Language learning: a thing of the past?

Language classes started again at our university and I have re-enrolled at intermediate German. From a technology point of view why bother? Online translation programmes are free and efficient and speech recognition has improved to such an extent that there is frequent talk of mobile translation devices that can really work  [1]. In fact progress has been startling and from the programming point of view the interesting thing about speech recognition, and now translation, is that it has developed by throwing large set of data at the problem rather than rule based artificial intelligence [2]. This leaves the whole process based on probabilistic modelling – something which cannot provide the 100 per cent accuracy needed in certain situations and which we would certainly need to trouble shoot breakdowns in communication and to get over more nuanced messages. Will we ever be able to move across cultures with satisfactory translation devices?  To be honest I would like to think not but incremental progress is being made. In the meantime some of us at least will plug away at learning another language and will look towards technology to help.

Of course what goes on in the head when we try to learn remains all too familiar, it is a time consuming process, two steps forward one step back. However technology seems to have sped things up or at least provided some variety. I use online translation as a support for writing, or for getting rough idea of a text before looking at individual words in more detail. I can access several online dictionaries and online conjugations databases. There are a growing number of people producing vlogs on language learning – in part these appear to be a mix of exhibitionism, public service provision and implicit promotion of teaching and translation services. Some are very useful. After having expressed an interest I get reminders to use Babel Fish and Duolingo however I find I can no longer stand online drills and quizzes.  I can find for myself any number of films in target languages on You Tube and I can send occasional emails to friends in Germany. In the case of German there are quite imaginative online materials offered by Deutsche Welle [3] and here it is striking how far their language support work is addressing the concerns of new arrivals as well as traditional audiences of tourists and travellers.

Using available technology for language learning is not of course new and it is always interesting to see the hopes generated by its use in the past. Linguaphone was one of the first to get into technology, using wax cylinder recording of the target language, crude, but something greeted at the time with widespread enthusiasm.  Recordings were of course later captured on vinyl and now digitally.

The other day I was given a box set of German course offered by Linguaphone back in 1961. The box consisted of several vinyl records with transcripts of dialogues and back up material in books. For many years Linguaphone was the ‘go to’ provider of distance learning language courses at least for those who could afford it (or whose organisations could afford it) but not only the technology but the materials now feel very dated in this box set. Linguaphone seemed to have made an assumption that language learning was a middle class, conservative pursuit [4]. Some of the contexts must have been crackers even in 1961. Here is a model sentence at a dinner party:

Die Damen unterhalten sich über gemeinsame Freunde und die letzte Mode. Wir Männer sprechen über Politik, Geschäft un die Tagesneuigkeiten. [5]

I saw the same thing in a Spanish box set years ago and I expect Linguaphone used the same framework for each course it offered and slotted in the required language [6] as it suited. I doubt if these contexts changed much over the years either.

Other shortcomings in my Linguaphone box set are that the grammar is covered very quickly and there is no meaningful authentic material. However the key underlying problem with any old style distance learning, and indeed with language labs, is that it is, at the least, very difficult to carry out an authentic conversation when talking to a record or tape recorder – it is all a rehearsal and feels mindless.

It is easy to mock my Linguaphone box set and the view of language learning contained within it, but it is not all bad. Although we tend to see language learning in the past as dominated by a direct method (a numbing succession of listen, repeat drills) there is a lot of back up material in Linguaphone which explains how the language works. It is a much more of a mixed approach than you would realise from the way Linguaphone advertised itself. We tend further to assume that old style distance learning was based on a transmission model  – the material landed on the doormat and that was that. However designers did understand the need to interact with learners and in my box set there is a letter, which I guess was constructed by Linguaphone but sent out and personalised by a tutor. The letter is stiff but kindly [7], and invites the learner to send in responses to exercises and to raise any questions about learning the language with him.

Linguaphone exists today and has, I guess, updated its material. However it must be a struggle for anyone to attract customers for a paid-for course when there is so much available online for free. Looking back you can see how technology (including wax cylinder recordings) have consistently triggered high expectations.  I think much more is at stake in learning a language than decoding model sentences and this is a shortcoming of Linguaphone and much language teaching today. It also suggests there are limits on what online translation can do. But if the alternative is listen and repeat drills or translation devices no wonder we look towards new technology.

[1] To be honest I have not looked at the academic literature here but this blog captures some of the possible consequences for practice:

Ballantyne, N. (2015) Skype’s real-time translator – the end of language learning? at

Though note how things have moved on. You can follow up on various commercial demonstrations of real time translation on YouTube, eg

[2]  My understanding is sketchy but I enjoyed a talk on breaking down speech recognition at:

[3] DW Lernen is at

[4] An earlier dialogue for learners of English on buying pipe tobacco has generated a very large number of hits as it features J.R. R.Tolkein of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings fame. It is bonkers:

[5] My best guess here is:

The women chat about their mutual friends and the latest fashions. We men talk about politics, business and the news of the day.

