designer of learning materials to identify how particular sounds are produced, articulated, or enunciated, in the students own language.
For example, Korean’s have a tendency, due to the faults of their teachers, to over exaggerate their pronunciation of the last consonant of English words. Hence I could never find a ‘telephone card’ for my mobile phone. No-one could sell me a telephone card. Of course I had absolutely no problem buying a telephone ‘card-er’.
In the Korean language the last consonant is hardly enunciated at all. English teachers often have trouble getting their Korean students to more strongly enunciate, to produce or articulate, the last syllables or sounds of English words. It appears that, in order to encourage them to do so, they, the teacher, over-exaggerate the end sounds when they correct their students. The Koreans end up over-exaggerating the end sounds of English words.
German and Polish has no ‘th’ sound. Germans and Poles can feel very self-conscious when trying to form the ‘th’ sound. For the native speaker it comes as second nature, and they don’t think twice about it. For the German and Polish student the action is so ‘unnatural’ that it feels extreme. For them it feels like they are sticking their tongues out and flapping them around. You will have to clearly demonstrate where you place your tongue to produce the ‘th’ sound; just in front of the top teeth. Practise it like you would practise any other physical activity, until it becomes second nature. Have you noticed that in German W is pronounced V, and V is pronounced ‘fow’? This will help you anticipate mistakes in pronunciation, and allow you to pre-warn the student about common mistakes made by their fellow natives, so that they might become more self-editing of their own pronunciation and language usage.
Does the native language of the student have any sounds in common with English, or whichever target language you are teaching? Try to find similar sounds in the native language of the student, so that you have a ‘touchstone’ to compare the unfamiliar sounds with. It will give you a physical aid to introducing the new physical movements needed in performing the target English sounds. Those who aim to produce English language learning materials must be familiar with the students’ native language, to be able to identify similar, different, and misleadingly apparently similar but actually different, phrases, language usages, and sounds. It is always best to build upon what people already know. It is always best to find ways to relate what someone knows to what they don’t, to relate the unknown to the familiar.
While teaching English to Germans I came across a number of apparently similar words, which were in fact very different in meaning, often having the opposite meanings. They have come to be known as ‘false friends’. Gift, in English, of course means a present, a good thing. In German gift means poison. Germans tend to misuse terms like ‘make’. They must be warned that ‘shit’ sounds a lot harsher in English than “Sheisse” does in German. It is best to bring these up before the students form a habit of using them incorrectly. A habit once formed is hard to break!
As a teacher you will be demonstrating and practising phrases. Learning useful phrases and building confidence in using them is paramount when students are learning the language in order to interact in, to communicate in, English. Traditionally many students end up learning huge amounts of vocabulary and can read and write very well, but have too little confidence to actually interact verbally in English. They become good at tasks like reading and listening for understanding, at comprehension and ‘cloze’ exercises, but lack the confidence and skills to actually participate in verbal interactions.
The positive feedback effect of successful encounters and interactions is a huge motivating factor in language learning. It motivates greater effort and promotes further language acquisition. It builds confidence. You will need this confidence to ‘bounce back’ from frustrating or embarrassing experiences.
For this reason students should learn to laugh at themselves, and not take themselves too seriously. It is inevitable that they will make lots of mistakes, and say silly things. How often women have laughed at me after I have walked into the staffroom of an English school in Germany, and told them all that I was horny, when I meant to express that it was really hot? It took quite a few such responses before I asked them what was so funny!
Students should be given scripts, describing situations and the phrases to be used in those situations. The note will tell them to go up to someone and say the phrase.
The other person will have to respond with the phrases they have learnt. The phrases being used in the lesson will be posted on the whiteboard and so on. Like Marlon Brando, they will be able to read their ‘lines’ from strategically placed cue cards. They will be active in the process, by having to choose the appropriate phrases from a range of options. In this way the activities will be interesting and fun.
Students will learn just as much from their ‘mistakes’ as from their successes. Each student will learn from each others’ example. The lesson must be about interaction and verbal practise. This will be reinforced by notes which they are to memorise. The notes will merely reinforce what they have been physically ´doing´. This allows for ‘muscle memory’, which reinforces the written and spoken and the deliberately memorised.
Students should also practise reading ‘authentic’ materials. The materials must be selected by the teacher appropriate to the level of the students. Ideally the teacher will have written the materials themselves, so that they are perfect for the objectives of the lesson. It is frustrating and overwhelming to be presented with too much at once. Using existent materials often means that much of the language usage has not yet been covered in class. It may not suit the purposes of the particular lesson, or match the students current language levels. Challenge is good. Being overwhelmed is not!
Ideally materials will have been produced by experienced and highly gifted and aware teachers. How often I have been forced to use mediocre, confusing, not to mention simply incorrect, materials!
