Auteur: Ioana Cretu


Résumé: L’expérience personnelle m’a conduit à l’observation de la grande richesse des écrits autant dans le domaine de l’éducation linguistique que dans celui de l’éducation morale, mais rarement les deux thèmes sont réunis au sein d’une perspective unitaire, dans un même texte. Dans la linguistique appliquée on retrouve des approches interdisciplinaires pertinentes dans ce sens (par exemple la psychologie de l’apprentissage), mais les points de vue axiologiques se sont concentrés surtout sur l’inter/multiculturalité ou bien sur des thèmes de frontière (par exemple le plagiat). La moralité de l’enseignement d’une langue étrangère est moins visée, même si celle-ci fait fondamentalement partie de l’édifice complet et en enrichit les résultats. Cette article offre notamment  l’occasion de survoler l’acte éducationnel linguistique dans une telle perspective, en invitant le lecteur à la réflexion, au dialogue et à une collaboration dans ce sens.

Mots clés: axiologie, moralité, enseignement-apprentissage, langues étrangères


In my experience of fifteen years as a language teacher and academic, I found much has been said and written about foreign language teaching as well as about moral education, but rarely about both on the same occasion.

The bibliography of applied linguistics, for instance, deals at length with interdisciplinary matters such as the psychology of learning and teaching, while axiological views explore it from multi-/interculturality perspectives or cater to tightly defined areas (such as plagiarism and the ethics of academic writing). By comparison, my search for critical insights into the moral dimension of language teaching has yielded fewer results.

Most notable for triggering healthy thought processes on the morality of my own professional activity has been Bill Johnson’s Values in English Language Teaching (2002), which I shall use here as a framework for reviewing experience and encouraging reflection in others like myself, for any language teaching undertaking is ripe with axiological variables, whether  we acknowledge them as such or just take them for granted.


General underpinnings

Before Johnson, three paradoxes in the teaching of English as a foreign language had already been made explicit by Edge (1996):

  • a socio-political paradox, by which the culture of English teaching does not necessarily correspond with that of the country where English is being taught;
  • a liberation-domination paradox, by which the teaching of English in various places around the world contributes concurrently to the emancipation of the population as well as the spread of cultural domination;
  • a paradoxical contrast between the respect for diversity which the teaching of a foreign language intrinsically fosters and the intolerance occasionally shown by the very students learning it and whose own right to being different should be observed.

I can remember experiencing these paradoxes for myself, beginning with learning English in the 90’s, in the changing tides following the communist regime. At the time, Romanian schools welcomed willing foreigners as short-term English teachers and, for me, it was John, the Scottish guy. His free spirited way of speaking, of thinking, of playing Oasis on the guitar, on top of his freestyle (actually, untrained) approach to teaching English could not have been more confusing, then norm setting, for us, barely teenagers at the time. Twenty years later, I begin to understand the impact on my subsequent development and the many times when, first as a learner, then as a teacher, I found myself in or contemplating the paradoxes of being a Romanian teacher of English.

Moving on, Johnon’s thesis is that teaching is not only method, but also relationship, which in turn depends on the values which comprise the backbone of the teacher’s personal and professional identity, manifest in the very way in which the same teacher understands and build the relationship with the students.

Teachers of largely spoken languages such as English, French, German, inevitably find themselves representatives and promoters of western cultures, or at least learners perceive them as such. I would add that this takes place irrespective of the teacher being a native speaker of the taught language or not, and I would agree that the equation is complicated further by potential beliefs in the superiority of the culture being represented in relation to the culture of the learners (and, often, the teachers themselves).

For teaching English, a significant stage has been the acceptance, in the 90’s, of its political substrate, where political refers to the relationship of power between the cultures involved, despite explicit departure from what we regularly view as politics. To name but a few political implications, teaching English contributed to the colonizing of nations, languages, migrants, communications and emerging fields such as IT (Johnson, 2002: 50-54). Individual teachers react by constructing their own visions of the world and subsequent professional roles.

