From East to West, North to South; in pursuit of perfection.

Music It’s been a while. I’ve been busy trying to coax language out of fossilized theoretical compartments into more fluid, active and engaging use. It’s not easy and takes time, patience and resolution; as long as I have any two of those 3 at any given time I’ll be okay and students will learn. Or learners will study. Depends which side of the fence you’re on.

The theme for this post took me on a musical voyage. Over the past few years, in trying to explain in class how dynamic and experimental English is, I’ve had to delve into its history in terms of how the language had changed and evolved, thus having a better idea of global variations and cultural usage. English is a remarkably flexible and open language. It’s been described by those who know better than me as a ‘monster which devours all in its path.’ When it meets a new language, it doesn’t resist it but pulls from it what it needs, incorporates it into lexis at incredible speed and moves on, and on, and on.

A bit like music really. That’s where jazz and blues come in. I could describe so many other styles but these two have the most interesting balance between what language is – what perfection is – what art is – what experimentation is.

These most artistic of musical expressions were born in the 19th and evolved through 20th century america. It was the music of the poor, the racially oppressed and the grammatically illiterate. It also, however, went on to transcend preconceived ideas of what music was and became an art form; so much so that the ‘doesn’t’ is rarely pronounced in the 3rd person in any modern musical form with english speaking artists of the highest cultural level much preferring the musically better sounding ‘he /she/it don’t’, or the authentic qualities of the double negative (I ain’t got no time).

So what is perfection? When is a language simply a communicative device, and when does it transcend grammar and become an art form?

I’ll let van morrison help you make up your mind on that one. Born in Ireland; moved to the states as a young adult; made astral weeks in 1968; virtually unclassifiable, an album which is commonly considered one of the finest of all time and an album that transcends multiple musical genres; was literally starving when it was released; was unable to tour with the album due to the lack of financial and artistic support from his record company, until he finally performed his masterpiece live in the hollywood bowl, 40 years after its recording. It had been a very long time.

His spoken pronunciation is now a mix of American South and his original North of Ireland twang (North of Ireland and Scottish accents being principally responsible for that Deep South twang in the first place).

But when he sings, accent, form and grammatical precision disappears as the performance transcends music and language form, the way the best artists do!

Oh my common one

With the coat so old
And the light in the head

Sufferin’ so high
Take a walk with me

Among the regions

Among the regions
Let’s take a look

I was sittin’ down

In a mystic church
In the mystic church

At the Notting Hill Gate
Notting Hill Gate, I was sittin’ down
In the mystic church, at the Notting Hill Gate
At the Westbourne Grove bus station
At the Swedenborg church

At the Notting Hill Gate
I was thinking about it

I take you out, get you in my car

Gonna go for a long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long drive

Take you down
To a town called Paradise
Baby we can be free
We gonna drink that wine
Gonna jump for joy
In town called


I wanna squeeze you tight
Make everything alright

Until we get that, ‘till we get that, ‘till we get that, until we get that, until we get that

get that, get that, get that, get that, get that, get that, get that, get that get that get that
Squealin’ feelin’, squealin’ feelin’, squealin’ feeling, squealin’ feeling

(Voice as instrument)

Go ahead and scream

Can you feel the silence?
Can you feel the silence?
In a mystic church…
Can you feel the silence?

Can you feel the silence?
In the mystic church
In the brotherhood of the light
At the Notting Hill Gate

Can you feel the silence?

In a mystic church

In the brotherhood of the light

Can you feel the silence?
Can you feel the silence?

Can you feel the silence?
In the mystic church
Can you feel the silence?

Can you feel the silence?
In the mystic church

Back to the future…


Hi again,

Blogging is supposed to be a very addictive habit. That doesn’t seem to be the case with me, so thanks for your patience. Looking at what I’ve blogged about this past year, a recurring theme seems to be technology, and how this is juxtaposed with a fascination of how we used to do things in the past. As readers will know, I consider the abundance of technology at our disposal today as being a primary driver in the development of 2nd language learning, particularly in terms of the acquisition of English as a 2nd language.

Yet…. the future of 2nd language learning more than likely resides in the past; well, the past in terms of more traditional structures and systems. I’m talking here about CLIL which is Content and Integrated Language Learning. CLIL entails the teaching of some traditional subjects, for example, geography, history and science in state schools by the usual teachers of the subject. I’m not talking about a specialist 2nd language teacher like myself, but about teachers in primary, middle and high schools who teach subjects not in their mother tongue language but in a 2nd language, whatever that language may be.

The term CLIL was coined by David Marsh, University of Jyväskylä, Finland (1994): “CLIL refers to situations where subjects, or parts of subjects, are taught through a foreign language with dual-focused aims, namely the learning of content and the simultaneous learning of a foreign language.”

