Crosslinguistic perspectives on L2 studies

Screen Shot 2018-02-15 at 16.13.55We have just received news that our application to set up a new AILA Research Network on Crosslinguistic perspectives on second language studies: terms and concepts in French and English has been approved. Twenty-one colleagues from 15 institutions in 5 countries will be working together on this topic over the next three years in a series of events including a symposium at the AILA conference in Groningen in 2020. Henry Tyne of Perpignan University and myself are co-convenors.

Présentation en français


A main preoccupation of applied linguistics has historically been second and foreign language teaching. Indeed, the original name of the AILA organisation at its creation in 1964 was the Association internationale de linguistique appliquée à l’enseignement des langues vivantes.[1] Today, although the umbrella term applied linguistics has been extended to other disciplines and concerns, research on the teaching and learning of second or foreign languages remains a key area of our field (Long, 2017; Widdowson, 2017). In French-speaking countries like France, however, the term linguistique appliquée is no longer used by most scholars (Carton et al., 2015; Kramsch, 2009). This terminological slippage is problematic for an international organisation named after the French acronym, which seeks to appeal to a contemporary interdisciplinary interpretation of the field.

The diversification of research objectives, methods, and applications over the past fifty years has, perhaps inevitably, led to divergences in research traditions and in the disciplinarisation and institutionalisation of particular domains of applied linguistics in different AILA member countries, particularly as far as language learning and teaching is concerned (Smith & Iamartino, 2017; compare also Cuq, 2003 and Loewen & Reinders, 2011). The result is fragmentation and often miscommunication: research communities often working in closely related fields may not be aware of relevant research and findings of interest to all; those who do communicate may not understand one another’s contributions.  As a result, time and energy have necessarily been devoted to redefining terms, or motivating and explaining research frameworks for a wider audience, sometimes at the expense of advancing research agendas: “as if we had shown more concern for staking out the territory than building the house,[2]” in the words of one French commentator (Berthet, 2011).

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 review, clarify, and update terms and concepts in second language acquisition, second and foreign language teaching, educational linguistics, and language education across the two languages.

Scope of the research network

The network seeks to address questions of conceptual and terminological correspondence and distinction in the area of L2 teaching and learning research, particularly with respect to French-speaking and English-speaking scholarly communities.

The objectives are to

  • identify domains of broad agreement (concepts and theories for which satisfactory translation equivalents exist; subfields where these coincide);
  • pinpoint particularly difficult areas (crosslinguistic gaps, terminological mismatch) and propose solutions to bridge gaps there; and
  • consider the utility and feasibility of a database of French and English terms in second language studies/didactique des langues.

This enterprise, while defined in relation to a specific bilingual project (a dictionary, encyclopedia or glossary), will necessarily involve broader discussion of epistemological, theoretical, and methodological issues related to second language studies/didactique des langues, including but not limited to corpus linguistics, translation studies, intercultural approaches, language for specific purposes, and CALL research, as well as praxeological concerns. This network will thus offer opportunities to continue long-running debate in AILA on definitions and directions for the field of applied linguistics.

We are aware that our project is both ambitious and fairly specific, and would no doubt benefit from a wider perspective including other languages and research cultures. In German-speaking contexts, for example, there is also extensive overlap among the terms Angewandte Linguistik, Fremdsprachenforschung, Sprachlehr-und lernforschung, and Fremdsprachendidaktik. We propose, however, to begin with the French/English perspectives which are of immediate concern to initial members of the network. Naturally if progress is significant and a second term for the network seems worthwhile, it would be useful to extend the project to additional research cultures and languages (e.g., major European languages, East Asian languages).

Participants and their affiliations


Aix en Provence Marco Cappellini* Aix Marseille University
Montpellier Amanda Edmonds Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier 3
Nancy Alex Boulton Université de Lorraine
Nice Jean-Pierre Cuq

Simona Ruggia

Shona Whyte

Université Côte d’Azur

Paris Alice Burrows*

Jean-Paul Narcy-Combes

Paris 3 Sorbonne
  Natalie Kübler Paris 7 Didérot
Perpignan Henry Tyne Université de Perpignan Via Domitia
Réunion Christian Ollivier Université de la Réunion
Rouen Grégory Miras Université de Rouen Normandie


Cork Martin Howard University College Cork
Limerick Fiona Farr

Liam Murray

University of Limerick


Alberta Martine Pellerin University of Alberta, AB, Canada
Toronto Jeffrey Steele University of Toronto, ON, Canada
Berkeley Claire Kramsch University of California at Berkeley, CA, US
Pennsylvania Kevin McManus* Pennsylvania State University, PA, US


Neuchâtel Alain Kamber

Maud Dubois

Université de Neuchâtel

The 21 participants in our network include new* and experienced researchers in a range of areas of second language studies: French as a foreign language (Cuq, Dubois, Kamber, Ollivier, Ruggia), corpus linguistics (Boulton, Burrows, Kübler), CALL (Cappellini, Murray, Whyte), L2 acquisition (Edmonds, McManus, Steele), as well as teacher education (Pellerin, Farr), L2 sociolinguistics and study abroad (Howard, Tyne), intercultural competence (Kramsch) and epistemology (Miras, Narcy-Combes). The French AILA affiliate AFLA is fully represented (Boulton, Kübler, Miras, Narcy-Combes, Whyte).

