Reflections on the Adult ESOL for Migrants event Part 2

Part 2, and I’ll leave it at 2, of reflections on the Adult ESOL seminar in Leeds. This time, a cup of tea and a comfy chair would absolutely be a good idea.

I have realised that I have entirely forgotten to explain where and when the event took place: it was a seminar on the 13th July 2012, at the University of Leeds, supported by sponsors Cambridge University Press (which nicely supplied copies of books to examine, although not, mysteriously, to buy), the British Association of Applied Linguistics ( – googling it is fun, apparently, as it provides a fine opportunity to brush on early near eastern mythology. Credit to James Simpson for the gag), and last but not least, NATECLA, who I gamely did a “message from our sponsors” speech for. I want to say never against but given I have a very very persuasive colleague (gunpoint, emotional blackmail, forcing me to do the really boring sessions on CELTA) it’s probably best not to.

Anyway, to the second and third sessions of the day, and we started straight off with Angela Creese talking about “translanguage”. This was new to me, in spite of the pre-seminar reading but interesting. I’m going for a shortish definition of translanguage now, so apologies to anyone who had a different take on the day. My interpretation of translanguage was that it was a view of particular multilingual practices, including code switching but being much bigger than that. We heard a number of different recordings of young people and adults in complementary schools learning community languages. What was striking about the language use wasnt just that the participants were switching language but were also switching cultural references, with no sense of “target” language, in the sense I always think of it, and instead that both languages being used we part of a single linguistic and cultural system being deployed by the language users according to the context they were operating in. Does that make sense? It now does to me.

Angela started with a nice comment about good practice, a list of “best practice assumptions… Also known as fallacies.” one of those statements which is pretty much guaranteed to hook me in! The list was interesting: she challenged assumptions that it should be English only in the classroom (when our learners spend most of their time outside class using translanguage communication), or that translation should be banned (which for me isn’t the case anyway: it’s about judicious use of translation),

Here’s a direct quote from my notes which sort of sums it all up for me:
“Translanguaing is more expressive, and gives a greater communicative repertoire to the people who can do this. So should we be allowing/promoting 1st language use in the classroom? Also consider role of participants and their contexts, and the power of correct language. How would it go if people who were translanguaging in a very formal high stakes language context such as a job interview?”

I think the session raised important questions and challenged assumptions about communicative language teaching. It promotes a very “monoglossic” attitude: excluding the heteroglossic practices: or rather, approaches to English language teaching assume that the aim of learners is to achieve mastery of a target language, but the reality of their lives where they move across the boundaries between languages is often excluded in language classrooms, and treated as a no no.

Problems for me really remain around some of the inclusivity issues: to allow the kinds of translanguage interactions we heard, particulary in the classroom interactions, assume two main things: that the teachers share a language with the learners, which is not the case for me, I have to say; and that you share that language with all your learners. Considering that most ESOL classes in the UK are absolutely heteroglossic, in the sense that there are a range of languages spoken, then there are complex issues of equality: in most ESOL classes I have taught, English is the only shared language. A more striking example might be a class of 12 Polish speakers, with one Urdu speaker and one Kurdish speaker. If I were able to operate in Polish to a necessary extent, what would the other two students feel every time we translanguage across Polish and English?

But then perhaps this is also about redressing a balance: most ELT approaches, arguably, favour the native speaker teacher, and certainly in the context of learning English in a UK ESOL context, the favouring of English over other languages is something of an exercise in power, and we should be aware of that, even when we are promoting a monoglossic approach. There is also the value of exploring and learning about the different languages and language practices amongst your learners: sharing the experiences of living in the UK, comparing expressions and ambiguities of meaning, and acknowledging that although they are in an English class, the reality of their lives is not just English.

The final session of the morning was from James Simpson (co-author with Melanie Cooke of what is officially my favourite and most recommended book on ESOL). He was reporting back on the findings of a research project looking at the variety of ESOL provision in the Harehills area of Leeds.

Starting with a kind of recent history of ESOL, reviewing the recent cuts and their impact: my notes from the day say “Cuts sounding more like a cull, when viewed historically like this.”

A little bit of a gloomy theme, then, certainly highlighting the way in which the current funding systems are returning ESOL to the much more fragmented provision of the nineties and before, with charities and private training providers taking up some of the slack left over where colleges are forced to pull out. This is reflected in our own provision where we’ve been forced to reduce the number of community based classes dramatically, but I am pretty sure that the demand and the community need for ESOL provision has remained.

Anyhow, back to Harehills, and a history of the area, and a look at the provision as it stands. And you know what, there are 24 different providers in Harehills. 24. To give that some perspective, Harehills isn’t a big area, a few square miles of fairly packed city. To be fair, Leeds is pretty densely populated: last time I checked, it had a larger population than Manchester, but feels much more compact.

So I’ll say it again, 24. And there’s no kind of overview,or joined up thinking, to see if this can be brought together in some way.

So why don’t all ESOL learners come to college courses then? This was one of those “obvious when you hear it” moments, and good to know it had proper research to back up the hunch: the more vulnerable learners tended to access voluntary and charity based provision, whereas the more confident learners felt able to access college provision.

This is certainly reflected in the provision we have for community classes in Dewsbury. There has been a historical habit, largely unchanged, of only doing beginner to E2 classes in the community precisely because it is these learners who are less able, or less willing, for a range of reasons to access the college provision. And you know, when you think about it, how utterly utterly daunting must enrolments at a college be for a low level ESOL learners. For a beginner to walk through the door, and get themselves signed up for an ESOL class must take such enormous bravery and determination. I honestly doubt I could do it, if things were reversed.

Colleges are good places, with good people in them, but they are also full of well-meaning bureaucracy, aimed largely at their main “customer base” (sorry) of 16-19 vocational and academic provision. I always made my trainee teachers in their second year go through the whole process, from door to classroom, so to speak, with their minds open to what it must be like to do this as a second language learner. Not sure if it ever worked, but even those learners, on a level 5 teacher training course, were feeling pretty tired and frazzled by the end. So combine general fatigue with various nice, smiling people handing you bits of paper (student union, student services, guides to college, assorted forms) with which you have no idea what to do, with lots of queues and young people being, well, young, and topped off with a number of interviews where people ask you lots of complicated questions about whether or not you are on benefits, which ones, how long, do you have the letter? No? Can you go home and get it? No, sorry there are no crèche places then, I’m afraid….

So, yes, enrolments are pretty daunting, and frankly if you can get through that, well…

Anyway, a much better summary of the findings from the HENNA project will be published in the autumn edition of the NATECLA journal, Language Issues, so I shall direct you there instead!

I’ll leave the discussions we had, and the afternoon sessions really fed into my thoughts and plans for next year, so I’ll include those there!



  1. Sam, a great digest. On the issue of translanguaging, having been used to mixed classes it has been a strange experience for me in the last 6 weeks to teach a class full of one language and people group (in this case Roma Slovaks all referred from the job centre for ESOL employability classes) and yes I felt incredibly for the one Iranian gentleman that had to sit through all the banter in the students’ first language as well as the general banter. He coped extremely well with it though – to his credit! Personally I hope to get back to some mixed classes without translation in September. now it tink about it, a debate on the advantages and disadvantages on the use of translation in the ESOL classroom would be a great project topic – I’m not really sure how much value it added for the Slovaks as it became an over reliance at the expenses of decoding the spoken and written
    English I was presenting, hmmm….. Well that’ll do for my breakfast musings on the last day of term, must get the kids ready for school!

  2. apologies for typos, still getting used to the auto spell check function on the iPad as I type and I’m not the greatest with proofing informal stuff, can I turn it off?!

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