Understanding Discourse – Grice and Implicatures Part 3

This is the last of three parts on Grice and Implicatures.


4.      Implications for the Classroom

In Bouton’s experiment (1999), a total of 6 hours of explicit instruction was given over a 6-week period using teaching materials (see Appendix below) that focused students on implicature interpretation. On the basis of Bouton’s albeit tentative findings (3.3.1), English teachers should draw attention to how utterances take on different meanings in different contexts, discuss when different implicatures are appropriate, how they function, and how they compare to implicatures from the students’ native cultures (ibid:60-61). Alongside raising awareness of the native culture to help with relevance-based implicatures, I believe teachers can develop new materials, adapt old ones, highlight implicatures when they arise and expose students to examples through film, situation comedies, Twitter postings (As Twitter postings are limited to 140 characters, ‘tweets’ have to be short and succinct. Popular tweets often contain implicatures used to present an attitude or an innuendo, and in most cases, to be witty and humorous), and other aspects of pop culture, without wasting valuable class time.

There are also times when interlocutors fail to realise that learners are infringing a maxim or opting out.  Students can avoid generating unintended implicatures or creating wrong impressions by using discourse markers:

forgive me if I’m wrong’ (non-observance of quality maxims),

by the way’ (non-observance of relevance maxim),

for want of a better word’ (non-observance of manner maxim),

to cut a long story short’ (when faced with a quantity-quality clash).

Few coursebooks (the book ‘Conversation Lessons’ (Martinez, 1997) comes closest to presenting such lexical items in context. Most coursebooks e.g. Cutting Edge, Inside Out, and Vocabulary in Use Upper Intermediate (McCarthy and O’Dell, 2001:56-57) touch on them briefly but tend to present them in a de-contextualised, isolated fashion) focus on teaching such adverbials, perhaps not understanding that they could be essential to successful communication and deserve more classroom time. Teachers could work with emergent language, providing and highlighting the use of such lexical items when the context arises.

As English becomes an international language and is learnt as a tool to communicate with NNS (Jenkins, 2003:4), it is undeniable that the cross-cultural interpretation of utterances faces a new challenge. Currently, most intermediate-level NNS would negotiate meaning while giving each other a wide berth when interpreting implicatures. However, as most countries are now insisting on the learning of English from a young age, we will soon have a new generation of proficient English speakers confronted with a new breed of potential misunderstandings when communicating cross-culturally. The awareness of implicature interpretation in different cultures will necessitate more attention in future EFL classrooms, and a new understanding of CP will be called for.


5.      Conclusion

Grice’s principles have offered the linguistic world a way of looking at conversations beyond the words and opened up new areas of exploration in the area of pragmatics, but the implications of these studies have yet to be filtered through to the English language classroom. For learners who are immersed in an English/American culture, it is essential that we help them to adapt by raising awareness of implicature interpretation. As we move into a new age of English as an international language, the subject of implicatures would need further study and applications to teaching.


Do you deal with pragmatics and discourse in your classroom? How can we help learners become more effective interactants through understanding the Co-operative Principle better? Comments with any practical ideas you may have will much appreciated. Meanwhile, here’s one practical worksheet developed by Bouton (1999) to get us started, followed by a bibliography to all three parts of this series. Thanks for following. I hope it has helped somehow.



Sample materials developed as handouts for teaching implicature

Lesson 1: Introduction and Pope Q Formula

Introduction: In many languages, including English, people often do not say exactly what they intend to communicate. Sometimes in English we imply information and expect others to figure out what we really mean. One kind of indirect speech is called conversational implicature. Conversational implicature take different forms, but they are always a result of the interaction between language and context. The examples below illustrate one kind of conversational implicature.

Instructions: Read the following examples and answer the question following each example.

Example 1: Paul and Georgette are discussing a mutual acquaintance who is always running late.

Paul: Do you expect Sheila to be late for the party tonight?

Georgette: Is the pope Catholic?

What is the answer to Georgette’s question? What do you think she means?

Example 2: Celia and Ron are discussing their boss, who is very unpleasant.

Celia: So, do you think Mr. Stingy will give me a raise?

Ron: Do cows fly?

What does Ron mean?

Example 3: Larry and Charlene are talking about a test they recently took.

Charlene: Do you think you got an “A” on the test?

Larry: Do chickens have lips?

What does Larry mean?

Discussion: In each of the examples above, the second person answers the first person with another question, so we have the formula Question 1+Question 2 = Answer. In each case, the obvious answer to Question 2 becomes the answer to Question 1 also. For example, in the first case, Paul asks, “Do you expect Sheila to be late for the party tonight?” (Question 1). Georgette answers, “Is the pope Catholic?” (Question 2). Because the obvious answer to Question 2 is “yes” (the pope is the leader of the Catholics), Georgette’s answer to Paul is also “yes.”

Bouton, L.F. (1999:67-69) ‘Developing non-native speaker skills in interpreting conversational implicatures in English: Explicit teaching can ease the process’, in Hinkel, E. (ed.) (1999) Culture in Second Language Teaching and Learning. Cambridge: University of Cambridge.



Austin J.L. (1962) How to do things with words. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Bouton, L.F. (1988) ‘A cross-cultural study of ability to interpret implicatures in English’. World Englishes 7/2: 183-196.

Bouton, L.F. (1994) ‘Can NNS Skill in Interpreting Implicature in American English Be Improved Through Explicit Instruction?: A Pilot Study’. Pragmatics and Language Learning Monograph Series 5: 89-109.

Bouton, L.F. (1999) ‘Developing non-native speaker skills in interpreting conversational Implicatures in English: Explicit teaching can ease the process’. In Hinkel, E. (ed.) (1999) Culture in Second Language Teaching and Learning. Cambridge: University of Cambridge.

Brown, G. and G. Yule (1983) Discourse Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cameron, D. (2001) Working with Spoken Discourse. London: Sage.

Carston, R. (2004) A review of Stephen Levinson Presumptive Meanings. Journal of Linguistics 40/1: 181-186.

Clyne, M.G. (1994) Inter-cultural communication at work: cultural values in discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cohen, A.D. (1996) Speech Acts. In McKay S.L. and N.H. Hornberger (eds.) Sociolinguistics and Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cook, G. (1989) Discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davis, W.A. (1998) Implicature: Intention, convention, and principle in the failure of Gricean theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fox, K. (2004) Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. London: Hodder.

Gazdar, G. (1979) Pragmatics: Implicature, Presupposition and Logical form. New York: Academic Press, Inc.

Grice, H.P. (1975) ‘Logic and conversation’. In P. Cole and J. Morgan (eds.) Syntax and Semantics 3: Speech Acts.New York: Academic Press.

Grice, H.P (1978) ‘Further Notes on Logic and Conversation’. In Kasher, A. (ed.) (1998) Pragmatics vol. IV: 162-178. London: Routledge.

Hatim, B. (1997) Communication Across Cultures: Translation Theory and Contrastive Text Linguistics. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.

Jenkins, J. (2003) World Englishes: A resource book for students. London:Routledge.

Keenan, E.O. (1976) ‘The Universality of Conversational Postulates’. In Kasher, A. (ed.) (1998) Pragmatics vol. IV: 215-229. London: Routledge.

Leech, G. (1983) Principles of Pragmatics. London: Longman

Levinson, S. (1983) Pragmatics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Levinson, S. (2000) Presumptive Meanings. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Martinez, R. (1997) Conversation Lessons: The Natural Language of Conversation. Hove England: Language Teaching Publications.

McCarthy, M. and F. O’Dell (2001) English Vocabulary in Use: Upper Intermediate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spencer-Oatey, H. and W. Jiang (2003) ‘Explaining Cross-Cultural Pragmatic Findings: moving from politeness maxims to sociopragmatic interactional principles (SIPs)’. Journal of Pragmatics 35:1633-1650.

