What psychologists are saying about how technology affects us

Speaking about “The Secret Powers of Time”, Stanford professor emeritus Philip Zimbardo (famous for the Stanford Prison Experiment) explains how various perspectives of time – past, present and future – influence our actions and relationships. There are six main orientation time zones:

  • Past: Past positive (nostalgic), or past negative (regretful)
  • Present: hedonistic (seeking pleasure, knowledge), or fatalistic (“It doesn’t pay to plan”)
  • Future: resist temptation for future benefit, or geared to reward after death (both build on trust or expectation)

Catholic nations are more present and past oriented, while Protestant nations are more future orientated.

He says we are going through a time revolution. Children are naturally and essentially hedonistic and present-oriented. What schools around the globe do is to give them a past or future orientation (depending on the predominant culture). Now computer games are increasingly keeping children in their present-hedonistic state, rewiring their brains, so they will be bored in the analogue classroom. Games are indeed addictive, and “all addictions are addictions of present hedonism.” School and education is all about delaying gratification, but present oriented kids will not relate the messages to themselves and their future. I hear echos of my father talking about “instant gratification” as a key element of hedonistic pop culture back when I was a teen in the 1970s.

Philip Zimbardo (2008): The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life. Free Press.


Sherry Turkle, professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, writes that mobile devices are becoming the vehicle for intimate relationships, as robots take on responsibilities previously born by friends and family. The instantaneous, engineered response is in fact allowing us to flee from conversation, which takes effort in terms of time and patience, and hence requires us to build those essential skills.

“Most of all, we need to remember — in between texts and e-mails and Facebook posts — to listen to one another, even to the boring bits, because it is often in unedited moments, moments in which we hesitate and stutter and go silent, that we reveal ourselves to one another.”
Sherry Turkle: The Flight From Conversation, NYT April 21, 2012

Sherry Turkle (2011): Alone Together. Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic Books.

Varieties of English and EIL/ELF

Just revising for the exam, and know I won’t remember much. Mark had a funny acronym for this condition: CRS, can’t remember shit. Yesterday I learned quite a lot because my concentration was up, so I got some connections that I’d missed before. But this morning, I’m having trouble remembering my middle name.

This was probably my favorite essay question, one I knew was relevant from our MELTA 20th anniversary party with David Graddol, Vicki Hollett, Evan Frendo and Mark Powell’s plenary at BESIG, and one I could relate to my current experience. Evan organized a professional development session for ELTABB on the topic, which I unfortunately missed:

Essay question:

  1. Briefly outline your understanding of the term “a variety of English”.
  2. With reference to your reading on English as an international language (EIL), discuss the advantages and disadvantages of teaching a “standard” variety of English.

The variety and varieties of English

a. English is the world’s lingua franca, and we generally speak of the language in the singular. But in fact English is a vast complex of different varieties, or dissimilar versions of the language spoken by different groups. They range from local dialects such as the non-rhotic Boston accent, to international standards like BBC English, and include mixed-language varieties like Hinglish. The most influential model of the spread of English is Braj Kachru’s model of World Englishes, which he described in three concentric circles: The Inner Circle, where English is a native language (L1), the Outer Circle, where it is a second language, spread by British colonization and now used in government, law and education (L2, e.g. India, Nigeria), and the Expanding Circle, where it is a foreign language in increasingly widespread use.

Sandra Lee McKay (2002) lays out that English has become an international language in four ways:

  1. It is used as a language of wider communication internationally (global sense) and in multicultural societies (local sense).
  2. The use of English is no longer connected to the culture of the Inner Circle countries.
  3. It is embedded in the culture of the countries where it is used.
  4. Its primary function is to enable users of the language to communicate with each other.

