Dangling participles, rescued?

I was doing some staving-off-the-decline-of-my-brain reading when I came across this striking sentence:

Inching closer to the classroom, ideas are needed as to how explicit and implicit learning can best be harnessed and brought to bear on the acquisition task in a fashion that allows efficient progress and does not entail attempts to combine explicit and implicit teaching as separate endeavors with conflicting theoretical underpinnings, as has sometimes been proposed (see, e.g., R. Ellis 1993; Fotos & Ellis 1991; Willis 1993). (pp. 52-53)

Do you see what I saw?  I don’t know why my radar was up in this regard, but that sentence contains a dangling participle.  That is, the implied subject of the phrase “inching closer to the classroom” does not appear in the nearest independent clause ideally in the subject position adjacent to the participial phrase, or anywhere else for that matter.

(side note:  I also mean someday to investigate usages of “but” meaning “please regard the previous clause as a hedge”, as in the first line above.)

The quote comes from none other than Mike Long’s Second Language Acquisition and Task-based Language Teaching.  I wanted to see if my participle radar was mistuned, so I copy-pasted the relevant part of that quote on Twitter and asked whether my followers (that sounds pretentious) wires were tripped in the same way that mine were.  I got into an interesting discussion, mostly with Tyson Seburn and Rob Sheppard, of the issues involved, and realized there was more to what made a dangling participle seem odd than a missing subject.

I had some hypotheses about the results.

Hypothesis #1: Dangling participles are less likely to trigger alarms when they are part of a well-worn and familiar phrase like “having said that”, regardless of the contents of the main clause.  Rephrasings of those idiomatic expressions will be judged as less acceptable even when their literal meanings are similar.  This is for well-known principles of idiomaticity, the same reasons we don’t demand normal grammaticality of phrases like “be that as it may”.

Hypothesis #2: Dangling participles seem less abrupt when their implied subjects are either the speaker OR the discourse/conversation/train of thought itself, even when these are nowhere to be found in the main clause.  This came from a bit of reflection that A) the speaker and the discourse are always potential, ambient topics – discursive stowaways if you will – and B) I know many transitional phrases and discourse markers in Japanese work like this (although of course nobody considers this ungrammatical because not only participial phrases but all kinds of phrases in Japanese often lack subjects).

Perhaps also lending support to hypothesis #2, many familiar, idiomatic participial phrases (hypothesis #1) have the speaker or the discourse as their implied subject.

Hypothesis #3: Barring either of those scenarios, people will scan a sentence for a possible subject and try to make the dangling participle make sense.  The danger in these cases comes when two plausible interpretations exist, as in “Running the light, Joe was hit by a drunk driver”, and not so much in Anguished English fodder like “Drooling on his shoes, Joe was greeted by his Great Dane”.

I base this hypothesis on the fact that we don’t make the demand of close proximity on all potentially ambiguous modifiers in English.  Take prepositional phrases, for example – we don’t require that “I painted a picture of her in the late afternoon” mean I painted a picture depicting the afternoon (whenever I put brush to canvas), while “I painted a picture in the late afternoon of her” means I had my brushes out between 4 and 7 PM.  We are usually capable of drawing out likely the most meanings through context, and I presume that when push comes to shove we’ll do the same for dangling participles.

Hypothesis #4: When the dangling participle is separated from its subject by an empty pronoun like “it” or “there”, people will disregard the empty pronoun and treat the next noun as the subject.  This is because people will regard the empty pronoun as simply a placeholder and skip over it in their search for a referent for the participial phrase.

Hypothesis #5: When the implied subject is also the implied agent in a main clause in the passive voice (e.g. Spraying water, the fire was extinguished), the dangling participle will seem less jarring.

As we shall see, not all of these were correct.  Or maybe they are, but I’d need a sample of more than 25 to say so.

I made a quick Google doc with a Likert-style 5-point scale of acceptability for 8 different sentences, all with dangling participles (still viewable here), tweeted the link around, and after a few days, compiled the results.  The survey started with these instructions:

This survey presents participial phrases that would traditionally be considered “dangling”; that is, the participial phrases do not refer to the nearest noun. Please indicate how correct or incorrect you would regard these utterances in *written contexts*. Note that this is not only a grammaticality test; all of the utterances contain something that is traditionally considered an error. In your assessments, you may include or exclude considerations of grammaticality, comprehensibility, conventionality, or other factors at your discretion.

