Review: Learn English with Ricky Gervais

Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington are known mainly for their acting work. What many people don’t know is that these two gentlemen are also accomplished English teachers. This blog post highlights the methods, approaches, and assumptions about language learning used in their showcase lesson. I recommend that you watch the following video before reading my analysis.

At the beginning of the lesson, Gervais sets out his methodological stall:

Learn English with Ricky Gervais

It is clear that he is a proponent of the direct method, which is based on using only the target language so that the students learn how to think in it (Larsen-Freeman 2000). This method became popular as a result of ‘the increased numbers of monolingual native speakers who started, in the twentieth century, to travel the world teaching English’ (Harmer 2007:64). Its opponents say that the direct method is just an excuse for not bothering to learn the language of the country where you work, but Gervais has pretty good reasons for choosing it. He is aware of the fact that his lesson is aimed at a multilingual audience, so he simply has to rely on English.

Gervais then introduces his co-teacher and highlights one of his prominent physical features. Pilkington disagrees with that approach:

Karl Pilkington in Learn English with Ricky Gervais

He is undoubtedly referring to the work of Michal Lewis. Pilkington is familiar with the lexical approach and the idea that ‘a principal role for the syllabus is to provide principled ways of including only maximally useful items’ (Lewis 1993:106). He correctly suggests teaching the learners how to ask for bread or milk.

Pilkington then gets distracted by thinking about the smell of milk and starts providing convoluted examples without paying attention to grammatical accuracy. Gervais needs to intervene:

Learn English with Ricky Gervais

This is something that needs to be emphasised. When we provide models of language that are too simplified, we run the risk of alienating the students. As Thornbury (2013:16) says, ‘it’s not just a question of making mistakes, it’s the ‘infantilization’ associated with speaking in a second language – the sense that one’s identity is threatened because of an inability to manage and finetune one’s communicative intentions’. Gervais’s solution is simple: Always speak proper English!

Pilkington responds by speaking proper English:

Karl Pilkington in Learn English with Ricky Gervais

Those of you familiar with the Delta Module One exam (Paper 2, Task 2) know that material creators work with assumptions about language learning. Pilkington believes that it is valuable for learners to be exposed to idiomatic expressions, and that’s why he uses go up to instead of approach. He also skilfully explains how the word smell can be both positive and negative. Well done!

What is really impressive about the lesson is how it deals with emergent language:

Learn English with Ricky Gervais

The main idea behind this is to ‘show learners that you value their output’ (Meddings & Thornbury 2009:20). Gervais is great at spotting the right moment for focusing on linguistic items that have emerged during the course of the conversation. Of course, the Dogme approach isn’t for inexperienced teachers, and you need someone confident in their abilities. Pilkington is one of those people, so he is always happy to provide concise explanations. When someone thumps you is a great example of that.

Both teachers then act out a few real-life scenarios:

Learn English with Ricky Gervais

Gervais and Pilkington don’t believe in pre-teaching lexis. They prefer Nation’s (2013:348) premise that ‘incidental learning from context is the most important of all the sources of vocabulary learning’. They empower the learners to work out the meaning of the words from context. I have to say that Gervais and Pilkington are masters of using schemata, which are ‘a means of representing that background knowledge which we all use, when we produce and interpret discourse’ (Brown & Yule 1983:250).

The authors also recognise the importance of explicit teaching:

Karl Pilkington in Learn English with Ricky Gervais

Pilkington uses /weə/ to highlight an issue that many English learners struggle with. Homophones certainly make the learning process complicated. Fortunately, his extraordinarily good examples I’m wearing a jumper and Where’ve you been? make the distinction between the two meanings perfectly clear. Great stuff!

As we known, it is very important to conduct a needs analysis at the beginning of the course. Let’s take a look at this crucial stage of the lesson:

Learn English with Ricky Gervais

According to Long (2015:88), ‘millions of adult learners around the world pay with their own time and money to acquire the very different functional language abilities they need, often urgently, to achieve their equally different educational or career goals or to meet immediate social survival needs in a new country, whether as tourists or newly arrived immigrants.’ Gervais and Pilkington show how a pedagogic task (a role play in a safe environment) can prepare learners for satisfying their needs (such as an urgent cosmetic procedure) in the real world. They also realistically point out that not all people involved in customer service are pleasant and helpful.