A quarter of the world now speaks English, but the largest group is non-native speakers (NNS), who outnumber native speakers (NS) 3:1. (David Crystal 2003)
There have been initiatives to create simplified varieties (Simple English, Globish) to facilitate communication on a global scale, but NNSs appear to be able to create their own lingua franca without outside guidance. In the Vienna-Oxford International Corpus of English (VOICE), Barbara Seidlhofer has recorded some 1,250 speakers of 50 different L1s, mostly with European backgrounds, using English with each other. Her findings show that, with few NSs present to provide impulses for (self-)correction, NNSs frequently or consistently:

  • drop the -s in the present simple third person (she go)
  • leave out or add definite and indefinite articles (I enjoy the nature. She is secretary.)
  • add prepositions (We discussed about the trip)
  • rely on selected general verbs (do, have, make…)
  • use an all-purpose question tag (isn’t it?)
  • use that clauses (She want that they go on a trip)
  • do not distinguish between relative pronouns (who vs. which)
  • avoid idioms
  • do not distinguish between /θ/ and /ð/ and substitute other consonants (/s/ /z/ /d/)
  • avoid weak forms and other aspects of connected speech

As this non-standard use does not impede meaningful communication, Jennifer Jenkins suggests we should stop thinking that ELF is simply “Learner English” (Swan/ Smith 2001), a step on the way to EFL proficiency, and acknowledge it as an emergent variety. This raises the question: If ELF is a useful variety of English, is it worth teaching?

2. Before weighing the advantages or disadvantages of teaching a “standard” variety of English, I’d like to look at what the various standard and non-standard varieties of English represent to those involved in English language teaching and learning.

First of all, standards are set with a purpose in mind. The Queen’s or King’s English, institutionalized by a British minority and described by Henry Cecil Wyld some 100 years ago at the height of British colonialism as Received Standard (later Received Pronunciation (RP), BBC English), has traditionally been considered “good English”, providing the international standard in ELT. After WWII, it was challenged in the US, leading to the establishment of a double standard, American Standard English in the USA, and British Standard English elsewhere. As the written standard, it continues to assure reliable communications, playing an immensely important role e.g. for translations in the European Union.

Spoken English, however, is different. Standard English can be pronounced using a variety of accents, but RP is unique, spoken by only a tiny minority associated with class and power. While it is the institutionalized pronunciation target in many parts of the world, providing NNSs with a reliable benchmark, NSs may use it in jest to parody the upper crust. In the Internet age, a wide range of pronunciation models are available to learners, who can train their listening comprehension and select a model spoken by the population they are most likely to deal with.

The teacher’s national variety generally plays some role in which standards a learner is exposed to. Webster’s Dictionary in 1828 famously gave America a sense of national identity, and other countries have also created their national standards. But contrast that narrow view of language as something that a nation can own, with an approach that looks for similarities in worldwide speech patterns, comparing rhythm (stress-timing vs. syllable timing) and rhoticity, as described by McArthur (2001). Based on their L1s, learners may find it easier to acquire one standard over another. For instance, most NS of English use stress-timing, while most of the languages in India, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean are highly syllable-timed, which carries over when they speak English. This explains why they must put so much effort into acquiring a standard accent, and why speakers of English with Asian L1s are mutually intelligible, but very difficult to understand to unpracticed NS ears.

Home-grown, regional/ local, ethnic, socially-based dialects, like Boston English or Estuary English, are essential to the cultural identity of a given group, and are everywhere in popular culture. To young EFL learners, hits songs and “memes” are often the most engaging areas and can create a bond between people from widely ranging cultures. On the other hand, NS know the dialects to be “non-standard”, and when they would be inappropriate or most effective. These cultural aspects of language in use are highly relevant when learners are planning to spend time in that particular country or area.

However, with the exception of internationally recognizable “memes”, dialects are unhelpful for English as an international language (EIL). As a Japanese executive complained: “Dear English speakers: please drop the dialects.” (McArthur).

There seem to be two main perspectives on English as a lingua franca (ELF). One prioritizes standards. David Graddol’s summarizes: “The use of English as a global lingua franca requires intelligibility and the setting and maintaining of standards.” (Graddol 1996) By contrast, widespread, non-standard varieties such as European English (handy, beamer) prioritize ownership and agency. Phonology professor Jennifer Jenkins asks why one variety of English should be more legitimate than another. Instead, she suggests a “Lingua Franca Core” containing phonological elements that she has found speakers of any L1 need when they speak English with a NNS with another L1. The core includes some of the aspects noted by Seidelhofer, and Robin Walker (2010) has provided a set of pronunciation targets to prioritize for speakers of different L1s, based on the core.