To go back to my earlier point Google translate has this as:

The ladies talk about common friends and the last fashion. We men talk about politics, business and the day novelties.

You could not fail to get the meaning from this but that is about it.

[6]  A trick pulled off by many publishers over the years and carried off with panache by makers of Extra – a programme for learning Spanish / French / German aimed at schools.

[7]  Some of the letter (minus identifying names and addresses) can be seen here excerpt

Summer Reading

This being the summer period in UK, there is much in the review sections of the newspapers about what to take as holiday reading. My own suggestion is a short story by Julio Cortázar. Cortázar (1914 – 1984) was an Argentinian writer, who was born in Europe and spent a lot of time in France. In UK he was best known, if at all, for a short story (Las Babas del Diablo) that was a rather loose inspiration for the film ‘Blow up’. [1]. Like his other work Las Babas showed Cortázar’s interest in technology and, interestingly, he explored the idea of what we would today call hypertext in Rayuela (‘HopScotch’) thus providing a never ending narrative. Cortázar was part of the wave of Latin American writers, Garcia Marquez being the most celebrated, that became influential for their mixing of myth with real life events (so called magical realism) and their political leftism. My holiday read is the short story Cortázar’s Autopista del Sur [2].

The story is simply told. It is summer and we are on the motorway going back to Paris. Predictably the sheer volume of traffic means there is a giant traffic jam, the cars slow and eventually grind to a halt. Drivers and occupants are exasperated and try to understand what has happened:

And so all afternoon they heard about the crash of a Floride and a 2CV near Corbeil – three dead and one child injured; the double collision of a Fiat 1500 and a Renault station wagon, which in turn smashed into an Austin full of English tourists; the overturning of an Orly airport bus teeming with passengers from the Copenhagen flight. The engineer was sure that almost everything was false, although something awful must have happened near Corbeil or even near Paris itself to have paralyzed traffic to such an extent.

They fruitlessly look at their watches make renewed calculations but nothing is moving. Time passes, a lot of time, slowly they lose track of their destinations and accept that they are going nowhere. They adjust to the new situation. They start to help each other, they share food and drink:

When the little girl complained of thirst again, the engineer decided to talk to the couple in the Ariane, convinced that there were many provisions in that car. To his surprise, the farmers were very friendly; they realised, that in a situation like this it was necessary to help one another and they thought if someone took charge of the group (the woman made a circular gesture with her hand encompassing the dozen cars surrounding them) they would have enough to get them to Paris. The idea of appointing himself organiser bothered him, and he chose to call the men from the Taunus for a meeting with the couple in the Ariane. A while later the rest of the group was consulted one by one.

They organise themselves into parties to search for more supplies, they play games, they share jokes, they feel love, they deal with death. But just as they are settled into this new life together the traffic starts to move again. They forget the time they spent together and they resume their individual journeys:

And on the car’s antenna the red cross flag waved madly and you moved at fifty-five miles an hour towards the lights that kept growing, not knowing why all this hurry, why this mad race in the night among unknown cars, where no one knew anything about the others, where everyone looked straight ahead, only ahead.

I would re-read the story for several reasons. First, although in my description this story sounds a rather heavy handed parable, it is in fact a playful piece of writing. It mixes fantasy and realism and has an intriguing take on time reflecting the state of the drivers’ moods. For example the story gallops through the period in which the community is working together (seasons pass come and go within a short number of paragraphs) but dwells on the experience of sitting in a car waiting for something to happen.

Cortázar is also very good on cars. The characters are identified by their cars  – though as this is the 1960’s you will need to do a bit of Internet research if you wanted to know what some of the models looked like. He is very good on the experience of being stuck in traffic and the way being in a car affects our outlook on life. Cortázar was writing at a time in which oppressive aspects of technology were being emphasised, at least by ‘progressive’ voices. However I am not sure Cortázar is writing an anti-technology story or even one that is anti-car; as seen earlier he did appear to be genuinely interested in technology. However the context is well chosen. After all, the car, at least the advertising of cars, conjures up images of adventure and a breaking free from physical and social constraint. Yet we find, at least in major cities, and especially in holiday periods, driving mostly offers the sensation of being stuck. The solution to overcoming this problem of immobility is often seen as more technology, for example ‘Smart’ monitoring of traffic movements, interactive Sat Navs, entertainment systems to keep children occupied or mobile devices so that you can turn your car into an office. I think from Cortázar we can learn there is something in this promotion of technology that simply does not add up.