Plan for ReN activities

Specific details of ReN events remain to be determined and will depend on the outcome of local applications for funding and related scientific meetings. Network members have provisionally agreed to the following plan:

2018 Journée d’études/colloquium/digital symposium Limerick/Nice/Perpignan
2019 Colloque AFLA: Crosslinguistic perspectives on L2 studies (France)
Journée d’études/colloquium/digital symposium Aix/Montpellier
2020 AILA symposium Groningen


Berthet, M. (2011). La linguistique appliquée à l’enseignement des langues secondes aux Etats-Unis, en France et en Grande-Bretagne. Histoire Épistémologie Langage, 33(1), 83-97.

Carton, F., Narcy-Combes, J-P., Narcy-Combes,M-F., & Toffoli, D. (2015). (Eds). Cultures de recherche en linguistique appliquée. Paris : Riveneuve.

Cuq, J-P. (2003). Dictionnaire de didactique du français langue étrangère et seconde. Paris: CLE international.

Kramsch, C. (2009). La circulation transfrontalière des valeurs dans un projet de recherche international. Le Francais dans le Monde, 46: 66-77.

Loewen, S., & Reinders, H. (2011). Key concepts in second language acquisition. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Long, M. (2017). Instructed second language acquisition (ISLA): geopolitics, methodological issues, and some major research questions. ISLA, 1(1): 7-44.

Smith, R., & Iamartino, G. (2017). History of Language Learning and Teaching: Perspectives on Innovation. AILA Congress, Rio de Janeiro, July.

Widdowson, H. (2017). Disciplinarity and disparity in applied linguistics. BAAL conference, Leeds, September.

[1] International association of linguistics applied to the teaching of modern languages

[2] « comme si l’on s’était davantage soucié de borner le terrain plutôt que de construire la maison » (Berthet, 2011: 96)


Instructed SLA: what kind of research is needed?

What kind of research can inform second or foreign language teaching? One paper that tackles these issues is by Mike Long (2017), a leading figure in second language acquisition (SLA) research, which appeared in the first issue of the new, open-access journal Instructed Second Language Acquisition (ISLA). Long argues that geopolitical factors make language learning an important concern for many, and thus increase the need for effective teaching based on SLA (and indeed for better SLA). He reviews some methodological innovations (eye-tracking studies, L2 repositories) and argues for a cognitivist-interactionist view of language learning which prioritises implicit learning .


I summarised this article in two posts in ELT Research Bites published at the end of the year.

What is instructed second language acquisition? (Part 1)

In the first post, we look at Long’s definition of ISLA, showing how it includes some language teaching concerns but not others. He compares basic, controlled, and applied research in biochemistry and second language teaching: only the shaded cells below are relevant to ISLA.

Screen Shot 2018-01-24 at 08.55.01

What is instructed second language acquisition? (Part 2)

The second part of the article explains why implicit language learning is favoured by second language researchers. We consider what this might mean for teachers.

Screen Shot 2018-01-24 at 09.01.45

My thanks to Anthony Schmidt for the invitation to contribute to ELT Research Bites and helpful editorial suggestions on these posts.

Teaching Academic Content through English: University of Bordeaux course

Last week I had the privilege of observing an English Medium Instruction (EMI) teacher education course run by the Department of Language and Culture (DLC) as part of the Défi international at Bordeaux University.


Official end-of-course group portrait with instructors and participants

Course overview

The course involved 14 academics from a range of disciplines (e.g., biology, sociology, material science) and 9 instructors (ESP teachers). It was organised over 3 consecutive days (Wednesday to Friday), 2 sessions per half-day (approximately 9-12h, 13-16h), with coffee breaks and lunch together and in English.

The team had the following broad course objectives:

  1. raise awareness of opportunities and challenges of EMI with respect to individual teachers, specific student populations, particular disciplinary content, pedagogical traditions, and institutional constraints;
  2. develop fluency, confidence, and motivation in the area of spoken English, and encourage participants to recognise their own strengths in mobilising existing competence for interaction in academic English, as well as offer avenues for future development;
  3. open debate on pedagogical practice in higher education and promote positive views of innovation and transformation.

Choices of resources and activities are motivated by research in various areas of applied linguistics and educational science:

  • Language (English) for Specific Purposes (LSP, ESP), EMI
  • Communicative language teaching (CLT) and task-based language teaching (TBLT)
  • Phonology and English as a lingua franca (ELF)
  • discourse analysis (scientific articles)
  • internationalisation and intercultural competence.

