Publications - Thor May

publications & writings by Thorold (Thor) MAY, PhD

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Adelaide, Australia. Mobile tel. (+61)  0479 154 831


Writer, lecturer, researcher, teacher, teacher trainer (English language & linguistics)


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aphorisms / e.s.l. / linguisticsteaching methodology  / technical writing / china (old) / china (new) / korea / australia / travel notes / photosunwise ideaspoetry / stories (fiction) /   odds & ends / about thor  /



        Publication :



40. Language Reform in Revolutionary China

Language reform movements in China over the last hundred years have found both their motivations and limitations in divergent socio-political objectives. Language has been seen as a vehicle of social change, actual or potential, by reformers  and conservatives alike. The apparent success of language reform programs has been closely tied to the fluctuating political fortunes of their protagonists. Pragmatic outcomes however have also been constrained by the fragmented nature of Chinese languages (plural) and dialects. To this day, an inconvenient reality is that a significant proportion of Chinese citizens cannot use standard Chinese (普通話), especially as spoken, while many others struggle with the standard form as a second language.

39. Aspects of Repetition in Discourse

Abstract: It is often claimed that  language is a system for communicating information. In fact, language has a multiplicity of functions, but when it comes to information, that which is to be given significance is always framed by the known, hence repeated, elements. The organization of language is largely a matter of what is repeated, when, where, why, by whom, how and how often. For the purposes of this analysis, I will take a much broader view of repetition than is normally found in linguistics, considering a cline from local (often idiosyncratic) repeating clauses or phrases to stable units such as lexical items which have become formal, generalized tokens in the language. This is not a paper which proposes a neat solution to some small puzzle in a linguistic model. Rather, it outlines for further study some properties of a very general phenomenon.

38. Child Language Teaching in the Pacific - A Project for Solomon Islands Primary School Teachers (1983)[large PDF file]

Abstract: This is a collection of legacy language activity guidelines for Solomon Islands primary school teachers created in the course of a 1983 Australian government funded aid project. I am putting it in the public domain now (2015) as a possible source of ideas for anyone who might find it useful. One of the lessons one learns in education over the course of a career is that what goes around, comes around again sooner or later. Good ideas are lost, then found again in the next generation, or sometimes much later. The ideas here might be good or bad or adaptable for other uses, depending upon your needs. For those unfamiliar with the Solomon Islands language and education scene, this will also serve as a partial introduction. Also online at]

37. The Meaning of State in Grammar [pdf file]

Abstract: “State” has rather philosophical implications. The ideas in this paper won’t solve too many puzzles about the nature of grammatical state, but it will raise a number of interesting questions, at least as the concept applies to English. This material is extracted from a larger document on Grammatical Agency, already put in the public domain (PDFs at and also ). It is offered purely on an as-is basis for those who are delving into the idea of State. The analysis constitutes part of PhD research which was discontinued in the early 1980s. The reason for extracting a study of State from the larger Grammatical Agency document is that other researchers may be approaching Grammatical State independently.

36. When is a Presupposition not a Presupposition?

Abstract: This very short paper, in spite of its vintage (1979), may still be of interest to anyone delving into the murky relationship between language and intention. What is presupposed by a speaker about the understanding of a listener goes to the very heart of how natural languages work, since when we get it wrong communication simply fails. For this reason the failure of presupposition is also the common bane of those working across languages, or even moving into another community where the same language seems to be spoken. When I began to look at linguistics seriously, a little before this paper was written, I was intrigued and dismayed to discover that the study of presupposition had apparently been hijacked by formalists who only seemed to find linguistic significance in symbolic regularities. There are indeed whole classes of expressions in English, related to certain verbs like “realize”, which are a delight to symbolic formalists who have written volumes on their tidy logic. Even at that early stage of research, I had dark suspicions that the ways in which real human beings used real language was nowhere near as tidy, and all the more interesting for that. The paper below was a first attempt to probe the fortress of symbolic formalism. [Note that this is a PDF file constructed from old photocopied pages]. Also on at

35. Grammatical Agency

Abstract: This document on grammatical agency is the incomplete draft of a doctoral dissertation in formal linguistics which was discontinued in the early 1980s. The reason for finally publishing it in 2015 is that even though unfinished it contains a significant amount of discussion in a specialist area which might (or might not) be of interest to researchers who have some involvement with grammatical agency, a topic with a very long history. [note that this is a PDF file constructed from almost 100 old photocopied pages, and is therefore quite a large download]. Also on at

34. Teaching Productivity and Its Enemies, published Plain & Fancy Press 2011. 371pp. ISBN 978-0-9871390-0-9. This is a re-titled commercial eBook version (pdf format) of Thor May's doctoral dissertation.

33. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) 2010, University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia. Thesis topic : "Language Tangle : Predicting and Facilitating Outcomes in Language Education". Through examining a series of twenty case studies, this thesis deals with issues of knowledge worker productivity. An abstract of the dissertation can be seen here. The thesis itself (pdf) may be viewed here. The testamur (diploma document) is here. The letter of completion (pdf file) from the University of Newcastle, formally announcing the award may be viewed hereA current reference (2010) from Dr Christo Moskovsky, Thor May's doctoral supervisor, may be viewed here. The thesis is also online in the University of Newcastle research depository at . A further link is the Australian Research Directory.(also available at

32. Corruption and Other Distortions as Variables in Language Education ; 9315 words; TESOL Law Journal, Vol.2 March 2008; ( also on   and
Abstract : This paper examines some of the ways in which foreign language education has been affected by corrupt practices and various other distortions of best teaching practice. Particular attention is paid to South Korea. The nature of corruption and its social origins are identified. Pressures affecting students, teachers and institutions are all seen to play a part. It is noted that mass education is a simulation which leaves space for fraud, whereas actual live language performance is its own test. Perhaps as a consequence, the gradual insertion of a new language code like English into a speech community might succeed over the long term even where immediate educational practices suggest failure.

31. Fractional Language Learning; 5218 words; published at Asian EFL Journal Quarterly Vol. 9, No.4, December 2007; presentation : Global Congress English International Language Conference, Korea University, Seoul, May 26, 2007  (also on this website and on )
Abstract : Many users of a second language, especially English, have little productive mastery of the language. Rather, some requirement in their life forces them to use limited subroutines (maybe quite small and formulaic) which are effectively encapsulated as special elements within L1. This paper proposes that fractional language learning is a valid objective for large numbers of users, and briefly examines some of the contexts in which it has a pragmatic application. It notes that much fractional language learning occurs outside of formal educational environments, and then goes on to consider how both the classroom teaching and evaluation can be adapted to give proper recognition to student achievements on a fractional scale. The paper suggests that this kind of graduated recognition is in fact likely to enhance outcomes across the full spectrum of language teaching, and can be consciously incorporated into curriculum design. A paradigm shift to teacher acceptance (and community acceptance) of fractional language learning has strong implications for assessment practices. Most current measures of language assessment offer little or no recognition to the achievements of learners in the pre-production phase of acquisition. Attempts at language use in this phase are routinely punished by existing assessment tools. Partly as a result of this discouragement, large numbers of students never progress to independent language production. Fractional language objectives are one remedy for this deep flaw in language teaching outcomes.

