Centre for Applied Linguistics & Language Education

Tense: Conclusion & Review


This post follows the initial article on tense (here) and a discussion of present tense forms (here), past tense forms (here) and future tense forms (here).


In the previous sections tense has been discussed in terms of its general characteristics and its various uses in referencing present, past, and future time.  As has been previously covered, tense is not a generic term for time in language nor is it the only time element with which linguists are concerned.  Instead it is one of five universal attributes of language used to convey time information.  The other attributes (aspect, mood, perfection, and aktionsart) are inherently tied to tense and the relationship of all five are so intertwined that each can rarely be discussed without consideration of all of them together.

Tense is however a very straight forward concept.  It is purely a manner of expressing the contrast between two temporal references on the timeline of an utterance.  The primary reference for determining tense is always the Time of Utterance (TUTT) — the point in time at which the utterance is actually said, heard, written, read, or otherwise communicated.  Except for in cases of reported or quoted speech that happens in either the past or future, TUTT is always now (present).  This makes it easy for determining the primary temporal reference because most of the time it’s present and thus doesn’t require further analysis.  The position of the secondary temporal reference and its relative distance from TUTT is what actually determines tense.  If the secondary reference occurs earlier than the primary reference (or visually, to the left of it) the tense of the utterance is past.  Likewise, if it occurs after TUTT (or visually again, to the right of it), the tense is future.  Unlike present tense which is absolute (it’s always now), past and future are not specific tenses but rather ranges.  If the secondary reference is to the left of the primary but very close to it on the timeline, tense can be said to be immediate past.  Likewise if were to the left but much farther away, it could be said to be distant past.

It is the interelation with aspect and aktionsart that determines which type of secondary temporal reference is used to establish tense.  As stated above, the primary reference is always TUTT, and that Time of Utterance is almost always present because most utterances are communicated at the instant they are written, read, said, or heard (for instance, since you are just reading this, it’s being communicated to you now, thus its TUTT is now).  The secondary reference can be either the Time of Assertion (TAST), Time of Evaluation (TEVL) or Time of Completion (TCOM).  TUTT, TEVL, and TCOM are always punctular, meaning they have no duration and occupy only a single point on the timeline of the utterance.  Depending on whether either the aspect of the utterance or the aktionsart of the inclusive verb are durational or not though, TAST can be either punctular or durative — occuring over a range of time along the timeline rather than a point.  The various types of aspect and aktionsart are discussed in specific chapters to follow with a more detailed discussion of their effect on methods of determining tense.

Some resources describe tense as either relative or absolute, yet while the dual systems proposed are incorrect, there is some merit to this idea.  The only absolute tense is the pure present which occurs when an utterance has a TUTT of ‘now’ coinciding with a TAST, TEVL, or TCOM of ‘now’.  Even this expression of tense is not truly absolute in the sense of being locked, because if both temporal references where to move equally to the left of right along the timeline (say in reported speech), the tense of the utterance would still be present, even though the utterance itself has been moved into the future or past.  It is thus much more rational to consider tense as relative to the time of utterance, and to think of the time of utterance as relative to now (the time of analysis for tense).  This type of analysis can quickly become cumbersome and provides a good example of how descriptions of tense have become so disparate from language to language and conflated with other concepts over the years.

Finally, it should be remembered that tense is only this contrast between temporal references of the utterance described above.  It is an attribute of an utterance as a whole and not any part within.  Tense of an utterance can only be described in terms of present, past, and future, and degrees thereof.  It is thus correct to say present tense, but not present perfect, present simple, or present progressive.  Present perfect refers to the idea that an utterance is in present tense and is perfected (see Chapter 4 – Perfection); present simple refers to an utterance in the present tense, simple (a generic name for non-durational aspects) aspect, nonperfected; likewise present progressive refers to a non-perfected, durational aspect utterance in the present tense.  These terms all refer to the same single tense however — the present.


Tense is a contrast between two temporal references along the timeline of an utterance.  That is all tense is.

Tense is an attribute of the utterance and not of any part within an utterance (verbs, adjective and other things don’t have ‘tense’).

The primary temporal reference is always the Time of Utterance (TUTT) and this is most often ‘now’.

The secondary temporal reference is determined by the other 4 TAMPA elements and can be either the Time of Assertion (TAST), Time of Completion (TCOM) or Time of Evaluation (TEVL).