The pedagogical format involves the orchestration of numerous activities for pair, group, and whole-class work in planned sequences which are common to each session:

  • warm-up activities
  • introductory activities
  • core activities
  • plenary summaries (task outcome), and
  • group reflection (meta-analysis).

The 18-hour course was organised in 12 sessions, two per half-day, and tackling four main strands. Components of EMI instruction were addressed in the sessions on academic reading, understanding lectures, and asking/answering questions: three key components of university teaching and learning. Only one course unit directly addressed language skills (two sessions on pronunciation). The flipped classroom and student outcome sessions, in contrast, focused on pedagogical issues from teacher and learner perspectives respectively. The final teaching task involved microteaching, which participants prepared over two preceding sessions. The last session was the only one where they took the role of teacher.

This course on English Medium Instruction for higher education instructors in international programmes is built on a strong local tradition of LSP teaching and research at Bordeaux, and it has already attracted well-deserved attention at national and European level. For me, its key strengths are these:

1. Course design

The course is well-designed at macro, meso, and micro levels. The overall objectives are clear and appear to be achieved (to varying degrees) for all participants. Each session is appropriate for course goals and well-constructed, generally using a common template which helps participants understand and anticipate goals and requirements and so benefit fully from each, but also incorporating enough variety to reduce the risk of fatigue and disengagement. Particular activities are also well-crafted to allow opportunities for interaction, reflection, and more extended presentations in a range of class situations (pair and group work; whole-class work as student or as teacher).

2. Course materials

The propositional content of most teaching and learning materials (such as video of an academic lecture and a sample academic publication) were oriented to relevant specific purpose contexts (often hard sciences) or LSP/EMI pedagogy. This helped with face validity for participants, allowing many to make links with their own practice, but also experience comprehension difficulties with unfamiliar topics, as of course their students are likely to do.

3. L2 immersion environment

English was used almost exclusively by both instructors and participants. This was achieved by

  • using contiguous rooms for teaching and breaks,
  • a low participant to teacher ratio,
  • a very experienced instructional team, and
  • (one imagines) careful pre-sessional preparation.

4. Course delivery

It is a very well-oiled machine – the instructors appear to enjoy the sessions, collaborate and communicative effectively with one another, and share a common vision of course objectives and means to attain them. The atmosphere is unfailingly good humoured and relaxed, with a good balance between a) structured activities with substantive input and clear objectives, on one hand, and b) time and space for participants to express their own views, reflect on task content and pedagogical issues, and also focus on their English (personal and disciplinary) needs on the other.

5. Orchestration of group work

The instructors are particularly skilled in launching and facilitating group activities, both in practical terms, and with respect to interpersonal factors. All were adept at

  • organising participants efficiently into teams, mixing and matching according to language level, disciplinary background, and even temperament;
  • providing clear instructions and effective input, creating a relaxed atmosphere conducive to risk-taking and creative thinking, and
  • avoiding or defusing incipient interpersonal conflict or emotional difficulties, and generally reducing stress for all participants.

At a time when pedagogical innovation often involves blended learning and heavy use of classroom technology, the low-tech approach involving coloured cards, paper slips, and A3 grids used by the instructional team seems particularly attractive. It certainly proved effective in maintaining attention levels, and an L2 immersion environment, even among participants who were professional colleagues with low English proficiency and presumably well-established L1 interactional habits. 

6. Time for reflection and meta-analysis

These periods seemed especially valuable for encouraging participants to make the most of the opportunities for exchanging ideas and developing particularly oral/aural skills. Debriefing sessions where participants seemed unforthcoming were counter-balanced by insightful reflections in other sessions, suggesting that frequent encouragement to analyse and reflect on pedagogical issues created a “slow-burn” effect which is perhaps conducive to deeper learning.

I had some questions regarding various aspects of the course, including the team’s treatment of these dimensions.

  1. language proficiency (little or no explicit language teaching)
  2. applied linguistics theory (some discourse analysis, phonology terms)
  3. the pedagogical model used (task-based, but not completely)
  4. language feedback (little or none)
  5. participant agency (participants were generally students, and offered few options)
  6. overall course structure (content and order of course components).

I have to say, however, that this is one of the best EMI teacher education courses I have seen in French higher education. I’m encouraging the team to share their practice as widely as possible and to consider how it can be maintained and perhaps extended, given the current emphasis on internationalisation in our universities.

Indeed, the course seems particularly well-designed for its target audience and also very well implemented in all aspects. It covers an ambitious and wide-ranging programme in only 18 hours, and succeeds in establishing a highly effective and supportive immersion context for colleagues in a variety of disciplines and with a range of English proficiency profiles. Its particular strengths include active learning, language practice, and pedagogical reflection, which expose participants to many different examples of teaching practice and interactional styles and allow the team to address a number of issues, often in the course of a single session. The team is to be congratulated on the high quality of activity design, materials development, pedagogical collaboration, as well as on the sheer teaching craft and flexibility which are necessary to produce such a polished teacher education experience for all participants.


Some references that came up in discussion with the team.


