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.
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My ‘linguistic repertoire’

The notion of ‘linguistic repertoires’ is not a brand-new one, but it has become fairly central to Sociolinguistics in the last few years. I’d never heard of it until this month as I’d never studied Sociolinguistics before. Now I’m doing a master’s course which includes modules in Sociolinguistics, so terms such as ‘linguistic repertoire’ form part of my…’linguistic repertoire’. So…what’s a ‘linguistic repertoire’? Well, it’s defined in this article (written by some sociolinguists) as the “totality of linguistic resources” available to an individual, so it’s much more than the answer to the question “Which languages can you speak?”. In any case, the term ‘language’ is not all that useful when trying to understand the use of…language through the lens of Sociolinguistics, especially in a global context that is increasingly ‘conditioned by’ (yay!) linguistic superdiversity. It’s impossible to define the boundaries of an individual ‘language’ and designations such as ‘native speakers’, ‘dialect’ and ‘creole’ often serve to mystify rather than enlighten, while any given interaction or text (including this one, zum Beispiel) makes use of an often bewildering range of linguistic codes, styles, registers, varieties, etc. Ya get me? Begorrah.

I was given the task of posting a description of my own linguistic repertoire in the module’s discussion forum, and inevitably my account touched on a lot of the same issues that I’ve written about here, so I thought it might be of interest to regular visitors. (There’s a better-organised and better-informed account of someone’s LR towards the end of the article linked to just above.) Mine is a bit artless and plodding in places, but as they say in Cardiff, plus ça change…. I also forgot to mention that my main ‘foreign’ ‘language’ is…Europanto.

My linguistic repertoire

One’s linguistic repertoire indexes one’s biography, argue Blommaert and Backus (2011). Well, like any biography mine starts before I was born, in that my father left his hometown in Northern Germany at the age of 17 and eventually moved to Sheffield, England with my mum, who somehow came from both Dorchester and Leicester. Thus while most people in Sheffield have a distinctive way of speaking (familiar to anyone who’s seen ‘The Full Monty’), my family didn’t share it, although we did speak (ahem) ‘English’ rather than ‘German’. I was raised with quite a conservative set of values in relation to accent*, in that it was a family trope that pronouncing words like local people did was ‘common’. I rebelled against this to a certain extent, developing a lifelong affinity for what B & B call ‘dirty words’ as part of a far more demotic form of speech outside the house, but ended up speaking with a broadly non-regional accent, although I’ve always pronounced the short vowel in ‘baeth’ and would feel distinctly silly saying ‘ba:th’. I was exposed to German and French at school but the teaching approach wasn’t conducive to learning more than the odd fixed expression and some basic grammar.

At 18 I moved to Norwich (or, as the locals say, up Naarge) to study philosophy and literature, so acquired a fledgling command of academic discourses around post-colonialism, post-modernism and existentialism, etc. I then lived in Dublin for six years, which left a seemingly permanent mark on my linguistic repertoire in that I adopted pronunciations like ‘filum’ and started saying ‘yer man’, ‘graaand’ and ‘yis’. I can still do a passable Roddy Doyle-esque Northside accent, having felt an affinity with that part of Dublin. I later, via work, developed a command of areas of discourse including IT jargon and discourse patterns particular to software corporations.

Living in the north of Portugal I discovered an appetite (and, I thought at the time, an aptitude) for learning ‘foreign’ languages. I quickly acquired a strong regional accent, which didn’t stand me in good stead later in life. Having self-taught myself (well, it was really friends and newspapers that taught me…), I decided to try German, French, and Spanish while I was at it, in what in retrospect was an attempt to expand my range of identities, building up my linguistic capital. I remember a conversation around that time with an English colleague of mine who, having mastered those languages and more while living in ‘target language’ environments, expressed bemusement at my desire to acquire so many languages which she regarded as redundant tools since I was unlikely to need to use them any time soon. That principle hadn’t occurred to me but nonetheless struck me as a mature attitude that I nonetheless couldn’t identify with – what I’d learnt was precious and I was precious about it in turn. I moved to Lisbon and was delighted to meet someone who told me I spoke Portuguese with ‘no accent’. It’s possible they were joking – I’d only been in the country for a year at that point. I realised much later that my command of Portuguese was inevitably limited to vernacular forms in that I wasn’t ever going to be working in the language. I probably also spoke like a newspaper as that was where a lot of my vocabulary came from, and the same goes (it probably is still true) for the other languages I speak. I slowly acquired a command of ELT lingo as member of the very broad ELT ‘community’.

