Being Understood And Nothingness

A spectre is haunting Europe (and everywhere else). A new zELTgeist has been born. Everywhere I look, I see it. ELF, native and non-native speakers (NSs and NNSs), non-native English speaking teachers (NNESTs), language use… it’s all out there. The blogosphere throbs and we may be on the cusp of an Event Horizon. Laura Patsko has recently returned to the blogging world with three posts on language use and empathy; Laura Phelps (because everyone called Laura blogs) wrote recently about a similar topic; Cinzia Guerriero posted her experience of being a NNEST in Japan; ELF Pron continues apace; Damien Williams is conducting a survey of NNESTs for his IATEFL talk; Marek Kiczkowiak continues his good work on TEFL Equality Advocates; Silvana Richardson entered the fray with a webinar aimed at NNESTs and will do so again with an IATEFL plenary; I turned up in the EFL Magazine and said something; the latest TEFL Show podcast is on which pronunciation models to teach and an itinerant trainer I know in Bangkok ranted for a long time in bar.

I have nothing of any real use to add to the debates of course and I do not want to be accused of bundling the very separate issues of ELF, NSs/NNSs, NNESTs and language use together into one ‘oh bless’ package, but something positive is afoot when dominant paradigms are challenged. Things fall apart; the Centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. And we should celebrate it.

Accommodation (not that kind)

So what can I contribute? Why would I want to scrawl one more post on the internet’s vast and crowded canvas? Because I’d like to tell you a very short story about a situation in which I recently found myself and what that might or not mean; however, before I get there, here’s something neatly simple that Laura Patsko wrote on her recent blog post (see above):

“It’s quite obvious that he [a glaciologist, no less – Laura moves in high circles] chooses to phrase and deliver the same information differently according to his audience — if he actually wants to be understood, of course.”

This is a form of language grading, which in turn forms part of a larger concept of Accommodation Theory. According to the theory, you’ll either want to converge with your interlocutor to lessen the social distance between you (which will mean being understood) or diverge from your interlocutor to widen the social distance between you (which might mean not being understood), due to such issues as identity and context. To give a somewhat simplistic example, I might want to sound more Scottish to show I’m different to you in some way (divergence), or you might go on a date which goes really well and want to ‘neutralise’ some regional features of your accent to be more like your potential new beau (convergence). I might modify my choice of words, my accent, the language I’m actually speaking, the speed of speech, my mannerisms, my grammar and so forth, much of which will be unconscious (see more here). But here’s where I recently came unstuck (and to think I’ve actually advocated for native speakers to have international communication classes!).

On Causing an Awkward Situation at a Beach but not in a Phone Shop

2016-02-13 18.06.46.jpgI was enjoying a very pleasant sojourn at an idyllic spot in Thailand with three friends. Of these three, two are NSs and one is a NNS. I found this situation rather awkward at times as I was continually plagued by the fear that NNS did not understand what I was saying. Then one evening, the NNS turned to one of the NSs after I said something and asked: “what did he say?”. I feel mortified quite often, but this was a Top 5 Moment. I, an English teacher, a teacher trainer, someone who’s lived in Foreign for the last ten years, had managed to cause confusion or discomfort to such a level that rather than asking me what was said, the questioner turned to someone else. It turned out too that this question was often asked and things I’d said explained, but only when I’d left the room. Reader, I’d harried him.

The reason I describe the above scene after talking about accommodation is that I genuinely did not know how to handle this situation. I evidently got my accommodation all wrong, but why? I mean, I managed quite well earlier today when I cancelled my mobile phone contract, with exchanges like:

“Sawat di Khrap. Er, can I cancel my phone [shows phone] contract here?”

“Sorry, you can say again?” [leans forward over desk]

“Can I cancel my phone [shows phone] contract here?”

“Sorry, no understand”

“Can I finish phone contract here, thi nii, finish phone dai mai?”