Students should use lessons to practise what they have studied at home. Most of the conventional classroom time is ‘wasted’ doing activities that the students could do at home, were the materials appropriately designed. The main principle in the Phrasal-Syntax design philosophy is the anticipation of student needs and problems. Hypertexted concordances, dictionaries, native language (theirs) explanations, and ‘answers’ must all be available at the click of the mouse. The likely queries and problems the students may have must be anticipated, and solutions ‘built-in’ to the learning materials and processes. This will allow students to work alone or in study groups, and do the bulk of the learning outside of expensive class time. This will free up class-time for exploiting the real value of the Native Teacher (English or other Target-Language teacher), which is the capacity to correct pronounciation, solve problems that students have already actively engaged with at home, and to motivate students through active interactions, role-plays, and discussions.
Students should actively participate by correcting each other. The teacher should encourage this actively and positively, providing clues and cues to help the students along. The teacher will ultimately ensure that the correct usages are adopted, but do so in a facilitative rather than didactic way. The teacher should guide and lead and assist the students as they fully and actively engage in solving the language ‘problems’ posed. This sort of team approach ensures that everyone is switched on, engaged, active, and participating. The more active we are in the learning process, the more we will be able to recall. The process is as important as the final solution, in terms of recall and future accessibility of what is learnt. The more cues we have for recall the easier the recall.
By ensuring that lessons are effective, and actually produce great value, we can reward the teachers for producing that value. The more value we can produce, and the greater the reward we can provide, the more attractive English teaching will be to the most capable, competent, creative, motivated, ambitious, talented, and enthusiastic teachers.
Many employers, parents, and students themselves, are wasting their money on lessons that the students do not prepare for, do not attend regularly, and do not actively participate in. The English schools are often so unprofessional, so badly organised, and take so great a slice of the lesson payments, that teachers are poorly paid, poorly motivated, and rarely hang around long. This is very disruptive to the learning process, as students waste time adapting to new teachers and their methods. In fact a lot of time is wasted with students and teachers introducing themselves constantly to new teachers and students respectively.
Exams and the like are very questionable at best. In any case they are a waste of expensive classroom and teacher time. Students should be constantly monitoring and evaluating their own progress, through constant self-evaluation at the end of each learning module. The questions will all be hyper-linked back to the sections in the materials they derive from. Correct ‘solutions’ to problems, and a number of ‘ideal’ or ‘model’ answers to writing tasks will be provided for each task. The process of ‘self-testing’ will direct students to address their weaknesses. Students will never be left wondering why an answer is wrong, what the correct answer is, or what a ‘model’ response might look like. All the answers to their queries will be anticipated, and awaiting their mouse-click. They will get immediate gratification and enlightenment. This in itself is highly motivating.
School managment need to keep the students and their client organisations happy, to ensure that they come back, and maintain the cash flow. The schools spend a lot on advertising and public relations. As with most situations, it is often more about impression management than substance. Once they have ‘captured’ a client, the ‘inertia’ against change works in the school´s favour.
Remember that neither students nor the organisations paying for the lessons are likely to be in any position to critically evaluate the services they are being provided with. If they fail to learn they will blame the teacher. If the teacher challenges any of their expectations they will complain. Teachers will learn to pander to the students, organisations, and the language schools, independent of the learning outcomes such behaviour produces. It is about being popular, rather than getting results. It is about consensus rather than quality. It is about survival.
Many English learning budgets are ineffectually spent. The organisation might just as well buy their employees a few books and cd’s, and spend the rest of the budget on open bars at the local pub, for all the value they get from the English schools.
If you don’t know what can be achieved, then you won’t realise how poorly serviced you currently are. You won’t be aware of the opportunity cost of not following the approach I am recommending here.
Students have to accept that there is no magic wand that will magically provide them with English language skills. There are no short-cuts. There is little logic to the English language. You have to learn English on a case by case, phrase by phrase, context by context basis. You have to discipline yourself and dedicate time to memorising phrases and physically practising your enunciation, articulation, and pronunciation.
To believe otherwise, or to allow yourself to be lead to believe otherwise, can of course be seductive. Everyone wants to believe that there is some short-cut to learning English. The notion that there might be ’10 easy steps’, or a ‘speed method’ to learning English is very attractive. You are as likely to find that anyone who tries to sell you on that idea is just as likely to have been, or end up, selling used cars, or magic beans.
The actual learning materials
The materials I have designed will enable you to learn English at your own pace, at home, ideally with friends. You can then use expensive one-on-one tutorials or small English classes to ask questions, to get feedback about your English skills, and to practise what you have learnt at home. In this way you will truly benefit from the classes, and the investment you make in them. You are lucky that I am a perfectionist, and someone who has no patience with frustrating, poorly designed materials. I am sick of paying for other people’s mediocrity!