TAST can be either a point on the timeline of the utterance or a range depending on if the idea expressed has duration.  TUTT, TCOM, and TEVL are always points.

Continue reading Aspect


February 2, 2010 Posted by | English Linguistics | , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Social Networking: a Game Changer for Language Learning?

I recently took a break from research to do a few days of substitute teaching at a local university’s ESL department. One of my duties was to supervise a group of students in their computer writing lab. I personally thought it was a waste of time for both me as a teacher, and for the students who where given a daily scenario about which they were to write a paragraph-long response. I could have understood the merit of such an activity about ten years ago, but obviously the curriculum developers for this program have yet recognize the widespread use of computers among modern university students and their ability to access the internet from their classrooms, dorm rooms, or even mobile phones.

During this exciting hour of supervising the students in the lab, I found one student fidgeting away on Facebook instead of writing his assignment. Now, in dealing with ESL students I have always taken the approach of American higher education — that is, they are students, but they are adults, and thus do not need me to babysit them, give them permission to go to the restroom, or any other such form of coddling (academic or otherwise) afforded school children. Upon noticing my coming around the corner this student quickly shrank down his web browser and attempted to look gainfully employed in his work before my smile yielded a guilty smirk from him. He seemed amazingly surprised when I told him to go ahead, and that I use Facebook all the time.

While talking to him, I observed that he was playing a zoo animal game of some sort (he’s probably 20), and chatting with a few friends. One chatbox was filled with his native Kazakhstani, another was an obvious flirt with some girl somewhere in the world but in English, and the third was a chat with another student across the room (who had managed their chat more covertly apparently) also in English. After a few minutes he finally stumbled out an “and you don’t mind the Facebook?” to which I replied of course not. My response seemed to confuse him even more until I explained that he was using an English-language version of Facebook, playing an interactive game in English, and having two live conversations (again, in English), all at the same time.  He was learning…he just hadn’t realized it!

As the map above shows, Facebook (light green) has become far more than the college connection it once was.  It’s now a worldwide phenomenon and is growing everyday.  And, websites like Facebook and Twitter are taking the place of what a few years ago would have been a slew of webpages and applications.  Even only 5 years ago just about every country had their own unique online chat program.  They were usually available in only one language, and these different systems rarely allowed users to communicate with those using another service.  Yahoo Messenger and to a lesser extent AIM and Microsoft Messenger seem to have weathered the first decades of the internet, most other smaller services have not been so lucky.  Google and their slew of “killer apps” have taken much of the information realm off the desktop and onto the web, bringing with it handheld data access.  Gmail, Google Maps, and the soon to be release Wave are the game changers of information management that neither users nor Microsoft could have ever imagined a decade ago.

Social Networking

Sites like Myspace, industry leader Facebook, and explosively growing newcomer Twitter are a game changer themselves.  More than merely moving email from Outlook to any internet access point (gmail), these Social Networking sites connect people — people who would have perhaps never bothered with such technology, instantly, continuously, easily and in a dynamic manner that makes staying in touch an integral part of the day.  Just this past week, I realized upon being ‘friended’ by a fellow soldier from my army days that I had lost touch with these 500 or so people I spent so much time with.  So, I started a group for my old unit on Facebook.  Within a day there were 13 other veterans in it.  Within two days that number had reached a hundred, and by the end of this week we were numbering somewhere around 250.  When you think about it, that’s amazing!  Of 500 people I have not seen in years, half have managed to find each other again in a matter of days on Facebook.

Facebook you see, is amazing.  There really is no reason not to promote this product here, because like google, it’s moved beyond the scope of being the property of one company and is now yet another piece of online real estate owned by the world (its upcoming IPO aside).  Like Coca-Cola and Disney, Facebook couldn’t close its doors and drop out of existence today even if it wanted to.  Somebody, somewhere, would keep it going.

The internet changed the world 20 years ago when it connected universities and countries and businesses together.  Suddenly free information exchange became an integral ideal of our modern global psyche.  But the internet, while overall free from control, was not free.  In fact, the cost of access in the early days of the internet precluded many from accessing it.  Then, as webpages became more complex and the quantity of data increased, broadband and other high speed (and high cost) connections became to required conduit for connection.  This meant that if you couldn’t afford DSL, if you didn’t have your own connection, computer, etc that you could not connect and that no matter how much information was out there, it wasn’t for you.