Cortázar’s story is surprisingly topical. Not just because this is the holiday season and many of us will spend a lot of time sitting in slow moving traffic but, in England a major news story concerned lorry drivers who were stuck for days with the closure of the Channel Tunnel [3]. There is an altogether more permanent and desperate kind of being stuck, the experience of migrants to Europe with, in our papers at least, attention focused on Calais. [4]

It would be silly to imagine that left in a state of nature we would discover an unselfconscious social solidarity as in Autopista del Sur, any more than a novel such as Lord of the Flies [5] proves the opposite. Rather Cortázar reminds us there is an alternative view of modernity and, for that matter, shows that we can imagine being social beings if we want to. If nothing else, it should forewarn us that sitting in a car fretting about lost time is not the way to spend your holiday.

[1] The film explored the befuddlement of a fashion photographer who thinks he has, by chance, captured a murder on film, but cannot tell for sure in spite of repeated ‘blow ups’ of the photo in his studio. Wikipedia offers a synopsis at

[2] Autopista del Sur was first published in 1966 in a collection ‘Todos los Fuegos el Fuego’ and in (American) English ‘All fires the fire, and other stories’, translated by S J Levine. I was taken through Autopista by a patient Spanish teacher first time around and would struggle with the language today. However I would try to re-read it some of it in Spanish to get the rhythm, something which gets lost in translation. Indeed the surreal elements of the story poses a problem for translators (see for example Callaghan, M. (2102) Cross-sections, The Bruce Hall Academic Journal Julio Cortázar’s ‘La Autopista del Sur’: a Critical Comparison of Suzanne Jill Levine’s English Translation with the Original 97 at ), certainly the translation of Autopista del Sur as ‘The Southern Thruway’ is odd. The translated version is downloadable over the Internet without much difficulty (try cutting and pasting the quotes into a search engine from the text in this post).

[3] for example ‘Lorries queuing on M20 Kent in Operation Stack’ on the BBC web site

[4] For example ‘Fortress Calais: fleeting fixtures and precarious lives in the migrant camp’ on the Guardian web site at

[5] Lord of the Flies is William Golding’s book about schoolboys who find themselves washed up on an uninhabited island, and their descent into bullying and worse. The film by director Peter Brook (1963) is a classic. It was a very popular book for UK schools in the 1960s and 1970s.

In praise of Dewey

One way to look at Dewey [1] is as a radical liberal and a social reformer who identified the importance of a common humanity to personal and social growth [2]. He was an academic and the prototype of the public intellectual, contributing to political debate, active in teacher unions, supporting the settlement movement and setting up his own experimental schools. His commitment to democracy led him to be on the right side of many of the arguments that dominated his life and times and still matter today. He saw mass immigration into the USA as an opportunity for generating a national democratic culture, he was patriotic but not a militarist, he was an early supporter of women’s rights. He was prescient when it came to philosophy – a pragmatist and ‘fallibilist’ [i.e. he understood that we might be wrong] in a way that was unusual in his time – and wanted us to search for consensus based on reason. He was romantic about community and what it offered for social life but was forward looking, urban based and not interested in rural idylls. He was politically radical while remaining, unusual among radicals of the time, anti Marxist and anti Stalinist. He was not afraid to talk ‘truth unto power’ in USA or on a global stage. He chaired the ‘Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials’ that exposed the absurdity of the Stalinist purges in the 1930s but was not impressed by Trotskyism. He was, in spite of everything, wilfully optimistic about life and our ability to make sense of it. It should not matter in the consideration of his ideas, but it seems he was a playful, though distracted parent, and he endured the death of two of his children bravely.

Dewey has drifted in and out of favour over time but he is still a key point of reference for educators. His work has always managed to wind up conservative commentators on education on the largely mistaken grounds that he was a ‘progressive’ educationalist [3]. Having recently had an election here in the UK, when evenly mildly expressed social reform took a bashing, expect to see another attack next year on Dewey to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of his landmark book ‘Democracy and Education’. So what did he believe that upset the conservative Right? In a nutshell he saw that learning was triggered by problem solving and wanted to put inquiry at the heart of learning. He was forward thinking too in the way he thought about language and saw communication as core to learning. For example in ‘Democracy and Education’ [4] he writes:

To be a recipient of a communication is to have an enlarged and changed experience. One shares in what another has thought and felt and in so far, meagerly or amply, has his own attitude modified. Nor is the one who communicates left unaffected. Try the experiment of communicating, with fullness and accuracy, some experience to another, especially if it be somewhat complicated, and you will find your own attitude toward your experience changing; otherwise you resort to expletives and ejaculations. The experience has to be formulated in order to be communicated. To formulate requires getting outside of it, seeing it as another would see it, considering what points of contact it has with the life of another so that it may be got into such form that he can appreciate its meaning. (Dewey 1916 [1947]:12)