Materials will be designed to aid the acquisition of English language skills. CD’s will be produced with the following menus in which each phrase and then sentence, and then verbal exchange, will be recorded in at least three formats.
The first version will be the authentic, normal speed interaction or spoken phrase. The listener will then be able to select an artificially clearly articulated version, in which the speaker speaks in the clearest and most easily comprehended way possible. The next version will be in between authentic normal expression and this unnatural, easily comprehended version. In this way the student can first build up recognition of the discrete language items, and then put them together in more and more authentic and natural ways.
One version of the content will have lots of explanations and so on. There will be a further practise version which will continuously repeat the phrase or interaction, in an audio loop, so that the listener can immerse themselves in it over and over again until they have ‘learnt’ to recognise the components of the speech. In this way students will come to be able to recognise more and more discrete parts of the spoken speech, and learn the meaning of different phrases. Each expression will be translated into the native language of the listener. In one version each term will be translated literally, and then explained as much as productively possible in terms of the native language of the student, so that they are clear about the meaning of the phrases.
Frustration will be minimised by minimising the time lost in searching for phrases and sentences, and where necessary, explanations. Remember that many phrases and sentences cannot be translated directly or ‘literally’, and will need to be explained. In a hypertext (HTML) format, the learner will be able to ‘click’ deeper and deeper in terms of explanations. They will only be exposed to the level of explanation that they require. They will not be confronted with unnecessary or overwhelming chunks of text or complexity. Interactivity allows students to meet their own needs, to select from menus. The interactions will be user directed, user friendly, intuitive, and satisfying.
All phrases and sentences will be linked to passages custom-written to place them in authentic everyday contexts, and particular situational contexts or conditions. Passages will be linked together into custom-written, authentic-language based stories, in which the reader has the chance to see the phrases in different tenses and contexts. Nothing will be artificial, forced, unnatural, or inauthentic.
The student will be able to select ‘translations’ of phrases and sentences from their native language into the target language, so that they can learn what they need, rather than what some teacher has more or less arbitrarily prepared.
In this way students can find solutions to their language needs. Perhaps they need to find a particular expression for a letter or presentation. They know what they would say in their own language. They need to find the equivalent expression in the target/English language.
Target language phrases and sentences will be limited to the most useful and common, so that students can quickly build up a bank of interactional language. Students will develop confidence, and with this, their motivation and application.
The interactive materials will contain links to a sort of thesaurus of similar phrases, and more complex alternatives. These of course will also be accessible from the native to target translation part of the program. When students are confronted with any strange phrase or sentence they can ‘look it up’. It is best for students to learn new vocabulary and phrases and sentences as and when they are confronted with them, in contexts that are most relevant, interesting, and therefore useful, to them, rather than the teacher. Students will be encouraged to watch TV programs and read simple newspaper and magazine articles, and to look up strange language items as they come across them.
We apparently remember a lot of what we actively do, and very little of what we passively hear, see, or read. The more active the student is in the learning process, the more they will remember, the more ‘touchstones’ they will have for recall. The role of materials is to facilitate the student’s natural language acquisition, to role play authentic situations and conditions, and to proactively anticipate potential problems for the student, and build in responses to these likely problems. All materials will be constantly ‘road tested’ and developed and updated on an ongoing basis by the teachers and students using them. Students will be in control, and be able to pace themselves.
The audio content of the materials could be in MP3 format. Students would click on embedded links to hear the text spoken by native speakers. Each component of the text would have its own MP3 recording, so that students could select individual words, then phrases, sentences, and entire passages. The recordings would be graduated or stepped in authenticity, from artificially slow and clear articulation of syllables, to more natural, but still unusually clear and well-articulated; to a style and speed that is typical for a native speaker.
Links will also allow students to view simple animations which show the movement of the mouth, lips, and tongue in forming the sounds and syllables and words.
Frustration will be minimised, as all the students’ potential needs will have been anticipated. Students will be able to immediately satisfy any need for clarification or explanation as it arises. At the deepest levels interesting etymological notes and comments on the origins of the language items will be available for the more curious student of the language. This can be a real source of fascination and amusement for students and native speakers alike.
All the problems the student might have will have been catered for, having been anticipated by the materials developers. This will cover the most typical or generic problems, and more specific problems that teachers and students have encountered in the past. Any new problems that come to light will be incorporated into web ‘updates’ and later into any revisions made to the materials.
Ideally a hand-held unit will be produced, with custom software. Current platforms that support HTML and MP3 would allow this system to ‘piggy-back’ upon current hardware and software systems.
Alternatively, the ‘find’ function of MS Word and similar Word Processing software could be used to ‘translate’. The user would ‘seek’ their native language word or phrase or sentence, and as the document would contain the native and target translations side by side, by finding one, they will have found the other. Links in the HTML document would provide the MP3 audio, and any ‘deeper’ links to explanations, and so on.
