Unit 3: Learning English

3.0 Introduct

The monolithic view suggests that learning a language is similar to learning other subjects, like biology or geography. And indeed, this is what many students, parents, politicians, and members of the public assume. But we have been proposing that ontologically, ethically, professionally, and practically, it makes sense to view English as plurilithic.

What do we know about how learners learn plurilithic entities like English? In this unit we invite you to reflect on what actually happens in your students’ minds as they learn ‘the language’.



Learning English isn’t the same as learning other school subjects


  • Figure 3.1: A typical German school timetable

A German school pupil following the above timetable would study English on Monday and Tuesday mornings and Thursday afternoons, alongside other traditional subjects. This amounts to a couple of hours a week.
Pupils’ experience of studying English will be similar in many respects to their experience of studying the other subjects on the timetable, with a teacher who determines what happens in each session, a textbook, homework, and tests.

In their history class at 08:20 on a Monday morning, they may be taught that the Chinese revolution began in 1911 with the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the abdication in 1912 of the last emperor, Puyi, following 2000 years of imperial rule. This follows on from 40 minutes of English, in which perhaps they have been introduced to some new vocabulary and ways of expressing the future, including the use of the auxiliary verb shall, e.g. in Shall we stay to help clear up? (as in Headway Upper-Intermediate).

From the learner’s perspective, they are getting a series of facts from the teacher which they are expected to store permanently in memory. (Although it’s unlikely that a great deal sinks in at that time on a Monday morning!)


activity  Activity

Note down some quick responses to the following questions:

    • ● To what extent do you consider English to be like other subjects your students might be studying? Is it more like some subjects than others, or is it not really like a school subject at all?
    • ● To what extent do you regard what you do as similar to, or different from, what teachers of other subjects do?
    • ● Do you think your current students are learning English in the same way that they are learning the subject matter of other classes that they might be taking?



Plurilithic thinking entails challenging the belief that English is ‘a thing’ out there in nations, books, classrooms, and curriculums. So in this Unit we’ll look inside learners’ minds. Those who have already studied SLA may feel tempted to skip this section, but we recommend at least skimming the content because what we present here is not the traditional view of the field.

Adapting terms used by Widdowson (2000), we may call English as it is actually acquired and used the ‘object language’, described by linguists, and distinguish it from ‘the language subject’, the curriculum matter that is taught and tested alongside geography, biology, mathematics, literature, etc. The two are, of course, intimately related, but the relationship between them is far from straightforward or free of controversy.

Monolithic thinking about English makes ‘the language subject’ manageable for teachers (but not necessarily learnable for learners), whereas plurilithic thinking about Englishes takes the learner’s ‘object language’ seriously, and by doing so challenges many of the certainties that teachers have long believed in.

Many teachers clearly appreciate that the ‘the language subject’ can’t be approached in exactly the same way as other school subjects, despite the expectations of students, parents, and educational authorities. But they also have legitimate doubts that English can be learned in classrooms the same way that ‘the object language’ is acquired by infants who grow up in English-using contexts. In this unit we invite you to reflect on the processes involved in both first and L2 acquisition.