Widdowson plenary: New starts and different kinds of failure

In his opening plenary to the conference Valorizing practice: grounded histories of language learning and teaching (Bremen 13-15 November 2019 see programme and abstracts), Widdowson starts with the observation that the problem is not that old men forget, but that they remember at tedious length, and so he intends to be concise on his talk on “New starts and different kinds of failure.” As a veteran of both British Council and Council of Europe language education campaigns, Widdowson aims to analyse what he consider two misconceived ventures.

He offers this TS Eliot quote which he sees as applicable to pedagogy as well as language and literature:

Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure.

Among language teaching methods catalogued by Richards and Rodgers, on one hand, and Tony Howatt on the other, Widdowson focuses on two prominent new starts in language education which attracted institional recognition and promotion, and were established as orthodoxies difficult to resist. He cites
1. the communicative approach (CLT)
2. the authenticity doctrine

The Communicative approach: new start #1

He reminds us of Hymes’ (1972) 4-fold concept of communicative competence, which involves making a judgment about a sample of language and deciding how far it is
1. possible (conforms to encoding rules),
2. feasible
3. appropriate
4. performed.

CLT was presented as a radical break from structuralist language teaching. The structural approach focused on the possible (the first of Hymes’ strictures), while in CL the focus shifts to the appropriate, that is, focusing on meaning rather than form: “Enough of form, enough of the possible. Up with the appropriate, and focus on meaning.” For Widdowson, however, this is not really new at all. Structuralism was already focused on meaning, as the basic activity of “situational demonstration” shows: “This is a book, this book versus that book.” This is not normal use of language, since the emphasis is on formal, or encoded semantic meaning, not contextual meaning. But for CLT proponents: if you didn’t focus on pragmatic meaning you were not focusing on meaning.

For Widdowson, what is possible in the code is related to what is appropriate in context, but in CLT the dependency is reversed. In the structural approach, texts were created in order to be appropriate to the code (semantic meaning) whereas in CLT, the dependency was reversed, and the code had to be appropriate to the context (pragmatic meaning). In CLT we start with context and find code to fit the context, thus focusing on a particular kind of meaning, contextual meaning. This means that this new start corresponds to a shift to the reverse dependency (not context invented to service code, but rather code used as appropriate to context)

If we consider the application of CLT by the Council of Europe via the Threshold level programme (van Ek 1975), we find very detailed specifications of which form is to be used as appropriate to which communicative function. For these context-code mappings, first communicative function is determined, then linguistic form (e.g., forms for inviting, advising others). This approach remains focus on form, but in a different relation to context. What are these specifications based on? Widdowson asks. It is undoubtedly a pragmatic approach to language use, but it is not based on actual observations of speakers, rather but idealised expressions based on individual intuition, and so reminiscent of Chomsky’s ideal speaker-hearers

The Authenticity doctrine: new start #2

The authenticity doctrine represents a move from the ideal to the real. Widdowson cites the role of Sinclair in the emergence of corpus linguistics leading to radical change in ways of describing language

  • The categories and methods we use to describe English are not appropriate to the new material. We shall need to overhaul our descriptive systems (Sinclair 1985)
  • We are teaching English in ignorance of a vast amount of basic fact. This is not our fault, but it should not inhibit the absorption of new material (Sinclair 1985)

Here we have a shift in Hymes’ framework: Sinclair assumes that what is appropriate to teach IS what is actually performed. His first precept says “present real examples only” Widdowson notes that an extract from the corpus carries the imprimatur of authenticity. He cites another corpus linguist, Ute Römer, who asks rhetorically: Should we teach our pupils authentic English? What can we do to improve EFL teaching materials? The expected answer, according to Widdowson, is “make them real.”

To summarise the story so far, the first new pedagogical start (communicative approach) shifts the focus from the possible to the appropriate; the second focuses on the actually performed. But in one crucial respect there has been no shift at all. What is understood by “real” is “contextually appropriate in native-speaking communities.” Teachers try to get learners to conform to these norms and fail, even in the most favourable and privileged circumstances, let alone in those parts of the world where these new starts are also promoted, thereby undermining teachers without providing something they can actually use.