Birch-Bécaas, S., & Hoskins, L. (2017). Designing and implementing ESP courses in French higher education: a case study. In Sarré, C., & Whyte, S. (Eds). New developments in ESP teaching and learning research,

Erlam, R. (2015). ‘I’m still not sure what a task is’: Teachers designing language tasks. Language Teaching Research.

Erlam, R. (2013). Listing and comparing tasks in the language classroom: Examples of Willis and Willis’s (2007) taxonomy in practice. The New Zealand Language Teacher, 39,7-14.

Jenkins, Jennifer (2000) The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, Jennifer (2002) A sociolinguistically based, empirically researched pronunciation syllabus for EIL. Applied Linguistics 23/1, 83-103.

Lightbown, P. M. (2003). SLA research in the classroom/SLA research for the classroom. Language Learning Journal, 28(1), 4-13.


Hancock, M. (1995). Pronunciation games. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Web links

ELF pronunciation:

UEFAP (Andy Gillet)

  • language functions (e.g., Spoken English functions)
  • language features (e.g., Hedging in Academic Writing)



And a seriously unflattering shot of me in seminar mode (see my talk)

What counts as effective LSP communication and who is to judge?

In this paper I argue that we haven’t done a good job of understanding, interpreting and implementing the notion of communicative competence in language teaching. This is true for general language teaching, but also with respect to languages for specific purposes (LSP), in spite of an explicit foregrounding of communicative needs and communicative events in LSP teaching:

LSP is generally used to refer to the teaching and research in language in relation to the communicative needs of speakers of a second language in facing a particular workplace, academic, or professional context. In such contexts, language is used for a limited range of communicative events.

(Basturkmen & Elder, 2004: 672)

However, the original definitions of communicative competence encompass a richer conceptualisation of this notion than is commonly implemented, and these can usefully inform current teaching practice.

I look at how second language acquisition research has interpreted communicative competence, how teachers have done so, and finally how the notion has been viewed in LSP testing circles.

Oral assessment criteria: undergraduate English studies class on media and communication

Course page


Peer feedback

Assessment criteria (teacher)









Pronunciation 3 3 2 1-2 0-1
Grammar/vocabulary 3 3 2 1-2 0-1
Communication 3 2 2 1-2 0-1
Total 9 8 6 4 2
Bonus 0.5 or 1 0.5 or 1 0.5 or 1 0.5 or 1
Grade /20 18 16 12 8 4

See also The Moth task for another example of peer evaluation criteria.


Bachman, L. F. (2002). Some reflections on task-based language performance assessment. Language Testing 19(4): 453-476.
Basturkmen, H. and C. Elder. (2004). The practice of LSP in Davies & Elder (Eds), The Handbook of Applied Linguistics. Blackwell Publishing.
Canale, M., & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied linguistics, 1, 1. PDF
Canagarajah, S. (2018). Materializing ‘Competence’: Perspectives From International STEM Scholars. The Modern Language Journal.
Clark, B. (2017). Aviation English Research Project: Data analysis findings and best practice recommendations. Civil Aviation Authority
Corder, S. P. (1967). The significance of learner’s errors. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 5(1-4), 161-170. PDF
Douglas, D. (2001). Language for Specific Purposes assessment criteria: where do they come from?. Language Testing, 18(2), 171-185.
Douglas, D., & Myers, R. (2000). Assessing the communication skills of veterinary students: Whose criteria? In Fairness and validation in language assessment: Selected papers from the 19th Language Testing Research Colloquium, Orlando, Florida (pp. 60-81). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Elder, C., McNamara, T., Kim, H., Pill, J., & Sato, T. (2017). Interrogating the construct of communicative competence in language assessment contexts: What the non-language specialist can tell us. Language & Communication, 57: 14-21
Harding, L. (2014). Communicative language testing: Current issues and future research. Language Assessment Quarterly, 11(2), 186-197.
Hulstijn, J. H. (2007). The shaky ground beneath the CEFR: Quantitative and qualitative dimensions of language proficiency. The Modern Language Journal, 91, 663–667. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4781.2007.00627_5.x
Hymes, D. 1972. On communicative competence. In J.B. Pride and J. Holmes (eds.). Sociolinguistics. Harmondsworth: Penguin. PDF
Fulcher, G. (2013). Practical language testing. Routledge.
Jacoby, S. W. (1999). Science as performance: Socializing scientific discourse through the conference talk rehearsal. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles.
Jacoby, S., & McNamara, T. (1999). Locating competence. English for Specific Purposes, 18(3), 213-241.
Kim, H. (2012). Exploring the construct of aviation communication: A critique of the ICAO language proficiency policy. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Melbourne.
Kim, H., & Billington, R. (2016). Pronunciation and comprehension in English as a lingua franca communication: Effect of L1 influence in international aviation communication. Applied Linguistics, amv075.
O’Keeffe, A., & Mark, G. (2017). The English Grammar Profile of learner competence. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics, 22(4), 457-489.
Pill, T.J.H. (2013). What Doctors Value in Consultations and the Implications for Specific-purpose Language Testing (Unpublished doctoral thesis). University of Melbourne, Australia.
Sarré, C., & Whyte, S. (Eds). (2017). New developments in ESP teaching and learning research. 10.14705/rpnet.2017.cssw2017.9782490057016
Sarré, C., & Whyte, S. (2016). Research in ESP teaching and learning in French higher education: developing the construct of ESP didactics. ASp, 69, 113-164. [link]
Sato, T. (2014). Linguistic Laypersons’ Perspective on Second Language Oral Communication Ability Doctoral dissertation, University of Melbourne.
Selinker, L. (1972). Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 10(1-4), 209-232.
Whyte, S. (2016). Who are the specialists? Teaching and learning specialised language in French educational contexts. Recherches et pratiques pédagogiques en langue de spécialité, 35(3) [link]
Whyte, S. (2013). Teaching English for Specific Purposes: A task-based framework for French graduate courses. Asp 63 (9), 5-30. DOI : 10.4000/asp.3280 [link]
Whyte, S., & Sarré, C. (2017a). Formulaic sequences in English for Academic Purposes and Second Language Acquisition: towards a characterisation of lexico-grammatical norms. GERAS, Lyon, March.
Whyte, S., & Sarré, C. (2017b). Introduction to new developments in ESP teaching and learning research. In Sarré, C., & Whyte, S. (Eds). New developments in ESP teaching and learning research. doi:10.14705/rpnet.2017.cssw2017.742
Whyte, S., & Sarré, C. (2016). From ‘war stories and romances’ to research agenda: towards a model of ESP didactics. ESSE, Galway, Eire, 22-6 August.
Whyte, S. (1995). Specialist knowledge and interlanguage development. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 17(02), 153-183.
Widdowson, H. (2017).Disciplinarity and disparity in applied linguistics. British Association for Applied Linguistics Annual Conference, August.
Widdowson, H. (2007). Un‐applied linguistics and communicative language teaching. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 17(2), 214-220.
Widdowson, H. (2003). Defining issues in English language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wilkins, D. A. (1973). The Linguistic and Situational Content of the Common Core in a Unit/Credit System. Systems development in adult language learning. Strasbourg: Council of Europe. PDF

