Monthly Archives: February 2010

Welcome additions to the TEFL blogosphere

In our recent interview with Alex case, we recommended an exciting new blog called theteslacoil. It is not only interesting for its content but also for the interesting style in which it is written. Though its author/authors may wish to eschew political pigeonholing, it is for us a deeply anarchistic take on the modern world of ESL and refreshing (political differences notwithstanding) for exactly this reason.

We would also like to take the opportunity to welcome 26 Letters, a new left libertarian blog committed to challenging TEFL orthodoxy and deceit.


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Stopwatch TEFL: A Marxist Critique of Pair Work.

It appears to us that despite the general enthusiasm (at least amongst native English speaking EFL teachers) for pair work , there is very little critical assessment of its widespread use. This is particularly the case with most initial and post certificate teacher training courses in EFL, where ability to demonstrate effective pair work (and subsequent monitoring) is essential to passing the course. At Marxist TEFL, however, whilst not denying the positive effects of various forms of peer orientated activities, we seriously question this “stop-watch” approach to learning and ground current enthusiasm for such activities in Taylorist managerial ideology. In short, we are being asked, as teachers, to replicate within our classrooms the inhuman and alienating work practices of the some of the worst workplaces.

For example, take this piece from materials writer and teacher Liz Regan(1)

  1. Make a list of pairs of names before the lesson starts or while the students are coming in, or just tell them when the time comes: “Gianni, you work with Paola; Chiara, you’re with Stefano this time.”
  2. If there is an odd number of students make a group of three but break them up later in the lesson and put them into pairs with someone else so they get more chance to speak.
  3. You could put them in small groups to start with if the activity allows. You could even make the activity a competition in small teams if the activity allows, seeing which team gets the most answers right. Use the board or a piece of paper for keeping score.
  4. Change the partners quite often so that the students don’t get bored with their partner. This is especially important if there is a student who isn’t very popular with the others.

Now Liz is clearly a highly intelligent and committed practitioner who, incidentally, has taken the time to share her ideas and experience with us free of charge. This does not change the fact though that, in perfecting the art of this type of pair work, she is in fact perfecting Taylorism (2) within the classroom.  A regime designed to break up genuine social relationships , assign fixed non-negotiable tasks and then monitor  its subjects in their performance of the same. Indeed, if we look at Liz’s lesson plan here and here, we can see that this a well-crafted  time and motion study; brilliant in its execution but unsettling in the wider social context. 

Making a virtue of “economic necessity”

The first thing to note about pair work is that according to the economics of TEFL (i.e. its pricing mechanism) pair work is less valuable than working directly with the teacher. Almost all schools, colleges, universities etc generally charge more for smaller classes and charge most for one-to-one teaching. This is a simple fact and worth emphasising before we address the issues of “the importance of pair work” and “the need to maximises student-student interaction”.

Indeed, economically, it is the teacher who creates value (i.e. profit) in the classroom and not the furniture or other overheads.  This may seem somewhat counterintuitive given that many schools seem to take more care of the furniture or computer lab rather than the teacher (3), but this is the nature of profit system. By minimising the labour element of the teaching situation (i.e. 20 students to one teacher) the school can maximise profits.  Clearly there is a limit to how many students a teacher can effectively accommodate (pedagogically) so many language schools restrict classes to around 16 learners. It is still the case, however, that the teacher’s hourly rate rarely varies, whether they are teaching one-to-one classes or 30 students. Generally speaking, the first six students generate the same profit as a one-to-one class, so the extra students make an even greater profit. We say this because much that is written about pair work uses the language of student-centeredness. Student-centeredness, in such literature, is taken to mean where pair work/ group work (Student Talk Time) is encouraged and teacher input (Teacher Talk Time) is discouraged.

For us, therefore, so-called “student-centeredness” is nothing more than making a virtue out of a crude economic necessity. Liz puts it beautifully here:

When I encounter students who want to talk to me all the time in a lesson (flattering though it is) I advise them (politely) to consider having individual lessons if they want the teacher’s full attention all the time. If that doesn’t work I explain like this: 60 minutes divided by 6 students = 10 minutes each; so they can each talk to me for 10 minutes and I will listen to each of them for 10 minutes which is sad really when they’ve paid for a 60 minute lesson. And, let’s face it, it wouldn’t really be 10 minutes because you have to take time off for taking the register at the beginning of the lesson, giving everyone time to hang their coats up, sit down, get settled, receive their worksheets, read the instructions, listen to the teacher presenting grammar points or whatever, do a listening exercise or a roleplay, go through homework together, receive more homework, get ready to leave etc. 5 minutes would be more realistic. So there you have it, pay for 60 minutes and get 5. Where’s the logic?