30."North Korea - Pick Your Godfather"  THE ASIAN TIMES ONLINE on October 12, 2006; also available at

29. When Grammar Doesn't Help (an analysis of the role of grammar in language teaching), [ on this site and also on]
Abstract : This paper questions the role of grammar in language teaching and learning. Firstly it identifies the constituencies in academic language teaching, and their often conflicting notions of language programs. Several kinds of learners are discussed, with particular attention to the large group who are uncomfortable with any technical analysis, including formal grammars. Some conventional ideas about what a natural language grammar actually is are challenged. The consequences of a connectionist view of language processing are briefly explored. The power of collocation sets is identified as a key to language acquisition. Language is set in the broader cognitive context of memory processes and patterns of generalization. Pedagogical grammars are viewed as forced external generalizations with little organic presence in memory, but some suggestions are made about how to make use of them. Actual student language memory, as well as teacher self-insight into L1 are both contrasted with the idealized patterns assumed by academic language programs. Finally, the stubborn problem of average teacher behaviour is set against the real ways in which people appear to use grammars and learn languages.

28. Standing Room Only - Posture, Space and the Learning Process in ESL Classes, [ on this site and also on]
Abstract : This article explores the role of posture in the language learning process, and concludes that it is sometimes critical for learning success. Principles of learning and moving are outlined. The history of physical movement in study is briefly traced. A Korean case study is presented of “failed” tertiary students who learn to learn on their feet. The paper is a practical guide for teachers who wish to experiment with physical movement and location in their own ESL/EFL classrooms.

27. "Today has lasted for 4 billion and 2 years, 6 hours, 12 minutes and 13.5 seconds" poem published as part of an article in THE HINDU (Indian national newspaper), February 1, 2006. Also available on this website

26. "Rude Thoughts About IT In Language Education" a) on this site, 2005 (full version); b) An earlier, less referenced version of this paper was published in the ASIAN EFL JOURNAL, vol.1, 2005 at c) A slightly shorter (6,637 words) but up to date version has also been published as "Brief Thoughts About IT in Language Education" in TEACHING ENGLISH WITH TECHNOLOGY, vol.5/2 May 2005 (IATEFL Poland) at . (Also on )
Abstract : Information Technology in language teaching probably began with papyrus. It has attracted admirers and detractors ever since. This paper takes a slightly irreverent look at current IT, as well as its actual and potential uses in foreign and second language education. The power of commerce in IT development has always been a prime motivator, so the analysis here recognizes the essential economic context, with the resulting effects on language learning.

25. "On Her Majestey's Australian Service", a short story; 3000 words; September 1996. Published in RETORT MAGAZINE (Australia), July 2005 at

24. Submission to the Australian Parliamentary Senate Inquiry on the Status of Australian Expatriates , 2004; this has been tabled in the Australian Parliament andt can be viewed on the website of that parliament at

23. "North Korea - The Japanese Card" (commentary) in THE ASIAN TIMES ONLINE, 20 February 2003; also available at

22. "North Korea - The Smell of Rat" (commentary on North Korea's plans for Sinuju), in THE ASIAN TIMES ONLINE, 2 October 2002; also available at

21. "Apprentice Literacy  -  Designs for a Bonfire of the Vanities", in FINE PRINT (Journal of the Victorian Adult Literacy & Basic Education Council Inc.), Vol. 20, No.4, December 1997;   pp3-7. Also on
Abstract: This is a study of the levels of literacy amongst apprentices in Victoria, Australia. Its context was the pending introduction of the New Apprenticeship Scheme by Australian state governments at the time of writing. This reform was essentially politically driven, and designed to redistribute much apprentice training away from purpose built institutions (TAFEs) into workplaces. Since the scheme would inevitably place a greater burden on apprentices' personal learning resources, especially their literacy, it was important to analyze the existing situation. It was noted that apprenticeship was a diverse category of skills studies that required varying levels of literacy. In heavily male dominated apprenticeship fields, the majority, there had always been severe weaknesses in general literacy. These weaknesses had been compensated by various stratagems, especially direct demonstration, which might not be easily available on many work sites.  The newly favoured pedagogical approaches of CBT (competency based training) and "self paced learning", had translated in many TAFEs into tick-box answer booklets, rampant copying from classmates, and a severe degradation of integrated skills learning. These trends were likely to accelerate as students moved away from an environment where remedial assistance with literacy or trade skills was no longer easily available.

20. "Is There a Star to Steer By? - Fourteen Points on the TAFE Mission", in CAMPUS REVIEW (a weekly newspaper for academics with Australian nationwide circulation) April 16-22 1997, p.13 (2000 words); also tabled in the Australian Federal Parliament, December 1996 as part of the Senate committee hearings on The Status of Teachers; [online Senate reference ]

19. ENGLISH FOR MECHANICS; 95 units of teaching text with questions for oral response. A 1st edition of this e-book is for sale commercially in PDF format for US$15.00, and a hard copy version is available from for $21. It has been used on industrial sites in Australia, Indonesia, Hungary, Poland and South Korea. .

18. CONSULTANT'S PROJECT REPORT:  J.B.I. TECHNICAL ENGLISH PROGRAM at P.T. Koba Tin, Pulau Bangka, Indonesia, 22 April 1996; pp.1-26

17. CONSULTANT'S INTERIM REPORT:  J.B.I. TECHNICAL ENGLISH PROGRAM at P.T. Koba Tin, Pulau Bangka, Indonesia, 15 April 1996; pp.1-20

16. "The National Reporting System: A Critique", in FINE PRINT (Journal of the Victorian Adult Literacy & Basic Education Council Inc.), Vol. 18, No.1, March 1996; pp21-24.

15. "Postsupposition to Pastiche Talk: Mediating Chaos and Order in Language"; WORKING PAPERS IN LINGUISTICS, Vol. 14, 1994: 22pp. University of Melbourne. Developed from a paper  delivered at University of Melbourne Postgraduate Linguistics Conference, May 1994. [online abstract at ] Also available on
Abstract : Natural languages are examined as members of the class of complex dynamic systems in nature. The mathematical models of Complexity Theory have shown that complex dynamic systems as diverse as cyclones, the stock market and the human genome have the properties of a) being self-organising, b) existing in a precarious state of cyclical activity which alters slightly on each cycle, and c) containing an inherent indeterminacy. This last property, indeterminacy, is taken as a cue to develop an argument that language cannot be entirely representational, or altogether functional. It is proposed that in the generation of language there is a constant oscillation where thought sometimes gives rise to language, and alternatively, where unmotivated fragments of language force the development of post-rationalised ideas. Evidence is sought from the behaviour of formulaic phrases and apparent presuppositions  

14. "Aspects of Repetition", WORKING PAPERS IN LINGUISTICS, Vol. 13, 1993: pp.79-90, University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. [abstract online at ]

13. "Purposive Constructions in English";  THE AUSTRALIAN JOURNAL OF LINGUISTICS, Vol.10, No.1, 1990: pp.1-40 (online Journal listing at ). A journal copy of the article is available for sale from Routledge at Also available on
Abstract : This thesis explores some of the syntactic & semantic properties of Purposive Constructions in English. The term "purposive" is recognized as a semantic concept which finds regular expression in a small range of syntactic configurations. Purpose Clauses (PCs) and Rationale Clauses (Rat.Cs) are examined in some detail. Briefer reference is made to several other configurations, notably Because Clauses, So-That Clauses and Infinitival Relatives. In general Purposive Constructions comprise rather fuzzy semantic categories. Nevertheless, the main syntactic features are fairly clear. Interpretation of the constructions requires a systematic account of the control of empty slots (ellipted NPs) by thematic elements in the matrix clause. General conditions of Government and Binding appear adequate to predict the distribution of gaps in most Purposive Clauses. However, the relationship between propositions predicated of a common argument in these constructions is found to sometimes require matching conditions too subtle for syntax alone to predict. A concept of Thematic Coextensiveness is introduced to account for such matching.