Where do the new starts come from and why do they occur? Widdowson cites a paper by Tony Howatt (1982) Language teaching must start afresh!, echoing Viëtor (1882) Der Sprachunterricht muss unkehren! But Widdowson contests Howatt’s translation: umkehren means to turn back, retrace one’s steps, and perhaps find out where you went wrong. In the German expression, there is continuity, turning back to “the road not taken” to follow a new direction, or as the French have it “reculer pour mieux sauter.” In contrast, the new starts already discussed are not historically grounded but rather abrupt discontinuities. There is no examination of where methods in the past might have gone astray – to find out whether and why they failed – and there is no attempt even to evaluate any failure (was it universal, cataclysmic failure?)

These starts came from shifts in fashion in linguistic description and the assumption that these shifts should influence pedagogy. Sinclair was “a genius of linguistic description” but also assumed that pedagogical practice overhaul also required. His justification was the following:

the precepts centre on data and arise from observations about the nature of language. They are not concerned with psychological or pedagogical approaches to language teaching (Sinclair 1997)

Widdowson interprets the Authenticity doctrine as a shift towards not just the possible but also the appropriate and the performed in conformity with NS norms. He argues, however, that reality (authenticity) is a property of NS usage. The assumption that is should be directly transferrable to the FL classroom was unexamined. As with CLT, the precepts are presented as universally applicable and context-free and carry with them the persuasive imprimatur of authority (of linguistics and native speakers, who are viewed as custodians of right and proper language). For both the British Council and the Council of Europe, this pedagogical approach is seen as globally transferrable – any “local stubborness and backwardness” should be “resisted and removed.”

However, Widdowson argues, it is local contexts which set conditions on the validity of an approach. This is where we fail when we complain “If these “wretched teachers didn’t do what they were supposed to do, it was because they were clinging to old-fashioned methods.” But teaching needs to engage with local contexts. The crucial context is not the context of the NS language user, it’s the context of the language learner in the classroom. This is the reality that pedagogy needs to engage with: What of the context of the classroom? What kind of language is appropriate here? The structuralists were right: it has to be language that activates the learning process, whether it conforms to language appropriateness or not.

This brings us to feasibility, which has been neglected. This is the key feature of pedagogy: the language presented to learners has to be such that they can access and process it. A corpus can provide samples, but these are only useful to learners if they can process and authenticate them for themselves. Learners need language that is appropriate because it is feasible. The neglect of feasibility comes about because the new starts focus on language teaching (objectives) rather than learners and learning process (subordinated to that goal). Learning is taken to be the reflex of teaching – learning is the progressive achievement of prescribed teaching objectives. Other learning is seen as an impediment to progress. But learner initative can be seen as an attempt to make input more feasible.

A monolingual approach means other languages should be regarded with suspicion, but FL learning is always bilingual or multilingual: learners’ own L1 is always present and is always naturally involved in the process of L2 learning. Where the learners are busy multilingually learning, the teacher is busy monolingually teaching. Learners relate learning to what they know, assimilating the new into the familiar. Learning errors are evidence of deforeignising FL learning. If we give primacy to the learning process over teaching, then teaching is relegated to an ancillary activity, subordinate to learning (and not other way round). Here we have radical implications.

FL learning involves being taught language, stable and defined language, a distinct foreign entity. This is not teaching how language is used to communicate, but what form communication is supposed to take in the NS community. But if learning is always a development from previous experience, an association of the second to the first language, then it is simply the extension of what learners already know about language by applying it to new linguistic data. Learners are in effect learning different realisations of language, rather than learning A different language. To use a modern term, learning is languaging. This suggests the possibility of yet another new start.

New start 3?

Focus attention not on teaching learners to conform to possible, appropriate, performed in NS community, but rather give primacy to what is feasible in language learning process
Not acquisition of L2 competence assumed to be objective of teaching
Instead, develop more general lingual capability

  • learning process vs teaching objective
  • learn language, not teach a language
  • extend learner experience, not discontinuity
  • developing capability not competence conformity

Teaching is a matter not of denying but exploiting the learners’ experience and the process should continue after end of teaching – create momentum for further learning after teaching and beyond test. Certain objectives can’t be globally prescribed because how learners engage with a language depends on how they conceive of its foreignness. It is presupposed that all non L1 languages can be categorised as “foreign” depends on other factors like historical role (what symbolic or economic capital is associated with language). Russian is not foreign to Ukranian or Polish learners as it is to English speaker. Also how and why they are learned are likely to be different according to which languages are involved.