This sets Dewey up as a very radical thinker about education, but perhaps this was because his opposition to didactic teaching took centre stage, given that didaticism was the dominant mode of teaching in his day. Less time has been given to his critique of so called progressive teaching because this was, and has always been, something of a sideshow. Nonetheless it is worth clarifying that in ‘Democracy and Education’ he was not advocating that children should take over their schools but was asking how can we help children generate habits for later democratic participation in society. Similarly, his idea of ‘learning by doing’ sounds very experimental and unfocused but this was not what he was saying. Rather he felt that while learning was triggered by problems you should not flay around wildly trying to solve a problem, instead you needed to think reflectively and socially on what to do. A problem-solving curriculum was a structured one with important roles for teachers and teaching. It is just that the structure and the preparation for teaching was different to what didactic instructors imagined. His key point was that the teaching of concepts needed to be rooted in experience, not learnt by drill. Here [5] he differentiated between ‘genuine ideas’ and surface assimilation:

Suppose it is a question of having the pupil grasp the idea of the sphericity of the earth. This is different from teaching him its sphericity as a fact. He may be shown (or reminded of) a ball or a globe, and be told that the earth is round like those things; he may then be made to repeat that statement day after day till the shape of the earth and the shape of the ball are welded together in his mind. But he has not thereby acquired any idea of the earth’s sphericity; at most, he has had a certain image of a sphere and has finally managed to image the earth after the analogy of his ball image. To grasp sphericity as an idea, the pupil must first have realized certain perplexities or confusing features in observed facts and have had the idea of spherical shape suggested to him as a possible way of accounting for the phenomena in question. Only by use as a method of interpreting data so as to give them fuller meaning does sphericity become a genuine idea (Dewey, 1910: 109.)

To sum up, Dewey was concerned with education as an end in itself and he offered a child centred approach that was not over romanticised or sentimental. In politics he was a democrat (small d) worried about the ways that our democratic instincts were skewed by special interests and inequalities. In philosophy he saw that we were responsible for interpreting the world but saw this as reason for optimism rather than existential pessimism. So what is there not to like? He was, and will remain, forever criticised from the socialist left for lacking an economic analysis of capitalism – this would, following Marx, place Dewey as a ‘utopian’ though a practical one who, in his own way, believed that the point was not to understand the world but to change it. For sociologists Dewey was too ready to see the world through the lens of what bound us together rather than through structures of class and other social formations that pulled us apart. And more generally social scientists do not get his action-oriented inquiry in the way that educators do. His views on education are never going to appeal to conservative thinkers, even ones who have taken the time to read him. However a more widely expressed criticism is that he was unnecessarily vague as to what he was advocating and in fact he might be a lot more, or for that matter a lot less, radical than we think. He offered little too, in the way of detail, in terms of pedagogic strategies. Another recurring but often unacknowledged difficulty with Dewey was that he was really only writing about children and education. Indeed you want to imagine that his university classes, like his experimental schools, were full of activity, practical experimentation and lively debate, but they were not and for me that is the most disappointing thing about him.

[1] Dewey (1859 – 1952) is widely celebrated as a philosopher, social psychology social but is often assumed to have given his name to the Dewey system of library referencing. However that was Thomas Dewey. More importantly Donald Duck had a nephew Dewey (plus two others Huey and Louie) but the name probably was again taken from Thomas rather than John.
[2] This view of Dewey as a radical liberal is articulated in Ryan, A. (1995). John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
[3] Professor Robert Pring wrote:
Indeed, when I came to Oxford I was seated at dinner next to Lord Keith Joseph who had been Secretary of State for Education under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He accused me of being responsible for all the problems in our schools – because I had introduced teachers to John Dewey. And subsequently there was systematic attack on Dewey even from philosophers as well as journalists and politicians. Professor O’Hear, for example proposed that ‘[i]t is highly plausible to see the egalitarianism which stems from the writings of John Dewey as the approximate cause of our educational decline’. In Pring, R. (2007) John Dewey, London: Bloomsbury Press.
[4] Dewey, J. (1916 / 1947). Democracy and Education. New York: The Macmillan Company.
[5] Dewey, J. (1910). How We Think. London: D. C. Heath & Company available online at

Interdisciplinarity and Education

Our research students are putting on an interdisciplinary conference on education [1]. This is something I very much welcome, but I don’t imagine it to be straightforward to get agreement on how or why education research should be an interdisciplinary undertaking.

In my own case I came to education research around mid career through teaching and researching my teaching as this was the usual route at the time. I did not give much thought to education as a field of study and assumed it was inter disciplinary [2] in the sense that you dipped into whatever research gave you some insight into the questions / problems you were facing. For example, I became interested in online discussion and took some inspiration from the idea of communicative language learning (which had been much touted in language teaching [3]) and aligned this with a concept of social constructivism which I thought had something to do with Vygotsky – though to be honest I did not interrogate original sources too closely relying in particular on scholars such as Neil Mercer [4] and others who offered a constructivist approach to classroom talk.