In none of the literature, however, are we told, that, “more than six people is undesirable in a language learning context. In the interests of profit, however, it is best to adapt your teaching to ensure that the language is being learnt efficiently (or at least the impression is given that it is being done so)”

The “importance of pair work” and the need to maximise Student Talk Time merly serves as ideological cover for the mass-production model of  TEFL, with its emphasis on reducing school inputs and maximising student outputs.

Education and Reform

Now, some readers may retort that much education is imparted (rather successfully) in larger groups. The difficulty with this idea, however, is that you cannot claim a special case for language learning and pair work  if you claim it has no different properties than general education. Surely, the whole ethos of pair work in Foreign Language Teaching is, as Marc Hegelsen (ELT News) points out, that:

“The students need to speak English to learn English. English is not only the goal, it is also the pathway to that goal.”

Now, again, there are those readers who might believe that the models of EFL with its insistence on pair work are equally applicable to all other disciplines like maths, physics, music etc.  If such subjects are taught in such a teacher centred manner rather than the superior EFL manner then much educational value is lost. Under such a view, a constructivist view of education is being used to stress the centrality of learner involvement (something we, as Marxists, obviously don’t disagree with).  This, however, is to confuse an appreciation of the need to encourage peer co-operation and experimenting with hypothesis, with the “percentage requirements”  concerns of modern foreign language learning.

Obviously, peers  coming together to share their knowledge is essential,. We may borrow terminology from Vygotsky and argue that students of a same level occupy the same zone of proximal development (the stage just ahead of where they currently are) and each student can help the other as they are encountering almost identical issues in their language development. Arguably, the interlanguage of mono-lingual groups (the type of language produced by nonnative speakers in the process of learning a second language)might also provide better scafffolding  (learning support in making the next stage easier to reach)  than the teacher who doesn’t have the same grasp of their students’ interlanguage.

This, however, is a different argument from maximising Student Talk Time. It is not the quantity of the experience but the quality of the experience. For example, if a student were to explain something to another student (or, even better, whole class) in their native language far better than the non-native teacher had attempted in whatever language, then such an explanation would be more valuable than any amount of repetition in English. Moreover, discovery type exercises, like those contained within the silent way methodology, help students explore and consolidate the structure of language rather than “learn” through simple repetition and correction of discrete language items. Simply put, talking English is not always the best way to learn, listening and thinking are of equal, if not greater, importance.

But students need to talk.

Undeniably, it is through practising language that certain words/structures become somewhat more automatic and we become aware of problems or absences in our linguistic repertoires. This is not to conclude, however, that pair work is necessarily the most effective means of achieving this. One-to-one tuition, group work, presentations etc can all achieve this. However, all the alternatives are often far more resource heavy. One-to-one tuition is “very costly”, presentations are time-consuming (especially if other students are being asked to concentrate on something they have no interest in) and group work has greater maintenance issues than pair work (divisions of responsibilities etc.).

We could, however, introduce a more meaningful concept, one of maximising time in class where “all students can be heard”; where their opinions, ideas and information are encouraged and can be listened to and acted upon. The student, therefore, will not be asked to talk for the sake of talking but invited to participate. The input from the teacher, or the exercises, is designed to allow for participation (meaningful expression) rather than demand it (mechanical expression). Pair work is just, therefore, one more means of achieving this and should not be privileged over other means. We would also encourage, students to form their own preferences with respect to pair work (not ruling out the occasional change for reasons of freshness) rather than “break up” affinities formed spontaneously between human beings.

Chuck Sandy (ELT news) puts it rather nicely (editor’s emphasis in bold):

This is not to suggest in any way that teachers should dispense with activities, games, and tasks, but to point out that it’s often the less structured moments of a class which prove to be the most fruitful and that teachers should be aware of them and ready to follow such moments to where they lead. It’s also to say that a good language teacher is no different than a good teacher of any other subject, for as any good teacher does, a good language teacher creates a comfortable classroom with positive group dynamics where spontaneity is valued and everyone has a chance to be heard.

In addition, like all effective teachers, the effective language teacher uses relevant, intriguing materials as a springboard and not as a means to a particular end. Such materials allow for digressions and leave room for spontaneity and allow both teacher and students to ask real questions of value which go as far as possible beyond the simple comprehension questions most of us rely upon.

