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IATEFL Opening Plenary – David Crystal

David Crystal officially opens IATEFL Liverpool by first warning us not to trust Wikipedia, which has knighted him for a few days and stated that he has had different numbers of children and wives. He moves on to tell us about he went to school in Liverpool and proudly tells us to listen out to the Liverpudlian influences in his accent.

Introducing us to some popular songs and then focusing our attention on a well-known song by Paul McCartney and Wings, ‘Live and Let Die’, and the much-discussed lyrics ‘But if this ever changing world in which we live in’.

The tune needs two prepositions for it to work and when music calls, grammar blends.

Lexical blends like ‘brunch‘ become part of our everyday language quickly but syntactic blends do not get into our language as easily.

It is however important to note that blends are very common in speech

Here are some examples:

I don’t know to which hotel I’m going to.

For which party will you be voting for in the March 9th Election?

Mentors are for business people, mentors can help you and be your role models, couples to which we look up to.

From which country does a Lexus come from?

Syntactic blends arise when people are unsure of which to use and so they use both.

It raises because of the clash and choice that could come from formal and informal usage.

In the prescriptive tradition that dominated schools, teachers tend to try and eliminate the informal forms and therefore enforcing rules such as ‘Never end a sentence with a preposition’. Yet, Shakespeare uses end-place prepositions all the time. But the rule appealed to classically-inclined pedants. Winston Churchill even had rules ‘up with which he would not put‘.

So those who try to follow the rules taught to us and place the preposition at the beginning… but the natural pattern of the language takes over and the preposition is put after the verb where it feels most natural, forgetting that they’ve used a preposition already.

The further away the two prepositions, the more likely this is to happen.

e.g. For which of the five candidates in the forthcoming by-election will the people of Eastleigh be voting for?

But double prepositions aren’t the only Syntactic Blend that happens.

Here, Professor Crystal introduces another Beatles song with the lyrics

He won’t do nothing right just in sitting down and look so good‘ (as opposed to ‘looking so good’)


I been told when a boy kiss a girl‘ (as opposed to ‘a boy kisses a girl’)

When we leave music behind and listen to spoken English, such blends all the time.

We start sentences, change our minds and end sentences differently from how we intended when we started.

We usually do not notice this though, as we are paying attention to what is being said rather than how it is being said.

Prof. Crystal uses his own lectures as examples of the non-grammatical statements in spoken English:

Within how long did it take for an American English start to grow?

which is a blend of ‘Within what period of time did it take for an American English to start to grow?


How long did it take for an American English to start to grow?

Here’s an example embedded in a dialogue:

‘Well, we don’t speak it?’

‘Why don’t we speak it?’

‘Well, cos I was never taught it.’

‘Well, why weren’t I taught it?’

As a result of the constant use of the pronoun ‘we’ at the beginning, the last statement is a blend of ‘Well why weren’t we/you taught it?’ and ‘Why wasn’t I taught it?

These blends of course appear a lot less in written material due to gatekeeping by editors and publishers. Thus, a lot of what is considered ‘standard English’ corresponds to what is published. Yet, with the advent of the internet, these gatekeepers might not be there and most people do not revise and re-read what they write in emails and blogs (especially if they’re blogging simultaneously during a conference plenary).

Here, Prof David Crystal uses examples from the most popular blogs in the UK with blended constructions.

Comprehension is governed by the distribution of weight in a sentence. English is governed by end weight, and speakers tend to put the  most important information at the end, after the main verb, rather than in the beginning. Most sentences use a single pronoun and verb followed by a concentration of content after the verb. One can of course use long adverbials at the beginning of the sentence, but this makes comprehension more difficult and the sentence is more difficult to process…therefore naturally, in spoken English, this does not happen as often.

Note these two sentences:

It was nice of John and Mary to visit us the other day.


For John and Mary to visit us the other day was nice.

We tend to get irritated with the second sentence, thinking ‘Where’s the verb? Get on with it!”