I believed that I was carrying out educational research– a kind of action oriented inquiry into practice [4] – rather than discipline research into the sociology / psychology or philosophy of education. This I think was the widespread view of my colleagues in teacher education at the time and reflected a view that we should not take theories generated in ‘social science’ on trust; whatever anyone proposed about teaching needed to be tested in practice and must contribute to desirable outcomes – and we were going to interrogate what desirable outcomes were, thank you very much. I was, by inclination, suspicious of research into education that had not been carried out by practitioners or with teachers. I was for example familiar with some of the sociology literature, for example Corrigan and Willis both wrote insightful books to show how underachievement and the marginalisation of lads is ‘constructed’ [5]. When it came to learning to teach such books offered very little that I could use and to be honest the sociological insight got in my way. I can look back now more kindly on the sociology of education. I can see that these books should have been used to inform policy makers of the consequences of the institutions they had set up and I could see that the historic aim of social research is to say ‘how things are’ – what we choose to do about it is another matter. Some books on the sociology of education are of limited value in the classroom but may be that is not why they were written.

Of course not all is rosy with this action oriented educational research. One particular weakness is that we can be cavalier about the literature we quote. For example myself and colleagues call in Vygotsky to justify approaches to learning based on participation in a community of practice as well as more instructional ones, and in particular interactive theories of instruction. Surely the same theory cannot cross over into two very different settings? I suspect, too, that because educational research is not rooted in a field we are more susceptible to fashions, for example a head of steam builds up now and then around a single idea such as community of practice, which is adopted by nearly everyone, and then dropped when we move onto the next big thing. There is also a view held by some that what really matters is trial and error in the classroom, and we should ignore ‘theory’, I simply don’t hold to that at all.

So what has educational practice got to learn from discipline research? Well here are some examples. In spite of what I said earlier the sociology of education research has made a difference in that it has shown us that cultures are ‘real’ and they really do ‘operate on’ us as learners. Once we had a story that intelligence was all about what lay in the head of the person, intelligence was an innate capacity to be clever or not, sociology of education has told us that this is not the case and good schools and good teachers work on the culture of learning in the classroom as much as learning at the level of the indiuvdual; we all unselfconsciously talk about the culture of learning in ways we would not have done without the input of sociology. In contrast psychology got us off to a bad start by over focusing on the individual and generated all too often a simplistic behaviourist approach to learning. However it has been social psychology (the work of Vygostky, Lewin and more recently I have found the input of Valsiner useful) that has the best explanations of how learning is both an individual achievement and that of a group and or culture. It also needs to be said that psychology’s focus on ‘what is in the head of the learner’ has been hugely important in the understanding of special needs, for example our understanding of autism. Finally I would also make a plea that as educational researchers we need to be more historically aware. In the field of technology we are for ever talking about paradigm shifts and new learning theories – but the problems of learning and knowing are age old and we all too easily forget that.

My younger self should have taken discipline research more seriously but I think those working in social science disciplines should ‘get their hands dirty’ with action oriented classroom research from time to time if they are writing about education. It will stop them saying things about teaching and learning which are simply silly, it will alert them to what teachers find important, and the experience will pull them back from proposing solutions that practitioners know would not work.

I am very much looking forward to attending the conference and to hearing more from our students.

[1] Go to

[2] Definitions vary, but broadly we can think about:

Crossdisciplinary as involving a team from different disciplines working together but hanging on their own discipline standpoints.

Interdisciplinary as involving a deeper level of exchange between disciplines and perhaps using the fruits of collaboration to shift the boundaries of one’s own disciplines.

Transdisciplinary as involving a more full on willingness to engage with problems rather than disciplines and to create new conceptions of knowledge.

These terms are mostly discussed in the context of research teams but these are of course standpoints that an individual researcher can take.

[3] A key text here was Widdowson, H. (1978) Teaching language as communication, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[4] Mercer, N. (1995) The Guided Construction of Knowledge: talk amongst teachers and learners. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters

[5] See of example Carr, W., & Kemmis, S. (1986) Becoming Critical. Education, knowledge and action research. Lewes: Falmer.

[6] See:

Corrigan, P. (1979) Schooling the Bash Street Kids, London: Macmillan.

Willis, P. (1977) Learning to labour. How working class children get working class jobs, New York: Colombia University.