Sperber, D. and D. Wilson (1986) Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Sperber, D. and D. Wilson (1987) ‘Précis of Relevance’, in Kasher, A. (ed.) (1998), Pragmatics vol. V: 82-115. London: Routledge.

Sperber, D. and D. Wilson (2004) ‘Relevance Theory’, in Horn, L. and G. Ward (eds.) Handbook of Pragmatics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Thomas, J. (1995) Meaning in Interaction: an Introduction to Pragmatics. London: Longman.

Wierzbicka, A. (1985) A semantic metalanguage for a cross-cultural comparison of speech acts and speech genres. Language in Society 14: 491-514.

Yule, G. (1996) Pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Understanding Discourse – Grice and Implicatures Part 2

In my last post, I looked at Grice’s Co-operative Principle (CP) and how the observance or flouting of the maxims creates meaning and implicatures in interaction.

In this post, I will look at the criticisms of Grice’s theories and the alternatives to CP that were proposed. I will also examine the universality of CP and how they might or might not be applicable across cultures, with a special section dedicated to the use of irony and British humour.



3.      Criticisms of Grice

Critics say that Grice’s maxims are not only inapplicable ubiquitously, but that he had not used the terms in 2.2.4 consistently. CP has also been criticised on a number of counts: lack of distinctions between the maxims and between types of non-observance when calculating implicature, and the inability to withstand evidence of real language use (Thomas 1995, Gazdar 1979, Leech 1983). However, the most substantial criticisms are as follows.


3.1     Relevance Theory


Sperber and Wilson (2004) questioned the need for CP’s maxims, saying that expectations of relevance alone are enough to guide the hearer towards speaker meaning. They suggest that the search for relevance is basic to human cognitive systems (Cognitive Principle), and when utterances are made, interlocutors combine the input with available background information, while using the least processing effort required, to derive meaning. Consider:


(xiv)     I’ll google it.


Using the input plus the background knowledge (which can also be described as one’s schema of the internet) that ‘Google’ is an online search engine, one understands that the speaker intends to search online for the information. Grice was criticised for failing to address such loose uses of language, and for treating metaphor, hyperbole and irony equally as flouting of the Quality maxim (ibid). Relevance theorists claim that besides irony, all the above loose uses of language are used to convey optimal relevance more economically (ibid), while irony involves ‘an expression of tacitly dissociative attitudes’ (ibid:272) and requires a higher order of meta-representational ability.

Not believing in the co-operative nature of humankind, Sperber and Wilson (1986) suggests a Communicative Principle where the audience would only pay attention if the stimulus is worth processing and relevant enough, and that the speaker, might have to be capable and willing to draw the hearer’s attention to his/her intentions, away from competing stimuli. Grice was criticised for seeing speaker unwillingness as a violation and thus not conveying implicatures (ibid 2004), although I worry about such a misrepresentation, considering that a violation simply comes from a speaker not wanting to convey the implicature, and does not mean the hearer cannot infer from the unwillingness. Arguably, Grice tended to focus on implicature generation and less on hearer interpretation strategies.


3.2     Politeness Principle (PP)


(xv)      I don’t suppose you’ve time to spare?


Based on claims that sentences do not always have information-bearing functions, PP is proposed as a necessary complement to CP (Leech 1983:80), to explain indirect sentences like (xv) which seem to violate the quantity maxim.  While CP enables communication through the assumption of cooperativeness, PP allows for such co-operation by regulating social equilibrium and relations (ibid:82). Thus, PP is seen to override CP at times.

The Ironic Principle (IP), however, allows for PP to be exploited in order to uphold CP (ibid:82-83). In (x), Sue is afraid of causing offence to Brian and makes light of Brian’s flaws, allowing him to infer her real meaning through indirectness, by way of irony, ‘an “honest” form of apparent deception, at the expense of politeness’(ibid:83).

While CP has been criticised repeatedly for not being universal, PP allows for the study of how such principles are variable on different dimensions and are exploited differently in different societies (ibid:84). Nevertheless, how much of CP is non-universal?


3.3     The universality of CP


I have found disagreement over whether Grice believed in the universal application of CP. Spencer-Oatey and Jiang (2003) claimed that according to Grice, they were universal principles of language use. Leech (1983:80) believed that no claim has been made that CP applied in the same way everywhere. Sperber & Wilson (1987) and Davis (1998), however, both think of implicatures as social conventions, and therefore, interlinguistic, and lists quantity implicatures and irony as common to many languages (ibid:186). Gazdar (1979:54), on the other hand, takes Grice’s claim that CP is something ‘reasonable for us to follow’ to mean that the nature of the maxims are universal, and argues that Grice’s maxims ‘cannot be defended as universal principles of conversation’ (ibid:55). Clyne (1994:12) believes the maxims are anglo-centric, of limited relevance, and need reformulation to take non-English cultures into consideration.

Examples in 2.2.1 showed how some adherence to the maxims is already instinctive in my learners, but consider (iii) again. In parts of Northern Greece, ‘children’ conveys the GCI of ‘sons’. When interlocutors do not share the same schema of the word ‘children’, misunderstandings could arise. Considering the four factors Grice (1975) purported interlocutors use to communicate through implicature: the literal meaning of the utterance, the roles and expectations of participants, the situation, context and nature of the conversation, and the world around the participants, we can deduce that people from different cultural backgrounds would have different expectations, roles and world views, and see the contexts and nature of conversations differently (Bouton, 1999).  Van Dijik’s (1977 in Brown and Yule 1983) Assumed Normality of the World suggests that our reactions to particular communicative situations are learnt through our experience of interpreting them in prior similar contexts. If the respondent’s sociocultural (Sociocultural abilities refer to the respondent’s skills at selecting speech act strategies appropriate to the culture involved, the age and sex, the social class and occupations and roles and status of the participants in interaction) and sociolinguistic abilities (Sociolinguistic abilities refer to the respondents’ skill at selecting linguistic forms to express a particular speech act strategy and their control over utterance’s register of formality) must be considered for the success of speech acts (Cohen, 1996), so it must be when interpreting implicatures.


3.3.1    Bouton’s cross-cultural study

Bouton (1988) found a significant difference between the way NS and non-native speakers (NNS) interpreted the implicatures presented within contextualised dialogues (the dialogues were presented on paper and lacked the paralinguistic and non-linguistic features that would normally be present when interpreting implicatures. This may have had some effect on his findings.), with the Germans/Spanish/Portuguese having more similar scores to NS than the Chinese/Japanese. We could perhaps conclude that certain cultures have more similar expectations and world views to the target culture than others.

Subsequently, Bouton (1994) noted that without explicit instruction, there was increased mastery of implicature types as time passes (particularly, those based on flouting the relevance maxim), although progress was slow after 17 months, and irony remained a problem even for those immersed for 54 months. The types of implicatures that remained difficult for those immersed for more than 17 months, however, were the ones that improved when a separate group was given explicit classroom instruction. Such instruction, conversely, did not help them improve on relevance-based implicatures.

Bouton (1999) believed implicatures differed in their opaqueness to NNS. Relevance-based implicatures required a lot of background information to interpret (idiosyncratic implicatures) and seemed impervious to teaching efforts, but depended on the building up of native-culture schemata over time. Formulaic implicatures, such as PopeQ (Bouton (1988) uses the term PopeQ to refer to typical ironic questions used in answer to another question. Other examples include, ‘Can ducks swim?’ and ‘Do bears sh*t in the woods?’) [see (xvi)], indirect criticism [see (viii)] and irony, however, have pattern-based structural or semantic clues, and these patterns can be taught, recognised, and used.



Deb:    Do you like ice-cream?

Derren: Is the pope Catholic?


3.3.2    Irony and English humour


Much cross-cultural misinterpretation of implicatures concerns sense of humour. Consider:



(Pointing to a bottle of Coke on the table)

Nao:    Is this coca-cola?

Me:     It’s a pizza.