In support of Slow scholarship

This book by two Canadian humanities scholars makes the argument for Slow culture in academia as a means of restoring well-being and pleasure in teaching, learning, and research.


The authors encourage resistance to pressures introduced by corporate, neoliberal transformations of universities by drawing on the philosophy and methods of the Slow movement.

Carl Honoré makes the case for Slowness in our lives this way:

Despite what some critics say, the Slow movement is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. Nor is it a Luddite attempt to drag the whole planet back to some pre-industrial utopia. On the contrary, the movement is made up of people like you and me, people who want to live better in a fast-paced, modern world. That is why the Slow philosophy can be summed up in a single word: balance. Be fast when it makes sense to be fast, and be slow when slowness is called for. Seek to live at what musicians call the tempo giusto—the right speed.

Honoré 2004: 15

Berg and Seeber draw on Honoré’s seminal text and an eclectic range of others, from Parker and Craig (2006) through Lodge (2008) to Collini (2012), in order to apply Slow principles to academic life. In a 2013 journal article which they use as the introduction to the book, they suggest

Corporatisation not only speeds up the clock but also compromises academic values. By taking the time for deliberation, reflection, and dialogue, the Slow Professor takes back the intellectual life of the university.

Berg & Seeber 2013: 6

The book has chapters on university teaching and research, and on collegiality and community. The authors describe their book as a manifesto, and indeed it is short, clear and positive in its recommendations. Not too much space is devoted to documenting the problem, already well identified elsewhere:

Universities are depressed […] they’re terrified and cowering and underfinanced and overexamined and overbureaucratised.

A.S. Byatt (Edmariam 2004)

Berg and Seeber’s diagnosis of the difficulties facing today’s academics rings true and will strike a chord with many. The authors show how experiences many may view as individual problems are, rather, part of a wider culture with far-reaching detrimental effects: time poverty in an audit culture, workplace loneliness, the “shadow CV” and academic shame.

But the authors go beyond handwringing to propose practical suggestions which, if not actual solutions, at least offer avenues to explore. (There is an interesting discussion of the difference between venting and whining, and why the former is necessary if the latter is to be avoided.) The chapter on pedagogy is perhaps especially insightful regarding teaching in the humanities, and the one on collegiality rejects the “network” view favoured in managerial approaches, instead arguing compellingly for a more human notion of community.

For me, the book is a rewarding read for a number of reasons. It puts labels on a number of key features of academic life that are either missing from or viewed quite differently in mainstream discourse. It offers a short but rich bibliography from a variety of sources for readers interested in following up on Slow culture, university reform, or academic fiction. And it offers an alternative vision of academia, with practical ideas for finding and maintaining the tempo giusto in our university lives.