Although my English accent was distinctly non-specific I was astonished to one day meet a particularly perceptive Chicago cab driver on vacation who after I’d said about three words asked me what part of Sheffield I was from. I started to make friends with Brazilians who found my Portuguese Portuguese dialect hilarious and so I tried to start sounding more Brazilian; on trips to Spain I tried to sound like I was from Andalucia (erm…). I began to notice that on visits back to the UK, I felt a refreshing confidence in my ‘voice’. I felt like what Bourdieu calls a ‘legitimate speaker’ rather than someone winging it in a clearly foreign tongue. Living in China, I took pride in my speedily-acquired Mandarin, which was a bit absurd as I regularly met other foreigners who had clearly invested much more in the language. Although I inevitably left most of what I’d learned behind me, I still have an ability to recognise when people are speaking standard Mandarin. I then spent a few months in Madrid, and my Spanish developed much as my Portuguese had: good at speaking informally, advanced reading skills, little else. I’d started to realise at this point that I was depending on other languages as a source of self-esteem and to try to fulfil my lifelong dream of being from elsewhere –when I moved back to London at the start of 2006 I occasionally found myself referring to ‘other (as in fellow) foreigners’. I started a master’s course (in KCL) and developed my command of Academic Portuguese and, for that matter, English. In London through mixing a lot with Latin Americans, my Spanish and Portuguese changed. Thanks to where I was living, I developed an ability to recognise Bengali and Turkish. As for my own accent, I found it remarkable when a long-standing work colleague expressed surprise that I was from the north. Through examining I developed a knowledge of the IELTS register. Outside work my online Twitter interactions had a positive impact on my ability to express abuse and sarcasm in short written form. I visited Brazil and had to make a huge amount of effort to demediavelise my Portuguese – the Brazilians regard the European variety as atavistic and I struggled to fit in.

Through friendships with students I slowly started learning Italian, starting with certain regional swearwords, which as B & B point out can be a shortcut means of acquiring a familiarity with the vernacular. When I met my now-wife (who is Italian) I went through a period of being simultaneously impressed and intimidated by her and her colleagues’ ability to mix languages, code switching effortlessly and endlessly between English, French and Spanish. Getting my brain to think in Italian and my speech organs to not produce Spanish proved a constant struggle. Her job took us to Mexico and I experienced the same struggle in reverse. I also had to master a whole new area of place names, slang, and cultural information and had to work hard to try to Mexicanise my pronunciation. After a year there we spent a couple of months in a university in Thailand where I made a pointed attempt to fail to learn some of the language. I’d put my knowledge of Thai at about the same level as the few dozen words of Greek and Finnish I picked up on various holidays**. (My French and German have been comfortably stuck near the bottom of League 1 for at least 15 seasons.)

Regularly visiting Chiara’s family near Napoli meant my Italian features a few expressions in dialect, and then same goes for Rome, where we spent a year and a half. (Now it was Spanish that got in the way of Italian again.) Through working in a university I acquired (not without difficulty) a knowledge of the formal register of university bureaucracy, and (with a lot of assistance from others) developed my writing in a way I never really had with Portuguese or Spanish. I also had to acquire a command of the discourses around pregnancy, childbirth and parenting. Now here living in London I’ve started to think of my accent as a bit of a ‘Remainer’ accent, specially when I step outside the M25. I’ve also started using the word ‘index’ as a verb, and phrases like ‘orders of discourse’, ‘dividing practices’ and ‘kurtosis’. I’m no longer as dependent on knowing foreign languages to bolster my self-esteem, and I’m also no longer sure if and where a line can be drawn between knowledge of the world and knowledge of language, between knowing a few Greek expressions and knowing where Athens is in relation to Thessaloniki, remembering who the Prime Minister of France is and being able to identify a Colombian accent, or having the command of the necessary discourses to fake it in the world of Applied Linguistics. I can now appreciate that language competence is, as Blommaert and Backus point out, dynamic rather than fixed, and that it’s not a case of acquiring and owning a number of discrete languages but rather of using different forms of language with varying degrees of competence while inhabiting specific roles in diverse situations. Here endeth my linguistic repertoire***.