Press reporting of surveys

Whenever my club (I am talking football) win I seek out as many reports of the match from online media as I can; blogs give personal reactions but I like to look at the online newspapers too. I particular want to know what a professional journalist made of the match and, if I was not at the match itself, I want to imagine the game from as many perspectives as possible. In the event press reporting of my team is nearly always a disappointment. My team is not in the ‘top tier’ it is rare that any national newspaper will send their own journalists to see them play, so what you get is recycling of the same Press Association report, either ‘as is’ or with a few words changed here and there, and if you are lucky, you will find a picture or two thrown in. This very limited reporting is of course quite understandable given the resources the press has (I am well aware that I am expecting to access good independent reporting without paying for it) and the lack of national interest in my team. However I cannot help but feel let down – though I can at least console myself that that the Press Association report is trying to describe what happened from an independent point of view. I was thinking about recycling reports the other day in relation to a much weightier topic – a survey or actually two surveys carried out by a pressure group, the Campaign Against Antisemitism or CAS) – go to The group found widespread anti-semitic attitudes with the UK population, for example:

Shockingly almost half (45%) of British adults believe at least one of the anti-semitic statements shown to them to be true, 1 in 4 people (26%) believe at least two statements to be true and 17% believe at least three statements.
In a second survey of Jewish people themselves it was found that ‘well over half of British Jews (58%) believe Jews may have no long-term future in Europe’ and ‘1 in 4 British Jews has considered leaving the country in the past two years because of rising antisemitism.’

The story got taken up by the national newspapers. Here is the Guardian:

Nearly half of the British population agreed with one of four [sic] anti-semitic statements presented to them according to a new poll, which found that one in eight of those surveyed believe that Jewish people use the Holocaust as a means of gaining sympathy. It also found that one in four (25%) Britons believed that Jews chase money more than other British people, a figure which rose to 39% of those participants who identified themselves as Ukip voters. [  ]  The group also carried out its own separate survey of British Jews, which found that 54% feared they had no future in the UK and that a quarter had considered leaving the country in the last two years. Here is the Daily Mail a paper often thought as having a wildly different perspective on politics and the conduct of journalism:

Nearly half of the British population agreed with one of four antisemitic statements presented to them according to a new poll, which found that one in eight of those surveyed believe that Jewish people use the Holocaust as a means of gaining sympathy. It also found that one in four (25%) Britons believed that Jews chase money more than other British people, a figure which rose to 39% of those participants who identified themselves as Ukip voters. [  ] In a separate survey carried out by the CAA, 54% of British Jews feared they had no future in the UK and a quarter (25%) said they have considered leaving the country in the last two years.

You can find similar reporting, often with more or less identical text, in a host of other media both in UK as well as internationally. Overall as a reader you are left with the impression that many Jewish people are experiencing high levels of active prejudice, and worse, and as a consequence a staggeringly high number are thinking of emigrating. But this to me, and to many people I have spoken to, does not ring true: so have things changed that much or are there problems with the surveys on which the reporting is based? In the first survey, respondents were asked the following questions (to which I have added the levels of  agreement in brackets):

“Jews think they are better than other people” (17 per cent)
“In business, Jews are not as honest as most people” (11 per cent)
“I would be unhappy if a family member married a Jew” (10 per cent)
“Jews have too much power in the media” (17 per cent)
“Jews chase money more than other British people” (25 per cent)
“Jews’ loyalty to Israel makes them less loyal to Britain than other British people” (20 per cent)
“Jews talk about the Holocaust too much in order to get sympathy” (13 per cent)

What strikes me here is that the questions are designed to pick up prejudice, stereotyping and lazy thinking but they are, on the whole, not covering the kind of direct anti semitic behaviour which would lead you to think about leaving a country. Second, the findings show that the clear majority of respondents do not express consistently anti-semitic views, though obviously some, I would guess around 5 – 10 percent, do. Third, I wonder if you changed the wording to reflect relevant stereotyping, if would you expect similar levels of prejudice in respect to other minority groups?

The 45 percent figure being reported so widely is particularly odd as no single statement elicited more than a 25 per cent level of agreement. In fact many people within this 45 per cent must have been inconsistent in their attitudes and may well have disagreed with (or had no opinion on) on more of the statements put to them than they agreed with.

We can also see in the reporting that a ‘proper’ survey from YouGov is being mixed with an open online survey of self selected people carried out by CAS itself and it was in this second survey that it was found that 25 per cent of Jews are thinking of emigrating because of anti semitism. This of course is a staggeringly large number but the survey is clearly not representative, or rather we cannot tell if it is representative. We do, however, know that if this 25 percent figure is true then it would lead to a completely different pattern from anything experienced in recent years – something picked up in some international reporting but not by our national press.

This blog is not about anti Semitism*,  a real phenomenon with dreadful consequences, and it is not about the CAS as a pressure group – they have drawn attention to something important and have done this very effectively (though I am doubtful how effective this kind of approach will be in the long term). I am realistic about what we can expect of the press but my point is that it is one thing to recycle Press Association reports about football matches and another to recycle pressure group reporting of social issues.