The Japanese Nao, who thought I had meant to treat her like a fool, was puzzled. Some months later, Nao said, ‘I understand! British humour is about bullying others!’ Both the Japanese and Chinese have one expression to mean irony and sarcasm, and being ironic carries a negative connotation of insult. Although Nao had identified the semantic pattern in irony, her sense that the English found humour in bullying others was misplaced.

Anthropologist Fox (2004:65-66) notes that the English treat irony as ‘a constant, a normal element of ordinary, everyday conversation’ and the ‘dominant ingredient in English humour’. What makes irony even more difficult for foreigners is that a deadpan face is the expected norm. Fox sympathises with foreigners, admitting that self-parodying is part of the English psyche deeply schematised in the culture.
If spoken irony is difficult for NNS, written irony poses a bigger problem. Hatim (1997) attributes irony to the English preference for understatements and the cryptic, enabling one  to express an attitude without saying very much. Irony is hard to preserve when translating written texts. Hatim (ibid:196) suggests that Arabic is intolerant to such opaqueness, with translators of irony needing to flout the quantity maxim by being over-informative.


3.3.3    Making CP universal


Keenan’s (1976) investigation in Malagasy culture has spurred criticisms that Grice’s principles were monocentric and full of assumptions based on Anglo-Saxon norms and culture (Wierzbicka 1985, Gazdar 1979). Keenan (1976) admits the Malagasy community are not uninformative, but explains that Grice’s maxims do not hold in some societies. However, perhaps it is the critics themselves who have been monocentric and have interpreted Grice’s words from an English perspective. Arguably, being ‘as informative as required’ would stand with the Malagasy speakers if the ‘information’ expected and the schema of what ‘information’ entails differs in their culture. I believe CP could be realised in different cultures in different ways. Consider.


(xviii)               Returning an unidentified missed call,

Singaporean: Hello. Who called?


Clyne (1994:192) states that in both European and East/South-east Asian culture, the more information/knowledge provided, the better. Singaporeans, however, sometimes seem comfortable with the bare information minus the niceties, so we could argue that what is ‘required’ depends on cultural variation and situational expectations. Clyne (ibid:194) proposes a set of revised ‘maxims’ (Appendix) to make CP more universal by considering different cultural norms and expectations when applying Grice’s principles. How can teachers then apply this knowledge to help students adapt to a foreign environment?



In the last part of this series, I will be looking at the implications that Grice’s theories have on teaching and asking for ideas as to how this could be relevant to what we practitioners do in the language classroom.




Clyne (1994)’s revised maxims

Quantity:     A single maxim – ‘Make your contribution as informative as is required for

the purpose of the discourse, within the bounds of the discourse parameters of the given culture.’


Quality:        Supermaxim – ‘Try to make your contribution one for which you can take

responsibility within your own cultural norms.’

Maxims (1) ‘Do not say what you believe to be in opposition to your cultural

norms of truth, harmony, charity, and/or respect.’

(2) Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.’[1]


Manner:       The supermaxim can be retained in its original form – ‘Be perspicacious.’[2]

Maxims (1) ‘Do not make it any more difficult to understand than may be

dictated by questions of face and authority.’

(2) Avoid ambiguity unless it is in the interests of politeness or of

maintaining a dignity-driven cultural core value, such as harmony,

charity or respect.’

(3) ‘Make your contribution the appropriate length required by the

nature and purpose of the exchange and the discourse parameters

of your culture.’

(4) ‘Structure your discourse according to the requirements of your



Clyne, M.G. (1994) Inter-cultural communication at work: cultural values in discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



[1] Maxim (2) of Quality and Maxim (2) of Manner have disclaimers put onto them.

For more detail, see Clyne (1994:194).

[2] I believe there is a typing error here. Grice’s original maxim of Manner was to be ‘perspicuous’, rather than ‘perspicacious’. This slightly changes the meaning of the maxim, which I assume was not the intention.

The CELTA Trainer’s Diary Part 9 – Functions and Spoken Discourse

Among the four language systems – Lexis, Grammar, Pronunciation, and Discourse, Discourse is often the one that is most neglected on the CELTA.  Some tutors might do an input session on functional language a la the functional syllabuses on the 1970s, but that is inevitably presented as formulaic lexis and nothing more.

Yet, spoken discourse governs the things we say and how appropriate they are in different circumstances. It explores how we assign significance to utterances and make sense of conversations. Without the study of discourse, lexis, grammar and pronunciation would remain stagnant concepts for it is through discourse that the other language systems interact with each other in a dynamic and fluid manner to create meaning.

Perhaps because it is so fluid and dynamic, many teachers and teacher trainers fear it, and do not know where to start teaching it.

On my CELTA, I give my trainees a taster of what discourse is all about and since Güven has kindly referred to me in his blogpost about this input session, I felt inclined to give the details of the session.

The day’s session started with a roleplay.

Trainees were put into their TP groups, with 5 in each group.

5 different rolecards were given to each of them.

The scenario: You are 5 old friends who have known each other for more than 10 years. You meet once every year to catch up. Each of you have a different quirk/idiosyncrasy.


The 5 characters in brief :

a)         1 has relationship problems with their partner and loves to complain and moan about it.

b)        1 is extremely touchy feely and likes to give the impression of being kind and supportive and likes playing the comforter.

c)         1 is a doer. He/She is solution-oriented, and likes offering suggestions and advice.

d)        1 has a very short attention span, gets bored easily and likes changing the topic.

e)         1 likes to criticize but does so with tact. He/ She always sees the negative side of everything and hates wimps.

The roleplay takes a good 10-15 minutes or so, and while monitoring, the trainer transcribes sentences she hears containing semi-fixed and fixed expressions that relate to particular discourse functions.

Relating to role (a), you would find expressions like

‘You won’t believe what xxx did!’;

‘I’m don’t know what to do’;

‘That reminds me, xxx is always + -ing’


Relating to role (b), you would find expressions like

Don’t worry’;

‘That’s such a pity’;

‘I’m so sorry to hear that’;

‘It’s not the end of the world’;

‘Things are going to get better’


Relating to role (c), you would find expressions like

Why don’t you + -ing?’;

‘How about + -ing?’;

‘You could + bare infinitive’;

‘You really should + bare infinitive’


Relating to role (d), you would find expressions like

‘By the way,…’;


‘Come to think of it,….’;

‘Now that you mention it,…’


Relating to role (e), you would find expressions like

‘With all due respect,…’;

‘I don’t mean to be mean/harsh, but…’;

‘If you don’t mind me saying, …’;

‘To be honest,…’;

‘I see where you are coming from but…’


You might also find:

Hedging and softening devices like

It’s sort of…’;

‘It’s  just….’;

‘It’s not that…’


Semi-fixed expressions to focus and emphasize, like

The thing is…’;

‘At the end of the day, …’;

‘What this means is…


And typical expressions for opening and closing a conversation, such as

‘Hi, how are you?’;

‘How have things been?’;

‘How is it going?’;

‘Long time no see!’

‘I’ve got to go’;

‘I really have to make a move’;

‘It’s been nice catching up with you’;

‘See you around’


After the roleplay, trainees are made to guess what each of their team members’ quirks might be, and the trainer then boards the phrases she has transcribed on to the board.

The trainees then have to discuss and decide if the phrases are fixed or semi-fixed, and if they are semi-fixed, which part is changeable. They also have to say which character they think uttered the phrase and what function it serves.

As trainees do this, the group often comes to a natural realization that although some phrases like ‘Why don’t you + -ing?’ can be assigned the function of ‘suggestion’ or ‘advice’ quite easily, some phrases or discourse markers could have more than one purpose.

Take the discourse marker ‘Well,….’ for example.

  • It could serve as  a signpost saying ‘I disagree and I’m now going to tell you why politely.’
  • It could serve as  conversation changer, not dissimilar to ‘Anyway,’ or ‘By the way,’.
  • It could also signal the start of a long answer to a question, e.g. ‘Well, since I was a child, I blah blah blah….’