Here, Prof. Crystal uses a random ELT coursebook to make a point.

In a chapter on relative clauses, long noun phrases are featured:

e.g. Salesman who sell books at your door are a  nuisance. The books they sell are often expensive’

A lot of information needs to be processed before getting to the verb, while trying to learn a new piece of English grammar.

This could make it more difficult for students and perhaps coursebooks should use relative clauses with shorter subjects when introducing the grammar point, and leave such long noun phrases for more advanced levels.

e.g I don’t like salesmen who sells books at the door.

It’s often expensive to buy the books they sell.

In ELT, we come across blends often in students’ writing.

e.g. ‘Does it not worry you that the man to whom you will marry might be cruel to you?

It is important to realise that errors such as these blends are signs of growth and not be condemned.

Teachers should try to understand the origin and source of the blend. To condemn them as mistakes would result in students not daring to try out new constructions in the future.

Blends tend to occur more often when the speaker/writer is under pressure and has to complete the sentence quickly, and the grammar finds it harder to keep pace with the thought  e.g. football commentaries, family rows, etc.

Blends are nothing to feel guilty. In writing, we try to eliminate them for being labelled as careless and sloppy by readers who have more time to examine our sentences.

Here, Prof. Crystal clarifies that he is not advocating that we teach blends, but more that we not condemn blends in speech when we are likely to use them ourselves.

Ending his plenary with a piece of titbit about his days as a saxophone player, he muses that Paul MacCartney may have earned much more than him, Paul MacCartney never quite had the honour of ending up as the patron of IATEFL.

Understanding Discourse – Grice and Implicatures Part 1

Ever since my last blogpost about discourse, I have been receiving requests to delve a little deeper into the area of pragmatics. It reminded me that a previous BESIG interview about pragmatics and politeness had led to the same kind of requests which I had not had the time to devote to before.

This has spurred me to share some of the reading and research I had previously done on this subject here.

Here’s Part 1 (of 3) of a summary of Grice’s maxims and implicatures – often considered to be the basis of any study into the pragmatics of language.

The bibliography will follow at the end of Part 3.



1.      Introduction

 1.1    Why Grice?

A lot has been written about the work of the philosopher H. Paul Grice and his contribution to the study of pragmatics. After a long spate of linguistic study focused solely on truth conditional semantics and the grammar, syntax and semantic meanings of words controlled fully by the speaker, Grice was the first to propose a set of principles to describe the nature of conversation as a co-operation between the participants (Cook 1989), and his Co-operative Principles (CP) and maxims have been the basis for the further exploration of the nature and power of what a speaker means and implies, and how it is understood by the hearer. His notion of conversational implicature is believed to be ‘one of the single most important ideas in pragmatics’ ( Levinson 1983:97) and even his greatest critics, such as Davis (1998:1) admitted his theories to be an ‘important phenomenon’, a major achievement’ and ‘a breakthrough in linguistics’.

In order to understand Grice’s theories, it is perhaps useful to first consider J.L. Austin’s ideas on language. Austin was Grice’s teacher at Oxford University, and was reacting against his contemporaries’ views that language was full of ambiguities, imprecision and contradictions which needed to be refined and purified (Thomas 1995:29), by purporting that the way ordinary people used everyday language could shed light on how people identified the distinctions that were worth making (Austin 1962). Consider this example.


Emma: Can you find out if the tube is running?

Tom: The internet is down.

On a purely semantic level, it seems that Emma is asking about Tom’s ability to obtain the information about the London underground and Tom’s answer seems to be an irrelevant one about the internet not working. However, the mere locutionary force of the words does not help us to understand that Emma’s question was a request for help and Tom’s answer implied that he was unable to do so. Austin (1962) introduced the idea of there being an illocutionary force in such implicit perfomatives, (in this case, that of the functions request and refusal) which we use in speech to produce an effect.