Berg, M., & Seeber, B. (2016). The slow professor: Challenging the culture of speed in the academy. University of Toronto Press.

Berg, M & Seeber, B (2013) The slow professor: Challenging the culture of speed in the academy Transformative dialogues: Teaching and Learning Journal, 6(3). PDF

Collini, S. (2012). What are universities for? Penguin UK

Edmariam, A. (2004). Who’s afraid of the campus novel? The Guardian

Honoré, C. (2004). In Praise of Slowness. How a Worldwide movement is Changing the Cult of Speed. Harper Collins.

Parkins, W. and Craig, G. (2006). Slow Living. Oxford: Berg.

Lodge, D. (2008). Deaf Sentence. London: Harvill Secker.

Focus on form(s): principles and practice

The teaching of grammar is a frequent topic of debate among language teachers. Should we teach our learners the rules of grammar explicitly? If so, when and how do we do this? Or is it better to allow learners to pick up rules about the formal features of language in other ways, perhaps while they attempt to communicate, that is, focus on meaning? Sheen (2002) expresses this dilemma in these terms:

… on the one hand, there are those who advocate minimal to no interruption in communication, limiting attention to grammar by means of corrective feedback (Doughty and Varela 1998); on the other, there are those who advocate separate attention to grammar and subsequent integration of the knowledge provided in increasingly communicative activity (DeKeyser 1998)

Sheen (2002)

The traditional approach to language teaching has generally involved explicit grammar teaching, referred to by Long and colleagues as focus on formS, often in the form of teaching “the structure of the day” (Foster, 1999). Communicative approaches, in contrast, like task-based language teaching, put the emphasis on meaning. Here there are brief moments of focus on form_, where learners are encouraged to notice target language features, especially gaps between their own performance and L2 norms.


Romain Vignes Justin Peterson

Shintani (2013) provides a clear overview of the principles and pedagogical implications of each approach.

Focus on forms (FonFs)

FonFs corresponds to traditional grammar instruction where attention to form takes precedence over meaning:

“In focus on forms (FonFs; Long, 1991, 1996) language is broken down into discrete elements (e.g., words, grammar rules, notions, functions), which are then taught item by item in a linear, additive fashion. FonFs, therefore, constitutes a traditional approach to language teaching involving a linear syllabus, instructional materials, and corresponding procedures designed to present and practice a series of linguistic items. In this type of instruction, the learners’ primary attention is directed at linguistic form, but meaning is not excluded.”

Shintani 2013

FonFs can be equated with PPP.

In many current instructional materials, FonFs is realized in terms of present-practice-produce (PPP; Ur, 1996). DeKeyser (2007) argues that such an approach is ideally suited to older learners who have lost the ability for the kind of implicit learning that children are capable of.  However, PPP also figures strongly in instructional materials for children, including those who are complete beginners (Nakata, Frazier, Hoskins, & Graham, 2007). A key feature of PPP is that it seeks to elicit production of correct target forms right from the start as a means for learning them. PPP includes meaning-based activities as well as controlled production exercises, but when learners perform them they are likely to be aware that the purpose is not to communicate but to practice specific linguistic forms.

Shintani, 2013

Second language researchers and teacher educators disagree on the role of explicit grammar teaching in second language acquisition, with many researchers claiming that the intentional learning of explicit rules cannot transfer to the kind of subconscious language processing that we associate with the fluent, accurate, complex speech of L1 speakers and proficient L2 users (Long 2017). To develop this kind of proficiency in spontaneous production, incidental and implicit learning must take place. Long and colleagues suggest more subtle ways of promoting implicit learning by encouraging learners to notice or detect L2 features in the input they receive, that is, through focus on form_.

Focus on Form (FonF)

Shintani (2013) offers the following description of FonF:

In focus on form (FonF; Long, 1991; Long & Crookes, 1992) the primary focus is on meaning (i.e., on message processing) rather than on form. FonF involves an occasional shift of learners’ attention from meaning to a linguistic form and the meaning this conveys while the overriding focus remains on communicating. This shift can be triggered by perceived problems with either comprehension or production, and it can be initiated by either the teacher or students. A key feature of FonF instruction is that it emphasizes form-function mapping.”

Shintani, 2013: 39

In terms of pedagogical realisations, Shintani (2013) enumerates a number of options for instruction. These may by subtle or obvious (unintrusive or obtrusive), and can occur before or after communicative tasks (proactive versus reactive).

FonF can involve a variety of instructional activities. Doughty and Williams (1998) distinguish these in terms of the extent to which they are unobtrusive or obtrusive, “reflecting the degree to which the focus on form interrupts the flow of communication” (p. 258). Thus, input flood and task-essential language constitute relatively unobtrusive types of FonF, whereas consciousness raising and input processing are obtrusive. These types of FonF also differ in terms of whether they involve reactive or proactive attention to form. For example, FonF involving tasks will entail the use of reactive techniques that induce on-the-spot attention to form as the task is performed. In contrast, consciousness-raising activities are proactive, because they focus on features that learners are made explicitly aware of.

