Authenticity as a Continuum

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My most recent publication is in the ELTED Journal, all about Authenticity in English Language Teaching.

This paper outlines a workshop which I conducted in Tokyo and Osaka in 2013 as part of an INSET program accredited by the Japanese Ministry of Sports, Education and Culture (MEXT). The course, entitled Using and Adapting Authentic Materials to Help Motivate Students, aims to give teachers a better understanding of the concept of authenticity as it realigns itself with the way English is used and taught around the world for international communication. My aims as the teacher/researcher were to understand more about how L2 teachers of English perceive the notion of authenticity and how this concept could be broadened to try and empower L2 users of English by helping them to start reconceptualising authenticity from a more international perspective. This paper first looks at some of the issues that arise when attempting to define authenticity and then, building on the distinctions laid out by Widdowson (1978), that authenticity is not something absolute but relative to learners, I suggest that authenticity might be best viewed as a continuum which incorporates international voices and moves away from culturally embedded definitions. With that in place I will describe the contents of the workshop, followed by an explanation of the data I collected as part of the workshop and how analysis showed that participants reported the notion of an authenticity continuum to be empowering and even increased their motivation to try and make their own classes more authentic.

In order to develop a more inclusive concept of authenticity, rather than trying for a single definition, authenticity should perhaps be seen as a continuum with various dimensions.

The Authenticity Continuum
The Authenticity Continuum

Read the full article here

Upcoming talks and conferences

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I have been busy lately. So busy in fact that I still have not written up my report of the lecture I went to see by Jenny Jenkins at Waseda University’s 3rd English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) International Workshop. Coming soon

One of the reasons I have been busy it that I recently completed a proposal for a large writing project which has been accepted to my great astonishment and delight. Again, I will post up more details at a later date when things are confirmed. I have also been sending proposals to international conferences and conferences here in Japan and I just wanted to share some of those here since I am hoping to meet the rare and wonderful people who read this blog and thank them for their support.

I am very excited to announce that I will be attending this year’s EFL Teachers Journey’s Conference which will be held in the historical city of Kyoto on June 22nd. My presentation will be in the category of  Narratives of teacher development and change in which I will talk about my professional development and how this has shaped and evolved with my beliefs about teaching and learning. I am especially excited about this conference because here in Japan I feel sometimes out of touch with the wider EFL community, and this conference seems to share some of my passions for narratives and research which focuses on individuals and their beliefs.  You can view the abstract here.

EFL Teacher Journeys Conference, Kyoto June 22, 2014
EFL Teacher Journeys Conference, Kyoto June 22, 2014

I will also be presenting at the British Association of Applied Linguists (BAAL) Conference in September. This conference is being hosted by the University of Warwick where I am a PhD student at the moment, so I am glad to be able to participate and present. My piece will be about a research project I conducted last year. I took the data from a teacher training session which is part of the Ministry of Education’s teaching licence renewal. I worked with Japanese high school teachers in Osaka and Tokyo and the research focuses on reactions to authenticity and an attempt to move away from the dominant culture of native speakerism by shifting the focus of authenticity into the realm of English as an international language. This will also be a published article which will come out later in the year:

Pinner, R. S. (forthcoming). The Authenticity Continuum: Empowering international voices English Language Teacher Education and Development, 16(1).

BAAL 2014: Learning. Working and Communicating in a Global Context 4 September - 6 September 2014
BAAL 2014: Learning. Working and Communicating in a Global Context
4 September – 6 September 2014

Finally, I will also be presenting at the JALT conference in Tsukuba in November. This presentation will be similar to the one I’m giving at BAAL – I’m too busy to do three completely different presentations. Having said that, I have already given two presentations this year which I failed to mention on my blog. I spoke at the fantastic LiberLit conference (click here for the full schedule) and I also participated as a speaker and panel member at the International CLIL Research Journal Symposium in April.

I've been busy
I’ve been busy

So, I’ve been busy. The PhD, the teaching and being a father is taking its toll on my hair colour and sanity, but at least I’m still passionate and enthusiastic about my work and my professional identity. If you have any comments please feel free to share and also, let me know if you will be attending any of these events or can recommend ones I am missing!



LinguistList 2014 Fund-Drive

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Many times I’ve needed the help of The LinguistList, a free online discussion board and virtual community of practice. They helped me get data for my MA and I am sure I will need them for my PhD too. Now they need our help to keep running a free service. I see this as a duty to people like myself, who often make use of free sites but don’t always give much back in return. To be honest I tend to only dip in to the LinguistList when I am in the middle of a project. If I see a link to an online survey I will participate if I have time, but I am happy to help out now by posting this plea to support them.