One way to negotiate the duality of concurrent good and bad is to exercise a critical pedagogy by which one acknowledges the centrality of power relationships and balance in how education works (McLaren, 1989:159).

One relevant experience at the root of critical pedagogy is that of Paulo Friere teaching to the social disadvantaged (1972). It seeks to empower those who learn, aiding in the discovery of how taught knowledge is not necessarily objective, neutral and definitive, but rather constructed, and encouraging them to, in turn, generate knowledge. Language education is one field in which critical pedagogy has found a home (Pennycook, 1994, 2001; Auerbach, 1993; Morgan, 1998; Benesch, 1993 etc.), but not on every continent, reality says.


Axiological stances in language teaching

To zoom in further on classrooms, the discourse and interactions taking place are filled with moral influences and influencing. The obvious one is the teaching of moral values, attitudes and behaviours, but there are also moral undercurrents at work:

  • the classroom rules or classroom codes of conduct related to asking questions, participating in activities etc., which in language classes are instrumental to language learning, are also what they always are in any classroom, exercises in authority patterns and power relationships;
  • the curricular underpinnings, namely what is considered true, relevant, attention worthy (e.g. a communicative view of language teaching does not place truth at the core of the curriculum, but how language functions in transmitting any message, establishing and maintaining any relationship, acting in and on the social world in any way desired by the speaker);
  • expressive morality, or how judgments of value are issued, often subtlely, not only with words, but also with the tone of voice, body language, seating arrangement or use of wall space. Any combination of these may encourage, discourage or force certain patterns of oral participation, with or without inhibiting stress, turning the lesson into an effective vs. ineffective learning experience etc. (Jackson et al, 1993:11-42).

Besides classroom discourses and atmosphere, didactic contents and materials, too, may be morally charged. In the eternal dilemma of fluency versus accuracy, what the contents and topics have to offer in and by themselves may get lost in the details and induce the perception that they do not matter. At the same time, while it is easy to agree that language without content is both meaningless and worthless, paying attention to the topic leaves less time for language practice and may undermine acquisition.

The range of teaching approaches covers the full spectrum between obsession with language detail and loose language input in content teaching, with Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) aiming to bridge the gap and bring the best from both worlds.

As for the language itself, a classical example of problematic decision is which pronunciation to teach (and evaluate). The many ways in which English is spoken are the marks of constantly shifting historical, social, economic and cultural tides, so deciding which to endorse and which to discourage without acknowledging the bigger picture is, to a degree, passing judgment. The so-called BBC English pronunciation went from the status of accepted standard to that of (not always positive) label for the social elite and the (geographically) privileged. Also, regarding the teaching of writing, the decision to focus on product vs. content is not so straightforward either.

What is good for the learner and, indeed, society at large? Is it to learn the accepted norms in order to fit it or is it to develop own voice in order to leave a mark? Both are good, but each perspective is incomplete and diminishing without the other (Johnson, 2002:39-43).

Last but not least, the most morally charged aspect of language education is evaluation. It simply cannot be divorced from the moral domain as it implies the issue of value judgment. Evaluation is, at the same time, desirable and undesirable. It informs, orients and confirms progress, yet many teachers and even more learners call it a necessary evil they would gladly avoid. In what concerns languages, what does it mean to know a foreign language anyway? How do we quantify progress when there are so many ways to get lost in translation without language playing a role and, indeed, to recover from miscommunication with the help of partial language skills, even flat out mistakes?

Can we even agree on levels of competence which are universally effective and reliably constant across the infinite and surprising range of interactions? Any answer claiming to be a definitive one is a lie, I dare say.

To complicate matters further, teachers are or feel compelled to include in assessment and evaluation other elements such as a learner’s commitment to and involvement in learning activities.  Rewarding interest and effort is plagued by the risk of judging the learner in biased and debatable ways. For instance, how should the teacher react when a student uses the taught language fluently and effectively to demonstrate lack of interest, to challenge and undermine the teacher’s attempts to teach further?