The popular textbook How languages are learned (Lightbown & Spada) makes the implicit claim that all languages are learned in the same way, and so taught in the same way. It is institutionally convenient and commercially profitable to make this assumption. But local contextualisation is more important according to Widdowson in spite of the vested interests of the ELT industry. Institutional resistance is to be expected, so this approach may be doomed to another kind of failure

New start #3

  • local vs global perspective
  • different perceptions of foreigness

Referring to the conference theme of valorizing practice in the form of grounded histories, Widdowson checks the definition of valorise (“to ascribe value or validity to an activity”) and asks whether the conference title refers to the activity of teaching or of learning? Since learning is mentioned first, perhaps it takes precedence? Little is known about the history of language learning, though this is the primary practice to be valorized. In the past, competence was measured by to what extent learners were good “teachees.” Learning has been undervalued and we should give priority to learning, and the development of lingual capability (not L2 competence). Widdowson judges this suggestion unlikely to be adopted but perhaps useful as a means of promoting critical thinking.

Learner motivation, teacher competence, and indigenous assessment criteria in ESP

Valorizing practice: Grounded histories of language learning and teaching

AILA Research network on the History of Language Learning and Teaching (HoLLT)

University of Bremen, Germany, 13-15 November 2019

English language education is traditionally seen in many contemporary contexts from three main perspectives: as a gateway to cultural enrichment (English studies), for access to international science or commerce (English for specific purposes), or as a basic skill (general English certification). Members of the English language teaching community are generally involved in the second and third domains: either English for Specific Purposes (ESP) or what Abbott (1980) “half-jokingly” called TENOR (Teaching English for No Obvious Reason, see also Medgyes 1986). The present paper examines the debate between general and specific purpose English language teaching from the early days of the British ESP “juggernaut,” already contested by practitioners 40 years ago (Abbott, 1978, 1980; Kennedy, 1980). Issues regarding learner needs and motivation, as well as language teacher competence, highlight contradictions between theoretical principles and practical concerns regarding course design and implementation (Whyte 2016, 2019). This investigation of the ‘taught layer’ is then compared with recent advances on the ‘tested layer’ (Cuban 2012) in ESP contexts. Indeed, work on indigenous criteria for ESP testing (Jacoby & McNamara 1999; Elder, McNamara, Kim, Pill, & Sato 2017) suggests that language evaluation often fails to respect discipline-specific priorities. The paper concludes on the historical limitations of ESP teaching and testing and future perspectives.


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Le feedback dans des approches pédagogiques actives : l’exemple des langues étrangères

Faire un retour sur du travail à l’oral en classe de langue est souvent chose difficile. Faut-il le faire à l’oral ou par écrit, par individu ou par classe, tout de suite ou plus tard ? Quelle place donner à la correction grammaticale par rapport à l’aisance et au contenu, comment identifier des faiblesses sans décourager, et comment aider les étudiants à intégrer nos commentaires ? Ces questions deviennent d’autant plus délicates dans des méthodologies dites ‘actives’ – les approches communicatives et actionnelles proposées dans collèges-lycées, ou encore les pédagogies centrées sur l’apprenant prônées en ce moment dans le supérieur. Ce type de pédagogie met l’accent plus sur la prise de risque, la collaboration, et la communication que sur la correction de la langue. Cependant la généralisation des outils numériques ouvre de nouvelles possibilités de rétroaction. Nous partons d’une position théorique largement acceptée dans les recherches sur l’acquisition-apprentissage des langues secondes pour adopter un enseignement dit par la tâche qui donne une place particulière à la rétroaction corrective (et qui par ailleurs peut intéresser les enseignants d’autres disciplines). Des exemples de feedback seront proposés dans des domaines qui nous concernent dans l’enseignement des cultures et des langues étrangères : la formation des étudiants en langue, la préparation de futurs enseignants de langue, et notre propre formation en tant qu’enseignants universitaires. Ce dernier point est développé en lien avec le projet européen SHOUT4HE, sur les pratiques éducatives libres dans le supérieur.

Au séminaire CAP à l’UCA le 17 septembre 2019.

AILA 2020: L2 studies and didactique des langues symposium

While applied linguistics is a common English umbrella term including research on the teaching and learning of second languages, or second language studies, the term linguistique appliquée is no longer commonly used by scholars working in French, who prefer the term didactique des langues to highlight a focus on teaching rather than learning. Such divergences in research traditions in different AILA member countries have resulted in fragmentation of the field and often miscommunication. The Crosslinguistic perspectives on L2 studies network seeks to improve collaboration across French-speaking and English-speaking scholarly communities by offering a forum for participants to compare terms and concepts in second language acquisition, second and foreign language teaching, educational linguistics, and didactique des langues (DDL) across the two languages.