12. "Verbs of Result in the Complements of Raising Constructions"; AUSTRALIAN JOURNAL OF LINGUISTICS, Vol.7, No.1, June 1987: pp.25-42 [ online Journal listing at ] A journal copy of the article is available for sale from Routledge at .  Also available on
Abstract : The analysis considers the manner in which a class of matrix verbs, the so-called raising verbs, have been fitted into some generative linguistic models. Taking as a cue the difficulty posed for these models by sentences of the kind, *Linda believes Gary to murder David, the analysis proceeds beyond existing criteria for "raising" to the notion of Relative Tense. It is found that Relative Tense has a direct bearing on the infinitival complements permitted by raising-to-object verbs and some raising-to-subject verbs. The relevant constraints are formulated for incorporation into Bresnan's Lexical Functional Grammar as the Independent XCOMP Singularity Condition. The IXCSC may be recorded for convenience in the functional structure of LFG as a complex feature. When IXCSC carries a positive marking the functional structure of a sentence, that sentence may only be interpreted if ASPECT (AUX) is also marked as positive.

11. 10. Review of Newman, J (1985) WORKBOOK IN SOUTHEAST ASIAN LINGUISTICS, pub. SEAMEO; AUSTRALIAN JOURNAL OF LINGUISTICS, Vol.6, No.2, December 1986: pp.297-298 [online listing at ]

10. "Plain Speaking: Judgine an Oratory Contest"; FIJI ENGLISH TEACHERS' NEWSLETTER, August 1989; 9pp. (Pitched at teachers. I was a judge in the contest).

Abstract: This paper attempts to explain the criteria which judges are likely to apply in the Fiji National Oratory Contest. It comments upon some features of the 1989 contest, and suggests factors which may have underlain the performance of contestants. However, the analysis is not merely local to an historical time or place. Oratory contests are a special case of the “speaking competitions” which are widespread in countries where English is learned as a second language. The cultural beliefs and traditions which come into play in public speaking are especially important in cross-cultural situations. The solutions discussed here have universal relevance for speakers and judges.

9. "Evaluating Linguistic Difficulty"; TESOL NEWS, Vol.8, No.3,1987: pp.24-33 (Advice for teachers).

Abstract: While ESL teachers cannot eliminate linguistic difficulties, with an awareness of the factors involved it is possible to minimise the confusion of their students. This article systematically analyses some important problem areas in language learning. It itemizes a range of syntactic and semantic phenomena, considering in each cas how the rule or pattern might pose a difficulty for some learners. This paper has been published for a number of years now, and the writer has become aware that many teachers themselves have found it a useful aid in preparing and presenting course material. Table of Contents: INTRODUCTION // orders of complexity // LEXICAL DIFFICULTY // Syllabic length:// Clusters // Irregular spelling // Irregular stress // Affixes // Multiple denotation // Range of connotation // Specialized application // Frequency of lexical items // Selectional restrictions // Subcategorical restrictions // MEASURES OF STRUCTURAL COMPLEXITY IN SENTENCES // Sentence length // Qualifying words // Adverbial and prepositional phrases // Conjunctive sentences // Equi-deletion // Deletion by convention // Permutation // Transposition // Embedding // Sentential complements // Topicalization // Presupposition // Tense // Aspect // Agreement (concord) rules // Anaphoric, cataphoric and exophoric references // DISCOURSE COHESION // CUEING // IDIOM // CONCEPTUAL DIFFICULTY // More accessible reference // Less accessible reference // Types of Inference // REFERENCES

8. "This is Your Problem, Friend, Not Mine: Towards a Solution for Formal Language Errors in Papua New Guinea (& Elsewhere)"; published by RELC in ADVICE FOR TEACHERS, July 1986: pp.1-10; (Regional  English Language Centre, Singapore; originally delivered at the TESLA Conference, Goroka, PNG, in July 1985. Pitched at teachers). Also on
Abstract: this paper proposes that teacher correction often has very little transfer effect on a student's later language behaviour. It examines reasons for this, and the motivational paradigm within which students operate. The paper argues that student self-correction is more likely to have a measurable long term effect. A mechanism to motivate directed self-correction is therefore proposed. This mechanism involves subtracting marks from assessed essays, and indicating line locations where there is a problem, without however explaining the problem. The procedure gives students the option to recover the lost marks through re-editing and re-submission within a time frame. The system has been tested empirically and found to yield promising results. The method of error evaluation also results in a lower burden of pointless correction for teachers. The material in this article is as relevant now as it ever was. Some things don't change.

7. WORKING PAPERS, SOLOMON ISLANDS LANGUAGE PROJECT; (Northern Rivers College of Advanced Education (now Southern Cross University), 1983.  180 copies x 61pages of English teaching resource materials distributed through primary school teachers in the Solomon Islands).

6. TRANSCRIPT FOR A LANGUAGE COURSE IN BANJALUNG*, 1983; 31pp.; commissioned by Northern Rivers College of Advanced Education** for Aboriginal teacher trainees. [4Mb pdf file]
Also on
Middle Clarence dialect, NSW; This is a rudimentary phrase book for the Australian Aboriginal language, Banjalung (*aka Bundjalung, Bunjalung, Badjalang, Banjalung & Bandjalang), constructed in co-operation with a surviving speaker and designed to encourage Banjalung language revival. It was untertaken at the request of Southern Cross University (then Northern Rivers CAE) and local community members.

5. "Language and Communications: A Linguist's Reply to Dr. Koji Kobayashi"; ELECTRONICS TODAY INTERNATIONAL, July 1984: pp.52-53

4. "English Language Teaching: a licence to poach resources", published in TESLA Newsletter of Papua New Guinea, 1985: 2pp.; ed. Angie Philip, Southern Regional Teachers College, P.O. Box 1216 Boroko, PNG

3. "The Price of Freedom"; AUSTRALIAN SOCIETY, October 1984; (factual account of a Vietnamese military officer's escape from Vietnam by boat, and its aftermath).

2. "The Five Minute Future"; OMEGA magazine, April 1984; (a science fiction short story). [online reference in Australian bibliography of Science Fiction -> here ]

1. "When is a presupposition not a presupposition?"  in  WORKING PAPERS IN LINGUISTICS, 1979: 4pp.; University of Newcastle Linguistics Student's Association;




Thor May      last update: 2016
- mostly available online at

Published papers and a profile can be seen at these two repositories: -


85. Is globalization a failure, or can something worthwhile be rescued?


For a generation globalization has been sold as the yellow brick road to prosperity. What exactly is globalization? Can its benefits be cherry-picked? Where do we go from here?  


84. Count your lucky stars


What part does luck play in the success of individuals, enterprises and countries? Think of examples. From politics to careers to finding the love of your life, there has never been more advice available, yet at the end of the game, some people seem to have been lucky and others not. Why is this so? Can you really do much about it?