As some of my classes are multilingual, and all of my learners deal with a wide range of other non-native speakers, this approach holds much appeal. The Lingua Franca core benchmarks can promote mutual intelligibility. As learners aspire to different standards at different times and for different purposes, it would be wrong, however, to make the Lingua Franca Core the “new standard of English”. There are core areas, weak forms and connected speech, which learners very much do need to be able to understand. In this media age they should to be able to interpret far more sounds than they can speak.

Alan Firth (2009) (thank you, Evan!) highlights the “multicompetencies” that emerge in interaction between speakers of different L1 speakers aiming to achieve an outcome, which he calls “the lingua franca factor”. This is what allows interactors to produce discourse, including strategies like “letting it pass”, and “making it normal” that level the playing field between the people communicating with each other. In business exchanges there is often a concrete need to have an exchange reach an outcome, which provides enough motivation to work towards understanding each other.

I feel the most important aspect of the discussion is the concept of ownership, which gives priority to negotiating meaning over defending form. Developing effective discourse strategies to achieve an outcome is an essential communication skill in any language. This priority is also born out by Ehrenreich’s (2010) study of a German multinational company, where Business English is used as a Lingua Franca (BELF) (again, thank you Evan!). Ehrenreich focuses on the need to improve effective communication (rather than English as such) and suggests that learning might better take place in “communities of practice” and through “learning by doing” rather than traditional English instruction. Her research showed that English proficiency was required in order to be hired, but that conformity with Standard English was in effect an irrelevant concept. When asked which varieties of English they found easiest, the people interviewed reported that it depended on how much practice they had in dealing with any particular one. Intelligibility was seen as a matter of co-construction, rather than variety. Interviewees also reported that native speakers tended to use their linguistic competence as an instrument of power, which NNSs found extremely irritating.

So, to sum up, where does this leave teaching a standard variety of English? While we need to be able to focus our learners on productive skills that are up to the standards expected in the environments they plan to inhabit, and to prepare them to handle a wide variety of relevant contexts, practice shows that they will most probably go on to use English as an instrument to get things done. Our job, then, is to know when to stop teaching the formal aspects of the language, and to give learners space and tools to develop the skills to work out meaning. Or, as Scott Thornbury has written in a related discussion on his blog (2011), “If we devoted more time and energy to teaching the learner, and less to teaching the language, we might be better off.”

  • Crystal, D. (2003). English as a Global Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Ehrenreich, S. (2010). English as a Business Lingua Franca in a German Multinational Corporation: Meeting the Challenge. Journal of Business Communication, 47, 4: 408-431.
  • Firth, A (2009) The Lingua Franca Factor. Intercultural Pragmatics 6-2, 147-170.
  • Graddol, D. (1996) The Future of English? The British Council.
  • Graddol, D (2006) English Next: Why Global English May Mean the End of English as a Foreign Language. London: British Council.
  • Jenkins, J. (2007): English as a Lingua Franca. Attitude and Identity.
  • McArthur, T. (2001) World Englishes: Trends, Tensions, Varieties, and Standards. Lang Teach. 34, 1-20
  • McKay, S.L. (2002) Teaching English as an International Language
  • Seidelhofer, B. (see VOICE)
  • Swan, M./ Smith, B. (2001) Learner English, CUP
  • Thornbury, S. (2011) A-Z: E is for ELF (http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2011/04/03/e-is-for-elf/ (Accessed 15 July 2011)
  • VOICE website: www.univie.ac.at/voice
  • Walker, R. (2010) Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, OUP
  • (This topic was debated in connection with BESIG 2010, in a discussion hosted by Vicki Hollett)

PS: Got lucky! One of the exam essays was a quote from someone saying, back in 2001, that varieties of English should be play a greater role in ELT, much as gender and race had. I might have cut to the chase too quickly, not talking about gender or race, or about ELT as opposed to EFL. But there is so little time in these exams, so I just went for it.