Then, along comes Facebook.  It has a simple interface, requires very little bandwidth, can operate on a slow connection, or even on a mobile phone, and allows anyone with an email address (which thanks to gmail, everyone in the world can now have for free), access to everyone else.  Students now have Facebook pages.  Parents have them, companies, organizations, schools, bands, even favourite foods have facebook pages.  The fact is, anyone and everyone can be on Facebook, and they can all connect, communicate, and converse with everyone else.

That, is a game changer for the Language Learning Industry.  Students, all students, anywhere, can now chat with, send messages to, and share information in English (or any other language).  Finally, the biggest challenge to teachers and students has a solution.  That challenge — an overall lack of language exposure, of contact time, or access to content, is no more.  If your students have a computer, access to an internet cafe, or even a smartphone, they have access to the language they are learning.


The game has changed.  Now, the question is how we, as an industry, will change with it.

December 20, 2009 Posted by | Industry Tends, Teacher Resources | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

I HAVE YET to figure this out…

(yes, pay attention to the CAPS)

Linguistics is all about questioning what you already think you know about language.  And, as I’ve pointed out in other posts, in order to be an effective English instructor, you must also be a linguist — if not by career, at least by your willingness to question your understanding of the language.  My first ESL post is what actually led me to become a linguist.  I remember being in the classroom as a very green teacher and upon seeing the various looks of confusion on my students’ faces, thinking that there simply had to be a better way to teach English than the method used in that school (Callan Method).  I realised at the time that while these purely communicative methods provide learners with an inventory or forms and vocabulary, that they fail to convey any actual understanding of how or why to use this newly acquired knowledge.  Of course my next realisation was that neither I nor my fellow teachers really understood the various reasons and logic behind most of the usage we were teaching either.  Hence my entry into the field of linguistics, and the beginning of an ever ongoing project to research, classify, and explain the various bits of English grammar and syntax that confuse even the best of us at times.

Over the past three years I have been doing quite a bit of work on sentence structure, word order, and forms which are difficult for language learners to grasp.  I owe this to probably the greatest group of students I shall ever have — a class of 16 German engineers to whom I taught a 3 month intensive technical English course.  They were great for asking questions I couldn’t answer and for not allowing exceptions to the rules.  I made a deal with them at the time that I would research their questions until I found a fool-proof answer for them.  Three years later and I am still working on about half of those queries!

Much of my work has resulted in a classification system for modals (found here) that seeks to explain why some verbs, or forms, or other such sentences don’t mesh with the standard ‘rules’.  I’ve found that almost every one of the oddball constructions is a modal expression (just like shall, or will, or be going).  However, there is one form that I’ve been trying to figure out for well over a year now, and it’s actually the only but of standard grammar I have not been able to fully explain.  That form is:

have + yet + infinitive.

Examples include things like “I have yet to finish my homework,”  “he has yet to call home,” “I had yet to cook dinner when the fire broke out.”

These forms differ from other uses of yet and generally have an equivalent form in the perfected informational aspect:

I have yet to finish my homework  ≃ I haven’t finished my homework yet.

He has yet to call home  ≃  He hasn’t called home yet.

I had yet to cook dinner when the fire broke out  ≃  I hadn’t cooked dinner yet when the fire broke out.

Now, modal forms and adverbs both are often used to express mood in English.  And many times two completely different forms can be used to express the same mood.  Often one form has an added meaning that is perhaps a bit different than the other.  That’s probably the case here.  I have yet to actually figure out what mood is being expressed by these forms, but I am certain that have + yet is a modal phrase.

Modals in English have certain characteristics that set them apart from other verbs and verb phrases (these are outlined in the modal post below).  Certain attributes are only found in some modals though and not in non-modal forms.  Have+yet subordinates the verb that follows it into the infinitive form (requiring to); this is a modal-only characteristic.  Have+yet cannot be modified by other modals (will have yet is not possible), another modal characteristic.  Have+yet has no negative form.  This final one is characteristic that only modals and some auxiliaries exhibit.  It is also what separates Have+yet from the perfected forms with yet.

Thus, while I have no doubt that have+yet is in fact a modal, I still have no idea what mood (or moods) it expresses.

