Saving Lives Through Language Teaching

Dec 22nd, 2015 | By | Category: Messages, TESOL
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new official author pic of Andy Curtis

Andy Curtis


—This year, as the 50th president of the TESOL International Association (TIA), I will travel up to 200,000 miles, attending and presenting at TIA affiliate conferences and other events, such as TIA academies, symposia, and regional conferences, in India (, Vietnam (, Mexico (, Singapore, and elsewhere. One of my goals, as a presenter, is to avoid trying to engage a room full of strangers. We would never do that as language teachers—walk into a room and start teaching anybody anything without knowing something about our learners—so I believe we should not do that as presenters. This also applies to not reading from a prepared script and not standing behind lecterns. Effective language teachers don’t do those things either.

It may sound obvious—that the best way to engage teachers is to present to them the way we usually teach—but I have seen many examples of script-reading, lectern-hidden, non-interactive plenary, keynote, and other invited presentations through the years (including this year). I’m not suggesting that presenting to an audience of 1,000 language teachers is the same as presenting a language lesson to 20 learners, but during the past 25 years, I have worked hard on narrowing that gap as much as possible, so that the way in which I present now is much the same, whether I’m presenting to 50, 500, or 5,000 people.

One of my ways of narrowing that gap is to make “attendees” into “participants” by asking them simple questions about who they are, where they work, and what they do. With a simple show of hands, such questions can be asked and answered regardless of the size of the audience. But having done that, it’s only fair to then share some of the details of my background. One of those is the fact that I worked for many years in hospitals in England, as what was then called a “senior medical science officer,” supporting doctors in their diagnostic and prescribing work.

Related to that, I talk about the difficulties of moving from medical science to language teaching—a move that many of my health-care colleagues called “career suicide.” Those colleagues also asked why anyone would leave such a “life-saving” career as medicine for a teaching job. I didn’t dare say so at that time, but my hope was that, as a language teacher, I could do at least as much good as a health-care professional. Now, more than 20 years later, I can say that I really do believe I have helped saved more lives as a language teacher than I ever did as a medical science officer. So I have started making such a statement this year during my presentations, which has led to some looks of complete—and completely understandable—disbelief.

Such confusion, even consternation, makes a lot of sense, as nobody has ever been fatally wounded by a misplaced semicolon or damaged by a dangling participle. But one of the things I have seen a lot of, especially in my travels this year, is how easily communication breakdowns can occur—for example, between native and nonnative speakers of a language, or between speakers both/all of whom are functioning in a language that is not their first. Such breakdowns do, of course, also occur between speakers of the same first language who were born, raised, and educated in the same town, city, or state, as a result of any one of a number of factors, such as gender, age, education, socioeconomic differences, and so forth. In fact, given all of the barriers to effective communication I’ve seen this year, it’s sometimes a wonder that we ever understand each other at all!

At some recent TIA events, I’ve been presenting my “Three-I” model of intercultural communicative competence (ICC;, in which I connect Individual, Institutional, and International culture in a tripartite, dynamic, and fluidic set of relationships. One of the things we’ve learned from ICC is that communication breakdowns on the individual, one-to-one level can be “scaled up,” and they can take place at the institutional level, between different institutions, and at the international level, between different countries. An obvious point, but one that is often missed, is the fact that it is not, of course, a breakdown between the actual institutions or the countries themselves, but between the people in those places: the CEOs, the university presidents, and the leaders of countries.

One of the simple but concrete examples I give in my presentations is a news story that received a lot of attention in the British and Taiwanese press (and in other countries) at the beginning of 2015 ( The BBC World News online report (26 January 2015) was titled “BBC: UK minister apologises for Taiwan watch gaffe,” in which “gaffe” means an embarrassing mistake. According to the BBC report: “A UK government minister has apologised for giving a watch to the mayor of Taiwan’s capital city, Taipei, without realising such gifts are taboo,” because of the association between clocks and death in Chinese cultures. The mayor of Taiwan was also reported to have made his surprise and displeasure very clear, in both his verbal and nonverbal reactions, when the clock was presented at a public ceremony attended by news agencies from around the world.

The result of this gaffe was a flurry of explanations and apologies from both sides. No big deal, and no major harm done—but it does raise the question of why a senior government minister, representing her country on the international stage, was not advised on such matters. And extrapolating from this incident between these two individuals, what if it had been something more serious? What happens when communications break down between world leaders? We have, sadly and tragically, seen so many examples of that recently, one result of which has been the growth of violent and deadly attacks around the world this year.

So, my claim—which I realize is, for some people, a controversial one—is that the more languages we know well, the greater our capacity for understanding how others see the world. A logical extension of this position, I believe, is that the more languages the more people know, the fewer of these individual, institutional, and international communication breakdowns there will be, with less global conflict as one potential outcome.

Andy Curtis is president of the TESOL International Association, 2015-2016.



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