As the comments indicated, not everyone read this part.  Anyway, I wanted to make clear that I was after more than just grammaticality.  That part at least seemed clear to respondents.

Here are the sentences I wrote:

Rolling down the street, I saw a car.  This is pretty close to a canonical dangling participle.  The subject of “rolling down the street” should be “car”, not the nearest noun “I”.  Still, the subject of the participial phrase is clearly present in the main clause, which may help its acceptability.

Standing at the podium, the students prepared for the teacher’s lecture.  Unlike the previous sentence, the subject of the participial phrase is only present in the main clause as a possessive, i.e. not as the head of a noun phrase.  If my hypothesis #3 is correct, the reduced salience of the subject sentence should be less acceptable than the last, although they are equally incorrect from a strictly grammatical point of view.

Pouring concrete, there is a construction crew in the street.  The subject is separated from the participial phrase by a dummy pronoun (or adverb, I suppose).  If my hypothesis #4 is correct, this sentence will be judged more acceptable than ones whose subjects are simply missing.

Moving on, the next topic is sales quotas.  This combines my hypotheses #1 and #2 in that “moving on” is a well-used phrase and has the speaker or the discourse as its subject.

Screen Shot 2017-05-22 at 22.21.51.png
From COCA.  Mostly spoken, but clearly common.

Knowing Bob, it’s his family that is distracting him from work.  Same as the last sentence, “knowing (person)” is a well-worn phrase that has the speaker as its subject.  Maybe this item was redundant.  If so, the scores for one this and the last one should be about the same.

Looking everywhere, the key was finally found.  The subject is the implied agent of a main clause in the passive voice, as in hypothesis #5.  This should make it less objectionable to readers than a sentence where the subject is missing entirely.

Gradually culminating in true agriculture, plants were gathered from smaller and more prescribed areas around human settlements.
This one is tricky.  The subject is the process described in the main clause, although that process is never nominalized.  Further, it is wordy, which may work for or against it: for it in that people may forget exactly how the participial phrase was worded by the end of the sentence and settle for getting the gist, and against it in that it has no chance of ringing familiar like “having said that” or “moving on”.

Switching rapidly between topics, grammar was discussed in turn with semantics and pedagogy.  This is a wordy phrase and a wordy sentence, giving it low familiarity, but the implied subject is either the speaker or the discourse itself, which should work in its favor.

You know what I realized now that I didn’t include at all?  A sentence where the subject is not even hinted at as an agent or buried in a subordinate clause!  Something like “Swinging with great force, the ball flew into the outfield”.  Next time!

…Also, none of these participial phrases are past participles.  I wanted to keep it simple this time.


ss all.png

This is for all surveyees.  5 is “Totally acceptable”, and 1 is “Totally unacceptable”.  As you can see, there are two early leaders.

I asked surveyees for their relevant grammar experience and education level, but none of these produced significant changes in responses, so we can forget about them.  For no reason at all though, I’ll just say that my Twitter feed appears to be highly educated.

On the other hand, there was a small difference in responses for people who said “comprehension” was a criterion for judgment.  These were 18 of the 25 total repondents.

ss comp.png

As opposed to clarity, 9 of the 25 respondents (some people gave multiple concerns).ss clar.png

I never gave or asked for operationalized definitions of “comprehensibility” or “clarity”.  I assume comprehensibility meant that at least one plausible interpretation was possible, and that clarity meant that one interpretation was “clearly” more attractive than others.  When respondents gave a longer explanation that seemed to coalesce around one of these definitions, I treated them simply as either “comprehensibility” or “clarity”.  For example, “When it is understandable”, was reduced to “comprehensibility”.  As you can see, the “clarity” respondents rated all the sentences lower overall.  Since all the sentences were written specifically to buck the rules of clear writing, this is not surprising.

Only two respondents included grammaticality as criteria, so I haven’t bothered to compute averages for them.

So, the clear winner in producing acceptable dangling participles is idiomaticity or familiarity, particularly among people who valued comprehensibility.   Let me go through the sentences for detailed results.