Equally, how do we grade the student who has obviously worked very hard but has failed to acquire and deploy practised language contents and skills at a satisfactory level? What does being perceived as nice, obedient, diligent etc., which often define teachers’ notion of the ideal student, have to do with being the ideal language learner anyway? If we agree that each student is unique, then equal opportunities does not mean equal treatment, as students do not benefit equally from the same amount and kind of attention. For instance, in The Moral and Ethical Dimensions of Language Teaching (2007), Francis Mangubhai reviews the results of a study involving Australian teachers of languages other than English. Each was pursuing long term social and moral objectives in how they were interacting with the students, seeking to value the students and create a climate of safety for each student to entertain a comfortable and positive self-image. Some of the teachers were deliberate in creating communicative situations and stimulating behaviours which would take into consideration the feelings of the interlocutor. Promoting mutual tolerance and understanding emerged as the axiomatic ingredient of these language classes, working with and through diversity, based on principles acknowledged and addressed by teachers as core to language, education and life in society.

Therefore, we must not ignore the overwhelming role of the identity of the people who teach and are taught, dyamically negotiated and constructed in the exchange. The teacher, any teacher, has an identity of his/her own as well as is a representative of an institution and a school of thought. While some teachers enjoy much freedom in choosing and designing their objectives, contents and methods, others must confine to strict institutional requirements or make the deliberate choice to disobey them. Depending on the values at the core of one’s personal and professional identity, a teacher may also care about students beyond the walls of the classroom, investing time and energy in building strong affective relationships. When such energy is put in or willingness perceived, students may come forward with real issues and thorny dilemmas which the teacher may not be ready for, both personally and professionally. Language courses, especially when built on communicative and constructivist views of (language) education, provide more opportunities for bringing real people together on issues immediately real to them than other disciplines do. The teacher’s chosen positioning between distanced authority and empathic solidarity may encourage or inhibit the basic human need for self-expression in both himself/herself and the students.



In the end, it is my opinion that simply acknowledging the moral implications of foreign language teaching is not enough. It should create a sense of obligation that we be concerned with the explicit and implicit moral messages we encode in any lesson. First and non-specific to the language teaching profession, I find it essential  that language teachers educate themselves on the political, social, economic and cultural history of our changing world. Then, there are these timeless dilemmas in education which can be directly linked to the moral substrate of language teaching, and which therefore ought to invite critical thinking, open discussion and cross-generational collaboration. This is the rationale behind my small contribution on this occasion, which I conclude with Johnson’s summary of the issues inviting further reflection:

  • pedagogical dilemmas in language education: content vs form of communication, process vs product of communication, reinstating the status quo vs developing own voice in oral participation, justification of assessment methods etc.
  • relational dilemmas: power distribution between teacher and students, authority vs solidarity in the teacher’s behaviour, teacher’s professional freedom vs subordination to institution policy etc.
  • dilemmas springing from beliefs and values: promotion of own (cultural, political, religious) views and the wider political implications, tolerance to diversity and response to intolerance, own identity vs attributed identity etc.


  1. Edge, J., (1996). Cross-cultural Paradoxes in a Profession of Values. TESOL Quarterly, 30:9-30.

  2. Jackson, P.W., Boostrom, R.E., Hansen, D.T. (1993). The Moral Life of Schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

  3. Johnson, B. (2002). Values in English Language Teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Retrieved July 16, 2009, from Questia database:

  4. Mangubhai, F. (2007). The Moral and Ethical Dimensions of Language Teaching. Australian Journal of Education. Vol. 51 / Nr.2., 178+. Retrieved July 16, 2009, from Questia database:

  5. McLaren,P. (1989). Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy in the Foundations of Education. New York: Longman.

  6. Noddings, N., Slote, M. (2002). Changing Notions of the Moral and of Moral Education. În Blake, N., Smeyers, P., Smith, R., & Standish, P. (2002). The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Education. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. (pg.341-355).

  7. Sacară, L. (2006). Portrete axiologice individuale și colective – Perspectivă psihoeducațională. Bacău: EduSoft.

  8. Scheffler, I. (1997). Moral Education and the Democratic Ideal. Inquiry: Critical Thinking across the Disciplines, 16, 27-34.