This symposium invites contributions on:
– crosslinguistic research on epistemological, methodological, or historical traditions in French and English language education and intercultural studies;
– comparative studies of French and English research in any subfield of applied linguistics related to the teaching and learning of the two languages and cultures (e.g., SLA, CALL, study abroad, teacher education, intercultural competence);
– corpus linguistics research on terminology employed in French and English pedagogical reports, textbooks, or research publications in L2 studies and DDL.

Didactique des langues et second language studies : quelles intersections pour quelle linguistique appliquée ?

PRELA Symposium

Crosslinguistic perspectives on second/foreign language education: challenges and opportunities

Lyon 24 juin 2019 (voir programme)

Organisation : Shona Whyte (Nice), Henry Tyne (Perpignan)

Interventions (6) : Alex Boulton (U Lorraine), Martin Howard (Cork), Françoise Olmo Cazevieille (Valencia), Denyze Toffoli (Strasbourg), Henry Tyne, Shona Whyte

En introduction S. Whyte évoque la place de l’AFLA et du réseau de recherche Crosslinguistic Perspectives (AILA ReN) dans le paysage de recherches francophones avec un retour sur l’histoire de la linguistique appliquée (LA) à partir des années 1950. Dès 1965 les chercheurs en lexicologie, traitement automatique des langues, même en linguistique de l’énonciation ont quitté la LA : c’est l’exception française. La didactique des langues (DDL) s’est construite en France à partir des années 1970 par opposition d’une part à une linguistique appliquée déjà abandonnée, d’autre part aux travaux en méthodologie et en formation des enseignants du FLE, et enfin également à l’exclusion des recherches en acquisition d’une langue seconde (domaine psycholinguistique qui prend forme en France au début des années 1980). Quelles intersections aujourd’hui entre L2 studies et DDL pour quelles finalités ?

Dans une première partie du symposium sur la linguistique de corpus, H. Tyne évoque la diversité de pratiques dans la constitution de corpus écrits et oraux (Boulton & Tyne 2014) et cite Williams (2005) pour admettre les corpus littéraires et non-constitués. Quant à l’utilisation des corpus dans l’enseignement des langues, dans les recherches anglosaxonnes le mot corpus renvoit au développement de la lexicographie, alors qu’en France il est associé surtout aux travaux de Blanche-Benveniste (Blanche-Benveniste et Jeanjean 1987). A. Boulton interroge les pratiques de synthèse de la recherche devenue très courante dans notre domaine. Il prend pour exemple ses propres travaux en apprentissage sur corpus (ASC en français, DDL pour data-driven learning en anglais) et distingue deux types de procédé : la méta-analyse et la synthèse narrative (Boulton & Cobb 2017). Son exposé souligne d’importantes divergences de méthodes, analyses et résultats dans les synthèses et met en garde contre la tentation pour les auteurs de trier sur le volet (cherrypick results). Dans son intervention sur la terminologie en traduction, F. Olmo Cazevieille explique le travail terminographique qui se base sur des corpus de textes scientifiques et techniques et qui permet de faire face à des difficultés telles que absences de terme ou néologismes (Cabré 2016). Ce travail comprend la constitution de fiches terminologiques et la création de glossaires electroniques et peut être entrepris en projet collaboratifs avec des étudiants.

Dans une deuxième partie sur l’enseignement-apprentissage d’une L2, D.Toffoli interroge la relation entre l’apprentissage informel et d’autres moments d’apprentissage. Le domaine de l’apprentissage informel comprend plusieurs acronymes : OILE (online informal learning of English); IDLE (informal digital learning of English); AIAL (apprentissage informel de l’anglais en ligne) et AILL (apprentissage informel des langues en ligne). Les liens et les différences entre enseignement et apprentissage posent également problème et la théorie des systèmes complexes permet de prendre en compte certaines difficultés liées à la complexité de la langue, de l’apprentissage ou de l’apprenant. Notre statut de bilingues et de biculturels nous donne accès à la polysémie avec ses possibilités multiples.