The material must be developed by highly ambitious perfectionists, to gain the full value from the concept, and to avoid the mediocrity of current materials. It will take a lot of ongoing work. It will, however, become the standard in the industry that others will try to mimic.
The system should eventually allow users from any of the main world languages to learn any of the other main world languages. This will allow people to learn Polish in German, or Greek in Italian, and so on. In time the system could cover every language. The entire project may be proprietary or open source. It may be managed for profit, or as a community project. It must, however, be managed by perfectionists, by people ambitious at avoiding mediocrity, by people with the highest level of judgement and competence. It must be produced by people capable of self-criticism, and of positively responding to constructive feedback. People who are intrinsically motivated by performance, by doing the best job possible, by producing the greatest value possible.
It will be a useful tool for tourists, allowing them to translate as they travel throughout the world. The audio will allow them to use the device as an interpreter, to ‘speak’ to foreigners. As technology allows, the device will also have the capacity of true ‘voice recognition’, allowing users to speak into it, and have their spoken words, phrases, and sentences, translated into audio in the target language.
Language acquisition must be facilitated so that any effort the student invests is ‘leveraged’ by the learning materials and teacher, to yield the greatest learning outcomes possible. The role of the teacher is to multiply the outcomes of the energy and efforts that the student invests in the learning process. The student must work hard. The teacher can motivate this by ensuring that the learning is best facilitated, so that the student gets the best outcomes possible, makes progress, and finds the process satisfying, challenging, and rewarding.
You need to invest in producing the optimal teaching and learning materials, and in developing the optimal methodology. In this way you can increase the productivity of your teachers, increase the value they can provide the employers and students, and therefore increase the rewards they are able to earn. You must facilitate high productivity in your teachers, so that they can produce great value for their/your clients, so that they can be highly rewarded, so that you can pay them well. They will then be highly motivated by being highly valued, and by the intrinsic rewards of getting results.
Students will be highly motivated by highly motivated teachers, and by getting results.
The programs have to be developed by highly talented, intelligent, aware, experienced, and informed teachers.
The industry does not treat its employees well enough to attract or hold teachers of this calibre. English teachers have some of the worst working conditions of any ‘profession’.
Most have, at best, a few weeks of ‘training’.
It seems that the largest growth area, and perhaps most lucrative side of the English teaching industry, is the operation of, often questionable, training schools for English teachers.
The system which language instructors use must be optimal and clear, and easy to use and monitor.
Teachers usually want to travel. This is perhaps the only reason why qualified teachers would give up well paid work in their native country to take up poorly rewarded, and poorly organised, work in Non-English Speaking countries.
The optimal system would allow regular changes of teachers without any loss of quality of outcomes. This would ensure a ready supply of competent and motivated teachers, travelling around the world. Everyone would benefit. The schools should provide furnished accommodation. The schools should lodge ‘bonds’ with an independent authority, to be paid out in the event that the school fails to honour its contractual agreements, or fails to meet minimum standards regarding conditions and so on.
My motivation is to produce value, to facilitate value production, to increase the level of ‘value’ in the world, the level of opportunities for valuable experiences and goods and services that add value to our personal and collective lives.
Systems produce value by allowing the best and most talented minds to produce the best protocols, materials, and systems with which even mediocre human, a so-called ‘trained monkey’, can get optimal results. The outcomes of great systems are independent of the intelligence and talent of the particular operators using them.
Systems are the basis of most human advance. An optimal system can be implemented by a ‘trained monkey’. Outcomes can be standardised by standardising processes with in-built controls for monitoring outcomes and processes, and providing feedback to students, teachers, and administrators/managers. Optimal systems allow anyone to adapt them to their needs, and achieve quality outcomes. Of course a talented, intelligent, highly motivated and well-supported teacher will get the best out of the system, and contribute to the system’s ongoing development.
I hope I have successfully made my point. You may need to reconsider parts of this discussion. I would appreciate any feedback and corrections that you can provide. I would be keen to find like minded people to work with towards realising the aims expressed here.
Sponsors may provide the resources for setting up the project as an open source platform. Alternatively Enterprise capitalists might provide the investment for the launching of the project as a proprietary system. Any existent player in the market would risk ‘cannibalising’ their current market share, and might reasonably be expected to be shy of capitalising on these ideas.
I would prefer to set up a not-for-profit organisation, with sponsorship, in order to guarantee that the project is not ultimately constrained by purely market driven imperatives. I am motivated by a desire to produce value, more than by mere opportunism and profit margins.
When all of us can communicate effectively and express ourselves fluently, we have greater chances of resolving conflicts, and sharing our ideas. English has evolved as the ‘Lingua-Franca’. Once we can all communicate in this language, we will have a better chance of identifying our common ground, and solving our conflicts. Effective communication is key to human advance, technically and socially.
