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What’s good or getting better in the world of TEFL?

I admit that at times I must come off as a bit of a curmudgeon in this blog. What I write seems to be coloured with more spit and vinegar than I actually feel. But there is something perverse about the urge to focus upon that which may be wrong in the world of EFL (or any ‘world’ for that matter) while the positives get little or no commentary. I’m not a fan of whiners or complainers under any circumstances so it’s best that I heed my own sensibilities and try to share something more uplifting. Therefore, in today’s post, I’ll spare the usual vitriol and instead discuss some of the positive developments I’ve seen in the world of TEFL, having now been involved in the field for close to thirty years. Over that time, subtle changes in accepted approaches and practices have emerged which give me hope for the future of English education.


1.Farewell Mr. Smith and Ms. Brown

Twenty years ago, EFL/ESL textbooks were pretty generically… Peoria. Meaning middle-class white American. One wonders how Izumi in Ibaraki and Kouki in Kumamoto were supposed to connect with these characters or see any relevance to their own lives while using materials populated with such folks (and I do mean ‘folks’). Now, the scope of English has been expanded not only to include characters from Singapore, India, and the Philippines but even those from distinctly EFL locales such as Korea, Indonesia, or Los Angeles. English is now represented as belonging to the world… and, yes, that includes Japan. Which leads me naturally to the fact that…


2. ELFs are now acceptable, even fashionable

When Lithuanian IT programmers talk to Lebanese diplomats, when Korean academics meet with Vietnamese medics, they use ELF – English as a Lingua Franca. It has become increasingly apparent that most of our students’ English interactions will be with other non-native English speakers so, no, my Japanese students are no longer tasked with the near-impossible – sounding like me. The goal rather is mutual intelligibility rather than nativist formal accuracy. This makes perfectly logical sense in the world of TEFL (much less so ESL) and I’m happy to see recognition of this reality gaining traction (despite some prominent flaws in the ELF argument). *Note – ELF should not be confused with ‘World Englishes’, a near-opposite domain, nor interlanguage, an ‘ill-formed’ stage of English production. Closely connected to this is…


3. ‘Native speaker’ remove your crown and check your privilege at the classroom door

As English becomes less Anglo-Americentric due to sheer demographics and the inexorable forces of history, with a concomitant greater focus on local conditions and learner needs, so too does the role of the NS diminish. Local teachers know the goals or the market for their students better. They know the cultural, psychological, and linguistic hurdles facing their students better. If their own students become as competent in English as they are, that would (in most cases) be sufficient. Of course, specialists (esp. ESP) of any L1 background continue to be widely sought after but it is teaching skill in that particular domain, not mere native-speakerism, that is becoming more highly-valued. As it should be.


4.  There’s a place for Hmong, Zapotec, and Uzbek in the TEFL classroom

Just as there is a place for EMI (English mediated instruction) in the world of TEFL, so too can the local language serve as a valuable teaching and learning resource. We are one hundred years removed from the audio-lingual method, in which only the target language was allowed as the medium, as if students would acquire it by osmosis. Let’s bury that notion and leave a big, fat gravestone over top. Not only is it socio-politically questionable as to the degree English has previously been allowed to run roughshod over local languages, denying the common language of your students (in TEFL scenarios at least) as a means of negotiating, reflecting, deconstructing, and cognitive formulating  their learning means you ignore a fount of helpful bridges between L1 and English. Thankfully, a healthy threshold of English teachers, teacher trainers, and TEFL celebrity academics, now recognize and accept that most of us are not operating in ESL settings, nor are we training our students for immediate, instrumental production on the streets of Detroit City. L1 is a valuable classroom asset.


5. ‘Culture’ no longer means, ‘I try on your costume and watch your traditional dance’

A few decades back there was a spate of highly dubious textbooks, articles, presentations, and other exhortations to introduce ‘culture’ into the ESL/EFL classroom because (ahem), ‘Culture and language are inextricably connected’ (umm, no). This resulted in a plague of very shallow attempts at fostering cultural understanding centering upon the theme of ‘Let’s learn all about our differences’ (which is just about the last thing the average Japanese needs to learn regarding non-Japanese), utilizing stereotypes, over-generalizations, Orientalism, and other stigmatizing templates and tropes that basically spelled out ‘You are from X, so you are not at all like me.’ The intercultural playing field in TEFL is now much more nuanced (I’d like to think that the way I railed against its depiction 15 or 20 years ago may have helped it along – although mine was a tiny voice) in which materials and trainers recognize varying, multiple identities and that we generally interact with complex individuals, not cultural caricatures.


6. Technology will not guide us to the (blue) light

Have you noticed how technical ELT gadgetry seems to have jumped the shark lately? How the high-tech products that positively glistened on display booths at ELT conferences a decade or two or go now seem to garner much less interest? Starting with Scott Thornbury’s notion of teaching ‘unplugged’, there has been a gradual realization that an over-reliance on technology might actually alienate learners and effectively divorce the teacher from the learner. Not only that, but even as the technology becomes more sophisticated, without an accompanying upgrade in teaching skills, materials, or management, the positive impact of whistles and bells will be minimal.


7. Maybe the learner is not at the center of the ELT universe…

A decade back it was pretty much a requirement to state that ones teaching was ‘learner-centered’ or risk being towel-slapped in the teacher’s locker room. Of course, this learner-focused approach was a response to traditionally teacher-dominated classrooms. However, with each learner having distinct learning skills and acquisition processes, learner-centered focus, while sounding ‘correct’ was rather bulky and awkward, despite its buzzword status. Now, it is much more widely accepted that the focus should be on learning, not the learner. This has placed the emphasis upon the content of the teaching, which, ironically, actually fosters greater learner autonomy since it allows learners to accommodate the materials or content in the manner that they see fit.


So, all in all, I think we are in a much better place as TEFL practitioners than we were twenty years ago, which can only benefit our learners. As we’ve grown up, gone through TEFL puberty, and became TEFL Moms and Dads, there has been an corresponding rise in the degree of professionalism in the field — the questionable hypotheses of our youth have been tested and often found wanting, and the ‘industry’ is better for it. So, as my own career slowly winds down, I pass on this wisdom to you young ‘uns so that you might continue on the path of enlightenment and not become an old curmudgeon.




Mike Guest

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