At the end of the lesson, Gervais reminds the learners of the main lesson goal:

Learn English with Ricky Gervais

Did they manage to achieve it? I believe they did. The lesson provides students with everything they need when visiting England. Co-teaching is never easy, but in this case both teachers complement each other and put their expertise to a good use. I believe that the lesson is a great example of principled eclecticism. Gervais and Pilkington do what Larsen-Freeman (2000:183) calls ‘creating their own method by blending aspects of others in a principled manner’. The research process must have been very long and thorough, which helped the authors reach the pinnacle of their teaching careers. I don’t think it’s possible to create a better lesson, so it is no wonder that both protagonists decided to retire from ELT after publishing this valuable material.

• Brown, G., & Yule, G. (1983). Discourse Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• Harmer, J. (2007). The Practice of English Language Teaching. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
• Larsen-Freeman, D. (2000). Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
• Lewis, M. (1993). The Lexical Approach. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.
• Long, M. (2015). Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
• Meddings, L., & Thornbury, S. (2009). Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Peaslake: Delta Publishing.
• Nation, I. S. P. (2013). Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• Thornbury, S. (2013). Big Questions in ELT. Smashwords: the round.

Luis Clavijo: Professional development is a must

Today’s interviewee has had a very interesting teaching career. We talked about his work in South America and Russia, the role of technology, advanced teaching qualifications, the importance of teacher training, and other ELT topics.

Luis Clavijo is a Peruvian-born English teacher based in Bogotá. He started his teaching career in 1995 in La Paz, Bolivia. After working in a variety of teaching positions, Luis did his CELTA at the British Council in Bogotá in 2003, which allowed him to land a job at BKC-International House in Moscow. He then returned to Bolivia, joined forces with what used to be The British Council La Paz, a new language school then called The Language Works. A few years after that, he ended up opening his own language school and became involved in teacher training. Luis went back to Russia in 2013 and completed his Delta four years later. He has been working as a freelance online teacher since moving to Colombia in November 2020.

Luis Clavijo: Teachers should have access to professional development

You arrived to Colombia in the middle of the current pandemic. How would you describe your experience so far?

It hasn’t been easy because I’ve spent most of my time here in my apartment. I try to keep myself physically active, so I go to the gym. When it comes to teaching, I work exclusively online through Zoom thanks to having incredibly loyal students from my time in Russia. They have been studying with me for a long time, which is amazing. I work mainly in the morning because of the time difference between Colombia and Russia. I’m also open to teaching Colombian students here if an opportunity appears, and I’m thinking of setting up a project for teachers.

Was it easy for you to move back to Latin America after spending almost seven years in Russia?

I wanted to come back because I missed being in Latin America. The process itself was complicated due to the restrictions; it was difficult to find a combination of flights that would get me here. When a window to travel through London opened, I got myself on the plane and left Russia. Of course, living in Latin America presents its own challenges. Even though I am eligible for a Mercosur visa, it took the authorities more than two months to process my application.

You started working as a teacher in La Paz in 1990s. How has teaching English changed since then?

I didn’t have much contact with technology until I moved to Santa Cruz in 2012. We used overhead projectors connected to PCs because we couldn’t afford interactive whiteboards. By the way, I’ve never laid a finger on an IWB in my life. When I returned to Moscow, I had only a whiteboard and a CD player, so I decided to use my mobile phone and wireless speakers for playing audio files. Then I bought a tablet that came with a projector, and I feel that projecting stuff has made a huge difference because the visual content always attracts the students’ attention.

How did you cope with the switch to online teaching?

I actually started teaching online a few months before the pandemic due to unfortunate circumstances. I injured my ankle in December 2019, so the school asked me if I wanted to try doing some Skype lessons from home, and I agreed. Then I discovered Zoom, and that’s how IH Moscow started delivering online classes. I began experimenting with Google Docs and WhatsApp groups, which is something that I still use because I find it extremely helpful when teaching online. I decided to get the IH COLT certificate, which I obtained in February 2020, and we all know what happened the following month. Of course, my friends kept jokingly asking me if I knew something that the rest of the world did not.

What can you tell me about your CELTA experience? I see that got a Pass A grade, so what advice would you give to those considering this qualification?

I did my CELTA at the British Council here in Bogotá in 2003. Even though I had managed to save some money, I didn’t want to travel to an expensive place. Doing the course in Colombia was an amazing experience; I was really impressed by the school and the resources. When it comes to getting a good grade, I recommend doing a lot of reading before starting the course, and you should take the pre-course tasks seriously. There are also helpful preparation courses that clearly exemplify what the CELTA is all about. Of course, we did not use much technology when I did the course, but I think current CELTA trainees will benefit from being familiar with tools that can be used in the classroom (Vocaroo, Quizlet, etc.).

