Language Teaching in the Anthropocene

Language Teaching in the Anthropocene

A Roadmap for the Future


Language teaching in the Anthropocene

A learner of English faces an increasingly uncertain and risk-filled future regardless of
their level of success in learning English, a tool they might see as invaluable for a better
future. The climate emergency and other environmental crises have emerged with our
entry into the new geological epoch of the Anthropocene, in which human activity is the
dominant force shaping the planet. Though language learners are likely to be aware of,
and concerned by, these risks, it is also probable that the dialogue around these risks,
and discussions on how to become empowered global citizens, are likely to be infrequent
(Jacobs & Goatly, 2000). Why is there a conspicuous absence of these issues that are
so certain to impact learners’ futures? Is English Language Teaching (ELT) neglecting a
wider educational role in helping learners to become informed and empowered citizens?
Learners who can confidently use English as a tool not only for improving study and
career prospects, but also to empower them to act as global citizens, will be better able to
address the threat that casts a shadow over their futures, which the climate emergency is.
The very fact that these problems of the Anthropocene by definition are a result of human
agency, means that they therefore can also be addressed by suitably knowledgeable and
empowered humans. If education is a vital force in creating this empowerment and
disseminating knowledge, where then is ELT and what role does it have to play? This
is uncharted territory, with notable exceptions (Akbari, 2008; Boon, 2022; Jacobs &
Goatly, 2000). This article draws on these sources and reflects my own experience of bringing
sustainability into ELT to map a way forward for the ELT profession.


What do we need to change?

There are several reasons that could explain why we are not currently ready for language teaching in the anthropocene. First, it is increasingly instrumental (Bori, 2018). This means
that English is treated as an asset for study and career development, and teaching has
adapted to a discerning market that demands only the specific areas of training that
focus on discrete items, at the expense of a mission of education. Another reason is
that powerful forces, such as the publishers of global coursebooks, are uncertain or
unwilling to deviate from a packaged version of reality to address the uncomfortable fact that the future of students is not one of carefree lifestyles, increasing prosper-
ity and happiness through consumerism, but rather one of increasing risk because of the climate crisis (IPCC, 2022) brought about by the overconsumption and lack of stewardship of natural resources. A further reason is that, perhaps unsurprisingly given this instrumentalisation of ELT, schools and teachers may feel that facilitating dialogues on the climate emergency is outside their role. Frequently, teachers may feel uncomfortable with bringing environmental matters into their teaching, believing it to be a political matter that does not fit with their aim of political neutrality in language teaching (Boon, 2022). Furthermore, unless a teacher or school has an intrinsic interest in environmental issues, it is unlikely that they have received training on how to integrate the dialogue around sustainability into their teaching.


What can we do instead?

There are several changes to prepare our profession for language teaching in the Anthropocene. The first thing is to accept the case for empowering learners to take part in the sustainability dialogue, and to acknowledge that this will involve changes in how we work (Orr, 2004). Admittedly there is little research at this point into what this might look like, but here are some likely routes. First, environmental matters need to be incorporated into all lessons as meaningful topics for communicative language teaching. In a crisis of this scale, we cannot afford to address such matters occasionally or only when the textbooks refer to them. The climate implications of the crisis affect and are affected by every other topic language courses traditionally cover, from food to business travel to discussing future plans, so discussing those topics with an environmental lens is a small, yet effective step teachers can take. At the same time, dialogues around sustainability need to be locally and personally relevant. A powerful example of this was given by Geoffrey Maroko in the plenary discussion where he described the naming of local plants which had medicinal and other qualities but were being impacted by climate change. A powerful change could be brought about by adding ecoliteracy to the literacies we already teach. Ceri Jones made a case for this in the plenary discussion and talked about the advantages this offers in preparing learners for an aspect of their future, which is living in the climate emergency.


