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Zoltán Dörnyei and The Principled Communicative Approach


Personal, Practical and Principled

Jack Scholes asks author Zoltán Dörnyei about his unique approach to language learning

How did an English language teacher from Hungary get interested in psycholinguistics and become professor of psycholinguistics at the University of Nottingham?

I started out as a teacher of English and came to a point when instinctively I knew what would work in my classes and what not, yet I could not explain why. I realised that to move forward I needed to understand the linguistic and psychological processes underlying second language acquisition (SLA). I applied to study applied linguistics at a PhD level, but at that time – the mid-1980s – this discipline was not recognised in Hungary as a proper PhD subject. So I selected what I thought was the closest field, psycholinguistics, and ended up doing my linguistics studies at a department of psychology. It was a curious combination at the time, but the dual background of linguistics and psychology turned out to be a real asset in my future professional development.

How did I end up in the UK? It’s mainly due to my wife Sarah, who is English and whom I met when I was on a scholarship in England in 1987. She was a modern languages specialist, and when I returned to Hungary she came with me and started to teach English in Budapest. We spent ten years living there, but for family reasons we moved to the UK in 1998 and settled in the Nottingham area, where Sarah grew up and where her parents lived.

You believe that communicative language teaching could do with some revitalisation, and you offer seven maxims which you refer to as ‘the principled communicative approach’. Could you briefly explain these?

Although I am perhaps best known for my research on language learning motivation, I have always had an interest in communicative language teaching. I have done extensive research on communication strategies, and when I spent some time as a Fulbright scholar at UCLA in the early 1990s Marianne Celce-Murcia, my wife and I developed a comprehensive model for describing the components of communicative competence. Some of the main ideas for the principled communicative approach started to emerge at that point, but the seven principles in their current form are the results of a later effort: ten years later I revisited the question of SLA in a major survey of the psychological literature which I conducted with the aim of summarising what cuttingedge psychological theories can contribute to our understanding of SLA. The result was a booklength summary, The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition (OUP, 2009), and the current form of the principled communicative approach is a summary of what I understand to be the best practices of language instruction according to the theoretical insights. This was, therefore, genuine research led theory construction. The seven principles are broad maxims because I wanted to focus on the most solid tried-and-tested knowledge in scholarship that is likely to stand the test of time. However, I hope that exactly because of their robust nature, the principles can usefully orientate language professionals in developing a language teaching methodology that is fitting for the 21st century.

Your new book, co-authored with Jane Arnold and Chaz Pugliese is called The Principled Communicative Approach. How does the book present and explore these seven principles?

Because my theory was genuinely applied both in terms of its nature and its objectives, it lent itself to being implemented in actual classroom contexts. Personally I have always been fond of the recipe book format developed in the late 1970s by Alan Maley, Mario Rinvolucri and their colleagues and associates – a great genre because it not only offers a very practical classroom resource for teachers but it is also one of the most effective ways of disseminating new ideas within the teaching professions.

It appeared an obvious way of implementing the principled communicative approach to design sets of classroom activities that exemplify each of the seven principles. I was fortunate that two wonderful professionals I knew from the past, Jane and Chaz, enthusiastically joined me in taking on this task. They both have a highly creative materials-writing talent backed up by a great deal of practical experience in language teaching and teacher training. Together we made a real international team – an American living in Spain, an Italian living in France and a Hungarian living in the UK. All we needed was a suitable publisher, and Helbling embraced the project right from the beginning. We were very pleased about that because we thought that with its innovative and creative edge The Resourceful Teacher series is the ideal context for the novel evidence-based teaching approach we are recommending.

Another research interest you have concerns the interrelationship of religion and second language acquisition. Could you please elaborate on this?