Rolling down the street, I saw a car. 1.92 acceptability with all respondents (1.94 just for comprehensibility and 1.78 for clarity).  This was the second-lowest score.  Its acceptability correlated with the next sentence’s acceptability with a score of 0.71, meaning that people who accepted one usually accepted the other and people who rejected one tended to reject the other too.

Standing at the podium, the students prepared for the teacher’s lecture. 2.12 acceptability (2.22/1.67).  I wish I could say that this score and the last score support one of my hypotheses but since I neglected to include a “pure” dangling participle, it’s hard to tell whether including the subject in the main clause, but not adjacent to the participial phrase, caused these sentences to be evaluated more positively.  What we can probably say that including the subject in the main clause somewhere other than adjacent to the participial phrase doesn’t help its acceptability by much.

Pouring concrete, there is a construction crew in the street. 1.88 acceptability (1.61/1.11).  This surprised me.  The subject of “pouring concrete” is only separated from the participial phrase by a dummy pronoun/adverb, yet this sentence was evaluated the least favorably of all.  Perhaps the simplicity of the sentence overall invited readers to mentally compare it to an easily generated improved version (“Pouring concrete, a construction crew is in the street”), and therefore reject it due to its clear inferiority to this salient alternative?  Or is it too jarring to try to imagine a “there” pouring concrete?

Mysteriously, this sentence’s score was correlated with the score for the “gradually culminated” sentence at 0.51.  I have no idea what could be behind this.

Moving on, the next topic is sales quotas. 4.00 acceptability (4.22/3.88).  Yes, the popular idiom which refers to the speaker got high marks. 

Knowing Bob, it’s his family that is distracting him from work. 4.04 acceptability (4.22/3.78)  And the other one did too.  They were also correlated with each other at 0.59.

Looking everywhere, the key was finally found. 2.16 acceptability (2.22/1.89). Much like having its subject located elsewhere in the sentence as opposed to completely missing (see the first two items), having its subject implied as the agent of a passive construction doesn’t appear to help dangling participles become much less objectionable.

Gradually culminating in true agriculture, plants were gathered from smaller and more prescribed areas around human settlements. 2.88 acceptability (2.83/2.78).  I wonder how the scores would have been for this one if I hadn’t told respondents in advance that it contained a dangling participle.  Having considered that possibility, it’s also potentially true that the acceptability of dangling participles increases the longer the sentence overall gets, and the reader can no longer be bothered to look for grammar mistakes for a participial phrase that occurred 30 words ago – like in this sentence.

Thinking about this sentence has led me to hypothesize about a third discursive stowaway in addition to the speaker and the discourse itself, which is the content of another clause.  This is also what is referred to by “which” in sentences like “It rained all summer, which helped the grass even if it killed my tomatoes”.

Switching rapidly between topics, grammar was discussed in turn with semantics and pedagogy. 3.00 acceptability (3.22/2.89)  So a candidate for a 2nd-place-finisher after idiomaticity or familiarity is reference to the discourse itself as a potential saving grace of a dangling participle.  Regrettably, I don’t have a survey item that tests reference to the speaker without using a common phrase, so I haven’t really tested hypothesis #2 properly. 

To recap, here are my 5 hypotheses on how dangling participles can be made acceptable and how they fared:

1) Familiarity/Idiomaticity.  This one seems to have the strongest support.

2) Reference to discursive stowaways (where the implied subject is the speaker, the discourse itself, or *update* the content of another clause).  Possibly.  Needs more research.

3) Presence of the subject somewhere else besides adjacent to the participial phrase.  Probably not, or not by much.

4) Dummy pronoun/adverb.  Probably not.  Needs more research (see below).

5) Implied as the agent of a passive construction. Maybe a little bit.

From Netflix.

Conclusions and next steps

So if there were a tl;dr version of this post, it would be “dangling participles are only barely acceptable when they refer to a few consistently available referents, such as the speaker, the discourse, or the contents of the next clause.  They are much more acceptable when they are common idioms or set phrases used consistently the same way.  Otherwise, avoid them.”

