Word fashions

Word fashions

The past weeks have been so hectic that I’ve had little time to stop, think and blog. But a report on the BBC yesterday made me pause: the ‘Oxford English Dictionary’ has proclaimed ‘selfie’ as its word of the year. The ‘word of the year’ is an interesting cultural indicator in English-speaking society: the choice is usually linked to technological innovation, a shift in social attitudes, or a set of political changes that affects everyone. Sometimes all three are involved.

But the selfie seems to be largely an indicator of technological change and social attitudes: the predictably outraged comments that follow the BBC reports on the ‘selfie’ and its crowning as ‘word of 2013’ suggest a move towards a vainer society, facilitated by the ability to take a snapshot of yourself on the phone and distribute it instantly via social media, usually for approbation. I guess you could call the overall procedure, ‘fishing for likes’.

The thing that really interested me about the BBC report, however, was the statistic revealing that, though the expression ‘selfie’ in its current sense, is first recorded in 2003, its use has risen 17000% in the past twelve months. That’s 17000%! First of all, the surge in usage is astonishing; secondly, how do the nice chaps at OED work this out?

The answer, of course, is that modern lexicography is based very much on monitoring the language with mind-bogglingly huge computerised corpora. Oxford and Cambridge University Presses have fantastic corpus resources of the spoken and written language that have revolutionised dictionary-making over the past quarter of a century. Before the rise of computers, the main reference dictionaries employed small teams of readers to sift through prescribed texts, ferreting out interesting or novel usages for the citations. This itself was a mammoth enterprise, and its early days are ably dramatized by Simon Winchester in his books, ‘The Meaning of Everything’ and ‘The Surgeon of Crowthorne’ (or, in its American edition, the rather more sensational, ‘The Professor and the Madman’) which are well worth reading. But now, rather than having teams of dedicated readers, writing down terms on slips of paper, we have electronic corpora that can search extensive archives of written text (and increasingly transcribed speech) that show how words and meanings enter the language, rise in popularity, remain stable, or fade away. Tracking their fortunes over time can tell us a lot about technology, culture and attitude. This is particularly true when you look at the impact of one word or language on another.

Take for example, the little Russian suffix, ‘-nik’, meaning ‘small’. We can track the cross-cultural impact of this little bit of a word in American English by interrogating the freely-available online Corpus of Historical American English, maintained at Brigham Young University by Professor Mark Davies and his team. By logging onto CoHA and entering ‘*nik’ as your search item, and choosing ‘Chart’ as your display option, you can track the progress of this little bit of language from 1810 to 2009, mainly, of course, in written texts.

The number of occurrences of ‘-nik’ is of course relatively small between the 1810s and 1940s, and on closer inspection, the words in which we find this suffix are generally names of a Slavic origin, or foreign words that are glossed, e.g. in the 1930s we find a reference to the ‘the General Stefanik Circle of the Slovak League of America’. But then in the 1950s, there is a sudden late surge in the frequency of this suffix – thanks, of course, to a ‘little moon’ that began to orbit Earth in the late 1950s, the first man-made satellite, ‘Sputnik’. Early references to this technological advance show the response of American commentators to this Russian achievement. In 1958, Time magazine reports, ‘Despite the Sputnik furor and the panicky cries that the U.S. was lagging behind the Russians in missilery, Convair and the Air Force stuck stubbornly to a schedule that was programed for maximum effort long before Sputnik.’ Even in this one sentence one can sense why the ‘-nik’ suffix was becoming so frequent.

The ‘-nik’ surge continued in the 1960s, but ‘Sputnik’ was being joined by a number of new English coinages that employed the Russian suffix that the little man-made moon had done much to popularise. ‘Beatnik’ is first dated to the 1960s in CoHA, and the use of the Russian diminutive conveys much of the general suspicion that these counter-cultural figures aroused, and the pro-Soviet sympathies they were assumed to share: in an issue of Harpers magazine published in 1968, we find the sentence, ‘As they worked, the two government officers had a friendly laugh together over the filthy cowardice of “beatnik pinko kids.”’

Then, once ‘-nik’ had been released into English as an attitudinal suffix, signifying a certain attitude of contempt and political distaste, other words joined the fold: ‘refusenik’, ‘peacenik’, ‘folknik,’ ‘vietnik’ and ‘freaknik’ come into the English language from the 1960s onwards. Over two or three decades the degree of political distaste fades but an air of obsessiveness remains – a ‘neatnik’ is still someone who is a little too compulsively orderly in their habits.

So are these coinages merely a passing fad, as someone complains of ‘selfie’ in the postings that follow the BBC report on the OED’s decision? Some are. If you look at the frequency of ‘peacenik’ in CoHA, it is first found in the 1960s, peaks in frequency in the 1980s, but fades away in the 2000s to its low 1960s level. It seems to be on the way out. But the relative popularity of ‘-nik’ as a suffix that conveys a cultural attitude remains: the usages in CoHA in the 2000s still include a lot of proper names, but in between them you can find ‘no-goodnik’, ‘retro-beatnik’ and ‘neo-beatnik’. And, of course, people are still talking about Sputnik, that alarming piece of technology whose influence changed the language. The selfie might have a long future ahead of it.