Language Teaching in the Anthropocene: a way forward

There would appear to be a strong case for extending the mission of ELT beyond an instrumentalist practice of helping students to develop discrete skills that are believed
to enhance their traditional career and study prospects. If this extended mission is to include a focus on ecoliteracy, or at very least support learners in finding a voice to take part in the sustainability dialogue that aims to address the environmental crises which overshadow their futures, then the question is how we are going to do this as an industry. This section offers a framework that the industry could use. In the spirit of learner-centredness, let us assume the following. Learners may not hold the assumption that their English teacher is just there to teach them English, and, furthermore, that they should only focus on specific areas of English that enhance their prospects. Learners may see their English language teacher, in fact, as a teacher
like others, who is an educator with a responsibility to guide them or at least facilitate their development in various aspects of life. There is ample evidence to show that the environmental crises, such as the climate emergency, are impacting their prospects and even their current wellbeing (Usher et al., 2019). Therefore, it might follow that having English lessons in which sustainability is brushed under the carpet is not what learners want or need, and that teaching which helps learners find a voice and a sense of empowerment to take part in the international conversation in sustainability will benefit them and would not, in their view, be a case of their teacher educator stepping outside of a narrow mission of instrumentalist language development. It seems clear, then, that the single person in the ELT industry who can fulfil the
needs of learners to engage in environmental matters and develop the ecological literacy to ensure a future in which they can thrive is the teacher. We have looked at some principles that might apply to language teaching that seeks to develop ecoliteracy and provide a voice to take part in sustainability dialogues as part of language development. Many of the skills that language teachers possess are highly transferable to this vision of an expanded role. Examples include the ability to contextualise language in contexts that are meaningful for learners, the ability to create meaningful tasks, facilitating the negotiation and creation of meaning and collaborative problem-solving, and providing feedback on task performance. The sooner there is recognition that these are the skills required in addressing sustainability in language classrooms, not scientific expertise or environmentalist credentials, the better. In addition, just as it is unsatisfactory that the global coursebook has one environment unit in its syllabus, it is not enough that one environmentalist teacher be the only one to address environmental matters.


Training, managers and schools

How then are all language teachers to make the transition to making sustainability an integral strand in the dialogues taking place in the language classroom? Let us imagine that it is their managers, training providers and schools that provide this service to them. If we accept that ecological sustainability must be embedded in everything, it follows that courses such as the Certificate in Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA) should embed it as a strand in their syllabuses and as a criterion for assessment. Existing teachers need to learn how to retrofit existing coursebooks so that their lessons can add an environment slant; therefore, ecoliteracy needs to be added as a core knowledge for managers, alongside those already expected of them, such as staff development and communication skills, if they are to support this transition in teacher practice to address the needs of learners in the face of the climate emergency. Schools themselves need to have ecological sustainability embedded in their curricula and syllabuses. They also need to have it embedded in their processes and premises so that the ‘invisible syllabus’ (Orr,2004) underscores the sustainability content in the lessons, for example, if there is a recycling system in place in the school, it greatly strengthens the dialogue on sustain-
ability in the classroom.


Language teaching in the Anthropocene: the industry

We can see that, just like teachers, training providers, schools and managers need to develop new skills and responsibilities if ELT is to become a form of education fit for purpose in the face of the climate emergency. The responsibility for supporting them in doing this falls to the institutions that make up the ELT industry. Publishers need to ensure that coursebooks not only address environmental matters, but that they do so in a principled, eco-literate way. Conferences such as IATEFL need to ensure that every conference has a minimum number of sessions addressing sustainability in the classroom, so that it becomes a familiar and accepted strand of solid language teaching know-how alongside teaching pronunciation or developing essay-writing skills. For this to happen, ELT academia has a vital role. The body of research into the intersection between language teaching and environmental education needs to be rapidly expanded, so that the entire industry can make this transition in a research-based way.

Language teaching in the Anthropoce: concluding thoughts

The increasing awareness that we have entered the Anthropocene may have the effect
of making us feel helpless in the face of the resultant problems, such as the climate
emergency and other environmental crises. The fact that human agency is causing these
problems means that humans are also able to reverse or mitigate them. While ELT
has focused extensively on empowering learners on their language learning journey, it
has been less effective at empowering institutions and teachers to empower learners to
engage in the international dialogue to solve the environmental issues we face, and in
doing so has done a disservice in terms of overall empowerment of learners. It is hoped
that a framework for action across the industry, as outlined, can help the profession take
on a broader educational role and facilitate learning across the profession, to help ELT
develop a more powerful role, eloquently summed up as follows: As a member of the education family, ELT needs to embrace the value of doubts and questions, risk posing novel ideas, and make social transformation one of its priorities, if it is to make its proper contribution to the creation of a better society for all (Akbari, 2008, p. 293). In this way it can establish itself in the 21st century and facilitate learners in finding empowerment to engage with the issues that threaten their future, as a part of their language learning journey.

This article is based on what I said in the IATEFL plenary discussion panel which I was a panellist for on the topic of language teaching in the Anthropocene. The event took place in Belfast in 2022.


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How do you think the language teaching profession needs to adapt to the Anthropocene? If you have any ideas, share them in the comments or via the contact page!

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