The lesson to be learnt here (aside from the fact that perhaps John Searle had wasted his life trying to categorise all utterances into functions) is that some linguistic formulae serve certain functions and could/should be taught with the relevant functions. However, interaction is dynamic and meaning is often co-constructed and negotiated through the conversation process.

Context and co-text could thus be a much bigger clue to the meaning of the utterance than any prescribed function, and we as teachers should not get carried away with teaching the functions of an utterance out of context.

Following this debrief to the roleplay, the following questions were put up on the interactive white board for students to think about.

1.  What do you say when someone says, ‘How do you do?’

What about ‘How are you?


2.  Look at the following dialogue. Who do you think Rachel is? What does Michael mean?

Rachel:          The phone is ringing.

Michael:        I’m in the bath

(Adapted from Prof. Henry Widdowsen)


3.  What do the following utterances really mean?

             Are you busy?

            It’s stuffy in here, isn’t it?

            That curry smells really good.

            I totally forgot to bring my pen.

            Will you be passing the supermarket on your way home?

            I can’t reach the top shelf.

(Adapted from Vicky Hollett’s blog)


4.  What is Sue trying to achieve here?

Brian has just burnt his dinner.

Sue (laughs): You’re such a great cook.


What is Sarah trying to do here?

Justin accidentally mentions Richard’s ex-wife in a conversation with Richard and Sarah. Sarah quickly changes the topic.

Sarah: What do you think of the coffee here?


5.  Maria starts a presentation with ‘Now, I will start.’ And ends it with ‘Okay, I finish.’ What could you tell her?


6.  The Germans and the Americans were having a business meeting. The Americans made a proposal and the Germans said, ‘The problem with that is…’  The Americans misunderstood their intentions.

What do you think happened?

(Adapted from research by Dr. Sabrina Mallon-Gerland)


7.  Discourse researcher called the discourse styles of Latin America, Italy, Spain, Portugal, etc ‘Rugby’, while those from Japan, Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan were called ‘Bowling’. Why do you think this is so?


8.  How do we know when it’s our turn to speak? What do you do to hold the floor? How do you signal to someone that you’ve finished talking?


9.  What happened here?

Kelly and Jun Sook are partners. Kelly has just returned home from work.

Kelly: You won’t believe what happened to me today!

Jun Sook stares at her and doesn’t say a word.

Kelly: Fine, if you’re not interested, then I’m not going to tell you!

Jun Sook: Huh?

10.  How do you normally interrupt a conversation? What do you say?


I will leave you with these ten questions as food for thought and look forward to your comments.

The discussion will follow on in the next blogpost.

‘Where are you from?’ and the issue of diaspora

Yesterday was the American Independence Day…which to me meant only one thing, it’s my London anniversary!

12 years ago, I came into this city by Eurostar from Paris and was struck by how at home the city made me feel.

Now, I am at home.

Last year, I wrote this 11th anniversary post about the 11 things I learnt in London…but the truth of the matter is, when I think of home, I think of London.

When England plays in the Eurocup, I get my St George’s flag out and shout ‘Come on England!’ at the top of my lungs.

When the UK wins a medal in the Olympics, I beam with pride as the national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’ plays.

I identify myself as a Londoner, and I know for sure that I feel more at home here than anywhere else in the world.

Yet, perhaps because I don’t look typically British, a common opening line when people meet me for the first time is to ask, ‘Where are you from?’

Whether it be a business associate I have just been introduced to or a pickup line at a pub, I have always found this opening line rather disconcerting.

I know that those who choose to use this line do not mean any harm, and are probably doing nothing more than making conversation, but I find ‘Where are you from?’ extremely exclusive and divisive…

Let me put it this way,

If a fat person walked into the pub, would you open the conversation with, ‘What on earth have you been eating?’

If a person came in on a wheelchair, would you start by saying, ‘So, pray tell, what happened to you?’

We wouldn’t dream of pointing out the differences between us and them in those situations.

It would definitely be considered a social faux pas.

Yet, it seems okay to most to start a conversation pointing out the difference between me and you because of the colour of my skin and my ethnic origin?

And the irony of it all is that, when asked, many would simply say, ‘We asked you that question only to try and achieve common ground between us!’

Of course, this might be due to our human need to put things in boxes and categorise everything into simple generalisations. The ability to siphon things into neat categories somehow feels comforting…and even necessary in facilitating how we go about our day-to-day activities. Our ‘assumed normality of the world’ is what tells us which conventions to apply to the situations we encounter.

We walk into a pub and order a beer in English because (a) we assume that pubs sell beer, and (b) we assume the bartender speaks English.

We say ‘Awful weather today, isn’t it?’ to our colleagues in the morning because (a) we assume that they hate the cold weather too, and (b) they know that talking about weather is merely a way making small talk and we do not intend to get into a full conversation about the weather.

We make assumptions (some universal, some cultural) everyday and this enables us to have relationships with people…

But does my oriental appearance or me being from a country in South East Asia really help you to know more about me? What does it help you to know?

So, sometimes, when confronted with the conversation opener, ‘Where are you from?’, I answer, ‘London’.

More often than not, I get this response – ‘No! Really! Where are you from?’

Even those who think I am born in London insist on asking that question, hoping I would leave them a clue as to my ethnic origins.

But what does ‘Where are you from?’ really mean?

Does it mean, ‘Where were you born?’

It can’t possibly mean this because I have a colleague who was born to British parents and went to primary school in Singapore, but lived most of his adult life in Manchester. When asked ‘Where are you from?’, his answer is always ‘Manchester’…and no one ever questions him with a ‘No…really! Where are you from?’

Or does it mean, ‘Where were you brought up and educated?’

It can’t possibly mean this either because I have another colleague who was born, brought up and educated in Glasgow but moved to Manchester for his university education and stayed for quite a long time. His accent is much more Mancunian than Glaswegian. And when asked ‘Where are you from?’, his answer tends to be ‘England’ or ‘Manchester’. Again, no one ever challenges that answer.

Or does it mean, ‘Where were your parents from?’

Ah…I have a friend whose parents are from the West Indies but he was born and brought up in London. Should he answer the question with ‘Jamaica’? Why is it that when he says ‘London’, no one raises any eyebrows?

To me, ‘Where are you from?’ means all of those things, but above all, it means, ‘Where do you feel you belong to in your heart?’.

Identity is a complex issue and diaspora and the lack of belonging can make one feel left out, excluded, and ostracised.

My ‘born-in-Singapore’ colleague feels Mancunian, and so does my colleague who was born in Glasgow. Because in their hearts, Manchester is where they belong.

I feel like a Londoner, and London is where I belong.

Happy 12th birthday to me…

The BESIG Paris Summer Symposium 2012

The BESIG Paris Summer Symposium (in association with TESOL France) might have only been a day long, but it was certainly one of the best conferences I had ever attended.

It was well-organised. – From the moment the speakers’ proposals were accepted to the day of the conference, key information was disseminated in good time, queries were answered before they were even asked, and the speakers were even sent photos of the rooms that they would be presenting in.

It was well-programmed. – Like many conference goers, I had become used to attending conferences where inevitably there would be talks that might make one feel like the opportunity cost was little high, to put it diplomatically. This conference had no such talks. Every single session I went to either gave me useful ideas to implement in my teaching or brought up certain issues that made me think. And from what I heard, the sessions that I was unable to attend due as they clashed with the sessions I went to were just as good (Eric Halvorsen, Vicky Loras, Michelle Hunter, Adrian Pilbeam, Nick Robinson, Ian McMaster & Deborah Capras: Sorry I couldn’t come to your sessions, but I have been hearing so many positive things about your sessions!) So kudos to the selection committee and to the presenters for that.

It was well-attended.– There were about 160 delegates at the conference venue attending the talks, but there were also some 70 delegates that had congregated in Argentina, Serbia, and Croatia, watching some of the talks simulcasted live into their conference rooms. On top of that, there were those who were watching the talks live from the comfort of their own homes through the Adobe Connect rooms. This meant that talks like mine which had the privilege of being simulcasted were able to engage not just the live audience in the room but also the audience in Argentina, Serbia, Croatis, and those online, involving them in the workshops and the discussions.