You then spent one academic year in Russia. Why did you decide to move there?

Bolivia was going through an economic crisis, which meant that a lot of students dropped out, so I decided to move to another country. I had job offers from Turkey and the Czech Republic, but I was intrigued by the idea of going to Russia. Winston Churchill described the country as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, so I thought it would be nice to go to Moscow. That year was a really interesting experience for me. I also did an exchange programme in the middle of the academic year and went to Istanbul for five weeks. We stayed at an amazing hotel a few blocks away from the Grand Bazaar, which was great. When my contract in Russia ended, I had a job lined up in Portugal, but unfortunately I couldn’t get a work visa because of my Peruvian passport.

What motivated you to set up your own school in Bolivia?

When I was looking for a job after returning from Russia, I was initially told, by my own friend no less, that my name sounds too Latino. Funnily enough, The Language Works called me back a couple of weeks later to cover for an absent teacher. Everything went well and I was hired thanks to positive feedback from the students. That job gave me an opportunity to get some experience as a senior teacher, and I became a DoS when the school was sold to new owners. I was trying to raise the standards in terms of hiring teachers because I believe that La Paz deserves better teachers than some random backpackers with an online TEFL certificate. Unfortunately, the owners disagreed with that, so I decided to step down from the role. I thought it was the right time to do my own thing, so I set up a school called Language Plus. By the time I decided to leave South America again, the school had grown a lot and I had three teachers working for me.

You then went back to Moscow and completed several teaching qualifications there. Could you briefly talk about the courses you took?

I was a little out of practice teaching groups, as I had spent years primarily teaching one-to-one, so I did the IH Certificate in Advanced Methodology, which was great as a pre-Delta course. I actually enjoyed it more than the Delta Module One preparation course. CAM spells out things explicitly and provides a lot of structure, which is what I needed at that time. Then I did the first two Delta modules in 2015, which was very demanding time-wise, particularly the two-month Module Two course. Fortunately, I was lucky to have an amazing tutor, Joanna Graham, who is always willing to support the trainees and go the extra mile. Academically speaking, it was a challenging experience. I did a ‘for and against’ essay for my LSA4 and intended to highlight relevant features. When I was teaching the lesson, it dawned on me that I was running out of time, so I had to repair instructions and go with my plan B. Fortunately, it proved to be a good decision and I passed.

What was your Module Three specialism?

I chose teaching one-to-one because that’s what I’ve been doing my whole career. I have a lot of experience in this area, so the creative process wasn’t that difficult, but I struggled a little with sitting down and structuring the assignment. It was necessary to make references to other parts of the essay and put everything together in a coherent way. Of course, I wrote too much and needed to trim it down at the end. I thought the final version was pretty good, so I was a little disappointed with a Merit grade.

You also worked as a translator. Would you say there are any transferable skills between translating and teaching?

Not really. The only thing that can help you as a teacher is the knowledge of typical mistakes that learners make due to translating directly from their mother tongue. Back in Moscow I made a list of some common errors Russian speakers make, and that was very helpful in my teaching practice.

I think my growing up in the USA influenced my attitude towards languages. My parents spoke Spanish at home and my dad would always tell me to speak the language properly, and then I applied the same logic to English because I wanted to fit in. I started to develop an interest in writing when I was studying in Chile, and I even won some awards in Bolivia. I always try to be as accurate as possible, which has helped me both in teaching and translating.

Your name also appears in Rory Fergus Duncan-Goodwille’s book The English Teachers, which was published last year. How did that come about? 

I met Rory in his role of ADoS at BKC-International House in Moscow. He is an amazing, knowledgeable professional, so I was more than happy to contribute to his book as an interviewee. I really enjoyed it, and it would be great to collaborate with him on another project again.

Would you recommend the Cambridge Train the Trainer course to those interested in becoming teacher trainers?

Yes, I would. I actually did the very first online Cambridge Train the Trainer course. It was similar to the IH Teacher Trainer Certificate I had done before, so it doesn’t really matter if you do the Cambridge or International House version. Both courses are very helpful in terms of communication with teachers and understanding their needs. If I were to open a school again, I would make sure that teachers have access to professional development and academic support. Sadly, this is not always the case anywhere else I’ve been to, and many language schools and institutions still don’t do enough when it comes to teacher training.