*And vocabulary – my mum, who we, despite not being officially posh (and absolutely not being rich), kept addressing for far too long as ‘Mummy’, insisted on prohibiting the word ‘wee’ and imposed ‘wee wee’ as a euphemistic alternative, which is…odd because (as any expert in linguistics will happily confirm) the term ‘wee wee’ consists of nothing but the word ‘wee’, twice. This single fact more than any other explains why I still find it I important use so much bad fucking language. N.B. I didn’t include this bit in the module discussion forum post.

**As I’ve mentioned here before I happen to know some staggeringly offensive things to say in Finnish. I once offered to share them with anyone who contacted me via the Contact link. Two people did so, I sent them the expressions complete with fully idiomatic transactions, but oddly enough neither of them ever thanked me. Kuradi pärast!

***Here I drew upon a Biblical register. Thank God I didn’t follow it with ‘Amen’. Amen to that.

In which I teach my Chinese students (and myself) all about Welsh


There’s a cliché that the ‘best English’ is spoken in Dublin. I’d like to put a new one into circulation: the friendliest variety of the language is that of the Welsh. When I left Cardiff a couple of weeks ago I felt genuinely sad to be moving away from a place where everyone I met in the course of two months greeted me in a helpful and engaging manner, even though I couldn’t speak a word of their official language. Well, one of their official languages. We managed, for the most part, to get by in English.

I spent eight weeks teaching almost exclusively Chinese students on a presessional course at Cardiff University. One reason I chose Cardiff is because I’m very interested in issues of language and identity, particularly national identity. I also thought it would be an opportunity to challenge my long-held patronising view of the Welsh language, which has occasionally caused me to use its very existence as a punchline whenever the name of a slightly absurd language is called for. Force of habit meant it was hard for me to overcome my slight amusement at finding in the university library a copy of the book ‘Business Welsh’. Surely the one phrase that would be most useful in such a setting would be ‘Edrychwch, pam nad ydym ni ddim ond yn gwneud y cyfarfod yn Saesneg?‘.

Things are, inevitably, considerably more involved, as is always the case with minority languages. The point of a language is not merely to communicate, after all, but to maintain and represent a particular culture and identity. Hence, gaining a better understanding of the role of Welsh is a way of rethinking other such languages. Besides, as this wonderful poem by Nayyirah Waheed implies, who wants to speak bloody English all the time? Nevertheless, in the relationship between Wales, Welsh, and English, contradictions abound. Reflecting on the role of Welsh in state school education put me in mind of a lengthy conversation I had with a young Spanish speaker in San Sebastian a number of years ago, who was frustrated that the Basque language was used to exclude people from other parts of Spain from public service jobs. On the one hand, I could relate to his annoyance. When I lived in Dublin I was prevented from applying for a civil service job by my total lack of Gaelic, and given the Welsh-English border is so fluid and that so many Welsh people don’t speak Welsh, it’s easy to understand why such exclusions, when and where they do exist, might create resentment. On the other hand, to complain about the imposition of such requirements is to ignore questions of historical injustice around identity which cannot simply be repressed. There are very good reasons why stickers reading ‘PARLA CATALAN!’ can be found on lampposts around Barcelona. The Spanish attitude to Catalan identity is exemplified in the nickname some speakers of castellano call Catalan: polaco (Polish), supposedly a language that few want or need to understand. Such attitudes are, as I write, provoking a potentially world-shaking response.