The key lies in the competency of the (geography, history, science) teacher using the 2nd language simply as a vehicle to improve proficiency in a chosen 2nd language, while imparting the same content as requested from a syllabus point of view. This means of course that teachers who have spent their professional lives teaching through Italian, will have to work hard to bring their English up to a level where they can teach the same content through English. The process should ideally start at primary school and work its way up.

It puts the whole industry of English teaching in particular into perspective. The dedicated hour or two a week on a chosen language from primary to high school has generally proved to have a limited impact in terms of language proficiency. It creates a base yet not a lot more. Private schools have entered the fray and offer so-called ‘specialist’ extra curricular courses which promise to cure all ills, although in the majority of cases are simply offering a re-regurgitated (although smaller class size) version of what 6-18 year old students find at school. The same grammar, the same books, the same syllabus and the same approach in 90% of cases.

The industrialization of English has been progressing strongly over the past 30 years and it’s possible that an apex is being reached as regards the levels of proficiency that can be achieved. It is this evolution that has led to the examination of how 2nd language learning can become less 2nd language centered and more 1st; the proposal of a model which requires students from 4-18 to enter a state school structure which demands bilingual learning instead of simply desiring it; a system which makes the same demand of its teachers. We all remember how boring some lessons at school can be. Research has shown that studying the same subject / content in a 2nd language increases stimulation levels, as students are not only required to absorb content, but to do so while grappling with the complexities of a language which is not their own. Research has also shown that the process of learning itself is enhanced as a result of this two-way interaction, and school results where CLIL is evolved and practiced have reflected this fact.

The following video is related to this concept. Looking to the past to improve the future. The speaker is American and has a southern accent. This accent is one of the most difficult encountered by English language students, yet when softly spoken, as is the case in this video, it’s a delight.

American Tintype from Matt Morris Films on Vimeo.

Online Learning … or not …

... on the look out ...

I’m always on the look out for sites that offer good solutions for English language students.I have to say that what’s available on the net isn’t very impressive, considering both paid and free content. There’s definitely something lacking online. Many sites offer very simple content, or content that seems to be simply scratching the surface of 2nd language learning. Other sites are better designed from a graphics point of view, but propose more of the same Grammar McNuggets as regularly described by Scott Thornbury. Grammar McNuggets being rigid, pre-packaged grammatical forms that don’t take into consideration the chaotic and fluctuating nature of language use.

I’ve recently turned my attention to the BBC Learning English website, which is one of the most famous and visited language websites in the world, due in no small part to the BBC’s global reach. I’ve spent some time on it recently and have tried to approach it from a learner’s point of view. I’ve found it to be a bit limited to be honest and have to say it feels a little disjointed. With the wealth of materials at their disposal (video in particular) something more innovative could definitely be done. One area I did like though, was the express English section. It’s a type of vox-pop that gives different speakers 1 minute to talk about various themes. I thought it useful because it’s possible to hear a variety of accents, and the English transcript is given too, thus aiding comprehension.

Give it a listen!

Writing Letters


Hi again,

I recently received a wedding invitation. These often contain a card inside for the purpose of RSVP which derives from the French ‘répondez, s’il vous plaît’. Traditionally, this card wasn’t included, so invitees had to respond using their own stationary, as was the case with this invitation. The last time I wrote a hand-written letter was in 2002. That’s a long time ago. To make a long story short, I didn’t have any specific stationery and so went out to find some. I went to 3 different stationers and guess what . . . they didn’t sell the stationery I was looking for because in their words; ‘nobody really uses it anymore.’

I eventually found a shop that sold something close to what I was looking for. And this made me think about this video I watched a few months ago, which describes how digital technology is changing the way we use (or don’t use) the materials around us, and how not using these materials (pen and paper in this case) can cause the disappearance of services linked to them, such as the printer and paper experts in the video you’ll see below.

The speakers are American and they speak clearly, so although it’s 9 minutes long, it’s worth it from a comprehension, and mechanical engineering point of view.

A day in the life . . language is everywhere. Chew on that!

On yer bike . . .

So what exactly / does / this video have to do /with learning English? To be honest it took me a while to come up with something. The reason I posted it is simply because I liked the video, as well as being struck by the music accompanying the song; I then started to analyse it more carefully from a didactic perspective.

The video you see below, describing a general day in one’s life, was filmed in the Canadian city of Montreal. Canada is a predominantly English speaking country with the exception of the province of Quebec, which is principally french speaking. Around 50% of the city of Montreal is bilingual, in that both French and English is spoken fluently. The existence of two languages so historically and culturally opposed, while at the same time existing within the same sociological sphere /sfɪə(r)/ (UK) /sfɪr/ (US), is intriguing. And it’s just the excuse I needed to put this clip online.

Language is everywhere. Go and find it. The irony with regard to this post in particular and language in general, is that this video has no spoken English content; yet look at the amount of language analysis that was generated. Now chew on that!