The endless march of the mavens

Short Post.

I wrote a piece about the idea that some people believe that language is logical.  A fact they use to try to bash others about their usage and feel superior at the same time.  Fortunately they are almost always wrong. 

One of my favorite experts on linguistics is the hilarious John McWhorter.  He wrote an excellent piece in the New York times noting that grammar rules are often just a matter of fashion.  The article is great, but what struck me were the comments.  People’s prejudices about language and their sense of  “correctness” seem almost as powerful as their desire to not actually do any research on the subject.  After reading the  PHD holder and repsected linguist’s article, we have comments like these:

  • j. p. ward
  • the netherlands
  • I would like to see and hear a lot more use of “whom” instead of “who” in e.g. “the person whom I spoke to”, and no use at all of sentences like “he was very kind to my wife and I

    Oh you would would you?  That’s lovely!  Let me have a look round and see what things I might like there to be more of and less of and just make a pronouncement about it!  This is like reading an article on why the current England football lack the ability to win games and why this is unlikely to change and posting:  “I would like to see a lot more goals for us, and no goals against us”.  Or perhaps reading an article on the complex issue of crime and writing “I would like there to be less crime and more cake!  I like cake”

    Another  commentaor writes:

  • Tulley
  • Houston, TX
  • Proper pronunciation matters too. I’m sure I’m not the only American who winced every time Mr. President from Texas pronounced nuclear “new-kyew-lar”.


  • Edith W.
  • California
  • Flout and flaunt. NOT synonyms.


  • Carl Moore
  • Barbados
  • … and what is this “one-year anniversary” I hear from you Americans?

    Whatever happened to FIRST anniversary? 

    What do these comments have in common?  They all have absolutely nothing to do with the article above.  It’s almost like how some flowers have patterns that can only be seen by insects able to see ultraviolet colurs, articles about language use have clearly have messages only visible to language mavens saying “COME AND MOAN ABOUT THE ENGLISH YOU DON’T LIKE”.


    Imagine an alternative universe in which a large number of teachers, experts and textbooks promoted a model of teaching which was untrue.  Imagine that despite ample evidence of the flaws of this approach,  in the form of books and journal articles, teachers and publishers just carried on teaching it, -all the time taking students money for this “education”.   Unfortunately, many EFL teachers live in that world where reading skills are concerned.  I’m hoping to write more about reading skills, but this entry will only deal with prediction.

    Prediction is a popular EAP activity.  One of the key principles of reading listed by Harmer is prediction.  He notes that things like the title can help students to form opinions relating to the work before they begin reading (2007).  Grellet (1990: 56)  adds that, “reading is an activity involving constant guesses that are later rejected or confirmed”.  The British council note that ” Prediction is a valuable stage in…reading activities. It mirrors L1 skills use, where predictions form an important base for being able to process language in real time.”(online)  Prediction is an idea that comes from one model of reading, “this model of how people read is called the “psycholinguist guessing game model”(Grabe 2009:102). 

    Grabe makes two important points about this model of reading.  The first is that it is very popular among “applied linguists” and the second is that “it has been proven wrong in its predictions by accumulating evidence for the past 20 years” (Grabe 2009:102).   Grabe hammers the point firmly home noting that this approach “has no empirical validity and is problematic”(Grabe 2009:103)  adding “One needs only to pick up a newspaper in an unknown language to verify that background knowledge and prediction are severely constrained by the need to know vocabulary and structure.” (1991: 380)  

     20 years of being wrong and we still use it?  Still teachers may not be familiar with articles in obscure second language reading journals and Grabes book only came out in 2009.    If only an article had appeared in something more accessible, like the ELTJ a little earlier, say around 1996…….if only!

    In 1996, Amos Paran in an article called “reading in EFL facts and fictions” published in the ELTJ bemoans the use of the “psycholinguistic model” of Reading in EAP courses, noting that it “was never accepted as an important model in the first place “(1996:29) and adds:

                    As a final point, it is important to stand back and think how the Goodman and Smith view of reading, with all the reservations LI reading researchers expressed towards it, has been able to hold sway over L2 reading models for such a long time. (1995:33)

    A point made perhaps more worrying by fact the paper was first presented at IATEFL in 1992.  Despite this, I can still pick up textbooks, such as Oxford’s “well read” which include, in Swan’s words, “the standard battery of exercises designed to train students in ‘skimming’, ‘scanning’, ‘predicting’, ‘inferring’ and so forth, that one finds in textbook after textbook” (2008:266)

    Swan, beating Paran by 8 years, noted another problem with this model, namely the assumption that non-native speakers lack the ability to predict.  With his usual finesse for cutting through bullshit he writes:

                   One of the comprehension skills which we now teach foreigners is that of predicting. It has been observed that native listeners/readers make all sorts of predictions about the nature of what they are about to hear or read, based on their knowledge of the subject, their familiarity with the speaker or writer, and other relevant features. Armed with this linguistic insight (and reluctant to believe that foreigners, too, can predict), we ‘train’ students in ‘predictive strategies’. (For instance, we ask them to guess what is coming next and then let them see if they were right or wrong.) But I would suggest that if a foreigner knows something about the subject matter, and something about the speaker or writer, and if he knows enough of the language, then the foreigner is just as likely as the native speaker to predict what will be said. And if he predicts badly in a real-life comprehension task (classroom tasks are different), it can only be for one of two reasons. Either he lacks essential background knowledge (of the subject matter or the interactional context), or his command of the language is not good enough. In the one case he needs information, in the other he needs language lessons. In neither case does it make sense to talk about having to teach some kind of ‘strategy’. (Swan 1985: 8)

    Maybe it’s time to stop wasting our students’ time?


    British Council (2012) Prediction.  In teachingEnglish. Retrieved July 6 2012, from

    Grabe, R (2009) reading in a second language Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

    Paran, A. (1996). Reading in EFL: Facts and fictions. ELT Journal, 50(1), 25-34

    Grabe, W. (1991) Current Developments in Second Language Reading Research TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 25, no 3, 375-406

    Grellet, F. (1990) Developing reading skills Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

    Harmer, J. (2007a) How to teach English Essex: Pearson Education Limited

    Swan, M. (2008) Talking Sense about Learning Strategies RELC Journal 2008 39: 262 261-273

    Swan, M (1985) a critical look at the communicative approach 1 (1), ELT Journal 39/1, pp.2-12