Also, if you make a donation today you will be added to the prize draw which is funded by Multilingual Matters, one of the best linguistics publishers out there in my humble opinion!


The Architecture of Language Reconsidered: Noam Chomsky Lecture

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Today on a very rainy day in Tokyo, I had the pleasure of watching a softly spoken 85 year old man stand in front of a microphone, speaking and answering questions on such diverse topics as chimpanzees, bird songs, software programs that try to pass university entrance exams and the choice of whether to use a hammer to build a house or bash someone’s face in. The speaker was Noam Chomsky, the world’s most cited living author.

I knew I might not get to see the Chomsky lecture. Seats were limited to 700 places and they were likely to be gone quickly. It was being done on a first come first served basis. What I didn’t know was that they were available from 8 am. When a student told me this at around 10:30, adding they were almost all gone, I ran to the auditorium but of course too late. This preamble is necessary as it was only thanks to my friend and mentor Makoto Ikeda that I was able to get to see the lecture, and not only that but from a seat from which, if I had wished, I could have thrown a screwed up piece of paper and seen it bounce of Chomsky’s head.

In the language instinct, Stephen pinker (a former colleague of Chomsky’s at MIT) mentions something about Chomsky being a pencil and paper theoretician. So, despite having a very cool poster for the lecture series event and lots of screens, theses were all turned off at the start of the event. Chomsky delivered his lecture with only a few pages of crumpled notes.

Chomsky was introduced twice and then, to my surprise, stood up to deliver his lecture. For an 85 year old to make his way all the way to Japan and still be lucid enough to deliver such a deeply technical lecture was impressive, but to do it standing I thought was just downright cool. He was cool, as well. In truth, being an applied linguist myself rather than a linguist, Chomsky sort of orbits my world rather like an impressive comet. Going to see his lecture was kind of like going to a rock concert for me. I didn’t expect to enjoy it in the moment so much, I just wanted to be able to boast that I had been. It was the experience I was after.

He did raise interesting points. His citation range was very deep, mainly historical and philosophical. He talked about Darwin on language and the meaning of ‘foremost infinite’. He also quoted Galileo on the alphabet being “an achievement surpassing all recognition”. But he was also contemporary and contextual, citing an article which had appeared just that morning in The Japan Times about a machine which could pass the Tokyo university entrance exams. He did point out that the machine was pointless, saying once it got in to University it would be finished.

Other choice moments were when he said language allowed for innovation without bounds, as language can engender thoughts in others. He also mentioned Humboldt, who said language made infinite use of finite means.

Then it got a bit technical, and some heads began to nod. Chomsky was talking about X + Y merge into Z and he kept saying merge over and over again. So I decided to survey the audience quickly and take stock of the cross-cultural elements and simultaneous translations that were taking place to accommodate people from diverse linguistic backgrounds. This is a strength of Sophia University and one that makes me proud to work here. There were people doing simultaneous translations into Japanese which was being relayed by headphones wirelessly. Pretty good. But most interesting were two separate sign-language camps. People were sitting in these camps and watching signers who had a feed to Chomsky’s microphone. What made this doubly impressive was that Chomsky, as I mentioned, is a soft spoken man. His sentences contain a lot of asides and can get quite embedded. He’s a mumbler too. All of which is part of his endearing demeanour but I couldn’t help but think that Chomsky wasn’t the only impressive linguist in the auditorium that day. I especially wanted to make a point of mentioning those heroic people who made Chomsky’s talk accessible for others.

It was a very interesting talk, and I felt a great buzz to be in the presence of such a famous man who I respected (note, there are more famous people than Chomsky who I wouldn’t throw water on if they were on fire in the street – celebrity isn’t a big wow for me). Great lecture or not, clearly the Q&A was always going to be the most interesting part. Even if you evaluate it only on the purely quantitative basis of how many notes I took. Looking back over my notes, Chomsky’s entire lecture, which lasted almost exactly an hour, took up two and a half pages of my little notepad. The Q&A took up five pages.

The first question was, in my opinion, the best. A girl stood up, thanked Chomsky for the lecture and then asked him a long question basically about his view on how language is used for some ill purposes, such as propaganda or worse when people don’t speak out at all when they should. It was a heartfelt question and one which beautifully synthesised Chomsky’s two main areas – linguistics and human freedom. His answer was fantastic. He said:

“Language is like a hammer. It’s just there for you to use. You can use it to build a house or you can use it to bash someone’s head in.”

