He who digs a hole …

20150716_155210In my previous post, I mentioned this article, in which the authors discuss ELF (English as a lingua franca) and describe what happens if a priority in communication is color over clarity. They argue that idiomatic and culture-bound expressions can be very difficult to grasp for someone who hasn’t grown up in the inner circle world of English. They conclude that ELF-aware native speakers can optimise their speaking habits to be as comprehensible as possible in a world where fewer and fewer English speakers have grown up speaking it as their first language.

Just a couple of hours after publishing my post, I came across this article. It’s a great read except that it contains so many idiomatic expressions and metaphors that it turns reading into a torture – at least for me. I had to read it twice to be sure that I hadn’t missed anything important.

Its complexity made me wonder who the article was actually written for. I dare conclude that definitely not for me, a person based in the expanding circle of English, and I dare say that while producing the text, the authors only kept a specific group of native speakers in mind.

The fact that the authors are so creative language-wise is nothing that shocks me. Authors do that. I myself like to be creative after all. However, considering the fact that the article discusses a hot issue which educators all around the world (native and non-native) have recently been delving into, I’d really appreciate it if the text was a bit more EFL-user-friendly. Some of the expressions below may be plain confusing – hard nuts to crack (to throw in an idiom too) – not just because they are metaphors or idioms, but because they allude to facts and concepts an average non-native educator may not be familiar with.

  • These are big claims indeed, and many people have believed them, some of them with Monopoly cheque books
  • Donald Clark has fairly comprehensively harrowed many of the HOTW claims.
  • playing games and, I imagine, downloading stag flicks
  • It seems to me that the more outlandish the magic bullet claim in education
  • But Mitra’s work taps into zeitgeists that are very, very groovy indeed
  • the need to replace the ossified dogma of factory-farm learning
  • It’s like Ken Robinson regenerated into the next Doctor and the Sonic Screwdriver became a laptop
  • It’s proper, of course, to play the ball, not the player
  • platforms of ill repute where caveat emptor should be the reader’s watchword
  • Besides, there was a little bit of brass action
  • Roll that about for a while, really rub your tongue around it
  • Holy smoke, we just invented educational cold fusion
  • unless you hover like a drone on some of their shoulders
  • they’ll be cruising FIFA emulators and Googling PewDiePie all lesson
  • for the Kardashian generation
  • good intentions are a worthless currency
  • to be blown on the roulette wheel of unfathomably bad science

round holeI’m keenly aware that if English is somebody’s mother tongue, they may not have had much practice in thinking about its complexities. It doesn’t even cross their mind that they should try to avoid language that speakers of other languages find challenging.

Still, it makes me wonder why people revel in metaphors and idioms.

  • Metaphor is a stylistic device, but it is cognitively important as well.
  • Metaphor can serve as a device for persuading the reader of the writer’s argument.

Correct me if I’m wrong but in this particular case, the authors use certain language devices to turn the article into a humorous read. It may seem quite understandable, even though it’s a serious critique of someone’s work. The trouble is that although the authors are trying to discredit Sugata Mitra’s theory (claiming that Mitra’s passion for sci-fi has, unfortunately, bled into his research), they’re actually doing so using means which are rhetorical rather than scientific.

One may oppose that the authors do refer to credible sources which support their skeptical view on Mitra’s work. Nevertheless, their somewhat mocking style and numerous allusions to concepts that are totally unfamiliar to a common educator out there in the expanding circle world may end up as a futile attempt at offering people something valuable to ponder and discuss.

Note: I’m obviously not saying that native speakers of English should resort to Idiot English (Marc Jones’s term), but, maybe, they should start thinking about who their audiences are or may potentially be in the world of so many Englishes, especially if they wish to spread their message as far as possible.


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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12 Responses to He who digs a hole …

  1. I totally get how you feel Hana, I often feel this way myself when reading -what I call- articles which make me feel “excluded”. Feeling that you’re left out of a meaningful conversation can be frustrating at times, but to be honest with you, in this case, I think native speakers would also have a hard time grasping all the different associations/concepts the writer put forward. There is something however that I like about his/her writing style – that is, its playfulness. It’s like being offered a strange dish which looks appetizing, but you don’t know really know what it tastes like. I also saw an opportunity for class discussion on this article. It would be nice I think to share the expressions the writer uses to further explore the associations he’s trying to make.