Grice’s systematic study of such cases where there was a significant difference between speaker meaning and semantic meaning led him to put forward a theory that could explain how we bridge the gap between the locutionary and illocutionary force of a context-dependent utterance in order to make sense of each other. While his principles bring logic into the use of language, they also account for the hedging used in everyday language (by the way, I might be wrong but…), and provide explanations for the phenomena of metaphors, irony, tautology, and hyperbole.

1.2     Grice in the foreign language classroom

Some teachers might argue that the interpretation of an utterance is universal, and that because students can already interact and communicate in their L1, the time in the classroom should be spent on the formal skills and knowledge of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar (Cook 1989). As a result of this assumption, the indirect communication explained by Grice’s implicatures are often not highlighted or dealt with in language coursebooks (Bouton, in Hinkel 1999).

However, if we were to consider the fact that the same utterance in the same context could be interpreted differently in different cultures (Keenan 1976, Bouton 1988 & 1994), it might explain why even fairly advanced students have trouble understanding the nuances of utterances, the intentions of the speakers, and an area of particular interest to me, English humour. This causes frequent cases of misunderstanding and confusion to the language student who lives among native speakers and/or is exposed to comedy and films through the global dominance of Hollywood. Perhaps the interpretation of utterances is not wholly transferable as previously assumed, and needs to be covered in the English language classroom. The issue of the universality of CP and its maxims will be dealt with after we look at the principles themselves.



2.      The Co-operative Principle (CP) and the Maxims

2.1     What is CP?

In his paper Logic and Conversation, Grice (1975) proposed that all talk exchanges are cooperative efforts where participants recognise a common purpose or mutually-accepted direction of the conversation. If we were to take the dialogue between Emma and Tom in (i)  at face value (i.e. the locutionary force of the utterance), the utterances seem disconnected, and thus irrational and illogical. The assumption that Emma and Tom were guided by the cooperative principle helps us to understand that Tom’s reply is indeed a relevant answer to Emma’s question. Grice’s CP is worded as follows:

Make your contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.

(Grice 1975:45)

Grice then goes on to specify how CP is followed in the form of 4 maxims.

Quantity:        1. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).

2. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

Quality:           1. Do not say what you believe to be false.

2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Relation:          1. Be relevant

Manner:          Be perspicuous.

  1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
  2. Avoid ambiguity.
  3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity)
  4. Be orderly.


Despite the unfortunate name of ‘maxims’ and use of imperatives, Grice (1975) emphasises that they describe ways of people’s behaviour which they have learned from childhood, and that they are not only something we should follow but that which is rational and ‘reasonable for us to follow’. Levinson (1983) recognises them as assumptions and guidelines that help us to use language effectively and efficiently, and thus should not be considered as rules of any sort. CP is by no means idealising human beings as having an intrinsically co-operative or altruistic personality, but refers to the assumptions about communication one operates on, even when we are in an argument (Cameron, 2001).


2.2     Implicatures

The term ‘implicature’ was coined by Grice (1975) to account for what the speaker implied, suggested or meant, as opposed to the semantic meaning of the words said. The conveyance of implicature enables one to determine the meaning of an utterance via inference because of the assumption that the participants of a conversation are adhering to CP and its maxims (Yule, 1996).

In what Grice (1975) terms ‘conventional implicatures’, the conventional meaning of the words conveys what the utterance implies and is not based on CP, as the following illustrates:

(ii) He was on social welfare but was not lazy.

The above sentence implies that people on welfare are expected to be lazy since the word ‘but’ generates the implicature that what follows will contrast the presupposed expectation. Thomas (1995) lists words like ‘but’, ‘even’, ‘therefore’, ‘yet’ and ‘for’ as words that could carry conventional implicatures. As such words are not context-dependent for their interpretation, and are often covered in the formal studies of a language learner, I shall move on to a category of more interest to the pragmaticist, conversational implicatures, that which is communicated based on the assumptions about a conversation’s rational nature, as stated in CP and its maxims (Levinson, 2000).