I suspect that Cardiff’s relationship with Welsh is rather like Dublin’s relationship with Irish. When I was living in Dublin, I barely noticed the existence of its second official language. Back then, as a confirmed monolingual, I didn’t spend much time thinking about languages. When I visited places like Singapore and Malaysia, I experienced and thought of them as essentially English-speaking countries. I must have just blanked out those portions of street signs and official notices that weren’t written in English. When I went to live in a non-English speaking country I became, as the young people like to say, woke, to the point where the role of languages and dialects became something of an abiding obsession in whichever country I happened to be living.

Wales is, of course, not as linguistically diverse as China (where I spent the academic year 2004-2005) or Italy (where I live now), but the Welsh language does have two distinct varieties. North and South Walians often don’t see tongue-to-tongue*. Those who have made the effort to learn the language (many of whom are from the south) are often disappointed to be responded to in English by ‘native speakers’ (who are more commonly found up north, and are (derisively, I think) known as Gogs)**. Nevertheless, the language has, since devolution, gained massively in prominence and official status right throughout the country. Many non-Welsh speaking-families now prefer to send their kids to Welsh language-schools, because Welsh medium institutions tend to achieve better Ofsted results***. The knotty implications of this are explored in a documentary called ‘The Welsh Knot‘, the title of which refers to a time in which the use of Welsh at school was severely discouraged.

Being in Cardiff in English meant I wasn’t exactly immersed in Welsh-speaking culture. In effect, given my level of exposure to Mandarin Chinese, I felt I was going to work in China every day, to the point where I started to feel I should be speaking it myself (I’d say my vocabulary, which had gone down over the years, made a sudden leap up from A1.1 to A1.1003). It was a conversation with a typically chatty Cardiff taxi driver that made me start to wonder about my students’ perceptions of the Welsh language. After all, although they were all effectively Mandarin native-speakers, some of them, particularly those from places like Sichuan, probably spoke different dialects at home. How did they think of Welsh? Did they recognise its existence? Did they think of Cardiff as a Welsh-speaking city?

Given a whole morning to work on my students’ note-taking skills through the use of an extended text, I decided to explore and develop their understanding of the role of the other official language of the country where (most of them) will be spending the next year. (I also thought that exposure to a totally unfamiliar language would help consolidate their understanding of English.) The first documentary I showed them followed younger learners from a range of countries going through a transition similar to my students, viz doing a crash language course in preparation for attending a (North) Welsh-medium secondary school. We also watched part of the one of I mentioned earlier, which centres on introducing a North Walian schoolgirl to a South Walian one; both of them study in Welsh medium schools but language plays a very different role in their lives outside the classroom. (The programme is described in detail here.) I introduced the topic to my class by saying a couple of Welsh greetings I’d taught myself (it was a unique situation in that it was the first time I’ve been the most proficient Welsh speaker in the room), and then asking them to do a short survey which I had prepared but have subsequently lost. (The results are thus not available for peer review.) They found answering the questionnaire entertaining, as they’d recently put together a similar survey of their own. In response to a question about which parts of China they thought similar to Cardiff in linguistic terms, many chose a region geographically close to their own where a substantially different dialect was spoken: Guizhou, Guangzhou and Shanghai were mentioned. Their estimate of what proportion of the local population spoke Welsh was 80% (it’s actually 20%). Asked for their opinion as to whether I spoke Welsh, about half guessed yes, which I thought was interesting as they know that I’m not from Wales. I also asked them if they could think of any words they’d learnt in Welsh, and a couple of them wrote down ‘prifysgol’, a word they’d seen hundreds of times over the previous few weeks for fairly obvious reasons.

While the results of my research were inconclusive, they did help me think about the ubiquity of linguistic diversity, and they both confirmed and challenged my assumptions that my students would automatically transfer their perceptions of their own country’s minority languages onto Welsh. Had I hung onto the results, I’d have more of value to impart. (Apparently the Welsh phrase for ‘sorry’ is ‘mae’n ddrwg’.)