Therefore, the effective language teacher, like all effective teachers, thinks about the types of questions he or she asks and realizes that it’s not the teacher’s voice in the classroom that’s central, but the voices of students.

Indeed we at Marxist TEFL are arguing nothing other than this. Where we differ is that we situate these tendencies in their wider socio-economic context. For us methodolgy is not simply an issue of personal choice or “efficiency”, it is a political choice. We urge teachers, and especially teacher trainers, to encourage spontaneity in the classroom. To respect the choices and voices of the learner group and not to break these relationships into ever-moving constituent parts driven by the need for output.  To do this we need to move beyond stale concepts of STT (Student Talk Time) and TTT (teacher Talk Time) and rid ourselves of the time and motion mentality that goes into much rigid lesson planning. We are not doing our students any favours and, despite the creation of impressively well-structured “lesson plans”, we are in fact de-skilling ourselves.


(1)    We chose Liz’s work because, unlike many EFL material writers she actually thinks about the “why” not just the “how”. If we have been critical, it is because we believe she has not gone far enough with respect to her “why” question

(2)    This definition of Taylorism describes well the type of lesson planning/pair work we refer  to:

It was found out that the basic form, or the “ancestor”, of learning in mass production was the new distributed system of optimizing the methods for performing repeated tasks. This type of generalizing was based on the varying ways individuals were performing the same task. In Taylor’s system, specialized planning officers analyzed this variation with the help of time-and-motion studies, and objectified the result in a new type of artefact, the work standard, which comprised the ”one best method” to perform the task. The generalized operations embedded in the standard were thus results of a process of empirical generalization.

(3)    Indeed, if schools were to buy furniture like they hire teachers many would buy self-assembly packs of furniture that last only nine months and that the teachers and students would have to assemble themselves during the course.


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TEFL and the Economic Crisis Revisited

In January 2009 we made an assessment of the nature of the economic crises and how it would affect the TEFL industry.  Whilst we see no reason, in the light of events over the past year, to ammend our perspectives on the actual causes of the crises or the consequences of the speculative boom in higher and further education, it would be useful though to reassess the current “economic recovery” and its effect on the EFL industry.

The Inventory Bounce?

Most major Industrial countries now report that they have actually climbed out of technical recession (such a recession is defined by a contraction over two successive financial quarters in the total volume of goods produced). This emergence from technical recession, however, does not equate with substantial growth rates or rises in income and spending. One reason for this could be what economists term an inventory bounce. The inventory bounce is well-described by Krugman below:

Imagine a company that produces widgets (companies in these examples always produce widgets), normally selling 100 each month. The company tries to keep one month’s sales, 100 widgets, in inventory. But for some reason sales drop off, to 90 per month. And it takes a month before the company realizes what has happened.

At the end of that month the company, having produced 100 widgets but sold only 90, finds itself with 110 in inventory, but wants to hold only 90. To eliminate the excess inventory quickly, it might slash production to 70 for the next month, then bump production back up to 90. But unless sales increase again, that’s where it ends: production never recovers to its original level.

As go the widget-makers, so goeth the economy. When demand drops, inventories build up, then production drops sharply as businesses work off the overhang. Finally, there’s an “inventory bounce” when the overhang is gone. But the bounce doesn’t necessarily presage a true recovery. To get that, you need increased sales to final buyers.

This inventory bounce would be further complicated by the availability of credit. As is well recognised, the last “economic boom” was premised on considerable and unsustainable credit levels. Now it is clear that banks have cut back on loans and were enormously cautious on issuing loans they would have otherwise issued prior to the start of the last economic boom, but the availability of credit can clearly not restore growth rates. Moreover, the massive injections of capital to rescue the banking system have left the US and the UK with spiralling national debt which must itself be repaid and they are not in a position to launch massive public programmes to stimulate demand. While it is true that Germany, Japan and China are not so encumbered with debt it is unlikely that they will risk their economies by creating massive export possibilities for the more indebted nations. Indeed, the massive stimulus package in China has not been to create more home demand (better pension schemes, more hospitals and schools) but rather to create more infrastructure for export led growth.

Whether what we are seeing is merely an inventory bounce or not, what we know for sure is that most governments throughout the world are looking to cut back on public expenditure in an attempt to balance the books. Should they cut back too rapidly, however, causing rising unemployment and falling demand, they risk exacerbating the crises.  This is the background to the convulsive struggles that are currently shaking Greece and well-documented by Sara Hannam over at Critical Mass. They are also the background to the fightback at Leeds University in the UK, where staff are attempting to repel a management onslaught to deliver 35 million pounds worth of cuts.