    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thanks for your perspective, Maria. I agree that the author’s style is interesting and it’s actually a great read. I’d like to make it clear that this is not a critique of the author’s style. I looked at it the the way I did because I wanted to make a point related to English as a lingua franca. The truth is, though, that articles like this sometimes drive me crazy. If you have an access to the Internet while reading, it’s fine, but imagine reading a paper magazine somehwere on the beach; a big part of the message may simply elude you. Metaphors and analogies presume a shared knowing based in mutual experience or a common culture. If there’s a lack of such shared knowedge, reading may become onerous. The question is, of course, if it’s the writer’s or the reader’s problem. 🙂


      • I totally get the point you’re trying to make and I agree with you that his/her style drives the reader crazy. And I understand that reading becomes a burden, instead of pleasure. I just tried to find something positive out of it 🙂 I think it’s the writer’s problem since the purpose of writing is to communicate ideas and engage readers.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hana Tichá says:

        Thanks. I get it, I like optimists 🙂


  2. Hana, I am a native English speaker, and I didn’t understand all of the expressions you listed here! I really believe it is the writer’s responsibility to make sure the reader can understand. That doesn’t mean there should be no analogies or metaphors, but this article seemed to go way over the top! Oops! Another piece of language that not all readers will understand. It is way too easy to do as a native speaker, I’m afraid!


    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting, Nancy. I feel kind of relieved that I’m not the only one who had trouble understanding some of the expressions. I tend to agree that it is the writer’s responsibility to make sure the reader can understand – at least if the reader is part of the audience the text is addressed to. By the way, I recently came across the *OTT* acronym and it took me some time to decipher its meaning, i.e. over the top. Sometimes it’s really hard to keep up with all the innovations!


  3. Sandy Millin says:

    Hi Hana,
    Just to make you feel better, I struggled with about a third of the quotes you pulled out in your post (haven’t read the original) and I would consider myself to be a widely-read, sci-fi geek (and a native speaker). It seems like the writer was trying a bit too hard to be humorous and to show off what they know, and has therefore alienated their audience. I agree with Nancy’s comment that this is OTT 🙂
    Some of us just try to be too clever for our own good. 🙂
    Thanks for writing something which will now make me read in a different way, again!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Phew! Thanks, Sandy 🙂 That’s basically what I thought and you put it bluntly; when an author tries too hard to sound sophisticated or knowledgeable, their good ideas can finally go down the drain. I would say that such OTT articles are not very common in the online world of education and I rarely have trouble understanding fellow educators because I’m usually familiar with the context. Anyway, I’m glad I inspired you to read in a different way from now on. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Marc says:

    I read it and though I understood all the references I think you’d need to have a detailed knowledge of English culture beyond popular exports.

    In the article’s defence, it does appear in the TES, a paper magazine on sale in Britain so writing for EFL/ELF audiences won’t be of utmost concern. However, to repeat an old trope, the world is getting smaller.


  5. ven_vve says:

    A very interesting post. When I come across a text like this, I usually don’t read past the first paragraph or two as I find the overly creative phrasing (for me anyway) very off-putting. I’m not saying this is the writer’s problem – the writer in this particular case has around 25K followers on Twitter, so obviously there are plenty of people who appreciate his writing style – simply that I’m not a fan.

    I have a theory though – entirely unfounded on research or evidence, I hasten to add – that it is more often guys who write like this. I realize this may sound terribly biased, and would love to know if there are any figures to support (or disprove) it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thanks for an interesting comment, Vedrana! Hmmm, I think I agree with the final line. However, I’ve come across a couple of female bloggers who use equally embellished language, even though they mostly write for an ELT-oriented audience. And I admit I often think about the reasons behind it. Regarding the author of the above-mentioned article, I obviously didn’t want to question the quality of his writing. Like you, I find it rather off-putting to wade through tons of overly creative phrasing. I sometimes endure it, but more often than not I simply choose to read something more straightforward and ‘comprehensible’. From the author’s point of view, I think it always comes down to the question whether you simply want to convey a message or whether you want to impress in the first place.

      Liked by 1 person

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