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Iatefl 2018: No more fairy tales

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The Gazette’s Iatefl special aims to unravel the myths surrounding English language teaching, writes Melanie Butler

At Iatefl 2016, Bell’s Silvana Richardson set out to destroy one of the great myths of ELT: that native speakers of English are always better.

In this Iatefl special feature, the Gazette teams up with conference speakers, Special Interest Group (Sig) representatives and EFL specialists to question some more of the unproven assumptions that underpin many of our methodological beliefs.

At least three of them date back exactly 140 years ago this year.

In 1878, Maximilian Berlitz hired a young monolingual Frenchman, Nicholas Joly, to teach French at his college in the American state of Rhode Island. According to the Berlitz corporate website, Maximilian fell ill for six weeks and when he recovered he found that Joly’s class ‘were engaging in lively question-and-answer exchanges with their teacher, in elegantly accented French.’

The Direct Method, as it came to be known was, Berlitz argued, a much better way to learn a language than grammar translation.

On one level, this story represents the early beginnings of communicative language learning. But it introduces three myths that still haunt us: that native speakers are always better, that the target language should always be used in the classroom and that we don’t need to teach phonology because all students will simply acquire it effortlessly.

On our special, the chair of Iatefl Pronunciation Sig Wayne Rimmer, takes on the myth that learners will pick up ‘elegantly accented’ English simply by being asked to listen and repeat.

The neuroscience supports him, at least for adult language learners. As we report on the special, research in Finland suggests that only multilingual adults who started learning languages at a young age retain the ability to perceive and remember foreign sounds. The rest of us do not even hear them.

“ It introduces three myths that still haunt us: that native speakers are always better, that the target language should always be used in the classroom and that we don’t need to teach phonology because all students will simply acquire it effortlessly ”

Writing on special, Harry Kuchah is equally dismissive of the belief that only the target language should be used in the classroom. This teacher trainer from Cameroon, now based at the University of Bath, points out that in large under-resourced classes of multi-lingual children, the best resource a teacher has is the existing linguistic ability of the students.

Harry, a plenary speaker at this year’s Young Learners Sig event, also questions another myth: that children do naturally acquire a language faster than adults. In his experience this is not true, at least in situations when their teachers barely speak the language and where the students are not exposed to it in their community.

John Knagg agrees. In an interview with the Gazette, the global head for English in education systems at the British Council explains his concerns about the global trend towards the teaching of English to ever younger learners. Terry Phillips takes on a flurry of myths about using graded readers with young learners.

Esol Sig committee member Philida Schellekens and East London Esol specialist Jennie Turner explain how, in England, teachers succeed even under a government which has slashed funding but is seemingly convinced that foreigners can all learn English easily if only they tried.

Finally, Mike Milanovic, former chief executive of Cambridge English Language Assessment and now adviser to PeopleCert, gives us a masterclass on the use – and misuse – of computers in the field of testing. So there you have it, this Iatefl special feature aims to sort the truth from the fiction and fairy tales.