Multilingualism and international values

A little dilemma of late – and no, it’s not to do with the late-month post! It’s more existential than that; a concern that, in this era of Brexit and Trump and Bolsonaro, merely saying you like international and liberal values might not be enough.

So how on earth is this connected to a language blog, you may well ask? Well, it all started the other night in a local hostelry (as many existential angsts seem to do). I met there a man called Al, who was an electrician with a lugubrious way of speaking and – I detected through the noise – an Essex-y accent. Speaking to Al, it turned out he was actually Danish. He had moved to Essex when he was but eight or nine years old, without much English, and had acquired his native-like interaction thence. In a moment of levity, I told him he was a pretty good example of the Critical Period Hypothesis – that he had obviously learned the L2 (English) early enough to be indistinct from a native. If he had been later in arriving, he might have lost that chance.

Which made me think about my own offspring. I have written before about my commitment to the international system, and though we were unable to get him into our preferred primary school, my elder son attended a multilingual nursery. My concern is that his attendance at what seems like a perfectly good British primary school will result in his losing whatever Spanish and Mandarin his nursery was able to engender. This is based on my own poor second and third language educational experience at a perfectly good state secondary, and the observable and popular belief that very few English people speak a second language with any communicative competence whatsoever. I can see him leaving primary school with a solidly English-language worldview.

But, given that we speak English at home, have no immediate plans to live in any other country, have only English-speaking relatives and largely English-speaking friends, it is very difficult to understand how we can make his L2 and L3 (and beyond) more interesting, more natural, to him. Without, that is, obliging or forcing him to attend extra classes or have a tutor, which, even at this young age, might well up counterproductive. Also, when committing to educating your children in a language, there is a sort of ‘buying-in’ to the culture that feels necessary: some allegiance or a kind of a identity commitment, which seems at best like appropriation and at worst like fakery.

My concern, at heart, is that this is my narrow-mindedness speaking; that we should have nothing to fear from the celebration of difference, and his identity will only be strengthened by exposure to more diversity. This is where the link to the illiberalising world comes in: I want my children to be part of an outward-looking community, celebrating variety and diversity and pursuing international values like tolerance and inquiry. The challenge is living that, rather than simply paying it lip service.

So does that necessarily include multilingualism? Maybe, but maybe not. We live in London, and there is no immediate danger of this great city becoming less diverse. He will have opportunities, and the parents’ role is, I guess, to support and encourage the values they say they believe in.



A restatement of belief…

A late post this month, relatively, due to an expectedly full beginning of term. You may be pleased to know, however, that it is not concerning teaching, as many of last year’s term-time offerings did, but prescription and description – because it seems to be a while since I was last on one of my favourite hobby horses.

For those late to this particular party, some terms: ‘prescription’ in a linguistic context relates to what language should be used – to best communicate message, to uphold perceived standards of speech and writing, and to effectively codify a particular convention so that it becomes something of a rule. It is usually the default position of intellectually conservative types; I’m thinking of Simon Heffer, Lynne Truss et al, who must have made considerable dollar from widely-bought books either bemoaning a fall in those standards or restating them clearly for all to see and comprehend with ease.

By contrast, ‘description’ is focused on what language is used – by whom and in what environment, in order to best document how and why language usage changes. In some circles it is a socially difficult position to defend, particularly on the occasion when a room of otherwise charming middle class people affect horror at (for example) a split infinitive and one’s response is to in a quiet voice say it doesn’t matter, which provokes in some cases anger. I think it is fair to say that most of the scientific community in the field of linguistics are on the side of ‘description’, though there is a fearsome body of grammarians’ work from the 1700s and 1800s on the ‘prescription’ side…

I’ve written posts before documenting my movement from an absolute descriptivist to an acceptance of some prescriptivism, mainly due to the social or economic cachet conferred by adherence to forms which, consciously or otherwise, please powerful people. This issue was raised again in a recent meeting with senior colleagues, in which one (a non-native speaker) was corrected on the use of ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ by another (a native speaker). I stayed true to principle rather than staying quiet for fear of defying my superiors, and objected to the correction (I am happy to say I feel I get on well enough with the lady in question to do so!) She responded by saying that the non-native had explicitly requested correction to prestige forms, and we left it there.