The nature of conversational implicatures have been characterised by Grice (1975) as such. In order for the hearer to work out the implicature, the following rationalising takes place:

1)    The speaker is observing the maxims.

2)    The speaker is saying X to imply Y. In fact, he would not say X if he did not want to imply Y.

3)    The speaker knows that the listener would understand Y from X, and intends it to be so.

There has been much debate over the categorization and definitions of conversational implicatures, which has led me to sub-categorized this section in a controversial way. Grice (ibid) himself provides the sub-categories of generalised conversational implicatures (GCIs) and particularized conversational implicatures (PCIs). Levinson (1983:104), however, introduces the term standard implicatures to refer the ones expressed when a speaker is observing the maxims, while more complex implicatures are communicated through what Grice (ibid) calls the  flouting of the maxims in the form of PCIs.


2.2.1    Standard Implicatures

Although Grice (1978) indicated that he wished to withhold the term implicature from inferences that only express the maxims themselves (as opposed to flouting the maxims), I have started with this category in order to illustrate how we unconsciously abide by CP and use it to make sense of the utterances we hear. I shall use examples in my classroom to show that, sometimes, the observance of CP might be universal and transferable from my learners’ L1.




Me: How many siblings have you got?

Student: I have 5 brothers.

I can infer from common understanding of this maxim, albeit unconscious, that the student is being as informative as possible and thus implying that he has no more than 5 brothers, although semantically, the statement could imply that he has more than 5 brothers.



When the student asserts that he has 5 brothers in (ii), I believe he indeed has 5 brothers and has adequate evidence that this is so.

Consider also this question.

(iv)      Student:  What does ‘greedy’ mean?

This implicates that the student is asking this question sincerely, does not know what ‘greedy’ means, and requires this information. (Levinson, 1983)




Me: Is Claudio in school today?

Student: He’s sick.

The student’s utterance is not a non-sequitor one. It implies that Maria was not in school by giving the reason that she was ill.



(vi)      Student:  I did my homework and went to sleep.

Although the ‘and’ seems ambiguous semantically and could be taken to mean ‘also’, the meaning ‘and then’ is understood.


2.2.2    Generalized Conversational Implicatures

Although most discourse analysts tend to assume that pragmatically-inferred meaning is always dependent on the context surrounding the utterance and the observance of CP and its maxims (Carston, 2004), GCIs are those based on ‘general expectations of how language is normally used’ (Levinson 2000:22), and no special background knowledge of the context is required to make the inferences (Yule 1996). GCIs could be said to be somewhere between conventional implicatures and PCIs.

(vii)     He went out with a woman.

The sentence implicates that the woman is not his wife, family member or platonic friend (Grice 1975).


Also consider,

(viii)    I repaired a roof.

Without the use of the possessive pronoun ‘my’, one can infer that this was not the speaker’s roof.


2.2.3    Particularized Conversational Implicatures

In situations where the speaker blatantly fails to observe a maxim, he is ‘flouting’ and such flouting is used to generate PCIs, which the hearer will in turn infer from. The procedure is termed ‘exploitation’. (Grice 1975)


Exploiting the maxim of Quantity

(ix)       Sharon has recently watched a film that was hyped up in the media as sensational.

David:   How was the film?

Sharon:  Well, the costumes were nice.

Sharon is flouting the maxim of quantity by not giving enough of the information required by David’s question. David knows that Sharon has flouted the maxim but has no reason to think that Sharon is being uncooperative. He, thus, infers that Sharon is implicating that the film was awful. Such flouting is used to create what is called indirect criticism (Bouton, 1994).

Tautologies like ‘a lie is a lie’ or ‘first introduced’ could be seen as flouting this maxim by unnecessary repetition. However, the implicature generated by the former might be telling us that the speaker is unwilling to make exceptions to what might be meant as a white lie, and the later might implicate the first occasion when something was introduced (e.g. the term ‘implicature’), although it  might have been introduced by several people in different places.


