Abstract from Language Tangle : Thor May's Doctoral Thesis

Note: This abstract is extracted from a doctoral thesis, Language Tangle, from the University of Newcastle, NSW. The thesis itself (pdf) may be viewed here. The thesis is also online in the University of Newcastle Research Depository at A PDF of the dissertation is also on my site at . The PhD testamur (diploma document) is here. The letter of completion (pdf file) from the University of Newcastle, formally announcing the award may be viewed here A letter of recommendation from Dr Christo Moskovsky, my doctoral supervisor, may be viewed here.

Language Tangle - Predicting and Facilitating Outcomes in Language Education

by Thor May


This thesis argues that foreign and second language teaching productivity can only reach its proper potential when it is accorded priority, second only to language learner productivity, amongst the many competing productivities which are always asserted by stakeholders in educational institutions.

A theoretical foundation for the research is established by examining the historical concept of productivity, and its more recent manifestation as knowledge worker productivity, especially as applied to teachers.

The empirical basis of the thesis is sourced from a chronological series of twenty biographical case studies in language teaching venues in Australia, New Zealand, Oceania and East Asia. The biographical case study methodology, although rare in applied linguistics, is justified by reference to its wide and growing application in other fields of qualitative research. The case studies are analysed for common patterns of productivity, as well as teaching productivity inhibition or failure.

It was affirmed across all of the case studies without exception that external parties could not control or even reliably predict what individual students might learn, and how well, from instances of instructed language teaching. This was regardless of the power of institutional players, external resources, curriculums or the teacher. Student belief in the immediate value of what was to be learned in a given lesson, and personal confidence in an ability to learn it were the most critical factors.

Teaching productivity was found to turn, ultimately, on the teacher's ability to influence the probability of student learning. The teacher could best influence learning probability by enhancing student motivation. The most effective environments for teaching productivity were seen to be those where the teacher was professionally equipped and politically enabled to exercise judgements which maximized opportunities for student language learning productivity. A negotiated pact concerning both curriculum and method often proved effective, especially with mature students, and at times required some deception of institutional authorities.

Empirically, the encouragement of reciprocal learning relationships between teacher and students was found to be powerfully enabling for language teaching productivity in the case studies.

In many venues a small but effective minority of 'intimate learners' were also able to leverage their language learning productivity by forging more personal relationships with the teacher.

The wider cultural paradigm within each of the countries represented in the case studies sanctioned different paths and limitations for both language learners and teachers, and hence was seen to influence teaching productivity in critical ways. It was found that under certain conditions, notably (but not exclusively) those prevailing in many East Asian educational institutions, that certification of foreign language skills had a higher cultural, employment and monetary value than the actual ability to exercise foreign language skills.

A negative influence on teacher productivity in many of the case studies was an ignorance about language learning and teaching amongst institutional players. The disregard of language teacher professionalism was fed by a belief that being able to speak a language was all that was necessary to teach it, and reinforced by misinterpreting the meaning of test results. Related to this, an imbalance of power relationships between teachers or students with other institutional interests was consistently found to interfere with teaching and learning productivities. Overall, the model of productivity understood in institutions instanced by the case studies tended to reflect a 19th Century economic paradigm of capital, raw materials (students) and labour (dispensable classroom workers) rather than any more sophisticated grasp of knowledge worker productivity.

It was demonstrated in the context of the case studies that productivity, and in particular knowledge worker productivity, is a complex concept whose facets require detailed analysis to arrive at a proper understanding of the role that foreign and second language teachers play in educational institutions.


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