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The Big Issues and ELT 1: Globalisation

July 19, 2014

Anyone who has had to listen to me recently (or looked at my blog for that matter) will probably be aware that I am doing a doctorate in education (EdD), which has required me to try and get my head round some pretty massive issues. Now that my first year is finished, I have a bit of time to sit back and explore these concepts in a bit more detail, and reflect more freely (i.e. without an assignment hanging over me) on how these broad concepts impact on English Language Teaching.
This post is the first in a series that I’m calling “Big Issues and ELT ”, in which I will define a concept, give my ideas about how it relates to ELT, and ask some questions about it with reference to some more specific contexts. I’m hoping that this will generate some discussion about the varying ways in which these issues impact on different areas of our profession, and that some discussion on here might lead to further critical analysis.

We are all familiar with the term “globalisation”. It is by no means a new phenomenon, as communication between countries and regions has taken place since countries first came into existence. However, it has become an increasingly common feature of discourse as technology continues to facilitate its development.
Globalisation is a process of internationalisation, and it can be economic, political, cultural and, of course, linguistic. It explains why we have the metric system, why clothes in British department stores are made in Bangladesh, why food markets in Kuala Lumpur sell Spanish apples, why my laptop wants to spell globalisation with a “z”, and why every major city in the world contains at least one group of South American pan-pipe musicians performing a version of Rod Stewart’s “Sailing”.
Globalisation describes a huge web of interconnectedness. It is the phenomenon whereby the economics, politics and cultures of different countries are becoming increasingly integrated. It is more or less impossible these days for a nation state to exist without some level of co-dependence on other nations. Increased interdependence has brought with it an increased need for international communication and intercultural understanding. This, you would think, is good news for language teachers.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos, an academic who has written at some length on theories of globalisation, describes the concept in this way:
‘…globalisation…is a process by which a given entity reaches the globe by enlarging its own ambit, and by doing so develops the capacity or the prerogative of naming as ‘local’ all other rivals…what we call globalisation is always the successful globalisation of a particular localism’. (Santos, interviewed by Dale and Robertson 2004: 149)
It goes without saying that English itself has a local origin that has now become globalised. But there are other issues to do with economics, corporatisation, culture and technology that impact on the globalisation of ELT. I’ll discuss a few of these issues below, and follow each discussion up with a question for consideration/discussion.

Global English
Perhaps the most obvious result of globalisation in terms of English Language Teaching is the rise of English as a Global Language and the phenomenon of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). Increased international mobility of populations and social networking technology have both contributed to this. ELF (both within and between nations) means that English is no longer the “property” of the countries where it is a native language. Making everyone else speak English seemed like linguistic imperialism a few years ago, but the consequence now is that nobody can really claim ownership of English any more. English is the property of everyone, with traditionally non-English speaking countries incorporating it into their school curricula, adapting it to accommodate their L1 more easily and generally ensuring that countries where it has traditionally been an L1 can’t control how it is used any more.

Question: How is the globalisation of English itself impacting on our profession?

Global schools
Globalisation helps to explain the “McDonaldization” of private language schools – organisations like IH, EF and Wall Street springing up wherever a potential market exists. These chains, or franchises, or affiliates (they describe themselves in different ways) are like McDonalds in that they have a corporate identity which they use to position themselves in a global market, and work to a set of standards that all teaching centres are expected to maintain. They also use their global network for recruiting or re-deploying staff and, to varying extents, they apply similar approaches to teaching across all centres, to ensure that there is some uniformity in terms of the “product” they are selling.
It could be argued that, unlike hamburgers, it is not possible for language courses to be identical in different contexts. Even if the materials are the same, the students and teachers are different and therefore the product will always be tailored for a local market.
However, the marketing literature seems to give the impression that these organisations want to offer the same product across all their centres, or feel that offering the same product would be regarded by “consumers” as a positive thing. Wall Street Institute’s website, for example, says this:
‘Our products, General English, Advanced English and English for Business and innovative blended teaching method are unique and designed to provide an efficient response to the needs of today’s consumer.’
IH, which is a network of affiliated schools rather than a franchise, is less bold in asserting uniformity across all of its schools:
‘Each has its own unique flavour, but all are inspired by one common aim: the very highest standards in language education.’
There is no doubt though that the very existence of these global providers of English teaching is made possible by economic mechanisms that facilitate the existence of global corporations.

Question: To what extent do international franchises/affiliations of private language schools attempt to provide a globally standardised product?

