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This paper was written while I was still teaching German and French in secondary schools in the UK. It emerged out of my dawning realization that even though my training had taught me to focus mostly on how language acquisition was happening in my classroom, there were moral things happening at the same time. It was published in the Language Learning Journal 15 (1997), p. 31-35. Much more literature has appeared on moral aspects of language learning since 1997, though I am not sure we have entirely outgrown the mental habit of thinking of the French class as “just French” rather than an activity with inherently moral dimensions relevant to students’ moral formation.

`Truthful lips endure for ever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment.’1


In the contemporary modern language classroom, pupils are frequently required to communicate personal information in spoken or written form. The thesis of this paper, which grew out of the realisation of inadequacies and ambiguities in my own teaching practices, is very simple: that pupils should be encouraged to respond to such tasks truthfully, and that certain aspects of existing practice which may encourage the opposite should be carefully weighed. This accords with current moves to address moral development across the curriculum;2; this paper may illustrate what that might mean in practice. The absence of this question in the literature3 might be taken to indicate that the matter is so self-evident as to render discussion superfluous; I have, however, found that when I have shared my thoughts with teachers in various professional contexts, I have encountered resistance and objections. These objections have not changed my basic perception of what is desirable, but they have helped me to see that the issue may be more complex than I first perceived. Since the objections were one stimulus for this paper,4 I shall proceed directly to them and outline the positive reasons for seeking truthful responses, and the methodological consequences of such an aim, in response to them. I hope that this manner of proceeding will also avoid the impression of stating the obvious.

The objections are of three broad types: those which question the seriousness of the issue; those which see such moves as presenting additional undesirable burdens or obstacles to learning; and those which consider concern for truth to reflect a misunderstanding of the classroom situation.

1. I see no ships!

The simplest objection states or implies that a mountain is being made out of a molehill. The aim is simply to practice the target language – who cares whether or not pupils make up answers as they go along? What does it matter?

Firstly, if language learning is understood as a preparation for/practising of communication, the nature of what is communicated becomes an issue. We hope that pupils will communicate with speakers of other languages in those languages. Our hope is surely not that they will sieze any servicable item of vocabulary which can be dredged up from their memory, but that they will struggle to communicate genuine information, i.e. truthful information. This aim implies a normative concern with the pupil’s view both of the person addressed and of language itself. Respect for another implies caring about what I communicate to her; respect for the integrity of language implies learning to view it as a vehicle of constructive communication between persons, not simply as a set of signs which can be manipulated to my own ends. Relationships with speakers of other languages should ideally affirm their full humanity, not remain at the level of utilitarian transactions. Approaching language and persons from a Christian perspective leads me to the conviction that both should be treated with care, humility and gratitude. If pupils learn to associate the foreign language mainly with the exchange of trivial, untrue or unimportant pieces of information, such aims will be undermined. If communicative language teaching in schools takes itself seriously, it must shoulder the responsibility for teaching not only the mechanics but the ethics of communication.

This leads to a second consideration, namely the question of moral development across the curriculum. Language teachers are not merely inculcating a skill, but are involved in the broader process of education. If the whole school aims to teach pupils integrity in personal relationships, then the modern language teacher also carries this responsibility. If pupils’ attitudes to language use and to other language users can be influenced for good in the language classroom, then it is worth investigating how.

A third concern is the integrity of the relationship between teacher and learner. If genuine information is communicated, is offered in both directions (teacher to learner as well as learner to teacher) and listened to carefully it can contribute to the building of a relationship founded on increasing mutual understanding, and can enable the teacher to be increasingly sensitive to the interests, needs and hurts of individual pupils. This will be impaired if pupils are not encouraged to communicate truthfully.5

Rejections of the seriousness of the issue may simply reflect social attitudes which see little harm in `mild’ dishonesty. I find this ethic dubious at best. It surely belongs to the very concept of integrity that it is exercised when unnoticed or inconvenient.

2. Weary and Heavy Laden?

A second objection, claiming that a concern for truth-telling is too burdensome for learners, takes two main forms:

2.1. Some complain that it is hard enough to get some pupils to speak at all – if we ask them to speak truthfully they will never open their mouths. Worse still, they may fail exams if they feel that they should only give truthful answers; it is not Christian to jeopardize their exam chances by imposing our morality.

Here one must question the purpose of both learning and exams, and what counts as success. Success means having mastered the skills tested, not merely having a certain grade – this is clear from the fact that teachers will not allow pupils to cheat in order to `succeed’. It is pertinent here to question whether the GCSE examination is to be viewed as a test of vocabulary or of ability to communicate. If pupils cannot communicate about themselves accurately, it is questionable to what degree they have succeeded in language learning. Of course, some will resort to substitution of other answers in the exam, and they will not lose marks. It is surely, however, educationally valid to teach pupils that if they expect to have to say something in the exam, then they should learn the requisite language rather than relying on stock answers. Our teaching should prepare pupils for communication rather than focusing on ways of squeezing a few extra marks from the examiner. The very presentation of truth-telling as an alien standard imposed on top of ordinary language use to make a kind of de-luxe version betrays a low view of communication in which integrity is not integral. It should, moreover, be acknowledged that a lack of concern for pupils’ honesty can stem from teacher laziness. If a pupil with a particularly tortuous family history asks for help when writing out their family tree in French the easiest response (I have done it myself, and am well aware of the classroom pressures which lead to such strategies) is to ask him or her to simplify the facts or even to “just write anything, as long as it’s French”. The pupil whose father is a molecular biologist is advised in case of memory failure to say in the exam that he is a bus driver. This not only cumulatively teaches the pupil that the foreign language has a lower status than English, being simply something for arbitrary manipulation rather than a medium where true communication is valued, it also fails to respect the pupil in his or her concrete individuality. The pupil’s real situation is not allowed to stand, but is glossed over and homogenised, the reason not being the pupil’s heavy burden, but that of the teacher.