Thankyou for considering the arguments presented here.
I would be glad to here from any potential sponsors or like-minded persons. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Some further comments
High German was adopted as the official language of a united German Federation after Goethe, who wrote his widely acclaimed works of literature in ‘Hoch Deutsch’, was widely published and applauded amongst the German speaking public. At some point the question became an administrative one. The German states had to agree, or be compelled to accept, some particular German dialect as the official language for the German Federation, so that a standard language could be adopted by the civil administration for all government and legal matters.
I am a native English speaker, and German is my second language. For me the language that I speak bears much more relationship to French and Latin and Greek than it does to German. The sentence structure, for instance, is the reverse of German, in terms of the location of the subject and the object. English certainly has more vocabulary in common with French then it does with German. I would be interested in getting a precise statistical breakdown, to test my impression.
I feel that it may be more valid to refer to English as an Angle-Saxish-Old Norse-French-Latin etc language, which has adopted vocabulary and expressions and concepts from over 50 other languages, than to call it a ‘germanic’ language.
If your great great great great great great grandfather was German, and married a Dane, and their son married a Frenchwoman, and their son married a Greek, and their son married a Hebrew woman, and their son married an Italian, and their son married a Spaniard, and their son married a Chinese woman … and so on, you are not likely to claim that you are ‘Germanic’, would you?
English, as we have learnt, is a ‘bastard’ language. It has been built up from language items, fragments, expressions, vocabulary, syntax, and formulations, borrowed from a large range of languages.
Many commentators on ´The English Language´ appear to fail to recognise that, when they talk about ‘The English Language’ , they are talking more about a particular language being spoken and written at different times in the history of a place, and less about the development, over time, of a particular, discrete, language.
Tigers may occupy a given geographical area at a particular time. We come back at a later time and find no tigers, but lots of elephants. However tigers don’t evolve into Elephants any more than the Angle-Saxon dialect evolved into modern English. Many commentators on the English language, such as Melvyn Bragg in his book and TV series “The Adventure of the English Language” do seem to make this mistake. They appear to seek to construct the history of the English language as some sort of evolutionary development of one species, from Old English to Modern English. They find the narrative device of a putative historical development of the English language to be convenient and satisfying. It may be a seductive paradigm, but it is not a valid one.
A brief essay on what I consider to be appropriate behaviours when teaching in someone else’s school
During the application process for teaching jobs I have been asked to fill in lots of forms, and answer particular questions. I have prepared the following little essay to cover all the questions I have been asked so far. If any of your questions are not answered here, please email them to me, and I will add a response to this essay.
Schools do not appear to consider the hours it takes to apply for teaching positions. Remember the positions are not long term, so teachers will end up making hundreds of applications over the length of their career. Think of the opportunity cost of this effort. This is time that could have been spent producing real value, playing with children, improving teaching skills, and so on.
During my academic studies I became aware of a wide range of assumptions concerning language acquisition and teaching, and the methodologies that they consciously or otherwise informed.
The communicative approach, the most modern chronologically speaking, was the one most praised and promoted within the Australian ESL teaching community. It seeks to mimic the natural process of first language acquisition.
In my experience English Language schools adopt a broad range of approaches. Each school tends to view its approach as the approach. Many managers and leading teachers have such limited exposure to the alternative approaches that they respond to the use of them with critical alarm. They behave as if they believe that their own personal or corporate approach is the only valid one, and that anyone who does not comply with their approach is simply incompetent and wrong. They define their own conventional wisdom as universally supreme.
In order to avoid such a frustrating situation I have learnt to adopt whatever practises have been ‘institutionalised’ in the school that is employing me. I observe other teachers, and liaise with the staff of the school, to determine what style of teaching they are most comfortable with, and will therefore expect from me. Not meeting other people’s expectations can produce a lot of stress, conflict, and frustration!
This said, I will now describe what I personally consider to be positive classroom teaching behaviours.
The role of the teacher is to facilitate the acquisition of language skills.
Students need to be encouraged, through a positive risk taking environment, to actively participate. A positive cheerful atmosphere must be produced in which students can overcome fears of appearing foolish. They need to feel comfortable with making mistakes. They need to feel comfortable with being corrected by the teacher and their fellow students, and correcting others. Learning must be fun! Everyone must feel o.k about appearing a little silly now and then.
Students are motivated by positive outcomes. This means that lessons need to be paced appropriately, providing the appropriate level of challenge that can be successfully overcome. Students must experience a ‘history’ of positive achievements, to motivate real participation both in the classroom and independently. Students who experience progress develop positive attitudes to study and participation, and positive learning attitudes and behaviours. When students anticipate success, they will be positively motivated. The expectation of success is produced by facilitating the accumulation of a history of successful outcomes for the students. Our role is to ‘leverage’ the results of student effort, and facilitate such successes.