Shintani, 2013: 39

Long (2017) argues in favour of what he calls unintrusive input enhancement, citing examples of studies where salient features of the language presented to learners are emphasised by colour-coding affixes, or providing aural as well as visual input. The aim is to encourage the learners to detect these features, perhaps without even being aware they are doing so; in this way, their focus on meaning is not disrupted.

Finally, in the Shintani (2013) study cited, the author compared FoFs and FoF approaches to teaching vocabulary to young Japanese EFL learners, and found a specific advantage for FoF in one case, and no difference in another.

This study compared the effectiveness of FonFs and FonF by investigating both the process features of the instruction and the learning outcomes. Although both types of instruction were effective for the acquisition of nouns, the FonF instruction was found to be more effective for the acquisition of adjectives. Only the FonF learners developed the knowledge needed to use the adjectives in free production. The key differences between the process features of the FonF and FonFs instruction were proposed as an explanation for this difference in learning outcomes. That is, only the FonF instruction was characterised by contextualized input, the occurrence of negotiation of meaning, and student-initiated production.

The theoretical positions and empirical research presented here support a pedagogical recommendation to focus on form_ rather than formS. The arguments are, however, rather complex, and as Shintani (2013) shows, it is difficult to operationalise FonF and FonFs and measure their effects in real classrooms. More research supporting FonF, this time in the area of pronunciation instruction, is summarised in Saito (2012), recently reviewed for ELTresearchbites by Anthony Schmidt.


DeKeyser, R. (1998). Beyond focus on form: Cognitive perspectives on learning and practicing second language grammar. In Doughty and Williams (eds.). Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition, 42-63. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Doughty, C., & Varela, E. (1998). Communicative focus on form. Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition, 1, 114-138.

Foster, P. (1999). Task-based learning and pedagogy. ELT Journal, 53, 69–70,

Long, M. H. (2017). Instructed second language acquisition (ISLA): geopolitics, methodological issues, and some major research questions. ISLA 1(1)

Long, M. H. (1996). The role of linguistic environment in second language acquisition. In W. C. Ritchie & T. K. Bhatia (Eds.), Handbook of second language acquisition (pp. 413–468). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Long, M. H. (1991). Focus on form: A design feature in language teaching methodology. In K. de Bot, R. Ginsberg, & C. Kramsch (Eds.), Foreign language research in cross-cultural perspective (pp. 39–52). Amsterdam, the Netherlands: John Benjamins.

Long, M. H., & Crookes, G. (1992). Three approaches to task-based syllabus design. TESOL Quarterly, 26, 27–56. doi:10.2307/3587368

Nakata, R., Frazier, K., Hoskins, B., & Graham, C. (2007). Let’s go. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Saito, K. (2012). Effects of instruction on L2 pronunciation development: A synthesis of 15 quasi‐experimental intervention studies. TESOL Quarterly, 46(4), 842-854.

Sheen, R. (2002). Focus on form and focus on forms. ELT journal, 56(3), 303-305. PDF

Shintani, N. (2013). The Effect of Focus on Form and Focus on Forms Instruction on the Acquisition of Productive Knowledge of L2 Vocabulary by Young Beginning‐Level Learners. TESOL quarterly, 47(1), 36-62.

Ur, P. (1996). A course in language teaching: Practice and theory. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Dutch courage: alcohol and foreign language performance

In this post I summarise a recent study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology which looked at the effect of alcohol on foreign language (FL) performance (Renner, Kersbergen, Field & Werthmann 2017). The study was conducted by psychologists at Dutch, German, and UK universities with German L2 users of Dutch. It cites a 1972 study by Guiora, Beit-Hallahmi, Brannon, Dull & Scovel which found a moderate effect on FL pronunciation under the influence of alcohol.

In the 2017 study, the prediction was the opposite. Based on a hypothesised loss of executive functioning, L2 users would overestimate their FL abilities and underperform in a discussion activity after drinking compared to non-drinking controls.


Michael Discenza


The researchers present the rationale for the study thus:
“There are at least two possible explanations for the popular belief that alcohol improves foreign language abilities.
1) Alcohol might actually improve the ability to speak in a foreign language, that is, lead to actual improvements in foreign language performance.
2) Alcohol might alter bilingual speakers’ perception of their own ability to speak the second language, that is, lead to subjectively perceived improvements in foreign language performance.”
Renner et al (p. 2)

They designed a study to test these theories using a between-subjects design with two conditions a) alcohol versus water consumption, and b) FL versus arithmetic task. Interestingly, the predictions regarding all four hypotheses in the study – concerning the actual and perceived effects of alcohol on task performance – were disconfirmed.


The study compared participants who consumed alcohol or water and on FL and non-FL tasks (= an arithmetic task).