“Ah, you want finish contract [kɔːntak̚ʔ]?” – [k̚ʔ] denotes an unrealised /k/

“Yes, finish [kontak̚ʔ] please, khrap”

“Ah yes dai khaaaa. [broad smile] You want finish [writes phone number on a piece of paper]”

“Yes! [smile the size of your bedroom, nodding like a Chinese lucky cat’s left paw]”


Some people will hate reading the above and perhaps accuse me of ‘Tarzan-ing’ the poor patronised member of staff, but frankly they’re wrong. There I was in a transactional situation in which I needed a given outcome and so I convergently accommodated my English (including adding some Thai words too) to accommodate as much as I possibly could to my interlocutor’s level (short of actually learning Thai in that 40 seconds) and, waddaya know, it worked. Phone contract cancelled, smiles all round. But then what had gone wrong on holiday with my friends?

Language (obt)Use, Language Barriers?

One can always spin a personal fiction to explain oneself, but I’ll keep it brief. Perhaps I fear that so much of my identity, character or humour comes from my use of language and that to accommodate it too much in mixed groups in social conversation might jeopardise this. Perhaps I was too keenly aware that if I speak in a noticeably different manner to one member of the group (as I did when the NNS and I were talking alone), I could be construed as seriously patronising.  And so perhaps I was probably somewhere in the middle, with extreme leaps towards no real grading when I got going. It’s as if I needed a third pill, an Accommodation 2.0 to manage the different necessary means of interacting. I was in this person’s (the NNS’s) country and so it is my duty to make myself understood in the lingua franca, no? But then they were with three NSs, so maybe it is their responsibility to try to understand me (asking clarification questions, etc.). Or is it both of us and a complex situation with no real easy solution? A necessary two-way accommodating process of give and take between NS and NNS in an unevenly balanced social situation?

To turn to this very post for a moment, and think again about what Laura wrote: who is my audience and why am I writing? If you’ve read this far (or this blog before), you’ll undoubtedly have come to conclusion that anyone under a B2 level of proficiency would seriously struggle and that I’m clearly writing for my own enjoyment/amusement at times. In using the language in this way, am I thus a barrier to participation in the online ELT community? Is my language use here even permissible for a blog which is supposed to inform and contribute to debate? Do I cloud the issues when what I should be doing is shedding light? Am I catering to a small (you should see the hits on this blog), highly-proficient NS and NNS elite? Is it hypocrisy to tell CELTA candidates to grade their language, when I myself can’t be understood on the beach or the internet?

Or am I just neurotic and need to chill out? It’s no big deal, just be yourself? But show a little more of Laura’s empathy.

As usual, I have no answers, and so leave you to your own opinions. Feel free to leave those in the comments.


Also, thank you very much for reading this post and this blog over the years. There has always been the real ELT Reflections (by Nathan Hall, someone able to actually type a URL properly) and so I have decided to finally sign off here on this one. Breaking down barriers, one blog at a time – I’ll be in touch if I put up another one.

On Being Corrected… When You’re Right

Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers

There is a remarkable passage in Anthony Burgess’ brilliant novel Earthly Powers in which the protagonist, a successful English author named Kenneth Toomey, is discussing matters religious with a local person of seemingly great import called Mahaligham, who’s a Tamil speaker (the interaction takes place in what is now Malaysia though, at the time this conversation takes place, it was a British colony known as The Federation of Malaya, and Toomey is there to do research for his work). It goes as follows:

“You may say my religion is personal and electric”

“Surely you mean eclectic?”

“I mean what I mean”, he said loudly. “Because you are an Englishman does not mean you have a monopoly of the language” (1)

What is remarkable is how (the insane – you’ll see if you read the book) Mahaligham reacts to being corrected. It turns out that he did mean “eclectic” as the conversation develops (or so it seems to me) and he keeps mentioning it, but he clearly did not like being corrected. Not only that, he links this correction to a greater question of who ‘owns’ English, which in the late 1940s or early 1950s (when this was), was very probably considered by most people to be ‘the British” (whoever they are), or the English (from England, which is simply a “conspiracy of cartographers” anyway).

Now, as proponents of ELF (English as Lingua Franca) or EIL (English as an International Language), amongst others, will tell you, nobody ‘owns’ English, particularly the British (as might have been traditionally assumed: RP as prestige form and all that – perhaps my own interpretation there). Indeed, nowadays, most English interaction will take place between people for whom English is a learned language of communication, not a first language. However, even so, there is still a tendency for many learners of English to regard native speakers (don’t think too hard about that term) as somehow in command of it, experts, consultants on acceptable use, etc. As Barbara Seidlhofer describes this “paradox”:

“…on the one hand, for the majority of its users, English is a foreign language, and the vast majority of verbal exchanges in English do not involve any native speakers of the language at all. On the other hand, there is still a tendency for native speakers to be regarded as custodians over what is acceptable usage” (2)

As usual in one of my posts, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with, well, anything. So I’ll tell you. All this reminds me of a strange correction situation I was

Muscat from the B&B (run by a brilliantly mad Swede)
Muscat from the B&B (run by a brilliantly mad Swede)

recently in in Oman. My girlfriend (a celebrated ELFer no less, and Jane to my Dave Willis) and I were in a bar in Muscat, where we met one of a number of very friendly Omanis. He was particularly talkative and took a shine to Katy, so we ended up talking for about 12 minutes and 26 seconds (roughly). Our new friend, who was maybe called Khalid (well, he is now), was very well-travelled and knew the UK well (the very definition of well-travelled..), including Edinburgh (near where I’m from), as well as Katy’s neck of the woods. I’d say his English was about B1+, though my memory is fading slightly on that point. He was also speaking to two native-speaker English teachers, something he was effusively happy about, and Katy and I were doing that accommodation thing I’ve written about before (a talk here and post here). So there’s the background.

At one point in the conversation, the following dialogue took place:

Chris: “did you go to the festival [in Edinburgh]?”

Khalid: “did I went to the festival?”

Chris: “Yeah, did you go and see it?”

Khalid: “did I went? Yes, I went to it. August.” [Katy and I share a look]

What you want to read into reformulation as a correction technique is up to you, but notice who corrected who: he corrected me. I wasn’t correcting him in this interaction – I was just speaking the English I know, use and, well, speak in bars (and elsewhere, I should add) – but he was definitely correcting me. This was the first time I think I’ve ever had my English grammar ‘corrected’ by pretty much anyone, but I’ve definitely never been corrected by someone of level B1+ in a bar!

So, what does this tell us? Probably very little in the grand scheme of things (has anyone ever seen this putative ‘grand scheme’ anywhere?), but it does highlight some interesting points that  the gregarious Khalid probably didn’t know he was making. For instance, Khalid would surely be in disagreement with Tricia Hedge’s approach, were they to meet in a bar (one day it will be me..), which Li summarises as “only ‘global’ errors (those which cause communication problems) [should] be addressed, but not ‘local’ errors (those which do not)” (3). Khalid seems to be from a more Behaviourist school of error-avoidance and explicit recasts.

Coming back to the original thread of this piece (for one should), for Khalid, native speakers clearly do not own English, as Mahaligham most forcefully points out to Toomey in the quotation at the start of this post. Nor are they experts or consultants, but are simply interlocutors of equal weight (not in the BMI sense) in a conversation – after all, in the above conversation, he was telling me he was right. It seems Khalid would agree with Widdowson when he says:

“How English develops in the world is no business whatsoever of native speakers in England [surely the UK, Henry?], the United States, or anywhere else. They have no say in the matter, no right to intervene or pass judgement. They are irrelevant… [English] is not a possession which they lease out to others, while retaining the freehold. Other people actually own it” (4)

Moreover, for Khalid, so what if I’m an English teacher and teacher trainer. So what?? He had no fear in correcting me, regardless of the different ‘status’ we might be seen to have as regards whose English is ‘correct’. Because what does that even mean any more?

