A research agenda inspired by a McDonalds Veggie Burger?

This isn’t really about veggie burgers. It isn’t 100% about research agendas, either.  It’s about something essential to teaching, TEFL and language practitioners.  Something which, if you are not engaging in it regularly then you are not really doing your job.


It’s about reflection.

I’ll start with a little story about how I found the topic for my M.Phil thesis.

I was taking a trip to Germany with some Italian speakers from Alto Adige in Italy when I was living and teaching in the region.   Why do I even mention ‘Italian speakers’ regarding a bunch of people from a region in Italy?  Well, Alto Adige is also called Süd Tirol.  Everything there has two names, as an autonomous, bilingual area of Italy where the German language has equal status to the Italian language (Ladin is a third language also spoken in the region).   The region used to be part of Austria.  c.70% of the people there speak German as their native language, and c.30% speak Italian (though this is reversed in some of the urban centres).

You can see the bilingual sign of the (GREAT) pizza restaurant in the background.

So, during the trip we stop off at a McDonalds.  I was vegetarian at the time, and so ordered the Gemüse Mac.  My Italian friends asked what that meant. Not what it was but what that word meant.

I was a little puzzled.  I’d lived in Alto Adige for some time at that point.  Every time I was in a supermarket or restaurant and the word for vegetables was required, Gemüse was listed and right next to it the equivalent Italian word was there too (verdura).  I spoke Italian before I moved to Alto Adige, and was in the process of learning German.  It was very helpful to have the two languages always written together, side by side.  I was picking up German vocabulary very easily that way.

Menu item from a restaurant in Alto Adige

I wondered how my friends couldn’t know the German word for Verdura.  They see Gemüse written every time they buy vegetables.  They have German lessons in school from the age of 5. Italian speakers go to Italian language of instruction schools, and learn German all the way through school, and vice versa for German speakers. How, after years and years of German lessons and seeing the word everywhere, was it possible they couldn’t recognise the word ‘vegetable’?

Peppers and tomatoes
Radicchio and lettuce. Thank you Laura De Bacci for the photos!

Anyway, in asking myself that question I ended up researching language policy in Alto Adige, and wrote a thesis which addressed themes around language learning blocks and attitudes, minority language status and bilingual education. I loved it.

How does this relate to the role of reflection in TEFL?  I’ll tell you.  In a minute.


You tell a taxi driver you work in maths and their response may be something like “oh”.  You tell the person sitting next to you at a dinner party you work in geology, sure – they may talk about oil or an earthquake, or also respond with “oh”.  Chat to your hairdresser and tell them you work in admin – they may well change the subject and ask where you are going on your holidays.

Tell any of the above, or anyone, you work in language/linguistics and everyone has an opinion – often an emotive one.  I’ve been hijacked over the Oxford comma, declining standards in the English language, how teenagers, texting and the internet are sending the English language to the dogs, how migrants who speak English as a second language in schools slow the lesson down, how some people have a ‘knack’ for languages and some people just don’t, what ‘proper’ grammar is and which kind of English is ‘the best’, which languages are ‘easy’ to learn, that Inuit has 100 words for snow…the list goes on.  Largely language myths which highlight an ingrained opinion rather than an objective fact.

Everyone has an opinion about language because we are so intimately wrapped up in it every day.  We use language to do pretty much everything.   That’s why reflection is so important for language teachers.  You think you know a lot about language.  And you do.  For example, even if you’re not great with grammar labels, you’re still an expert in your mother tongue. But a lot of what you think you know is, as I said above, an ingrained opinion.  Something you have heard, because people repeated it lots, and so it goes unquestioned (always dangerous).  And if you are going to be a language teacher, it will help (your students, and you) to understand the nature of language, of language learning, of language teaching and why it’s ok to teach and pass on your native Glaswegian accent (if you have one) and not only in RP.

I recently developed and taught a session on SLA for our CELT course.  SLA isn’t usually included on EFL teacher training courses but I’ve long had a feeling it could kick start the process of reflection.  I took the course participants on a journey starting with asking what language is in the first place.  We moved on to look at how you acquire your first language and then your second (defined as any language or languages you learn after you learn your first).  Along the way we looked at language myths similar to those above.  Either I put them forward or the course participants inevitably did.  And when looked to for a sign or agreement, I simply asked “is it?/do they?/are they?”.  This threw everyone off.  Along these lines:

Some languages/dialects are more complex or better than others” Over a lifetime many people have developed a low opinion of certain accents or dialects – including their own. I asked “are they?”  After a few moments of silence, we started a discussion about why non-standard English dialects are not “people not speaking properly” but simply, as the name suggest, non-standard.  Standard English is no “better” or more grammatically correct.  Simply a dialect that has the status of being the standard.

Critically questioning your own beliefs is, I believe, essential as a teacher.  It is the starting point of reflection.  

In the TEFL classroom, it’s about reflecting on what you teach and asking questions such as “does this task actually teach the students the language skill I think it does?” and “did this go how I expected”?  Just because you are teaching a task which teaches a certain skill doesn’t mean that that is what your students get out of it at the end.  They may complete a task very well, but can they then use the grammar point from it spontaneously in fluent speech?  There are no “right” or “wrong” answers in reflection – it’s simply important to ask the questions.  The thought process that kicks off means you can start modifying your practice so you and your students get more value out of it.  It means you get get better at teaching the students what you intend to teach and what you think you are teaching.

Getting through the pages of a textbook and the stages of a task doesn’t mean your students have learned anything.  Reflect, reflect, reflect.  You’ll enjoy your job more and so will they! You think you know a lot about language anyway, and especially as a teacher.  And you do!  You also think you know a lot about teaching a language.  And indeed you do! But some of what you think you know needs to be re-examined, just to make sure it works.

Think about that next time your’re at McDonalds enjoying the McMeal of your choice.

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