Alan Waters on dominant discourses in ELT

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IATEFL-Liverpool -

Alan began by setting up a model of professional discourses in ELT. On a vertical axis, we have academic at the top and the classroom at the bottom. On a horizontal axis, we have native speaker perspectives on the left and non-native speaker perspectives on the right. His overall thesis is that ELT professional discourse is dominated by the top left – in other words, originating from native speaker theorists in academic environments.

Alan went on to fill out this idea using the very stark terminology of ‘newspeak’ – a form of linguistic thought control used by the dictatorial state in George Orwell’s book ‘1984’. From newspeak, Alan extracted three key terms: ‘goodspeak’, ‘thought crime’ and ‘doublethink’.

Goodspeak refers to the use of terms which control thought by being intrinsically value-laden, but not explicitly so. His example from ELT discourse was the term ‘authentic’. This term is set up as the good partner in the pairing ‘authentic-artificial’. Consequently, a piece of material can be justified or disqualified simply by attaching one of these labels to it, with no further argumentation being deemed necessary.

Thought crime refers to something like ‘political correctness’, in which any kind of dissent is automatically evil. Alan’s example from ELT discourse was task-based learning (TBL). He suggested that the enthusiasm for this methodology is mainly pushed along by people from academic environments, despite the realities of the classroom, and is driven by inconclusive research data – in Swan’s terms, ‘legislation by hypothesis’.

Doublethink refers to the capacity to hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously. For example, in Orwell’s book, paradoxes such as ‘war is peace’ were presented by the state as being literal truths. Alan’s example from ELT related to English as a Lingua Franca. He suggested that academic theorists in the native English sphere of influence present ELF as ‘correct’, despite the evident desire on the part of learners for ENL (English as a native language). Confronted with this evidence, the academic theorist will counter that the learner is a ‘victim of the standard language ideology’ – Alan quoted Jennifer Jenkins (2007) to this effect. But then, the theorist runs the risk of the following piece of doublethink: simultaneously holding that ‘It’s good to be learner-centred’ + ‘Learners are misguided as to what they think they need’.

In summary, Alan suggested that ELT professional discourse needs to be more ‘bottom up’ and less ethnocentric.

During the brief question time at the end of this session, one member of the audience suggested that Alan himself was a perpetrator of his own doublethink (my gloss), being a native speaker academic. Unfortunately, the room minders were calling time before this thread could be explored further.


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