Exploiting the maxim of Quality

(x)        You are an angel.  (metaphor)


(xi)       Upon seeing Shelly online every time Michael logs on, he comments,

Michael: You are always online.

Shelly: Me? Never! I never use the internet.   (irony)



Brian has just burnt his dinner.

Anna: You’re such a great cook.  (sarcasm/irony)


(xiii)     I can eat a horse.  (hyperbole)


(xiv)     Upon seeing that a wedding would cost £30,000,

Rakesh: It’s a bit expensive, isn’t it?  (understatement)

The above examples all flout the maxim of quality and both participants expect each other to realise that the utterances are not to be taken literally. They could be used as stylistic devices, to create humour, or just simply to be interesting.

Notice, however, that each of these utterances requires a different set of reasoning to work out the implicature intended. (x) requires the hearer to make comparisons between the concept of an angel and one who is kind and saves another, the semantic meanings of (xi) and (xii) are opposites of the implicated meaning, while (xii) is overstates and (xiv) understates what the speaker really means. Grice does not seem to explain how an interlocutor is to know which set of reasoning to use when such flouting is carried out.


Exploiting the maxim of Relevance


Dale accidentally mentions Steve’s ex-wife in a conversation with Steve and Rachel. Rachel quickly changes the topic.

Rachel: What do you think of the coffee here?

Rachel’s blatant flouting of the maxim is used to show Dale that he has committed a social faux pax and in danger of treading dangerous waters.


Exploiting the maxim of Manner


The parents are talking in front of their toddler.

Dad: We won’t B-U-Y the T-O-Y today.

Through being intentionally ambiguous and spelling out the words, the father is implicating that there’s something he can’t say directly and expects the mother to infer that he does not want the child to know what they are talking about.


2.2.4    Other categories of non-observance

It is not always that the non-observance of a maxim is done blatantly with the intention of creating an implicature. Grice (1975:49) mentions several ways where a maxim is not adhered to, aside from flouting: violating, violating because of a clash and opting out. He later added a fourth category: infringing; and others have purported a fifth: suspending (Thomas1995:72).

Grice has not only been criticised for not always using the terms consistently but also for failing to address the issue of how the hearer is to distinguish between the types of non-observance involved in working out the implicature intended (ibid:90). This could explain why some girls spend hours trying to work out what the voicemail message left by their date really implies. The following categories might somehow be controversial as different writers have chosen to group them in different ways.



Unlike flouting, violation is not meant to be noticed by the hearer perhaps because the speaker intends to deceive or hold back information (Cameron, 2001:78). Some speakers, such as politicians, might be intentionally ambiguous so as not to commit themselves to a proposition (ibid), hence violating a maxim.



Grice (1975) explains that sometimes a speaker cannot fulfil one maxim without violating another, and is faced with a clash. In example (xvii), the student cannot answer the question fully without being long-winded, and chooses to forgo the maxim of quality.


Teacher: What did you do this weekend?

Student:  Nothing.


Opting out

One might opt out of a maxim by clearly showing that he is unable to cooperate, perhaps due to legal or ethical reasons, or the need to protect someone else (Thomas, 1995). The speaker might say, ‘I can’t tell you that,’ or ‘I promised not to say’.



A speaker sometimes infringes a maxim because he is unable to abide by it (ibid). Infringement could take place if the speaker is not particularly eloquent, is drunk, or simply can’t speak the language well (as with a child or foreign language speaker). Here is a classroom example where my student infringes the maxims of quantity and manner due to a lack of language skills.


Teacher: How was your holiday?

Student: Nice.



Critics of Grice claim that there are language communities that do not adhere to the maxims (Gazdar, 1979), and Keenan’s (1976) example of Malagasy speakers, who often make their conversations as uninformative as possible (see section 3.2), is often used to suggest that there are occasions on which Grice’s maxims are inapplicable and need to be suspended. Alongside Gazdar and Keenan, Grice has had many critics since he first postulated the CP and its maxims.


