1.- COURSE BOOKS AND THE CURSE OF CELEBRITY
Course books and the curse of celebrity
The steady increase in the use of celebrities in international coursebooks is denying learners and teachers the opportunity to use English to explore a more relevant world, argues Lindsay Clandfield
When we teach English as an international language, what are we also teaching? As language teachers we are in a curious and unique position. We do not have a fixed subject in the same way that the history teacher teaches history or the geography teacher teaches geography. The language teacher teachers grammar, vocabulary, reading, writing, speaking and listening skills, but these are all “how”. They are not “what”. Language teachers are cursed with no content, but also blessed because everything can be our content.
Is the “what” we teach culture? Language and cultural
studies used to be seen as inseparable. If you learnt English you learned about
British people, their way of life, their literature and cultural history. If
you were studying American English then you would learn about the
I believe that two kinds of content have risen to fill
the gap that was once provided by cultural content from
The second kind of content is that of the world of
celebrity. Smiling faces of actors such as Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise leap off
the page. We teach the vocabulary of nationalities via their most photogenic
stars (for example, “Maria Sharapova is Russian. She is from
Or at least it seems to be, judging by what is in our materials. I took a look at major international coursebooks published in the early 1990s. The average number of celebrities was two. I counted the number of celebrities in three or four international coursebooks from the latter part of this decade. The number had risen to an average of 28.
In a way this is not surprising. Modern materials will try to reflect modern life. Teachers want to feel up to date. Authors and publishers want material that will sell books. And boy, does celebrity sell in other fields. Celebrity sells perfumes, clothing labels, popular magazines, newspapers and television shows. Today’s celebrities are international, they are everywhere and they lead eye-catching lives. Some of them also do good acts, such as supporting charities and raising awareness about important issues. Don’t they make recognisable and motivating material for lessons?
Despite what we may think in the
Celebrity can date quickly. One used to be able to depend
on famous people looking more or less the same for a couple of years, but now
they change their look every fortnight. If they aren’t changing their physical
appearance they are most likely getting into some kind of trouble. As a
coursebook writer, this point was brought home to me in 2005, the year that
Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston got divorced. I wasn’t personally distressed at
the break-up of such a nice-looking
The fact that celebrities may not be known and can date quickly are two practical reasons against their inclusion in international materials. There is also a more ideological reason, and it’s simply that this kind of material does not conform to many educators’ ideas of what education is about. It’s what gets English coursebooks criticised for being vapid and, as one fellow teacher remarked to me once, “so light that if I don’t hold on tightly it will just float away”. One could argue that the mere presence of celebrities and happy, comfortable people in our materials makes them part of a dissemination of global celebrity culture, a culture that offers us, in the words of Ellis Cashmore, professor of culture and media at Staffordshire University, England, “a distinctive vision, a beguiling one too: one in which there are few limits, an expanding range of opportunities and inexhaustible hope”.
I’m not saying that this kind of content can’t make for interesting lessons. It can. I’m not saying it can’t be motivational. Again, it can. But if we believe that education is about learning, discovering and becoming interested in new things that we didn’t know about before, then this subject matter short-changes us. If we believe that education is about thinking critically about the world we live in and making more sense of it then this, it’s time to get a bit more serious and move on. Let’s wise up, not dumb down.
Lindsay Clandfield is the main author of Global, Macmillan’s new course for adults
The Guardian Weekly – TEFL Update
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