Role plays and choreographed ‘authentic’ interactions should be used to simulate real-life conditions and situations. Students need safe controlled environments in which to develop confidence in interacting in the target language. Students apparently remember a lot of what they do, and very little of what they see, hear, or read. The more active students are in their learning process, the more ‘touchstones’ they will have for recall. The more actively engaged and ‘switched on’ and engaged they are, the more they are likely to ‘absorb’ language skills.
Some schools insist of a full ‘immersion’ approach. They insist that only the target language should be used in the classroom. Inlingua have adopted this approach as part of their proprietary systems. While teaching at Inlingua in Paderborn I complied with my bosses’ wishes. In such a situation I was forced to ‘speak with my hands and feet’.
I find it productive and engaging to provide students with clues which engage them actively in the process of ‘problem solving’, rather than giving them direct answers which they need only passively consume. It is often quite a lot of fun for everyone. Of course at some point this process can become unproductive.
When this ‘point of diminishing marginal returns’ is reached, a lot of time and frustration can be saved via explanations in the native language. This said, I was very careful to avoid conducting too much of my lessons in German. I only used the native language where it was the best way to explain a concept or phrase, and all my dramatic skills had been exhausted.
I understand that in some schools local (non-native) teachers teach students the bulk of the lessons. The more expensive time spent with the native speaker is used to develop more authentic language usage, pronounciation, and so on.
I have also worked with a team teaching approach, where a native speaker was in the classroom with me, explaining what could most productively be explained in the native language of the students.
The teacher needs to be confident, and not fear making a fool of themselves where necessary. I am no great actor, but students always appreciate my efforts at mime and ‘charades’. If you were to stand outside my classroom you might imagine that I have some comic talent, but in fact it is merely that students appreciate my efforts, and find my attempts amusing. Lessons should be entertaining. It is part of the motivating factor of lessons that students pay for. They could quite easily use the textbooks and C.Ds at home. They pay not only for the teacher’s ‘expert’ knowledge and ‘native’ language, but also for the motivation that the group dynamic produces, and for the social aspect of the lessons.
The teacher needs to have a good deal of empathy with their students. The best way to gain an understanding of their situation is for the teacher to have been a foreign language student themselves. I myself was aware of how strange it felt to stick your tongue out while enunciating ‘th’ in English. I felt quite self-conscious myself, and could therefore relate to how the students would feel when they began attempting to make the ‘th’ sound. The teacher can best put their students at ease by not taking themselves too seriously. They must be professional, but cheerful and positive, and where necessary, be willing to appear a little foolish.
The teacher must be sensitive enough to avoid ever putting students in a situation where they might be overwhelmed, and feel humiliated. The teacher must be sensitive to constant feedback from the students, in relation to how difficult or easy they are finding the material and directives they have been given. Some students are very shy, and should not be pushed. Other students are prone to contribute too much at the expense of other students. Such group dynamics need to be managed sensitively, to avoid conflicts, and bad feelings.
A little human warmth never goes astray when teaching. It allows for the development of trust. Some level of trust must be achieved between student and teacher, and within the class group, to maintain the optimal learning environment. Promoting positive and warm group dynamics is essential to facilitating during role plays, and when teaching the ‘mechanics’ of enunciation. Students are more likely to take the necessary risks when they feel secure. Security is produced through approval and acceptance. Making mistakes must be promoted and positively rewarded, in order to encourage positive risk taking behaviours.
The teacher must be prepared in a way that they can ‘anticipate’ likely challenges and common ‘mistakes’. They need to know the nature of the language they are teaching, and to what teaching and learning approaches it best lends itself. I am currently working on such a project. I will not pre-empt any conflict, however, by revealing my insights. I am quite happy to meet the expectations of whatever school I am working at. I am engaged as as a teacher, and not as the Director of English Language Studies. I will endeavour to adapt whatever approach I am expected to use to the needs of my students, to gain the best possible results given the imposed limitations.
A comprehension of the nature of the English Language is required in order to define the best way to approach teaching and learning it. A comprehension of motivation, of how different people learn, and of the environments and approaches which best facilitate that motivation and learning, will contribute to the optimal facilitation of language skills acquisition in students.
Of course some students are preparing for particular exams, in order to matriculate to foreign universities. In these cases particular guidelines must be followed, so that students are optimally prepared to meet the expectations of the test evaluators. Teachers must work backwards from the testing materials and expectations of test evaluators, in preparing for, and conducting, the English classes. The role of the teacher will be to train the student to succeed in the exams.