In the next part, I will be looking at the criticisms of Grice’s theories, including the exploration of the politeness principle, the universality of the Co-operative Principle, and how English humour and irony might or might not apply in cross-cultural contexts.

Death by Idioms

This is a blogpost I wrote for ELT Knowledge – home to the journals English Teaching Professional and Modern English Teacher.

As English confirms its position as the global lingua franca and the language of international trade, business and tourism, there has been more and more talk in the English teaching world regarding the necessity of teaching idioms.

Seidlhofer (2004) warned of the dangers of unilateral idiomaticity, whereby the use of idioms by a speaker could result in incomprehension on the part the interlocutor who is less acculturated to native-speaker norms.

In other words, the use of idioms could be to the detriment of mutual intelligibility and serves no purpose except to perpetuate the native-speaker’s target culture, which is usually taken to mean the American or the British culture.

Now, before you get up in arms about this and start bellowing, ‘But my students want to be taught English idioms!’ from the rooftop of the nearest language school, let me reassure you that I am not entirely comfortable with lumping all English idiomatic expressions together and damning them all at one go.

So first of all, let us consider this. What is an idiom?

The online dictionary defines ‘idiom’ as ‘an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements’, while the Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary defines it as ‘a group of words whose meaning is different from the meanings of the individual words’.

Both dictionaries then proceed to give examples of idioms such as ‘to kick the bucket’ and ‘to let the cat out of the bag’.

The meanings of these fixed expressions are clearly far from the meanings of the words themselves (‘to die’ and ‘to tell a secret by mistake’, respectively), but are idioms always so easily defined?

Look the following dialogue for example. Can you spot the idioms?

Rachel:           Hey, why are you feeling so down?

Michael:         My pet hamster passed away last night.

Rachel:           Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. I know, how about some retail therapy to cheer yourself up?

Michael:         I can’t. I’m broke. I blew all my money on this tiny hamster coffin. It cost a bomb.

Rachel:           I’ll treat you to something nice. Come on, let’s go.

Michael:         I can’t. I’m knackered. I stayed up all night last night mourning little Lord Nelson.

Rachel:           Look, at the end of the day, you can’t beat yourself up like that. You’ve got to get over it.

Michael:         I can’t. I’m dying inside…

Rachel:           Alright then…whatever.

You could comfortably categorise ‘it cost a bomb’ as the same kind of idiom that ‘to let the cat out of the bag’ is.

But how about ‘passed away’, ‘cheer yourself up’, ‘blew all my money on ~’, ‘stayed up’, beat yourself up’, and ‘get over it’?


Are you arguing that these are phrasal verbs?

But don’t most phrasal verbs have meanings that are not derivable from the individual meanings of its constituent parts?

Are phrasal verbs naturally idioms then?

How about ‘feeling down’, ‘retail therapy’, ‘I’m broke’, ‘I’m knackered’, and ‘at the end of the day’?

Arguably, these are expressions that might have started out as idioms, but through common and frequent use, have earned a place in our cognitive processes as directly representing a different meaning to its linguistic origins? Most teachers might not even consider ‘broke’ an idiom, and would take its meaning of ‘without money’ to be simply another homonym of the word ‘broke’.

Another example of this is the above adjectival past participle ‘knackered’ (meaning ‘tired’). Originally meaning ‘to kill’, sending your horse to ‘the Knacker’s Yard’ meant that your horse was due to be slaughtered due to old age. However, even in late 1800s, ‘to knacker’ had already taken on its idiomatic meaning of ‘to tire out’.

But would English speakers from the USA, Jamaica, India or Singapore understand/use the word ‘knackered’ when they want to say that they are ‘tired’?

The online etymology dictionary states that the word ‘idiom’ was first seen in French in the late 1500s to mean ‘form of speech peculiar to a people or a place’, and in Latin and Greek to refer to ‘peculiarity in language’ and ‘peculiar phraseology’.