The two groups were controlled for age and gender (70% female) and informed they might be given alcohol. “Testing took place between 1.00 pm and 4.00 pm at a laboratory visually resembling a pub” (p. 4) and alcohol intake was controlled with the goal of achieving 0.4% blood alcohol level via rapid consumption of one vodka and lemon. Actual levels ranged from 0.2% to 0.6%. 
Subjects “were not explicitly informed whether their drink contained alcohol” nor “informed about the result of the breath analyser test” (p. 3). They participated in a 2-minute discussion with one experimenter (also blinded to alcohol/water condition).

Self-ratings of performance were obtained using mean response to the following 9 items on a Visual Analogue Scale of 0 (absolutely not) to 100 (very much).

  1. In general, how good did you find your Dutch language skills during the discussion?
  2. How comprehensible did you find your argumentation during the discussion?
  3. I feel that my word-pool was sufficient to engage in the discussion
  4. I feel that I had to keep looking for the right words in my memory to engage in the discussion
  5. I think that my pronunciation was clear during the discussion’ (reverse scored)
  6. I think that my pronunciation was unequivocal and clear during the discussion
  7. I think I almost always used the correct grammar during the discussion
  8. I think that my Dutch was fluent during the discussion
  9. In general, I think that my Dutch was very comprehensible during the discussion
Observer ratings were obtained using two Dutch-speaking raters who used the same 9 items and also assigned scores for pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and argumentation. The researchers also measured performance on an arithmetic task in each condition. Finally, self-esteem was gauged using a standard measure before and after the two tasks.


The hypotheses and findings were as follows:
  1. participants who consumed alcohol would rate their performance in the foreign language discussion more highly compared with those who consumed water, in line with the popular belief that alcohol increases the ability to speak in a foreign language
    Disconfirmed. There was no difference in self-ratings of FL performance between participants with/without alcohol.
  2. participants who consumed alcohol would receive lower observer-rated foreign language performance ratings compared with participants who consumed water, due to alcohol’s detrimental effect on executive functioning
    Disconfirmed. Participants on alcohol received significantly higher ratings, accounted for exclusively by higher pronunciation ratings.
  3. higher self-ratings in foreign language skills by participants who consumed alcohol would generalize to performance ratings in a non-language task
    Disconfirmed. Participants on alcohol rated their arithmetic performance lower than water drinkers, but there was no difference in actual performance.
  4. effects of alcohol on the subjective overestimation of foreign language skills (i.e. higher self-ratings in the alcohol vs. water condition) would be explained by a general overconfidence (indicated by self-esteem ratings) gained from drinking alcohol (‘Dutch courage’)
    Disconfirmed. Self-esteem rose after task performance, but there was no difference between alcohol and water groups (i.e. alcohol did not affect self-esteem)
The authors speculate their findings may relate to a positive effect of language anxiety

It is possible that a low to moderate dose of alcohol reduces language anxiety and therefore increases both one’s foreign language proficiency and one’s subjective foreign language evaluation. These explanations are speculative and cannot be tested in the current study (because we did not measure language anxiety)”

Renner et al, 2017 (6)

Limitations and further research

The authors acknowledge a number of limitations to this study. In my own view, the principal among them is the lack of proficiency measures beyond a) participant self-rating (the majority reported their level as “average” to “good”) and b) holistic rating of audio recordings by naive native speakers. The researchers suggest this increases the ecological validity of the study.

I would argue that to support a conclusion that moderate alcohol consumption can increase foreign language fluency, it would be useful to consider different

  • L1 and L2 pairings,
  • proficiency levels (measured other than by self-report)
  • blood alcohol levels.

It would also be useful to analyse L2 production for specific phonetic and acoustic cues associated with pronunciation, as well as other measures to verify lack of impact on other dimensions such as grammatical accuracy or lexical measures.

The link with language anxiety also seems relevant, as the authors speculate. This avenue of research is suggested by Horwitz in a 2010 paper (not reviewed in the Renner et al. study) where she comments on the Guiora et al (1972) study.

This early study that found its way into the popular press reported that students who ingested moderate amounts of alcohol achieved better pronunciation scores than students who ingested higher amounts of alcohol or no alcohol at all. Although the authors use the ingestion of alcohol as a proxy for a hypothesized change in ego state and increased empathy, it is more likely that moderate alcohol consumption relaxed the participants and hereby contributed to better pronunciation.

Horwitz, 2010


Guiora, A. Z., B. Beit-Hallahmi, R. C. Brannon, C. Y. Dull & T. Scovel (1972). The effects of experimentally induced changes in ego states on pronunciation ability in a second language: An exploratory study. Comprehensive Psychiatry 13.5, 421–428.

Horwitz, E. K. (2010). Foreign and second language anxiety. Language Teaching, 43, pp 154-167 doi:10.1017/S026144480999036X

Renner, F., Kersbergen, I., Field, M., & Werthmann, J. (2017). Dutch courage? Effects of acute alcohol consumption on self-ratings and observer ratings of foreign language skills. Journal of Psychopharmacology