Global training
The multinational, corporate nature of ELT can be seen in other ways too. A small number of organisations (and one in particular) have managed to develop products in the form of teacher training qualifications that have reached a global market. Somehow, the ELT profession has been convinced that a single 4-week course can give someone sufficient knowledge and skills to teach English to any group of students in any kind of context.
The success of the CELTA is due to ELT being regarded as a single global industry, irrespective of the context it is being taught in. When Cambridge and IH developed the first incarnation of the CELTA, it was aimed primarily at British graduates to allow them to meet the demand for native-speaking teachers in non-English speaking countries. This was a very astute identification of a global need, and the development of an introductory course that provided basic generic teaching skills managed to meet this need. In doing so, the perception was created that it is possible to teach English in the same way to anybody in any context.
The problem here, of course, is that it glorifies teaching techniques than can be applied to any context, at the expense of others. Globalising the actual teaching process to this extent, and bearing in mind the original market, means that classroom activity on these courses focused on a limited range of techniques that can be used by a native speaker who doesn’t speak the students’ L1, lacks good language awareness and has not had enough classroom experience to react appropriately to learners during the lesson. Therefore, L1 is frowned upon, language is taught atomistically rather than holistically (to allow the teacher the chance to research the language point prior to each lesson) and trainees are expected to submit detailed lesson plans – this helps them to get through the lesson but minimises the potential contribution that students can make (more on this sort of thing here).
The market for TESOL courses like this has expanded to include a lot more non-native speakers, but most introductory courses aimed at a global market still contain these features. Yet current thinking in SLA would suggest that all of this is bad practice. Cook (2010) argues that translation can be a useful tool in helping learners to understand features of the L2. Many luminaries on SLA (e.g. Larsen-Freeman 1997) have pointed out that people do not learn languages one item at a time, in a linear fashion. Different learners in a class will benefit from lesson content in different ways, picking up different language that is new to them and which they are ready to acquire. So basing your whole lesson round a single language item is, to quote Jane Willis, “largely a waste of time” (Willis 1996: 15).

Question: Is it fair to blame global TESOL qualifications for the perpetuation of outdated and/or widely criticised teaching approaches?

Global exams
Like the development of a global TESOL qualification, the development of a globally-recognised English language qualification is a highly lucrative thing to be able to do. The market is therefore very competitive, but at the moment it looks like IELTS is edging out the Cambridge main suite and TOEFL in a bid for global domination.
In a competitive market like this, it’s important to critically analyse what motivates assessment design. Sure, the exam needs to be both valid and reliable, but it also needs to be easy to mark and easy to administer with as low a cost as possible. Perhaps the ubiquity of multiple choice questions is less about their validity as a question type and more about ease of marking.
There is also a potential cultural issue here. These exams are becoming increasingly skills-based, which is fair enough. However, questions designed to assess communicative competence often require candidates to express their opinions on a certain topic. The topics are usually generic enough that most people should be able to say something about them. However, there comes a point where ability to express your opinion stops being about linguistic competence and starts being about something else. For some cultures, expressing your individual opinion is a rather unfamiliar activity – see Mike Griffin’s post on Confucianism for an interesting discussion on this topic.
Also, communicative devices such as turn-taking, showing interest and “making encouraging noises” are often used as performance criteria in these kinds of exams. Again, such devices are more familiar to some cultures than they are to others. It could be argued that if the language is English, then communicative devices like these are part of that language. But if English is a truly global language and belongs to all cultures rather than its original one, these communicative “norms” start to lose their value.

Question: Are globally-recognised exams designed in such a way that they disadvantage certain cultural groups?

Global coursebooks
I’ve written at some length before about global coursebooks and I don’t want to repeat myself too much. However I think it’s relevant and important to mention the phenomenon of the global coursebook when discussing globalisation and ELT. Once again, globalisation and the belief that the same English Language Teaching materials can be applied universally has made it possible for publishers to produce coursebooks for a global market. In order to do this, they need to avoid certain topics that could cause offence to some people (commonly referred to as Parsnips). Of course this means that many topic areas that would be perfectly legitimate in many contexts, and potentially very useful in generating meaningful language, are never covered.
Global coursebooks also follow the premise that all language can be split up, compartmentalised and then taught in small pieces – what Scott Thornbury calls “grammar Mcnuggets”. A small number of language items per unit, a dozen or so units per level. Once you have completed these units you are ready for the next level, conveniently waiting for you in the next coursebook.
This approach to language presentation may not actually have anything to do with the way languages are learnt, but it’s very marketable. People want their progress to be linear so they can measure it, and this concept is therefore easy to sell.

Question: Are we still teaching English item by item, unit by unit, level by level, through a series of bland topics, simply because that is what global publishers want us to do?

If you would like to give your views on any of the questions I have asked in this post, please post them below.


Cook, G. (2010), Translation in Language Teaching, Oxford: OUP.

Dale, Roger, and Susan Robertson. 2004. «Interview with Boaventura de Sousa Santos». Globalisation, Societies and Education 2 (2): 147–160.

Willis, J. 1996, A framework for task-based learning, Harlow: Longman.

  1. Some insightful observations. For more on ELF and Linguistic Imperialism check out the Jenkins and Phillipson Keynotes from

  2. Hana Tichá permalink

    Great observations, Steve.

    Apparently, globalisation is inherently limiting and restrictive. What I don’t like is this ‘one rules them all’ practice. As a teacher, I consider the pervasive obsession with global exams and global teaching certificates frustrating. I’m less worried about global coursebooks but it’s only because I’m always ready to adjust them to my students’ needs. All in all, as long as globalisation implies monopolisation, we should remain worried and alert. Thanks for the post.


    • Hi Hana,
      Thanks for this. I agree that trying to create ‘one size’ to fit the whole world is always going to lead to something that isn’t very good. I wrote some posts about this last year in a short series called “universality and mediocrity”.
      As you point out, all this universalisation is often to the benefit of international corporations – this shouldn’t be what drives education, but in many ways it is. We need to keep an eye on that.
      Thanks again,

  3. Bob permalink

    Hi Steve,

    You’ve given me pause for thought with your musings on this post as you bring more depth to commonly accepted ELT training and materials.

    In 4 weeks, the restrictions in what can be accomplished on CELTA courses are tremendous and the subsequent categorization as being TEFLi (initiated) rather than TEFLq (qualified) is useful and relevant. Working for an institute with a decent, active teacher development culture is very important for people straight off a CELTA although I’m sure that it’s all a bit hit and miss as people scramble around for their first job. I’m not sure it’s true that the “ELT profession has been convinced that a single 4-week course can give someone sufficient knowledge and skills to teach English to any group of students in any kind of context.” Maybe I have been lucky but having worked for 10 different institutions in 5 different countries, quite the opposite sentiment has been much more common among the teachers and DoS I’ve known… although non-teacher managers and owners sometimes take the attitude you describe.

    Would your institution put a new teacher straight off a CELTA in with any group of students in any context? How’s that worked out so far?

    I agree very much with your questioning of the aversion to L1 use, which appears to come through the CELTA – that and not allowing students to use bilingual dictionaries (one of my bugbears) are common TEFLi notions. In this and the atomization of language, I am completely in agreement with you. Still, at the opposite end of the scale, languages are taught and explained in L1 with only textbooks and recorded audio material being in L2. Welcome to Japan – where school textbooks are localized as are the tests (school and university entrance exams come from the individual schools and universities, there are no national exams). Unfortunately students, after 6 years of being the best in their class at English, pass the entrance exam for my workplace (a university specializing in language learning) to study English but are generally Elementary level speakers and writers at best. And these are the successful students – they are pretty hot at grammar transformation exercises, mind you.

    So, if an English-only classroom is notionally bad, and all L1 is even worse, what is the balance?
    And what is practical in an ESOL class where L1 languages are mixed?

    You asked: “Are globally-recognised exams designed in such a way that they disadvantage certain cultural groups?”

    I guess so – in the same way that exams that test reading and writing skills disadvantage the illiterate.

    But I suppose the bigger question, or perhaps the one you are alluding to, is whether people aspiring to join a discourse community should adapt their interactions to fit the group, or should the discourse community allow more deviation from aspiring participants. This is not necessarily a globalization question but in a more globalized world, it brings in other factors. It’s telling that in spite of their eloquent and convincing arguments for ELF and acceptance of non-standard varieties of English, ELF proponents, such as Barbara Seidlhofer and Jennifer Jenkins,still publish using a standard variety (a point made by John Flowerdew at an L2 writing conference). While I’ve leaped from discourse community norms to standard language, the principle is the same, acceptance as an academic writer, a teacher, a student, or whatever, requires consideration of norms and the effects of flouting these. So, if the target situation requires students to voice their opinions, and there’s an exam to pass that requires students to voice their opinions before getting to the target situation, then it’s probably quite a good exam. (if only it were that easy – there are probably no good exams, just ones that are less worse than others).

    Nice link to Mike Griffin’s wonderful spoof – a perfectly written piece that required consideration of norms and the effect of flouting these.

    Thanks again for your thought-provoking blog. I’m enjoying them all.


    • Hi Bob,
      Sorry it’s taken me a while to respond to your comment. I know that the CELTA is only supposed to be an introductory course, and Cambridge themselves are always quick to point this out. I have only ever recruited someone straight off the CELTA if I’ve been in an environment where plenty of ongoing support is going to be available.
      However, there are many parts of the world where the CELTA is seen as the ultimate TESOL qualification. Employers and would-be teachers regard it as a kind of rubber-stamp of teaching competence. Maybe this is a result of over-successful marketing, or maybe it’s just that in 4 weeks the CELTA manages to achieve a lot more than many other qualifications, and for employers who are often happy to recruit someone simply because they are a native speaker, if they can find someone who is a native speaker and has the CELTA they must feel like they’ve hit the jackpot.
      If English is becoming a global language, it makes sense for us to take some kind of global approach to teaching it, so I agree that very localised approaches and use of L1 to develop speaking skills are definitely not the way to go.
      My concern though is more about the corporatisation of ELT that is resulting from globalisation. If I ever manage to finish my next post I hope to develop these ideas a bit further.
      Thanks again for your comment,


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  1. Big issues and ELT 2: Neoliberalism | The Steve Brown Blog
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