Any ideas?

December 19, 2009 Posted by | English Linguistics | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Overall Decline of Full-time Jobs Indicative of Language Training Industry

The German newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau, reported recently that the number of full-time jobs in Germany has seen a drastic decline while

Sabine Zimmermann

part-time positions have been on this rise.   Citing a parliamentary inquiry by the socialist Left party, the paper reports that the number of full-time workers had dropped by 1.4 million, or six percent, between 1999 and 2008, while the number of part-time jobs rose by 1.3 million, or 36 percent.  The article also points out that more workers are also being forced to work two jobs, citing an increase of 1.8 million dual-job workers between 2002 and 2007.   Sabine Zimmermann, an economic expert for the for the party, told the paper that loose government regulations making it easier for businesses to create a part-time based work environment are forcing “millions of people into cheap jobs and poverty.”

While this may be news for many in Germany, a country with great social and worker protections, it’s nothing new for workers in countries like the United States which has seen a massive shift from full-time to part-time employment in recent decades.  While the overall global economy may be a bit late to the game on this trend, within the language training industry full-time jobs are now exceedingly rare.

10 years ago it was quite normal for teaching positions, including ESL — teaching English in non-English speaking locales, to be full-time and sometimes even salaried positions.  It should be noted that teaching English has never been a high-paying career.  But at one time, a teacher could work a reasonable number of hours each week and live a comfortable living in the country in which they were working.  Starting in about 2000, many teaching posts began to transition from salaried jobs to freelance positions in which the teacher is classified as a contractor to the school or company in which they teach.

This move from full-time to freelance work has made for major changes in the industry.  Primarily it has shifted the cost of doing business from the language school and onto the teacher.  It allows employers to avoid paying taxes, pensions, health insurance, and other benefits and expenses required by governments of workers.  This of course greatly changes the financial formula for teaching.  Originally many schools offered a higher upfront wage to freelancers to cover some of the added expenses incurred over hourly or salaried teachers.  My first ESL post was in Poland and it was freelance.  At the time I was making 32 Polish Zloty per hour which came with a guarantee of 25 hours per week.  So at 3200 zloty (at the time around USD 1500), I was able to live quite well in Poland.  Over the years I’ve followed teaching jobs in Poland, and today those same jobs (actually even that SAME job) now pays freelancers the equivalent of around $600 per month, even though the cost of living in Poland is now around three times what it was when I taught there.  This does not bode well for teachers.

Germany has by far been the leader in systematically lowering pay among ESL instructors.  Strange, as it’s by far the largest ESL market in Europe and equally odd since German students pay more for their English lessons than anyone else, but this is the case.  The German government loves to regulate anything and everything — especially anything that has an effect on their citizens.  Unfortunately though Germany has shown a bit of a dark side when it comes to language schools.  Language schools almost universally hire foreigners.  Foreigners are not Germans.  And unfortunately for a country which works so hard to protect it’s workers, the German authorities have shown no interest whatsoever in protecting the rights and working conditions of foreign English teachers.

Freelancers, especially non-EU freelancers, pay among the highest income tax rates in all of Germany.  They also are responsible for paying mandatory contributions into the German pension system, mandatory social insurance contributions (even though if they lose their jobs, they are not allowed to receive unemployment benefits), and pay for mandatory German health insurance which can easily cost 3-500 euros for a single person.  In this mix is an added problem, that being that freelance English teachers are among the lowest paid workers in all of Germany.  In Berlin pay for freelance teachers is around €12/ hour.  In Nuremberg this rate hovers between €16-22 depending on experience.  Munich comes in tops with pay in the 20’s being the norm.  Of course, this pay is only based on classroom time.  So while a teacher in Berlin would receive €24 for a two-hour class, he would not receive anything for the hour or travel to and from the location of the client, nor any pay for the hour of preparation of materials for that class, nor for the time spent grading assignments, etc.

Overall it makes for a system where a skilled, in-demand worker may work 50 hours a week yet only be paid for 20.  That 20 hours will be paid at a rate lower than nationals of that country would make, and of that pay, a large portion of it (often 60-75%) is to be paid back to the government for the privilege of working.