I drew up this survey and compiled its results in less than a week, and some issues slipped through the cracks.  Here are some things I would do if I were to try this again:

  • Test for acceptability of dummy “it” defined later in the sentence (cataphoric reference) – e.g. “Panting, it was the dog who seemed to dislike the heat the most”.
  • Test for missing subjects who are not even an implied part of the main clause, e.g. “Moving in, the truck was full of furniture”.  If all of my hypotheses are at least a bit correct, this should have the lowest score.
  • Test more for the missing subjects being the content of the main clause, as in “Making a clear statement of its priorities, there was no comment from the White House on the ongoing crisis”.  This was my third discursive stowaway.
  • Test past participles, a la “Decimated, the Wu army’s families anxiously awaited their return home”.

Having posted this with mistakes, it has now been edited for clarity.

JALT vs. CATESOL pt. 2

A few weekends ago I attended my second major CATESOL event, and I noticed a few more differences from my last teaching organization, JALT (the Japan Association For Language Teaching – yes, they capitalize “For”, meaning the acronym really should be JAFLT, or ジャフルト).  I’ve come to notice what I think is a bit of a drawback to CATESOL’s highly dedicated and professional members.  I’ll dance around it for a little before I finally get to it later on.  Or maybe I’ll nestle it between body paragraphs so you’re not tempted to just skip to the bottom.

One thing you find when moving from one culture to another is that you frequently find yourself waiting for things that never happen, seeing social cues that are invisible to the rest of the population and waiting for a conditioned response that is curiously not forthcoming – a “bless you” after a sneeze, a door held open, or a formulaic conversation-ending phrase before your coworker leaves the break room.  In CATESOL and in my first semester in ESL in California I’ve had this feeling very often.  I keep expecting some hot-button topic to be mentioned, even gratuitously, and then it’s not.  Or I expect the speaker to drop an author’s name just to let the audience know he/she knows his/her stuff, but he/she just moves on.  In their place, sometimes things I’m not familiar with get name-dropped instead, or sometimes (this is most alienating) nothing happens at all.  I find myself oddly unable to follow professional conversations in a natural way.  Many conversations here seem like the first time I heard a telephone conversation in Japan, where nobody says “bye”, they just hang up when they’re done talking.

I’ve written down a few things I found myself waiting for and didn’t see – things that are conspicuously absent from my CATESOL/ESL experience.  For reflection, I’ll follow them with some things that I hear regularly in CATESOL or ESL but I rarely or never heard in Japan or JALT.  And for the record, I still haven’t lived in California for even half a year, so feel free to take my claims with as much salt as you need.


Native Speaker.  I have heard this just once here, from another teacher from Japan.  On the other hand, at least 2 of my superiors have been non-native speakers, and many more coworkers wouldn’t have fit the NST mold in Japan (i.e., they are not white).  I have heard a bit about the advantages of learning from teachers who have experience learning English as adults, in that they understand where the students are coming from or are former ESL students themselves.  Interestingly, this was not couched in a NST/NNST dichotomy, but rather the firsthand ESL experience of those teachers.  I kept expecting the words “native” and “non-native” to be used, as they often were in Japan, to discuss the stereotyped strengths of the NST/NNST groups (in Japan, “foreign” and “Japanese”).  Even more surprisingly, but I haven’t heard any talk of the supposed advantages of NSTs, whether for authenticity, correctness, or anything else.  It’s almost as if people here believe that NS status isn’t as salient as qualifications or experience as a language teacher!

Interlanguage.  This troubles me.  The way I understand our profession, interlanguage is the ball we are always trying to move down the field, and everything else we do is just indirectly trying to do that.  If I don’t hear any acknowledgment of interlanguage in discussions of what we do, I fear I may not understand the rules of the game we’re playing.  By “acknowledgment of interlanguage” I mean recognizing that some aspects of students’ mental representations of English may have to come in a certain order (not the order that grammar textbooks present them in), that the representations we care most about aren’t always amenable to explicit teaching (i.e., “knowing” a rule won’t necessarily lead to its incorporation in IL), and that grammar terms are not necessarily the currency of the classroom, useful as they might be for other reasons. Way too often in CATESOL I hear people talk about “grammar teaching” as if its only possible form were “explaining grammar in metalanguage”, and “grammar syllabus” (or worse, “coursebook”) as a stand-in for “syllabus”.  I see some indirect evidence that people think about IL, and in many cases it could just be that they think they’re too mundane to talk about.  On the other hand, I’ve heard people dropping grammar terms as if they were celebrities they once met, and it seems taken for granted that lower-level courses are “grammar-based”.  My brain threatens to abandon ship whenever someone describes lower-level ESL as “teaching basic grammar forms”.