This suggests that the original concept of idiom referred to a type of colloquialism or code used amongst a particular group of people. This code-specific characteristic is clearly seen in the word ‘knackered’, where the target culture is closely tied to the idiomatic expression. The same can be said of the following idioms:

  • to be full of beans’ (‘to be full of energy’ – UK),
  • drinking the Kool-Aid’ (‘people who conform without questioning the belief or argument, displaying a lack of critical examination’ – US),
  • came out of the left field’ (‘unexpected, unusual, irrational’ – US baseball idiom)
  • catch no ball’ (‘didn’t understand a thing, wasn’t able to grasp the concept’ – Singaporean English idiom resulting from a direct translation from the Hokkien dialect)
  • the equation has changed’ (‘the relationship has changed’ – Indian English idiom resulting from a direct translation from Hindi)
  • She’ll be apples’ (‘everything will be alright’ – Australian English)
  • box of fluffy ducks’ (‘everything is going my way’ – New Zealand English)

If the above idioms are used by a particular speech community and is code-specific to those peculiar to a place or country, then should we teach these idioms to our EFL students?

If your answer is yes, which ones? And why?

Would you teach these idioms only for receptive purposes or would you encourage your students to produce them? What are the dangers of this?

How do you decide which idioms to teach?

How about the use of the word ‘Whatever’ in the dialogue above?

It doesn’t really mean ‘anything that…’; nor does it mean ‘no matter what’.

It carries the illocutionary force of ‘I don’t care’ or ‘That’s your problem, man!’ to show indifference or dismissal.

Although it started out as a code-specific slang word, it is now used globally, perhaps due to the dominance of Hollywood.

Could any of the above code- or community- specific idioms gain international recognition too?

Please go here to do my little poll on idioms and share your ideas and beliefs on teaching them.


Allow me to end this blogpost with this little piece of irony for us all to chew on as we go to bed tonight…


When asked, many of my learners say that they want to learn idioms because it makes them sound more native.

But more often than not, idioms are either used inappropriately, inaccurately, or simply overused.


Case in point: When John McClane in Die Hard 3 hears the building supervisor saying that it was raining ‘dogs and cats’, he immediately susses out that the building supervisor was not Amercian, thus leading him to conclude that he was German and belonged to the villain’s gang.


In trying to sound more native, learners end up sounding less native.

What a dilemma!



Seidlhofer, B. (2004) ‘Research Perspectives on Teaching English as a Lingua Franca’. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, pp:209-239.

Gaelic – To Save or Not to Save

The Highlanders are generally quite proud of their heritage, their traditions, and their uniqueness. I know, because I’m engaged to one. From their faithfulness to Scottish football, to their pride in adorning the kilt and embracing Céilidh dances and the traditional events of the Highland games, one could say that a typical Highlander is in no doubt about his/her identity, and keen to show that to the world. So you can imagine my surprise when I met not just one but five Highlanders who all expressed annoyance at talks about saving Gaelic by encouraging children to study it at school and the introduction of Gaelic into bilingual road signs (see above picture). They unanimously argued that Gaelic is a dying language and that it is useless and impractical for their children to spend their time on – time which was presumably better spent on learning languages like Spanish or Mandarin. The bilingual road signs, they insisted, were the product of a profit-making scheme by the government to attract tourists to Scotland – tourists who might find Gaelic exotic and exciting.

While more than 6000 languages exist today, Swerdlow (1999) predicted that by the year 2100, the number of languages on our planet could fall to 3000. Schaefer and Ebokhare (1999) who investigated the loss of African languages in southern Nigeria concluded that English is giving rise to the abandonment of indigenous, minority languages. But this phenomenon of the global spread of English giving rise to the extinction of indigenous languages is not a new one. We in the UK need to look no further than Scotland and Ireland to see how English has not only taken over the local languages, but perhaps also their culture. If one believes in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that we see the world through the tinted lenses of the language we speak, then despite attempts to keep out the English, whether it be by historical wars waged by William Wallace or wearing ABE (Anyone but England) T-shirts at the World Cup, the Highlanders are already allowing the imperialism of their culture and their view of the world by taking on the English language.