As mentioned above, this does not bode well for teachers.  But what school owners and governments fail to recognize is that it doesn’t bode well for them either.  Systems such as these create a class of impoverish workers among people with high-demand skills.  It puts the very people whom are needed to provide German (and Polish, and French, and Chinese) workers with the invaluable skill of learning the international language of science and business in a very awkward situation.  Their willingness to come to these countries, to work long hours, to spend their days educating the very workers the country needs, are rewarded with poverty.

Putting teachers in such a position is a sad affair for these countries and in the end results in a lower quality of education for its workers.  Teachers with skills shall inevitably be forced to look to other markets for work which rewards their skills with a living wage, while countries like Germany and Poland will be left with only the lowest quality of teacher.

Germany led the ESL industry down this path from reasonably paid salaried positions, to full-time hourly employment, to part-time employment, and finally to freelancers.  They have done this to save money.  Now they need to reverse the policies that have made these deplorable working conditions the norm.  To save their industry, and to protect their citizens from unscrupulous school owners increasing profits by providing low-quality courses from underpaid teachers, they need to step in, and regulate the Language Training Industry just as they would any other industry.

December 18, 2009 Posted by | Industry Tends | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

An Inventory and Discussion of English Futurity

When do you use shall versus will?  And what is the difference between ‘will read’ and ‘going to read’?

Years of teaching English to non-native speakers has given me a sort of insider’s view into this shall versus will phenomenon.  What I have found is that asking any two native-speaking English instructors when to use a certain grammatical or lexical construction will often result in three, four, five, or more often conflicting ‘rules.’  What this shows is that not only do students of the language not generally understand the grammar, but most often native speakers and in also those tasked with teaching the language do not fully understand the grammar and proper rules of usage.  In surveying speakers of the language, teachers, and the content of method books and grammar guides, it has become quite obvious to me that in regard to futurity in English this confusion and uncertainty goes well beyond the simple issue of shall versus will but that it extends to the entire spectrum of future forms.

This paper discusses the role of tense, aspect, and mood in expressing future in English.  It discusses at length the ten ways of expressing the future and provides detailed rules on the usage of forms such as shall, will, be going, be about, etc.

It dispels folk etymology and opinionated theories on when to use one form or the other, instead providing a thorough inventory of all forms with detailed discussion of the roots of these forms, historical changes, and current usage.  It is hoped that through a better understanding of the differences in these forms and their usage, that speaker and language educators may better equip themselves to teach this often challenging bit of grammar.

Click below to read the entire paper or download it to your computer:

An Inventory and Discussion of English Futurity

December 17, 2009 Posted by | English Linguistics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Structural Classification of English Modals

Have you ever wondered which modals can be used where?  Or why ‘will be able to go’ is grammatical but ‘will can go’ is not?  Or why some modals require to before the modified verb while others don’t?   Then read on…


Structural Classification of English Modals is the fourth in a series of five papers dealing with the basic grammatical structure and behavior of verbal constructions in modern English.  These five works: Voice in English:  Semantic Implications of the Passive-Active Paradigm (2007), Word Order & Syntactic Hierarchy in English (2007), A Logical Classification of English Aspects (2007), Structural Classification of English Modals (2009), and An Inventory and Discussion of English Futurity (2009) are intended to provide a holistic overview of the core functions of the language and their inherent interactions so that a better understanding of modern English grammar may be attained.


Modality is a contentious topic within the linguistics community with a vast diaspora of theories, approaches, interpretations, and classification schemes – some complementary and some far from it.  English relies on modal expressions more than many languages and possesses a vast complexity of mood and modal forms.  While there may be much debate as to which moods are or are not present in English usage, there is little to deny that mood plays an integral role in the meaning and structure of utterances in the language.  Mood is expressed in English via an ever changing number of marked and unmarked forms.  Regardless of specific modal usage being a point of contention among linguists and grammarians, language analysis shows a clear pattern of change in recent centuries toward increased usage of marked modal forms.  Many of these marked forms involve specific abnormal word orders, adverbial or prepositional cues, qualifying clauses or phrases, and verbal constructions functioning in an auxiliary manner.  It is not the specific moods, nor the meanings expressed by them that are the subject of this paper.  Rather, this is a discussion of these various marked verbal auxiliary forms used to manifest modality within the language.