However, by well-attended, I’m not simply talking about the large numbers in the audience. I’m also talking about the ‘quality’ of the conference delegates. The BESIG Summer Symposium was attended by some of the most influential people in the TEFL industry, from the iconic Business English book writers and speakers like Evan Frendo, Pete Sharma, Marjorie Rosenberg, to the intercultural experts like Barry Tomalin and Adrian Pilbeam, to the online celebrities like Brad Patterson and Vicky Loras and the new generation of TEFL movers and shakers like Nick Robinson, Mike Hogan, and Bethany Cagnol (conference organizer and speaker).

Kudos to the BESIG committee…
– photo by Mike Hogan
…and the folks of TESOL France!
– photo by Mike Hogan

For me, this conference was also about finally getting to meet up with some of the Twitter PLNers and Twitteratti in person (Christina @RebuffetBroadus, Eric @ESHalvorsen, Sue @SueAnnan, Vicky Loras @vickyloras, Brad Patterson @Brad5Patterson, Mieke @mkofab, and Carolyn @kerrcarolyn) and they are as marvellous if not more than their online presence!

The BESIG and Twitter PLN combined!

On the 16th June, the day of the conference, I walked from the hotel to Télécom ParisTech, where the conference was held. After an efficient registration process by the friendly TESOL France volunteers and committee members, and some early morning coffee with members of the PLN, I then headed to my first session, Barry Tomalin’s Teaching International Culture in Business – The Framework Approach ©.

Adding his own take to a mix of the dimensions and frameworks of Hofstede, Trompenaars and Richard Lewis, Barry creates the RADAR profile that helps us to learn about ourselves, before comparing our styles to others. Following some effective explanations and relevant examples, Barry had the audience first measure their expectations of business relationships by reflecting upon the following dimensions:

1. Are you more quality driven or cost/finance driven?

2. Are you more risk embracing or risk averse?

3. Do you prefer close contact or distance?

4. Are you more relationship driven or task driven?


We then measured our communication styles through the following:

1. Do you tend to be direct or indirect?

2. Do you often state your objectives before the reason or the background to a task before the objectives?

3. Do you tend to be formal or informal?

4. Are you more likely to be emotional or neutral?


Our organisational styles were measured according to the following:

1. Do you prioritise efficiency or effectiveness more?

2. Are you more time tight or time loose?

3. Do you tend to prefer top down or delegation?

4. Do you prefer individual decisions or team decisions?

Photo by Chia Suan Chong

Using framework provided by Barry, we marked out our answers to the above questions and then mapped it against the perceived styles of someone we work with, and considered the areas in which most gap was seen. Giving us the useful tip ‘Change 20% of your behaviour to get 80% of a change in the attitude towards you!’, Barry ended the session by encouraging us to think of a problem that we might have with another culture by going through the procedure he had taught us:

  • Identify your style;
  • Compare your style;
  • Empathise;
  • Manage your skills;
  • Reflect.

Judging from impressive attendance and the high levels of engagement, this session was certainly a resounding success. After a 15-minute coffee break, I managed to get a seat next to Christina Rebuffet-Broadus in one of the simulcasted talks, Pete SharmaApp-tivities for Business English’. Pete began by alerting us to several basic questions that we should ask ourselves about apps. Are they for the right platform? (Apple iPhone? Android? etc) Are they ELT apps or authentic apps? Do we need to pay for them? Is the app free-standing or does it need an internet connection to work?

Photo by Mike Hogan

He then went on to give us plenty of useful and exciting suggestions for teachers who own smart phones and iPads and would like to exploit their use more in the classroom. Here are some of them:

  • For listening practice, TED or BBC iPlayer.
  • For reading practice, newspaper apps can come in handy.
  • For pronunciation and familiarizing one with the IPE chart is Macmillan Sounds. The paid version comes with multiple activities for students.
  • Presentation tools like Brainshark or Prezi can be useful for the Business English Classroom
  • Prezi Viewer can help students to organise complex subjects like ‘culture’, ‘online learning’ or ‘the environment’.
  • Camera apps like Acrossair for geo-tagging, or Android apps like Google Goggles can provide information of one’s surroundings.
  • Screenchomp can turn our iPads into IWBs (Interactive White Boards)
  • Mindmapping software like Simple Mind can help our business clients with their tasks.
  • Fun and games like the British Council apps can motivate our learners.
  • Flashcode Reader reads QR codes. Using a QR code writer, a teacher can make treasure hunt clues, web quests, or simply send a students to an IELTS practice website.
  • Flashcard apps are widely available and can be used for vocab review

Pete’s book App-tivities is now in the labs of The Round, so we can go to www.theround/labs for a free sneak preview! Next up was Mike Hogan and Bethany Cagnol’s ‘Managing Your Brand as a Trainer’, where the freelancers and school owners in the audience were made to seriously think about their business plans and how much they invested in themselves and their brand. Asking the key question, ‘When people hear your name, what do they say? What does your brand say about you?’, Mike and Beth takes the audience through the different aspects of managing one’s brand, from professionalizing oneself by thinking about our niche markets and how we appear to our clients, to considering our online presence when a client or employer ‘Googles’ our name, to taking part in our clients’ conferences and courses/workshops, and even specialized training, so as to understand the environment our clients operate in.

Photo by Chia Suan Chong

Reflection clearly has a huge part to play when examining our brand. Amongst many other useful tips, the audience left the talk with the following questions resonating in their heads:

  • Are we able to present and negotiate our services with our clients?
  • Are we adapting to the changes in the market?
  • Are we investing in ways to boost the quality of what we offer?
  • Are we getting referred by our clients? If not, why not?

My talk was scheduled for the slot straight after lunch, so a few of us went to the nearby sandwich shop and I bought myself a ‘Skipper Sandwich’ with a chopped-up beef patty and fries between two chunks of bread, just to ensure that I would be as sleepy as my audience during my presentation.

Photo by Mike Hogan

As I often feel uncomfortable summarizing my own talks and presentations, let’s just simply say that my ‘Myths and Controversies in BE Teaching’ was largely based on the discussions that were had on the Devil’s Advocate interview here on chiasuanchong.com (see I’m trying to manage my brand! Mike and Beth would be so proud!). Polls were conducted both with the ‘studio audience’ and those watching from Argentina, Serbia and Croatia, and those at home, and we were able to get some very interesting discussions going. Thanks for participating, everyone!

The video of the talk will be up on besig.org soon! Another talk that was also simulcasted was Evan Frendo’s ‘Using Corpora in Materials Development’. Introducing the Hong Kong Corpus of Spoken English and the Enronsent Corpus for written corporate communication, Evan encourages us to get Wordsmith Tools, a concordancing tool that will enable us to analyse the corpora data using word lists and frequency lists. Keyword lists can also be another useful tool for ESP teachers as it helps us to find words that are significantly more frequent in a corpus when compared to another corpus. Demonstrating some possible uses of the corpora, Evan shows us the common collocates used when discussing a CNC machine, something guaranteed to be quite foreign to the lay person, highlighting the usefulness of a corpora to help us teachers become more familiar with the language our students’ need.

Photo by Chia Suan Chong

But using the corpora is not just for ESP teachers. The answer to the question “What is the difference between ‘going forward’ and ‘looking forward’?” can be found by simply looking up examples of use in the corpus data, therefore avoiding precarious situations that might arise from teachers guessing the use of certain lexis by using their instinct. Evan then ends his talk with an optimistic ‘Isn’t this what we do as Business English teachers? We analyse the language, and then we teach it.’ If only all BE teachers were this conscientious, Evan… Just before the closing plenary, Divya Brochier and Brad Patterson provided the audience with an interesting and useful way of encouraging speaking in the classroom with their presentation ‘Using Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats to Boost Conversation Classes’.

