Has ELT become the dieting & weight-loss business?

I’m having some free time on my hands now that I’m on holiday so I read, take photos, relax and browse the web a lot. And I must make a confession: it drives me crazy when I see advertisements inviting me to ‘learn English without [certain attributes]’, such as without taking classescramming, commitment, effort, conscious studying, translating, pressure, stress, coursebooks, boring grammar and vocabulary, etc.

I’m willing to admit that people can learn a language without cramming, under some circumstances. I also think it’s highly probable that people will learn an L2 without coursebooks. Why shouldn’t they? I believe in the dogme approach after all. They might even learn English without taking traditional classes or classes in general. Although pressure and stress can be helpful for some, I don’t suppose they are vital aspects of successful learning so I’m fine with that too. Translating is rather tricky. Gone are the days when translation in ELT was a taboo subject. On the contrary, nowadays translation is seen as beneficial. So what’s the point in making classes without translation special or groundbreaking? So far so good. I can understand, to a certain extent, the train of thought of those who made up those ads. But how on earth can anyone learn something properly without conscious effort or commitment? And what I can’t get at all is the conviction that a language can be learnt without studying ‘boring’ grammar and vocabulary. It’s like claiming that it’s possible to satisfy your hunger without eating.

The English language has apparently become a huge business and we (English teachers and business owners) have to slog away to find our places in the sun. I understand we need to differentiate from each other to attract customers and that’s why we give our businesses and courses all kinds of weird attributes, which will unfortunately deter rather than allure. Well, they may eventually attract those who have no knowledge of how languages are learnt but …. isn’t it simply short-sighted? Doesn’t it discredit the business or the individual at once?

I can’t help feeling that the business of ELT strongly resembles the dieting & weight-loss business. Like losing weight, learning English has become an obsession. Although we all know it takes time and effort to slim down permanently, we long for quicker, brand-new methods and we even believe they will work. I suppose it’s the same with learning a language, English in particular. That’s why we (customers = learners) are so susceptible and trusting. We long for courses and methods which will help us master the language without taking classes, cramming, commitment, effort, conscious studying, translating, pressure, stress, coursebooks, boring grammar and vocabulary, etc. Unsurprisingly, we usually end up disappointed and deceived.

The only attribute I accept (though reluctantly) with ‘learning/teaching English’ or any other foreign language is effectively. Anything else is, if not deception, just a complement, addition, embellishment and redundancy. I know it’s cunning because the term effectively can cover almost anything. But I’m not going to withdraw my claim because I truly believe that one can learn English in all sorts of ways and environments, e.g. outdoors, indoors, in Japan or England, night or day, with one teacher or twenty teachers, alone or in class, but never without effort and conscious learning. And I suspect one will need some vocabulary and a bit of grammar to be able to communicate.

About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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6 Responses to Has ELT become the dieting & weight-loss business?

  1. Philip says:

    Thanks for this, Hana. It's an interesting comparison. It strikes me that there is another thing these two have in common. The dieting / weight-loss business is dominated by charlatans, who know next to nothing about nutrition or health, but are very informed about marketing techniques. The recent explosion in the number of online gimmicks offering miracle language cures is dominated by people who know nothing about and have even less interest in language acquisition. The fact that these miracle cures don't work – in either dieting or language learning – is really not important. Their business plan will have taken that into account.


  2. nathanghall says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Hana. Having worked as a freelance teacher, for a private business (not a language school), for a language school, and now in a public higher-ed institution, I have seen the whole gamut from the good to the ugly.

    For me, the problem starts at the end. We see language learning as a packaged product that we purchase. We can buy it now or we can wait for it to 'come on sale'. We feel like we are getting 'ripped off' if we have to work hard and gain it 'the old fashioned way'. We are always striving for a 'better deal'. The problem is that we never actually see the value in the process. We need to sell the process, instead of this imaginary product. Learning a language is on-going and we get out of it what we put into it. If all we want is to magically start speaking another language, we will be terribly disappointed. The struggle and the triumphs of going through the process of learning a language IS the reward, not the language.

    Sorry for the long comment. I completely agree with you that this is approach is hurting our profession. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.


  3. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Philip.

    I suppose there's nothing wrong about being well informed about marketing techniques, even in regard to ELT, but, as you point out, the problem is that these marketing 'experts' know next to nothing about teaching and learning. If they knew they would choose words for their ads more carefully. Also, I feel that like dieting, learning English is mostly dependent on the recipient of the 'service', i.e. their will, motivation, abilities, etc. I mean, if someone offers you a new car, all you need to do is to go and buy it and if the salesperson is good, you will buy it. This kind of transaction is relatively easy and effortless because it’s unilateral, in a way. But it's silly when somebody equals learning with commodity trading by making deceptive advertising. And the advertising will always be deceptive because it’s the recipient who eventually decides what the actual learning/courses will be like; if it will be without stress, pressure, effort, etc.



  4. Hana Tichá says:

    Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I love long comments and they are pretty common on my blog, so no worries 🙂

    I think you make a good point when you say that the process is the key. It's similar to going on a package holiday. The travel agency sells you a great vacation in the Caribbean – everything seems perfect; the food is delicious and the accommodation is amazing. But that’s how you other tourists see it; you think this holiday is a disaster because you’re bored and hot, and it’s windy. So you rant that the travel agency is awful. I mean, here the customer’s satisfaction is largely dependent on their mood, temper, frame of mind, not just the outer circumstances. This is also true for language learning.
    So I have no problem with advertising in general; I can imagine an ad saying: If you are hard-working and persistent, we’ll help you learn English easily and quickly. I hope my comment makes sense.



  5. springcait says:

    Another brilliant post, Hana. I really enjoy your style and love your ideas.
    Being both into ELT and fitness, I've never noticed such a striking resemblance. All good fitness trainers keep saying that it's hard work, and constant work, and you won't get any results if you don't control yourself and don't push yourself beyond yesterday's limits. Lerning a language is just like this. You can't drink 'magic tea' and get slimmer without any harm to your health as well as you can't just do nothing and speak a language. I'll use this metaphor to give my students an idea what is learning like)
    Thanks for the pleasure of reading and thinking and for the 'wow' moment!



  6. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks for your kind words, Kate. I'm glad to hear that good fitness trainers don't try to pull your leg and say what it really takes to achieve your goals. The truth may hurt for a little while but a lie hurts forever, right? 🙂


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