I haven’t figured out what this lack of mentioning is evidence of, but a bit of open discussion on old staples input, intake, uptake, interaction, and natural order would go a long way toward putting my fears to rest.  I feel a bit like I’ve been admitted to a prestigious medical school, but all I’ve heard discussed are 1) holistic ways to lengthen life and 2) the head bone’s connected to the (beat) neck bone.

Extensive Reading.  I suppose this follows from the last one.  A few colleagues at my current institution have talked about this, and I’ve heard rumors that it was once attempted.  My school does in fact have almost a full bookshelf of graded readers (more if you include other languages), organized by one of the full-timers, so it may be ahead of the curve.  I haven’t heard ER mentioned in presentations though, especially to the gratuitous degree it’s mentioned in JALT, even in presentations on totally different topics.  To the contrary, I have seen a great many reading textbooks here, most intended for close reading as a class, with the more unfamiliar vocabulary the better.  My fear is that the lack of concern for interlanguage is what drives the lack of focus on ER, or that people are making assumptions about their students’ exposure to English outside the classroom (potentially obviating the need for a focus on input in the classroom) that aren’t coming true.  See next point.

Free conversation.  This is generally a term of abuse in SLA, and many people would take it as a sign of quality that ESL teachers seem to avoid it.  However, and this surprised me as much as anything about ESL, most teachers here also seem to understand that their students remain ensconsed in their L1 communities when not in the classroom.  This being the case, and considering how infrequent cases of successful L2 acquisition that include no unscripted interaction are, we really ought to look for ways to actively encourage free conversation, even at the expense of stuff that is actually in the curriculum.  I recognize that not everyone is willing to jump on the Dogme train (another term I haven’t heard in SoCal – Dogme, not train.  Actually, train too) but if our students have little to no interaction, negotiation, opportunity for recast, etc. on subjects of their choosing, and instead have 5 hours of controlled grammar practice per week, we’re sacrificing probably the most important predictor of L2 learning for something 4th or 5th on the list.  It seems very odd to me that teachers can see how close many of their students’ day-to-day lives are to EFL rather than ESL and continue to focus on form as if input and interaction were taken care of.

To recap, my main concern is that the lack of IL discussion that I’ve seen evinces a lack of knowledge about what really builds L2 competence, and that grammar books and dense reading activities have filled the gap that that knowledge should occupy.  Again, some people seem to talk in a way that implies IL is a central concern and simply haven’t used the word, which is fine – they don’t feel a need to name-drop it.  The thing is, I’m not convinced everyone is on the same page where this is concerned, as evidenced by the abundance of synthetic syllabi and grammar jargon.  Many folks seem to think that their job is explaining English grammar, and that this will result in students being able to use it.  I hope to be proven wrong.

On the other hand…

行方不明 (whereabouts unknown) in JALT

Credit/non-credit.  By this term I mean the distinction between classes which lead to transfer and those that don’t.  I’m willing to chalk some of my opinions on this topic in Japan to the fact that I spent almost all my career there teaching at my own school and later to non-English-majors at university.  However, I’m convinced that almost all ELT in Japan is low-stakes, and no discussions on credit/non-credit classes are a symptom of this.  Let me qualify that – almost all ELT that conforms at all to international norms is low-stakes, because ELT that is not test-prep is almost by definition irrelevant.  If you are doing anything other than helping students cram in pretertiary settings, you are giving your students more “cultivation” and “character” than real opportunity to advance in society.  The apparent lack of communicative English in the public school systems is a bit more complicated than I’m making it seem here (briefly, the high-stakes tests most parents think they’re preparing their kids for by teaching them grammar-translation don’t actually have much or any grammar-translation on them), but the point is that 20th-21st century approaches to SLA like CLT are on the losing half of a “serious/unserious” dichotomy, grammar-translation being cartoons from the New Yorker and CLT being Larry the Cable Guy.  If you want to be treated as a professional, teach like it’s 1890.