Languages are multifarious, lithe, fluid creatures, filling up all available spaces to fit snugly into the social form. I suspect that my class, indeed the whole cohort of pressessional students in Cardiff, will, in the course of their courses, start to develop their own codes, relative to their new environment, mixing in English words and names and possibly even Welsh ones. Language creates and affirms shared identity: wherever new identities are being formed, new forms of language emerge to satisfy the collective need. That’s how classes, tribes and cultures are formed, and that process in some important ways reflects a more significant function of language than mere communication. When I first began to learn about the role of dialects in other cultures, I’d badger representatives of those cultures with a question which I now understand to be irrelevant and misleading: if you go to part X of your country, can you understand what people say to you? It’s a daft question, because the answer is almost inevitably: yes, because if, for example, a person from Rome goes to Napoli, or if someone from Sichuan visits Shanghai – or, for that matter, when someone from Cardiff finds themselves in Caernarvon – the locals will automatically communicate with them in their mutually understood language, not in the specific local variety. I’m sympathetic to the idea that there are no such things as languages, only language – in other words, that borders and boundaries between languages are artificial****. However, acknowledging that reality doesn’t help to resolve the status of different dialects and languages. The State has a responsibility to recognise the diverse cultural backgrounds that make up the population.

When people migrate to areas where a strong local dialect prevails, a variety of things can happen, depending on their kind of interactions they develop. Some assimilate, some develop hybrid varieties, some remain at a linguistic (and, presumably, therefore, social) distance from the local culture. Then there are very particular expressions and pronunciations which give the speaker the status of insider; code-switching, i.e. swapping between languages or varieties of a language in the course of a single conversation or utterance, is, after all, a ubiquitous feature of human speech. We all do it within our own languages, mimicking other social actors in order to take on or discard particular social roles. To switch between languages or dialects rapidly can take very great skill, but can be extremely useful. (On a side note, the fact that I look German means that in speaking German in a German-speaking country I get away with using a great deal of English vocabulary.) It would be interesting to know how this operates with regard to Welsh and English. As I said to the taxi driver, I can’t imagine that sort of thing is actively encouraged at the Eisteffod. One curious detail I found about about some of my students’ perceptions of Welsh is that when they didn’t understand what (for example) a shopkeeper was saying to them in English, they just assumed they’d started speaking Welsh, which some, it turned out, thought of it as a mere dialect of English. Such mortifying linguistic confusion may explain why some students included in the bibliographies of their final essays seemingly random references to texts published in Turkish and Portuguese . Oddly enough, however, none of them cited any works written in Welsh. Byddai hynny’n fucking hyfryd!

*Thanks to Terry for teaching me the English word ‘Walian’.

**According to my mum, an English speaker can learn French in half the time it takes to learn Welsh. (N.B. My mum doesn’t speak Welsh, and may well have gleaned that information from the Daily Mail, so it might be ceilliau.)

***More thanks to Terry for pointing out that the local equivalent of Ofsted is actually called Estyn, which, to its credit, sounds a bit less like the name of a character from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.

**** Someone who’s demonstrated this is Diego Marani, the inventor of the ‘language’ (actually more of a game) Europanto.

Some thoughts on language, education and class


I spend my working life around people (students of English for Academic Purposes) who are insecure about their language use. That means I get to think and pontificate about issues of status, ownership and standard versus non-standard forms.

I can identify with the anxieties of my students, and not just as someone who has (in the past) enjoyed learning other languages. I’ve also long been self-conscious about my command over/of English. Like some of my students(,) I’m very sensitive about being corrected, tending to take corrections as a bit of a put-down rather than a chance to learn. The ego-insecurities I experience when expressing myself in other languages are clear manifestations of anxiety about my own status as an English-speaker.