Further reading:

The rise of the selfie: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22511650

‘Selfie’ is the OED word of 2013: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-24992393

The Corpus of Historical American English: http://corpus2.byu.edu/coha/

Winchester, S. (2002). The surgeon of Crowthorne: a tale of murder, madness and the Oxford English Dictionary. Penguin UK.

Winchester, S. (2003). The meaning of everything: The story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press.


Drama & Gardening

Drama & Gardening

Sometimes, when I get too serious about intercultural language education, I remember a student I once taught in my first job, in Salerno, in Italy. He was a lively Italian law student, and he drove a Fiat 500 with a maniacal fury along the winding roads of the Amalfi Coast.

‘Look, look at the culture!’ he would yell, as we overtook a nun on a moped.

‘What culture?’

He gestured to the vine and olive trees on the steep slopes above us. ‘The agriculture!’ he cried.

I was reminded of this student by the BrazTESOL Special Interest Group event on Intercultural Language Education that Andrea Assenti del Rio and I held last week in Sao Paulo, an event kindly supported by Martins Fontes bookshop and Cambridge Brazil. Somewhere between 30 and 40 participants turned up, which was just enough to fill the room, and they stayed for the day’s events. I did some of my usual stuff on understanding images, and on the cultural aspects of conversational interaction. Andrea talked about the cultural content of course-books, and how to supplement them, and she took us through some techniques from the ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ that she has been using to combine language learning, critical thinking and conflict resolution. And she also talked about gardening.

The participants were wonderful. I like working with Brazilian teachers – there is no problem in getting them to respond. It is more of a problem stopping them from responding; but that is a very good problem to have. So they enthusiastically shared their ideas on making and understanding art in the classroom, questioned the use of phrasal ‘chunks’ in conversational stories, told us of their rich experiences in adapting course materials to their own ends –and participated whole-heartedly in Andrea’s dramatic exploration of critical incidents.

The drama techniques of ‘The Theatre of the Oppressed’ can be understood as a metaphor for cultivation. There is the stage of germination when the ‘spect-actors’ – those who both spectate and act – have to build up trust. A simple way of doing this (while revising numbers) is to stand in a circle and see if you can count from 1 to 10 without anyone overlapping. It’s not easy. Like cultivation, it takes patience, and quite a few failures. One person says ‘one’ and three people immediately call out ‘two’. Or they let a pause elapse. But how long a pause can we stand? Or more precisely how long a pause can Brazilian teachers stand? When it works well, an almost palpable sense of trust develops in the silences between the calling out of numbers. We stop shouting and we begin to listen. And gradually, out of the failures, the group develops its own rhythm.

From the listening and trust-building we become ready for a more elaborate technique. Small groups – of around four or five – identify an incident in which they feel someone has been abusing his or her power over someone else, and they act out that incident together before the whole class. In the sessions I’ve attended, there have been different kinds of everyday oppression portrayed – people using their size to jostle for space on a metro train or bus; migrant workers labouring in sweatshops with no basic working privileges. Since we usually work with educators, the incidents frequently involve teachers, parents, secretaries and pupils – sometimes a parent is abusing a teacher, sometimes it’s a director of studies browbeating junior colleagues. Sometimes you can see the ‘oppressor’s’ eyes light up as he or she channels an incident from memory. The sap rises. Language flows.

The audience then reflects on the critical incident that has been performed, and the teacher asks for suggestions on how to subvert or challenge the oppression. But because the audience is composed of ‘spect-actors’ they can’t simply make their suggestions; no, they have to join in and perform their interventions in a replay of the original incident. So the erstwhile viewer takes on the role of the bus passenger who is being jostled; or turns one of the migrant workers into a kind of shop steward or negotiator; or finds some words to say that might calm an angry parent or soften the attitude of an unreasonable boss. Then, we discuss whether or not that intervention would have worked in real life, and perhaps act out some further alternatives.

Again, it is a simple technique that works surprisingly well in generating language and cultivating – there’s that word, again, ‘cultivating’ – critical thinking. We may not agree with the solutions put forward in the scenario, but we are prompted to think hard about possible alternatives. And in the shared experience, and in the discussions that pool that experience, we are encouraged to grow.

So it seemed appropriate that when Andrea was describing the work of her school in La Plata, Argentina, she also talked about a gardening project that the younger learners are currently engaged in. Her city was dreadfully affected by flooding earlier this year, and many of her neighbours lost their lives, or know people who were suddenly and terribly bereaved. The community is coming together in a number of initiatives, and one that Andrea’s school has initiated – small though it might be – is a garden project. The children are bringing seeds and learning about the vocabulary and grammar of gardening in English. The springtime lettuces that are beginning to germinate in La Plata are more than just a resource for learning language; they are a symbol of rebirth, renewal.

Or, as my Italian student said so many years ago, of ‘culture’.

See http://www.homeintercultural.com.ar/engl/home_engl.html



I’m now safely back in Brazil after a very enjoyable week in Vilnius, giving a plenary presentation and a workshop on intercultural language education at LAKMA, the Lithuanian English teachers’ association’s biennial conference. It was good to meet up with old friends like David Hill, and make new ones like Ėgle Petronienė (chair of the hard-working LAKMA committee) and her colleagues at the Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences, Vilma Bačkiūte of the Ministry of Education and Science, Loreta Chodzkienė and her colleagues at Vilnius University, Andžej Račkovski of Cambridge University Press and Geoff Tranter, a freelancer, wine-lover and bon viveur. I was very grateful that Cambridge University Press and the British Council sponsored my first trip to the Baltic states, a part of the world I have long wished to visit. I wanted to travel there 25 years ago, when I was working in Moscow … but getting permission to do so was difficult in those days.

Like the FAAPI conference in Buenos Aires, a few weeks ago, the theme of the LAKMA conference – ‘Intercultural Competences in the Global Village’ – indicated that intercultural language education is increasingly moving centre stage in ELT. There were a variety of plenaries and sessions on different aspects of ILE and it was a pleasure starting off the proceedings in this beautiful Baltic capital city. Augusta and I spent a week there, enjoying the autumn colours as well as (on my part) the stimulating presentations. As usual, at conferences with an intercultural focus, the style and content of the sessions was never quite predictable – like the architecture of Vilnius Old Town Centre, there were always surprises around the next corner.

Among my fellow plenary speakers, Chris Hall of York St John University in the UK and Marlene Wall of the LCC International University in Lithuania, and Adrian Holliday of Canterbury Christ Church University, also in the UK, all worried away at the complexity that naturally arises when speakers from different linguistic and cultural communities, speaking shifting varieties of English, interact. Chris argued that intercultural communication in English must embrace what he calls a ‘plurilithic’ set of norms rather than a monolithic ‘native speaker’ standard. Acceptance of the inevitable variety of English norms available in intercultural communication is not only sociolinguistically sensible, he argued, it is psycholinguistically effective. Learners move from use to competence, not from knowledge about a standard to use, and so intercultural communication needs to encourage use of its multiple norms. And, he pointed out, when you consider the variety of non-standard forms of spoken English that thrive within the so-called ‘native-speaker’ domain, the notion of multiple norms is not without precedent, even in the traditional Anglophone speech community. As a Scottish speaker of English, I could easily relate to that observation, as indeed could several of the Americans seated near me.

Marlene Wall also addressed the complexity of intercultural interactions, and argued that a sensitive intercultural curriculum must embrace a ‘post-methods’ approach to teaching ELT, one that moves beyond the traditional concerns of accuracy and fluency, and challenges the concepts of foreignness and otherness. She drew upon ethical and practical notions of ‘hospitality’ to frame the intercultural curriculum, citing Henri Nowen’s definition of hospitality as ‘the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend.’

Adrian Holliday, in a plenary that was typically considered and gently provocative, presented his developing and – yes, complex – ‘social action grammar of culture’, a model that seeks to account for the little ways in which individuals, with their idiosyncratic backgrounds and personal histories and desires, interact with languages, political structures, broad cultural processes and given cultural products. He drew upon Karen Risager’s concept of ‘linguaculture’ to suggest that teachers be trained to support learners in the often difficult process of using their own cultural frames as an initial basis for reaching out and comprehending the other. In a way, Adrian’s ‘social action grammar of culture’ was another way of conceiving of Marlene’s ‘hospitality’ – both were concerned with the triggers that prompt learners to explore the other culture with respectful curiosity, rather than knee-jerk suspicion. And as the plenaries unfolded, as often happens, they entered into unexpected dialogue with each other and I began to realise that what the teacher and teacher-trainer needs to develop, in many ways, is something I’m often accused of having in short supply – namely, tact. The teacher and trainer needs to recognise those situations when a gentle prompt can support intercultural dialogue, and those situations in which the teacher’s butting in will kill dialogue stone dead. That kind of tact arises from an understanding of the nature and purpose of intercultural dialogue, a sense of the students’ personalities, and the experience of having taken part in many such dialogues before.

Once I started thinking about tact, I began to reconfigure the content of many other presentations around it. Daryl McCarthy, the director of an NGO that organises visits and exchanges amongst American, European, Middle Eastern, African and Asian university students and staff entertained us with anecdotes of his experiences and his reflections on the basic training given to sojourners in other cultures. His mantra, delivered to novice intercultural travellers – ‘It’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s just different’ – is obviously an encouragement to open-minded hospitality, but, as he admitted, it only takes you so far. Then, it seems, critical judgement has to take over, and you need tact to know when and how to resist the other’s cultural practices.

I also worried about tact in relation to the numerous sessions on online intercultural exchange that were springing up like autumn mushrooms throughout the conference. A determined couple of Lithuanian schoolteachers, Loreta Jusienė and Staselė Riškienė, distributed ipads to all participants in their workshop and frogmarched the participants into registering on the spot for eTwinning programmes that support the digital connection of teachers and pupils [see http://www.etwinning.net ]. They were wonderful champions for the project, and as I looked at the map of eTwinned schools across Europe I lamented the almost total lack of participants in my home area, the west coast of Scotland. In some ways, the native speaker English community is in danger of missing out on the richness of intercultural education.

But my own sessions – the plenary and the workshop – were partly concerned with the challenges of practising online intercultural exchanges. Like the other conference participants, I was charmed and inspired by the plenary and workshop given by Liliane Sakamoto, a Brazilian who has been long resident in Dublin, where she teaches at the Alpha College of English. Liliane gave two lively sessions on ‘digital realia’, in which she urged participants to join learners in their everyday use of social media like facebook, twitter, google+ and youtube. She entreated us not to destroy this experience by turning it into a ‘learning task’ but to ‘keep it real’ and exploit the transformative potential of authentic communication via social media to encourage language use and acquisition. The multiple linguistic forms of online postings called to mind Chris Hall’s session on plurilithic norms.

Liliane was also energetic and wonderful, and clearly devoted to enriching her students’ linguistic and cultural experiences. And yet. In my own workshop on the experience, of over a decade, of using online exchanges between students in Scotland, Brazil, Argentina and Taiwan, my colleagues (Wendy Anderson, Peggy Lu, Andrea Assenti del Rio and Alison Phipps) and I grew sensitive to the pros and cons of ‘keeping it real’, of the difficulties of knowing when to intervene and encourage exploration and reflection, and when to refrain, and let learners explore (or fail to explore) themselves. We found the use of social media encouraged students to talk about themselves, but not always to elicit information from others. We found that they responded to posts in different ways – some with cold indifference and others with warm engagement. Some, in Marlene Wall’s terms, were hospitable and others were less so – in Adrian Holliday’s terms, their ‘linguacultural engagements’ flowed or froze. So to Liliane’s zeal I would add only a minor qualifier – teachers need to acquire a difficult-to-quantify but absolutely essential element of intercultural competence that is necessary to enhance learning in the global village. We need to acquire the sensitive knowledge of when to intervene and when to refrain from intervening in the learners’ own intercultural dialogues.

Again, in a word: tact.

For more information about LAKMA, see http://www.lakmaonline.lt/

Roots and Routes

Roots and Routes

I am between conferences. Last week was FAAPI in Buenos Aires, next week we are at LAKMA in Vilnius. In both events, intercultural language education is taking a prominent position, which is encouraging to see.

The FAAPI conference hosted around 800 language teachers, at the Universidad Católica Argentina, which is part of a network of beautifully refurbished dockside warehouses on the renovated waterside area of Puerto Madero. The participants were treated to a rich menu of presentations by local and visiting speakers, many of which touched on cultural topics and intercultural education. As usual, to the uninitiated, the variety of approaches and presumptions must have been slightly bemusing.

The territory was sketched out in Cristina Banfi’s opening plenary, which surveyed the increasingly crowded landscape inhabited by language teachers in the 21st century: a time of competing demands for our attention and a proliferation of digital and multi-literacies. The profession has a number of roots: a local obligation to empower students by giving them access to different languages, a practical and theoretical interest in how languages are cognitively acquired, and a wider aspiration to foster intercultural understanding between different language-speaking communities. The routes we follow as language teachers are complex, and their ramifications, as the succeeding sessions showed, are enormous, especially in a world where physical movement between cultures is complemented by the pervasive reach of digital media and the internet.

I did not get to see all of the many sessions that addressed these ramifications. Among those I did squeeze into was a session by Myriam Met, one of the architects of the American Council of Foreign Language Teachers’ Standards for Foreign Language Learning, which is rather like the North American version of the Common European Framework of Reference document. Like the CEFR, it gives necessary but perhaps often rather abstract guidance on the integration of culture and language education. Myriam’s practical session focused on different cultural products, perspectives and practices embodied in language and contained one crucially important piece of advice: teaching language and culture begins with the eyes. A pillar of intercultural language education is the development of observational skills that can be expanded into an ethnographically-aware toolkit. We need to provide learners with the means to become cultural investigators and that is founded on learning how to see.

A classroom example of learning how to see was given in a session by Rosana Greco, in a session intriguingly entitled ‘Interculturality in a Beer Can’. Illustrating that you can begin to explore the hidden depths of culture by beginning with the tip of the iceberg, Rosana took a television advertisement for Texas’ Lone Star beer as a jumping-off point for a workshop that explored the national and local stereotypes that characterise the Lone Star state, and invited a comparison with the national symbols often bound up with commercials for beer elsewhere. She looked at similar ads for Quilmes, the Argentinian beer – and I was prompted to recall strategies used in Scotland, England and Ireland to associate beer with national culture in particular. I have fond memories of Tennants’ lager featuring adverts aimed at a home audience but showing trendy young Japanese pub-goers in Tokyo hunting down the Scottish beer because they found it ‘exotic’ – perhaps an implicit acknowledgement that for many, drinking beer is an affirmation of their roots while for others it is itself an exploration of other cultures. Tennants’ marketing people clearly wanted to appeal to both types of consumer ,and so they developed an amusingly intercultural beer commercial that invites the Scottish audience to see itself, for a minute or so, as the Other.

The most enjoyable part of any conference, as I noted in an earlier blog post, is meeting old friends and making new ones. I thoroughly enjoyed a workshop session given by Andrea Assenti del Rio, Maria Eugenia Sardina Kuchen and Rocio Montes – all members of the Home Intercultural Learning school in La Plata. Andrea directs a small but incredibly lively operation, and the Home team livened up the Friday afternoon by showing vividly how techniques borrowed from Brazil’s Theatre of the Oppressed can be adapted to develop both language proficiency and strategies for conflict resolution. Through Andrea, I was encouraged to attend Susan Hillyard’s equally dramatic session on developing spheres of intercultural activity through performance. Susan’s perspective on interculturality is that we start first with the exploration of our own identity, and her use of childhood play in encouraging this was enthusiastically adopted by those teachers present. And the conference (for me) was rounded off by another elegant and often quite moving presentation on encounters in the cultural contact zone, given by Claudia Ferradas. Claudia again showed the richness of literary texts by writers as diverse as Jorge Luis Borges and Benjamin Zephaniah in opening up cultural topics for classroom exploration.

My participation in the conference was sponsored by Cambridge University Press, whose team, ably led by Paula Coudanes, were tremendously supportive and hospitable over the four days of the conference. I was pleased that Cristina Banfi’s dire prediction in her keynote presentation that few people were likely to attend a lunchtime commercial presentation proved to be ill-founded, and the room was packed for both my presentation on the Intercultural Language Activities resource book, and a later workshop on the use of visual images in the teaching of language and culture. All in all, we went home full of ideas, good food and – it goes without saying – excellent Argentinian wine.
And I had the strong sense from FAAPI that intercultural language education is becoming well-established as a diverse but coherent and increasingly recognised strand in the wider tapestry of English teaching and learning. Tomorrow I head back to Europe for a week, to Vilnius in Lithuania, and another conference that has intercultural language education at its heart. The next blog should be a report from the Baltic States. Watch this space.



This will be a quick blog. I am on my way to Buenos Aires shortly, to participate in the FAAPI Conference (Federación Argentina de Asociaciones de Profesores de Inglés) in Buenos Aires. I haven’t done many conferences so far this year, and I’ve done even fewer outside Brazil. When I got off the plane in São Paulo in February, I did not want to sit in another bucket seat for a good few months. But now we’re getting back on the horse. We’ve got FAAPI in BA this week, and another in Vilnius, in Lithuania, in less than a month’s time.

I largely enjoy conferences. My first English teachers’ conference was a TESOL Scotland event in the mid-1980s. I was one of a small team working at Stirling University at the time, and the conference was a sudden means of access to other people with similar interests, similar problems and better solutions. I realised that I had been feeling lonely and hadn’t realised it. And so I joined the Scottish association, and have been taking minutes in different places for one group or another, in some capacity, ever since.

Obviously, now, I get different things from conferences. One is simply to connect again with old friends whom I mainly only meet at conferences now. One nice thing about regular conferences is watching little explosions of pleasure here and there, as people recognise each other, yelp, and fling themselves into an embrace. Another more commercial reason for attending conferences, as an author, is to publicise your work and get useful feedback from those who are actually teaching with it. And yes, I do get a kick out of book signings. But what do I get from sitting in the audience now?

This question is raised, indirectly, in one of my favourite campus novels, Small World by David Lodge, which updates the plot of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to the present day. Instead of going on a pilgrimage, his hero attends conferences – but the entanglements, misunderstandings, stories, and humour remain remarkably similar. Lodge writes:

“The modern conference resembles the pilgrimage of medieval Christendom in that it allows the participants to indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self-improvement. To be sure, there are certain penitential exercises to be performed – the presentation of a paper, perhaps, and certainly listening to papers of others.”

I did once go to a conference presentation that attempted to answer the question, “What do we get out of conference presentations?” The answer (the speaker’s detailed investigations seemed to suggest) is: “Not much.” The presentations themselves, he argued, are not the main thing about conferences; people don’t remember them in any great detail, it seems. The main thing is the social and professional networking in the spaces between the presentations – the discussions, arguments, gossip about the next big thing, and the opportunity to share opinions with informed and enthusiastic fellow professionals.

Perhaps that is true. Certainly some conference presentations I’ve been to recently by major figures in the ELT have come to resemble polished pieces of performance art rather than reports of research-based struggles to come to new and helpful understandings of the language and how to teach it. The best presentations (for me) combine a little of both. And I do remember ‘eureka’ moments of good conference presentations – an idea to take away and try myself, something to adapt, an article to follow up … an assumption questioned. The illumination I get from a good conference presentation is not always immediate: an issue that a presenter raises nags at the back of my head for a while, and then surfaces later, perhaps to change the direction my professional life is going. And of course bad conference presentations are also good. You learn what not to do. You gain confidence: “I can be as good as that,” you think, often foolishly.

And conferences, too, are changing. My email inbox is clogged with rather frightening invitations to join Virtual FAAPI and follow the conference proceedings in hyperspace as well as in the physical world. (I have avoided opening those emails up.) I am abashed by watching co-presenters tweet as they juggle their powerpoint slides or prezis. My Facebook pages are equally clogged by friends tweeting in real time from conference presentations they are attending. David Lodge writes, in another of his novels, that “Information is the religion of the modern world.” Sometimes I feel we have too much of it. When I am presenting, now, I have to suppress the idea that someone in the third row is simultaneously keying into a smart phone: “Fatter& greyer than his program pic. LOL!”

So I’m back on a plane tomorrow and looking forward to being in Buenos Aires again, meeting up with old friends and making new. There is a small knot of folk interested in intercultural language education, many of them orbiting erratically around the extraordinary ball of energy that is Andrea Assenti del Rio, my co-organizer of a Facebook group on that subject. It will be good to put some faces to the names, so do say hello. To finish with a last quote from David Lodge, again from Small World:

“Intensity of experience is what we’re looking for, I think. We know we won’t find it at home any more, but there’s always the hope that we’ll find it abroad.”

See you in Argentina.

FAAPI 2013: http://www.apiba.org.ar/faapi13

Intercultural Language Education SIG (Facebook): https://www.facebook.com/groups/250536458398597/



Wherever I am, I haunt second-hand bookshops. There was a time I could navigate most cities I visited by their second-hand bookshops: Charing Cross Road in London, Homer Street in Vancouver, Leninski Prospekt in Moscow, Otago Street in Glasgow, Spittal Street in Stirling…

Probably the bookshops I fondly remember have long gone, but I’ve now found a cluster of them, sebos as they’re called here, in Sao Paulo, just along from FNAC in Pinheiros.

So I spend happy hours browsing. And last week I picked up a dog-eared, black-covered paperback called “A Primer of Visual Literacy”, written by someone with the unlikely name of Donis A. Dondis, and published by MIT Press in 1973. God only knows how it ended up in Sao Paulo, but that is the beauty of second-hand bookshops. The books have a mysterious history.

I’ve been reading “A Primer of Visual Literacy” with considerable interest and pleasure. This is a little surprising, since academic books of this nature tend to go out of date quickly. My publishers tell me they expect my textbooks to have a shelf-life of about three years, so finding something of relevance and use in a 40 year-old textbook is remarkable. But in fact some of the interest in the book is Ms Dondis’ prophetic instinct, in particular about the way photographs will change our means of communication:

“[The camera] forms the final connecting link between being able to see, and the external capability to report, interpret, express what we see, without having to have special talent or training to effect the process. There is little doubt that contemporary life style has been influenced, and crucially, by the changes enacted on it by the fact of the photograph. […] Print is not dead yet, nor will it ever be, but, nevertheless, our language-dominated culture has moved perceptibly toward the iconic. Most of what we know and learn, what we buy and believe, what we recognize and desire, is determined by the domination of the human psyche by the photograph. And it will be more so in the future.” (p.7)

This passage was written several decades before the advent of the internet and the smart phones that would allow everyone (without ‘special talent or training’) to chronicle their everyday lives, and those of their dogs, cats, children and lovers, and post them on Facebook or Instagram or Flickr, with just a truncated message or a symbolic smiley to indicate an attitude or a comment. We now spend much of our days navigating snapshots and ‘selfies’, images endlessly created and recycled, forwarded and then no doubt quickly forgotten. Donis A. Dondis’ view was that some basic training would improve the quality of our reception and production of images, and that this kind of training was becoming increasingly urgent. If that was true in 1973, it is surely even truer now. The importance of the visual in English Language education is evident in the interest shown in the upcoming Image Conference in Brasilia (which I would love to attend but doubt if I’ll be able to: see https://www.facebook.com/The.Image.Conference for details).

As her manual continues, it is clear that Ms Dondis takes a psychological – we would probably now say a ‘cognitive’ – approach to the processing of images. She considers how, across different cultures, the viewer tends to begin looking at the top mid part of an image, the eyes tracking down to the lower left before swinging back up to the right. This fundamental interaction with the image determines things like the flow of information, context and novelty, and (she argues) a sense of pleasing balance versus displeasing irregularity. How we compose elements of an image, either representational or abstract, is affected by this basic mode of engagement with the page, canvas or computer screen.

The book, unsurprisingly, is full of advice on achieving harmony or contrast by arranging the elements of an image. The notion of combining elements of an image into a meaningful whole is, of course, a grammatical one, and we can consider the manual a little descriptive (or even, at times prescriptive) grammar of visual communication; however, at one point in her discussion, Ms Dondis alludes directly to the subversive power of language teaching:

“There is a Berlitz approach to visual communication. You don’t have to learn to decline verbs or spell words or learn syntax. You learn by doing.” (p.37)

In other words, the learner does not necessarily acquire visual literacy by reading about symmetry, asymmetry, flatness, depth of field, perspective, distortion or colour saturation. The learner acquires visual literacy by picking up the phone (or the camera, or indeed the pack of crayons) and making images.

And yet, here I think, in visual literacy as well as in language education, there is much to be learned from the appropriate use of models. I’ve also recently been reading about the classic ‘street photography’ of Robert Doisneau, the French photographer who captured iconic images of Paris, particularly from the 1930s through the 1950s. There are numerous debates about the ‘authenticity’ of Doisneau’s images, and the extent to which they were constructed or composed, but there is little doubt that they feel spontaneous, and that they capture a world that now looks distant, even to those of us familiar with the French capital. The past, as the author L.P. Hartley observed, is also a foreign country.

The images of photographers and artists can be used to help learners begin to make their own visual images – not, as in the audio-lingual method of language learning, to specify rigid ‘products’ to be mimicked, but, as in more communicative approaches, to provide a resource that supports the ‘process’ of learning how to compose, balance, and present the image.

For example, anyone teaching in a school might look at Doisneau’s photo ‘Les Doigts Pleins d’Encre’ [Fingers covered in ink], which shows one schoolchild seated at his desk, writing tablet before him, staring thoughtfully into space while his neighbour peers across at what he has written. How can that image be ‘translated’ into the context of another classroom, in another culture, today? Would the learners still be seated in rows? Would the neighbour be stealing a glance at a writing tablet, or a digital tablet, a laptop screen, or a smartphone? Our own learners can be invited to recreate the image and compare theirs with Doisneau’s – at this point, the vocabulary that Dondis A. Dondis teaches us about symmetry, focus, scale and subtlety might come into play:

* Are the two learners in sharp focus against a slightly unfocused background.
* Is there a contrast in, for example, the hair colour of the angelic, blond dreamer versus his darker-toned, cheating neighbour?
* What is the point of view of the person holding the camera – teacher, fellow-pupil or just someone who wandered into the classroom, off the street?

This kind of activity makes a virtuous circle of visual interpretation (describing Doisneau’s original), practice in production (recreating Doisneau’s image) and theory (using Dondis or another theorist to help compare the original and the recreation). The recreation and updating of the image force us to notice things we might otherwise take for granted. And the verbal description of the two images – giving an account of the differences and similarities – extends both our learners’ visual and verbal literacies.

So go on: get your phone out. Become an instagrammarian.


Dondis, D.A. (1973) A Primer of Visual Literacy. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press

Rose, G. (2001) Visual Methodologies. London: Sage



Every so often, I realise that I am an old fossil from a different era. In particular, I realise that my educational formation took place at a time when things like lectures were quite different from the way they are now. For example, at some point in 1977 or 1978, in my first year as an undergraduate student at Glasgow University, I attended the final lecture in an introductory series on English grammar. The lecturer was a dapper gentleman called Les Collier, who wore the customary gown to keep the chalk off his dark suit. His lectures referred to a text-book based on early Hallidayan grammar, written by what seemed to be a team of Australian solicitors: Scott, Bowley, Brockett, Brown and Goddard. As a climactic flourish, Mr Collier spent the full hour of the final lecture using the grammatical model to analyse the first sentence – only the first sentence, mind – of John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. If you know the poem, you’ll know it’s a long sentence, a Latinate period, no less, harking back to the opening of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’, and the analysis was a tour de force. I remember furiously trying to copy his step-by-step reasoning into my handwritten lecture notes, while a voice at the back of my head was saying, ‘Why? Why are you doing this?’

I later called on my English Language tutor, an equally nice man called David Murison, who was a distinguished lexicographer of Scots, to ask him for help in understanding the finer details of the analytical model. He looked at me with the bemused expression of a man just about to retire, and said, ‘Son, there are three things in life you should never chase. A woman, a number 9 bus, and a new grammatical theory. There’ll be another one along in a minute.’

Education often happens in unexpected ways. I am reminded of Les Collier’s lecture as a consequence of participating, over the past weekend, in my first ever webinar. There were two reasons for this: the first was that the webinar was hosted by IATEFL BESIG on the topic of using literature to develop intercultural reading strategies, and it was given by a good friend, Claudia Ferradas, with whom I have collaborated on several British Council sponsored events over the years. And the second was that I’ve recently been invited by Cambridge Brazil to deliver one of their first webinars, probably around the end of October – and I said yes. So I wanted to find out how a webinar works.

There was a slight problem in that, on the day of the webinar, my wife and I had decided to escape to the countryside of Sao Paulo, to a farm that has no internet or phone connection. And so just before 11 am local time, I was dropped off in the small, rural town of Piracaia. I made my way to a LAN House, where I logged onto a pc at the cost of one Brazilian ‘real’ per 20 minutes, put on my headphones to baffle the noise of passing mopeds and horse-drawn carts, and joined the webinar.

The hour shot past. Claudia sat at home in Buenos Aires, the moderator introduced her from Austria, and my forty-odd fellow participants dutifully identified themselves as being from places as distant as Peru, the USA, the Netherlands, and Israel. While Claudia delivered a polished lecture, illustrating it with powerpoint slides and videos, my fellow participants and I kept up a synchronous commentary in a chat-box – praising, querying, joking, adding personal experiences, and just expressing thanks for being there. Claudia was talking about reading and rewriting literary texts to enhance language development and explore cultural values, and to her own evocative examples others added their own suggestions. She used, for example, a video of Benjamin Zephaniah performing his poem, ‘Talking Turkeys’, to which one participant responded that she had compiled a whole set of worksheets on Zephaniah’s work. Email addresses were quickly shared.

As well as the lively chat room, there was a second box for more serious questions that Claudia had been primed to respond to, but out of the 40-odd participants, only I used that facility (and that was probably because I was partly logging in to test the webinar’s functionality). Claudia later told me there were other interactive options that I’d missed – and these also hadn’t been used by other participants. And Claudia had answered my questions anyway, before she even got to the discussion part of the webinar.

It was a long, long way from that lecture-hall in Glasgow, where, with specks of chalk-dust suspended in the air, Les Collier had performed his scale and category analysis of rank-shifting in ‘Paradise Lost’. So what did I learn from the interactive webinar, apart from the useful tips about intercultural reading that Claudia shared? One was that no matter how the Internet collapses time and space, to enable someone like me to talk to Argentina, Peru, Israel and the Netherlands while sitting in rural Piracaia, we still like our geographical points of reference – or at least, our Austrian moderator did, as she regularly intervened to ask participants to add their location to their name. I queried this at one point, wondering whether we should give something like our favourite colours rather than our locations, but it seems, curiously, that we like to know where our fellow participants are situated physically, as well as virtually. And I am not immune to that desire myself.

Secondly, I was interested in how supportive the back-channelling was in the chat room. A constant stream of love and encouragement flowed – quite rightly – in Claudia’s direction. I wondered if Les Collier would have enjoyed the same, thirty-odd years ago. For some years, I found myself in the curious position of having inherited his first-year grammar lectures at Glasgow University, and, though the Hallidayan grammar book had long been dispensed with, for a while I toyed with the idea of reviving the ‘Paradise Lost’ theme of the final lecture, before reluctantly giving it up. Even so, I had to stare into the eyes of 400 students who were new to the subject, and explain to them how to recognise phrases and clauses that were intricately embedded within complex sentences. Would I have benefited from a synchronous feedback loop? Or would that have sent me screaming from the lecture hall? Claudia later told me that the biggest challenge of delivering the webinar was keeping one eye on the chat interaction while remaining focused on the delivery of the content – I can imagine that it was like spinning plates on poles, and she did incredibly well not to let them tumble and smash.

The third thing that occurred to me was that, despite its jolliness, there was little real depth to the webinar interaction. There were hints, yes, at a deeper hinterland in the participants’ engagement with the content of the lecture – the reference to the worksheets on Benjamin Zephaniah was one such clue. But the chat was largely chat – deeper probing of the issues Claudia raised seemed, well, impolite, and perhaps even a contradiction of the still-evolving norms of cross-cultural participation across several continents by relative strangers in a free learning event designed for their professional development. And very probably it is too much to ask of a lecture or webinar audience to grasp and formulate a considered response to the implications of a presentation the instant it is delivered – we need to go home, as I did thirty years ago, with my copy of Scott, Bowley, Brockett, Brown and Goddard, and my copy of ‘Paradise Lost’, and spend some time just thinking and worrying – trying to answer for myself the question ‘Why?’ that plagued me during the lecture.

No doubt other webinars are different – and perhaps in the one I plan to give for Cambridge Brazil there will be awkward participants, questioning the basis of my every claim, with deeply considered theoretical challenges that they will formulate within seconds of my spouting some nonsense. For the sake of my own fragile self-esteem, I rather hope not. Still, if you would like to participate in the webinar and if you have any ideas about topics you would like me to cover, do email me by early October of this year. And watch out for the event on the Cambridge Brazil website.

After all, now we have interactivity, we need to learn to use it.


Scott, F.S.,C.C. Bowley, C.S. Brockett, J.G. Brown and P.R. Goddard (1968). English Grammar: A Linguistic Study of its Classes and Structures, London: Heinemann Educational Books.

IATEFL BESIG Webinars: http://www.besig.org/events/online/default.aspx

Cambridge Brazil: http://www.cambridge.org.br/news-events