And Tefl?

Well, we believe the industry best exemplifies the current economic situation. It is like a war of attrition. Some companies are cutting back and some individuals are preferring to spend extra hours in the office rather than do English classes. Other companies, however, are restructuring their classes to achieve savings or asking their staff to contribute more in terms of money and time. However, in an increasingly competitive job market students and workers still see the benefit in achieving a high quality of English. It is like Japan after the economic crises of the 90’s, there is not a technical recession but neither is there a feeling of significant growth. Numbers are staying more or less steady, but teachers and students are feeling under increasing pressure.

In place of a conclusion

We imagine this situation will continue for some time unless some department of international capital makes a significant move, this could be a move to the right (as witnessed by the rise of far right parties) and protectionist policies or a concerted effort to drive down wage costs even further while attempting expansion in another department (say further expansion of military Keynesianism). What is clear is that capitalism is riddled with contradictions, and every attempt to rid itself of its own contradictions brings further problems. Our future lies with the examples of air traffic controllers in Greece and university staff in Leeds. It is not only our jobs which are at stake but the very future of the planet as we know it.

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It’s not only English UK who stand to lose from the “return” of economic nationalism.


The Speech

We are continually working to improve the management of the system but we believe it is above all the flexibility of the points system which has allowed us to help British workers through difficult times, when it is right to be more selective about the skills levels we need from migrants. In March this year we raised the minimum salary level and the qualification level for tier one. We required Jobcentre Plus to apply the resident labour market test for tier two, so that no job can go to a migrant unless it has first been advertised to jobseekers in the UK for two weeks. The changes we have made mean that, from this autumn ,local workers will get a better chance, with jobs advertised now for four weeks in local Jobcentres before they are offered more widely.


I am announcing today a review of student visas – to be conducted jointly by the Home Office and the Department for Business. It will involve key stakeholders, and will report in December. We will look at the case for raising the minimum level of course for which foreign students can get a visa. The review will also examine the case for introducing mandatory English language testing for student visas other than for English courses (Editor’s note: the eventual proposals included English courses). And it will review the rules under which students on lower qualification courses work part-time, especially those on short courses, to look at whether temporary students are filling jobs that would be better filled by young British workers.

Gordon Brown 12th November 2009

A Change of Direction

Brown’s November speech heralded a significant reversal in previous Government approaches to immigration and sought to harmonize government policy with the electoral calendar. In short, faced with an impending general election, Brown was keen to show to the electorate that he was going to be tough on immigration. Whilst previously, government policy had been largely driven by simple economic concerns (“leaders in the international education marke”t, “flexibility in the labour market”) Brown was suddenly professing a new found enthusiasm for the EU concept of “managed migration”. In an attempt to demonstrate this new approach (or at least an approach which was in contrast to the opposition’s quota system) Brown introduced tough new guidelines on entry into the UK, for those wishing to work , wishing to study and work or simply wanting to study (there were also greater restrictions placed on partners wanting to join those workers/students ). It would be wrong to argue, however, that the points system was a policy departure in itself (a points system existed before), but rather that these tight new immigration controls were both contradictory and self-harming and, together with the rhetoric, spelled a significant lurch further to the right on immigration issues. Most significantly, the economic benefits of immigration were being played down and the threats to British jobs and the British way of life (whatever that is) were being emphasised.

A large part of this self-harming is now being experienced in the domestic EFL market, where the industry faces considerable economic difficulties as a direct result of these ill-considered policies. Students from around the world (apart from the EU) are now denied access to studying English in the UK because they can’t speak it to GCSE standard. This is rather like restricting “learner drivers”, wishing to enroll with driving schools, to only those learner drivers who have passed their driving test. Of course, there are those who want to obtain an HGVL (Heavy goods Vehicle License) but this will hardly prepare the next generation of car drivers or provide sufficient work for the driving schools. We would also agree with Sandy McManus, that the very use of GCSE standard (meaningless in EFL terms)reveals the complete disregard UK Borders held for the EFL industry when drawing up these plans ( and we thought David Graddol and the Labour Party were friends).

There are also other issues about the new system, requiring students to prove they have considerable savings in the bank before allowing entry and asking “host organisations” to participate directly in the function of “supervising” visitors during their stay, which not only effect those wishing to study here but also effect the arts and visiting academics. Overall there will be a huge economic, academic and cultural loss to the UK.