83. A Universal Basic Income: $400 per week indexed to the CPI


Pay everyone $400 per week (current Australian age pension), rich or poor, indexed to the CPI. Governments would enable an adequate money supply (as they do now), and so the money would go around. This creates an economic cycle. Employers would pay a margin above the UBI to attract workers if they wanted them (overall probably cheaper for them than now). A truer market would then influence most working conditions, with less of the current blackmail. The economic system would be stabilized with an underlying guarantee of minimum consumer purchasing power. Centrelink (Australia’s social security department, currently a failed organization) would hardly be needed. The tax system could be simplified with compliance costs hugely reduced. Automation taking jobs would matter less. Health costs would fall. Free university & technical training (like Germany) could also enhance a UBI. People could choose to learn, grow and think. Personal life choices would be easier, with options for employment for satisfaction, more money and/or career interest. Problems: a) getting from here to there; b) re-educating the public about the actual nature of money and how it is created; c) vested interests


82. Narcissism grew like an invasive plant throughout the 20th Century.   Now it is in full bloom


Firstly a lot (not all) of “modern” art and poetry and even music stopped saying much about the societies which hosted them and became purely self indulgent, often pompously “abstract”. This mirrored a lot (not all) of what was happening in many areas of academic work, and a lot (not all) of what was happening in so-called high finance. When the digital camera democratized imagery, “selfies” (or the ultimate self-indulgence, sexting) became the dominant form of photography. Now Donald Trump stands on top of the American political muck heap and asks to be anointed as the emperor of self-love.

81. When is Censorship Acceptable? Justify your argument


The struggle between censors and their opponents has always been a never-ending war of attrition. It always will be. Violence and extortion have been used to conceal, and also to expose. The law is, and has been used to conceal and to expose. Publicity media of every kind is, and has been used to conceal and to expose. The induced apathy and inherent mental laziness of overall populations is proving the most potent tool for those who wish to conceal. Because concealment is so often malevolent rather than benevolent, the ultimate failure of institutions or even states due to malevolence is in a way the cost effective brake on malevolent concealment. Of course, by the time of failure, many lives will have been ruined.


80. Politics and Politicians : a volatile mix? 


An interesting phrase recently slipped into news analyses. It referred to Hillary Clinton’s problems as a “retail politician”. Implicit in the mention of retail politicians is the working reality that politicians live at least two lives. There is the public face they must present to gain mass acceptance, especially in democracies. Then there is the persona they must exercise as back-room negotiators and deal makers to actually achieve anything. Politics after all is the art of the possible. The largest part of the public, regardless of the political system, can never accept that the dual persona of politicians is necessary, and there is often a quota of novice politicians who have trouble grasping the duality themselves. More sophisticated stakeholders will examine the behaviour of a politician in both spheres, their attitudes to those respective roles, and how they reconcile inherent conflicts of interest.


79. If half of all jobs disappear, what then?


This essay is about recognizing some irreconcilable trajectories, and wondering what comes after the singularity. The first trajectory is the automation of activities which have engaged workers in the production of goods and services for profit. The second trajectory is separation of the ownership of capital from investment in human resources. The third trajectory is the separation of the ownership of capital from commitment to particular geographical nation states. The fourth trajectory is the dissolution of individual and community belief in the will of the owners of capital to supply them with a secure and sustainable future. The fifth trajectory is the dissolution of individual and community belief in the capacity or will of political leaders to negotiate effectively on their behalf with the owners of capital. The sixth trajectory is the separation of the population into an internationally mobile, fairly small technological and analytical elite, able to manage the automated production of goods and services, from the largest mass of individuals for whom the complexity of the evolving civilization is simply not comprehended and is beyond their power to direct….


78. Understanding Active Thinking


The point at which we use “thinking” as a term worth mentioning beyond the normal background buzz of daily life is quite arbitrary. In principle, you can “think actively” about going down the street to buy an ice cream, and that might be closer to a normal usage of “thinking” than solving quadratic equations. This particular essay has  paid more attention to situations which require a somewhat sophisticated level of attention, persistence and ingenuity in a world where complex problems are constantly arising.


77. Adelaide, Australia - sample of a media-challenged city?

There are road accident reporters, but there do not seem to be investigative journalists and insightful commentators who interpret the city of Adelaide to itself. What is to be done?

There are two topics fighting for space within this discussion focus: the city of Adelaide, and journalism.Clearly Adelaide itself is likely to be of only passing interest to readers elsewhere, unless it is taken as a paradigm for the forces which can play out worldwide in small to medium sized cities, of which there are now thousands. What exactly makes a city something more than a town? As for journalism , it is a primary vehicle through which we are assisted to be informed and begin to understand the world around us. When a city and dynamic journalism are added together, does some new entity emerge with a greater meaning than the sum of the parts?


76. When does security become insecurity?


Imagine you are walking along a narrow path high in the mountains in the early morning. There is a heavy mist, clouds in fact, so you can’t see far, but it is quite peaceful. Suddenly the clouds clear and you notice that you are on a ridge, no wider than the path, with 1000 metre drop on each side. Your steps, relaxed and contented only a moment before, are suddenly terrified. Will you overbalance? You sink to your knees and crawl..


75. The Peculiar Interest of God(s) in Human Morality

For the ungodly, even as they dodge being stoned to death for apostasy or atheism, it is a perpetual puzzle why any god, mere mountain spirit or kitchen god, or a thundering master of the universe, would give a damn what humans do. And given the misfortunes of virtuous humans, and the prosperity of countless scoundrels, the ungodly search in vain for actual, non-magical evidence that god, gods, spirits or leprechauns do actually play moral favourites in any credible way with humans. For the godly of course, this kind of evidence has never mattered.

74. Probing the Limits of Tolerance


In those dull places where no demagogue offers permission to hate the neighbours, we might do our best not to draw lines in the sand, not to warn off intruders with a threat. Sooner or later though some threshold, hidden even to our conscious selves, will surely be crossed. We lose our temper, act impulsively, do something we regret in cooler moments, but it is already too late.


73.  The Unexpected Power of Stupidity 


Stupidity turns out to be complicated. Stupidity in its many guises does more damage on a daily basis than generations of clever ideas have ever been able to cope with. Human stupidity ranges all the way from planetary destruction to self mutilation by vengeful individuals cutting off their own nose to spite their face. Given the scale of stupidity’s ravages, it is a matter of wonder that it attracts so little systematic public research under its own name.


72. So You Love Humanity But Can't Stand People?

The explicit idea of a social contract between the collective interests of a political body, such as a nation state, and particular citizens is fairly new in much of the world. It is scarcely considered in those terms by a large part of the world’s population, and treated with frank cynicism by many of those who have seized power and act in the name of the state. However, in spite of ongoing gross violations of both individual and collective interests, there has been a persistent spread of the idea of “human rights”. It is a rare leader nowadays who talks openly about “the divine right of kings”, as an English sovereign could a mere few centuries ago. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an explicit and now widely known expression of the minimal acceptable relationship between individuals with their interests and the superordinate collective claims of nation states.


71. How much attention has $529 billion of advertising bought?

Marketing, mostly in the form of advertising, channels the attention and actions of tens of millions of people into common participation. Where that mass participation involves spending money, then industries with successful marketing campaigns are the ones which survive in the marketplace, and in doing so shape the kind of society in which we live. None of this is to say that the industries (or politicians) who prevail in the contest of marketing actually have the best products, or even have socially beneficial products. The opposite may be true. That is, the marketplace is apparently quite amoral. 


70. Are Men More Inventive Than Women?

It seems that the potential for women to be inventors is probably not less than that for men, although the way their inventiveness is directed (taking women overall) might not entirely overlap with that of men. In societies where the roles of men and women are becoming less divergent we might expect the markers of inventiveness between genders to also become more similar.


69. Surfing or Drowning in an Ocean of Change?


“Change”, and especially managing change, is sharply in focus for commercial and professional interests, and for governments, but only of intermittent concern for individuals. For individuals, change applies to particular things at particular times, often as a matter of dumb luck. There is little popular interest in change as a category of continuing experience which needs to be part of life preparation and education, or built into the planning as we anticipate careers, developing communities and countries themselves.