Some of that anxiety is related to having a parent for whom English is a second language, and part is related to class. My background is not exactly humble but I was the first person in my family to go to university. Working in higher education feels like an achievement, but I’m vulnerable to a certain feeling of being out-of-place. Someone who came from a similar background was the critical theorist, academic and blogger Mark Fisher (aka k-punk), who wrote this in 2013 about the response of the ‘left’ to the comedian and actor Russell Brand’s famous interview with Jeremy Paxman about the need for revolution:

I’ve long been an admirer of Brand – one of the few big-name comedians on the current scene to come from a working class background…(His) forensic take-down of Paxman was intensely moving, miraculous; I couldn’t remember the last time a person from a working class background had been given the space to so consummately destroy a class ‘superior’ using intelligence and reason. (However) Brand was quickly judged and-or questioned by at least three ex-private school people on the left…It’s alarming how many ‘leftists’ seemed to fundamentally agree with the drift behind Paxman’s question: ‘What gives this working class person the authority to speak?’ It’s also alarming, actually distressing, that they seem to think that working class people should remain in poverty, obscurity and impotence lest they lose their ‘authenticity’. Someone passed me a post written about Brand on Facebook. The whole tone was horrifyingly high-handed, as if they were a schoolteacher marking a child’s work, or a psychiatrist assessing a patient. There’s also a shocking but revealing aside where the individual casually refers to Brand’s ‘patchy education [and] the often wince-inducing vocab slips characteristic of the auto-didact’ – which, this individual generously says, ‘I have no problem with at all’ – how very good of them! This isn’t some colonial bureaucrat writing about his attempts to teach some ‘natives’ the English language in the nineteenth century, or a Victorian schoolmaster at some private institution describing a scholarship boy, it’s a ‘leftist’ writing a few weeks ago.

Fisher himself wrote movingly about an episode when his own mother confided that she didn’t want to go into a Georgian teashop in a neighbouring town for High Tea because she was worried she would “do the wrong thing”:

We know this too, really, we felt it going on to University, feel it still, my sister and I, she with her anxiety around her middle-class friends whose parents are all teachers and doctors, me with my endless writing of novels I can’t bear to do anything with as it means engaging with them, having to make them like me, listen to their opinions of my work. But for us, half clambered out of our class as we are, we don’t find a Grange tea-room existentially threatening. She said it herself, my mum, and it immediately struck me, the disavowal, “some people get nervous in tea rooms, don’t they?

These are the wounds of class, ever-present, life-long. Knowing that you’re common, not good enough, not one of the decent people.

In the case of Russell Brand, faced with mass and social media sneers at his upstart activism and the ‘sub-undergraduate dross’ of his writings about politics, he retreated. He realised that if he wanted his right to discuss his concerns to be recognised, he would have to reeducate himself. He is now doing a three-year MA in Religion and Global Politics at SOAS, and is sharing his newly-acquired knowledge via a (frankly unmissable) podcast. In the first episode, an interview with the political philosopher Brad Evans on the theme of political violence, he gave what I think is an inspiringly honest account of how he arrived at this point and how it feels to be there:

“Being briefly in the academic world, as I have been, obviously loads of it’s really really exciting but I think a lot of what I hear feels reiterative, like someone says ‘what’s a country? It’s just an agreement in our minds, and I think, I knew that, anyway, those are things I’ve come to myself. But then there are things that are so complex I can’t begin to come to terms with them, and in this field I’m having to learn about political history, critical theory, philosophy, so I’m suddenly having to learn about Foucault, Derrida and all these other names I can’t even say confidently yet. And my original impulse for doing that course was, I got really deeply involved in the political world, and (…) I realised that this was a very complex world and I didn’t have the armoury, the artillery to engage in this battle. And I’ll like our listeners to be able to embark on this journey with me, so what do you think is a good entry point for someone like me who feels disillusioned with politics but doesn’t know quite where to begin on a journey of understanding?”

One theorist who Russell would find very useful in terms of issues of language, politics and class is Pierre Bourdieu. He relates that feeling of being out of one’s depth and beyond one’s station to what he calls ‘habitus’: the attitudes, mannerisms, tastes, moral intuitions and habits that influence our life chances. This behavioural comfort zone is a manifestation of our level of cultural capital. While Brand may have a high level of objectified cultural capital in the form of fame and wealth, his attempts to acquire institutionalised cultural capital (formal educational qualifications) are hindered by accent, which is a manifestation of embodied capital. In particular fields (for example in the academic world) it can be hard for individuals from a working-class background to obtain a “feel for the game” and to feel they should be (as it were) on the pitch.