Before progressing further, however, it is necessary when discussing neo-liberal or managerial approaches to immigration, to stress that as Marxists we are opposed to all immigration controls. It is perverse to us that wealth can flow unhindered from country to country but that workers are not given the same opportunity. For Marxists, immigration controls are racist and abhorrent. There is no such thing for us as British jobs, there are jobs in the UK and there is unemployment but these jobs (or unemployment) do not enjoy a national character, they are merely temporary points In worldwide capital accumulation (or dislocation). The resurrection of the rhetoric of “British Jobs” is a response to the collapse of neo-liberalism, and an attempt to scapegoat the problems of unemployment onto migrant workers and visiting students. We resist 100% such crude racist attempts to obscure the real causes for the ills of the capitalist system.

The new points system is in such stark contrast to New Labour’s neo-liberal approach in 2004. In 2004 the government welcomed all workers from the eight new EU countries (known as A8 countries) well before they had any obligation of doing so. Full integration does not take place until 2012. At that moment there was little or no talk from the government about the “British family”. Indeed as the Migration Policy Institute (MIP) point out:

Europeans account for half of the UK foreign workforce, somewhat more than their share of the foreign population (46 percent). The Irish used to predominate but their share of all foreign workers has fallen from 22.6 percent in 1995 to 7.2 percent in 2008. The numbers of A8 Europeans in the labour force have grown rapidly, reaching just under half a million, or 21.8 percent, of all foreign workers in 2008.

In just two years A8 workers overtook Ireland to become the largest group of workers in the United Kingdom. There were 358,000 Polish workers in 2008, up from 151,000 two years earlier; compared to 165,000 Irish workers in 2008, up from 152,000 in 2006. Polish workers accounted for 15.7 percent of all UK foreign workers in 2008. Before 2008, the booming UK economy proved an attractive destination for many citizens of the new EU Member States. Together with restrictions elsewhere in Europe, high unemployment at home, favourable exchange rates, and pent-up demand, a wave of immigration from the accession countries was unleashed. About 1.4 million people from the A8 arrived in the United Kingdom between May 2004 and March 2009.

In 2007, A8 workers made up almost half of the United Kingdom’s labour immigration flow. …………The sheer size of the inflow has meant that Polish nationals, despite the high churn over, jumped from being the United Kingdom’s 13th-largest foreign-national group at the end of 2003 to number one by the end of 2008.

We would also stress here that people should not assume that these A8 workers represented a skilled workforce alternative to non-EU unskilled workforce (as New Labour wants to suggest): 

Over time, the share of the foreign-born workforce engaged in highly skilled occupations has declined (in 2004, 43.6 percent of foreign nationals were classified as highly skilled; in 2008, the proportion stood at 38.3 percent). This shift in skill balance has been brought about by the inflow of workers from the A8 countries, only 12 percent (15.8 percent in 2006) of whom were in highly skilled occupations, while over half (57 percent) were in low-skilled occupations, compared to 20 percent of other immigrants and 18 percent of natives.

In short, UK authorities generally agreed with numerous economic studies suggesting that immigration was positive for the economy, that rather than cause unemployment and lower wages, a new source of cheap labour (let us not swallow the skilled workforce ideology for one moment) would stimulate the economy and create extra jobs and wealth. Indeed, a leading think tank close to the government were suggesting, in 2004, that an amnesty be given to illegal workers which would generate 6 billion pounds for the economy (as opposed to the 4 billion it would cost to find such workers and deport them). Moreover, the MPI report, mentioned earlier, points out that between 2004 and 2009, 6 out of every 7 new jobs were taken by foreign nationals. The new restrictions on A8 workers (which will be rendered inapplicable in 2012) and the tightening of controls on visitors from outside the EU, therefore, represent a significant sea change in government policy.

The “Return” of Economic Nationalism.

There are those, like David Graddol, who suggest the nation-state is declining and the flow of capital between nations (globalisation) has flattened the earth. These thinkers portray a world where poor countries have risen or are rising (most notably China and India) from poverty and are competing equally in the market place. They see the rise in unemployment in Europe and the US as a natural consequence of this new market pressure. Moreover, as the laws of the market do not respect national boundaries, there is decreasing power available to national governments to effect change. Protectionism, they conclude, is no longer a viable option for national governments and rather than fight against this inevitability, governments should pursue niches in the world market. Not surprisingly, such thinkers see a widening in the gap between rich and poor inside a country (end of the redistributive state) but a narrowing between countries (the power of the market).