This paper first discusses the auxiliary system of English utterances as outlined in Word Order & Syntactic Hierarchy in English (Ward 2007) and in particular the role modals as auxiliaries within this system.  It should be stated that the term modal, as discussed in this paper refers to any single word or words used as a marked form for expressing modality.  There is no credence given to terminology such as true modal, semi-modal, modal approximates, or the like.  Terminology such as the aforementioned reflect a  very limited and closed-minded approach to the study of modality and have more a place in efforts to classify structures based on historical views of modality than on the usage of the forms themselves.  As pertains to this discussion, modals express modality, and any marked form – whether a single verb, phrase, or other structure which together or alone expresses modality is a modal.  Upon adequate background discussion including word order, auxiliaries, and aspect, an accounting of all currently known structural classes of English modals shall be given with special attention paid to their form, behavior, and effect on the forms they subordinate.  Finally as thorough an inventory of modal forms as possible will be provided with reference to their respective structural classifications.

Continue reading, or download the entire paper to your computer:

Structural Classification of English Modals

December 17, 2009 Posted by | English Linguistics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Lax Standards in MA TESOL Curricula

I have been hearing more and more in the last few years about Master’s degrees in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages).  These degrees have been around for quite some time, but only in the past 5-10 years have they become popular and started popping up at universities around the UK, US, and Canada.  The sudden demand for these courses is likely driven by an overall trend in industries world wide for requiring higher degrees from applicants.  This is understandable as many undergraduate programs fail to offer much of a base, especially in fields related to teaching English.

In the UK, the BA degree is honestly little more than a basic primer.  Most programs are only 3 years in length and offer little specialization.  Courses in linguistic principles and a solid grounding in English grammar and vocabulary are almost unheard of in British undergraduate curricula.  Even Oxford points out in it’s application materials for graduate and doctoral programs in Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition, that expects applicants to have not been exposed to linguistics courses in their undergraduate careers.  The US and Canadian system fares a bit better in that the undergraduate curricula is quite a bit more extensive than those of the UK.  Bachelor’s degrees in these systems are 4-5 year degrees with usually 1/3 to 1/2 of courses in bachelor’s curriculum being specialized toward the topic of the degree.  Again though, linguistics is not a heavily studied field and course offerings at most universities are slim.  Those school with strong linguistics or philology programs in the English-speaking academic world however, rarely provide more than a tacit bit of attention toward the linguistics of the English language.  So these North American degrees, while generally superior to those of their transatlantic, still leave their graduates lacking in training and knowledge needed for teaching English.  And then of course, most prospective English teachers do not undertake an undergraduate study in linguistics.  Instead, many come from a wide variety of academic backgrounds with many in Education (pedagogy/teaching degrees), English (literature), or foreign language degrees (German, French, etc).

With this background of an overall lack of the basic knowledge teachers would need in undergraduate studies, and with so many people entering the ESL trade as a second career (or more recently as an option in a bad economy), the need for some higher, more precise level of training in obvious.  But, are these programs the answer?

Perhaps it’s best to first look at what various degree levels are meant to convey.  Possessors of a bachelor’s degree are supposed to be knowledgeable of their subject and are intended to have the knowledge needed to begin a career in that field.  A Master’s degree holder is meant to be an expert in his field, and Doctor (PhD, dphil) is supposed to be not only an expert, but so knowledgeable as to be able to teach his field.  So what does this mean for ESL?  Well, simply put, those who have completed an MA TESOL should have gained the necessary knowledge, proven a necessary level of understanding, and possess an ability to analyze and research problems with in their field to a level that they may be considered experts at teaching English.

Having met several of these MA TESOL grads, and having provided teacher training courses to them, I can tell you that they are far from experts.  Even worse, a quick browse through the various universities offering these degrees’ faculty listings shows that they are more often than not, not even taught by experts.  Part of the problem lies in the ability to define who is and is not an expert.  When it comes to TESOL, is an expert a linguist, a professor, or an experienced teacher?  That’s a question I will leave for another pose, but I would argue that a combination of all three would be necessary and that’s something rarely found on a single CV.  Certainly though, the dedication of qualified research-oriented faculty within these programs is one issue.  More than anything else though, the lax curricula of these programs is to blame.

