Govt to launch “LOOK OVER THERE!” initiative

A new nationwide campaign to encourage UK citizens and station visitors to stop paying too much attention to how Brexit is going has been launched tomorrow by Rail Minister Paul Maynard at London Waterloo.

Designed by government, police and the Associated Newspapers organisation, the new campaign aims to persuade people not to think about what their Government is up to and to raise awareness of the vital role the public can play in keeping themselves and others uninformed about the devastating effect Brexit is already having on their everyday lives.

Passengers arriving at major train stations tomorrow morning in London, Birmingham, Glasgow, and Manchester will be among the first to hear updated security announcements and see posters promoting the new “LOOK OVER THERE!” campaign message.

Everyone who uses the rail network is also being urged to pick up a copy of Metro newspaper and concentrate instead on whatever distraction Sajid Javid has come up with that morning.

Rail Minister Paul Maynard said:

“We want to send a clear message to anyone starting to realise that they have been lied to that there are thousands of pairs of eyes and ears ready to anticipate any potential threat to Brexit and pretend journalists working for a pretend newspaper who are prepared to write whatever shit those in power want them to.

“Today’s campaign is aimed at our railways but the recent incident at Charing Cross station, where a Leave voter from Kent on his way to work finally put two and two together and realised this whole thing is a massive fucking con, reminds us just how important it is to be vigilant.

“If that individual had merely glanced at the headline of that day’s Daily Mail-owned freesheet, their anger would have been displaced from how atrociously Theresa May is handling this utterly misconceived project onto an appropriate Government-approved scapegoat. I would urge anyone who spots anything unusual to glance at the headlines of the most-read daily newspapers and to allow their attention to be deviated.”

BTP Temporary Assistant Chief Constable Alun Thomas said:

“Don’t be afraid to believe anything that feels out of place. We rely on misinformation from the tabloid press, Sky and the BBC to help us keep Brexit even remotely credible.”

School children can see what adults won’t: Brexit, Trump etc are fuelled by collective denial of climate change

I was once on an Overground train in East London where every one of the other passengers, nine of them in total, was staring at their mobile device. My first impulse was to take my own phone out of my pocket and tweet about how appalling the situation was.

It’s very easy to criticise other people’s bad behaviour when it comes to phone use – it’s much harder to notice and control our own foibles. We all have a blind spot when it comes to our own culpability. As a teacher and the parent of a young child, I’m conscious that when it comes to educating younger generations, I’m in no position to pass on much grown-up with regard to certain topics.

This is true in a broader sense when it comes to the climate. I don’t know what a proportionate individual response to global warming is, so I dread to imagine how I’m going to address the issue when my daughter’s a bit older and starts asking the obvious questions. It would be morally abhorrent for my generation or those above and below mine to sit back, praise what Greta and her cohort are doing to demand climate action, and feel complacent about the future of humanity. To do so would be to completely ignore the content, tone and urgency of their message.

It’s a central tenet of this blog that our refusal to face up to our responsibility to keep our planet habitable and the global upsurge in racist sentiment are intimately connected. Repressed fear returns as displaced anger against whatever targets are conveniently made available. In very much the same way, while our Government is now in utter turmoil in response to the predictable chaos caused by a pet project of a cabal of xenophobes who also all just happen to be dedicated climate liars, people around the UK are hunched over their/our stupid devices furiously demanding the actual head of a definitely very stupid and clearly extremely traumatised teenage mother who found herself involved in aspects of the adult world she clearly had little or no meaningful comprehension of.

Meanwhile, in the face of open contempt from a Government which makes no pretence whatsoever to represent their interests, thousands of young people have walked out of their schools to try to break the adult taboo on taking climate change seriously. Either we respond to their call and finally start to own up to the absolutely urgent absolutely fundamental changes we have to make to our economic systems and our everyday lives, or the central organising principle of our reality will be systematic programmes of scapegoating which will make Orwell’s Two-Minute Hate seem like a harmless game of Angry Birds. To paraphrase the same novel: if there is hope, it doesn’t lie on our phones.

Voted for Brexit? May is your PM, and her deal is the shit sandwich you ordered.

Can anyone identify the missing ingredient?

The day after the Referendum Jeremy Corbyn went on TV and called not for a moment of national reflection or for a countrywide debate on what sort of Brexit ‘we’ might want, but for the immediate implementation of Article 50. Farage et al demanded much the same thing, and when the new PM uttered the phrase ‘Brexit means Brexit’, it was clear there would be no discussion as to what sort of future relationship the UK would have with the EU and how the process of leaving would be managed.

As we know, this suited those who had manipulated the vote perfectly. Dominic Cummings had based his strategy on avoiding at all cost any specific details of what ‘leaving’ would mean. Thus both leave campaigns, with their sad polar bears and fake NHS pledges and lies about Turkish adhesion, were little more than a Rorschach blot made not of ink but of pure horseshit (on toast).

However, this goes both ways. Brexiters have so far been given carte blanche to interpret the vote as freely as they like, even to the point of arguing from very early on that a mature democracy with an advanced economy should not even bother to negotiate the process of disentangling itself from a bewilderingly complex set of relationships, agreements and arrangements. May’s appeasing of the hard-right fanatics now leads us to the point where we are effectively being held with a gun to our collective head by our own Government. It’s like a shopping centre siege; cameraphone footage smuggled out showing the damage already done indicates that parts of the complex will have to be rebuilt from scratch. And the reason May won’t stand up to the ideological terrorists of the ERG is that she’s actually quite sympathetic to many of their core values.

Here’s the thing: May is the Brexit Prime Minister. She’s theirs. Her Brexit is their Brexit*. There is no other possible version. They had two years, and this is where they got to. They may not like the destination, but it was their idea to take this trip in the first place. Of course, we know that no Actually Existing Brexit agreement would have been acceptable to Cummings, Raab, Farage, Francois, Rees-Mogg etc. Their bluff has been called. It’s a tragedy and a disgrace that both Labour, what’s left of the Left and (although I hate the phrase) the mainstream media (particularly the BBC**) have given any credence whatsoever to the notion of a “no deal” final solution. This point should not have to be made on a bloody blog, but it’s one that I’ve rarely seen elsewhere: this must come down to a choice between May’s deal, or no Brexit. Whether that takes the form of a ‘people’s vote’ is to some extent moot: there are more than enough lunatics and cowards in Parliament to block a second referendum. Why that campaign has not called a mass demonstration so far this year remains an absolute mystery. If I had the power to do so I would gather as many people as possible together under the slogan ‘OH, WE THOUGHT YOU WANTED BREXIT, BUT IT SEEMS YOU DON’T. #OHWELL‘. After all, someone who ordered a shit sandwich from room service for a late-night drunken joke would be unlikely to want to eat a real one in the morning.

* There is, of course, inevitably, a conspiracy theory that’s popular on the far-left/far-right/who-can-tell-the-difference-these-days, according to which Theresa May is a secret remainer, which is why she appointed her top-secret undercover agent David “Destiny!” Davis to negotiate on the Government’s behalf. Cunning creatures, these (cough!) “lizards”.
**And particularly Question Time, which has been getting pretty bloody Nuremberg-y of late.

Is it possible to speak ‘without an accent’?


This is another essay I wrote as part of my MA in Applied Linguistics. It got a very very generous mark (YAY!!!) but is unlikely ever to be published elsewhere as it doesn’t offer anything massively original and also probably has a few typpos.

Is it possible to speak without an accent? Discuss this question with reference to the relevant literature (pronunciation, World English(es), English as a Lingua Franca and others you want to include). Consider the implications of the issue of ‘accent’ for language learning, teaching and testing, and for the role of English speakers more globally.

Mention native and non-native accents and discuss whether it is useful to differentiate between the two.


It’s common to hear ‘native speakers’ of a language praise ‘non-native speakers’ who have achieved mastery of it on the basis that they ‘speak without an accent’. However, an informed view of language rejects such a notion: the first fact about accents that Riney, Takagi, and Inutsuka (2005) list is ‘Everyone has an accent’, while Lippi-Green (2012) calls one of her chapters ‘The myth of no accent’. However, not all accents are granted equal status: prejudice exists against varieties of ‘native speaker’ accent, on the basis of geographical or social variation, and as for ‘non-native speakers’, discrimination on the basis of a non-standard accent can have profound personal and social consequences. This should lead us to question who any given language ‘belongs’ to and who is in a position to make judgements as to ‘correct’ use.

Notions of what an accent is are by no means fixed. Lippi-Green even argues that the term has “no technical or specific meaning” (1997, p44). Riney, Takagi, and Inutsuka define it as a “perceived degree of native or foreign accent in someone’s speech (…) determined by (or at least associated with) the speaker’s regional, social, or linguistic background” (2005, p442), which seems sufficiently nuanced, if a little circular. A common theme of academic definitions involves variation from a standard: in the words of Derwing and Munro (2008), “we understand accentedness as how different a pattern of speech sounds compared to the local variety” (p478). The term ‘local’ is of course deictic, and together with Riney, Takagi, and Inutsuka’s invocation (2005) of perception indicates that we only ever experience accents subjectively; Derwing and Munro state that “Listeners’ judgments are the only meaningful window into accentedness and comprehensibility” (2009, p478). Certain sounds are prestigious, but only for socially-determined reasons; they differ along geographical and social lines rather than aesthetic ones. As Giles and Niedzielski (1998) argue, no accent is inherently more beautiful than another.

However, since our focus here is English language learning, we must consider several aspects related to what are often called ‘L2’ accents, which Lippi-Green defines as “the breakthrough of native language phonology into the target language” (p46). The phenomenon of variation from a norm has profound implications for how languages are taught and learnt. Is it possible for ‘native speakers’ of another language, or for that matter bilinguals, to achieve a full ‘native-like’ phonological range? Assuming such a goal is achievable, should learners be encouraged to aspire towards a ‘native’ accent? If so, which one should serve as a model? Does the notion of a Lingua Franca Core (LFC), focussed on intelligible communication between non-native speakers rather than the acquisition of native-like pronunciation, have validity, and should teachers lead their learners in that direction instead? Are there circumstances in which ‘native-like’ pronunciation is a valid goal? Drawing on insights from Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition theory (SLA), this essay will examine the contemporary context for the notion of accent elimination, before looking at why the subject of accent is so important in the concerns of learners and why they might see it as a priority. It will then look at the context of English today, in terms of debates about World Englishes and English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), and the final section will set out some pedagogical implications.

The phenomenon of ‘accent reduction’ courses

There are bountiful resources to help learners who aspire to eliminating their L1 accent, not all of which are based on sound linguistic principles. Lippi-Green (2012) constructs an elaborate metaphor (a ‘sound house’ (p48)) to demonstrate how intricate, time-consuming and frustrating the process of developing a separate phonological structure can be, and stresses that the successful acquisition of a new accent does not necessarily have significant impact on one’s communicative competence. She highlights two questionable claims made by promoters of accent reduction courses, namely that foreign accents can indeed be eliminated, and that accent is the main cause of social marginalisation. Derwing and Munro also critique the claims made by the accent reduction/elimination industry, arguing that they are based on “pseudomedical jargon and mysterious techniques with no known empirical basis” (2008, p483).

The importance of accent to English language learners

One key element of the appeal of ‘unaccentedness’ is the notion of belonging to a particular speech community that ‘owns’ the language and literally gives voice to the ‘correct’ standard, thus rendering its own phonological characteristics appear ‘natural’. This can be demonstrated by an anecdote from my teaching experience. In an EFL lesson in London several years ago I showed my class a clip from the US TV chat show ‘Ellen’, and asked what accent the presenter had. ‘American’ was the immediate response. I then played them a part of the first interview with the British actor Hugh Laurie, whose accent is fairly close to RP, and repeated my question. This time the students were nonplussed – they didn’t consider his way of speaking an ‘accent’. In the words of one student, they were in the ‘home’ of English, and Hugh Laurie was, by extension, (and echoing Lippi-Green’s metaphor), a homeowner. It may well be that the class taken place in the US, the students may have seen the presenter’s accent as the ‘unmarked’ one. Thus is the notion of ‘no accent’ inherently connected to national identity, belonging and status.

However, we might want to pause before dismissing the desire for accent reduction as the result of misconceived notion of the role of the relationship between a language and ‘its’ speakers. In a classic study (described in Tagg 2012 p299), Lambert found that people speaking with ‘native’ Canadian English accents were ranked higher by both English and French-speaking Canadians for “likeability, ambition, dependability, self-confidence, sense of humour, good looks and height” than ‘non-natives’. The research took place in a lab rather than in a natural setting, but its results have been replicated elsewhere (see Tagg, 2012 p301 for a list). Thus can accent imply not just a positive image of others, but a negative view of oneself, and in this way can linguistic value systems “reflect and reinforce class, ethnic and gender inequalities” (ibid; see also Lindemann, Litzenberg and Subtirelu, 2014, p171). Those who speak with a prestigious accent possess what we might, following Bourdieu’s notion of ‘linguistic capital’ (1977), call phonological capital.

Sociolinguists concur that the categories of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in relation to language use are of little relevance (see for example Trudgill 2000). But as users of language we are nonetheless very quick to categorise and judge people – literally so, in fact. Flege (1984) showed that people can recognise a ‘non-native’ accent in only 0.03 seconds, while Major (2007) demonstrated that we can identify one in a language we don’t speak. Munro, Derwing and Burgess discovered that we can even detect a non-native accent when the speech is played backwards (2003). As we saw in the previous paragraph, and as Lindemann (2005) detailed in her study of US undergraduates’ categorisations of ‘broken’ English, recognition of ‘non-native’ speech patterns often leads to social discrimination and prejudice. It might be considered reasonable to try to escape judgements which, as Gee wrote in another context, “implant in thought and action unfair, dismissive, or derogatory assumptions” (2014, p96).

However, an L1 accent can also be beneficial to the learner. Some accents have other currencies which serve to offset the disadvantages (Lippi-Green, 2012, p239) such as the cache attributed to French accents. Dalton and Seidlhofer (1994) also point out that language is used to establish a sense of community. Some may prefer to preserve their accent out of a sense of wanting to indicate their membership of a separate community. The phenomena of convergence and divergence, developed as part of Speech Accommodation Theory by Giles, Coupland and Coupland (1971) explain some of the dynamics of this not-always-conscious process, while Gardner and Lambert (1972) highlighted the importance of identification with the target community. Hence one reason why ‘non-native’ speakers of a language may want to reduce their accent is, as Jennifer Jenkins acknowledges in her work on the Lingua Franca Core (LFC) (1998; 2000; 2003), not to be intelligible but to fit in socially. As Levis (2005) explains, accent is an essential marker of what social groups the speaker belongs to and would like to belong to (p374-375). In addressing the difference between the need to communicate and the need to assimilate, Dalton and Seidlhofer make a useful distinction between accessibility (ie intelligibility) and acceptability (access to social groupings) (1994 p9-10). As we shall explore later, the particular setting for language learning will help determine the extent to which the learner wants and/or needs to ‘fit in’. This issue has different implications for English speakers in Inner Circle, Outer Circle and Expanding Circle contexts (Kachru 1992).

In arguing for the importance of sociolinguistic factors in the formation of accent, Levis (2005) argues that “the role of identity is perhaps as strong as the biological constraints” (p375). The degree of social allegiance, whether conscious or unconscious, is certainly a powerful determinant. But what about other aspects?

Is it possible to get rid of one’s accent?

A long-standing principle in ELT is what Levis (2005) calls the ‘nativeness principle’, which holds that it is both possible and desirable to achieve native-like pronunciation in a foreign language. Piske, Mackay and Flege (2001) identify several aspects as crucial in determining how successful or unsuccessful a learner may or may not be in mastering a different set of phonological features: their L1; the age at which they started to learn; how long they have lived in the L2 environment; their gender, formal instruction, motivation, and language learning aptitude; and how frequently they have used the target language. That is a formidable list of challenges, and together with the sociolinguistic factors helps explain why, as Rampton discovered, people who are indistinguishable in other ways from native speakers can still have accented speech (1990). Levis also confirms that “in practice very few adult learners actually achieve native-like pronunciation in a foreign language” (2005 p370). Even in relation to bilingual speakers, Mack (1984) confirmed that early bilinguals demonstrate minor differences from monolinguals. This has been attributed to various attitudinal and psychological factors (Dalton and Seidlhofer, 1994, p8), and debate continues with regard to the ‘critical period’ for language learning, with plasticity of the brain thought to be a factor (see for example Birdsong 2018).

Is it desirable to get rid of one’s accent?

Now we return to the question of its desirability of acquiring native-like pronunciation. Jenkins not only argued that “the whole concept of ‘accent reduction’ is flawed in the context of English as an International Language (EIL) accents” (Jenkins, 2000, p207), but also developed an alternative, based on research into mutual intelligibility between non-native speakers, reducing the range of phonological features of English to ones that learners are able to master and which make a difference to their ability to understand one another (Jenkins, ibid). There have been a number of critical responses to her model, but in essence it provides a formidable challenge to the ‘nativeness principle’ by supporting what Levis (2005) called the ‘intelligibility principle’, which “recognizes that communication can be remarkably successful when foreign accents are noticeable or even strong” (p. 370). Seidlhofer (2005) argues in favour of the latter model on the basis that is based not on a notion of deficit but of divergence. Firth and Wagner (1997) rightly criticised the notion of the foreign language learner as a “deficient communicator struggling to overcome underdeveloped L2 competence, striving to reach the “target” [L2] competence of an idealized native speaker”.

The ‘Lingua Franca Core’ and World Englishes

Jenkins draws on drawing on existing SLA theories in arguing persuasively for an enhanced focus on EIL: for example, she argues that convergence is a factor, but that learners should not be encouraged to converge towards a ‘native speaker’ model. She argues that ‘L1 speakers have…forfeited the right to dictate standards of pronunciation for L1 use’ (p16). There are valid arguments against her reasoning. For example, as Trudgill (2005) points out, although the number of non-native users of English long overtook the number of ‘natives’, there are few non-natives who use English 100% or even most of the time. Jenkins’ model is also based on observation of learners from a limited range of language backgrounds, and so can be criticised for limited coverage. Trudgill (ibid) also comments that successful intelligibility partly depends on the level of speaker and the listener. I know from personal experience of learning languages that it is often easier to understand a fellow non-native speaker with a better command of the language, although this may have more to do with the relative absence of idiomaticity and pragmatic difficulties. Trudgill also evokes the Shortfall Principle, which holds that whatever model is used, it is not expected that learners will fully achieve their goals. He uses it to argue persuasively that if EIL is used as a model, any failure to attain its targets will result in a breakdown in communication (2008 p92). It might also be argued that there is also element of embracing pidginization to the LFC/ELF projects. That may be not such a bad thing, given that the role of English internationally as a medium of trade and exchange (a ‘contact language’) is not dissimilar to the functions which pidgins have played throughout history. However, that same historical development also suggests that Jenkin’s call for ELF to be taught as a subject (including to ‘native speakers’ of English) (Jenkins, 2000), may be misguided, as it is destined by definition never to be used as a mother tongue and thus never to stabilise into a creole (Wardhaugh, 2002).

Another issue with particular implications in relation to accent and English teaching is the phenomenon of World Englishes. If we are to retain the model of Received Pronunciation or General American for English language learners, what does that imply for the status of Singaporean, Nigerian or Indian speakers of English, who may easily satisfy almost all definitions of ‘native speakers’? This returns us to a set of political issues as to who can claim ownership of English. Seidlhofer dismisses the notion that English will be forever subject to the rule(s) of monolingual native speakers as “naïve” (2005, p61), while Jenkins herself states that neither GA and RP can call itself standard, in that neither is “intrinsically superior” (2000, p204). Phillipson (1992, sets out a number of fallacies which he argues exemplify an essentially imperialist attempt to maintain control over the language, although his critique has rightly been taken to task for failing to acknowledge that learners of English also have agency and may well wish to use English to suit their own communicative and social purposes (Holborrow 2016); this may include, for example, desiring to adopt another accent.

It’s also important to note that, as Jenkins (2000) acknowledges, the degree of usefulness of the LFC framework depends on the specific teaching and learning context. As mentioned previously, it is true that in many cases assimilation is the goal of learners, and in many contexts (for example, in the case of migration from Expanding Circle to Inner Circle countries (Krachu 1992)) that is entirely understandable. Some learners are likely to do more than merely communicate functionally with L1 speakers of English. In most EFL contexts, in which the language and culture of Inner Circle countries is paramount. One valid criticism of the whole approach is that it’s not always clear to learners what their goals, targets and models should be, and therefore the LFC may not suit them. As Seidlhofer (2005, p70) points out, this relies on judicious decision-making by the teacher.

Pedagogical implications

Despite all the difficulties and misconceptions that we have looked at, Derwing’s discovery that 95% of students want to get rid of their accents suggests that this (self-)perception is still prevalent (2003). It would be interesting to see similar statistics regarding teachers’ attitudes, especially with regard to native and non-native teachers: although Trudgill’s negative reaction to Jenkins’ work seems to suggest that he is partly concerned to preserve his own identity and status as a ‘native’ (Trudgill, 2008), the same cannot be said of the several Polish (i.e. non-native) teachers who contributed to two conferences on the value of the LFC, many of whom expressed indignation at the notion of a reduced inventory of phonological features, feeling the LFC to be condescending and of limited relevance to their teaching contexts (see Dziubalska-Kolaczyk and Przedlacka, 2005).

However, it seems to me shortsighted to reject out of hand the notion of a limited set of manageable priorities for teaching intelligible pronunciation. I agree with Smith and Nelson (2006) that while good pronunciation remains the focus in EFL classrooms, it is situational, social and cultural awareness that actually causes learners more difficulties. In any case research has shown that despite the academic attention it has received, the notion of an LFC has only had a limited impact within the word of EFL, partly as it has received “low status and low priority” on teacher training courses (Spicer, 2012). As a result, most pronunciation classes I have taught and observed have maintained the same focus on the full range of phonological features of English. It it takes a concerted effort to remember to consider carefully how a pronunciation activity will develop learners’ ability to communicate with each other. Thus all teachers would benefit from being made more aware of these debates and resources, especially on CELTA courses. Lindemann also argues that the case against misconceived ideas about accent should be made outside the classroom, in society more generally (2008, p41).

Walker (2011) makes a number of specific suggestions for teaching the LFC. But what general lessons can be learned from all the research we have surveyed? Firstly, it is essential that learners be made aware of issues and debates around identity and ownership of English. The notion of English as a Lingua Franca should not just be discussed by teachers in relation to their learners. The coursebook series ‘Global English’ (Clandfield, Benne, and Jeffries 2011), produced in consultation with David Crystal, explicitly addresses these issues in a way that helps learners to make informed decisions about their own needs and identity as users of English. Learners should be helped to understand that their difficulties are not necessarily caused by Communicative Competence (Lindemann 2006 p43). Similarly, teachers should be aware that not all problems can be solved by better language teaching (Lindemann ibid).

Given that there is no single ‘native speaker’ model, more ‘non-native’ ones should be used in listening exercises. Very few coursebooks do this at present, with ‘Outcomes’ (Dellar, Walkley and Maris, 2010) a rare exception. In addition, Cauldwell’s book ‘Phonology for listening’ (2013) uses spoken texts from native speakers not as a model to teach accent, but to develop listening skills. In addition, English is spoken with a wide range of accents, not just ‘native’ ones, and this includes those of the students themselves, or others from the same L1 background. They make more appropriate models in most cases than ‘native’ accents.

Another adjustment that the whole TEFL industry should make with regard to the insights and tools developed by Jenkins and others is to employ non-native teachers. Seidlhofer (1999) points out that they have privileged insights based on having learned the language (p221), while Widdowson (1994) emphatically demolishes the theoretical justifications for ‘native’ teachers being employed over non-native ones. The tradition of doing so is ultimately a matter of marketing rather than a rationale based on pedagogical principles.

With regard to language testing, the IELTS band 9 descriptors rightly specify not ‘native-like’, but a ‘full’, ‘precise’ and ‘subtle’ range’ of pronunciation features. All such exam criteria should have a strong emphasis on accessibility over acceptability and any mention of ‘native-like’ should be replaced with ‘expert’, ‘proficient’ or some other term. IELTS even requires that candidates show their passports to the Speaking examiner. Such procedures serve to activate discrimination, whether conscious or unconscious, on the part of the tester, and thus the procedure should at the very least be anonymised wherever possible. Lindemann also argues that it is wrong for universities to make a blanket distinction (on the basis of nationality) between ‘native and ‘non-native’ students when it comes to language ability (p41); as she points out, there is” no simple definition of what constitutes a non-native speaker”, and it is simply not the case that everyone with a particular passport has a C2 command of their ‘national language’.


As we have seen, the issue of accent is an extremely complex one and the notion of a ‘native accent’ is deeply problematic. Everyone has an accent, and those who learn to speak another language will almost inevitably do so with traces of their own phonological background.

Learners should be encouraged to work towards pronunciation that is, as Block (2009) wrote of ‘Wes’, ‘good enough’ for their purposes. There are vanishingly few social circumstances wherein a ‘non-native’ accent should be regarded as a problem, and once they have mastered intelligible pronunciation learners of English should be encouraged to focus on other areas such as pragmatic and lexicogrammatical competence in developing their language skills and knowledge.

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Why is it sometimes stressful to speak to ‘native speakers’?


This is an essay I wrote as part of an MA in Applied Linguistics in response to a question I came up with. It got a very good mark (yay!) but is unlikely ever to be published elsewhere as it doesn’t offer anything massively original and also has a few tipos.

Engaging in fluent real-life conversation with a native speaker is one of the most demanding and stressful experiences for a non-native speaker, especially when that person is a newcomer to a country where the target language is spoken. a) Discuss the above claim, using your own experience or that of your students. b) Explain possible causes of the difficulty with reference to the literature. c) Discuss how you would support learners experiencing this problem.


Languages regulate access to communities, in theory allowing all those with sufficient mastery to form relationships with other people and to participate in social activities. However, learning requires some measure of interaction (Long 1985) and/or immersion (Swain 1993), and in the case of newcomers to an English-speaking Inner Circle country (Krachu 1992), their efforts to communicate, no matter how competent, are not guaranteed a friendly reception. Thus for someone learning English, interaction with ‘native speakers’ (NS), whether through formal or informal channels, can feel perilous and daunting, with not only visas and livelihoods but also self-esteem and identity at stake. Some choose to remain silent, and experience nervousness and ambivalence towards interacting with ‘native speakers’. This anxiety and inhibition, and its causes, is rarely addressed in EFL materials. Most coursebooks which teach conversation tend to assume the participation of a sympathetic and patient listener and to ignore social contexts where interactions are conditioned by unhelpfulness or even hostility. Rarely do they address the fact that “the gender, race, class and ethnicity of second language learners may serve to marginalise them” (Norton, 2000, p7).

Until relatively recently, research had tended to focus on the individual traits and cognitive challenges that can generate linguistic reticence, and less on social and affective factors. Most Language Anxiety (LA) research has also focussed on interactions inside the classroom (Gkonou, Daubney & Dewaele 2017 p17). This essay will draw on the work of Lindemann and also on Norton’s research into identity and language learning in the context of female immigrants to Canada (Norton 2000). To quote one of her subjects, “I feel uncomfortable using English in the group of people whose English language is their mother tongue because they speak fluently without any problems and I feel inferior” (Norton p93). This sentiment echoes and presumably helps explain the results of a survey of advanced adult learners in which only 38% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I would not be nervous speaking the foreign language with native speakers” (Marzec-Stawiarska , 2014, p111). In this essay I shall draw on my experiences of language learning and teaching along with relevant theories and research. I will problematise such terminology as ‘mother tongue’ and ‘native speaker’ and propose that one way for teachers to address linguistic reticence with regard to interactions with ‘native speakers’ is to encourage learners to question such categories and thereby challenge the subaltern status that they reduce them to. I will also suggest several ways in which teachers can help learners gain awareness of and overcome these challenges.
The differences between understanding native speakers and non-native speakers

Although this essay focuses on affective and social aspects, there are numerous cognitive factors which can cause learners stress when interacting with more proficient users of a language, for example making sense of speaking speed, pragmatic inferences and connected speech (for lists of such factors see Trudgill (2008, pp80-82) Hedge (2000, pp263-267) and Ur, (1996, p111-112)). Studies of how English is used as a lingua franca have investigated both the reduced range of phonological features necessary for intelligibility (Jenkins, 2000) and the less complex range of lexicogrammatical and phraseological features of NNS speech (Seidlhofer, 2005), all of which can make interaction less fraught. It has also been found that in ELF communication partners do not obey native-speaker norms but “negotiate meaning as conversation unfolds by adapting their skills to those of their partner and to the purpose of communication” (Hülmbauer, Böhringer and Seidlhofer, 2008). This encompasses such features as speaking speed and level of vocabulary, reducing much of the cognitive burden. We must of course acknowledge that a non-native speaker may simply not have the communicative competence to hold up their share of the communicative burden (Lindemann, 2006), regardless of who their interlocutor is, and also that, as Norton (2000) explores in relation to her subjects, anxiety can be overcome with increased competence.

My own experiences as a language learner over the last 20 years living in a variety of foreign language environments have indicated that speaking to other L2-competent foreigners can be less cognitively and emotionally demanding than interacting with ‘native speakers’. There can be a sense of solidarity with other ‘outsiders’, but the reduced level of stress occasioned by the relative lack of unfamiliar cultural reference points and conventionalised pragmatic meanings is also a factor. However, this is not just a question of objective factors, but also of my anxiety about my legitimacy or otherwise as a speaker of those languages, i.e. affective factors which cause apprehension. It is important to distinguish between aspects of individual factors in linguistic reticence and factors which more are socially generated.
Individual affective factors causing anxiety when talking to ‘native speakers’

Ever since Horwitz’ seminal 1986 article gave birth to Language Anxiety as a discipline (Horwitz, 1986), research and theory has almost exclusively focused on classroom participation and performance and has been more concerned with the individual experience of anxiety than on the social circumstances that contribute to it (Gkonou, Daubney & Dewaele, 2017). MacIntyre et al’s (1998) Willingness to Communicate (WTC) model makes the seemingly unproblematic assumption that “frequent and pleasant contact with the L2 group” will inevitably lead to an improvement in L2 skills and confidence. However, as Norton explores in detail (Norton 1995 and 2000), pleasantness is not a feature of all such interactions. Lindemann supports this, demonstrating that in some circumstances the native interlocutor may effectively “refuse to listen” (2006, p24). There are clearly more than individual factors involved.
Problems with contextualising Language Anxiety only at individual level

Many theories of effective second language learning (including, for example, Krashen 1982; Wong Fillmore 1979) have claimed that language learners’ success in aligning with the target language community depends on their motivation versus the affective and cognitive challenges they face. However, individual motivation is complex, partly because it is not entirely conscious and is more dynamic than fixed. Norton’s alternative notion of ‘investment’ is helpful here, in that it takes account of the post-structuralist notion of subjectivity as multiple, contradictory, and dynamic; as she puts it, “Learners are constantly organising and reorganising a sense of who they are and how they relate to the social world” (Norton, 2000, p11).
The importance of social factors

As Norton points out, “relations of power in the social world impact on social interaction between second language learners and target language speakers” (Norton, 2000, p4). Anxiety related to so-called ‘Language shock’ (Agar 1996) and challenges faced by the ‘language ego’ (Guiora, 1972, quoted in Brown 2007 p69) operate in a social context conditioned by power relations particularly affecting women, different social classes, and immigrants. If we take the latter, one influential thesis, Schumann’s influential concept of Acculturation, fails to account sufficiently for power imbalances (Schumann 1978). Individuals may experience fear of rejection and anxiety regarding status and identity, and these factors operate in a social context. However, as Norton argues, Schumann’s puts the blame on the language learner rather than on society if he or she succeeds or fails (Norton, p114). In suggesting that it is the job of the new arrival to make up the ‘social distance’, Schumann’s model does not account for the role of social inequality in establishing and maintaining that distance in a way that is very hard for any individual to overcome. It may not be a matter of Alberto’s ambivalence towards his new culture (Schumann, ibid), but his new culture’s ambivalence towards him.
Bourdieu’s ‘legitimate speaker’

Norton (2000, p8) draws on Bourdieu’s concept of the ‘legitimate speaker’. Bourdieu argues that the preconditions of social communication are unequally structured, and that it is a condition of establishing communication that each participant regard the other as worthy to listen and speak (1977, p648). One factor that may make it difficult for a language learner to establish themselves as a ‘legitimate’ speaker is the higher degree of possibility of making pragmatic errors when speaking or listening and thus exposing themselves to potential ridicule. For example, in western societies, TV comedy shows systematically mock outsiders’ use of language, thereby policing the boundaries of a particular linguistic community. This example demonstrates that contrary to Schumann’s model there is not just distance between an individual and the new society, but also socially-generated linguistic barriers which anyone belonging to the social category of outsider must try to negotiate.
Immigration and inequality

It is essential to bear in mind that in conversation participants jointly construct meaning, therefore any failure in communication is not just of the speaker. Yet, as Norton argues (p119), “Immigrant language learners are generally more invested in relationships with target language speakers than the reverse situation…The immigrants are the ones who need to make contact with members of the target language group if their language learning is to improve, and they are far more vulnerable to the attitudes of the dominant group than the dominant group is vulnerable to them.” This is backed up by Lindemann, who found that in some cases native–non-native communicative difficulties can clearly be seen as stemming from the native speaker, rather than from the non-native speaker (2006). Research by Lindemann, Rubin and others demonstrates that target language speakers may be reluctant to negotiate meaning with language learners and the onus is usually on the learner to understand and make themselves understood. However, second language learners may not get much opportunity to practise with target language speakers, partly because “the social meaning of immigrant [is] not newcomer with initiative and courage, but uneducated, unskilled minority.” (Norton 2000 p117). Social status may affect their linguistic progress; newly-arrived immigrants to Western countries are often obliged to take low-status jobs which offer little access to social interactions and the content-rich input necessary for acquisition to take place (Norton 2000 p73).