This seems to me to be related to the experiences of people from ‘foreign’ language backgrounds in higher education. ‘Foreigners’ don’t automatically have a pre-assigned rung on the social ladder, and hence struggle to find an appropriate station even when they have a sufficient mastery of the language. I’ve been thinking about a friend of mine who has an excellent command of the spoken language and who knows things and can do things in it that I certainly couldn’t. I wonder how he views Brand, and how he relates to what Brand says about his own struggle to feel like a valid participant in the academic world. My friend recently dropped out of a university course he’d long dreamed of doing because he felt his English wasn’t up to writing long essays (I encouraged him to continue and offered to help, but to an apparent avail). In fact, I’m writing this to persuade him, others like him and also to remind myself that such feelings are very common and by no means insurmountable.

From outside, manifestations of social class are hard to perceive. English people know when to question someone’s intellectual credentials as soon as we/they hear us/them speak. To people who didn’t grow up here, vocal class markers are much harder to recognise. It may seem to my friend that all ‘English’ or British’ people are equally confident in higher educational settings, that they we all feel valid and accepted.

Perceptions of these issues inevitably differ, depending partly on one’s cultural and social background. Among my (mostly well-heeled) students, I’ve found that some people have a frustratingly monolithic understanding of the relationship between language and social status. The belief persists that the speech of some is simply inadequate. There’s also widespread misunderstanding of the relationship between spoken and written language, with some assuming that the former is a poor attempt to produce the latter. Inevitably, others have explored these issues far more articulately than I ever could.

As for myself, I always feel anxious when someone makes a jibe about someone(’s?) being ‘self-taught’. Everyone is, to some extent. Luckily (after three slightly wasted undergraduate years from which I was lucky to emerge with a 2;1), I eventually had the chance to go back to university and get a Master’s degree, an experience which greatly improved my sense of confidence in what I say and write. Having lived in other countries and struggled with other languages has also helped to bolster my self-assurance, as has teaching the spoken and written language for almost twenty years and spending several years examining others on their usage. In terms of writing, the internet has also helped enormously (what’s a good synonym for confidence? what are the three types of cultural capital again?).

Inevitably, for everything I write here, thousands of people are studying or have studied that subject in an academic context and are far better placed to provide evidence-based theories than I am. A lot of what I present here is hearsay and guesswork, but I content myself in the knowledge that this is after all just a blog. I’d like to think of myself as a polymath, but ultimately I’m more of a dilettante, and this is an appropriate format.

The wounds of class run deep, but then, as both Lynsey Hanley and Helen Mort have articulated brilliantly, the sense of discomfort at being stranded between classes, particularly at being a working class person in the more rarified echelons of higher education, can also be uncomfortable. Then there’s the opposite: chippiness and reverse snobbery, and then the reaction to chippiness and reverse snobbery. And so on.

I still lack confidence when sending people what I’ve written with a view to getting it published. To do so you have to be fairly bullish, and being rejected or ignored is always painful. Although some things I write get a very pleasing reaction, I have little way of knowing whether or not what I write is any good in terms of what matters, which is to be accepted as more-or-less an equal by those whose writing I admire. But at the same time, most of them are professional writers and/or academics, and I’m not, so it should, by rights, remain a pipe dream.

There remains one thing I want to make clear, for the sake of my own honesty and integrity. This piece may contain what some will regard as self-pity, and I wouldn’t really have much of an answer to such a charge. I had the chance to go to university, twice, without getting into debt, in my own language. My privileges in terms of education have, in comparison with most people in the world, been immense. I’m not a victim of disadvantage in any sense that means anything on a global scale. I’ve even, despite my manifold anxieties about my credibility as an English speaker and writer, and thanks largely to a mere accident of birth, managed to make a reasonable living as a teacher of my ‘native’ language. But I know that these feelings are not exclusive, and I hope a) that reading this has made clear some connections between class, status, nationality and language that may not have occurred to you before and b) that you find this sentence an appropriate way to end a piece of writing of this nature.