* For a scholarly view of anti semitism try the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in which there is also a more detailed and stronger criticism of the CAS research. You will also find interesting discussion about young people’s attitudes to religion at a project conducted by university colleagues, follow the links at

George Orwell and the language of social research

I once saw it as mark of intellectual distinction to use foreign words, words such as Weltanschauung, Verstehen, Habitus or more familiar loan words such as zeitgeist and telos in social research. What put paid to this was an essay by George Orwell on politics and English language – this can be found in many locations including  Orwell set the standard for good writing for many English speakers and argued for a straightforward style, including the use of the active rather than passive tense and of ‘living’ rather than lazy or ‘worn out’ metaphors. He also warned:

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid process of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic color, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, mailed fist, trident, sword, shield, buckler, banner, jackboot, clarion. Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien regime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, gleichschaltung, weltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g., and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in the English language. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers.

Is Orwell right here? In part yes for as he makes clear in this essay it is not just a service to the reader to write clearly but it also essential to the thought process itself that we:

choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person.

Some of what Orwell recommended is embedded in style guidelines for many journals today, though bad scholarly writing, as here in Slaker writing about post modernism and mathematics, is not unusual:

In addition to redefining the content of science, it is imperative to restructure and redefine the institutional loci in which scientific labor takes place — universities, government labs, and corporations — and reframe the reward system that pushes scientists to become, often against their own better instincts, the hired guns of capitalists and the military. As Aronowitz has noted, “One third of the 11,000 physics graduate students in the United States are in the single subfield of solid state physics, and all of them will be able to get jobs in that subfield.”93 By contrast, there are few jobs available in either quantum gravity or environmental physics.

As it happens this is a parody article, one which has been much discussed, [read more at but most of us can supply unintentional examples of bad writing.

However Orwell is only half right and even if committed to using ‘plain English’ social research cannot be written entirely in ‘everyday’ language. The inescapable fact is that any community has its own specialised vocabulary which will be seen as difficult and often pretentious by those unfamiliar with it. For example in becoming a cook it is not enough to know that you need to heat food you need to get your head around many specialized terms such as blanche, broile, fry, grill, roast, parboil, scald, sear and so on, to know each has particular meanings and signify different things in the kitchen. Learning the vocabulary is part of learning the craft. Likewise social research offers new and difficult vocabulary as well as distinctive ways to use everyday terms such as learn, know, act, behave, motivate, believe and so on. Foreign words may have a place, for example Weltanschauung might, as Orwell suggested, be avoided but it can take on a niche meaning for particular writers, say, to refer to how a group of people instinctively feel not just about the world but their place in the order of things. Indeed some foreign words have become so widespread that they lose their foreignness and have become ‘loan’ words, at least for social researchers, just as cappuccino has become integrated into everyday English. For example Gemeinschaft and Gessellschaft are often used in writing about community without a translation*.

So what seems to be important is to use words with a precise purpose in mind, which was Orwell’s point in the first place, rather than worry too much where they come from. This is incidentally why I do not accept that English speakers are necessarily advantaged by the ever growing use of English as an international language. Of course there is an obvious advantage but there is drawback in that as mother language speakers we do not naturally stop and ask ourselves what this or that word means and we do tend to assume we have understood a concept simply because the word used to signify that concept appears familiar to us.

We further need to distinguish between writing that is difficult because it is expressed in an inaccessible manner and writing which is difficult because it is expressing difficult and unfamiliar ideas. In England we have a healthy distrust of pretention but this can and does slip into a crude, ‘schoolboy’ anti-intellectualism, as in ‘Pseuds Corner’ in the satirical magazine Private Eye (**.

With the year ending I have been thinking about papers I have read over the last twelve months which in my view were well written. The first thing an exercise like this does is to remind you that if you are not interested in the topic then no matter how it is written it is not going to appeal to you and that there were many well written articles that I could not or did not enjoy reading. You also need to have sympathy with the voice of the writer – and the voice does come through even if writing in a fairly tight ‘genre’ as social research. In this respect Orwell’s writing is revered by many commentators but he does have a consistent tendency to overstate his argument which riles some commentators. For example the essay Politics and the English Language begins:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse.

I do not know a lot about 1940’s intellectual life but did most people really believe this? And here and throughout his work Orwell tends to set himself up as a lone voice, the one person who can see through the distortion of public debate. This is undeniably his strength for it gave him an independent outlook and a moral purpose, but Orwell can be dogmatic and frankly arrogant.

When looking for good writing you notice that it is much easier to find examples of bad writing and make them appear especially so by taking section out of context (as Orwell did in his essay). So what did I find well written? I read one paper on community activism and community health*** (this is not my field, so will leave it to others to offer a critique) which for the most part I felt explained some difficult ideas clearly and left me feeling wiser than when I had started reading. I liked the author’s stance as it was a committed piece of writing but was balanced and offered no easy answers. My favourite piece of writing in 2014 however was not social research at all but a literary essay on the idea of ‘homelooseness’****. It was reflective and introspective piece about the competing advantages of belonging and not belonging to a wider community and linked the author’s sense of nostalgia to a wider discourse about the exile and loss.

