How the British military became a champion for language learning


Wendy Ayres-Bennett, University of Cambridge

When an army deploys in a foreign country, there are clear advantages if the soldiers are able to speak the local language or dialect. But what if your recruits are no good at other languages? In the UK, where language learning in schools and universities is facing a real crisis, the British army began to see this as a serious problem.

In a new report on the value of languages, my colleagues and I showcased how a new language policy instituted last year within the British Army, was triggered by a growing appreciation of the risks of language shortages for national security.

Following the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military sought to implement language skills training as a core competence. Speakers of other languages are encouraged to take examinations to register their language skills, whether they are language learners or speakers of heritage or community languages.

The UK Ministry of Defence’s Defence Centre for Language and Culture also offers training to NATO standards across the four language skills – listening, speaking, reading and writing. Core languages taught are Arabic, Dari, Farsi, French, Russian, Spanish and English as a foreign language. Cultural training that provides regional knowledge and cross-cultural skills is still embryonic, but developing fast.

Cash incentives

There are two reasons why this is working. The change was directed by the vice chief of the defence staff, and therefore had a high-level champion. There are also financial incentives for army personnel to have their linguistic skills recorded, ranging from £360 for a lower-level western European language, to £11,700 for a high level, operationally vital linguist. Currently any army officer must have a basic language skill to be able to command a sub unit.

A British army sergeant visits a school in Helmand, Afghanistan.
Defence Images/, CC BY-NC

We should not, of course, overstate the progress made. The numbers of Ministry of Defence linguists for certain languages, including Arabic, are still precariously low and, according to recent statistics, there are no speakers of Ukrainian or Estonian classed at level three or above in the armed forces. But, crucially, the organisational culture has changed and languages are now viewed as an asset.

Too fragmented

The British military’s new approach is a good example of how an institution can change the culture of the way it thinks about languages. It’s also clear that language policy can no longer simply be a matter for the Department for Education: champions for language both within and outside government are vital for issues such as national security.

This is particularly important because of the fragmentation of language learning policy within the UK government, despite an informal cross-Whitehall language focus group.

Experience on the ground illustrates the value of cooperation when it comes to security. For example, in January, the West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit urgently needed a speaker of a particular language dialect to assist with translating communications in an ongoing investigation. The MOD was approached and was able to source a speaker within another department.

There is a growing body of research demonstrating the cost to business of the UK’s lack of language skills. Much less is known about their value to national security, defence and diplomacy, conflict resolution and social cohesion. Yet language skills have to be seen as an asset, and appreciation is needed across government for their wider value to society and security.

The Conversation

Wendy Ayres-Bennett, Professor of French Philology and Linguistics, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Britain may be leaving the EU, but English is going nowhere


Andrew Linn, University of Westminster

After Brexit, there are various things that some in the EU hope to see and hear less in the future. One is Nigel Farage. Another is the English language.

In the early hours of June 24, as the referendum outcome was becoming clear, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, left-wing MEP and French presidential candidate, tweeted that “English cannot be the third working language of the European parliament”.

This is not the first time that French and German opinion has weighed in against alleged disproportionate use of English in EU business. In 2012, for example, a similar point was made about key eurozone recommendations from the European Commission being published initially “in a language which [as far as the Euro goes] is only spoken by less than 5m Irish”. With the number of native speakers of English in the EU set to drop from 14% to around 1% of the bloc’s total with the departure of the UK, this point just got a bit sharper.

Translation overload

Official EU language policy is multilingualism with equal rights for all languages used in member states. It recommends that “every European citizen should master two other languages in addition to their mother tongue” – Britain’s abject failure to achieve this should make it skulk away in shame.

The EU recognises 24 “official and working” languages, a number that has mushroomed from the original four (Dutch, French, German and Italian) as more countries have joined. All EU citizens have a right to access EU documents in any of those languages. This calls for a translation team numbering around 2,500, not to mention a further 600 full-time interpreters. In practice most day-to-day business is transacted in either English, French or German and then translated, but it is true that English dominates to a considerable extent.

Lots of work still to do.
Etienne Ansotte/EPA

The preponderance of English has nothing to do with the influence of Britain or even Britain’s membership of the EU. Historically, the expansion of the British empire, the impact of the industrial revolution and the emergence of the US as a world power have embedded English in the language repertoire of speakers across the globe.

Unlike Latin, which outlived the Roman empire as the lingua franca of medieval and renaissance Europe, English of course has native speakers (who may be unfairly advantaged), but it is those who have learned English as a foreign language – “Euro-English” or “English as a lingua franca” – who now constitute the majority of users.

According to the 2012 Special Eurobarometer on Europeans and their Languages, English is the most widely spoken foreign language in 19 of the member states where it is not an official language. Across Europe, 38% of people speak English well enough as a foreign language to have a conversation, compared to 12% speaking French and 11% in German.

The report also found that 67% of Europeans consider English the most useful foreign language, and that the numbers favouring German (17%) or French (16%) have declined. As a result, 79% of Europeans want their children to learn English, compared to 20% for French and German.

Too much invested in English

Huge sums have been invested in English teaching by both national governments and private enterprise. As the demand for learning English has increased, so has the supply. English language learning worldwide was estimated to be worth US$63.3 billion (£47.5 billion) in 2012, and it is expected that this market will rise to US$193.2 billion (£145.6 billion) by 2017. The value of English for speakers of other languages is not going to diminish any time soon. There is simply too much invested in it.

Speakers of English as a second language outnumber first-language English speakers by 2:1 both in Europe and globally. For many Europeans, and especially those employed in the EU, English is a useful piece in a toolbox of languages to be pressed into service when needed – a point which was evident in a recent project on whether the use of English in Europe was an opportunity or a threat. So in the majority of cases using English has precisely nothing to do with the UK or Britishness. The EU needs practical solutions and English provides one.

English is unchallenged as the lingua franca of Europe. It has even been suggested that in some countries of northern Europe it has become a second rather than a foreign language. Jan Paternotte, D66 party leader in Amsterdam, has proposed that English should be decreed the official second language of that city.

English has not always held its current privileged status. French and German have both functioned as common languages for high-profile fields such as philosophy, science and technology, politics and diplomacy, not to mention Church Slavonic, Russian, Portuguese and other languages in different times and places.

We can assume that English will not maintain its privileged position forever. Who benefits now, however, are not the predominantly monolingual British, but European anglocrats whose multilingualism provides them with a key to international education and employment.

Much about the EU may be about to change, but right now an anti-English language policy so dramatically out of step with practice would simply make the post-Brexit hangover more painful.

The Conversation

Andrew Linn, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Westminster

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How other languages can reveal the secrets to happiness


Tim Lomas, University of East London

The limits of our language are said to define the boundaries of our world. This is because in our everyday lives, we can only really register and make sense of what we can name. We are restricted by the words we know, which shape what we can and cannot experience.

It is true that sometimes we may have fleeting sensations and feelings that we don’t quite have a name for – akin to words on the “tip of our tongue”. But without a word to label these sensations or feelings they are often overlooked, never to be fully acknowledged, articulated or even remembered. And instead, they are often lumped together with more generalised emotions, such as “happiness” or “joy”. This applies to all aspects of life – and not least to that most sought-after and cherished of feelings, happiness. Clearly, most people know and understand happiness, at least vaguely. But they are hindered by their “lexical limitations” and the words at their disposal.

As English speakers, we inherit, rather haphazardly, a set of words and phrases to represent and describe our world around us. Whatever vocabulary we have managed to acquire in relation to happiness will influence the types of feelings we can enjoy. If we lack a word for a particular positive emotion, we are far less likely to experience it. And even if we do somehow experience it, we are unlikely to perceive it with much clarity, think about it with much understanding, talk about it with much insight, or remember it with much vividness.

Speaking of happiness

While this recognition is sobering, it is also exciting, because it means by learning new words and concepts, we can enrich our emotional world. So, in theory, we can actually enhance our experience of happiness simply through exploring language. Prompted by this enthralling possibility, I recently embarked on a project to discover “new” words and concepts relating to happiness.

I did this by searching for so-called “untranslatable” words from across the world’s languages. These are words where no exact equivalent word or phrase exists in English. And as such, suggest the possibility that other cultures have stumbled upon phenomena that English-speaking places have somehow overlooked.

Perhaps the most famous example is “Schadenfreude”, the German term describing pleasure at the misfortunes of others. Such words pique our curiosity, as they appear to reveal something specific about the culture that created them – as if German people are potentially especially liable to feelings of Schadenfreude (though I don’t believe that’s the case).

German’s are no more likely to experience Schadenfreude than they are to drink steins of beer in Bavarian costume.

However, these words actually may be far more significant than that. Consider the fact that Schadenfreude has been imported wholesale into English. Evidently, English speakers had at least a passing familiarity with this kind of feeling, but lacked the word to articulate it (although I suppose “gloating” comes close) – hence, the grateful borrowing of the German term. As a result, their emotional landscape has been enlivened and enriched, able to give voice to feelings that might previously have remained unconceptualised and unexpressed.

My research, searched for these kind of “untranslatable words” – ones that specifically related to happiness and well-being. And so I trawled the internet looking for relevant websites, blogs, books and academic papers, and gathered a respectable haul of 216 such words. Now, the list has expanded – partly due to the generous feedback of visitors to my website – to more than 600 words.

Enriching emotions

When analysing these “untranslatable words”, I divide them into three categories based on my subjective reaction to them. Firstly, there are those that immediately resonate with me as something I have definitely experienced, but just haven’t previously been able to articulate. For instance, I love the strange German noun “Waldeinsamkeit”, which captures that eerie, mysterious feeling that often descends when you’re alone in the woods.

A second group are words that strike me as somewhat familiar, but not entirely, as if I can’t quite grasp their layers of complexity. For instance, I’m hugely intrigued by various Japanese aesthetic concepts, such as “aware” (哀れ), which evokes the bitter-sweetness of a brief, fading moment of transcendent beauty. This is symbolised by the cherry blossom – and as spring bloomed in England I found myself reflecting at length on this powerful yet intangible notion.

Finally, there is a mysterious set of words which completely elude my grasp, but which for precisely that reason are totally captivating. These mainly hail from Eastern religions – terms such as “Nirvana” or “Brahman” – which translates roughly as the ultimate reality underlying all phenomena in the Hindu scriptures. It feels like it would require a lifetime of study to even begin to grasp the meaning – which is probably exactly the point of these types of words.

Now we can all ‘tepils’ like the Norwegians – that’s drink beer outside on a hot day, to you and me
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

I believe these words offer a unique window onto the world’s cultures, revealing diversity in the way people in different places experience and understand life. People are naturally curious about other ways of living, about new possibilities in life, and so are drawn to ideas – like these untranslatable words – that reveal such possibilities.

There is huge potential for these words to enrich and expand people’s own emotional worlds, with each of these words comes a tantalising glimpse into unfamiliar and new positive feelings and experiences. And at the end of the day, who wouldn’t be interested in adding a bit more happiness to their own lives?

The Conversation

Tim Lomas, Lecturer in Applied Positive Psychology , University of East London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.



The EFL industry in Spain enjoyed a mini boom during the early years of the global economic crisis as many adult students rushed to improve their English language skills, either to get themselves back into the job market, or else in an attempt to hang on the job they had. As we reached the new decade, the boom slowed down and then started to tail-off. But no-one expected the sudden and significant drop in adult student numbers that hit the industry at the start of the current academic year.

The drop wasn’t school, city, or even region specific; it was the same story all over Spain. And the numbers were eye-watering. Depending who you talk to (and/or who you believe) adult student numbers fell by between 10-20%. Enough to make any school owner or manager wince.

What happened? Where did all these students go? Well, as is normally the case, there is no one, simple answer. There has been a slight upturn in in-company teaching, so it may be that some students, who were previously paying for their own courses in our schools, are now studying in their company (if they’re fortunate to have a job in the first place; Spanish unemployment is still well over 20%.)

The standard of English teaching in main-stream education is also getting better, slowly, so it may be that there are more school leavers who have achieved a basic level of communicative competence.

Some adult students – especially the younger ones – may also have decided to switch from a traditional, bricks and mortar language school to a Web-based classroom.

My own theory is that it’s the free movement of labour in the European Union which is having the greatest effect on our market. In other words, as there so few jobs available in Spain, hundreds of thousands of young adults – many of whom may previously have been our students – have simply upped sticks and gone abroad to find work.

A recent survey conducted in the UK indicates that migrants from Spain rose to 137,000 in 2015 (up from 63,000 in 2011). Most of them are probably working in relatively unskilled jobs in hotels, bars and restaurants, but at least they’re working – and they’re improving their English language skills as they go.

A similar number probably emigrated to other countries in the north of Europe and another significant number emigrated to Latin America. Add up all these emigrants and we could be looking at a total of well over 300,000 migrants – just in 2015.

On a recent trip to Oxford I met a young Spanish guy, working in a hotel, who had previously been a student at our school in Barcelona. He’s a typical example. Will he ever move back to Spain, I asked him? Perhaps, in the future, he said, but only if the situation in Spain changes and he can find a decent job. His new fluency in English, learnt by living and working in Oxford, might just help him with that.

So where does that leave Spanish language schools? Will adult students come back to our schools in the same numbers as before? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up on this market. If adult students won’t come to us, we can use the Internet to take our services to them. Even those living and working abroad.


This article was written by Jonathan Dykes – His Blog page can be found here:-

Is the spelling bee success of Indian-Americans a legacy of British colonialism?

Shalini Shankar, Northwestern University

When spellers win the Scripps National Spelling Bee, audiences always want to know their secret. Yet this question seems to be asked far more in recent years in response to an Indian-American winning streak.

South Asian-American spellers have excelled at the National Spelling Bee for nine years in a row, with 2014, 2015 and now 2016 featuring Indian-American co-champions as well.

This year’s winners – Jairam Hathwar from Painted Post, New York and Nihar Janga from Austin, Texas – present a familiar combination of co-champions. Jairam is the younger brother of 2013 co-champion Sriram, who also dueled with a Texan to ultimately share the trophy.

As a topic of intense speculation on broadcast and social media, the wins have elicited comments that range from curiosity to bafflement and at times outright racism. This curiosity is different from past speculation about “whether home-schooled spellers have an advantage.

The range of responses offers a moment to consider some of the factors underlying the Indian-American success at the bee, as well as how spelling as a sport has changed. Immediately following the 2016 bee, for instance, much of the coverage has focused on the exceedingly high level of competition and drama that characterized the 25-round championship battle that ultimately resulted in a tie.

Since 2013, I have been conducting research on competitive spelling at regional and national bees with officials, spellers and their families, and media producers.

My interviews and observations reveal the changing nature of spelling as a “brain sport” and the rigorous regimens of preparation that competitive spellers engage in year-round. Being an “elite speller” is a major childhood commitment that has intensified as the bee has become more competitive in recent years.

Let’s first look at history

South Asian-American spelling success is connected to the history of this ethnic community’s immigration to the United States.

For instance, the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act solicited highly trained immigrants to meet America’s need for scientists, engineers and medical professionals and opened the door to skilled immigration from Asia and other regions. In subsequent decades, skilled migration from South Asia continued alongside the sponsorship of family members.

Today, along with smaller, older communities of Punjabi Sikhs and other South Asian ethnic groups primarily on the West Coast, South Asian-Americans constitute a diverse population that features a disproportionately high professional class, although with differences of class, languages, ethnicities and nationalities – differences that are often overlooked in favor of a narrative of Indian-American educational and professional success.

The question is, what gives the community an edge?

For upwardly mobile South Asian-Americans, success is in part due to moving from one socially and economically advantageous societal position in the subcontinent to another in the United States.

Moreover, the English-speaking abilities of most educated South Asian-Americans clearly give them an edge over immigrants from other countries. My research indicates that fluency developed in English-medium schools – a legacy of British colonialism – makes them ideal spelling interlocutors for their children, despite their variety of British spelling. Members of this population with elite educational qualifications have likewise emphasized the importance of academic achievement with their children.

Also important here are the strong family and community networks that offer social support and economic opportunities. Community-building has not only been important for individuals and families, but also for advertisers and marketers that target Asian-American ethnic communities.

What explains the success?

Over the past few years spelling bees have been established exclusively for children of South Asian parentage.

Speller #238 Akash Vukoti from San Angelo, Texas, the only six-year-old speller at the 2016 bee, interviewed by ESPN’s Kaylee Hartung.
Shalini Shankar, CC BY

For instance, the North South Foundation holds a range of educational contests, such as spelling bees, math contests, geography bees and essay writing, among others, whose proceeds contribute to promoting literacy efforts in India. The South Asian Spelling Bee, partnering with the insurance company Metlife, offers a highly competitive bee as well.

Taken together, this “minor league” circuit gives South Asian-American spellers far more opportunities to compete, as well as a longer “bee season” to train and practice.

This is particularly helpful because, as past champions confirm, ongoing practice and training are the key to winning.

Invested families

Another factor to note here is the parental ability to dedicate time to education and extracurricular activities. Predictably, families with greater socioeconomic means are able to devote more resources and time.

These parents are as invested in spelling bees and academic competitions as families with star athletes or musicians might be in their children’s matches or performances. As several parents explained to me, spelling bees are the “brain sports” equivalent of travel soccer or Little League.

Of the 30 families I interviewed, the majority had a stay-at-home parent (usually the mother) dedicated to working with children on all activities, including spelling. In dual-income households, spelling training occurred on weeknights and weekends.

Like elite spellers of any race or ethnicity, South Asian-American spellers I spoke with studied word lists daily if possible, logging in several hours on weekends with parents or paid coaches to help them develop strategies and quiz them on words.

A few parents have been so invested in helping their children prepare that they have now started training and tutoring other aspiring spellers as well.

Like any national championship, the pressure on all spellers at a competition on the scale of the National Spelling Bee is intense. South Asian-American children are already subject to living up to the model minority stereotype and feel no reprieve here.

This is especially important to consider when South Asian-American spellers come from lower socioeconomic classes, but nonetheless succeed at spelling bees.

Among the 2015 finalists, for instance, one was the son of motel owners and a crowd favorite, as I observed. He had competed in the bee several times, and his older sister was also a speller, having made it to nationals once. Remarkably, they prepared for competitions by themselves, with no stay-at-home parent or paid coach.

Another 2015 semifinalist was featured in a broadcast segment living in the crowded immigrant neighborhood of Flushing, New York. When I visited this three-time National Spelling Bee participant in 2014, I realized that she lived in the very same apartment complex that my family did in the 1970s. This Queens neighborhood continues to be a receiving area for Indian-Americans who may not have the economic means to live in wealthier sections of New York City or its suburbs.

Many possible explanations

The point is that the reasons that Indian-American spellers are succeeding at the bee are not easily reducible to one answer.

South Asian-Americans, like other Asian immigrants, comprise varying class backgrounds and immigration histories. Yet it is noteworthy that even within this range of South Asian-American spellers, it is children of Indian-American immigrants from professional backgrounds who tend to become champions.

Speller #73 Tara Ganguly from Bloomington, Indiana in Round Two of the 2016 National Spelling Bee.
Shalini Shankar, CC BY

The time and resources Indian-American families devote to this brain sport, as I have observed, appear to be raising this competition into previously unseen levels of difficulty.

This can take a toll on elite spellers, who have to invest far more time studying spelling than in the past. With more difficult words appearing in earlier rounds of competition, spelling preparation can take up much of their time outside of school.

Nonetheless, they emphasize the perseverance they develop from competitive spelling. They learn to handle increasing levels of pressure, and alongside this, what they identify as important life skills of focus, poise and concentration.

Ultimately, what makes Indian-American children successful at spelling is the same as children of any other ethnicity. They come from families who believe in the value of education and also have the financial means to support their children through every stage of their schooling. And, they are highly intelligent individuals who devote their childhood to the study of American English.

Are they American?

Some comments on social media, however, seem to discount these factors and years of intense preparation to instead focus on race and ethnicity as sole factors for spelling success.

In a refreshing shift in tone, this year’s topics also included the ferocity of Janga’s competition style and the inspiration he drew from his football hero Dez Bryant.

Nonetheless, such comments, directed toward nonwhite children when they win this distinctly American contest, do push us to reflect: what does it mean to be an American now?

In alleging that only “Americans” should win this contest, Twitter racists ignore that these spellers too have been born and raised in the United States. Recent winners hail from suburban or small towns in upstate New York, Kansas, Missouri and Texas. They express regional pride in these locations by mentioning regional sports teams and other distinctive features in their on-air profiles.

With their American-accented English and distinctly American comportment, it is merely their skin color and names that set them apart from a white mainstream.

Like generations of white Americans and European immigrants, Indian-American parents spend countless hours preparing word lists, quizzing their children and creating ways for their children to learn. They encourage their children in whatever they are good at, including spelling.

As a result, they have elevated this American contest to a new level of competition. Clearly, this is an apt moment to expand our definition of what it means to be an American.

This is an updated version of an article first published on June 4, 2015.

The Conversation

Shalini Shankar, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Asian American Studies, Northwestern University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Learning to speak English? Making yourself understood isn’t all about the accent


Talia Isaacs, University of Bristol; Dustin Crowther, Michigan State University; Kazuya Saito, Waseda University, and Pavel Trofimovich, Concordia University

Being able to communicate effectively in a foreign language is a challenge faced by many of us. If you’re a newcomer to a country, conveying a message in a language that is not your mother tongue is often necessary to access vital services, perform well on the job, achieve good grades and integrate into society. But it’s possible that speakers of different native languages face different challenges in making themselves easily understood.

In new research comparing the speaking performances of 60 adult learners of English from four different language groups: Chinese, Hindi/Urdu, Romance languages (French/Spanish) and Farsi, we found dramatic differences between how their use of language determines how understandable they are.

But our study showed that the language-related factors that underlie what makes someone sound accented were very similar regardless of a person’s mother tongue. For example, vowel and consonant errors universally make people sound accented.

Yet it’s not always these factors that affect how easy or difficult to understand a person is. Whereas producing inaccurate vowels and consonants impeded how easy Chinese learners were for English listeners to understand, for Hindi or Urdu learners, it was appropriate use of vocabulary and grammar that helped their ability to be understood.

Too much focus on accent

Foreign accents often receive an undue amount of attention because they are highly noticeable to listeners. Previous research has shown that untrained listeners can tell native and non-native speakers apart after listening to speech that is just 0.03 seconds long, is played backwards, or is in an unfamiliar language.

Despite listeners’ sensitivity to accent, there is growing agreement among language teachers and researchers that trying to reduce a learner’s accent is not an appropriate goal. This is mostly because people do not need to sound like native speakers to successfully integrate into a new society or to effectively carry out their professional tasks.

In addition, sounding like a native speaker is an unrealistic language learning goal for adults and also perhaps an undesirable one due to issues of identity. So most language experts agree that what counts the most in oral communication is for learners to be readily understandable or comprehensible to their conversational partners.

By teasing apart the aspects of speech that are essential for being understood from those factors that might be noticeable or irritating but do not actually impede communication, English teachers can target the most vital aspects of speech their students need to get their messages across.

Making yourself understood

We wanted to find out what impact an adult learner’s mother tongue has on how easy they are to understand when they speak a foreign language, and how important a part their accent played.

In our experiment, ten experienced English teachers scored the speech of four groups of 15 international students telling a story in English. The 60 students spoke Chinese, Hindi or Urdu, Romance languages (French or Spanish), and Farsi.

The teachers first provided judgements on how accented each speaker sounded and how difficult he or she was to understand. Next, they provided judgements using ten language variables including pronunciation, fluency, vocabulary, and grammar.

Here are some example recordings of speakers who scored relatively low and high. First, from the Chinese native speakers:

A Chinese person judged relatively hard to understand.
A Chinese person judged relatively easy to understand.

And then from the Farsi speakers:

A Farsi person judged relatively hard to understand.
A Farsi person judged relatively easy to understand.

What difference an acccent makes

Statistical tests were carried out to examine language-related influences on the listeners’ judgements of accent and comprehensibility, first for the entire group of 60 speakers, then broken down by each of the four language groups.

When it came to scoring the speakers on how accented they sounded, variations in their pronunciation were the strongest contributing factors. Our listeners – all English teachers – paid most attention to vowel and consonant errors regardless of the speaker’s native language background. Chinese accents sounded stronger than those of the other language groups.

Different stumbling blocks

The picture was different for ease of understanding. The graph below shows that – for the entire group of 60 international students – pronunciation variables: a combination of vowel/consonant accuracy, word stress, intonation and speech rate are not the only contributing factors to how easy a speaker is to understand. Vocabulary, grammar accuracy and complexity or “lexicogrammar” variables also play a part.

Author provided

But there are no universal rules when it comes to making yourself understood. For Chinese learners, who were the lowest rated group overall, vowel and consonant errors were detrimental to being understood. Although such errors made Hindi and Urdu speakers sound more accented, it was grammatical errors, and not errors of pronunciation, that affected their comprehensibility.

A French person who scored low relative to other French speakers.

In contrast, for Farsi learners, no single language variable was striking enough to be strongly linked with comprehensibility. But our listening English teachers may have had difficulty pinpointing problematic aspects of Farsi learners’ speech – who were rated as the most uniformly comprehensible of all groups in the study.

Pronunciation lessons for non-native English speakers should make it a priority to help learners be more easily understandable to their conversational partners rather than minimising their accents. Our study helps to shed light on the marked influence that people’s first language background can have on their ability to communicate in a comprehensible way.

Ultimately, instructional materials and teaching techniques should take into account the factors that are most important for helping learners communicate more effectively depending on their native language background.

The Conversation

Talia Isaacs, Senior Lecturer in Education; Director of the Second Language Speech Lab, University of Bristol; Dustin Crowther, PhD Student, Michigan State University; Kazuya Saito, Assistant Professor of English, School of Commerce, Waseda University, and Pavel Trofimovich, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics, Department of Education, Concordia University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How is technology changing Language Teaching?

We asked Simon Brewster, Deputy Director General at The Anglo Mexican Foundation, his views on the way that technology is changing the way we teach languages…

As far as technology is concerned, there are obvious advantages for learners in terms of access to information, greater communicability and the reality of learning outside the classroom.

Where I think we need to be careful is in not assuming that technology somehow replaces the need for good teaching. It is in the end another tool at our disposal but you can still have a bad class even with technology.

I am also not convinced that the use of online courses and whiteboards is any more effective in terms of learning than using more traditional tools. No-one has been able to provide any evidence that they are. If it is true that you can learn a language using different approaches and methodologies, I think it is also true that you can learn a language with a fairly minimal amount of material and equipment.

I would say that good teaching affects learning much more than the technology available. I went to an interesting talk which contrasted e-centric teachers with t-(as in teaching) centric teachers which made the same point.

It is also not the case that everyone has access to technology. Mexico has 80 million cell phones but relatively few people have access to the most sophisticated technology outside the more privileged groups.

In the case of formal education, our pupils cannot take cell phones into class for obvious reasons. A lot of technology they use is for socializing not study or reading: facebook, twitter, text messaging etc.

Where I do see technology having a significant impact is in areas such as intranets which connect students, teachers and parents, access to Internet for research purposes and support from websites for everything from making a poster to producing video and the fact that technology makes everything much faster.

For our students in the language teaching centres, as opposed to schools, we are focusing on getting teachers to encourage students to use existing components such as CD-Roms and course related websites at the same time as we develop a support website for students to consult as a value added element to their courses. We will do this at low cost including elements that are available at low or no cost.

I have to mention that aside from cost issues – a whiteboard comes in at around US$300 – there are big security issues with technology for schools as well as related questions of cyber bullying. We have experienced problems in both of these areas and are now very active in raising awareness in pupils about the risks of social networking online.

By Simon Brewster

The Anglo Mexican Foundation

Do you share Simon’s experiences? Please let us know your thoughts…

Speakout Series – Why so popular?

Only published a couple of years ago, Speakout is now one of the best selling series at BEBC due to the magnificent numbers of copies sold in the big month of August.

In the BEBC top 20 books sold for August, the series trumped its competitors having all books from the series in the top 10. Over 1860 copies sold from the 6 part series. We’d go so far as to say it’s the most successful new course since Headway was first published in the 80s. What makes it so popular? We’ve got a few ideas but we’d love to hear your thoughts…




What the publisher says:

Developed in association with BBC Worldwide and BBC learning English, Speakout is a comprehensive six level general English course that helps adult learners gain confidence in all skill areas using authentic materials from the BBC. With its wide range of support material,Speakout meets the diverse needs of learners in a variety of teaching situations and helps to bridge the gap between the classroom and the real world.

What the ESU judges say:

“Speakout is a breath of fresh air: a novel, imaginative and contemporary approach to learning, with successfully-integrated media. The course comes with high-quality BBC DVD content and downloadable podcasts, both of which give learners content rich in authentic English and a genuine global range of subject matter to engage with. The course delivers a variety of exciting and motivating exercises and activities which would give any school, class, teacher or learner a significant learning resource and learning experience. Speakout is excellent in the way it permits self-learning access and is also an exciting class resource for teaching. The ESU judging panel described Speakout as ‘the best course this year’, ‘excellent’, and ‘a wonderful course’. For once, a collaborative creation – between Pearson and the BBC in this case – brings the best of both and makes something better.”

(Speakout won the prestigious HRH The Duke of Edinburgh English Language Book Award for 2011.)

Why we think it’s popular:

We’ve had a few discussions about this at BEBC, and we can all agree that the wealth of high quality digital content available with the course (podcasts, videos, etc) is likely to be the main contributor to its fast-track popularity. What do you think?

BEBC’s Digital ELT Resource Glossary A-Z

ELT Publishers are creating more and more digital content, which some would agree is a positive step for language teaching. However these useful additional resources and the terms used to describe them are going above the heads of many who simply don’t understand the products or their functions. This is made even more problematic by publishers naming very similar resources differently.

For this reason, we at BEBC decided to get definitions from publishers to accompany the types of digital resources on offer so that we might share them with you. You may wish to save this page to your favourites or print it off as a reminder to help you when making your next purchases…



ActiveBook (Pearson) – a digital student book with full audio, suitable for any computer. Used just as a book in class, and outside the classroom it gives access to Student Book pages and audio so that students can practise activities taught in class.

ActiveTeach (Pearson) – for use with a computer and projector or with an Interactive Whiteboard. Includes Student’s Book pages, full class audio and DVD, printable worksheets and interactive exercises, assessment activities and tests and Interactive Whiteboard tools.

App (Cambridge University Press and others) – software for consumer mobile devices like mobile phones, tablet computers and media players.


Blended course (Cambridge University Press) – a teacher-led course containing a self-study portion accessed by the learner over the internet.

Blended Learning (Macmillan and others) – a method of learning which uses a combination of different resources, especially a mixture of classroom sessions and online learning materials.


Class Presentation Tools (Macmillan) – tools for classroom presentation.  This Interactive Whiteboard Software offers a digital version of the Student’s Book on screen with integrated audio, video, games and customisable Teacher’s pages e.g. New Inside Out / Global.

Classware (Cambridge University Press) – computer software that lets you present digital versions of Cambridge textbooks on an Interactive Whiteboard or projector, to engage the whole class.


Digital book (Richmond) – complete digital version of all components usually delivered on CD-ROM and compatible with any Interactive Whiteboard.


E-storycards (Richmond) – electronic version of storycards for display on interactive whiteboards.

eBooks (Cambridge University Press and others) – reading materials in digital form, requiring a computer, mobile device or e-reader to display the text.

ELT Advantage (National Geographic Learning/ Cengage Learning) – online professional development courses, workshops, and virtual seminars that help teachers increase their expertise in English language instruction. Free demos at

ExamView (National Geographic Learning/ Cengage Learning) – comes with Assessment CD-ROMs and is available with most Heinle programs.  The testgenerating software allows teachers to create and customise tests, manage classes and assignments, retrieve results from online tests, and generate detailed and flexible reports.


Footprint Reading Library (National Geographic Learning/ Cengage Learning) – a collection of online ebooks (readers) typically accompanied by audio, record and playback functionality for pronunciation practice, video clip and interactive quiz. Free demos at


Global eWorkbook (Macmillan) – an evolution of self-study materials, providing a wide range of resources including: listening and video materials, with video content from the BBC Worldwide archive, which can be viewed on a computer or downloaded to portable devices for mobile learning, grammar, language practice, reference materials, useful language sections and model conversations.



iTools (Oxford University Press) – digital resources for a range of Oxford University Press courses, giving teachers material for use on the Interactive Whiteboard and bringing learning alive in class (iPacks – first generation of Interactive Whiteboard software available for the New English File course).

iTutor (Oxford University Press) – a new interactive self-study DVD-ROM, included with some OUP courses (in the Student’s Book). Gives learners interactive material from the book, grammar revision and practice, skills practice and vocabulary lists with example sentences and pronunciation.

iWriter (Oxford University Press)  – available on the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary CD-ROM. Guides students through the stages of planning, writing and reviewing a range of different written tasks. Task types include essays, presentations, reports, letters, reviews, CVs and more.




LMS (Learning Management System) (Oxford University Press) – a platform that allows teachers to assign exercises to their students, track their progress and see their marks. LMS is now available with all courses that have online workbooks, online skills practice as well as online practice tests and online placement test.

Learning Platform (Richmond) – Portal + Virtual Learning Environment + Test Studio.

Learning Resources Bank (Oxford University Press) – Student’s Website.


Macmillan English Campus (Macmillan) – an English language learning platform that offers a complete solution for blended learning.  Combining a database of over 4,300 interactive resources with a range of learning management tool, Macmillan English Campus gives teachers full control of the resources and monitors students’ progress.

Macmillan Practice Online (Macmillan) – an easy, cost-effective way to offer your students the advantages of online learning.  With a range of over 80 online courses to choose from, each designed to support classroom teaching and including 100-200 resources, you can choose the one that suits your needs.

Macmillan Webinars (Macmillan) – the Macmillan Webinars are a series of live talks, broadcast over the internet to teachers worldwide.  Free to access and viewable from any computer with an internet connection, teachers have the opportunity to watch the talks and put questions directly to Macmillan authors No microphone is necessary as questions can be typed to webinar hosts.

mimio® software(Cambridge University Press and others) – MIMIO is a portable device which can be attached to a whiteboard, wall etc, via a projector, which provides similar functionality to a smart board. You can see more about them at the website-

MyELT (National Geographic Learning/ Cengage Learning) – an internet based learning management system designed for English language teachers and students. Instructors use MyELT to assign Heinle online learning content, track student progress reports, and more. Students use MyELT to complete the online activities, monitor their own learning progress, and review as necessary.

MyEnglishLabs (Pearson) – provides interactive activities and online tools which give students tips, automatic feedback and instant grades. A grade book and diagnostic tools reveal to teachers how students are progressing. Teachers are able to assign activities to groups of students with different needs.



Online exam practice tests (Oxford University Press) – online practice tests for: KET, PET, FCE, CAE, IELTS, TOEIC®, TOEFL iBT™ and national exams. Teachers can assign online practice tests with help including instant feedback on answers, exam tips and an integrated dictionary, or without help as a mock exam. Saves time with automatic marking. Easily identifies areas of weakness to focus on in class.

Online Placement Test (Oxford University Press) – a Placement Test that helps teachers find their students’ level of English online. Saves time with automatic marking and then places students in the right class based on their scores (CEFR level, score out of 120, time taken and more…)

  • Online
  • Automatically marked
  • Instant results
  • Variety of scores (CEFR level and more)

Online Practice for Students (My…) (National Geographic Learning/Cengage Learning) – access to online practice is usually included the student’s book of a series e.g. Outcomes or Practical Grammar. It allows students to study online at their own pace or do the work their teacher set for them. All activities are automatically graded so that both students and teachers can monitor progress. N.B. Online practice with the Outcomes course is called ‘MyOutcomes,’ and online practice for Practical Grammar course is called ‘MyPG’ and so on…

Online Skills Practice (Oxford University Press) – Interactive Reading, Writing, Listening, and Speaking practice for a range of OUP courses. Students get access through MultiROMs available in their Student’s Books.

Online Workbooks (Cambridge University Press) – learning activities presented interactively on a website, rather than in a printed book, intended for homework.


Portal (Richmond) – interactive and regularly updated site corresponding to a particular course and offering both informal and formal learning. There are product demos, author interviews and downloadable sample units for teachers and fun learning activities for students such as blogs and games.

Presentation Tools (National Geographic Learning/ Cengage Learning)– a CD-ROM containing tools which combine resources from the core materials of Heinle Cengage courses e.g. Happy Trails, English Explorer, Time Zones, Outcomes. For use in the classroom with an Interactive Whiteboard or data projector with computer.

Primary Place (Pearson) – a website for primary teachers to find downloadable materials for their classrooms. Members of the website get access to invitations to workshops and presentations, free articles on current trends, few photocopiable activity sheets and free packs filled with posters, story cards, games and more.



Readers Apps (Richmond) – interactive app to download for the iPhone, iPod or iPad complete with audio, animation and extra activities. Also see Apps.

Richmond vodcast series (Richmond) – a series of short films available on YouTube for adults corresponding to the Elementary to Upper-Intermediate levels of The Big Picture and New Framework. Ideal for sparking classroom communication or for use in conjunction with the online activities and competitions.


Student CD-ROM (Richmond) – extra resources for students on CD-ROM.

Student DVD (Richmond) – video accompaniment to student book complete with activities. Contains authentic interviews, stories or documentaries.

Student MultiROM (Richmond and others) – CD-ROM with audio tracks. For use in a CD player or computer.

Student’s Website (Oxford University Press)  – also called Learning Resources Bank. A website for students using OUP resources. Designed to provide students with extra practice both in and outside the class.


Teacher CD-ROM/DVD-ROM (Richmond) – extra resources for teachers on CD-ROM.

Teacher/Student Resource Site (Richmond) – dedicated course website containing extra resources for both students and teachers. These are usually free and are intended to supplement the core material contained within each course book.

Teacher’s Website (Oxford University Press)  – a website for the registrants of Oxford Teachers’ Club that enables teachers to download extra practice activities and ideas that supplement OUP courses and that are designed to be used with students in class.

Test studio (Richmond) – an online tool allowing teachers to create their own interactive tests online or editable paper versions. Teachers can create tests to revise by unit, a block of units or a complete book.



Virtual Learning Environment (Richmond) – an online resource, pre-populated with trackable activities for teachers to assign to their students. They are provided as integral parts of the course. Accessible with student and teacher log in account details, these highly adaptable resources allow teachers to set timings and pass marks for exercises. Scores are recorded in a grade book, allowing teachers to track their students’ progress. The forum and library allow teachers to communicate with their class and students to communicate with each other.


Web application (Cambridge University Press) – A website that acts like a piece of software, allowing you to perform some task, rather than being a static resource.




You can also view and download this glossary as a pdf via Is there any other way you would like to see these grouped besides A-Z?

Online Resources – are we all going digital?

Somewhere in the world there is a huge demand for online access for supplementary ELT materials. Or is there? Discuss.

John Walsh, Founder and Managing Director of  BEBC, raises some issues and concerns about ELT Publishers’ relentless drive to produce everything “digital”.

Do you buy and do you use online resources contained in ELT coursebooks and grammar books? Over the last two years, ELT publishers have been working under the impression that students and teachers have been crying out for extra materials (practice tests, placement tests, supplementary exercises, etc) all to be available online. This “demand” has led management at the top of the publishing houses to instruct commissioning editors to include digital content wherever possible to meet the demand.

Several facts cloud this debate and I raise these for discussion.

  • Are teacher’s aware that when they purchase a book with an attached Access Code they are often only buying a licence for online use which will expire a number of months after the Code is activated? This period varies from 12 months to 21 months currently and online support ceases at the end of the stipulated period. This applies to material from Pearson, Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, and Macmillan. It does not apply to online material from National Geographic Learning (Cengage) where there is no expiry date for support.
  • There has been a very low uptake on these titles (compared with editions which are either stand-alone books or are perhaps accompanied by CDs or CD-Roms) and sales do not appear to reflect the supposed demand.
  • Of those titles that have been bought, publishers concede that there is currently a very low level of conversions (c. 10%) where the Access Code has been activated by the students or institutions making the purchase. They put this down to “early days”
  • Publishers are increasingly making the “Book only” or “Book with CD/CD-Rom” editions unavailable and re-issuing the books with a mark up in price anywhere between £2.00 and £9.50 (Pearson’s FIRST CERTIFICATE EXPERT Book + CDRom and OUP’s IELTS MASTERCLASS respectively). Here again, National Geographic Learning is exempt from these price increases (OUTCOMES and SPOTLIGHT ON FCE are provided with online access codes yet Cengage prices are at the lower end of the price range for this material).

 It is important that teachers and students know when they are only buying licences for this online access and equally important that publishers are made aware of the real demand (or lack of it) for this material. Publishers, too, need to examine critically the amount of sales and conversions. Publishers need feedback, and I feel sure teachers will have views, on the present demand and the price they are prepared to pay for this added functionality. No doubt, in time, the world will go wildly and, perhaps, completely, digital, but until that time comes, I believe teachers, students and publishers need a free and fair exchange of both information and opinions.

John H Walsh

Managing Director