Photo by Chia Suan Chong

Illustrating the fact that some students are simply not very motivated to talk through a hilarious roleplay with Brad and Rakesh Bhanot playing bored business students (Bravo for that French accent! It was so real I almost forgot that you both weren’t French!), Divya and Brad that goes on to show us how the use of the Six Thinking Hats could solve this problem.

The White Hat: Unbiased fact

The Green Hat: Creativity and Growth

The Red Hat: Emotions

The Black Hat: Problems. The Devil’s Advocate.

The Yellow Hat: Optimism and solutions.

The Blue Hat: Organisation

So the next time your student says something to the tune of ‘I don’t know’ when you ask them to comment on Global Warming or some topic in a reading text, try move around the six hats instead: What are the facts? (White) How do you feel about it? (Red) What are some of the problems with this? (Black) What are some of the advantages/benefits? (Yellow) How can we move forward from here? (Green) How would you summarise what’s been said? (Blue)

The fantastic conference then came to an end with David Crystal’s closing plenary ‘Language and the Internet’. David sets the tongue-in-cheek tone of the plenary by asking if we were addicted to the Internet and whether we check our emails when we wake up at night to go to the toilet? Surveying the audience with the questions, ‘How many of you here blog?’, ‘How many of you here tweet?’, and ‘How many of you here are tweeting right now?’ (I had my hand up to all three questions), David jokes about the fact that there now exists Twitter Scores that indicate how many people are tweeting in your talk. Clearly, the more people who tweet, the more important you must be!

How many of you tweet?
– photo by Mike Hogan

What was known as Computer Mediated Communication in the 1990s no longer seems to be an appropriate term as the distinction between phones and computers blur. We now talk about Electronic Digital Communication. In fact, the mobilization of the internet means that by 2020, 80% of access to the internet will be through mobile phones.

While adults criticize text messaging and text speak as the way young people are harming our language through abbreviations, David Crystal debunks this myth, stating that text messages are NOT full of abbreviations as only 10% of texts are abbreviated, and we are now seeing abbreviations die away in text-messaging perhaps due to the fact that the novelty has worn out. (One Twitterer tweeted as a response to this, saying that this could be due to the dominance of predictive texts…but I’m not sure if this applies to smartphone users).

Interestingly, using ‘U’ for ‘you’ and ‘c’ for ‘see’ have been around for at least two centuries, and the very parents that criticize today’s teenagers for abbreviating were probably just as guilty doing the same with acronyms like ‘SWALK’ (Sealed with a loving kiss) at the back of envelopes. More interestingly, the earlier one gets their mobile phone, the better a speller one turns out to be. Text messaging is upping our literacy and not harming it.

Photo by Mike Hogan

Defining the difference between electronic communication and the spoken language, David Crystal highlights that electronic communication features successive feedback as opposed to simultaneous feedback. But we can be rest assured that there has not been many changes to the lexicogrammar of our language even with the advance of the internet. Perhaps the most noticeable change is in orthography, i.e. spelling and punctuation, but even so, this is a marginal feature.

Moving on to Twitter, David shows how the move from asking ‘What are you doing now?’ to ‘What’s happening?’ has made tweets less introverted and less about ‘I’ and more about ‘they’. Twitter is now used for business and for reporting on the things that are happening around us.

Ending his talk with a bit on blogging, David entertains the audience with a little skit on ‘blue bottles’, demonstrating how the internet and blogging has led to the start of many romantic relationships between the online users who share a common interest. The one and a half hours flew by with David Crystal telling anecdote after anecdote that the audience could engage with and relate to, and making his points loud and clear, all without the help of any slides or notes. It was certainly an impressive and thoroughly enjoyable presentation, and a great way to end the BESIG Summer Symposium.

Here’s a fascinating interview David Crystal himself by the BESIG Online Team.

The Presentation Award winners
– photo by Mike Hogan

All that is left is to congratulate the winners of the BESIG first-time presenters’ Award Vicky Loras, Eric Halvorsen, and Luke Thompson and Andy Johnson, and it’s off to the nearest restaurant for some escargots and frog legs!

(For more photos of the BESIG Paris Summer Symposium by Mike Hogan, go here)

Devil’s Advocate vs Hugh Dellar on Intercultural Communication

This series is inspired by a conversation between Mike Hogan and myself about examining the controversies in ELT. We wanted to consider the different positions taken by different members of the industry. However, to do so, we’d need a debate, a disagreement of sorts. And it became apparent that we either tend to agree with members of our PLN (flying creatures of the same feathers and all that), or would keep an open mind and be fairly polite and supportive of one another (that is why we tweet and blog). Seeing that, the only way to get a real debate going was to actively play Devil’s Advocate (DA).

The following debate took place as an Instant-Messaging Chat on Skype. The statements of here are of the DA and in no way represent my beliefs about teaching. This is merely a tool to spark a dialogue between you, the reader, and all those involved in this project. You can find previous instalments of DA here.

So the eighth victim on the hot seat is Hugh Dellar.

Hugh Dellar is a teacher and teacher trainer at University of Westminster, London. He has been teaching for almost twenty years, mostly in the UK, but also in Indonesia. He is the co-author of two five-level General English series, INNOVATIONS and OUTCOMES, both of which are published by National Geographic Learning. He has given talks and teacher development sessions all over the world and blogs at http://www.hughdellar.wordpress.com. He also runs a busy language-focussed site here. In addition, he is a life-long Arsenal supporter, obsessive hoarder of obscure 1960s vinyl and general bon viveur, as the photo bears witness to!


Chia:  Hi Hugh, thank you for taking time out to be here today!

Hugh:  Thank you for inviting me, Chia

Chia:  I have heard that you are not the biggest advocate for dealing with intercultural communication in the English language classroom. Would that be right?

Hugh:  Kind of, yes. Part of the issue for me is that I’m never really sure what is actually meant by things like ‘dealing with intercultural communication in the classroom’ . . . and I fear many people who bandy such terms around aren’t either!

I believe that the MAIN role of a language teacher is to teach language and that most other things are a distraction.

Chia:  Surely the role of a English language teacher these days is to help our learners become better communicators. And well, Hugh, as soon as you communicate with someone who is not from where you are from, you are communicating interculturally.

Communicating Effectively
ELTpics: Picture by @ij64

Hugh:  The way we help our students become better communicators is by teaching them better English.

Your definition of communicating interculturally just seems to me to mean talking to people!!

I think that the real issue is that students communicate better with each other when they share more language in common, and the more English students speak, the more they are able to communicate with each other and find both common ground and differences . . . and in a sense that’s the same whether you’re talking to someone from the other side of the world or from a neighbouring country. I just don’t see what the ‘cross-cultural’ part is supposed to be apart from providing language and opportunities for students to talk to each other . . .

Chia: First of all, Hugh, as a coursebook writer, you must agree with me that communicating is not limited to just speaking. What about writing, listening and body language?

Hugh: Well, of course, communicating includes writing, listening and reading yes. But those essentially involve linguistic knowledge and competence.

As for body language, well, that’s very personal and something that for me – unless it crops up in class, as admittedly it sometimes does – is certainly not something I’d go out of my way to ‘teach’.

Chia:  What you are saying is that when people can find common ground and differences and be aware of these, then they will become more successful communicators, right?

So therefore, if we can help them to become more aware of cultural characteristics of those with whom they will be communicating, can we not make the learning process more efficient by allowing them to become more aware of these common grounds and differences (and I include body language in that).

We’re training our learners to become better communicators, not just better English language users. Or do you see that differently, Hugh?

Intercultural Communication
ELTpics: Picture by @senicko

Hugh: I’m not even necessarily saying that you need to find common ground or difference, really. I’m saying people who have more language and can use that language more skillfully will be better communicators. It may be that you use that talent and that language to find common ground, if that’s what you’re interested in, or differences. It may also be, of course, that you use it to manipulate, abuse, sell to, etc. It depends on what you want from situations, doesn’t it? And what people want depends on them and the situations they’re in and who they’re interacting with. In life in general, I mean, not just in classrooms.

I’m very very wary of talk of ‘cultural characteristics of those with whom they will be communicating’, though, partly because it inevitably leads to over-generalisations and stereotyping of the ‘Germans are direct and blunt, Japanese value politeness and ritual’ variety; partly because who actually knows who our students will be dealing with outside of class in the rest of their lives and partly because people vary so widely. I’ve met super informal, sweary, drinking Japanese folk and far more formal ones, just as I have Germans, English and so on, and any smart person treats each person on a person to person basis – and the core of the way you negotiate that is through language.

Does intercultural training mean teaching dos and don’ts?

Chia: In no way do I mean we should teach dos and don’ts. And I agree that over-generalisations lead to stereotyping and essentialism. What I mean is – Should we not make our learners aware of how their communication styles can be interpreted by others, and how other people’s communication styles can be misinterpreted by them?

It’s about raising awareness of potential areas of difficulty and not about trying to overgeneralise certain cultures or nationalities. e.g. Many coursebooks have topics like ‘Work’ or ‘Jobs’ and have writing tasks involving the writing of a CV. In the USA, putting your date of birth on your CV could result in it being thrown in the bin as they don’t want to risk being accused of discrimination, but in Germany, not putting your DOB or photo on your CV could mean your application might not be considered. Shouldn’t learners be made aware of such things?

Hugh: I just don’t see how you think this works in class Chia. Some people might think you’re direct, others might think you’re not; some people might feel you’re talkative, others may be more talkative than you. How does knowing this benefit students? And is it really our job to tell them this? People learn what others think about them through interaction throughout their lives, and most people – if they’re adults – already have a fairly strong sense of their own self anyway . . .

If all you mean is learning conventions of how things like CVs are done in UK or US cultures, then that’s fine. I see that as genre awareness rather than cross-cultural differences. Though of course even this knowledge only really helps students if they’re applying for a job in the UK or US.

If a German is applying to an international company in Germany but sending a German-style CV in English, is it such an issue? I suspect not and I suspect it certainly won’t be what gets them the job or doesn’t get them the job.

All I do as a writer or teacher is present things like CVs in the standard way I’d expect them to be, but don’t make an issue of this being ‘cultural in any way . . .

And besides, at University of Westminster, we get 5-10 CVs a week coming though the door, almost all from native speakers, and are they somehow culturally consistent? Are they heck! They’re wildly diverse . . . so where then are cultural norms?

The way to write your CV

Chia: Let me first respond to your point on the adult learners’ sense of self.

Coming from someone who believes that we shouldn’t overgeneralise, you obviously know that our sense of self and the identity we portray changes from context to context, depending on the communities of practice we are in, the interlocutors involved, our past experience of that particular discourse community, etc. e.g. A career woman who has to adjust to the discourse styles and rules of the playground when associating with other mothers might choose to portray herself quite differently. If she doesn’t, she could risk being misunderstood. That is why it is always difficult when first adapting to the culture of a new company or social group we find ourselves in.

You also can’t deny that the culture in which we grew up in has a strong effect on the opinions we form. e.g. Would you agree that ‘the best form of decision-making is group consensus’ or ‘a person’s value is measured by their achievements’. Surely you must acknowledge that these are culturally loaded opinions. Would it not benefit our learners to reflect on how the way they see the world is socially constructed? And would it not be possible to do such reflection and awareness-raising in an English language class? Should we not be teaching our learners to become better communicators or not just better users of the linguistic features of a language?

The different roles we play and the different identities we take on

Hugh: in terms of the career woman, I’m not sure what your point is IN TERMS OF LANGUAGE TEACHING.

Yes, it might be a nice study to do for someone on a Sociolinguistics module on an MA TESOL or something to see how one person varies their own language use across contexts, but all that’d tell you is . . . how one person varies their language across particular contexts. It won’t tell you anything of value in an EFL class.

As for awareness raising of how culturally constructed our own sense of what’s right and wrong, what’s normal is, etc . . .I just don’t see that as our job as language teachers . . . and I’m not sure that it’s actually achieved through discussing things like whether or not you agree the best way to make decisions is through group discussion or through one leader telling everyone what to do etc .

I’m also not sure folk from one country will agree anyway . . . I don’t buy into the idea that these supposed ‘norms’ actually really exist that much. Maybe . . . MAYBE . . . if I was preparing a Business English student to go and do business in China, say, I might want to do ONE small exercise on things people say about China and the business culture there, with the proviso that these may or may not be true, and that really they’d be best going and finding out for themselves, but that’s about it.

I honestly don’t believe that if you put 100 Brits or Japanese or Russians or whatever in a room and did a test on them to ask, for example, if the best form of decision-making is group consensus or if a person’s value is measured by their achievements, you’d get agreement. People differ. Some Japanese people will agree with some Brits and Russians more than with some other Japanese.

Intercultural Training should not be about promoting stereotypes

Chia: In terms of the career woman, it is an example of how we need to adapt to new environments and to accommodate the new discourse communities and the new people we encounter, or else we risk being misunderstood and not portraying the image we want to portray. Some people are just better at accommodation than others…

I’m afraid you’re missing the point, Hugh. No one is expecting every Japanese or German to have the exact same values. As I’ve said above, it’s definitely not about giving learners dos and don’ts lists (which may only reinforce cultural stereotypes). It’s about making learners more aware of the values, beliefs and opinions THEY hold, which are culturally bound, and how to adapt and cope when dealing with situations of uncertainty where their interlocutor is clearly communicating upon a different set of beliefs, rules, opinions, etc.

Even if the 100 Brits or Japanese all have different answers, that is fine. Learners need to be aware of the fact that people are different from themselves and might not perceive them as they want to be perceived. If they want to become more successful communicators, they can’t just be dealing with lexico-grammar. We are not teaching a language like Latin that was used only in academic writing. We are teaching a language used for communication. How can you say that you don’t want to teach learners to become better communicators?

Is the gladiator a super-communicator?
ELTpics – Picture by @ij64

Hugh: Indeed, some PEOPLE are just better at accommodation that others – not some CULTURES! It’s all down to the individual. Our job is not to ‘improve’ students and turn them into what we imagine a better person might be. Our job is to teach them language. It’s up to them what they then do with it. Apart from telling students “we need to adapt to different discourse communities and the new people we encounter” – which they will have been doing all their lives in L1 anyway, where they all learn and grow and adapt through their encounters with others, as they grow up and become adults, I’m STILL not sure what you think we should be doing IN THE CLASSROOM to enable students to become these super-communicators?

As for missing the point . . . perhaps you’re making it very clearly! Are we having a cross-cultural breakdown here, Chia?

I’m not saying that anyone expects anyone to have the same values; just that you can’t predict or generalise about what values people may or may not have because of where they’re from.

I DO want my learners to be better communicators, by the way. I just think the way that this is achieved is by teaching more language. Not by telling them blindingly obvious truisms like “By the way, you do know, don’t you, that your own opinions are shaped by your own experiences and that others might not have had these experiences and therefore may have different opinions and thus it’s a good idea to tread carefully when dealing with people that are not you!’

Also, thinking about it, many of the most successful intercultural communicators actually do so by being totally themselves and of their own backgrounds and by making no concession to others on any level. I’m remembering a very hard-nosed Chinese Seamen’s union negotiator I taught last year.

Is Hugh building up a wall to keep inter-cultural awareness out of his classroom?
Is Hugh ignoring the cultural differences beyond the walls of his classroom?
ELTpics – Picture by @sandymillin

Chia: I think we might be having a cross-cultural miscommunication here, indeed. Let us define ‘culture’ for starts. You seem to be hung up on ‘culture’ as in ‘national culture’, when ‘culture’ does also refer to ‘corporate culture’, ‘family culture’, ‘social group culture’ etc, (notwithstanding the cultural filter through which individuals perceived the world)

I think you are still missing the point.