Master’s programs vary greatly from field to field and from school to school.  Certainly some are perhaps too extensive, but most are not, and unfortunately some universities offer graduate degrees that are of little content and thus of little value.  Within the fields of education and applied linguistics (within which most MA TESOL programs lie), the average Master’s program is intended to take 1 year of full-time study or 2 years of part-time study.  This is actually a reasonable period of study assuming an intensive curriculum.  Looking at various programs though, such an assumption is likely incorrect:

University of Lancaster (UK):

The University of Lancaster has recently began promoting its MA TESOL program.  Lancaster lists the aims of their program as

  • To provide a thorough introduction to academic research and thinking of relevance to TESOL.
  • To identify issues of contemporary interest in the field of TESOL, and develop enlightened attitudes towards them.
  • To develop expertise in handling applied linguistic procedures for conducting evidence-based enquiry within the field of TESOL

These aims would sound nice if they were on the syllabus for an Intro to TESOL undergraduate course.  The very fact that the first aim of this programs is to provide an introduction to academic research is an immediate signal that it shall in no way adequately prepare anyone for anything other than getting ready to learn something (at another university, on there own? who knows).  These aims should not be considered adequate for even the most watered down bachelors program, yet here they are outlining an MA.  Even more interesting is a look at the programs actual curriculum:

There are six taught modules, taken in this order:

  • Second Language Learning (October-December, Year 1)
  • Communicative and Pedagogical Grammar (January – March, Year 1)
  • Trends and Issues in Language Teaching Methodology (April – June, Year 1)
  • Managing Innovation in Language Education (October – December, Year 2)
  • Culture and the Language Learner (January – March, Year 2)
  • Second Language Classroom Research (April – June, Year 2)

Each module is completed within a 10-week period and assessed by a 5,000 word assignment.

That’s it, 6 partial-semester, distance ed courses in very general subjects, a thesis paper, and you’ve got a degree.   But can a graduate of such a program be considered an expert?  Hardly.

The module description for the first course listed “Second Language Learning” reads like a summary of the Wikipedia article on the same topic and from the looks of it, likely presents about an equal depth of knowledge.  Likewise, the second course, which is the only one dealing with Grammar would not satisfy a 3rd grade teacher providing a basic primer course to her young pupils.  There’s really no reason to discuss the other modules as they are equally lacking in depth.

Needless to say, a graduate of this program is no more equipped to teach ESL than a backpacker with no university degree who’s spent a month doing a bit of reading and worked for a few months in a language school.


My point in writing this is not to single out Lancaster, nor is it to question their motives in offering this program as it is certainly in response to demand for such training.  It does however miss the point in a very big way, and that is more my point.  Lancaster is far from alone.  Their curriculum is a bit lighter than many programs.  But when you compare other programs offering these MA TESOL degree, one thing is common to them all and seems a glaring fallacy in their curricula:  None of them focus on grammar and the linguistics of English!  Like Lancaster, the University of Central Florida offers an MA TESOL, and like Lancaster, their program has only one grammar course which their graduates have admitted to me gives little more than a general overview.  This is the norm with MA TESOL programs worldwide, and I have to ask, how do universities propose to train English teachers without teaching English grammar???????

Teachers of a language must not only be able to teach grammar.  They must actually understand that grammar, and the root of the forms and structures therein.  They must possess a level of knowledge that allows them to not only teach forms, but to convey understanding to their students so that those language learners can be equipped to grasp the rules and usage of the language they are learning.

Short of steering prospective teachers fully away from these MA TESOL programs, I would instead offer a bit of advice:  when deciding whether to enroll in an MA TESOL program, weigh your options.  Compare the cost of the program to the added income you can expect to make with that added training.  Scrutinize the curriculum of the program being considered.  If it looks to be little more than that of a simple TEFL certificate, it probably is, so walk away.  Do a bit of reading on linguistics, grammar, and 2nd language acquisition before beginning your search, and when you think you’ve found a program, call the professors, ask them questions, and if you are unsatisfied with the quality of their answers, look elsewhere.

Finally, to the academic directors of the many departments offering MA TESOL programs, or to those universities planning to  offer one, please consider what your students will need to be experts within their field.  Discard the need for an easy education for the greater need of the language training industry for qualified, knowledgeable, and intuitive professionals.  And, more than anything TEACH GRAMMAR!!!!


Drew Ward

Executive Director, CALLE

December 17, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments