TESOL 2019: Professionalism and myths in TESOL

English teaching in national education systems presupposes bilingual, bicultural competence, including translation and metalinguistic knowledge. Myth-making about 'global' English needs constant debunking

TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages)
International Convention & English Language Expo
Atlanta, Georgia, USA. 12-15 March 2019

TESOL 2019: Professionalism and myths in TESOL

by Robert Phillipson


TESOL 2019. Professionalism and myths in TESOL. TESOL, an ‘international association’, and its ‘global partner’ the British Council, pursue government-defined goals. How professionally defensible is dispatching English native speakers worldwide when under-qualified linguistically and culturally? English teaching in national education systems presupposes bilingual, bicultural competence, including translation and metalinguistic knowledge. Myth-making about ‘global’ English needs constant debunking.

If TESOL is to function optimally, it needs to scrutinise carefully the terminology used and claims made for English as a ‘global’ language, and the consequences that follow from what are generally myths.

Myth One – international schools and universities
‘International’ schools are mushrooming in cities in many countries that do not qualify as ‘English-speaking’. There is a related growth of English-medium universities in the Middle East, Asia, and elsewhere. Why are both types of institution called ‘international’ when the educational content is exported from the USA or the UK, and when the language of instruction is the dominant national language of the USA or the UK, and often delivered by monolingual teachers and professors. ‘International’ is a misnomer.
Consequences: this export business serves the interests of an elite class nationally and internationally. Local languages are given little if any support. International schools prepare for entry to universities in the US and UK. Their products are effectively detached from local concerns and needs.

Myth Two – English is a global need
English is marketed as though it is universally needed by the US state (Obama’s ‘English for all’) and by the para-statal British Council. Its language policy advice (David Graddol’s reports 2006, 2010), led its Executive Director to insist that, for instance in India, English should be used in every classroom, office and home (Phillipson 2016a).
Consequence: This advocacy ignores the local ecology, culture, and languages, but provides a boost for the British and US economies and international influence. The myth is a diversion from the real needs of the world’s under-privileged.

Myth Three – British English is necessary for development
The ‘aid’ or ‘development’ business was denounced by Ivan Illich half a century ago in relation to US activity throughout the Americas, but English is still marketed as a necessity for economic and social development by the British Council (Howson 2013), an organisation which advises governments worldwide on education in general, and English learning in particular. The presumptuous assumption is that the UK has the solution to local needs.
Consequence: the under-development of the colonial era continues in the neo-colonial age that structurally favours the global North at the expense of the global South, the majority world.

Myth Four – Anglo-American textbooks are universally appropriate
Teaching materials from ‘global’ publishers (e.g. Pearson, Macmillan, Routledge, Oxford University Press et al) are assumed to have content and language that is appropriate for school systems worldwide. The 2018 Annual Report from Cambridge University Press states that its ‘Education group publishes print and digital products for use in schools, with strong positions in Australia, Africa, India and in international schools around the world. Our reputation for developing international best practice in pedagogy and learning skills means we also have an advisory practice helping governments and schools systems with educational reform.’
Consequence: this myth creates and consolidates new forms of imperial dependence, cultural, educational, linguistic and commercial, to the advantage of the corporate world and its shareholders, and to academia in the UK & US, and generally to the disadvantage of local publishers and academia.

Myth Five – English only in international affairs
English is proclaimed as the lingua franca of science, business, globalisation, European and Asian integration, national unity in multilingual states, international understanding, etc. This fraudulent myth implies that no other languages serve such purposes.
Consequences: the myth privileges English in education. The learning of other foreign languages (whether European, Asian, African, or Latin American) is hindered. Proficiency in English entrenches an inequitable hierarchy in international communication at the expense of users of other languages.

Myth Six – All relevant scholarship is written in English
The prevalence of publication in English has led to this myth. The policies of the major academic publishers encourage the notion that only publishing in English counts. There is though a vast output of research in many languages. A recent analysis of Google Scholar documents by Cambridge academics shows that in one scientific field 64.4% are in English (Amano, González-Varo, and Sutherland, 2016). In most areas of scholarship, including language education and language policy, other languages are also used.
Consequence: knowledge generated in other languages is marginalized, which is also to the detriment of monolingual English-using science. Quantifying research output, and ranking systems, serve to unjustly strengthen inequality between users of different languages.

Myth Seven – Global language tests are objective and valid worldwide
The main testing instruments that emanate from the USA (TOEFL) and UK/Australia (IELTS) are projected as culturally neutral and universally appropriate, a scientifically and morally dubious claim.
Consequence: testing is big business, but has limitations: ‘Most testers have a feeling that their tests are not sufficiently accurate (…) there is a fundamental conflict between the needs of good assessment practice on the one hand, and sound financial management and good business practice on the other’ (Buck 2009, 181, 177, on the anthology in question see Phillipson 2010). This raises ethical problems for TESOL.

Myth Eight – the internationalisation of TESOL and ELT is apolitical
When a national professional association becomes ‘international’ (as TESOL has), the myth is that our professionalism is globally relevant and divorced from educational, cultural, and linguistic imperialism. Whether activities are or are not imperialist needs to be analysed, empirically verified. One instance: the British ELT Journal is about ‘the ways in which English is taught and learnt around the world’. It has a seven-person advisory board to guide ‘the development of the Journal’: three academics, two from publishing (Oxford University Press), one is a British Council officer, one from a British professional association, IATEFL (https://academic.oup.com/eltj/pages/About). Whatever their personal qualities, this board is a cocktail of academic, commercial, and political interests. Is this compatible with academic freedom?

Some conclusions
All eight myths seem to be alive and kicking, despite some awareness of their invalidity.
Ahmar Mahboob: there is a need for an overhaul of ‘key assumptions made in the applied linguistics and TESOL literature’ (cited in Phillipson 2016b, 2016c)
Ruanni Tupas: an exclusive focus on English-medium education fails unless it is integrated within local multilingual realities.
Mary Shepard Wong, Icy Lee, and Andy Gao: a monolingual approach to the trilingual education that is needed in Hong Kong (Cantonese, Mandarin, and English) is inappropriate because monolingual native speakers are limited ‘linguistically, pedagogically, and professionally’ (cited in Phillipson 2016b, 2016c).
John Knagg, when Senior Adviser to the British Council: Native English Speaking Teachers (NESTs) ‘should be increasingly multilingual, multicultural and expert’. However, the book in which this comment appears reveals that NESTs generally lack these qualifications. Why are they still active worldwide? Knagg provides part of the answer by conceding that installing an ‘appropriate linguistic model’ of British English for a ‘global ELT profession’ has the goal of promoting British interests worldwide (citations from Phillipson 2016b, 2016c).
It is more than likely that US language promotion worldwide has comparable goals. Is this what the globalization of English is all about? Do we wish to believe in these myths? Are the consequences ethically and professionally acceptable?

– Amano, Tatsuya, Juan P. González-Varo, and William J. Sutherland (2016). Languages are still a major barrier to global science. PLoS Biol 14(12): e2000933. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.2000933.
– Buck , Gary 2009. Challenges and constraints in language test development. In The politics of language education, ed. Charles Alderson. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 166-184.
– Graddol, David 2006. English next: Why global English may mean the end of ‘English as a Foreign Language’. London: The British Council.
– Graddol, David 2010. English next India. London: British Council.
– Howson, Paul 2013. See: http://www.britishcouncil.org/sites/britishcouncil.uk2/files/english-effect-report.pdf. Accessed 28 February 2015.
– Illich, Ivan 1968. To hell with good intentions. See http://www.swaraj.org/illich_hell.htm.
– Phillipson, Robert 2010. The politics and the personal in language education: the state of which art? Review article on The politics of language education. Individuals and institutions, edited by J. Charles Alderson. Language and education, 24/2, 151-166.
– Phillipson, Robert 2016a. Promoting English: Hydras old and new. In Why English? Confronting the Hydra, ed. Bunce, Pauline, Robert Phillipson, Vaughan Rapatahana, and Ruanni. F. Tupas. Bristol: Multilingual Matters , 35-46.
– Phillipson, Robert 2016b. Native speakers in linguistic imperialism. Journal of Critical Education Policy Studies, volume 14, number 3 (December), 80-96,
– Phillipson, Robert 2016c. Book review of LETs and NESTs: Voices, views and vignettes, ed. Fiona Copland, Sue Garton and Steve Mann (2016. London: British Council). In Canadian Modern Language Review, Revue Canadienne des Langues Vivantes, 72/4, 572-574.
– Tupas, Ruanni 2018. (Un)framing language policy and reform in Southeast Asia. RELC Journal 49/2, 149-163.

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