68. Fuzzy Degrees of Freedom – When is the Law a Burden?

Citizens, you and I, we live with the ever multiplying, ever more obscure barrage of laws and regulations which emerge from the political contest. The simple things, like not killing the bus driver, we try to get right most of the time. Beyond the clarity what Christian types call the Ten Commandments, for better or for worse we exercise our judgement as wise men and women, and hope for the best.


67. Start your own business – a mental experiment


Imagine that you are starting a new business. What would it be? Why did you choose it? Why would you choose a personal enterprise over working for somebody else (or why wouldn’t you)? What rewards would you be looking for? What personal costs would you be prepared to tolerate? Would you attempt it alone, or would you look for partner(s)? What are the ways you could fund such a startup? Would it be local, or seek a wider market?


66. Media Distraction and Social Control


Is the “white noise” of daily media distraction deliberate social control, or just modernity out of control? Everyone has only 24 hours in a day. In many communities worldwide the sheer struggle to survive occupies most waking hours. In some others, any “free thinking time”, especially for the young, is carefully manipulated by state directed activities, propaganda and censorship. A possible third model is that ruling elites and governments may prevent criticism by distracting the main population with sports, entertainment and endless trivial ‘news’.


65. Does religion emerge as a product of complex systems?

Why do people take up religions, persist with them, and abandon them ? Whatever you think of religions personally, or any particular religion, they seem to have been around forever amongst (most) humans, and seem unlikely to go away entirely amongst the species as a whole. Clearly though, particular cultures in various historical phases have many members who are attracted to religions or substitute ideologies, but tend to drift away from them in other phases. At a different level, women seem to be the most persistent believers by numbers, but religious hierarchies are almost always controlled by (humourless old) men… What is it in human psychology that generates these religious phenomena? Since religion is universal across human groups, yet not universal within groups, does it embody some optional extra mechanism in the complex systems we call mind? Is it species specific?  … the questions are endless, and we can scarcely answer them here, but following a long human tradition, I have written a small allegory to explore some possibilities.


64. So we had a few failures. Was that the end of university?

The source of this short document is intensely personal. It is the story of early university misadventure by one individual, myself. At first glance it might seem of little interest to anyone but the protagonist. I am publishing it because in fact pieces of this story fit the lives of so many students who simply disappear from the statistics and into oblivion. Educational administrators may make assumptions about them, perhaps based on personal prejudice and hearsay, while political decisions about which kinds of students to fund tend to be founded in ideology rather than the real life stories of actual individuals and their development.

63. The Problem of Work and the Rise of the Precariat

Work, as a life experience, has evolved greatly over historical time. For most ordinary people, their job is not something that they enjoy much. However, without formal work many lose focus, may become dependent on welfare, and certainly become socially stigmatized. It seems that increasing numbers of people will never be able to have secure employment. They have joined a new social class now called the precariat. What are the consequences of that? How have we reached this point?  What is a practical, long term solution to “the problem of work” for ordinary people?  


62.  Fakes, liars, cheats, deceivers, animals in the forest


Fake it 'till you make it is a much advertised nostrum. Well, anyone who is not pathologically naive and who has encountered the corporate-speak of today's urban living knows that the fake-it meme is already in the DNA of most institutional critters, large and small. The only news is that this virus might also be deployed by bus drivers and check-out girls. With this in mind, the essay takes the fake-it topic beyond some simple self-trickery sold as positive thinking, and looks at various extended mutations inside and outside of the law.


61.  Multicultures – communities of familiar strangers

 When a stranger asks “what do you do”, as he fishes for the right stereotype to pin on my chest as a mark of admiration or secret contempt, I am at a loss to answer. That is, I am a man of my age, a chameleon creature accustomed to slipping amongst a kaleidoscope of roles. This plurality of role plays does not mean that I am "values free". I don't care if you wear a hijab or burn incense in a Buddhist temple. I do care for a marker such as "above all, do no harm" - not always achievable perhaps, but at least a navigation beacon. It is of central importance to the discussion in this article that my way is not everyone’s way. We all make sense of the world as best we can, then have a habit of projecting our understanding as universal truths. The article attempts is explicit about the writer's own experience, but tries also to establish a context for other, more various ways in which multicultures have been interpreted, especially in Australia.


60.  Property and Life Choices


It is well understood by most governments today, whatever their nominal ideology, that encouraging the private ownership of residential property is one of the most effective ways of ensuring social stability. A simple Australian example would be that after World War II, very large numbers of footloose demobilized soldiers could have been a distinct threat to the established order. It made very good political sense to direct them as soon as possible into stable employment, and into household ownership. Amongst the first acts of states which give up the lunacy of total centrally planned economic control is to move rapidly to create a residential owning middle class. As Russia formally abandoned communism in the early 1990s it did just that, allowing citizens to purchase their accommodation at very low cost. After Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, China moved in exactly the same direction, even while maintaining a fašade of communist ideology. The communist state of Vietnam has acted in exactly the same way. When you have a home and a mortgage, you are probably reluctant to start a revolution, and the political elites have a significant hold on your behaviour.


59.  The Purpose of Education - a hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy?


Any Internet search will reveal a myriad of articles and blogs on this topic. The variety of comment is not surprising since formal education of some kind affects every family and every individual in almost every country. Informal education has probably effected just about everyone since humans evolved. What the online material does show is that while the process is universal, the objectives are diverse and often in conflict. Indeed much of the discussion seems to be at cross purposes. I have been a teacher, mostly to young adults, for 35 years in seven countries with quite different cultures, so I am deeply familiar with the currents of intention and counter-intention which touch everyone in the enterprise of education. My own doctoral dissertation was an analysis of 20 case studies in institutions where the publicly expressed purposes of education were often sabotaged. Although I have seen some of the failures, the institutional reasons for such failures are so embedded and so internationally widespread that I can see little direct hope for major changes. What I do see is that for technological and cultural reasons, the relationships between public mass education and personal self-education are changing drastically. The outcomes of that melding are still unclear, but the process offers hope.


58. Some Uses and Misuses of Reason


When the sun rises each morning we may say the reason is that the earth on its elliptical orbit spins so that one point faces that star. Or we may say that the Sun God has mounted his chariot. Or we may say, after Ptolemy and the Christian elders until a few centuries ago, that the sun is moving around the earth. Take your pick. They have all seemed good reasons from reasonable men in their time. Our acceptance of what passes for reasoned argument has a great deal to do with the company we keep. Perhaps for most people, the word of accepted authority is the ultimate parameter on where those reasoned arguments may venture.


57. Democracy – Comment on a Proposal


The actual management of social, economic and political choices which are of citizen interest is at the heart of the governance problem, whether it is some kind of democratic governance or a more arbitrary alternative. Votes offer an option of yes or no. Life is harder than that. There is an inherent problem with binary choices in a complex society. Most important questions are nuanced. We could take almost any votable question and find within it a host of other questions. Most respondents will not have the imagination to see the impinging issues on the lead query. That is their responses will be shallow, and in any real political campaign easily swayed by partisan argument.


56. Crime without Punishment – the journey from means to ends 

In the real world of events, as opposed to philosophical statements of “should”, decisions about ends and means always come down to who, if anybody, is responsible for consequences. Where consequences are not clear for actors, and especially if consequences are not personal, almost any ends can be argued for, and almost any means might be rationalized.  


55. Is learning “grit” is the best way to succeed?

Grit, persistence in the face of hardship, is an admirable trait up to a point. It is however a complex trait, and may be extremely sensitive to the nature of particular challenges. The dropout in one scenario might be the dogged hero in another movie. Also, above and beyond particular situations, grit is partly sourced in inherent qualities of personality, partly influenced by maturational environment, and deeply affected by the core values and practices of different cultures and subcultures. There are even intriguing hints that grit can be driven by brain physiology.


