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deas about language learning have

proliferated over the last hundred
years and the classroom
consequences have been far
reaching. Usually this history is viewed
as one of progress, broadening horizons
and liberating teachers. It is also
possible, however, to see its net effect as
a reduction of options, a narrowing of
outlook and an undermining of
professional freedom. Many perfectly


that every teacher monologue is a good

one. It depends on what is said, not
who says it, on inner mental activity
rather than outward behaviour. Making
a monologue interesting is part of the
art of teaching; outlawing monologue
attacks that art and undermines
professional autonomy. The current
preoccupation with group and pair
work, the outlawing of whole-class
address, not only diminishes variety, it

Guy Cook encourages
us to rummage around in
our pedagogical dustbins
and re-assess what we have
cast out.

valid teaching and learning strategies
have become taboo. So strong is the
academic and commercial hype behind
this process, however, that teachers are
often scared to re-assess rationally what
has been lost.
I would like first to consider five
such strategies, and then suggest that,
despite their apparent disparity, there is
one overriding misguided idea that lies
behind their designation as 'taboo'.

Taboo one
Teacher talk,
student silence
Many teachers believe that they should
at all times reduce their own talking
time and increase that of their students.
But why is this necessarily a good thing
in every lesson? Students are not rats
who only learn by doing. They have the
human capacity for passive learning
through attention, observation and
reflection. Judging by favourite leisure
activities (film, theatre, television,
reading), people very much enjoy
listening to other voices, and can learn
a great deal while doing so. When and
why did teachers lose confidence in
their ability to instruct and inspire?
This is not to say that every lesson
should be a teacher monologue, nor

can also sometimes subject students to

a flow of uninformative and incorrect
language from their classmates!

Taboo two
As a demanding, form-focused activity
in which the teacher does all the talking
and students write in silence,
reproducing somebody else's words,
dictation must rank as the most unreal
and uncommunicative exercise
imaginable, to be eliminated from any
up-to-date classroOm. How strange
then, that it is still widely regarded as

When and why

did teachers lose
confidence in their
ability to instruct
and inspire?
effective in promoting confidence and
accuracy. How can something so bad in
theory work out so well in practice? The
reasons are instructive. Firstly, dictation
obliges learners to use forms which they
might avoid when communicating in

Issue Twenty-three April 2002 ENGLISH TEACHING professional


their own words, thus gaining through
imitation. Secondly, paradoxically, its
highly artificial focus on forms and
components is a very authentic general
learning strategy, similar to the kind of
thing we would do when learning to
drive (manoeuvring in safe environments)
or to play an instrument (practising
scales and arpeggios). Thirdly, copying
down spoken words accurately is
involved in many real-world tasks: both
work-related (eg minute taking) and for
pleasure (eg copying a song). Lastly, the
fact that it is undeniably hard work,
demanding conscious effort, should not
disqualify it for serious learners (except
perhaps the very youngest). Though it
has been in the marketing interests of
publishers and private language schools
to claim that a second language can be
picked up effortlessly, learning a new
language entails hard work. Students
know this, and can get pleasure from the
knowledge of what that work will lead to.
The taboo on dictation is part of a
larger problem. Implicit in many
communicative materials, is the message
that spoken language is more basic and
important than reading and writing.
The assumption in early communicative
textbooks was that every English
language learner had no more pressing
need than to buy a cup of coffee
without drawing attention to themselves
as a foreigner. One indication of this
bias towards speech is the failure of
almost all EFL textbooks to address
one of the most pressing needs of many
of the world's English language learners
(Japanese, Chinese, Arab and many
others), which is to master a new writing
system. This is something which needs
painstaking practice and instruction. As
with the fetish for student talk, though,
the assumption is that if students are
not chattering, they are not learning.

Taboo three
Repetition and
rote learning
These two related activities are generally
described as both artificial and boring,
and pejoratively dismissed as
`regurgitation' or 'mere' imitation. The
criticism, however, usually focuses upon

specific materials for memorisation,

rather than the nature of the activity
itself. Of course, as with any activity, it
is possible to make repetition boring
and purposeless, by inappropriate
choices and insensitive enforcement. If
the activity itself were intrinsically
boring, however, it would be hard to
explain the universal and spontaneous
delight which almost everyone takes in
knowing a favourite piece of language
by heart. What child does not gleefully
repeat rhymes, jokes and playground
nonsense? What adult has not sung
their favourite songs a thousand times?
In a wide range of genres (from prayers,
plays and poems, to sports chants and
jokes) repetition and rote learning
typify the most enjoyable and valued
human language activities. (On the
other hand, when did anyone recite for
pleasure the words of a dull task like
buying a ticket?)

instructions to teachers sometimes

even upon pain of dismissal.
All this is strange. Firstly, translating
is a needed skill and not only by
professional translators and interpreters.
`Real-world' foreign language use is full
of translation, whether it be explaining
the menu to monolingual friends in a
restaurant, arbitrating between relatives
in a bilingual family, or negotiating
between firms to achieve a business
deal. Both socially and at work,
successful language learners need to
mediate between speakers of their own
language and speakers of the language
they have learned. This only reflects the
truism, overlooked by so many
monolingual Anglo-American theorists,
that, for the majority of the world's
population, switching and negotiating
between languages is part and parcel of
everyday language use. There is nothing
remotely artificial or academic about it.

Implicit in many communicative materials,

is the message that spoken language is more
important than reading and writing
There is good reason behind our
pleasure. Recitation develops and
reinforces a sense of community, which
is one of the main functions of
language. It gives an illusion of being
more proficient with the language than
we actually are. It is also an effective
learning strategy. Far from imitation
being 'mere', it is a highly complex skill,
much more developed in humans than
other animals, and at the heart of our
learning capacity. That is why children
are so obsessed with, and so proficient
at, imitating the words of others, even
when they do not understand their
sense. For children (unlike the theorists
of communicative and task-based
approaches) have no hang-ups about
enjoying the form of words.

Taboo four
Since the early 20th century, translation
has been so out of fashion in ELT that
it has rarely been discussed, either as a
means or an end. It is simply assumed
to be wrong, and has attracted all the
usual insults. It is boring, artificial, the
last refuge of the incompetent teacher. It
has been regularly and explicitly
forbidden in materials, curricula and

6 ENGLISH TEACHING professional Issue Twenty-three April 2002

In addition, for those teachers who

can do it (and that of course means
that they must be bilingual themselves),
translation is an indispensable teaching
tool. This is true both for grammar,
where it compels students to use
structures which might otherwise be
avoided, and pre-eminently for
vocabulary. Direct method purists are
fooling themselves when they claim to
have explained words through mime
and context. The obvious fact is that
almost all students use bilingual
dictionaries which provide by
definition translations.
The usual objections to translation
as a pedagogic tool are twofold: that it
encourages a sense of false equivalence
between the two languages, and that it
impedes automatic and fluent language
use. Both views are silly. Assessed by a
good teacher, a translation which
preserves the grammatical construction
of the first language or is misled by a
faux ami (English sympathetic for Italian
simpatico, for example) would be
criticised, with consequent explanation.
As for the impediment to automaticity,
this is just assertion without evidence belied by the millions of successful
language learners who, having begun the
study of a language through translation,
go on to become fluent speakers without
recourse to an interlingual equivalent.

The outlawing of translation not

only reflects the monolingual mind-set
of the English-speaking world, it has
also in a more sinister way been to
its political and commercial advantage.
Monolingual native-speaker teachers
have been privileged, and the status of
`local' experts undermined. Private
language schools have treated students
from different languages and cultures as
all the same. Publishers have marketed
monolingual textbooks globally. The
classroom has become, in microcosm, a
world where English is the only
language, rather than one integrated
with others.