On Framing Austerity

Popular support for austerity as a response to economic crisis remains very high in the UK. Statistics on unemployment, child poverty, homelessness seem to fall on deaf ears. So far none of the campaigns which have been launched to challenge the austerity agenda appear to have had the slightest impact. Why is this?

One very convincing explanation lies in idea of framing. According to the work of George Lakoff and others, people do not simply evaluate the available evidence and form their opinions on this basis. Rather, they tend to accept facts which fit into their picture of the world, and reject those that don’t fit. A great deal of research into the way that people perceive events, think and form opinions supports this.


And it is not just a conscious thing – research into the brain shows that we take metaphors much more seriously than was previously assumed. When we hear it repeated endlessly and everywhere that the national credit card has been maxed out and that we urgently need to cut back on spending, we tend to believe it, whether we want to do so or not.

A recent report <>from the New Economic Foundation addresses this problem head on. Over the last few years a very effective story has been told, which barely bears repeating here: The country is broke, austerity is a necessary evil; government spending has grown out of control; many are addicted to welfare and have no incentive to work; many are simply lazy and their outright refusal to work conflicts with the hard-working efforts of the rest of us; the national debt is a ticking time bomb which simply must be addressed.

This story has been effective because it contains key elements: it relates powerfully to people’s own experience of the world; it contains vivid and memorable metaphors; it consists of a simple message repeated endlessly and consistently.

If we want to challenge this agenda, we need to change the terms of the debate. It is clearly not enough to claim, as Labour has done, that austerity is too fast or the cuts too deep. Those of us who oppose austerity have to develop alternative frames which make sense to people and have an emotional appeal.

To this end the NEF report makes a series of suggestions. They suggest the following would be effective messages that the left should try to communicate as much as possible:

*1. **Casino economy – our economy is like a casino, it is in need of reform so that **it can be stable and useful.*

*2. Treading water – we are not making any progress as a nation; we are running **to stand still, struggling but not moving forward.*

*3. Big bad banks – our current problems are the result of a financial crisis that we, **and not the banks that caused it, paid for.*

*4. Big guys and little guys – there are two types of people in Britain, the little guys **who work hard and don’t get a fair deal, and the big guys who have money and **power and play by their own set of rules.*

*5. Jobs Gap – the biggest issue facing our country is the jobs gap: people who **want to work but can’t, people who work hard but don’t take home a decent **wage and young people who cannot be sure of a good job.*

*6. Time for renewal – we need to rebuild and renew what made Britain great– **from the railways to our education system. We need to invest.*

*7. Austerity is a smokescreen – The Coalition uses the deficit as an excuse to do **what they have always wanted to do like shrink the state and privatise the NHS. **We cannot trust them; they aren’t out to help ordinary people.*

We can, indeed should, debate which of these messages may resonate more powerfully with the public. Some would clearly be much more effective than others. We also need to use whatever resources we can to find out which ones work best. They all potentially present alternatives messages which exploit certain sentiments which are widely held and deeply felt. Whichever messages we choose will need to be repeated as consistently, as clearly and as widely as possible.

One hopeful sign that Miliband and co may be aware of the potential of such an approach was his recent instruction to MPs and ministers to refer to ‘social security’ rather than ‘welfare’. But if Left Unity is serious about having any sort of impact on public debate in this country it will have to take up this challenge and go much further.

I’m sure that these ideas will provoke a furious reaction from some on the left who are allergic to any attempt to rethink the way we use language to formulate and communicate our ideas. For me such a debate will be very welcome. We cannot just keep trying, and failing, to appeal to people’s rationality.

The same goes for climate change. No amount of appeals to people’s rational sense of self-interest has worked in trying to raise awareness of the coming catastrophe. The need to behave sustainably does not fit into people’s framework for understanding reality, which is based on infinite economic expansion and ever-increasing consumption. We have to develop frames which are based clearly on the notion that we cannot separate economic and social development and environmental impact, that the economy and the environment are not two separate entities but one. Thinking in new ways, seeking to reframe debates about all aspects of how we perceive and organise our social reality has to be an integral part of the project to build an effective left movement in this country and elsewhere.