But I feel I must re-assert my allegiance to description. A recent post on the Facebook group Writing about Writing caught my eye:


I think it’s pretty self-explanatory, but it’s basically a series of descriptivists poking fun at prescriptive attitudes by going further back through history until a gold standard of communication is reached – the irony being that not only does it get more difficult to understand the further you go back, it also becomes simpler as in the case of the cave drawings. The joke rides on the idea that whatever standards are promoted by prescriptivists would have seemed new and dangerous to users at some point in history, before somehow they became prestigious or fashionable forms.

Before the accusation of echo chamber gets thrown around, I do also see a fair amount of prescriptive content flying around too. See below:


This is a prescriptive plea from a Spanish speaker – do not use English forms when Spanish ones already exist and will, in the Spanish speaker’s perception, do just fine. I tend to have a little more sympathy for prescriptive people who speak endangered languages, because for them it really does matter how many Anglicisms or whatever come into their language. Their language may well die if it is gradually subsumed. But a) Spanish isn’t remotely endangered and b) neither is English – and so complaining about what forms people are using is not only a sign that you are not with the times, it is also a colossal waste of energy. (One thing that makes descriptivists a bit smug is that they know how angry prescriptivists get. Prescriptivists can actually do nothing to stop people using whatever language, or ‘making’ whatever ‘mistake’, they want to).

So as a summary, here’s a form I’ve noticed changing lately in the newspaper, and which will constitute a future blog post I’m sure. Have a think about it:

“I feel quite badly for him” vs “I feel quite bad for him”; “He comes across sternly” vs “He comes across stern”.



Shakespeare and AI

An early post this month, due to a trip away and an enforced digital detox, ahead of what is sure to be an intense first term back at school.

Can artificial intelligence (AI) replicate Shakespeare (paywall)? It seems so, more or less, or that it will really be able to within a short timeframe. I’m the first to state that I know very little about AI, but the debate I have with one or two friends seems always to return to the same question. Now, I understand that AI is a process of binary choices, taken at incredible speed these days thanks to incredible processing power, options being eliminated until the ‘right’ decision is taken. Much like a chess computer running through the possible consequences of a move, AI can alight on the best choice easily, which makes it seem intelligent. The question, though, is how it can create.

Creativity, in my book, requires some emotion, and by definition AI doesn’t have that. With regard to the Shakespeare, the metre, form, range of language and possibly even message can be assimilated and reproduced in an original document, as these are all mathematical components of the end product, the sum of the parts. What I am always trying to get my students to remember, particularly with the study of poetry, is that although the above components are important for a variety of reasons, they are nothing compared to what you, the reader, feels. Your response – what connections you make, what things in your life it recalls, what colour it brings to your day.

We arrive at the age-old question of whether the writer, through their craft, genuinely intends the reader to feel the gamut of emotion produced by the act of reading. If you believe that writers are indeed that skilled – that their work, through the creative process of experience, pain or joy, catharsis in writing, endless re-drafting and massaging til the words dance on the soul of the reader, which in Shakespeare’s case then echo down the generations, then you are less likely to believe AI can replicate that. If, by contrast, you think that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and although writers write their own truth, the reader could take quite another from that sum of parts; and that the much-vaunted effect on the reader does very much depend on that reader and their emotional intelligence, amongst other things – then, you must be likely to believe that AI can replicate Shakespeare.

A fundamental question, then, about the nature of literature as art – does it need to be technically proficient, and emotionally mature, in order to have value? Shakespeare’s work obviously is, and yet saying art is worth more because of its complexity and maturity is a slippery slope, as one inevitably denigrates other work. I don’t know, but I do suspect that I would struggle to tell the difference between a Shakespeare sonnet and an AI Shakespeare sonnet.

Update – I have just tried the test on this webpage, and I got them all right – I can apparently tell the difference. What was it, in sum? Some lack of sense or dexterity in the language, at first glance; some lack of sense, on occasion (particularly in one – can you spot it?); one odd syllable miscount (again can you see it?) and a meter problem (same line). Some way to go, but one has the sense that it will not stop trying to improve…

What does it need, it would doubtless ask? ‘Richness and complexity’, says poet and broadcaster Michael Symmons – yes, that, and the creativity, and the gentle touch on the heart strings.

“I don’t like Spanish. I prefer English!”

So says my (nearly) four-year-old, in discussion about his school education which begins in September. Right, we thought, so much for the pricy bilingual nursery he has been to. That’s been a waste of time. But the reality is, it’s much more complicated than that.

There are many reasons why he might state the preference. He obviously speaks English at home. His entire family speaks English to him. 90% of his books, TV and other recreational input is in English. He hears mostly English in the street, and in the supermarket, and when he goes on holiday. And although some speak Spanish too, thanks to bilingual parents, all his friends tend to speak English to each other.

His Spanish input, such as it is, is in his nursery, and comes from mainly Hispanophone teachers whose English is not perfect and who are encouraged as policy to speak Spanish to the children. I believe, though I’m not sure, that more serious conversations, like toilet needs and conflict resolution, take place in the pre-school child’s L1 wherever possible, to avoid misunderstanding in sensitive issues.  From this he might get the subliminal impression that Spanish is something of a game, or something that some people speak, but everyone who is anyone speaks English when it matters.

In some weird way, his preference also reminded me of my university years in France, where despite understanding French and speaking it to communicative competence at C1, I began to feel a preference for English, and seek out English speakers with whom to socialise. I felt that though I could ‘do life’ in French, I preferred the facility, range and nuance I could exercise with English as opposed to being forever somewhat limited in my L2. Maybe my boy is going through something similar.

But my hope, forlorn as it may be, is that some of the benefits of a multilingual approach will have rubbed off on him. I’m talking about not having a fear of, and often incompetence with, foreign language that some English people have and manifest, right up to the highest levels. I’m talking about cognitive gains, such as the ability to tolerate ambiguity, and I’m talking about the cultural capital gained from being exposed so regularly to language and content that is not his ‘own’ from such an early age.

I suppose, without sounding too grandiose, that it is for this reason that I am a committed professional in the international system. Cultural sharing and awareness is more important than ever, and while global events may have us hunkering down inside our cultural laagers, I believe that there’s much more that unites us than divides us. I will continue to pursue an international education for my children, even if they don’t like it!


The challenge of challenge

My language love lives, but it’s the end of term…As may be expected, then, a return to teaching-based blogging this month, centring around the idea of ‘challenge’.

Much practice-based discussion and, indeed, my career in foreign language teaching, centres on how to ensure all learners achieve outcomes in lessons. The philosophy of ‘no learner left behind’ seems to me to imply a certain concern for the differently able and less able in any given lesson, and that differentiation in task, process and outcome must cater for that theoretical struggler.

But lately it seems to be modish to assume that the struggler will, with the best of help in terms of task and outcome and even classroom assistance, continue to struggle. Maybe it’s just the end of term and the few articles I’ve been reading recently, but I do detect a certain fatigue towards those learners – not an abandonment in any sense, but a realisation that the teacher can only do so much. A sad state of affairs, perhaps, but if we are honest, a real one.

And so the discussion turns to ‘differentiation up’ – the practice of increasing challenge for the more able learners in a classroom setting. I have no issue in admitting that in transitioning from adult EFL to secondary English teaching, I grappled with how to balance task difficulty with cognitive maturity at varying year group levels. It seemed that if in a task I needed to increase the challenge, I could only overshoot, so it became cognitively impossible for the child brain. It’s something that has gone better with experience, but I think it’s what makes older teachers so invaluable – that they intrinsically know what they can realistically expect from learners at this moment in this year level in terms of content and competence.

So how do we as practitioners increase challenge? Well, there is content. My lessons now increasingly represent a tunnel or concertina of content – pitched in the middle there is music, but with an accessible way in and an interesting way out. Then there is competence or skill – not just moving up Bloom’s taxonomy of learning, but asking the capable to learner to do something special with what they have learned. (In a sense this is creativity, the top level of the aforesaid taxonomy, but the learner can demonstrate their own interpretation of whatever it is has been studied, and thereby show where they still lack, perhaps). Finally, we can ask the learner to do more. I was told once, I forget where, that differentiation ‘up’ shouldn’t just be more workload, and I think I took that too much to heart. We can ask for more work from the student – written summaries, helping other students, reading new perspectives on the lesson content. This of course, respectively, encourages distillation of learning, profound comprehension, and autonomy.

I do wonder, sometimes, though, about the idea of challenge. The first decade of my career revolved around the importance of the first 20 mins of the lesson, which was essential for concentration and motivation. Novel lead-ins, superbly engaging contexts for the language, and frequent praise are all highly valued in EFL, and if you cut your teeth in this environment, you as a teacher are going to teach like that for your whole career. Let’s take a grammar lesson as an example. If you activate the learners’ schemata (for the uninitiated, this means awakening their understanding of the core concept without explanation or (much) use of the target language) effectively, through carefully-planned questions or a dynamic lead-in or a striking context; then you elicit or present the form and highlight its variations; then you diverge into a task-based approach with controlled then freer practice; then you allow students to practise a lifelike, communicative context for the form; then they personalise that – if you do all of that well, an observer is going to see all learners using the form. What an observer is not necessarily going to see is the ‘challenge’. To an observer, this all may look very easy.

My concern, then, is that although ‘challenge’ may be there, effective methodology (or well-chosen or well-sequenced content, or teacher charisma, or learner aptitude) can make it seem as though there is no challenge. I think we can go further and say that some learners (naming no names, don’t worry!) ought to take some responsibility for this, particularly if they are themselves above the age of, say, 15 or so. The younger ones seem to have twigged that if they say they are not being challenged, parents and management may fall over themselves to change the class, blame the teacher, seek an overhaul or whatever. Although as I saw last year, an under-challenged able kid can begin to be disruptive, sometimes it is just an excuse to do nothing!

So, in my understanding, it is a complex idea. For my professional progress I return to the idea of learning from older and more experienced colleagues, and gaining every week a better understanding of what each and every individual actually needs to make as much progress as they possibly can.

I didn’t used to think it was possible…

A bit of a throwback, this month, to a more purely speculative language-based article (I’m aware that recently my reflections on my teaching have rather taken precedence). I speak of ‘used to’, and a little experiment to find its most commonly-used negative.

First, some terms. ‘[Subject] + used to’ is most simply defined as a grammatical structure which is typically employed to describe a past activity or state, often one which is no longer indulged or no longer the case. It is usually taught at around B1 level, and its shortcut to meaning and diverse activity possibilities (pronunciation, games) make it a favourite with teachers.

When presenting this language and deploying all your best guff, the conscientious EFL teacher should also elicit its form in affirmative, negative and interrogative moods. The affirmative is above, and apart from the archaic or non-standard (student) practice of occasionally dropping the ‘d’, it is uncontroversial. But the negative and interrogative provoke more debate. (As an aside, speaking of ‘correct’ and ‘errors’ as I am about to do is inaccurate, but denote more common and less common conventional usage.)

  1. ‘I didn’t used to…’
  2. ‘I didn’t use to…’’
  3. ‘Did she used to…’
  4. ‘Did she use to…’

Before I became an English teacher, I would have sworn blind that versions one and three were ‘correct’, and two and four contained the error. As with all grammatical and orthographic conventions, I would have ‘known’ this instinctively, having mentally recorded and imprinted as ‘for use’ the more common one among the assorted books, articles and whatever I had ever read. (Incidentally, this practice goes some way to helping my spelling, with which I have mercifully few problems, though runs into trouble when non-standard forms become common!) But English language coursebooks have the opposite – versions two and four are correct.

We can also examine the grammar among its peers. It is common – nay, obligatory – in the past simple, for example, for the main verb not to be conjugated if its auxiliary is – as in the example ‘he didn’t go’, not ‘he didn’t went’. This may explain why the coursebooks stipulate not to conjugate the ‘use’ part when featured with a mandatory conjugated auxiliary in the interrogative and negative.

But hang on. That presupposes that ‘used’ in ‘used to’ is the past simple or the past participle of a verb, whereas some may argue that it is in fact a lexical chunk, or even that most modish of terms, ‘lexico-grammar’. Those conjugating the ‘use’ in the negative and interrogative are making a conscious decision about the part of speech, which they may or may not have the right to do.

So to Google Ngram Viewer – a tool that allows us to see the relative rates of use of a variable. As opposed to a corpus, the tool has limitations – it is only written language, and more specifically only books. We miss a number of genres in which the variable could be seen, and which could dramatically change our data. But nonetheless we can still give and see a part of a response to a hypothesis, which is that in the negative, ‘use’ is significantly spelled with an additional ‘d’.


Variable and incidence of use in all books on system, year 2000. Google Ngram Viewer, 25th May 2018

Did not used to = 0.0000055%

Did not use to = 0.0000020%

We can see from these results that the first variable is more common in recent history than the second. However, while rates for the first shot up in the late C20th, rates for the second decreased significantly after a high around 1820. It would seem, that the coursebook writers are either relying on older forms in perhaps older grammar books, or failing to take account of modern usage.

Obviously, however, such investigation has considerable limitations, and cannot really warrant that conclusion for many reasons. However, it is sometimes interesting to see what data can support a hypothesis about a particular variable. As ever, more research is needed – but whether it is in reality a cool enough thing to prompt someone to fund someone to investigate – well, I didn’t used to be so naive…

A few reflections on Latin creoles

As a three-day break from the rigours of firstly a hectic school year and secondly childcare, I found myself in Lisbon, Portugal last week. A wonderful city for food and wine and people, let alone its beautiful scenery, it also gave me a chance to refresh my familiarity with the Iberian tongues.

Living in Seville in 2009-10, my Spanish went from A0 to probably B1 productively and A2 receptively (my unfounded self-confidence trumping the truism that learners usually understand more than they can produce. Garth Marenghi puts it best when he says, ‘I’m one of the few people who have written more books than they’ve read’).

Over time, however, and with the structural and lexical influence of my L2 (French) loud in my head, my Spanish seems to have waned to the point of non-existence. Trying in vain to communicate the other week in Spanish, I bored my interlocutor silly with my hesitations and inability to recall the word or paraphrase what I wanted to say. No amount of swagger will help you there. But knowing I was going to Portugal, where (unlike in some parts of Spain) a set of complex historical and sociolinguistic factors generally mean the hapless English-only speaker is nevertheless made to feel welcome despite their incompetence, I did not have to worry.

And it could have been that relaxation about interlocution that allowed some Spanish to flow back to me during my trip, even through the Portuguese. For the uninitiated, Spanish and Portuguese are very similar lexically and structurally, though orthographically and particularly phonologically can differ hugely. On my trip I would see words written in the street and pronounce them as they would be in Spanish, and remark on the considerable difference in Portuguese with my Portuguese-speaking friend. I even found myself capable of having a conversation in Spanish with a taxi driver whose English was somewhat below the impressive standard of many of his compatriots, and thought I could even see how one day mutual intelligibility might be possible.

What struck me in particular was that language continues to be political. I felt almost rude speaking Spanish, particularly when many of the Portuguese natives we met spoke such good English. Using Spanish could hint at a lack of respect for Portuguese as a tongue – that it is so similar to Castellano that mutual intelligibility may be breezily assumed by the arriviste colonial tourist. Although English is also a colonial tongue, it is not a colonial tongue in Portugal, or at least a friendly, allied one. Testimony from an admittedly small sample group of Portuguese native speakers confirms the suspicion that many Portuguese prefer to use English than Spanish, and not just because they need the practice.

I was reminded of the time in Flemish-speaking Belgium when I attempted to use French in a bakery to buy a sandwich, and was rebuffed rather brusquely by the server and told to speak English if I couldn’t use Flemish. My earnest attempt to ‘meet the other speaker halfway’ in linguistic terms had tripped over the complex socio-political implications of using one language rather than another, and I left feeling mortified. Then there was the time that I used my limited Spanish in a supermarket near Pisa in Italy, and it was enthusiastically welcomed by my interlocutor as it was intended. No such event happened in Portugal, but it was mainly that I fell back on using English, rather than continuing my experiment.

The answer, of course, is to learn Portuguese (and Italian), and then my still stuttering Spanish won’t be quite the embarrassment it is!