Pour sa part M. Howard évoque un contexte d’apprentissage L2 bien particulier et parfois négligé par enseignants et chercheurs : study abroad (SA), qualifié par Coleman de milieu ‘pseudo-naturel’ (Regan, Howard & Lemée 2009). Il s’agit d’un groupe très divers (court ou long séjour, école / collège-lycée / université) désormais reconnu comme sous-domaine de la LA. L’occasion d’approfondir nos connaissances du domaine est proposé par le projet européen SAREP (study abroad research in European perspective, 150 membres travaillent sur des langues différentes) axé sur des notions clés telles que l’input, development, social integration, individual differences, interculturality – autant de termes qui sont difficilement traduisibles. La dernière communication par S. Whyte reprend les termes acquisition and learning puis communicative competence pour montrer les différentes interprétations des chercheurs travaillant en anglais et en français (Cuq 2006, Galisson & Coste 1976). Elle rappelle le distinguo fait par Long (2017) entre instructed second language acquisition (ISLA) et language teaching research, ce dernier se rapprochant de la didactique des langues. Elle propose également l’exemple d’une étude récente par Pfenninger et Singleton (2018) sur l’apprentissage de l’anglais en milieu scolaire (en Suisse) comme type de recherche qui permet de faire collaborer didacticiens et acquisitionnistes travaillant en français dans une linguistique appliquée renouvelée.

A la suite des interventions les participants soulèvent des questions de recherches en apprentissage précoce d’une L2, et sur la motivation des apprenants. Surviennent également des questions sur le rôle de l’enseignant par rapport à l’autonomie de l’apprenant, la question de cadres et de repères théoriques, l’exploitation des corpus pour l’enseignement-apprentissage des langues (selon de Bot 2015, la première définition de la linguistique appliquée concerne ‘la solution de problèmes du monde réel avec les outils de la linguistique’). Quelle serait l’utilité d’une étude de corpus de recherches en L2 studies et didactiquqe des langues pour dessiner les contours du domaine et souligner des points de divergence et de convergence dans les deux langues ?


Blanche-Benveniste, C., & Jeanjean, C. (1987). Le français parlé: transcription et édition. Éditions Interco.

Boulton, A., & Cobb, T. (2017). Corpus use in language learning: A meta‐analysis. Language Learning, 67(2), 348-393.

Boulton, A., & Tyne, H. (2014). Des documents authentiques aux corpus. Didier.

Cabré, T. (2016). 2 La terminologie. Manuel des langues de spécialité, 12, 68.

Cuq, J. P. (2006). Dictionnaire de didactique du français langue étrangère et seconde.

De Bot, K. (2015). A history of applied linguistics: From 1980 to the present. Routledge.

Galisson, R., & Coste, D. (1976). Dictionnaire de didactique des langues: la conception de l’ensemble de l’ouvrage. Paris: Hachette.

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Talking data: managing audio and video recordings for language analysis

Our doctoral students are doing fieldwork and here are some recommendations for managing data once recordings (audio, video) are complete.

Language data typically involve a series of recordings — interviews, classroom interaction, presentations — and it’s important to have an overview of the full data set both to organise the analysis and for subsequent presentation (discussion with advisers, preparing articles, writing chapters of the thesis).

Saving data

  1. Backup: download your recordings to your computer as soon as possible after recording. Decide how to label your files in a way that makes sense to you, and make a Word file to record your decisions to help remember your system. Back up your files immediately online and/or to an external drive to make sure nothing is lost.
  2. Field notes: write up notes on the recording sessions as soon as possible. Include details of participants, dates and times, impressions, incidents, questions that occurred to you at the time or as you write your notes. Write profiles for key participants (age, gender, role, background).
  3. Anonymising data: choose pseudonyms or codes to identify participants and keep a file where personal data is recorded. Data protection rules generally call for this information to be kept separately from the rest of your data (e.g., on paper).

Preparing data for analysis

  1. Make spreadsheets to provide an overview of recordings. Include details such as date, participants, type of interaction, length of interaction in columns, using a new row for each recording. You can include a column where you link to the file in question or at least record the filename. If you use Dropbox or Google Drive you will have a revision history where you can recover older versions of files in case of errors, but it’s good practice to back up elsewhere also.
  2. Also include preliminary categories for analysis: since you are going to watch/listen to your recordings as you save and label your files, you can include details which strike you as similar or different across interactions, such as particular speech acts, interesting quotes, or repeated use of particular words and expressions.
  3. You can also have a column for brief notes with questions or comments about the recording which may also help keep track of intuitions and ideas which occur to you during this phase. This part of the work can be interesting and gratifying because it’s your first approach to your data, and will hopefully spark ideas which you should write down before you forget. It’s also a fastidious and repetitive process, and allowing yourself to reflect on what’s interesting and relevant to your project should help maintain motivation.