Now that I write this up I find it interesting that he used a tool as his central metaphor for language, which reminds me of Lev Vygotsky.

Other choice quotes which I scribbled down as close to verboten as I could manage include:

“The States don’t need a State Secret Act if people are so obedient and conformist that they don’t question what’s in front of their eyes.”

He also talked about, following George Orwell, how ideas can be supressed without the use of force by the media and their agendas, which often lie in the pockets of wealthy capitalists. The media mind-control experiment is quite sickening to behold on a global level. Especially in so-called developed nations where we have a notion of free-speech, because there are observable trends in which freedom is becoming endangered right under our noses because we are lulled into a fake sense of security. Chomsky also said:

“Our intuitions about the world are a starting point for inquiry, but we can’t rely on them.”

An excellent call for people to exercise critical thinking, starting with their own beliefs and prejudices.

As a language teacher and applied linguist though (and also wanting to keep politics out of it since that’s the theme of his lecture tomorrow) I was very happy when a fellow British member of the audience asked:
“Is there any way your theories can apply to second language acquisition?”
To which Chomsky replied:

“Well, that’s really for language teachers to decide.”

That got a few laughs, but it also confirmed something I already knew about Chomsky. He’s not a language teacher, he’s a linguist.

Also worth mentioning was the rather odd moment when a person in the audience got the microphone to ask a question and then asked if he could use Japanese. There was an almost audible groan from the audience, I could feel the prickles as people wondered “who would come to a Chomsky lecture and ask him a question if you can’t even frame it in English?” Chomsky was trying to use a special headset so he could get the simultaneous translation. There was a bit of feedback from the microphone. The audience awaited the offending question. It was asked. I really had trouble understanding it, and unfortunately I couldn’t catch what the guy asked. It seemed to be something about building a house. It seemed to be related the first question, asking about his politics. The curators were making signs to each other to move on to another question, which was done swiftly. The next question came from on of the signing groups which I mentioned earlier. The signer stood up and signed his question to the interpreter. She translated it from Japanese Sign Language into English with an effortlessness that was impressive, and the question was beautifully simple. The man just asked “Are you interested in sign language” to which Chomsky basically replied “yes”, although in a lot more words. Another question came about music and language, and that’s how the birdsongs came up. There was another question about signing and Chomsky mused “do signers dream in sign?” indicating a possible area for research. And then the questions were over and the auditorium filled with applause.

For me, the most impressive thing was that Chomsky’s lucid mind (which must have been jet-lagged as well) was able to listen to questions on such a wide range of topics, many of which outside his specialism, and answer each one with relevance and insight in a way which was truly inspiring to behold.

Sadly I won’t be able to attend the lecture on politics tomorrow because the tickets are all sold out. Despite working at Sophia I was too late to reserve my seat and, as I mentioned earlier, I almost didn’t get to watch it today either. But it was hands down a fascinating and inspiring experience. Thank you again to Makoto Ikeda for getting me the seat, thanks to Sophia and SOLIFIC for organising the event and thanks to Noam Chomsky for coming all the way out here to engage our minds.



You will be able to watch both the Sophia lectures at this link


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This site, as any regular readers will have noticed, has been a little low on fresh updates for a while. I think I did well to get an interview with Phil Benson all about autonomy up there, but the updates and posts are in no way as regular as they used to be. This is for several reasons: starting a new job in Japan has lead me down a different and more content-orientated (CLIL) path. I now am sub-coordinator for the CLIL-Japan initiative, and I maintain the blog at The new direction in my work has lead to a less technology focused line of inquiry for me, although I still use technology and try to keep abreast with new developments, but this has caused an identity crisis for my consultancy work and blog. Also, I’ve become a father and of course that has kept me busy. Another big thing is that I have started a PhD in Applied Linguistics at The University of Warwick under Dr. Ema Ushioda. My inquiry is an examination of authenticity and motivation from an international perspective – a ridiculously big and broad topic that is going to take a lot of battening down. So, perhaps this goes some way to explaining the lack of recent online activity here at engnet-education. I have therefore decided to create a new category of posts, and use the site as an online research journal. Some of the work I do as part of my research journal will be made public if I think it is useful – but of course I won’t be able to make everything public sadly as it might have an effect on the data collection process.