Question: When does remixing become second-hand living?

Germany has been rocked by scandal this past week, as Helene Hegemann, the 17-year old writer of an astonishing novel called Axolotl Roadkill, has been shown up by Munich blogger Deef Pirmasens (Gefühlskonserve) to have lifted whole passages of her book from the writings of one Airen, a blogger in Berlin. Her publisher had asked her whether she’d quoted anything, and she’d said “no”. So she made a stupid mistake, and she’s being called a liar and a thief and all sorts of other nice things. The book is hot, sold out, second printing in the works. I only read the first 20 pages at my sister-in-law’s. It’s fast and savvy, a head trip full of adult experiences you’d sleep better knowing a 16 or 17 year old hasn’t had yet. So you really can’t help but be relieved that she actually did copy some of the episodes from an urbane blogger. Anyhow, she’s saying that her whole book is a remix anyway, and a totally legitimate new literary art form at that. Of course she’s right about remixing being a movement and an art form, and she can talk the talk, so she’ll be in the literary supplements for a while to come. Once the copyright issue  is settled in the second edition, a minor issue, and she shares the limelight with Airen, she’ll survive just fine as a writer.

But let’s just go back one step. So her book is pieced together almost completely from second-hand experiences. In music, remixing can create something sophisticated that reflects the artist’s skill and vision. But words are by their very nature unoriginal. Putting them together in a way that makes them your own is a helluva job. Remixing writing to make a novel? Why write one at all if you’re producing a product that just reproduces what other people have written? What’s the point?

This also makes me think of my own work as a teacher. In essay writing I preach: Put yourself into your writing. Make it real. Live, and live to talk about it. That’s especially hard to do in “English as a foreign language”, which is basically a large collection of the handiest, most frequently used phrases, so it’s full of linguistic clichés. It can drive a language lover to drink. So it’s hard enough to help language learners find their own voice. Do they plagiarize? All the time. And I give them hell for it.

Here’s what I think: Plagiarizing is not the same thing as remixing. Plagiarizing isn’t “borrowing” from others.  All it is, is stealing from yourself.

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What could be prettier

J.D.Salinger died yesterday.

“I’m not afraid to compete. It’s just the opposite. Don’t you see that? I’m afraid I will compete that’s what scares me. That’s why I quit the Theater Department. Just because I’m so horribly conditioned to accept everybody else’s values, and just because I like applause and people to rave about me, doesn’t make it right. I’m ashamed of it. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody. I’m sick of myself and everybody else that wants to make some kind of a splash.”

– Franny, in Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger (1957)

Towards the end, as Franny and Zooey talk things through, Zooey tells her the only thing that counts is detachment. He says, the only thing you can do for God is to act. And he says: What could be prettier?

Not beautiful, pretty. Human-sized, Humanistic. Will do my best to be pretty today. And make this weekend, meeting family, a pretty one, too.

Le Carré: A Most Wanted Man

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
John Ray (1670) cited as a proverb “Hell is paved with good intentions.” Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153): “Hell is full of good intentions or desires.”

On Christmas Day the 23-year-old “Underwear Bomber” tried to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253. Priviledged, rich, well-connected, educated, and so completely wrong-headed. So we will be seeing more of the controversial and frankly embarassing “Naked Scanners” installed at airports, and more senseless waiting and giving up of shampoo and bottled water, and more xenophobia, while the terrorists continue to spread fear and hate. Oh, doesn’t it just make you fume?!

