Teaching the language that makes one happy


Jan Blommaert 

During my time at the London Institute of Education (2005-7), I was deployed in the TESOL section and worked with an outspokenly international group of students. These students were recruited after a rigorous selection in which superior IELTS scores were mandatory. All were, consequently, “fluent” in “English” when they arrived in London. The scare quotes around both terms above will become clear as we go on. For the thing is: all of these young people were highly skilled globalized junior academics, but many of them were unhappy in London.

I talked to a great many of them and started making observation notes on their English conversational proficiency. I also asked them how they felt about their English proficiency, and when one of them replied “I can’t understand their [i.e. UK English] jokes and that frustrates me”, my curiosity was triggered. I started talking to them on the specific bit of English they felt they lacked in London. The answers were highly diverse, but some stood out. One recurrent answer was: I don’t have the English that can help me find a boyfriend/girlfriend – the English one needs to flirt and enter into a love relationship with someone. Another was: I don’t have the English I need to understand entertainment shows on British TV. And yet another: when I go out for drinks with British friends, I just can’t understand a lot of what they’re saying in the pub. Many articulated frustrations about the fact that their limited English proficiency made it very difficult for them to come across as an interesting, witty, creative and nice person. Many felt socially awkward and lonely, and had the impression that making real friends was terribly hard, given the constraints they experienced in informal social interaction with others.

Their responses reminded me of my own experience teaching and living in Chicago in the Winter of 2003. From 9 to 5, I would be talking shop there, and interlocutors would have perceived me as highly articulate and confident, perhaps even eloquent in English. As soon as I left the UofC campus and went shopping, however, I felt I was lacking almost all of the English I needed to identify the right meat cuts, vegetables or cleaning products. And one of my most catastrophic communicative experiences was when I had to call a plumber about a drainage problem in my bathroom: I lacked literally every bit of English required to adequately explain the problem and was reduced to begging the plumber to come over and see for himself. On campus, I was a “near-native” user of English, while in the supermarket or with the plumber I must have sounded like just another immigrant struggling with basic English vocabulary.

Such anecdotes are relevant for at least three reasons.

  1. They show us that “language learning” is effectively register learning. My students and myself had acquired the academic register characterizing contemporary globalized academic practices and culture; we had not, au contraire, acquired the registers that controlled specific informal social and cultural communication modes, and could consequently not perform the roles we were supposed to play in and through them.
  2. In the case of my students, they also show that “language” testing is in actual fact register testing: high IELTS scores indicate a high level of active and passive proficiency in a limited set of registers and genres qualified with a  (rather unhelpful) umbrella term as Academic English. They do not indicate a general socioculturally adequate competence in English, and do not as such announce a generative or cumulative competence. That is: having achieved high levels of academic register-genre proficiency does not automatically generate (or even facilitate) competences outside the domains covered by such registers and genres; such specific register-genre competences must be learned separately.
  3. And most importantly, they show us a thing or two about integration. Let me elaborate that latter point.

There is, in the context of migration and superdiversity, a policy response which is widespread across Europe (and further afield) in which language learning is proposed as the key to “integration”. The latter is a word in search of a clear definition (and has been for decades), but in actual practice, it is usually paraphrased as “participation in social life”, with some emphasis on facilitating entrance into the labor market. Observe that “integration” is usually presented as one single process in which someone presently “not part of society” will become part of that society by a unilateral effort of adaptation, in which language learning is crucial since – one frequently reads – one cannot participate in the life of a community without communicating with other members.

What we now know is that

  • Integration is not a single process but a multiple one, in which several very different forms of “integration” need to be achieved, into numerous specific social milieux and niches, each organized and characterized by their own sociocultural normative codes, in order to be, let us say, happy as a social and cultural being.
  • Integration into the “most important” social milieu – academic work in the case of my students, the labor market in the eyes of many policy makers – does not guarantee integration into the different milieux and niches that make up social life outside the “most important” segment of it. As my own experience showed, one can be highly integrated in the segment of labor and the sociocultural milieu that sustains it, and poorly integrated (even highly marginal) in several other social milieux. In fact, this assemblage of different degrees of “integration” in which one is simultaneously very well integrated in some segments of sociocultural life, less integrated in some others and not integrated at all in another set of them – is perhaps the default mode of “integration” any person would have in social life in general, at any point of time.
  • Consequently, teaching competences and skills deemed useful for “integration” would seem to require a very precise diagnostic stage in which the specific register-genre needs valid for targeted social milieux (and thus defining a range of very different integration processescan be identified and followed up by more precise and specific knowledge transfer.

Being “fully integrated” as a person, when one investigates it in some detail, actually refers to a set of experiences of satisfaction – happiness, let us say – derived from a perceived smoothness in social contact beyond the borders of narrowly conceived and functionally defined social milieux such as that of labor. It actually means that one is integrated into the full set of social milieux experienced as crucial for a satisfying social life. When we teach people the language they need for this purpose, we have to teach them the specific bits of language that make them happy. The term “happy” sounds funny, perhaps, and there is no tradition in language teaching where it has ever been central. I suggest we take it very seriously.