JALT, an organization aligned much more with international ELT than Japanese public education, has a membership who sees grammar-translation as stone-age pedagogy (which sometimes makes it appear to old-fashioned grammar teachers as a professional organization of unprofessionals).  Its ranks are full of highly intelligent and passionate teachers working in stigmatized “oral communication” classes, desperate for their work to be taken seriously.  As with a lot of ELT in Japan, the closeness to international norms of any teacher’s approach seems inversely proportional to the seriousness with which society takes them.  If you are a JALT member, your greatest achievements with your students are almost invisible to the machinery of social advancement.

In contrast, “credit” teaching in community colleges in the US is playing for keeps – you’re teaching students who more often than not plan to transfer to American universities, and the skills they get with you help them in immediate ways.  What they get with your help will lead them to get along better with their classmates, make sense of a lecture, or understand what exactly about the latest Trump quote everyone is so alarmed/amused about within the very near future, not on some hypothetical far-off study abroad or business trip.  Even “non-credit” students still have to live here, and in my experience are motivated in a way that seems less conducive to narrow-minded grammar study.  If you teach in Japan you’ll have a few students who need English to achieve their heartfelt goals, and make inspiring use of their language skills – but my point is that if you teach ESL, they’ll be the majority in every class.

I don’t mean to say that ELT in Japan would be improved by the addition of more credit classes – but the prevalence of discussions of “credit/non-credit” classes in ESL (along with various other terms you hear bandied about, like “SLOs” and “transfer”) shows how much edifice is built around the idea that people in the US really need English education.

Immigrants get it done

As I said in an earlier post, a whiff of desperation and a nagging feeling of inadequacy can sometimes be a great motivator.  Maybe teachers in Japan are overcompensating with their high-minded discussions of when output leads to noticing the gap, but their students are almost definitely better off for it – even if the circumstances that produced such passion for the details of SLA are unhealthy overall.  Also, maybe being somewhat isolated socially, particularly from the norms of ELT in Japan (which, again, date back to the advent of village horticulture in the Yayoi period) allows JALT members not to be co-opted as much by an industry that would much prefer you just use a coursebook than plan tasks or have conversations.

I realize now one of the most essential aspects of JALT – it is composed of immigrants and deviants.  The NSTs in JALT are mostly members of racial and cultural minorities, and the Japanese JALT folks are people who like to hang out with visible minorities.  They would not blend in in a crowd of average citizens and gain little social capital from their careers.  Of course they lack the youthful energy of CATESOL; very few of them went straight from their BA to grad school and then right into teaching.  I suspect most of them (like me) had years of teaching experience before they got their first qualification.  They also have an immigrant’s healthy skepticism of mainstream culture; a decades-old tradition of teaching one particular way has no meaning to an immigrant NST.  They have little use (or little chance of establishing) institution identities around their places of work; they need professional identities established among other people with shared experience and expertise to take pride in their work.

Maybe I’m romanticizing the immigrant experience in Japan a bit.  Still, I think “institutionalization” is my new favorite word for capturing the differences I’ve felt between CATESOL and JALT.

Appendix: Phrases that causes my jejunum to undulate violently

“when you get to that point in the curriculum”

“the present simple” (particularly in Chapter One of a grammar textbook)

“transfer errors”

“master a grammar point and continue on to the next one”


“extra-credit reading”

“reduced adjective clause”

“_________ clause” (when spoken to a beginning learner)

“too high-level”

“know the meaning exactly” (meaning “know the accepted translation in Japanese”)

“University of Lye-chester”

Highly sensitive to neglect of interlanguage.


NSism and being a gadfly

My old tutor has taken the bold step of defending the veracity of the NS/NNS (native speaker/non-native speaker) dichotomy.  Why bold?  Well, NS/NNS is to ELT what male/female and white/black (or white/non-white) are to the social sciences.  That is, the implications, interpersonal and political, of the dichotomies are so reviled that their underlying reality ends up becoming toxic by association, and people end up denying the empirical existence of those categories altogether.  In such an environment, asserting that male/female, white/black, or NS/NNS are even scientifically justifiable categorization schemes puts one in the position of speaking against the vast majority of one’s peers, which seems, yes, bold.