54. Are Diet & Exercise Really Personal Choices?

The title of this paper asserts a dilemma: “Are diet and exercise really personal choices?” At first blush the dilemma might not be obvious to everyone. The implicit question is the extent to which governments or other agents should interfere in the lifestyle choices of individual citizens. There may be a visceral response to this question, but hopefully the following paragraphs will show that the problem is quite nuanced.


53. How do we judge literary value and artistic value?

Art emerges from the hand of the creator, and the mind of the beholder. Art as discussed in this article is taken very broadly. The broad meaning can encompass not merely painting and sculpture, but literature, music, dance, film, syntheses made possible by electronic technology, and so on. It can be a little confusing, at least in English, as to how all of these enterprises might be collected under a single heading. We do have an expression in English though about any activity which requires mysterious but sophisticated human abilities: “It is more art than science”. The suggestion is that some human activities depend upon a dynamic synthesis skills, experience and judgement which is too complex to analyse, yet which yields outcomes of high quality. “More art than science” certainly underlies our understanding of what artistic creators have been able to achieve.

When it comes to particular judgements however, art, whatever its form, has no single criterion of interpretation. Depending upon the time and the place, the circumstance and the human actors involved, the status of art (or its rejection) is resolved through a multitude of prisms. Here are some, but not all, of contexts for considering art and literature: ....


52. Are We Too Wealthy?

Large numbers of educated, reflective people worldwide have become aware over the last generation that the globalization of extreme material wealth in its present form cannot be sustained.  In this awareness people differ from several preceding human generations where the prevailing belief was that economic growth (a.k.a. “progress”) was a good thing. In previous generations the political passions focused on how wealth was to be divided up – hence the broad labels of agrarian landlordism, market capitalism, crony capitalism, socialism, national socialism … and so on. Segments of present populations have decided that most prior ideologies were variations on a global Ponzi  scheme which is approaching its moment of collapse. That collapse might be expressed in the depletion of material resources, in ecological failure, or in the sheer breakdown through over-complexity of systems which failure-prone humans simply cannot manage.  Whatever the looming breakdown point in any given locale or society, the focus of political dispute becomes “what is to be done”? 


51. How Can We Treat Refugees Humanely? - An Australian Perspective

Where the Australian government is involved in immigration detention of some kind, offshore or onshore, there is an intense need for creative and humane solutions. It is no kind of  “solution” to multiply the psychological damage accumulated by refugees by warehousing them under punitive conditions. These people are not criminals, and it would be useful in Australian law to make it illegal to refer to them as criminals.

50. What will be the dominant ideologies of the 21st Century?

Ideologies are going to be with us forever. The question is how seriously the herd takes them, and who become the high priests for interpreting them to the unwashed masses. The 20th Century gave us some pretty horrible examples of ideologies used as vehicles for mass extinction while claiming to be vehicles for mass progress. There is no particular reason to expect that the 21st Century will be more enlightened in this regard amongst those people who always form the bulk of ideological foot soldiers. It is true that there are more formally educated people on the planet than ever before, and more available tools for critical thinking, especially in the online world. Yet it is also true that the tools for mass mobilization are more powerful than they have ever been, while their control passes with increasing rapidity to compromised governments, corporations and secretive elites. This secrecy makes a considered response to genuine threats especially difficult.

49. The Precariously Employed - that's you, today or tomorrow - A Search for a New World Order

And then we have the “precariat” – hundreds of millions of people for whom the idea of lifetime employment has become a mirage. If they work at all, it is part-time, or on short term contracts, or in intermittent jobs, and so on. In polite company they often describe themselves as "self-employed"... Now the ruling elites of the 21st Century are terrified of the Precariat. The elites know insecure people are dangerous, they know that precariat numbers are overwhelming. Yet the elites, the academy, and the commentariat have no theory, no language, no model to handle the precariat.

48. Democracy and War

There is no uniform pattern defining what a “democratic society” is. Therefore blanket statements about the relationship between “democratic societies” and war are incoherent...  All wars, without fail and throughout history, have been characterized by the deployment of “weapons of mass deception”. That is, the leadership on both sides invariably claims to have God, Fate, Luck, righteousness, history, economic or political necessity .. and every available virtue on their side. It is hardly ever the case that any of this is the real engine for war, but is usually mobilizes enough public support to enable leaders to prosecute war without immediate revolt (though that may come later).


47. The Freedom Enterprise and Other Yarns

Something has changed substantially, beyond the old narratives. That something is the Internet, with uncontrolled actors disseminating information, while elites scramble desperately to recover control of the spin. Such information is often incomplete, biased, or misinterpreted, but it is also not the official story (no matter how many shills governments and companies pay as online agents provocateurs). This new swirling mass of stories has its own dynamic with complex interacting currents beyond anyone's simple control.

46. Economic Complexity and the Engine of Psychology

Context: The essay considers economics as a psychological phenomenon with the characteristics of a complex dynamic system. It is an initial and somewhat playful exploration, not a mathematical paper on systems theory. The original context was a discussion group background paper which evolved away from its origins. The starting proposal adopted (for argument’s sake) was that “the most economically successful societies have always depended upon a high level of government collusion with commerce and industry, if not control. This argument is a way of saying that the “invisible hand” of the market is not enough to maintain an efficient market, at least beyond village level. There has to be an independent umpire, or forced control (dictator, mafia … )”. It became clear that the government-industry collusion issue was really a surface gloss on a much more complicated reality.

45. Ethical Behaviour is Harder for the Rich

Abstract: This little essay is about (my ideas of) the behaviour of the rich. Of course all kinds of people are rich for all kinds of reasons (ditto for the poor). Nevertheless I will argue that rich people demonstrate ethics in ways which are consistent with broad human tendencies. Depending upon the social context of their wealth (e.g. corporate versus inherited) that wealth might influence them to exhibit particular behaviours. Yet those habits will merely be a subset of something much more general. Ethics, at bottom, is sourced in the evolutionary behaviour of the species.

44. The Democracy Problem

Abstract: The material here comprises discussion points and some reference links for a diverse group of people in Brisbane, Australia, who fancy themselves as “gentle thinkers”, and who meet from time to time to talk things over. All kinds of things. The topic on hand, “The Democracy Problem”, is probably of interest to thoughtful individuals in many latitudes, so I am putting it online as a general stimulus for some creative discussion. Any opinions expressed in this piece are entirely my own, and may be dissected without mercy.

43. Background information on New Guinea

Abstract: Because New Guinea is little known to the world at large, I have prepared a brief profile of the island, together with some snippets of personal experience from my time as an academic in Papua New Guinea. More detailed information is readily available from Internet search engines.

42. Super-Culture And The Ghost In The Machine (or PDF version)

This little essay is a bit mischievous, and apparently politically incorrect enough to have sparked outrage in the minds of some sensitive souls from the polite dinner party set. Although it has no claims to academic decency, I have preserved it online as a stimulant to fancier research, since I think the metaphor the essay runs on captures some essential truths.

The essay had its genesis in the startled observations of a fresh expatriate teaching in foreign surrounds. In this case, it was the PNG University of Technology, Lae, Papua New Guinea in 1987. I found my untried liberal conscience struggling to comprehend the sheer incompetence of people faced with institutions and technology which didn't seem to work. Many of the locals were bright and friendly enough, but somewhere a spark of insight was missing. Much later, surveying Australia with the naked eyes of a returnee, it was all too clear that the paralysis of imagination was a universal problem. 