Just before Christmas Stefan gave me John Le Carré‘s “A Most Wanted Man” to read, a most excellent thriller on the subject of counterterrorism. Set in Germany, specifically in Hamburg, where 9/11 was masterminded, the novel develops the story of how Issia, an illegal immigrant and asylum seeker with a secret and possibly sinister mission, becomes a pawn in a game of agencies seeking the extraordinary rendition of suspected terrorists. The players include Tommy Brue, a private banker who finds himself saddled with dirty money; Annabelle, an idealistic human rights lawyer with a naive view of the world; and the German and international intelligence community, with each agency following their own (limited) internal agenda, some with a far greated depth and scope of “intelligence” than others, effectively blocking each other rather than collaborating. The subplot is an emerging lovestory. In the end, individual human morality becomes very difficult to balance out against the political imperatives, and some “good” intentions go very “bad”, indeed.

A great read!

S is for Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel, 1904-1991) is pronounced “Zeus” in English, like the Greek god. And he is a, if not the, godhead in the pantheon of English literacy. In a hilarious reading of Green Eggs and Ham, the Rev. Jesse Jackson called him a “latter-day saint”. He was a third-generation German-American who grew up speaking both languages, with German being spoken at home. Words fascinated him from an early age. His zany drawings and poems are unmatched.

In his first book, The Cat in the Hat, Dick and Sally are latchkey children alone at home with their fish. The Cat in the Hat comes, causing chaos with his two sidekicks, Thing One and Thing Two. In the end, the kids get the Cat in the Hat and (the) Things under control, and the Cat in The Hat tidies everything up… just in time, before Dick and Sally’s parents come home!

“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do. And that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.” – Dr. Seuss

“…adults are just obsolete children and the hell with them.” – Dr. Seuss (quoted in his obituary in Time Magazine)

Dr. Seuss (Image: Wikipedia)
Dr. Seuss

To read them is to learn them by heart. Ten quotes:

Hop on pop: “We like to hop. We like to hop on top of pop. / Stop! You must not hop on pop.”

One fish two fish red fish blue fish

Fox in Socks: “New socks. Two socks. Whose socks? Sue’s socks.”

The Cat in the Hat: “I will pick up the hook. / You will see something new. / Two things. And I call them Thing One and Thing Two.”

Horton Hears a Who: “A person’s a person no matter how small.”

Horton Hatches the Egg: “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant./ An elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent.”

Green Eggs and Ham: “I will not eat them, Sam I Am!”
Video: The Reverend Jesse Jackson reads Green Eggs and Ham

Put me in the Zoo: “They should not put you in the zoo. / The circus is the place for you!”

Oh, the places you will go! “You have brains in your head. / You have feet in your shoes. / You can steer yourself / any direction you choose.”

How the Grinch Stole Christmas: “The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season! / Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.”

P is for Pooh Bear

wikipediaWinnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne (Illustrations by E.H. Shepard) is the first book I remember having read to me. Every character rings true, every scene feels right. As a child I dragged my stuffed animal behind me just like Christopher Robin did his, and perfectly understood the “thump, thump, thump” of Winnie ther Pooh’s head on the stairs.

One of my most prized possessions is a copy of “Winnie ille Pu” given to me by my dad when he was teaching me Latin. I also love the excellent translation into German by the brilliant Harry Rowohlt. And if you haven’t read The Tao of Pooh, well, what are you waiting for? — On the other hand, I can’t relate to the boneless, squishy Pooh of the Disney films. Oh well. To each his own.

My favorite Pooh quotes:

“It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like ‘What about lunch?'”

“Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

“Those who are clever, who have a Brain, never understand anything.”

“Before beginning a Hunt, it is wise to ask someone what you are looking for before you begin looking for it.”

Isn’t it funny how a bear likes honey?
Buzz buzz buzz
I wonder why he does.

“Tigger is all right really,” said Piglet lazily.
“Of course he is,” said Christopher Robin.
“Everybody is really,” said Pooh. “That’s what I think,” said Pooh.
“But I don’t suppose I’m right,” he said.
“Of course you are,” said Christopher Robin.

I’ll be away for a week, but back for Christmas. I’m sorry if your first-time comments don’t appear right away, or if your comments don’t get a prompt response. I’ll answer when I get back. The advent calendar will continue to appear thanks to the magic of WordPress.