Although as Smith and Nelson point out, “Intelligibility is not speaker- or listener-centred but is interactional between speaker and listener” (1995, p333), Lindemann found that the attitude of the native speaker was crucial in determining the perceived success or failure of an interaction (2016). Successful communication requires a positive attitude, cooperation, and patience, but this is not always guaranteed. There is also the phenomenon of accent discrimination. Rubin’s classic 1992 study found that “if listeners merely thought that a person might be from a different language background, they understood less of what was said” (quoted in Derwing & Munro, 2008, p486). Such discrimination is not necessarily conscious or malicious, but it will inevitably have an effect on the confidence of the interlocutor.

Language learning thus involves investment in social identity in an unequal or asymmetrical context. Graddol remarks that “English has become one of the main mechanisms for structuring inequality in developing economies”, and this can also be true in Inner Circle ones with regard to immigrants. In Norton’s study (2000), immigrant women in the workplace found that their colleagues were organised in social networks which the women in the study struggled and often failed to gain access to. One of her subjects tried to engage anglophones in conversation but they “ran away”. One felt inhibited by “fear of appearing incompetent”; co-workers explain they stopped talking to her because they “felt tired”. Resort to silence can be a form of resistance to inequitable social forces: “If people treated her with disrespect, it was their problem and not her problem”. Thus can formal and informal workplace hierarchies result in a sense of linguistic alienation and lead to reticence.
The notion of the ‘native speaker’ as a cause of anxiety

As Oxford (1999) explores, certain beliefs about language may be anxiety-inducing, and this is particularly true with regard to beliefs regarding correctness and ownership. To quote a Spanish speaker of English commenting on a course he is taking which involves interacting with ‘native speakers’, “now it’s more difficult for me to understand the real English”. It is my contention that the concept of the ‘native speaker’ itself can play a significant role in generating psychological stress in NS-NNS interactions. The notion of the ‘native speaker’ (usefully defined as someone with “a complete and possibly innate competence in the 7 language” which is perceived as being “bounded, fixed to a homogeneous speech community and linked to a nation-state” (Doerr, 2009, p1)) has long been challenged in linguistics. Ferguson (1983, pvii) argued that “the whole mystique of native speaker and mother tongue should preferably be quietly dropped from the linguist’s set of professional myths about language”; Rampton argued that the category unhelpfully conflates three separate categories that by no means always coincide: expertise, affiliation, and inheritance (Rampton, 1990, p101).

However, 20 years of teaching have taught me that this it remains a widespread notion, especially among learners, partly as result of the TEFL industry’s perpetuation of a misconception of the monolingual native teacher’s centrality to the learning experience. Linguistic anxiety is generated by the notion of a particular caste of people (‘native speakers’) who have perceived ownership of and authority over language. However, as Davies points out (2013) and Jenkins explores at length (2000), the role of English as an international language and the existence of numerous varieties of English in post-colonial societies language makes English a special case and indicate that it should no longer be seen as the property of people from Inner Circle countries. This reality must be reflected in classroom practise, to which I will now turn.
Application to practice

How can EFL practitioners respond effectively to these issues? How can we best prepare our learners for the inevitable language shock and cognitive, affective and political issues that real-world NS<>NNS language interactions imply?

Firstly, more attention should be paid to specific needs and identities of learners, in particular contexts. Seidlhofer (1999) emphasises that in inner and expanding circle different conditions apply. In any specific English-speaking context particular configurations of language(s) prevail. Respecting this is one aspect of what Kumaravadivelu (2006) called particularity: the need to be sensitive to the institutional and sociocultural milieu. This is supported by Bax (2003), who argued that CLT approaches (for example, the imposition of English as the only classroom language) should not simply be rolled out regardless of the teaching and learning context.

Another priority is to address beliefs. Students should be made aware of the role of English and issues around identity, authority and ownership, including the widespread recognition (in English teaching contexts) that in most English-speaking contexts the concept of the ‘native speaker’ is at best problematic and can even be (like some native speakers themselves) actively intimidating and unhelpful. One useful tool to help learners respond to this reality is Jenkin’s Lingua Franca Core pronunciation model. Such tools can help learners see themselves as users rather than learners and understand that, as Lindemann, has it, their problems are not necessarily related to Communicative Competence (Lindemann 2006 p43). This is part of encouraging L2 users of English to see their identity and their competencies not in terms of deficit but in terms of divergence (ibid, p42).

Language classrooms should also be therapeutic places, where learners are encouraged to reflect on the affective experience of language learning, allowing them to reframe negative experiences in terms of the new understandings of identity that successful language acquisition implies. Learners should develop their identity (including particularly their online identity – see Lam 2000) and ‘voice’ (Bailey, 1996) as well as their skills and knowledge.

Another way to help learners anticipate and overcome stress and anxiety in encounters with ‘native speakers’ is to encourage them to reflect critically on who they’re speaking to about what, and how such how power imbalances can affect the success or failure of cross-cultural encounters. Learners can be encouraged to write about their own about affective experiences in class (Norton 2000 p 153) and share it with one another, thus creating a learning community offering mutual support. Thus can they be helped to recognise that failures in communication may not be their own fault.

There should also be more value given to code-switching and language crossing in EFL. It is underacknowledged in EFL that such language play is central to how speakers (not just ‘language learners’) break down social boundaries (see Rampton 2017). This could help learners speak more freely without feeling that they are restricted to ‘correct’ forms of the target language. ‘Linguistic Imperialism’ (Phillipson, 1992) is certainly at work in the EFL classroom that bans all recourse to other languages. The use of the term ‘monolingual’ to categorise a language classroom is almost always a misnomer: students always have a range of linguistic resources to draw upon, and they should be encouraged to do so rather than being constrained within linguistic straitjackets.

Finally, there is great potential in the enhanced use of drama. Typical EFL role-plays can allow learners to experiment safely with new identities, but one form of theatre which I believe has a great deal to offer is Forum Theatre, as developed by Augusto Boal (Boal, 2008). In this format participants reenact encounters they have experienced, reflecting in the process on other possibilities for what they could have said and done and seeing for themselves how other outcomes were possible. This form of reflection on and rehearsal for real-world interaction involves developing learners’ own resources of initiative and their own protagonism as fully-fledged users of the language, active subjects creating their own meanings rather than passive recipients of linguistic input. Thus are learners empowered to assert their own identity as users of the language. It is also a useful means of encouraging reflection to help overcome demoralisation resulting from less successful interactions.

