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The changing language of English Language Teaching

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Written by Scott Thornbury

We are delighted to be publishing our first guest post from Scott Thornbury, who presented our Real Vocabulary series of videos. Scott teaches on the MA TESOL program at The New School in New York. His previous experience includes teaching and teacher training in Egypt, UK, Spain, and in his native New Zealand. His most recent books include The New A- Z of ELT (Macmillan).


I have a two-volume Spanish-English dictionary published in Cadíz in MDCCCLXIII – which I think is 1863. I picked it up for a song in the flea market in Barcelona and it’s in great shape. In the English volume it includes words like duskishly, porterage, and crupper, so I’m not betting on it being of that much use in 2017. Presciently (or perhaps duskishly?) the writer – one Don Mariano Velasquez de la Cadena – comments in the preface:

Language, like dress, is subject to continual change; and many phrases which were deemed elegant two centuries ago are almost unintelligible at the present day, in consequence of being displaced by other [sic] which were then unknown’.

This is as true in my own field – applied linguistics and language education – as it is in other specialized fields. It was driven home to me just this week as I read a book published exactly 100 years ago, called The Scientific Study and Teaching of Languages, by Harold E. Palmer. Palmer taught and trained extensively in Japan, and ‘did more than any other single individual to establish English language teaching (ELT) as an autonomous branch of language education in the first half of the 20th century and to give it the ‘applied linguistic’ direction to which it has remained loyal ever since’ (Smith 1999 p.vii)*. Reading Palmer, though, is not always easy, as he uses a number of terms which ‘are almost unintelligible at the present day’ (to quote Don Mariano). He refers frequently to ergons, for example, and the science of ergonics. And to morphons and polylogs and catenizing. Fortunately, Palmer supplies a glossary, which explains that an ergon is ‘any speech unit considered from the point of view of its function or powers of combining with other units’. Morphons are what we might now call morphemes; polylogs are multi-word items, and catenizing is ‘learning to pronounce accurately and rapidly a given succession of sounds’. He uses this last term a lot, since it is an integral part of his methodology, but I am not sure if we have a contemporary equivalent.

Having just completed the second edition of An A–Z of ELT (now The New A to Z of ELT), I am particularly interested in the way terminology shifts, evolves and morphs like this. Over ten years have elapsed between the two editions, and it’s been salutary to see how rapidly some terms lose their currency while new ones are enlisted in response to developments in language description, methodology and second language acquisition theory.

An obvious area of rapid change is in educational technology: even the term educational technology didn’t get an entry in the first edition, where computer assisted language learning (CALL) was made to serve for virtually the whole field. Now there are separate entries for mobile learning, adaptive learning, blended learning, and the flipped classroom – all new arrivals since 2006.

Another growth area has been in what I loosely call the ‘neoliberal turn’ – that is, the way the discourses of economic neoliberalism have been co-opted to serve the discourses of education, such that words like accountability, outcomes, competencies, granularity and life-skills (or twenty-first century skills) now regularly feature in ELT conference programs. In the entry on life skills, I manage to sneak in the suggestion that there might be something a little bit faddish about this development:

Concepts like communication, learner training and (inter-) cultural awareness have all been central to language teaching methodology for several decades now. The renewed interest in such skills may be an effect of the way education is being shaped to serve the needs of the new, globalized economy, with English playing a central role.

Indeed, by the time the third edition comes out, will granularity seem as dated then as ergons are to us now?

*Smith, R.C. 1999. The writings of Harold E. Palmer: An overview. Tokyo: Hon-no-Tomosha.


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Scott Thornbury


  • I understand why some words Palmer uses are unintelligible. Ergon is a Greek work meaning ‘producing something’ in this case speech. Consequently Ergonics is the science or the art or the skill of producing ergon. Hence ergonomia -how the ergon is distributed or arranged. Morphons is also a Greek word. It’s a noun deriving from the verb ‘μορφώνω’ (morphono) meaning teach. Whoever knows the morphons of his language can read and write. He is literate.

  • Why linguistics should have the most misleading, imprecise, or ambiguous terms of any academic discipline is both profound and intriguing. And I’m not even referring to teaching methods or technology, which are arguably the least ambiguous. I’m talking about descriptive terms for the language itself. While it could be due to the inherent nature of language to resist nice, neat labels just as we humans resist stereotypes, in ‘A Sense of Style’, Stephen Pinker argues the inverse:

    “…when technical terms are unavoidable, why not choose ones that are easy for readers to understand and remember? Ironically, the field of linguistics is among the worst offenders, with dozens of mystifying technical terms: themes that have nothing to do with themes; PRO and pro, which are pronounced the same way but refer to different things; stage-level and individual-level predicates, which are just unintuitive ways of saying “temporary” and “permanent”; …”

    As if that weren’t confusing enough, a few months ago, I came across two seemingly contradictory definitions for ‘cline’ in the linguistic sense. Wikipedia’s entry, unique as it was, suggests it’s a result of one of those debates Pinker hints at among linguists:

    “The notion of “cline of instantiation” reconciles the distinction between “langue” and “parole”, made by Ferdinand de Saussure—a separation maintained by Noam Chomsky, who renamed them “competence” and “performance”. Halliday argues that this dichotomy has done considerable harm to linguistics as a discipline.–https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cline_of_instantiation

    To my astonishment, neither ‘An A to Z in ELT’, or ‘Longman’s Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics’ defined the word, a rather common term in language teaching. I’m at a loss as to what to make of this omission.

    But if there’s a cause for all this confusion, perhaps it’s in the ‘harm’ of dichotomies. All dichotomies, it seems, reveal both the immense power and inherent limitations of language (and thought) to grasp reality: wave vs particle; good vs evil; free will vs determinism. The bitterness between Einstein and Bohr motivated physicist David Bohm to try and reconcile quantum theory with relativity leading him to profound insights into the nature of dialogue.

  • Terminology, or metalanguage, though useful at times, can often be rather irritating.

    Telling a student they require a noun is far easier than saying they need a word which is the name of something rather than doing or defining etc.

    Teachers, educators etc. can benefit from terminology as it too often uses common sense, like ‘face validity’ in testing.

    On the other hand, the same labels can reduce communication into science like putting signs around the room such as ‘S + V + C’, or telling students to discuss bare infinitives, and gerund phrases.. What?

    Alternatively, I failed Cambridge Delta Module 3, one reason in particular: I had not described the meaning of certain terminology I had used. Why should I? At this level isn’t the reader supposed to know these words? Can’t they go look them up in a dictionary, like I frequently have to in many published books?

    Terminology/metalanguage is like the driving test or a typical Cambridge test: you have to know these things but you may never use them, and some people prefer you never use them, but you must demonstrate you know them.

    Tests for the sake of tests.
    Words for the sake of words.
    Papers written for the sake of writing them so the professor can justify his/her salary…

    Yes, the world of linguistics and language teaching can often be fickle, as well as meaningful: terminology is required for some, but made up for others.

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