Hugh: Make it better then!

Chia: I’m not advocating we predict or generalise what values people may or may not have because of where they’re from.

I’m advocating that we help learners realise the issues that arise when they are communicating in situations with interlocutors out of their usual discourse community, and adapt accordingly.

e.g. I had some Latin American and Mediterranean students who were in the same class with several Koreans and Japanese students for the few months they were at International House. One day, we started talking about the way we take turns and how we hold the floor, and the Latin Americans and Mediterranean students at first were adamant that Oriental are just shy. Through discussion, they were surprised to realise that the Koreans found it rude to interrupt others, and in turn thought that the Mediterraneans were rude. The discussion seemed like a revelation to both groups, and is a clear example of how cultural differences could be glaring at you in the face, and you might still attribute it to interlocutor’s personality if you were not made aware.

So, what about discussing such issues in English instead of just talking about hobbies, holidays and the usual banal stuff you often find in course books.


Not banal – Fridge magnets showing us cultural differences!
ELTpics – Picture by @amfromz

Hugh: Obviously, only an idiot would say they don’t want their students to deal better with situations where communication breaks down, but in classroom terms, I still don’t see what you think we should be doing. It just sounds like you want us to give trite little mini-lectures to students and tell them to ensure they adapt when communicating with folk from different backgrounds! Isn’t this what people all do anyway? In L2 as in L1? I don’t buy the basic premise that these breakdowns even occur that often, to be honest. What I see happening in communications between folk of different cultures, whether they be national, local, company cultures or whatever, is people talking to each other, negotiating meanings (which the better they use English, the easier they find) and getting stuff done or having conversations . . . in terms of the Koreans and Latin Americans, where does that then get them? Did the Koreans all start butting in and interrupting and the Latin Americans waiting and hesitating? Almost certainly not! All that happened is they realised the mirror has two-way glass in it, but their view is still their view . . .

Anyway, . . . I’ve never advocated just discussing banal stuff, as anyone who knows my books will hopefully testify to, but I honestly think too much is made of these ‘breakdowns’ and that if students are given interesting things to talk about, anyone will talk to anyone, provided they have common language to allow that. My advanced class this term has 8 Chinese, eight non-Chinese, including two other Asians . . . German . . . Spanish . . . Colombian . . . today they chatted about religion in their countries, divorce and divorce laws, and much else besides. It was super interesting, brought about by materials that realised these issues . . . I pre-taught language to help these discussions and then taught more in response to things they wanted to say, but couldn’t. THIS is what I think we should be doing in class.

If you want ONE of these kinds of classes to be about how you start / end / enter conversations, fine  . . . but divorce and religion is at least as interesting!

Which would you choose as a topic for your classroom? Intercultural communication or divorce?

Chia: Fine, I’ll give you that. In a multi-lingual class, that might be very interesting. But how would you propose dealing with the same issues in a monolingual group?

Hugh: In a mono-lingual class students will still disagree about things like the divorce laws . . . maybe religion in their country won’t be such an issue, but monolingual NEVER means mono-cultural. Students will all orient themselves to topics in different ways, have different takes and different opinions. As a writer – and a teacher – those are the spaces I’m interested in exploring – and that I try to teach the language to facilitate discussion about.

Chia: Hugh, it looks like you’ve just agreed that teaching issues like this in class is important. Cogito ergo sum, we should integrate cultural issues into language training! Thank you very much Hugh. I’ve really enjoyed doing this DA with you!


Hugh: Ha ha. I thought it was me who just heard what they want to hear! 🙂

Anyway, thank YOU, Chia, for your time, your questions and your (misplaced) enthusiasms!

What I did to Lindsay Clandfield during the Teach-Off I wanted to do to Hugh Dellar

Epilogue: Hugh’s views are his own and do not represent any organization he is associated with. Chia, this time, was not only playing DA, but was genuinely taking a stand about the topic in question. Hugh and Chia may have been engaging in many online fights lately, but rest assured they are still friends who are not adverse to the occasional rowdy debate in the pub.

ELF 5 Part 6 – Jagdish Kaur on Reconceptualising Competence

I came to this session partly because I had read papers by the speaker Jagdish Kaur for my dissertation and found them relevant and interesting, and was curious to see her in person, and to hear more.

What surprised me was the fact that she was the same person that was seated beside me during the opening plenary, and suddenly I felt rude for not having said hello.

Here is her very interesting and well-presented talk.

 Reconceptualising Competence – Lessons from English as a Lingua Franca

What is competence?

Taylor calls competence a controversial and confusing term (1988), Widdowson says it’s a fussy concept (1989).

Is it just knowledge (as in Chomsky)? Or is it about the ability to use knowledge?

Confusion arises when a term intended to refer to a state is now exnded to include a process, when a term intended to refer to something absolute now includes relative dimension (Taylor, 1988)

Chomsy’s Competence

  • Knowledge of language, a mental state, characterized in the form of rules of grammar (linguistic knowledge)
  • Concerned with idealization – ‘the ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogenous speech community, who knows its language perfectly’. Chomsky (1965)

Hymes’ Communicative Competence

  • Considers various aspects of language use which may be systematically accounted for by rules;
  • Includes the knowledge of how to use language appropriately;
  • Introduces a social element rather than a merely cognitive or individual one;
  • Does not merely expand the conception of competence but rather changes it as his notion of communicative competence conveys something quite different from what Chomsky intended.

Communicative Competence of the second language speaker

Researchers concerned with the competence of the L2 speaker have reconceptualised the idea further to suit the context.

Necessary given the  multilingual reality of the today’s world in which individuals are increasingly becoming ‘users of multiple linguistics resources and (as) members of multiples communities of practice (Pavlenko)

Cook talks about multiple competencies.

We can’t just talk about the knowledge of linguistic forms, but a

Kim (1991) introduces intercultural communicative competence = an additional level of metacompetence involving explicit awareness of differential usages and ability to adapt communicative strategies to a variety of cultural situations.

Researchers working with post-structuralist ideas and sociocultural perspectives in language learning and use view competences as resulting from actual use of the language, rather than the contrary. It is by doing through engagement with others that competence is co-created in interaction.

Competences as socially constructed and the L2 Speakers’ competence as active and dynamic rather than static.

Evidence From ELF


  • Empirical research into ELF points to a form of intercultural communication that is both effective and efficient.
  • Participants accommodate to the communicative behaviour of their interlocutors to increase the intelligibility of their communication and to signal cooperation and affiliation (Cogo, 2009)
  • Low incidence of misunderstanding observed in ELF spoken attributed to the widespread use of repetition, reformulation, comprehension checks, confirmation and clarification requests as well as explanation and clarifications (Mauranen, 2006; Watt, 2008, Pitzl 2005)
  • Use of explicitness strategies like self-rephrasing, topic negotiation and discourse reflexivity to enhance explicitness of expressions (Mauranen, 2007, 2010)
  • Use of self-repair practices that reduce ambiguity and vagueness and emphasize explicitness and clarity can result in utterances that are perhaps more intelligible which may in turn contribute to increased comprehensibility (Kaur, 2011)
  • Immediate or fairly immediate repetition of a segment in an ongoing turn seem to contribute towards increasing the clarity of expression and the effectiveness of communication (Kaur, forthcoming)

Thus, as a conclusion:


  • Repeating a repaired segment of talk addresses any impairment to the clarity of the utterance caused by the repair move itself.
  • Widdowson (1989) in his conception of ‘communicative competence’ talks of ‘adjustments’ and ‘adaptations’ made to suit the contextual demands of the communicative situation.
  • The extracts reflect the speaker’s awareness of the precarious nature of the communicative situation and the need for greater communicative clarity.
  • Speakers display a ‘lingua franca communicative competence – cognizance of the diversity inherent in the lingua franca situation and the accompanying skills to manage this diversity actively and efficiently.