Regardless of the simple fact that mass unemployment arrived in the OECD countries in the 1970’s (well before the great flattening), we can see that the nation state has, in fact, grown rather than declined over the last 30to 40 years. The percentage of state expenditure per GDP of  the UK  serves to demonstrate this: State expenditure for the UK currently stands at 46.4% (the highest since 1976) and showing consistent growth since 2001 (to put matters in perspective, the  state only spent 35.11% on GDP when the Second World War started and 47.51% in the final year of the first world war.   

A similar picture can be seen (left) with respect to state expenditure in the United States. It would appear in these two bastions of neo-liberalism, that not only is the state not shrinking but it is rapidly reaching the size of a war economy.  Rather than shrink, however, the state has become much more closley linked to wealth production and less linked to social welfare and social justice. We might conclude the state is still in the business of redistributing wealth but redistributing it o the rich rather than the poor.

Moreover, Graddol and his co-thinkers are empirically off the planet when they suggest the gap between rich and poor countries has diminished. As Learner and Schott have demonstrated, quite emphatically (see here for an impressive graphic), what we have seen is a redistribution of low-end manufacturing from countries such as Poland and Mexico to countries such as India and China. It is true that millions have been taken from absolute poverty, but it is is equally true that this has been at the expense of “middling-income” countries rather than the OECD countries. 

This is not, however, a major redistribution of economic power. The US still dwarfs the developing world in terms of income per capita. Indeed, looking at any index of income per capita, China will be lucky to reach the position of Turkey within the next 50 years let alone takeover the US (as Graddol suggests). This is not to dismiss the rise of China, the rise in immigration to the US from Mexico and Poland to the UK respectively is inexplicable without the shift in manufacturing output from one country to another (as is the fall in unemployment in Brazil as it exports raw materials to China). No, the point here is that the nation state is far from dead and the threat of a retreat into protectionist policies is ever present (irrespective of how self-harming it may be to the long-term interests of capital). The reader may believe we are being too pessimistic in our assessment and we fail to see the “mushrooming” levels of international co-operation (especially with regard to the current economic and environmental crisis). On our part, however, whilst we are not predicting an immediate rerun to those terrible times spanning 1929 to 1946, we are warning of the obvious dangers of a rise in the rhetoric of economic nationalism when arms expenditure, as a percentage per GDP, is enjoying record growth:

We have travelled a long way, of course, from the lurch rightwards of the UK government and its effects on its domestic EFL industry to the threat of protectionism and nuclear holocaust. But it is journey well underway. In reality, this journey was started in 1970 when the golden age of capitalism came to an abrupt halt. It is true that the journey has taken us in new directions (the fall of the Soviet Bloc/ a massive increase in global trade/the rise of China) but we return to that all powerful capitalist compass point, the need for “creative destruction”. The term is Schumpeter’s, but Marxists recognise it well. Put simply, before a truly dynamic new round of capital expansion can occur, old capital must be destroyed. Wealth and power will become increasingly concentrated as the weaker capitals are subsumed under these new concentrations of capital. Unfortunately, the ransacking of the Eastern Europe or the shifting of textile production from Mexico to China will not be enough to stimulate this new round of capital accumulation; it will postpone the problem but not resolve it. No, the journey must lead to a process of creative destruction just as “creative” as that which occurred before the last round of massive capital accumulation (two world wars, Auschwitz, Hiroshima). Gordon Brown’s speech, like the rise of the BNP and the assistance they get from the BBC, merely returns us to that compass point.

The introduction of the new immigration points system was indeed a sad day for the  domestic UK TEFL industry but sadder days are ahead unless we resist the journey under which we are embarked.


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Science and “native English-speaker advantage”

Perhaps the best we can do is to change the rhetoric, by making it persistently clear to native English-speakers that they do indeed possess an unfair advantage that they should set about voluntarily remedying. There are some indications that this is beginning to happen. Nothing less than a rethinking of the language policy of the international scientific community seems called for – a shift from rank profit-making to egalitarian information-sharing.