It looks like I’m going to take the conventional position here of defending my tutor and others who take similar stances on other issues as put-upon whistleblowers who just want to stand up for an unpopular truth, but it’s quite a bit more complicated than that.  As it turns out, in some cultures (like this one), such positions frequently result in one being valorized as an intellectual martyr for pushing back against a stifling, politically correct consensus, making it tempting for a minority of commentators on any given topic to claim the “underdog truth-teller” ground and start getting invited to speak at universities just for being perceived as a rare straight arrow in topsy-turvy academia.  This is despite the fact that if 99 experts out of 100 believe one thing and the last believes something else, the one should be deemed less likely to be right than the 99, not equally or even more likely (is this related to the phenomenon wherein as the odds of winning the lottery decrease, people focus more on and overestimate more the likelihood that they will win?).  Also, the unconventional opinion being celebrated is often suspiciously close to the cherished beliefs of reactionary and conservative elements in society.  If you’re obnoxious enough in your determination to offend the progressive consensus, you might even get called a “gadfly” or “provocateur”, terms which like “curmudgeon” seem to indicate a type of backwardness that we are obligated to find charming.  The iconoclast is a role that many people would be happy to play.

I know my tutor better than that; he doesn’t endorse blanket favoritism of NS teachers based on their supposed innate qualities, nor does every evolutionary psychologist interested in biological sex think that men and women communicate differently because of gender roles in hunter-gatherer society, or every social scientist who includes race among his/her variables think that IQ might be tied to skin tone. But many people take the cultural cachet surrounding the consensus-challenger and the thread of empiricism in these categorizations and tie to it weighty bundles of prejudice, folk wisdom, and plain assumption.  That is, they use the role of the gadfly in challenging apparent ridiculousness at the far left to on-the-sly reassert regressive principles.  Under the pretense of stating clear facts, they Morse-code their chauvinistic political beliefs.  Telling someone that you believe that white and black are different races is oddly out of place unless it is taken to signify something of much more salience, analogous to how mentioning an applicant’s great hairstyle and friendly demeanor in a letter of recommendation sends a very clear message to that applicant’s detriment.  I’m not just saying that ordinary people are statistically illiterate and not strong enough critical thinkers to understand where the salience of these categories stops, and therefore that they mistake the significance of mentioning them.  The categories are the mastheads on vast memeplexes concerning “innate” differences, and accepting the categories reliably conveys the message that you endorse their usual hangers-on as well.

This is partly because people reliably can’t parse nuanced messages (like “NSs exist but NSism is wrong”), yes, but it’s also because time spent defending the categorizations rather than fighting against the various injustices that accompany them is a statement of one’s priorities.  By defending the categorizations you reliably affirm stereotypes associated with them by 1) taking part in a known code that believers in stereotypes use, and 2) signalling by omission that the categories have greater importance to you than the injustices that follow them.

Now to cut my tutor a break again, the NS/NNS distinction is much more to the heart of our field of study than gender or racial differences are in any of the contexts you often hear them discussed.  A lot of what we actually choose to do or have our students do in the classroom absolutely depends on whether we think they can learn English the same we that we did, i.e. mostly implicitly.  This makes the NS/NNS distinction worth discussing without implications for who should be teaching them.  In my mind, the NS teacher/NNS teacher distinction is an artifact of how we assume that those teachers were themselves trained, and has hugely diminished in apparent significance since we moved from Japan to California.  On the other hand, not many news readers hearing how people of African descent are more likely to have sickle-cell anemia have any practical use for that information.  HR interviewers have much less need for information on gender differences (in any skill) than they might think.  If you hear the subject of innate differences between two types of people mentioned in most common conversational contexts, you are probably hearing a real-time misapplication of mental resources.  This extends, by the way, to discussions of NS and NNS teachers.

If the categories are as durable as I and many others think, they will survive a period of neglect while we focus on addressing the many problems the hangers-on of these categories have produced.  I don’t even see a need here to define what I mean by affirming their empirical existence; presumably anyone reading this and my other posts on race (try “Search”) knows I think part of the socially constructed meanings of these categories is that they are supposed to be objectively real (and therefore very important and unchangeable), but that doesn’t mean that their real-world effects are limited to “hurt feelings” – or that no part of them is objectively real.  Merely mentioning them in this post is sure to invite insinuations that I think they mean more than I do.  I just mean to say that if “innate differences” really are innate, they will stick around and continue to have whatever effects they do even if we don’t take bold stands defending them.