Different objectives will direct us to adopt different approaches, those optimal to achieving those particular objectives. The teacher is employed to facilitate, to ensure that students acheive their objectives. The objectives for a conversational English class may be different to those for a certified course with local government accreditation, or one meant to prepare students for foreign government accredited matriculation exams.
The ideal teacher will be creative, warm, inspiring, patient, professional, competent, and motivated to produce real value for their students. The ideal teacher will positively respond to feedback from students and management, and cheerfully accept directives when they are given, independant of their personal beliefs. The ideal teacher will wait for the appropriate opportunity to provide any feedback of their own to the management, if and when it is desired.
Of course the teacher must be reliable, punctual, and perform all of the administrative tasks associated with their position.
I have gained a lot of satisfaction from the positive responses I have received from students of all ages and backgrounds, including professional business people, teenagers and children. I am motivated by results as much as my students are. I am ambitious for them, and for myself.
I have been asked to comment on the textbooks I have used in the past, and what I see as their limitations and strengths. I find that many exercises are unrealistically overambitious, and that teachers often kid themselves that they have achieved an activities objectives. Often the language level of the task description is much higher than the level the actual task is intended for. This can be very frustrating. Many students mis-understand what is expected of them.
I prefer to respond spontaneously to the utterances and emerging situations of the participants as they interact. The plan is nothing, the planning is everything!
Textbook language useages and exercises are often unnatural and forced, made to fit the grammar the lesson has been designed to teach, even where they may claim to be using a communicative approach.
The Student-Student interactions that emerge from man textbook exercises often produce more Denglish (German-English) and Russish (Russian-English) than English. I do my best, however, and sit at the student`s eye level and move around the class, trying to get productive processes and positive outcomes from unconvincing activities. However, to be honest, I feel that while the students often appear to be enjoying themselves, more often than not they are merely learning and reinforcing bad habits. They often also use the activities as informal breaks, to chat with their buddies, in their native language.
I won´t flog a live horse (vegan), and I certainly won´t flog a dead horse. However most D.O.S`s don´t seem to notice that the horse is dead. They are often well educated local teachers who themselves use poor, unnatural, forced language.They often have Masters degrees in Philology and feel superior to the native teacher. It`s a personal joke of mine that students and local teachers alike rarely believe the native teacher. They have no authority. Students have been taught to focus on textbooks and, independant of the constant description of their methods as being based on a `communicative approach`, a focus on grammar.
If you want me to flog the dead horse, then you will have to tell me exactly how long I should flog it for, just so that I have a clear understanding of what is expected of me, and so that you have the final responsibility for my actions. I can follow orders. I was in the Australian Army Reserve. The horse is dead, I guess, so it won´t hurt it!
Business proposal for in-house English language programs
WARNING WARNING WARNING WARNING
You are not getting maximum returns for your English language teaching investments.
Until now you didn’t know any better
You aren’t aware of any better alternatives, so you have no idea of the opportunity costs you are currently paying. If you aren’t aware of what returns to your investment are possible, then you won’t feel cheated by your current English language teaching systems and providers.
You have a responsibility to your shareholders and employees to ensure that you and they receive the greatest possible returns on your and their investment.
Up until now you were not aware of any alternatives. Up until now you had no idea that there were more productive ways to invest your English language teaching dollar/Euro.
My experience is that organisations waste huge amounts of resources on poorly conceptualised, designed, and implemented English language teaching programs.
Students and teachers suffer alike, under the current more or less ad-hoc and arbitrary arrangements. Employers pay English schools large amounts of money. The schools pay their teachers small amounts of money. The hours the teachers have to work often extend from 6a.m to 10p.m. For this they effectively earn less than any of the students in their classes. Would you be motivated to work under such conditions?
It is rare for the students to be willing or able to make a commitment to regular attendance. Few students prepare for lessons adequately, or invest their own time in studying. The employer often pays both for the lessons, and the ‘down-time’ of the students. Students face constant changes of teachers, and waste a great deal of time introducing themselves to new teachers, and adapting to the new teachers’ teaching styles and methods.
Unless you are a qualified language teacher, you will not be in a position to evaluate the performance of your language teaching providers.
The language school probably invested a large amount of money in impressive promotional materials, or bought a franchise of a well-known school. They dress well and speak well. They impressed you. That is their ‘spiel’. They are salespeople. Few people engaged in the industry are professional, trained educators, let alone actually passionate about what they do. They operate their schools and franchises as they would any generic business. It makes little difference to them whether they are selling you coca-cola or pizza. The fact that they happen to be selling English lessons is arbitrary. They have no real interest in what they are selling, other than that it generates cash flow for them.
They will promise you the world. How are you to determine whether they have delivered or not? You are in no position to really evaluate their performance.
The students are not in a position to evaluate their performance either. Some may learn in spite of poor performance. They have nothing to compare their performance to, no experience of superior processes and outcomes. Until you’ve had a 12 year old single malt, you may be satisfied with your cheap whiskey!
