31 May 2011

ELF-based Academic Writing

I have one final observation about the ELF conference in Hong Kong that I discussed in my previous two postings.

Jennifer Jenkins told me that she never corrects the written English of her PhD students. In fact, she claimed that forcing them to write "proper" academic English, with a clear topic sentence for each paragraph and so on, makes it harder for her to understand what they are trying to say.

In contrast, I insist that my students use standard English grammar in their writing, and I always correct any deviations from standard usage.

Now, I admit that I am being inconsistent: I advocate the acceptance of local variation in English, but at the same time I do not tolerate it in the writing of my students. In fact, it can get even worse: I insist that my students adopt non-judgmental terminology when discussing language use, so they must talk about "features" rather than "errors" or "mistakes" in the patterns of language they are describing; but at the same time I highlight such errors and mistakes in their writing and insist that they are avoided. So I acknowledge that I am being hypocritical, and this has troubled me for some time.

My defense is this: I allow variation in pronunciation, but I insist on standard grammar in writing. You must write according to the worldwide norms of English, but you can pronounce it how you like so long as the way you pronounce it is easily intelligible. In other words, I accept localised accents but not dialects (at least, for writing). However, as I said, I realise that this is not truly consistent with my approach towards World Englishes.

One further observation: some people advocate accepting localised grammatical usage in order to avoid imposing native-speaker norms on the rest of the world. But I would argue that academic writing is nobody's native language. Everyone has to learn to adopt the rather strange ways we write about research, and native speakers do not really have an advantage here. It is part of the training for academic writing for everyone, not just for those whose English is learned as a second or foreign language.

So is Jennifer Jenkins right in allowing her students to write in their own style? Only time will tell, but my guess is that one day her approach will be widely accepted. However, I still believe that, in the present world, I am benefitting my students best by guiding them towards a proper academic style of writing.

30 May 2011

Paying Attention in Class

In my previous post, I mentioned the recent ELF conference in Hong Kong. During the conference, I attended an interesting panel session with Jennifer Jenkins, Barbara Seidlhofer and Anna Mauranen as panellists, dealing with questions submitted by the participants.

After reading out the first question, the panellist said, "I think the best person to answer that question is David Deterding, who is sitting at the back." This was a bit unfortunate, as I had not actually been paying attention very closely, so I was not too sure what the question was. In actual fact, I'll admit that I had been reading my email on a laptop computer when the question was being read out.

Of course, this was rather embarrassing, and it serves me right for not paying attention. But then I thought about it some more, and in reality I don't believe that we should expect people to pay close attention all the time, either in class or when they are attending lectures. Multi-tasking is the norm nowadays, and we should expect and even encourage our students to do this.

In my previous post, I discussed how the concept of getting rid of native-speaker norms for language teaching is hard for teachers to deal with. Now I am proposing something even more radical: don't expect your students to sit there listening to you all the time in class. Let them read something else, or do whatever they want.

And I would like to emphasise that I myself do not expect my students to sit there like complete zombies listening to me all the time in class. I encourage them to bring a book and read it if they want, to look at their SMS messages or answer their email if they choose so long as they don't disturb others, or even go to sleep so long as they don't snore. If I teach at a pace that is suitable for the weaker students, then the brightest ones will find some of the material rather easy, and then they should be doing something else. We all need to use our time effectively, and this includes the time we spend in class.

It seems to me that classroom teaching tends to be stuck somewhere in the middle ages. We could be achieving so much, enabling effective learning to take place with varied, exciting materials, but instead we insist on our students sitting in rows, passively and obediently. When I was in school, I was bored stiff in class every single day, and I find it tragic that education has not improved very much since then. But maybe the real aim of school-based education is not actually to encourage learning but rather to ensure that young people are trained to be passive and obedient.

During the conference, I attended an interesting talk by Henry Widdowson, and he asked how much of our teaching is geared to the needs of the learner and how much is actually centred on the demands of the teacher. Or at least I think that's what he said. Actually, I admit I was quite tired at the time, so I may have dozed off once in a while. I just hope I didn't snore.

28 May 2011

ELF-based teaching

I am currently in Hong Kong, at a conference on English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) organised by the Hong Kong Institute of Education. It's lots of fun.

Among academics such as me, ELF seems to be all the rage at the moment, and everyone at the conference was in complete agreement that it makes sense, that teaching should be based on ELF, that native speaker norms for English are not a good idea, and so on.

With so much agreement among us, it is sometimes hard to remember that these ideas are not widely accepted in society as a whole, and if you try and tell learners of English that they do not need to aspire to native speaker norms, they tend to be horrified. I guess that most teachers out there would be really shocked to know that over 200 academics spent three days discussing ideas like this that most educators don't want. It would confirm to them that university academics are completely divorced from the real world.

So what is the point of promoting ways of teaching that teachers do not want? I believe we should always be considering fresh ways of thinking, and even if some of these new ideas might not become accepted for many more years, that should not stop us considering them. Furthemore, if we, as academics, just continue to talk about ideas that are already accepted, then what is the point of that?

But at the same time we need to acknowledge that the ideas we are promoting are not widely accepted. I believe that ELF-based teaching is absolutely right, and that we have to move away from native-speaker norms, but we must realise that we have a huge amount of work to do to convince others about it.

18 May 2011

Learning Chinese in Two Days

There is an interesting article in the on-line Guardian of 18 May 2011 (here) in which the author, Tom Meltzer, took a course designed to teach him to speak Mandarin Chinese in just two days. (For more about the course, see here.)

Of course, this is quite a bizarre thing to try and do, especially for a language such as Chinese which many people in the West find rather difficult. However, what is interesting is the methodology. For example, the course does not try and teach vocabulary, as that is regarded as a waste of time, and it also does not try and deal with grammar, which is similarly not considered useful. Instead, it trains the learner in the use of a few chunks of language which can be re-used to express a wide range of things.

I would have to agree that learning lots of vocabulary is not helpful. A few years ago, I took a course in Malay run by the Centre for British Teachers (CfBT) here in Brunei, and we were asked to memorise long lists of vocabulary for body parts, vegetables, and modes of transport. This was not helpful. A beginning learner simply does not need to know the Malay for knee or cabbage.

What about grammar? I agree that detailed analysis is not helpful for the learner. But would a little bit of grammatical knowledge help? Some of the comments of this Guardian writer suggest that it would. For example, he claims that, at the end of his two-day course:
I can, however, convert a verb into the past and future tenses
Really? That's pretty impressive! I've been learning Chinese for 35 years now, and I have never found out how to convert a verb into the past and future tenses.

Chinese, of course, does not have tenses, and I would have thought it might have been a good idea if this chap had been told that. (It does have aspect particles, such as the perfective 过 guo and the progressive 着 zhe, but that is something different.)

Nevertheless, despite his lack of awareness about the language he was supposedly learning, it is quite impressive that, at the end of two days, he was confident enough to go and order a meal in Chinese and even try to chat to the waitress, and the focus on practical language skills offered by this course is splendid.

16 May 2011


See if you can guess what items are most often smuggled into Brunei. Alcohol is an obvious guess, given that its sale is forbidden in Brunei, and that is indeed true. You might also guess tobacco, especially as Brunei has recently implemented a heavy tax on the sale of cigarettes while Malaysia has not, so they are much cheaper over the border. And once again, you would be right. But what else?

Here is an extract from an article on page 1 of the Media Permata of 16 May, 2011, discussing the seizure of contraband goods:This might be translated as:
After investigation, the authorities found 412 cartons of cigarettes and two kilos of chicken wings which were hidden inside the vehicle.
Yes, chicken wings is the third major type of goods smuggled into Brunei. I have no idea why. It must be something to do with the cost of halal chickens or something.

14 May 2011


Have a look at this extract from an article on page 13 of the Borneo Bulletin of 13 May 2011. Note how crews is used as a plural noun, where I would use the singular crew.This is a bit like the use of fruits as a plural noun, something I have mentioned before (here). It is also similar to the use of staffs as a plural noun to refer to a number of members of staff. I suspect that these usages will become the norm in World Englishes in the future.

Note also in the extract above the repetition of cruise ship in the first paragraph. I don't think I can have this kind of lexical repetition in my English, and I would have to use a pronoun. But lexical repetition is allowed in Malay, so it is not surprising that it also occurs in the English found in Brunei.

09 May 2011

Language Mixing and Pronouns

I am currently watching a Malay film called Stilleto. One notable feature is the degree of mixing and switching between Malay and English. In fact, the higher the status of the speaker, the more that person tends to use English. It seems as if the ability to mix languages or switch into English regularly is regarded as an indicator of education.

Here is an excerpt, where a suave playboy is talking to the heroine on their first date. The Malay words are in italics, while the English words are in regular font:
I nak bawak you pergi yang mak bapak pun tak tau. It's happy hour time.
"I want to take you where your parents don't know. It's happy hour time."
Apart from the switch to English for the final sentence, note the use of the English pronouns I and you. One reason for this use of English pronouns is that it avoids decisions about which Malay pronouns to use, for example saya (formal) or aku (informal) for the first person pronoun.

Note also the use of 'k' at the end of bawak ('take') and bapak ('dad'). This is not standard Malay and it seems to indicate a glottal stop at the end of the word rather than a full [k].

04 May 2011


The government of Brunei is currently implementing a population census. The letter accompanying the census form is printed on one side in Malay and the other in English, and this offers some interesting insights into differences in expression between the two languages. For example, take the salutation at the top. Here is the Malay version:Let us compare this with the English:Note how much more elaborate the Malay is. Instead of 'Dear Sir/Madam', the Malay lists all the possible ranks of the recipients (Pengiran, Pehin, Dato, Datin, Tuan, Puan), and this is preceded with the appropriate form of address for each one.

Now let us look at the final paragraph. This is the Malay version:And here is the English:Once again, we find that while the English has 'Your', the Malay uses the rank of each of the potential recipients (Pengiran, Pehin, Dato, Dato, Tuan, Puan). It is really important in Malay society to show proper respect to high-ranking people.

In addition to this, the Malay has an extra sentence:
Saya dengan tulus ikhlas menunjung kasih/mengucapkan berbanyak terirmah.
which means:
With all sincerity, I would like to say thank you.
I am not sure why it is apparently unnecessary to include this sentence in the English version; but it certainly reflects the greater need for polite expressions in Malay.