41. International Language Testing - Standing the monster on its head (or PDF version)

Abstract: At the top of the assessment pyramid are multinational testing corporations, best known by the names of their standardized tests, such as IELTS, TOEIC, TOEFL, BULATS, TKT, Cambridge ESOL main suite, or G-TELP (there are many other aspirants). In some ways these testing companies can be thought of as the Big Pharma corporations (i.e. drug companies) of the educational world. Like Big Pharma they are subject to constant challenges to their ethics and reliability from within and without, and like Big Pharma they are rather prone to corrupt the issues which they were designed to assist with. The possible corruption of language learning by the requirements of testing is known as wash-back. Wash-back is not always malignant. The analysis in this paper is a tentative attempt to manipulate the wash-back from an international test in a manner which actually assists genuine language acquisition.

40. North Korea – An American Accident

Abstract: The reason that North Korea exists is that America, the superpower, exists. This was true during the 1950-53 Korean War, and it is true today. After World War II, American ignorance of the Korean peninsular was matched only by its disinterest. In 2013, oddly perhaps, the best friend of the North Korean regime is the American military-industrial complex. They need each other. That part of the American polity which persists in playing the games of empire absolutely craves a North Korean demon. Yet China in 2013 would happily erase North Korea into a dusty footnote, if it were politically possible. Kim Jong-eun and his coterie are not only bad for Chinese business, they are downright embarrassing for Chinese respectability.

39. Monolingualism and How to Fix It (if it needs fixing)

Abstract: The argument I will develop in this essay is that the foreign students are a latent human resource who can assist with overcoming English monolingualism in the Australian population. Foreign students, properly rewarded, can be a major source of skills transfer. Every one of those students is a walking compendium of language and cultural skills that Australians need to know

38. Testing for Teaching; Teaching to What?

Abstract: The outline which follows analyses the two halves of a language teacher's profession: a) The first half is daily classroom practice : what is taught and how is it evaluated? b) The second half of a teacher's profession is to know or at least estimate what is going on in the brains of her students : what is learned and how is it learned? Teaching is a simulation machine. Learning is for life. The implicit professional challenge is in making the simulation useful for living.

Note: The discussion here reflects a teacher’s interest in actual language learning, rather than that special game which sets out to manufacture “the IELTS/TOEFL performing clone”. Also, I have termed these notes an “outline”. It would be an abuse of language to call them an academic paper in any finished sense, and the absence of referencing reinforces that. There are, after all, whole academic faculties devoted to the study of testing, though unfortunately most teachers have never heard of them. Still, for those in a hurry, these reflections of my own may crystallize some of the questions which, sooner or later, will trouble any thoughtful teacher.

37. Hidden Boundaries: A Joint-Venture Education Program in China

Abstract: This review is a post-mortem of an education joint-venture between an Australian college and a Chinese college in central China at the three year mark*. It has lessons for policy, management, teaching and learning. The focus is on foreign language teaching, but most of the elements also apply to other fields of study.

36. WHAT NEXT?: Eighty things to do with students learning English

Abstract: This is a collection of things to do in a classroom, plus a little explanation for teachers. The collection is not a syllabus, it is not graded and it is certainly not “complete” (what would “complete” mean here?). However bits of it should be useful for almost anyone teaching English.

35. Stress, Rhythm and Intonation   this piece is also on my blog, Thor's Language Teaching Notes . Over the last decade this has consistently been the most popular file in this website, to my astonishment).

Abstract: Abstract: These are notes on English stress, rhythm and intonation. Part A is for students and Part B is for teachers. The treatment here is “technical”, as by a linguist, but in very plain language. Even with poor formal English, L2 speakers who “sound right” will gain social acceptance, and this in turn will greatly accelerate their learning. Firstly the concept of “the music of a language” is introduced. It is noted that languages are on a scale of “syllable timed” to “stress timed” (though this is not a simple matter). English is a stress-times language. Both word stress and sentence stress are essential in English. However, proper word liaison and elision marks native speakers from non-native speakers. Some advice is given on how to practice privately and in a classroom. The importance of teacher talk as a model is noted.

34. PLEASE TELL ME SOME IDIOMS TO LEARN   (2012) (also available on
Abstract :  What is an idiom? The answer is both complex and fuzzy. This short paper is a colloquial discussion that begins with a student inquiry about learning idioms and progresses to the realization that idioms are an indeterminate category which raise deep questions about the nature of collocation and cognitive language processing.

33. Fluency Vs Accuracy OR Fluency and Accuracy for Language Learners? (2009) (also availble on
Abstract : This seminar paper indicates a fundamental difference in objectives between language learning for certification and learning for live use. Whereas accuracy is an absolute goal within schooling contexts, its value on the street is highly variable. This difference is reflected in teaching perspectives. // This is the outline of a seminar on teaching methodology given as a teacher inservice for Chinese English teachers in Zhengzhou, Henan, China, in November 2009.

32. BASIC TIPS FOR LANGUAGE TEACHERS (2008) (also available on
Abstract : These notes consist of three parts : 1. Some short backround notes on the profession of teaching languages; 2. A few useful links for teaching tips and content; 3. A collection of ten activities which the seminar presenter has invented or borrowed, and found to be popular with students.// This is an outline from one of a monthly series of seminars by Thor May on teaching skills. The seminars were given as a teacher inservice for Chinese English teachers in Zhengzhou, Henan, China. This seminar was conducted on 10 June 2008

31. GRAMMAR FOR LANGUAGE TEACHERS  (also available on
Abstract :  1. What are we doing when we do grammar ? / 2. So what is grammar?/ 3. Where do the rules in book grammars come from ? / 4. So is grammar just about the links between words ? / 5.Language grammar always happens at the same time as lots of other things in your brain / 6. What should grammar teachers teach ? / 7. Do students learn useful language control from studying grammar books? / 8. Can teachers teach grammar? / 9. How can language teachers be most useful? / 10. Do grammar mistakes matter? / 11. Is accuracy more important than fluency? //==// This is the outline of a seminar on grammar teaching given as a teacher inservice for Chinese English teachers in Zhengzhou, Henan, China, on 13 May 2008. Thor May has been teaching language and linguistics since 1976.

30. Language Shift and Language Maintenance - A Contrarian Viewpoint from Thor May  (also available on and on
Abstract: This short informal paper stems from reflection on an address by Ken Hale, doyen of minority languages (and now sadly deceased). It looks at the role of linguists themselves in the dynamic of language maintenance and the twin phenomena of language loss and language birth. The uniqueness of each language is weighed against the costs and benefits of language homogenization. It is recognized that the majority of speakers are ultimately pragmatists about language choice, yet an argument remains for offering some minority language support to groups struggling with their ethnic identity. Finally, it is asked whether language maintenance or revival can actually pose other risks under certain conditions. Note 1: These are observations which grew out of an Australian Linguistics Institute workshop on Language Shift & Maintenance in the Asia Pacific Region. It was held at Latrobe University, Victoria, Australia on 9 July 1994. At the time I was doing doctoral research at the University of Melbourne, and put this material aside. However, a decade later it still seems relevant.