In response to my passionate plea, these North-Eastern Highlanders claimed that Gaelic was not only unrepresentative of their identity, but that it was spoken mainly by people from the Western Isles such as those in the Inner and Outer Hebrides, and that those in the East originally spoke Norwegian dialects. They then jokingly stated that if the government had wanted to preserve their historical roots, the road signs should have been in Norwegian. I found all this quite interesting, but a little hard to believe, so I decided to go ahead and do my own research on the origins of Gaelic.

While my friends are right about the fact that Gaelic is now seen as a regional language spoken largely on islands like Skye, Harris and Lewis, historically, it was actually the language spoken by the majority of Scotland. It is not clear how old Gaelic is but there is written evidence of the language dating back to as far as the 5th Century. Gaelic flourished for many centuries and even replaced Pictish as the main language of Scotland north of the River Forth in Edinburgh. It only began to suffer a decline in status as a national language in parts of mainland Scotland in the 13th Century, gradually being displaced by English. Ngugi (1986) describes how colonial powers devalue the culture of the local people and try to replace their language with that of the colonizer, and, in this way, control the way the people perceive themselves and the world, thus dominating and colonizing their minds. Yet, the Highlanders stubbornly resisted and the language survived.

The highland-lowland line emerged and Highland Gaelic, or what we know as Scottish Gaelic today, eventually became one that distinguished the Highlanders from the Lowlanders, who had their own brand of Lowland Gaelic, a dialect that is now completely defunct. Having been the language of the bardic culture of the Highland clans for many years, Scottish Gaelic preserves knowledge of pre-feudal ‘tribal’ laws and customs and was representative of the Highlanders and their traditions. These traditions, alongside the language, were unfortunately persecuted during the Battle of Culloden in 1746 where the Jacobites, made up of an army of mostly Highlanders, failed at their attempts to overthrow the reigning House of Hanover.

The Highlanders and their language were further tyrannised during the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, where masses of Highlanders were forced to emigrate to make way for agricultural reforms of the then British government.Waves of mass emigration to North America and Australasia meant that these immigrants had to learn the lingua francas of the countries they immigrated to, i.e. English, and subtractive bilingualism occurred.

Even in the 20th century, despite the council fiercely resisting continuous attempts to allow for bilingual road signs, it was not until 1973, when this was finally allowed. However, today, many with Scottish ancestry fail to realise that they belong to a culture that has its own language and take for granted the new rights they now have to celebrate this language. It’s a bit like the generations of women who have campaigned for the right to vote, only to have lots of women, decades later, not even bothering to head to the polls on election day. We humans do have a propensity of taking things for granted, things that generations have fought to have.

Most Scots would be pleased to have organisations like Historic Scotland to look after, to preserve, and to show off their amazing irreplaceable heritage. Places like Skara Brae on the Orkney Islands are older than the Pyramids of Egypt and tell a story of the history of a people, a story of where we come from and what we were, and places like this need to be conserved and studied with care.

Yet, many do not seem to see a parallel between these places and a complex language like Gaelic, which is filled with historical clues to the beginnings of the Scots. Perhaps an organisation like Historic Scotland could be accused of being formed for the profit-making, tourist-attracting schemes of the government, more so than the use of Gaelic on road signs. But no one would ever think that. It is, after all, not difficult to see the connection between historical monuments and the history and culture of a people. It is much more difficult to see that connection between a language and one’s culture, perhaps because language infiltrates every part of our everyday life and, therefore, is much more easily overlooked.

So, no, if we don’t believe in taking a wrecking ball to Eilean Donan Castle, then let’s not let Gaelic die.


Ngugi, W.T. (1986) Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Schaefer, R.P. and F.O. Egbokhare (1999) ‘English and the pace of endangerment in Nigeria.’ World Englishes 18/3:381-91.

Swerdlow, J.L. (1999) ‘Global Village’, National Geographic 196/2:2-6.

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