My main interest in this comes from the belief that if we can bring together different aspects of our identity – such as our personal and professional selves – this fusion can generate a powerful motivational drive that we can then harness for different applied purposes, such as the study of foreign languages. I have been particularly curious about how faith – in my case, Christianity – can impact on SLA, but the integration of the personal and professional spheres of one’s life can also involve other personal aspects such as penchants, hobbies, passions, basic likes and dislikes – areas that are sometimes summarised under the term transportable identities. In this sense this research direction is closely related to the first principle of the principled communicative approach, the personal significance principle, which concerns the striving to make language teaching personally meaningful for the students in the spirit of student-centred learning that characterised communicative language teaching right from the beginning.

Jack Scholes is an international teacher trainer and conference speaker for Helbling Languages. He is also the author of several books for EFL learners and teachers, including Helbling Readers.

Interview originally appeared in the EL Gazette. Reproduced with permission from Helbling Languages.

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Learning a Second Language When Relocating: Not Just for Humans

In 2010, nine chimpanzees were moved from a Dutch safari park to a zoo in Edinburgh. The chimps in from the different locations had different languages; more specifically, they had different “referentiall calls” (calling for apples is the example given). By 2013, the Dutch chimps had learned and were in the habit of using the call that their new companons in Edinburgh used. There is also a connection between the emotional sound of the calls and the feeling of the chimps towards the object they are calling for.

Read more on the BBC.

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An Argument for Teaching Life and Work Skills


This probably comes as no surprise, but many people don’t like their job.

A recent study by Canadian Education and Research Institute for Counselling (CERIC) reveals that one in two Canadians who have never had career counselling wish that they had as they are not happy with their job. To a certain extent, those who did not receive career counselling were not able to access it.

The link may at first seem a bit weak, but we have been actively promoting the Mind Series recently. The Mind Series is unique as far as general English courses go, in that it spends quite a bit of time teaching Life Skills (or Soft Skills). We have been arguing that often what is taught in high school – things like Chirstopher Columbus’ birthday – are taught yet not nearly as important as many life skills, which are not as consistently taught. Knowing your aptitudes, learning styles, work styles are very important life skills that would undoubtedly help students avoid the eventual problem of being unhappy with their job. Learning these skills might well be worth more than one session with a guidance or career counsellor too… just something to chew on.

More on the report.

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Smartphones Make for Lazy Thinkers


The University of Waterloo recently reported on research done on smartphones that indicates that our reliance on smartphones to find and recall information for us is making it easier and more common for people to think for themselves. That may not be a huge surprize, but it gets more interesting…

People are divided into two cognitive styles: intuitive and cognitive. Intuitive thinkers – those who tend to rely on instincts and gut feelings when making decisions – tend to rely on their smartphones to look up information that they already know rather than bothering to recall it. Cognitive thinkers are more critical and tend to think through problems on their own rather than rely heavily on their smartphones. The research at the University of Waterloo shows a strong connection between heavy smartphone use and lowedered intelligence, though it is a bit of a chicken and egg situation.


Read the news release.

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Learning English Through Downton Abbey


Recently, an EFL school in Japan began offering a class based entirely on Downton Abbey, which just began airing in that country. Students watch episodes, study scripts and role play scenes, doing their best to match the accents. The course was an instant hit and the school had to open more classes. Even more impressive is that some students travel as far as 600 miles round-trip to take the class!

A couple of universities in the US are also offering short courses based on Downton Abbey to teach Americans about British history and cuture.

Read more in The Mirror.

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Pathways to Education: Continued Success in Helping Disadvantaged Youth


Several years ago, we learned of the fine work Pathways to Education has done to support Toronto’s disadvantaged youth –  encouraging them to stay in school and to progress on to post-secondary education. A recent report by the C.D. Howe Institute states that Pathways to Education has had a significant effect on high-school graduation rates and postsecondary enrolment. There are currently 11 sites being operated by Pathways to Education; In the Regent Park public housing site, high school graduation has increased by 15% and postsecondary enrolment has increased by 19%. The report states:

The Pathways to Education program is a prominent example of a community-driven, comprehensive youth-support program developed to improve academic outcomes among those entering high school from disadvantaged backgrounds. The program includes mentoring, tutoring, counselling, postsecondary transition assistance, and immediate and long-term incentives for students to excel. After starting at Regent Park in Toronto in 2001/2002, the program has expanded across Canada.  In addition to three expansion sites in Toronto, the program has been introduced to locations in Halifax, Hamilton, Kingston, Kitchener, Montreal (two locations), Ottawa, Shawinigan, and Sherbrooke, as well as Aboriginal focused programs in Mashteuiatsh and Winnipeg.