29. Generative Oscillation -- A Cognitive Model for the Emergence of Language  - discontinued PhD thesis from the University of Melbourne, 1994. (also available on
Abstract: The GO model proposes a co-generative view of the emergence of language. Most conventional linguistics models conceive of language as a representational system of symbols which refer to events, either mental or external to the organism. This representational function is said to motivate the linguistic system and (depending upon the linguistic model) largely control its form. The GO (Generative Oscillation) model proposed here recognizes the representational role of language. However it notes that as the mental linguistic system itself becomes efficiently organized, it creates an internal logic and drive of its own. To some extent this internally motivated linguistic system is conceived to override the external motivation to represent another reality. Since the internal linguistic system is dynamic and generative, it may give rise to linguistic output which seems strange in an inter-human communicative context (or even within the reflective mind of the creator). Thus while the external communicative context can become a constraint on unmotivated non-representational "internal language", it might not eliminate it. The Generative Oscillation model proposes that actual language production is an oscillating compromise between the representational function of language and the mental "language bot" itself (i.e. an internal self-organizing system) which is generating language strings just because that is what language language bots do. As far as I know, the Generative Oscillation Model, or anything like it, had not been suggested before in linguistics at the time of writing. Some conventional linguists may find it a bit "off the wall"

28. "Generative Oscillation: from phrase structure to discourse"; a model of cognitive processing, delivered at University of Melbourne Postgraduate Linguistics Conference, May 1993; 30pp.

27.  Unclever Talk: Mnemonic Resonance and God Knows What (also available on
Abstract: This paper questions the sources of linguistic creativity by considering the corpus of an idiolect (that is, one individual's grammar). The objective analysis of this corpus led the researcher to speculate that the use of mental constructs, specifically language, in real time had a kind of immediate "resonance" in the brain which increased the likelihood of their repetition, either exactly or with simple grammatical modifications. The phenomenon is defined in this paper as "mnemonic resonance". If this resonance patterning were general then it would have profound consequences for listener decoding strategies which depend heavily upon collocational predictability. At a theoretical level, mnemonic resonance would also have consequences for many existing linguistic models.

26. When Is It Rude To Be Rude ? - Politeness Across Cultures and Subcultures (언제 무례하여 무례해지는가 ? translated by Professor Kang Uk-Ky) 2001  (also available on
Abstract: Includes a Korean translation from English. This paper deals with politeness phenomena which are general to all human societies, but draws many examples from Korea as understood by the writer (who is Australian). The emphasis in this analysis is on the problem of decoding politeness. It is noted that even within a culture, politeness signals can be manipulated, and that interlocutors calibrate their meaning according to knowledge of individual personalities. In Korean society, the requirement for formal politeness signals is very strong, both in body language and in fixed linguistic markers (such as verb endings). However, the pragmatic meaning of these signals is calibrated in ways that are difficult for foreigners to decode. The paper also considers the dilemma of that minority of Koreans who attempt to interact within the linguistic and social codes of English. It is noted that these attempts often go astray, both because the speaker misunderstands English politeness coding conventions and because listeners in English, almost by definition, come from radically different cultural backgrounds to the Korean.

25. "Language in Suva : A Sociolinguistic Survey of an Urban Pacific Population" (also incorportated as an appendix in my PhD dissertation, and further available at
Abstract : This paper is a preliminary report on a sociolinguistic field survey. It records the beliefs which 834 permanent residents of Suva, Fiji had about their own language and literacy skills in 1988-89. The interview subjects were selected from five census enumeration districts with populations ranging from 430 to 1200, and chosen for having a roughly equal ethnic composition of Fijians and Indo-Fijians. Bilingual interviewers (linguistics students) invited and assisted subjects to complete an extensive questionnaire, and offer unstructured comments. The collated and analysed outcome gives a complex and sometimes surprising picture of urban language change.

24. PUSAN UNIVERSITY OF FOREIGN STUDIES GRADUATE TESOL PROGRAM ... Lectures, notes and resources for a graduate program I have taught for aspiring TESOL teachers in Busan, South Korea, from 2003.

23. South Korean Language Policy - A letter to President Roh Moo-hyun , 2003

22. POPUP ENGLISH ... ESL materials and ideas developed in South Korea for 2-year college students

21. THOR'S APHORISMS ... quips and brief observations on life accumulating since 1988

20. THOR'S UNWISE IDEAS ... short essays on a wide range of topics

19. THOR'S KOREA DIARY (September 2000 - June 2007) An account of life in Pusan, then Chungju, South Korea

18. a) THOR'S OLD CHINA DIARY (August 1998-July 2000) An account of life in Wuhan, China (70,000 words +; book projected)

       b) THOR'S NEW CHINA DIARY - blog - (July 2007 to current). Mostly sourced from Zhengzhou, Henan Province, central China

17. SHORT TEXTS FROM OZ; sixty-nine short texts for teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language, plus questions and an introduction to the methodology of using short texts. Contains an index of all English words used (2850 vocabulary items); 133 pages. Ready for publication, excepting for glossaries and a table of idioms. Copyrighted to Thor May under the imprint of the Plain & Fancy Language Company, Australia, 1998.

16. STUMPY AND THE DECISION TREE; daggy Internet-serialized blank verse + cartoons in Australian argot; continuing

15. TOM WILEY'S AUSTRALIA; serialized story (fictional) about an Australian man, designed to give advanced learners of English some insight into life in Australia from at least one point of view. Fifteen thousand words (34 episodes) written to date (February 1999). The final document should be double this. The intention is to publish this material with glossaries and idiom lists in a bilingual English-Chinese edition.


13. THE AGNOSTIC'S SURVIVAL MANUAL , 2007, 2013[ .. a 20,000 word e-book, also available in PDF, with a third copy (PDF) at my repository. . Dear reader, are you really hoping for a book of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’? Do you want gentle ideas and a comfortable corner in which to rest your half-formed prejudices? Alas, you have come to the wrong place. … The truly employable in this world are harmless blobs of not-quite-anything, or heroic knights of flaming conviction (best employed by others after safe removal to a site of sacrifice), or good old fashioned hypocrites with opinions for hire. This particular writer is entirely unsafe to hire or to know, being addicted to a deadly combination of moderation and candour. Luckily few people ever understand what he is talking about.

12. TIME PASSING: A MISCELLANY OF POEMS (1970- 2005), privately published by The Plain & Fancy Language Company, 1996-2005

11. "The Sale of Tabu Soro - A Post-Colonial Parable"; August 1996

10. "Learning Our Lines: A Lesson For The Second Millennium?" a review of , David Hare's play 1. Skylight, Melbourne Theatre Company at the Fairfax Studio until 31 August, 1996.

9. THE WRONG ADDRESS - FRAGMENTS FROM AN AUSTRALASIAN LIFE,1995 : Twenty prose-poems: a snapshot of one wandering life in Australasia, 1956-1985. The real story begins earlier and ends later, but a storyteller's time is always short ...

8. "Double-Cross"; (a 16,000 word radio play in twenty-six, three minute episodes for advanced learners of English. Written under contract to TAFE, Newcastle, 1983).

7. "Script Theory", University of Newcastle, NSW, 1979: 39pp.; early exploration of discourse analysis; subsequently taken up in second Ph.D. study at the University of Melbourne in 1990.

6. "The Lexical Nature of Thematic Features", University of Newcastle NSW, 1984:20pp; extract from unfinished first Ph.D. thesis; further editing required.

5. "Inherent Features as Constituents of Grammatical Agency", University of Newcastle NSW, 1984: 18pp.; extract from unfinished first Ph.D. thesis; further editing required.

4. "The State of State", University of Newcastle NSW, 1984: 13pp.; extract from unfinished first Ph.D. thesis; further editing required.

3. "Experiments in Linguistics for Teachers", University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji, 1988: 8pp.; paper on experimental method; in preparation.

2. A number of privately circulated commentaries up to 10pp. each on a range of topics, from international relations, to conflict resolution, to ESL curriculums.

1. A miscellany of materials published on several Internet sites, including some of the above, but much else in addition. Equivalent to many hundreds of A4 pages overall.




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