Sunday, 30 June 2013



I recently gave a speaking test to a class of 8- to 10-year-olds. One prompt-sheet had illustrations of various items such as a horse, tree, telephone, bicycle, and so on. The majority of the students could name most of the items with the exception of the telephone. The problem was, it seems, that it was a standard 1980s phone, complete with hand-piece, cord, etc; something that’s completely alien to the young students. For them a telephone is a slim, tablet-shaped thing you carry in your pocket. 

This got me thinking about how out-of-date the topics and language we teach are. English as it’s taught in the classroom is nearly always a decade or two behind what you might call up-to-date English. The English language is constantly changing, and consequently the nature of the language and the topics we teach should be constantly revised to keep pace. This doesn’t usually happen; we’re almost always lagging way behind. We are, in fact, teaching yesterday’s, redundant expressions and topics to our students. Text books are largely responsible for this; a book printed in 1998 can hardly be expected to present English as it is spoke today. Let me give you a few examples.

In most text books you’ll see short phone conversations to be drilled for memorization.
“Can I speak to the doctor, please.”
“Yes. Just a moment.”
(The last recorded instance of a patient being able to speak to a doctor was in 1976.)

“I’d like to place a person-to-person toll call to Mrs Joyce Abercrombie in Nowheresville, Ohio.”
(Nowadays you just dial Joyce’s cell phone number.) Oh, did I say ‘dial’ then? No, dials were replaced by keypads decades ago, but our language doesn’t yet have a verb to describe the tapping in of numbers on a keypad.

Besides telephone conversations, you’ll come across ‘Shopping’ conversations which, on reflection, belong to a long-gone era.

Shop assistant: Can I help you?
Customer         : Yes, I’m looking for a dress.”
Shop assistant:  What size?
Customer         : Size 37.
Shop assistant:  What color?
Customer         : Oh, pinkish-red.
Shop assistant: Here’s one, a lovely rich pinkish-red in size 37.
Customer         : Can I try it on?
Shop assistant: How is it?
Customer         : It’s a little too small. Have you got one in a bigger size?
Shop assistant: Let me see…

Now, when was the last time you were approached by a shop assistant? Honestly? And, should you ever track down a shop assistant, when was the last time you chanced upon a helpful one? (That is if the assistant spoke any English.)

Nowhere is the illustration of how out-of-date text books are than in the ‘Famous People’ units. Perhaps, at the time of printing, (and for a certain age group), people like Lady Di, Julia Roberts, the Beatles, Nelson Mandela, Marilyn Monroe and JFK were indeed famous, but they have never even entered the realm of young learners’ experience. Mr Bean, Tom and Jerry, and David Beckham perhaps, but those others are just yesterday’s forgotten people. Hell, most students wouldn’t even know Superman from Donald Duck! It brings home to you just how much you’re getting on in years.

Some grammar rules we teach are on the brink of becoming redundant.  We stress to our students that singular nouns require a singular ‘be’ verb, but as likely or not expressions like “How’s things?” and “There’s ten people waiting” regularly crop up in our everyday speech. We teach that ‘someone’ and ‘anyone’ are singular nouns, but say: “If someone knows the answer, will they please raise their hands”, and “If anyone thinks they can do better, they’re welcome to try”.
We painstakingly teach the correct usage of ‘who/whom’ and ‘neither/nor’ to our students, but outside the classroom we, along with most our contemporaries, ignore it. We stress that ‘so’ should only be used before an adjective or adverb, but today’s in-people say “Those jeans are so bling” and “My new android blue-tooth touch-screen cell phone is, like, so this year”. We teach rules about how to correctly use ‘if’ and ‘whether’ and ‘like’ and ‘such as’, but immediately forget those rules in our everyday speech.
“Now remember, Class, don’t ever start a sentence with ‘and’. It’s a conjunction, alright? And if I see anyone doing it, they’ll be penalized.”

Which brings me to the subject of vocabulary. New words are entering the language every day, but text book writers seem to be in denial of this fact. Some examples:
Surfing the net, logging in, logging out, twittering. Geek, nerd, hacker, spam, info superhiway, iPad, ipod, iMac, Big Mac, smart phone, even smarter phone, iTunes, eBook, app, webcam. You ever seen any of those expressions in an EFL text book? How about substance abuse, crack, smack, crystal ice, nose candy, getting high, taking a trip, chilling out, ODing, coming down? Or gay, bi, swinger, swinging both ways, outing, coming out? Or covert action, eyes only, need-to-know, rendition, water-boarding, liquidating, terminating with extreme prejudice? Gitmo, gizmo, pre-emptive strike, drones, carpet-bombing, friendly-fire, black ops, infiltration, exfiltration?

Of course your students don’t need to add all these expressions to their vocabularies, but if an advanced student reads the newspaper, he or she will come across them regularly.

“Dear Sir, Pursuant to your request in your esteemed communiqué of the twelfth (inst)...” Of course, no-one (except, perhaps in India) writes letters like this anymore, but you’ll still come across the occasional textbook that presents this antiquated language as normal. Nowadays we teach letter-writing in a less stilted, formal fashion, but when you come to think of it, why do we teach letter-writing at all? In fact no-one writes letters any more. They send e-mails or text messages instead. Or tweet them, or twitter them. Or post them on FaceBook.

Yep, our text books and our lessons are way behind what you’d call contemporary . What someone needs to do is, like, write a totally cool book with all the, like, up-to-the-minute language us people use every day, like. I mean that would be so 21st Century. Anyone out there up to it?


My new book, EFL minus the B.S. (now available on Amazon) is my take on the English teaching game world-wide. From language teaching theories, linguistics, classroom dynamics, teens’ and children’s classes, to sex and the single teacher.

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