Woo watch

I’ve noted before that ETp (‘the leading practical magazine for English language teachers worldwide’) is quite the purveyor of woo. As two of its four person editorial panel, Janet Olearski and Susan Norman are ‘master’ practitioners of NLP, this is perhaps not surprising.

In the July 2014 edition we can read an article by Duncan Foord on how to cater for left brained and right brained teachers including a helpful lesson plan and mind map! In the article Foord tells us that ‘right brained dominant teachers and visual teachers will immediately identify with’ information presented as a mind map (4:2014). He also notes that half of the teachers he tries this approach on are ‘sceptical’ but that we ought to try to persuade them to give it a go. Next, he references a book called ‘teach for success’ by someone called Mark Fletcher. I wasn’t surprised to find the following quote on Mark’s website ‘Brain Friendly Books:

The book gives practical examples that will have a dramatic effect on teaching methods and learning expectations. It includes ways of using Mind Mapping, N.L.P., Suggestopedia, music, colour, learning styles and much more in your classroom.

All of this is somewhat ironic since ETP recently held their ‘ETP live’ conference in Brighton and who did they invite to speak? None other than Philip Kerr, debunker of ‘left-brained/rightbrained’ myths!

 *This post originally said that susan Norman was the founder of ETp. She is not. 

Humble Pie

I love podcasts. One of my new favourites is Hello Internet. The hosts, C.G.P.grey and Brady Haran got talking, on the latest episode ,about the word ‘humble‘ and how something weird seems to have happened to it.
Brady notes that the meaning of ‘humble’ (or more specifically ‘humbling’ and ‘humbled’) has changed. For example, last night according to many newspapers World Cup Champions Spain were ‘humbled’ by the 5-1 drubbing that Holland dished out. Humble which is etymologically linked to ‘humiliate’ (Latin:humilis) and meaning ‘brought low’ or ’caused to feel less important’ makes a lot of sense here as Spain went from being possible finalists to possibly not making it out of their group.
However, in the same week as this World Cup upset, her Majesty has been dishing out MBEs and OBEs to the worthy. Many of these folk, like NHS surgeon das Kumar have spoken about how humbled they feel. Host Brady takes issue with this usage pointing out that surely you don’t feel low after winning an award, in fact you probably feel great! How can you be humbled by an award?
This ‘non-humble humble’ bothers Brady and he’s not alone. Paul Annett writes that nothing annoys him more than this misuse and Jerod Morris has written a blog post pleading with politicians to stop their ‘egregious, persistent  misuse’ of this phrase. Another blogger complains that it now means the opposite of what it’s supposed to mean.

So is it a problem if a word has opposite meanings? No. ‘Literally’ means and has meant for over a hundred years, both literally and figuratively though this word is sadly still problematic for mavens. while,’literally’ face approbation, other auto-acronyms (Janus words) like ‘dust’ (apply and remove dust) and ‘sanction’ (allow, disapprove of) slip by unnoticed.

There is also the question of whether a word should always continue to mean what it once meant. As I’ve written about here, again the answer is no. Those who suggest words, like decimate for example, should continue to mean ‘destroy one in 10’ are committing the etymological fallacy

The only language constant is language change but it’s unsettling to witness language changing under our feet. Semantic change can happen for many reasons. A word suddenly gets a new lease of life when attached to a new concept or technology (think keyboard in the 1980s) or becomes unfashionable or politically incorrect (the Euphemism treadmill tends to be a solid engine of linguistic change). In this case, my guess is that something else happened.

The word ‘peruse’ originally meant ‘to read deeply’ and now it means ‘to skim’ and I would guess this happened for two reasons. firstly the word started to fall out of fashion. Google’s Ngram backs this up:


Secondly, with the decline in the use of a word and as we learn most of our vocabulary implicitly there may well have been confusion over the meaning of phrases like “he perused the book” until an alternative, opposite definition gradually replaced the original.

Something similar could have happened to ‘humble’ as Ngrams shows a similar decline in its use:

It’s not unreasonable to imagine the same forces that changed ‘peruse’ changing ‘humbling’. But if ‘humble’ does have a new meaning, what exactly is it? When Obama claimed he was ‘humbled’ by winning the Noble Peace prize, what did he mean?

The new humble seems to be an extension of phrases like ‘humble opinion’, and ‘humble home’, that is, denoting ‘small and insignificant’. Thus ‘a humbling experience’ seems to be linguistic shorthand for something like ‘how could someone as  insignificant as me, deserve your praise/recognition.’ I would guess most people understand this to be what the speaker is trying to convey. However some, are wilfully(?) finding the phrase confusing. This is reminiscent of those  who pretend not to understand ‘non-literal “literally”‘ or claim that double negatives are confusing. 

Complaints about how ‘everyone is getting it wrong’ always tickle me. The complainants seem to believe they can stop the inevitable tide of language change. Surely when Morris writes of the new meaning of humble that “we hear so many athletes and public figures use it” he must realise the irony of suggesting it’s ‘wrong’. If everyone is using something, and everyone else is understanding what they say, then chances are this aint a battle you’re gonna win




Short Book Review: Approaches and Methods 2014 update!

Just got the 2014 version of approaches and methods. Some good news folks, NLP has been given the boot (Yeah!!) The reason given is that NLP is ‘not a language teaching method’ but a ‘humanistic philosophy based on popular psychology and as such does not meet the criteria for inclusion.’ (2014:x)
The bad news is that ‘multiple intelligences’ is still in there. I find this a bit odd since the authors actually describe it not as a language teaching method but as ‘a learner based philosophy’ (2014:230). This is apparently OK because ‘applications of MI in language teaching have been more recent, so it is not surprising that MI theory lacks some of the basic elements that might link it more directly to language education.'(2014:232)

In short, we can give MI a bit of slack because it hasn’t been around in the EFL world long. 
This is somewhat confusing as both NLP and MI had language teaching advocates as early as the late nineties (well before the 2nd edition of A&M) who wrote articles championing their use in publications like,  you guessed it, ETP. The very first edition of ETP had a Jim Wingate article on MI I believe. The MI chapter also explicitly quotes from an article by Reid (who, I believe, brought learning styles to the EFL world) written in 1997 exactly the same time the first ELT NLP book came out.

So in short, NLP is out because it’s a philosophy and isn’t really a language teaching method and MI which is a philosophy and not really a language teaching method is in. Got it?

But what about approaches which are not philosophies but, y’know, language teaching methods? How did they fare. well since the last edition in 2001 little has changed on the EFL method scene. Except of course for Dogme. Starting in roughly 2000 with Thornbury’s call to arms, (and actually a little earlier if you ask me) it’s not surprising it didn’t feature in the 2001 edition of A&M. But since then Dogme has been talked about and argued over constantly and seems to be the default choice for DELTA experimental lessons. So how did it fare in 2014?

Well, put aside your personal opinions of Dogme for a second (I’m looking at you Mr. Dellar) and ask yourself, in a book which attempts to catalogue the state of methodology in EFL in 2014, and which includes full chapters on TPR, The silent way, CLL and Suggestopedia (all left in for ‘historical perspective’ (2014:x)) should there be a chapter on Dogme? There is an issue of consistency.

Perhaps I’m straying out of the ‘evidence-based’ zone here but I find it hard to understand why MI gets an entirely uncritical 13 pages (they do stick a reference to a critical Kerr (2009) article in at the end) while Dogme gets, unless I’ve missed something, two paragraphs.

I haven’t had a chance to read it all yet so there may be more to come…