Humphrey Tonkin 2008

At MTG we would whole heartedly agree with the final sentence.  We would also agree with the general sentiment of Tonkin’s interesting paper.  Where we would disagree with Tonkin, however,  (and here he is merely echoing authors such as Van Prijs and R Phillipson), is with the very concept of native English-speaker advantage. The very concept for us only obscures linguistic inequalities and their causes. Rather than throw light upon this complex issue and the measures required to redress such inbalances in power, such a concept merely reinforces market ideologies. It is of little surprise, therefore, that Tonkin can quote Graddol (an infamous apologist for neo-liberalism) in support of his hypothesis, even though Graddol’s arguments are in complete contradiction to his own:

David Graddol has recently warned (2006) that the biggest threat facing British scientists is a growing unwillingness to master other languages. English is rapidly becoming a language of second-language speakers: it may even have dropped to fourth position in the world in the number of native speakers, while the number of non-native speakers is continuing to grow rapidly (Graddol 1997, 2006). Not only does this mean that on a worldwide scale control of the English language is slipping out of the hands (or mouths) of its native speakers, but also that native English speakers are trapped in their own language even as individual multilingualism (the term used to describe speakers capable of handling several languages) is on the increase elsewhere in the world. As this happens, more and more non-English-speaking universities are offering English-language programs, thereby challenging the near-monopoly previously enjoyed by the English-speaking countries. The Erasmus program and now the Bologna Process, designed to improve mobility among institutions and now covering some 45 countries, has encouraged this development.

To be fair to Tonkin, he sees Graddol’s comments  from a more human perspective (pursuit of knowledge)rather than a purely economic perspective (pursuit of economic survival) as the quote below reveals:

So the monolingualism widely encountered among scientists, especially those from the USA, does carry inherent disadvantages (they may remain ignorant of significant developments in many fields), even if the disadvantages are outweighed by the advantages.

For Graddol, of course, the advantages don’t outweigh the disadvantages. The march of global capitalism is leaving the monolingual native English-Speaker behind because such speakers will be denied access to key international markets.

What both Tonkin and Graddol appear to accept is the inevitability of the market and that there is a meaningful sense of economic advantage/disadvantage attributable to any individual merely by means of being a native speaker/non-native speaker. This is the language of division and needs to be challenged.

For example, one might say to the receptionist at a holiday resort in Barbados,

“This is a beautiful island, you are so advantaged living here”

No doubt, he or she would look somewhat puzzled. They might reply that whilst they are fortunate in some ways to live there, they can’t possibly understand the use of the word advantaged. This surely relates to advantage in competition with others or the advantages and disadvantages of choosing one option over another.  As to the latter, they might think of the advantage of the climate and the disadvantage of having to entertain tourists (especially ones as ignorant as the question maker). The concept of competition for such a person has no meaning at all.

Indeed, the language of advantage, is really only applicable when assessing antagonistic self-contained units in competition with each other. This is the language of capitalism. In this language  people become individuals in continual competition for scarce resources. Now, clearly workers are in competition with each other (both in competition for jobs and in competition with other workers producing a similar product for the same market) but this is only a surface competition, as the worker does not choose whether to participate or not in this game, they are obliged to do so. Nor do any of the workers have any meaningful control/input into the rules of this competition (merely they are told what is required of them if they wish to be “successful” in this game). In short, by not being able to dictate the general rules of the game, all participants, or at least the majority (the workers) are severely disadvantaged.

So, if a scientist has an advantage because they are a native English-speaker, in what ways is there a real competition between them and a scientist who is a non-native speaker? For Tonkin, the fact that conferences/papers etc are nearly all in English, therefore, such native speakers have not had to dedicate years of study to learning English and that they may be able to express their ideas more easily, is clearly an advantage.  We would ask, Tonkin, however, in what ways does your average research scientist control their sphere of work and make the decisions with respect to grant allocations, editorial boards of journals, conference speakers, etc.?  Clearly, for those successful in the game, it is in their individual interest to perpetuate and intensify the inequality embodied in these rules but this is not necessarily the same for all particpants, especially those at the bottom of the ladder.

At MTG we do not see individuals as embodying power. Not that power cannot be exercised by individuals rather that such power is drawn from wider social relationships such as class, gender and race.  Therefore, we see no economic advantage in language per se, only in the uses it is put to. It is rather like suggesting to a villager in the Niger  Delta, that they are so advantaged to have oil in their region, he or she will of course reply that the discovery and exploitation of oil has led to enormous misery. A member of the Nigerian ruling class, paid handsomely by the oil company, will, of course, appear more positive about such rich deposits of oil in that region. This is the power of social class, and the power of Shell Oil is the power of imperialism.

Here, therefore, we disagree with all the advantage/disadvantage of the native speaker theorists as English is merely a resource which is the site of power struggles. For some people , the fact that people speak  English, have learnt English or are learning English has had enormous advantages, but this advantage cannot be generalised to all native English speakers and we cannot forget that non-native English speakers (even non English speakers) can benefit enormously from English.