So, what should I have done? If we believe that successful communication is the ultimate end, then possibly I should have done what I did: nothing. However, is Khalid going to continue in his English-speaking ways to make that error, one which is clearly not a slip or mistake, but an error based on a lack of linguistic knowledge (another consideration for the Hedge)? If he does that, does it even matter? After all, he communicated fine and most of his interaction in Muscat will be with other non-native English speakers, which will make Seidlhofer happy at least. But then, does this (Khalid’s error, not Seidlhofer’s happiness) diminish ELF as a concept, ‘reducing’ it to a simplified ‘English’, a a pidgin contact language? Why would that even be a problem? Or is it potential evidence, if it were to be repeated in many different bars across the globe, of an ELF grammar developing its own internal logic? And then what?!

Or, y’know what, maybe Khalid had just had one too many bottles of Peroni and I should get out more. Or stay in. I stand to be corrected.


(1) Burgess, A. Earthly Powers. Vintage Digital; Kindle Edition. 18 Oct 2012.

(2) Seidlhofer, B. (2005). English as a Lingua Franca. ELT Journal, 59/4. October 2005.

(3) Li, S. (2013). Oral Corrective Feedback ELT Journal, 67/4. First published online 13/12/13.

(4) Widdowson, H. (1994). The Ownership of English, in Jenkins, J. (2000) The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: OUP. 

Accommodating Teacher Talk

I’m sharing the link here from my talk opening the IH Online conference. It’s a wonderful event and I enjoyed presenting. The talk is this post expanded somewhat. The slides are below the video. Many thanks to Shaun Wilden for inviting me to speak. The conference continues today (30/11/13), with real teflebrities like Scott Thornbury and Jeremy Harmer. Check it out!

The Accommodating Teacher

I was inspired to write this attempt at a post by recent posts by Laura Patsko, Katy Davies and Steve Brown, all of which concern, to a greater or lesser degree, the way we use language and what this means. It takes a different route to these posts, but there’s occasional points of convergence (more on that later).

An Enquiry into Scottish Understanding

Question: what do me and David Hume have in common? No, it’s not that we’re both great philosophers, as my work is clearly superior to his… Yes! Got it. We come from the same country. That country is Scotland. And so one could posit that Hume and I probably have (adjusting for the passage of time and many many changes, of course) Scottish accents.

Having a Scottish accent is a funny thing. While we come near the top of rigorously scientific and useful polls on who has the sexiest accent, we are often portrayed as unintelligible (with thanks to Laura for the link). I am routinely told (by both native and non-native speakers), in tones of delightful surprise, that I am remarkably easy to understand as my accent is “so clear”. As it seems Scottish people are completely unintelligible to the rest of the world, it’s apparently quite a shock to many a non-Scot that they can understand me without having to really make an effort (as an aside, I’ve never found Scottish people particularly difficult to understand…).

But I digress. Coming back to Hume, he  famously (as well as wearing suspicious hats and wigs) could not abide the thought of “Scottishisms” in his written work and sent it to friends so they could find any and remove them (and told off other philosophers for not doing so). Why would he do that? The reason was for clarity on behalf of the reader, it seems. In other words, he was doing something that all language teachers should: accommodating (which is probably where Hume and I’s common bonds end).

Defining Accommodation

Accommodation is an idea from sociolinguistics that involves processes with which speakers change their way of speaking to be more or less like their interlocutor (see Dimitrios Thanasoulas for an accessible and complete description of Accommodation Theory and Scott Thornbury for further discussion more relating it to teaching). It can be verbal or non-verbal and is often subdivided into the two categories of:

  • Convergence – involves speaking more like your interlocutor to make yourself understood due to factors such as attractiveness, charisma, higher social status and so forth. As such, it involves a desire for social acceptance, but also for intelligibility.

  • Divergence – the opposite of the above, asserting your identity and difference between you and your interlocutor to signal group identity, for example (q.v. Steve Brown for an example of this).

Note that in my definition of convergence, I mention intelligibility. For my purposes here (and Hume’s above), I’ll be using accommodation in this convergent sense, to mean making yourself understood to those with whom you are speaking.  So, I seem to be rather good at convergence, as my learners can understand me (a facet of “language grading” in ELT terms), Americans I meet in the pub can and when I’m with other Scottish people I (sometimes consciously, sometimes not) become more Scottish. But it’s not all about me; it’s about us all as teachers.

Teachers and Learners: Separated by an Accommodating Language?

The language we use in the classroom is a thorny issue. Whether you’re an ELF (yes, that is the appellation for a proponent of ELF..), a new teacher, a non-native English-speaking teacher (NNEST) or just some bloke that turned up in Costa Rica looking for money for sustenance and beer and then ended up teaching English, the language you use in the classroom is critical. And I mean use, not teach (whether those two things should be distinct is another debate). In Laura’s post, she deplores courses featuring “accent reduction” for NNESTs and Steve Brown laments “accent neutralisation”. These terms are loaded and not particularly helpful descriptions of exactly what courses along these lines might actually do, but interestingly they are for NNESTs and aim at making their accents more native-like. After all, surely these are the people who need to develop their pronunciation to be more native, right?


I work with a lot of trainee teachers on a pre-service course like CELTA and, eight times out of ten, the people with the biggest problems accommodating are the native speakers. This is both in terms of speaking to other trainees and to their students. And why? Because the majority have spent their entire lives accommodating only with other native speakers and so think nothing of idiomatic lexical choices when talking to an elementary level class, for example, not seeing that that’s not helping them be more intelligible. Add to this suspiciously complex grammar choices (clefts with modals, anyone?), more connected speech than you’d find in a law firm called “Assimilation, Elision and Co.” and cultural references to, Ireland, say, because that’s really obvious and everyone knows about it (yeah, not your average Bangladeshi learner in Dubai – what do you know about Chittagong?) and you’ve got a heady mix of unintelligibility going on there.

Y’see, making yourself understood is not just about your accent; it encompasses linguistic choices across all the systems (grammar, lexis, phonology, discourse). So, like, accent reduction completely misses the point. This isn’t the problem. The problem is a lack of awareness of how to accommodate your speech to your learners. There are strategies that can be used to do this and these will be based on listening to the learners and working out what you can and cannot say to be intelligible. This is such a big issue for a language teacher who teaches in the target language as, without some successful accommodating, there ain’t gonna be no mutual intelligibility and then, ultimately, what’s the point? Where’s the course for NESTs on how to accommodate better? In fact, regardless, where’s the course for language teachers on how to accommodate better, whatever your accent?

The Accommodation Enlightenment

So, my line here is that, while terms like “accent reduction” are highly prejudiced and really not very useful (and yet, to get that job in an American call centre in Costa Rica, your learner has to take this course), an idea like accommodation is powerful and very important for a language teacher. It should inform completely the way you use language in the classroom (and not just to be understood, but to build successful rapport too!). If I am teaching people who have recently emigrated to being a new life in Scotland, I will be more Scottish as it would be a disservice to them to be more neutral; however, if I am teaching Iranians in Dubai who don’t even know where Scotland is, it would be a disservice to them to be overly Scottish and so I should be more neutral. I can’t completely neutralise my accent (does such an accent even exist?), but I can make informed choices about what I say and how I’m doing it.

And so where does this leave us? It means that as teachers, whether NNESTs or NESTs, we all have a duty to convergence, to make ourselves understood by our learners to help them learn better. And if that means you have a strong French accent  and some people can’t understand you (as happened on a recent course of mine), you have the responsibility to change that; likewise, if your strong native accent is causing your learners problems (as is more likely to be the case, for me) then you too must do something about that.

Take a leaf out of Hume’s weighty book and be more aware of how you say what you do.