This essay has argued that social factors, such as discrimination on the basis of accent, play an important role in generating anxiety in real-world interactions between native speakers and non-native speakers, and that the very concept of ‘native speaker’ can be psychologically intimidating. It has suggested that teachers address these issues by raising students’ awareness of issues of ownership of and authority over language in order to empower them as speakers of English as a global language. Space has limited the discussion of a vast and 9 complex area, but further research could look into the effects of the ‘native speaker’ concept on language learners’ sense of language anxiety, taking an emic, qualitative approach.
Reference List

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  • Bailey, K. M., & Nunan, D. (1996). Voices from the language classroom: qualitative research in second language education. Cambridge [England], Cambridge University Press.
  • Bax, S. (2003). The end of CLT: A context approach to language teaching. ELT Journal, 57 (3), 278–287.
  • Boal, A (2008). Theatre of the Oppressed. London: Pluto Press
  • Bourdieu, P. (1977). The economics of linguistic exchanges. Social Science Information, 16(6), pp.645-668.
  • Brown, H.D. (2007) Principles of language learning and teaching. 5 th ed. White Plains: Pearson
  • Davies, A. Is the native speaker dead?. In: Histoire Épistémologie Langage, tome 35, fascicule 2, 2013. pp. 17-28.
  • Derwing, T.M. and Munro, M.J., 2009. Putting accent in its place: Rethinking obstacles to communication. Language teaching, 42(4), pp.476-490.
  • Doerr, N.M. ed., 2009. The native speaker concept: Ethnographic investigations of native speaker effects (Vol. 26). Walter de Gruyter.
  • Gkonou, C., Daubney, M. and Dewaele, J.M. eds., 2017. New insights into language anxiety: Theory, research and educational implications. Multilingual Matters.
  • Graddol, D., 2006. English next (Vol. 62). London: British Council. Hedge, T., 2001. Teaching and learning in the language classroom (Vol. 106). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
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  • Kumaravadivelu, B., 2006. Understanding language teaching: From method to postmethod. Routledge.
  • Lam, W., 2000. L2 literacy and the design of the self: A case study of a teenager writing on the Internet. TESOL quarterly, 34(3), pp.457-482.Quarterly, 34(1), 457–482.
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The grammar of Brexit

Countable nouns, verifiable items: Body bags, stockpiled cans of powdered milk for the baby, lost jobs, empty shelves, closed shops, bankrupt businesses, soldiers on the street, companies relocated overseas, skilled individuals forced to emigrate, food riots, jars of mouldy jam, percentages of GDP, dollars against the pound, days left til Farage can open the champagne, MPs with the courage to stand up and call Theresa May a liar…

Ineffable, abstract nouns, impossible to define, quantify or measure, thus open to abuse by demagogic politicians and media representing selfish hidden agendas: Destiny, sovereignty, national renewal, freedom, independence, control…

It’s not Ireland that craves colonial humiliation – it’s Brexit Britain

As a rule it’s best to avoid heeding whatever Brendan O’Neill writes on his mercenary trollsite ‘Spiked’, particularly as he only says such monstrously silly things in order to get attention, rather like a toddler triumphantly upending its own potty. His cabal of junior psychopaths are so very keen to promote themselves as contrarian iconoclasts that (as I found when I happened to be in the building which hosts their office a few months ago) one of them apparently subscribes to a magazine dedicated to private car registration plates. Chortle, chortle, what japesters they must be.

The reason it’s worth briefly lingering in the fetid afterstench of O’Neill’s latest brainfart is suggested by Fintan O’Toole’s book ‘Unheroic Failures: Brexit and the politics of pain’, in which he convincingly argues that two perverse fantasies swirl inside the Brexit nightmare: one, that the UK actually lost the Second World War, and two, that Britain was actually the victim, not the protagonist, of its Empire. Anyone who’s remotely concerned about Brexit needs to get hold of a copy and and read up on the psychopathologies that led us to this sad, sorry, borderline suicidal point.

Another very great book on the subject of Ireland, England and identity, one which I read several decades ago, was Declan Kiberd’s ‘Inventing Ireland’, in which he makes the case that the UK’s perceptions of its neighbour and oldest colony consist of projections of those aspects it most dislikes and/or fears in its own character: venal, lazy, superstitious, whimsical, drunken, alternately violent and docile, etc. This odd dynamic meant that Oscar Wilde was able to satirise the affectations and mores of the English upper classes in a way that no English writer could have done.

The notion, then, that Ireland wants to go back to being a colony, to be dominated by a more powerful political entity, is a projection. There is, it seems, a wish buried in our national psyche, a desire far too traumatic to ever be openly confessed to, of which Brexit is a perverted expression: Britons do actually want to be slaves. It’s not a case of the UK elite wanting to regain the Empire, but rather to relive it as reviled, humiliated and abject – as the Irishman O’Toole says, and the Englishman O’Neill would (pathologically) deny, the British (or at least the English) are not nostalgic for glory and heroically chasing their destiny, but rather drowning in resentment and craving self-pity.

Now given that this is exactly the sort of no-holds-barred contrarian hot-take that Spiked are celebrated for, it can only be a matter of hours til it appears on their front page. After all, they love free speech and challenging their readers almost as much as they do private car number plates. Amiright, “Breandán”?!

Timescales: Brexit and the climate


I once read a chapter in a book about the nuclear industry which recounted debates related to the burying of nuclear waste in the Nevada desert. Given that depleted uranium has a half-life of 4.468 billion years, how can our civilisation signal to who or whatever inhabits our planet so far in the future that they must not dig too deep at certain locations? What symbols might represent danger for all conceivable life-forms?

I’ve been thinking about timescales, partly in relation to the above table presented by the physicist Jay Lemke in an equally head-spinning paper called ‘Across the scales of time‘. I came across it on a course I’m doing called, appropriately enough, Language and Power. It relates to educational processes but can easily be adapted to other contexts. Here, for example, is a timescale of my own invention:

  1. Jem Finer, formerly of The Pogues, has created a composition called ‘Longplayer’, which you can listen to here. You’re unlikely to get through the whole thing, as it’s 1,000 years in duration. In the meantime, you can also read a series of reflections in the form of exchanges of letters which ponder some of the cosmological and personal conundrums the piece evokes. Here’s one from the comedian Stewart Lee.
  2. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom drew on the ancestral wisdom of the Iroquois people in formulating her theses about sustainability. She urged humanity to always think seven generations into the future (around 150 years) when formulating policies.
  3. The British Meterological Office has warned that the target set by the Paris Agreement of restricting a rise in global temperatures to 1.5C could be breached within five years.
  4. Container ships setting off now from the UK which will not reach their destinations for at least 50 days may find that the goods they’re transporting may face an as-yet unknown tariff regime when they arrive, meaning they may never be unloaded.
  5. The Labour leadership has submitted a letter to the Government in which it details its preferences for what sort of arrangements it would like the UK to try to reach with the EU if it should ever come to pass that Britain should one day consider exiting the European Union. The Guardian article reporting on this omits to mention whether the letter was sent by first or second class post.
  6. The kettle is boiling.

China: How to discuss politics without causing offence (or worse)


I lived in China from September 2004 to June 2005. At the time the invasion of Iraq was turning into the catastrophe we had all predicted, and I often took affront when people would even suggest that the whole debacle was something to do with me. After all, I’d been living outside ‘my country’ for more than ten years at that point, so didn’t feel that what its government did was my responsibility.

For some of that time I lived in Dublin, making semi-regular trips back to the UK. On one of those visits I took my then girlfriend to meet my family. My dad was particularly fascinated to learn that her father was 70, ie a little older than one might expect of someone with a twenty-something daughter. Throughout an extremely uncomfortable and exasperating evening he asked her again and again how old her father was, way beyond the point at which she was visibly upset. I asked him bluntly to drop the subject but there was something about it that compelled him to go on causing us all profound embarrassment.

