Innovation in ELT
Brookemead Associates Ltd
Educational Publishers
London, UK - San Francisco, USA

English as a meme

Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) represents an evolution in second language acquisition. It is an idea that is changing the way people learn English. One of the key concepts of CLIL is that, by changing the context in which a foreign language is learned, teachers can make it more relevant to the students' needs and thus more readily acquired. In 1976, Professor Richard Dawkins of Oxford University suggested that there are units of cultural inheritance and transfer which he called 'memes'. He suggested that they work in a way that is similar to the way that genes pass on biological information. Memes are ideas (such as the 'Earth is flat') or fashions (like short skirts) or skills (such as skiing), which can be rapidly transmitted from one person to another.

The skill of speaking English as a foreign or second language is now a globally successful idea, or a meme. Over a billion people worldwide are learning English as a Foreign Language. Dawkins and others think that memes reproduce by both mutation and recombination, rather like genes in process of biological evolution itself. A mutation in thought may take centuries to take root. For example, Leonardo da Vinci's ideas on mechanical flight never caught on in the fifteenth century because the technical environment of the time could not support them. Five hundred years later, the meme of flight is so commonplace we hardly question it.

Memes are also propagated by recombination, such as when existing ideas and skills come up against a new environment and adapt rapidly to suit it. Thus, mobile phones and the internet have dramatically changed the ways in which people communicate. We still talk and write, but now we do this instantly with people anywhere in the world. The result is an explosion of global communication - an extremely successful meme, evolved to fit the 21st century environment.

CLIL may be another example of memetic recombination. The learning environment is filled with subjects like geography, history and physics. If language learning moves into these new environments, it becomes an improved meme - one that combines old ways of teaching with new situations and thus provokes students to acquire improved skills and new ideas. Students not only learn about the subject of geography or maths with CLIL, they also turn the process upside down and learn the language from the subject. If they are already learning geography, discussing it in English enables them to recombine the subject with the second language, producing a form of learning that is better adapted to their environment. It's more fun, more relevant and more motivating, and like a gene or a meme, more successful.