English Central is very happy to be supporting this fantiastic program through a significant book donation. Please visit the Pathways to Education website to learn more about this program, some of its success stories, how to volunteer or to make a donation of your own.

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Badges? We All Need Stinkin’ Badges!

digital badges

We have blogged about digital badges in the past… this relatively new phenomenon is a way for people to demonstrate their achievements and abilities online. Badges continue to gain traction in the educational field, with not just students earning badges to demonstrate coursework and skills learned, but also for educators to demonstrate ongoing professional development.

Purdue University has just launched Passport, a new application that makes it easy to create, issue and share badges. According to an article in Campus Technology, a few educational institutions are starting to use badges to recognize professional development amongst faculty. While it is too early to demonstrate the effectiveness, early reports show promising results.

Read more in Campus Technology.

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Disturbing Trend: Students Finding Sugar Daddies to Help Pay for Post-Secondary Education


While this is not related specifically to teaching ESL or ESL students, we were very disturbed to read that there is a growing trend amongst post-secondary students to rent themselves out for “dates” with wealthy older men for money… to help cover their tuition. The website – which aims to connect “Sugar Babies” with “Sugar Daddies” – has seen a 42% increase in students using the site in the past year. There are 1.4 billion students worldwide advertising themselves on the site as “Sugar Babies”.

Apparently a Sugar Baby typically receives a $2600 a month “allowance”, which would clearly go a long way to cover tuition costs. The site boasts that it helps students graduate “debt free”. They don’t boast about enabling prostitution.

We can’t avoid being judgemental about this. It is completely sickening. Knowledge is power though, and hopefully it will be a power for good if more educators are aware.

Read more in a Huffington Post article.

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Amazon Releases Beta Version of new Kindle Textbook Creator


This could be a fun opportunity for any teachers who create their own classroom materials (which is most teachers, right?): Amazon has released a Beta version of it Kindle textbook Creator, which allows authors to convert PDFs into eBooks and include visual content like graphs and charts. The eBook created is supported across multiple platforms, including Kindle Fire, iOS, and Android devices. This may not be the best solution for language learning “workbooks”, but we’ll let you try it out and report back to us! Authors retain the rights for their content and can earn up to 70% in royalties.

Learn more anout KDP.

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A Linguist’s Obsession with Food Gives Fascinating Insight

language of food

I recently stubled upon this book and while it’s not one we are stocking here at English Central, I thought I w0uld would share it because it is the kind of book that most English Language Teachers will appreciate. Here are some fascinating tidbits:

  • as far as restaurant menus go, every increase of a letter in the average length of words used to describe a dish represents a 69 cent increase in the cost of the dish. Also, for each positive but vague word like “tasty” that is used, the dish is typically 8 cents cheaper.
  • at one point, toasted bread was involved when people drank and made toasts

I haven’t read the book yet – it is now officially on my Christmas wish-list. However, I did find Dan Jurafsky’s blog, which has all sorts of fascinating posts on the language of food. I just read about the different marketing language used on bags of expensive potato chips versus the language used on cheap chips. Think about what the differences might be, then read the post.

Undoubtedly because I used to specialize in teaching pronunciation, I found the post prior to the potato chip one equally fascinating. In a discussion of ice cream flavours, Jurafsky touches on “sound symbolism” and words (in many languages, not just English) with front vowels (i, I and e) tend to suggest thin, light and small things. On the other hands, words with back vowels tend to sugegst large, thick or heavy things. Compare “teeny” to “huge” in English, “petit” to “grand” in French or “chico” to “gordo” in Spanish.

I love it when someone makes you consider things that you always lived with but never thought to consider before!