In 2015 I will resolve to pay greater attention  to how academics express ideas and to think about my own writing. I don’t know if there are many awards for good academic writing in social research though there is aptly enough an Orwell prize
with the aim ‘to encourage writing in good English – while giving equal value to style and content, politics or public policy, whether political, economic, social or cultural – of a kind aimed at or accessible to the reading public, not to specialist or academic audiences’. Perhaps there should be more.

*Runciman (in Social Science and Political Theory, Cambridge University Press, 1963) saw the two terms as embodying ‘a distinction which in one form or another goes back can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle. The English translation of time as work is community and association but these words are so hopelessly ambiguous without a good deal of further qualification that it is undoubtedly better to take German as it stands. The distinction expressed is intuitively a fairly obvious one. There is on one hand the small, organic, pre-industrial, close-knit status society on the other’ there is the big impersonal, industrialised, bureaucratic contract society. Of course not all the elements of each ideal type need ever to go together. But the distinction though both commonplace and imprecise is exceedingly important both to the sociology into the philosophy of politics. (p90).

**on this subject Cameron discusses the importance of stating the obvious in social research even if this will be critiqued as ‘pseudo’ (pseudish?) in Private Eye (Cameron, D. Working with Spoken Discourse (2001), London, Sage p89).

*** Campbell C. (2014) Community mobilisation in the 21st century: Updating our theory of social change? Journal of Health Psychology, 19: 46-59.

**** Wood J. (2014) On not going home, London Review of Books, 36: 3-8.

understanding slaktivism

I have recently been researching the idea of online community and came across the concept of slacktivism; as Choi and Park* explain (they are looking at the use of social media in a protest movement in South Korea) online slacktivism is about soothing participants without contributing to any political or social impact.

An example that has been picked in the media recently has been the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, this in response to the abduction of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls last April (for a summary go to though this was posted in May); several commentators have pointed out the absurdity of the campaign set against the unyielding fanaticism of Boko Haram. For one, Scott Gilmore:

‘The #BringBackOurGirls campaign is the latest disgrace from slacktivists, those who support good causes by doing very little, and achieving even less. A slacktivist is someone who believes it is more important to be seen to help than to actually help. He will wear a T-shirt to raise awareness. She will wear a wristband to demonstrate support, sign a petition to add her voice, share a video to spread the message, even pour a bucket of ice over her head. The one thing slacktivists don’t do is help by, for example, giving money or time to those who are truly making the world a better place: the cancer researcher, the aid worker, the hospice manager.”

The phenomenon of slaktivism is not, of course, new. Tom Lehrer did a skit on the protest song movement in the mid 1960’s, he had a nice ironic line in song introductions,:

“One type of song that has come into increasing prominence in recent months is the folk-song of protest. You have to admire people who sing these songs. It takes a certain amount of courage to get up in a coffee-house or a college auditorium and come out in favor of the things that everybody else in the audience is against like peace and justice and brotherhood and so on. The nicest thing about a protest song is that it makes you feel so good.”

`You can hear the song at various places on YouTube e.g.

Slacktivism is difficult to take when it slips into self-righteousness but by temperament I am a slacktivist. Choi and Park treat slacktivism fairly sympathetically too, noting for example it might lead as much to action in the future rather than an excuse not to act. If there is such a thing as hard activism, at the other end of slaktivism, this is not really embodied in the jobs people do, as Gilmore puts it, but in the stances they take  The people I know who do ‘truly good work’ would not raise their choice of occupation above the those of others; many are in some respects at least, by temperament, slaktivists too.

These thoughts on slacktivism were triggered by the news of the disappearance of student teachers from a training college in Ayotzinapa in Mexico – again more on the BBC site, for example

I noticed too what might be dismissed as a slacktivist response by Mexican illustrators and designers at . This invites artist to draw and paint portraits of the missing young people based on their student photos (I should stress that artists have traditionally had a more activist role in Mexican public life so there might be much more at stake in this initiative than meets the eyes). The online contributions have become widely shared using the hashtag #IlustradoresConAyotzinapa.

Critics of slacktivism are right to tell us how inadequate all this is, but when all is said and done, as with the Nigerian girls, the story of these student teachers breaks your heart; we will be lessened if we don’t offer some kind of response, as the Mexican illustrators have done as the BringBackOurGirls campaign did earlier, even though it will be of scant consolation for the families involved and of little practical help. We do need to be reminded of who we are and what we believe in, slaktivists or otherwise.

*Choi, Sujin and Park, Han Woo (2014) Title: An exploratory approach to a Twitter-based community centered on a political goal in South Korea: Who organized it, what they shared, and how they acted, New Media & Society, 16, 1, 129-148.

For those wanting more on the link between social media and activism try the Westminster Papers at volume 9,2 which I think is freely available.