101 Big And Small Ways To Make A Difference In Academia

Conditionally Accepted


Let’s set aside the debate over whether one can, or even should, be an activist in academia.  If you recognize that inequality and other problems exist within academia, then I do not need to convince you that someone should be working to make change.  But, some scholars are skeptical of “rocking the boat,” either because of fear of professional harm or the assumption that one does not have the time.  Making academia a more equitable and humane place is not an easy, quick, risk-free task; if that were the case, we would probably see a lot more progress by now!  But, I believe we can all make small (and big) changes, whether an activist, advocate, or simply a concerned scholar.

Here are 101 ideas of ways to make a difference in academia that I have come up with, either from experience, observation, or wishful thinking.  Please add your…

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The weakness of surveillance


Jan Blommaert 

After the attacks at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, January 2015, security was tightened all over Europe. It was announced that the security and intelligence agencies of the member states would intensify their collaboration, specifically in the domain of data compatibility and exchange, in an attempt to tighten security to such an extent that new terrorist attacks would become impossible – intelligence would ensure that plans would be known long ahead of the moment they were planned to be executed.

Evidently, the Paris attacks on Friday 13th of November 2015 demonstrated the opposite. A relatively large group of terrorists infiltrated Paris in a coordinated shoot-out, bombing and hostage operation causing death and injuries to a large random group of victims.

What is more, the surviving terrorists escaped. One member of the terrorist team – Salah Abdeslam – made his way back across a heavily patrolled border into Belgium; his car was stopped but he was not recognized by the patrolling police officers. In the days that followed, Belgian security and intelligence forces believed that he was hiding in the Brussels district of Molenbeek. The Belgian government declared the highest level of terror alert, and an enormous police action in Molenbeek was launched on 22 November. Armed soldiers patrolled the streets of Brussels (and were deployed in other cities as well), the Brussels Metro was closed, and schools would remain closed until further notice.

The massive raid of 22 November didn’t yield any results. A large handful of people were arrested, but all but one of them were released the next day. No weapons, bombs or other terrorist equipment were found. And, humiliatingly, Abdeslam was not captured. He had escaped. When he was eventually captured, four months later in March 2016, he was found in a house almost adjacent to the one raided in November 2015. And a few days after his widely publicized arrest – “we got him!!”, yelled our Ministers – several bomb attacks devastated Brussels Airport and the Brussels Metro, killing dozens of citizens.

The surveillance structure now put in place, in which the privacy of all citizens is sacrificed to the priorities of a safe public space, and in which all communication traffic is stored as “data” enabling security forces to achieve an unprecedented level of accuracy in identifying possible and effective criminals, to anticipate their plans and to locate their whereabouts – this structure appears to have failed, both in Paris and in Molenbeek, and probably in every other search currently being conducted across Europe. It has failed systematically throughout the entire episode.

The reason for this is quite simple for those who are interested in human behavior: the focus on electronic systems of communication narrows human behavior to just a segment of what we do, believing that this segment suffices to capture the totality of behavior. Empirically, we now see, this assumption is wrong. Abdeslam and his colleagues, at several points in the past months, operated outside of the structures of electronic surveillance, and they did so in a way that kept them adequately informed and alert to the moves of the security forces. Talking face-to-face, or through a network of face-to-face relays, for instance, still exists as a mode of communication, and it cannot possibly be traced by surveillance systems.

Increasing the capacity of this surveillance system will not, for reasons too clear to warrant much explanation, improve its accuracy. It will still cover just a fraction of the social environment in which real people deploy real social behavior and leave the rest unchecked. While, in return, the privacy of an entire population has been surrendered, and might be invaded whenever – for reasons never disclosed to the target – one becomes a “suspect” in the eyes of the surveillance operators.

There is a tendency, when people become desperate, to do more of the same but do it harder, faster and more intensive. In the field of security, the failure of the present system of surveillance should result in a profound revision of its assumptions and methodology. Because while it is definitely totalitarian in scope and pervasiveness, it does not offer total security. In fact, whenever it has to live up to its promises, it appears to fail miserably. It is time to recognize this failure.


A Historic Night for the American Anthropological Association

Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

[click here for a Storify of tweets and photographs from the meeting]

On Friday evening in Denver, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) endorsed the Palestinian civil society call to boycott Israeli academic institutions by over 88% in the most well-attended business meeting in the association’s history. The measure will now be forwarded to the entire membership for a final vote by electronic ballot in the spring.

As heirs to a long tradition of scholarship on colonialism, anthropologists affirm, through this resolution, that the core problem is Israel’s maintenance of a settler colonial regime based on Jewish supremacy and Palestinian dispossession backed by the U.S. government. By supporting the boycott, anthropologists are taking a stand for justice through action in solidarity with Palestinians. The AAA is the largest scholarly association yet to endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions at an annual meeting.

What follows is a detailed account of that historic night…

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Seeing double? How the EU miscounts migrants arriving at its borders

Postcards from ...

Nando Sigona, University of Birmingham

Frontex, the border agency charged with European external border management, has released data claiming 710,000 migrants entered the EU between January and September this year.

According to the agency, this represents an “unprecedented inflow of people”, offering as a comparison data from last year, when 282,000 entries were recorded in total.

I found out about the data release via Twitter. Alarms bells immediately rang.


The numbers thrown out by Frontex are not only a noticeable increase on 2014 figures. They are also significantly higher than data published recently by the UN and the International Organization for Migration on the number of people entering the EU irregularly by the sea. These showed 590,000 estimated arrivals.

These figures are immensely important. They have a profound impact on the public debate about the refugee and migration crisis. They are quickly picked up by the…

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