Taboo five
The standard argument, religiously
reiterated in nearly every recent
textbook and dictionary, is that
invented examples are dead and
artificial, demotivating students and
misrepresenting how the language is
actually used. In addition, they are
damned by association with grammartranslation and graded-structure
teaching. The cult of 'real language'
demands that every example must be
drawn from databanks generally held,
in practice, by academics and
publishers. Faced by this heavy
pressure, and unable to match these
resources with their own, teachers have
been scared away from making up their
own examples. They react rather as
they do with translation. They continue
to use invented sentences, but guiltily
and with a sense of inadequacy.
But why? As with so many other
discredited practices, there is confusion
between the practice and its misuse. It
is true that traditional textbooks were
crammed with tedious invented
examples, but they do not necessarily
have to be of this kind. The 'real'
examples in fashionable textbooks and
dictionaries can be just as deadly. They
are someone else's, and no longer 'real'
by the time they reach the classroom.
The important issue is not the
`reality' of examples, but whether they
are useful, interesting and relevant. The
best examples are surely those invented
by teachers, isolating important points
of vocabulary and grammar, and
adjusted with wit and sensitivity to the
level and interests of their students. If
they are bizarre and unreal, all the
better it will make them memorable.

Well handled, they can be both

enjoyable and instructive, livening up
the lesson and promoting good
relations. Again, it is not possible to
legislate how this can be done. It is part
of the art of teaching.

These five taboos are not as disparate
and unconnected as they may seem.
They all have their roots in a single
misguided vision of first language
learning which, having captured the
gullible imaginations of 20th-century
ELT theorists, was then imposed upon
teachers and students. The vision has
several related components. Firstly, it
supposes that language is a separate
mental faculty, which cannot be learned
in the same way as other skills and does
not benefit from the usual learning

artificial activities (rhymes, stories,

playground games) which provide
highly structured language practice.
Thirdly, the assumption that language
development is only about spoken
infant language needs justifying.
Almost everywhere, modern-world
children, if they are to become
functional members of their own
community, must learn to write a task
which involves a good deal of conscious
effort, formal manipulation, and which
overlaps with the development of
speech. This process does not begin
when acquisition of spoken grammar
has stopped; it begins much earlier and
continues throughout life. Lastly, and
most outrageously, the default view of
language acquisition as monolingual is
both counter-factual and chauvinistic.
Many of the world's children perhaps
even the majority grow up in
bilingual or multilingual environments.
The image of language and language
learning transferred over to second

Adults and their teachers should be able to

make their own choices about how to learn
strategies such as practice, isolation
of components, mastery of rules,
attention to instruction, repetition, etc.
Instead, language is seen as developing
naturally, when children do things with
it. And in these 'things that they do', so
the story goes, children's attention will
be on meaning rather than form. The
definition of 'language' in this vision,
however, is a very narrow one. It refers
only to the subconscious mental
representation of the grammar of infant
speech in one language. Writing,
discourse skills, adult vocabulary,
explicit knowledge of structures and the
ability to switch between languages are
to be added on as a kind of
afterthought when the process is
complete, at around the age of five.
There are so many things wrong
with this vision of first language
acquisition that it is difficult to know
where to begin. (Perhaps there is a
relation between the silliness of a
doctrine and the extent of its appeal!)
Firstly, the evidence that language is a
separate mental faculty is very weak,
based on assertions without evidence
about the kind of language children do
and do not encounter. Secondly, it is
assumed that the world of the infant is
focused upon negotiation of meaning whereas a good deal of child time is
concerned with highly ritualised and

language pedagogy is then arguably an inaccurate one. Real children are very
likely to develop language as they learn
other things, using speech and writing
together, and very probably in a
bilingual context full of code switching
and translation. Yet even if this view of
first language acquisition were correct,
there would be no necessary reason to
impose it upon adults learning a new
language in later life. They and their
teachers should be able to make their
own choices about how to learn. The
late 20th century can be regarded as a
period when one single narrow view of
language and language acquisition
deprived both teachers and learners of
many of their most useful strategies,
making the classroom a much less varied
and flexible place than it should be. We
have accumulated too many taboos,
and it is time to break free.


Guy Cook is Professor

of Applied Linguistics at
the University of Reading,
where he teaches on
both the MA Applied
Linguistics and the
MA TEFL courses. The
views in this article are
expressed more fully in
the last two chapters of
his book Language Play,

Language Learning
(Oxford University Press).

Issue TWenty-three April 2002 ENGLISH TEACHING professional