Fire alarm effects in ELT

I didn’t expect such a great metaphor for the ESL/EFL classroom to come from a writer on artificial intelligence.

In his article “There’s No Fire Alarm for Artificial Intelligence”, Eliezer Yudkowski uses the metaphor of a fire alarm to explain situations in which people act strangely without it being a faux pas.  His version of a fire alarm is a public messaging system that would give people permission to act with what in his opinion is the correct amount of urgency in the face of dangerously advanced and amoral (at least by our standards) AI.  A fire alarm, he postulates, is not simply an indication that danger exists (the other main indication being smoke), but a signal that it is acceptable to act as if it does in front of other people.  The acceptability comes from the fact that (actual and metaphorical) fire alarms are heard by everyone, and one’s knowledge that others also hear it enables one to take part in behavior like descending the stairs and paying a visit to the parking lot in the middle of a workday knowing that coworkers will not hold it against you.  Like many widely-shared messages, a fire alarm turns insane solo behavior into acceptable, even encouraged, group behavior.

(I heard this for the first time on Sam Harris’s podcast.  Yudkowski sounds exactly as you might expect someone with his job description to.  Incidentally, I have some basic disagreements with a lot of what Harris says, but still enjoy listening to his interviews.  I will be more specific in a future post.)

It’s pretty close to universal knowledge that speaking one’s L2 in front of other people is face-threatening behavior.  Consider the range of situations where reproach or shame are possible results – besides the obvious ones (sitting alone on the bus), you may be considered rude, stupid, foreign, pretentious, or just strange for suddenly bursting into French at your pâtisserie or watching Chinese soap operas on your phone.  Naturally, the number of “safe” contexts to speak your L2 increases if you move to a society where most people speak that language, but it is still not close to 100% of them – at the very least, you will mark yourself as a foreigner by “practicing” in public, and in the worst case, people can just be unbelievable assholes around 2nd language speakers.  Of course, there are learners who don’t feel threatened at all by speaking their L2, and maybe those are the same people who would immediately perform a fire drill alone at the first hint of smoke in the air.  Most people need acknowledgement that they won’t be judged negatively for trying and often failing to make themselves understood in a new code – they need a public signal that legitimizes it for everyone.  Something in the ESL/EFL classroom is necessary to transform society’s gaze from judgmental to facilitative.

This may turn out to be another black robe effect.  That is, the teacher might be the variable that turns language practice from face-threatening to the group norm.  The inverse is clearly true – teachers can definitely act in ways the discourage open practice or make students ashamed of failed attempts at communication (or worse, ashamed of imperfect grammar).  Teachers can also strengthen the norm of practicing English within the class by spelling it out explicitly and practicing it themselves.  I suspect though that a lot of the legitimization of language practice is due to the physical edifice of the classroom and the rituals one must go through to join a class – signing up, visiting the bursar’s office, carrying a bookbag, etc.  You can test this by walking out of your classroom during a task and secretly observing how much of the communication in your absence is still in English, and compare it to what happens when a waiter who shares an L1 with the cook is done taking your order.  As in the experiments that Yudkowski cites to make his case, students’ shared understanding of what behavior is validated is essential for any of that behavior to actually take place. Whatever it is that is acting as a fire alarm in language classes, its effects depend as much on the people as on the signal.


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