The Chinese Communist Party has been in power for 70 years. It has often been said to have a paternalistic attitude towards its subjects, which involves much more than making sure there’s food on the table. It also takes a strong interest in the educational and moral well-being of the Chinese people. Over the last year or so there have been reports about the way the State treats potentially disobedient offspring: by grounding them, in a massive network of camps throughout the west of the country. This BBC report is one of many documenting the system of incarceration that may be holding up to a million Muslim Chinese people. It almost defies description, with many similar characteristics to the Russian gulags. People are locked up for indefinite periods of time just for being Muslims. Owning the Koran, praying or going to mosque can get you and your family locked up. The only way out is to convince the educators that you love the Chinese State, at which point you are set free and rewarded with a plaque outside your house identifying you as a loyal citizen.

When I lived in China I worked in a university. Although there was already a considerable age gap, I did make some friends among my students but never got to talk about the things that I wanted to find out, specifically how they viewed the State, the party, etc, what they knew about Tiananmen Square, etc. My assumptions were skewed, and I had an extremely simplistic and superficial view of the profoundly complex society that surrounded me. People may acquiesce or resist in all sorts of ways that are certainly not apparent or communicable to an outsider who can barely order a meal. There were certain taboos it would have been impossibly awkward to break, and it would be deeply unfair to insist that an 18-year-old from a peasant background share their private feelings about a changing public reality they themselves were presumably struggling to get used to with an authority figure in a foreign language. Had I stayed longer and developed deeper relationships with people I might have learned more. Or I may have just adjusted to a very different reality, found an acceptable routine that allowed me to feel at ease. As it was, my official status, that of a ‘foreign friend’ (wai pengyou), made me feel compromised. (I wrote about some of these dilemmas here.) I came to feel like I was legitimising the State with my presence. One of my English-teaching colleagues was pulled up before the university authorities for having (I think, innocently) called Taiwan an ‘independent country’ in class. He was admonished, nothing more.

Now, fifteen or so years later, I’m at a university in the UK taking a master’s course. Around a third of my fellow students are from China, essentially the same cohort that I’ve been teaching for the last few years on pre-sessional courses. Like all my students when I’ve got to know them, they’re smart, resourceful and highly-motivated. They’re not the only Chinese speakers on the course, as there are also some Taiwanese, and everyone gets on remarkably well. Although I’ve not exactly hidden my dissident attitude towards my own government as we lurch towards our own Cultural Revolution/Great Leap Forward, I haven’t yet spoken to them about Chinese politics.

Partly that’s because of not wanting to cause mutual embarrassment. I don’t want to be like my dad, badgering them about something that is not their concern. I’m also aware that my stance when I was in China, of disavowing my national background as a means of avoiding awkward questions and feelings, was to some extent an act of moral cowardice. However, when it comes to one of the main issues discussed in relation to China in the outside world nowadays, ie the treatment of its Muslim population, there’s a much more serious risk, and I don’t feel that I have the right to take that risk on my colleagues’ behalf by raising the topic.

The BBC article linked to above details what has happened to Chinese students studying abroad: in cases where family members have been detained, they have been recalled to China and locked up too; Uighur students have disappeared upon returning home for ‘political screening’. (Amnesty International reports on one of those cases here.) For all that international students may come into contact with radical concepts and paradigms on their academic courses, political disloyalty is not highly prized back home. Anyone wondering about how information about potential dissidents can travel from a classroom or canteen in a UK university to state security authorities back home should read up on the role of the Chinese Student and Scholars Association (CSSA) on campuses around the world.

I don’t get the impression that my Chinese colleagues engage much with the Western media, partly as the challenges their courses present take up so much of their time in any case. I don’t know how much news or rumours of what’s going on have spread around the world of Chinese social networks. Even if I spoke the language I’d probably be unable to find out, as in order to stay beneath the surveillance radar users of Weibo and Wechat potentially dodgy topics are usually discussed in a fast-evolving code. I’m also acutely aware that at this particular moment someone in the UK insisting on talking about political injustice elsewhere may be looked at askance.

This is a moral maze and I have no idea which way to turn, so will for the moment choose to stay still and wait for help. One obvious solution is to get on with my course, work together with my Chinese colleagues, and see if any opportunities to breach awkward topics eventually presents itself. It’s certainly better to try to discuss this with fellow students, rather than my own charges, where a different power dynamic applies. There’s almost certainly a Chinese proverb that encapsulates this dilemma. Maybe I should try to ask someone, without, hopefully, causing too much embarrassment, or worse.


Jesus, did you actually think this was serious? I mean ‘Lexit’ was a huge pile of horseshit in the first place, but you’d need all the assembled cavalries from all the wars throughout human history, plus all the individual steeds and ponies and mares and mules and asses and palominos and thoroughbreds and foles, throw in a pantomime donkey while you’re at it, to begin to produce enough equine manure to make a case for there being anything remotely progressive about the prospect of a new war in Northern Ireland, martial law throughout the UK, some 1930s Etonian fascist in number 10, empty supermarket shelves and huge angry crowds outside everyone trampling on each other to get their hands on the last potato this side of Calais, everywhere you look gatherings of angry-looking men with nothing to do all day but share their dreams of Tommy, enough racist scapegoating to satisfy even Nigel “I was in the National Front, no one ever mentions it but I used to be in the National fucking Front” Farage, schoolchildren forced to pledge allegiance to Brexit and to promise to expose any disloyal talk around the kitchen table, talk on the news and in the press and the radio and online of the need for war and conscription and hanging and more war, every single symptom of social malaise or economic collapse attributed to traitors at home and mortal enemies abroad, and on every street corner someone calling out ‘Socialist Worker! Socialist Worker!’, the headline never seems to change, this week it’s THE PEOPLE’S BREXIT, ALL HAIL COMMISSAR REES-MOGG, DOWN WITH THE HATED NEOLIBERAL EU, THREE CHEERS FOE WHATEVER HATEFUL SHIT THE WORKING CLASS SEEMS TO BE CONCERNED ABOUT THIS WEEK, IT’S TIME TO PANDER TO WIDELY-HELD MISCONCEPTIONS, RIVERS OF BLOOD, SEND EM ALL BACK it’s admittedly a lot of words to fit on a single page and kind of painful to read but where else do you have to be? The Left case for Brexit, a basic misreading of stage directions which actually read (exit stage right, pursued by a Facebook meme of a polar bear), but do tell me all about Greece again, do the one about no one else knowing or caring about austerity and homelessness in Tory Britain, repeat word-for-word that lie on your website about ‘its neoliberal policies restrict left wing measures such as nationalisation’, repeat the word ‘bosses’ way beyond the point where semantic saturation sets in, enthrall me with some spiel about the ‘Establishment’, as if the middle name of the defacto leader of your party isn’t Theodore “and whose mother, the Honorable Ædgyth Lyon-Dalberg-Acton, was the daughter of the 2nd Lord Acton, descended from the 19th century English historian Lord Acton”, yeah tell me the one about fighting the establishment again, and then by all means go on about what Tony Benn would have wanted, I could do with a fucking laugh.