Many of the monitoring processes that appear to be in place provide misleading feedback. Teachers are often not paid to mark exams, so they are compelled to do so in a very superficial manner. Teachers have little incentive to be rigorous in their assessments of students. They are likely to be very generous, to avoid the implications that they are to blame for poor performance. The School management have no interest in rigorous assessments either. Impression management is the key to sales performance. Substance is less relevant.
Given that no-one else is doing things any differently, or better, any particular school can get away with their mediocre performance. East Germans were enthusiastically keen on acquiring a Trabant, until they had alternatives to chose from.
Take your English Language teaching budget seriously
If most organisations managed their production budgets the way they managed their English language teaching budgets, they would soon be out of business.
What do you get for your money? Glossy brochures and confident promises? Outcomes?
Who in your organisation is able to benefit from English language training? Do those who don’t have access to the programs envy those who do? Can this be expected to contribute to staff motivation?
Do you have performance criteria by which you will evaluate your service providers, their processes and outcomes? What are your objectives? What would be reasonable objectives? Would you accept vague performance objectives in other parts of your organisation?
How can you tell whether the money you are investing is yielding returns or not? What do you have to show for your investment? Are English lessons just a social perk or benefit, or are they meant to produce extrinsic value for the organisation and students?
Do you have a holistic, integrated, organisation-wide plan or approach for English language teaching? Does everyone in the organisation benefit from your investment?
Are the English language skills needs of your organisation and employees being met? What are these needs?
I am motivated by producing value for society. I am motivated intrinsically by performance, by feeling that I have made a positive and real contribution. I want a chance to do things better. I want those who provide me with goods and services to constantly provide greater value to me, to contribute to my well-being. Superior concepts, designs, and processes, provide greater returns to effort, and free up resources to be invested in producing greater value. The more value there is, the more value there is to distribute and consume, to benefit from, and the more valuable our lives can be.
I propose a holistic, organisation-wide, integrated system of language skills acquisition.
Human advance emerges from the implementation by ordinary mortals of the systems that superior individuals and teams have conceptualised, designed, and facilitated. We are all the beneficiaries of millennia of occasional genius, and lucky revelations, and the information and systems that we inherited as a result.
I have already proposed a teaching methodology and process. I have justified that system based on an interrogation of the nature of the English language, and on the processes of language acquisition.
Use the link to “Optimal English” in the navigation bar to the left to view my concept in detail.
I am ultimately pursuing an open source or proprietary platform for the project, along with sponsors and like-minded people to work with towards realising the project.
I am available on a consultancy basis, but would prefer to be engaged as a full-time employee
In the nearer-term, I am offering my services to large organisations with English language teaching budgets large enough to justify engaging me to audit their needs, their current behaviours, and to develop an integrated system for them.
One component of the system would be a dual-language website, which all employees could access. This website would provide interactive learning materials. This website would constitute a fixed-cost investment. Once up and running, it would incur few marginal costs.
All physical lessons provided by a teacher will be dove-tailed into the interactive materials. The maximum value will be derived from the expensive physical lessons.
The web-page would also dovetail into any current web presences the organisation has. The English language version of the main pages would be integrated with interactive lessons, and explanatory materials. On-line real-time tutorials could be integrated into the system.
My unique-selling-point is that it is ultimately systems, and those behind them, that allow humans to continually produce greater value. Superior individuals produce concepts, which produce superior systems. Superior systems produce superior performance, and superior value. Superior systems produce superior returns to investment.
I am willing to travel to any country, to work with any ethical organisation, in the realisation of my ambitions. We can discuss the business arrangements, copyright details, and my consultancy fees on a case by case basis.
Ideally, I would be employed full-time by a large organisation, to develop the system on an on-going basis, in line with feedback from physical classes that I held for staff and invited guests. In this way I could develop a critical overview of the entire organisation, its current needs, and its future opportunities.
A holistic approach is required. The more holistic my awareness of the organisation is, the more optimal I can tailor my systems to it.
I would be able to provide assistance in the preparation of English language translations of organisational documents, training materials, marketing materials, and public relations materials. The final translated documents must be proof read by a native English speaker familiar with the content and intention of the documents, to ensure that they facilitate the intended communication. I could provide presentation skills workshops. I could liaise with English speaking companies and people. I could provide workshops and personal assistance to staff from senior management down to line staff. I could manage travel itineraries for staff on business trips. I would become an integral part of the Staff Training areas of your organisation. I am fluent enough in German to make presentations in German, and to assist in translations to and from German, and critically evaluate the final English drafts.
Thankyou for your consideration.
I look forward to working with your organisation, to producing real value, and to making a real and positive contribution.
©Copyright 2006 Markus Heinrich Rehbach All Rights Reserved