Imagine two scenarios:

A: Joan leaves Southampton, England and goes to Italy to teach English. After five years, she starts her own school in Milan on money borrowed from the UK. She imports her books from the UK and the majority of her students go to study every year in Cambridge for one month. 40% of her students end up studying at British Universities and working for English multinationals based in Italy. Joan retires in England, buying a beautiful country house.

B. Joan leaves Southampton, England and goes to Germany to teach English. She works for Andreas in Hamburg.  Unbeknown to Joan, she only uses books from publishers owned by German companies and whose editions are printed in Germany.  Five of her students become research scientists for a large German pharmaceutical company. These students develop a cure for cancer (using English to liaise effectively with other scientists/scientific findings). Another one of her students oversees the takeover of a large pharmaceutical company in England by this new prosperous German multi-national.   Profits are enormous as this company expands its operation all over the world (English being the shared business language of middle-management). One of the research scientists, Manuela, marries Joan and they live happily ever after in Hamburg.

As can be seen from these two examples, the economic advantage of English is never so straightforward, not even on a national level. The simple fact is that we cannot talk broadly about native English speaker advantage (disadvantage), it must be demonstrated. This is not to excuse the status quo. We agree with Tonkin when he talks of the enormous harm that this obsession with publications in English causes. After all, surely a scientist’s value lies in their scientific capabilities and not in their mastery of a particular second language.  Yet, in the world of profit making, information sharing is not of the utmost priority (indeed it is all too often discouraged).

It is not only linguistic inequalities in science that need to be addressed but the very class, race and gender bias which holds humanity back from  the very solutions required to the enormous problems we collectively face. By placing the blame on native English speakers, we miss the real powerful interests that stunt the growth of a truly egalitarian international scientific community, capable of facing these challenges.


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Lost in Translation

Last Saturday, two US Servicemen were shot dead by “their interpreter”. The interpreter himself was shot dead by troops soon after. Reports suggest this attack was due to grievances over pay and conditions rather than in anyway related to the Taliban. What the incident does reveal most clearly, however, is the shocking disregard the occupying forces have for the men and women who risk their lives in the so-called “war against terror” and “reconstruction effort”. Being an interpreter is putting your life at risk, both in direct battles with the Afghan resistance and the vulnerability many feel within their communities for assisting the US and its allies. Many Afghans participate with the hope of an opportunity to start fresh lives in the US, yet the US has acted to sharply cut the number of Afghans allowed to settle in the US.

Which brings us to the whole issue of English and invasion. The BBC wrote in January:

The penetration of English is now influencing nearly all sectors of Afghan society. In previous decades when the Soviet Union was heavily involved in training and equipping the Afghan military, knowledge of Russian was considered a critical skill. But since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, Russian has been replaced by English. Courses have been launched to teach English to Afghan military personnel who often work alongside international forces. “Learning English has become an important skill for members of the Afghan National Army and police,” says Ustad Paktiawal, a teacher at the police academy in Kabul. “This enables them to communicate with their trainers from different countries of the coalition and understand each other.” English also helps members of the Afghan security forces to be considered for attendance at military schools in the UK and US. President Hamid Karzai is a fluent speaker of English and so are many members of the Afghan cabinet and state bureaucracy – a number have lived or studied in the West.

(This of course will be the same cabinet and state bureaucracy that, in November 2009, was found to be the second most corrupt in the world).

We raise these issues because unlike Mohamed Faiq and his fascinating piece on teaching English in Afghanistan (read here), we do not believe that there can be any meaningful “linguistic exposure and socialisation” whilst imperialist powers (like Russia and Britain In the past and the US and Britain today) continue to impose their self-interested agenda on this country. We would ask that no Afghan assist the US as an interpreter and no-one works with the NGO’s in teaching English in Afghanistan.

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We are back

We return after somewhat of a break with hopefully a fresh approach to the issues facing teachers and students. One big decision we have made is to lift our self-imposed boycott on using resources from the BBC. We still recommend teachers refrain from using direct BBC language learning material in the classroom (in protest against their platforming of Nazis)   but to continue to deny ourselves and students access to news articles is only self-harming.

Another issue we have re-thought (many thanks to Alex Case for his comments and the comments of his readers for helping us reach this decision) is that we shall endeavour  a little more to be a Marxist perspective on ESL rather than an ESL perspective on Marxism, that whilst introductions/news on Marxists/Marxism  is of value, there is a more pressing need  to analyse, from a Marxist perspective, what is exactly going on in ESL and how we might bring about positive change..

We hope these changes will make our blog more relevant to the needs of teachers and students.


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