So, are pupils and teachers to be dragged through an impossible process for righteousness’ sake? No. It seems to me that potential benefits of a concern for truth-telling are being overlooked. Such a concern need not be presented to pupils as a rod – it can be a challenge. To allow dishonest answers may simply encourage laziness, an attitude which sees no need for serious effort in learning to communicate, and therefore actually detracting from rather than encouraging the learning process. If pupils have to wrestle with the language needed to express true information, rather than giving up and saying something else instead, vocabulary will be extended and retention is likely to enhanced. Here the claim that language which is used to communicate meanings which are of personal significance to the learner is more likely to be retained than language which is practised in the abstract is of obvious relevance.) Pupils “should be provided with opportunities to struggle to express information about themselves in a non-confrontational setting…How effective can…negotiation [of meaning] be if the meaning is likely to shift according to what is easiest at the moment? How much will pupils struggle to clarify meanings not personally important to them?”1 To encourage arbitrary responses to tasks asking for communication may encourage some to evade the challenge of fresh progress by reverting continually to what is already known.

If the effort is invested, new communication strategies and language items are acquired, and the pupil grows in his ability to communicate genuine personal information, then a further gain should become evident in terms of confidence and self-esteem, neither of which are nurtured significantly by allowing the pupil to resort regularly to evasion of the question by substituting random information. There is something deeply fulfilling about avoiding dubious short-cuts and doing something right.

A final important point, to counter the possible impression that I am describing the majority of pupils in my comments so far, is the observation that most pupils do (at least initially) prefer to give true answers. Myhren comments regarding her observational study of two classes that “students in both classes reported that they tended to tell the truth – usually because it was the easiest thing for them to do.”8 The strategy of substituting a different answer in order to avoid silences and struggling pauses (with all that that implies for lesson-pace and painful empathy in exam situations) is one which in many cases has to be positively taught! If my argument so far is valid, the implications of this in relation to an educational concern with promoting (rather than inhibiting) moral development should be evident. 2.2. Others point to a different burden placed on pupils by a classroom culture which promotes truth-telling. It may be too painful or embarrassing to reveal certain information in the classroom setting. This is very true and an important issue. It can crop up in the most innocuous contexts. During my teaching practice I asked a girl during an oral test `Est-ce que tu as des freres ou des soeurs?’, only to discover too late that her brother had recently been killed in an accident. The tendency of current methodology to focus on the communication of personal information risks subjecting some pupils to painful or humiliating experiences. It seems clear to me that pupils should have a right to silence, a right not to disclose certain information in class. Is the encouragement of arbitrary responses a good way to deal with this problem?

With cases of painful events such as that described above, the solution has a great deal to do with good communication within the school and between school and home. With other kinds of questions where the answer may be embarrassing (`my father is unemployed/in prison’) the learning of positive strategies is in most cases more desirable than simple capitulation. The ability to deflect unwelcome questions with appropriate degrees of firmness and politeness is an important social skill which should be taught. The ability to defend personal space in the face of intrusive questions is too rarely dealt with; perhaps it should be covered at an early stage. In my experience pupils have no objection to learning and using phrases such as “I’m sorry, that is none of your business” (the over-enthusiastic have to be discouraged from using them too often!). Of course, a spanner is thrown into the works of neat question-response sessions, but this simply recalls questions of whether real communication between real people is important enough to be inconvenient.

In some cases avoidance strategies may attract unwelcome attention, merely serving to arouse curiosity among classmates (although these are often better informed than the teacher). In this case, a few pupils may decide to give a false answer, and could hardly be judged harshly for doing so. Three alternative strategies remain:

(i) the teacher could advertise the possibility of pupils asking her privately to avoid certain areas (in my view this would be a good practice anyway);

(ii) the pupil may be able to find approximations to or curtailments of the truth which do not reveal too much while not being directly false – this may in any case be necessary because of imperfect command of the language.

(iii) the teacher can (and should) avoid certain questions – parental occupation, for example, still carries such clear connotations of social status that it should perhaps be avoided more often as a topic of classroom discussion.

Nevertheless, the same embarrassing questions will crop up in communication with native speakers. Pupils need to recognise this and develop responsible strategies for dealing with the problem. It should be remembered that most pupils are very ready to share personal information, even information which might seem sensitive (while for some, even apparently humdrum information may carry a risk of exposure and vulnerability in a class setting). It is therefore all the more important that such self-disclosures are met with indications of acceptance and genuine interest by the teacher and are treated with respect, not as arbitrary responses to insincere questions. The same response should be demanded from the other members of the class. The few pupils who experience genuine difficulties will need to be sensitively dealt with according to individual circumstances; this does little to invalidate the general argument of this paper.

2.3 A third objection of this type is a counsel of despair9 – pupils may lie anyway, and that is beyond the teacher’s control and may not even be detected, so it is unrealistic to view teachers as custodians of integrity. However, the criterion of success is not the total transformation of the pupil – if it were not believed that teachers could have some impact on their pupils, the whole educational enterprise would become dubious; moreover, the tendency to truth-telling noted above suggests that some of the needed change lies as much with teachers as with pupils. The fact that pupils may well be sexually promiscuous and that this is beyond the teacher’s knowledge and control is not usually advanced as an argument against responsible moral and sex education – quite the opposite in fact. The parallel with the present discussion should be obvious.

3. Rehearsal and the Real Thing

The third type of objection states that a classroom is not the real world. Pupils are practising language, not actually communicating with native speakers, so there is no need to be hung up about truth. Had this objection been made a few decades ago it would have been more plausible. Characteristic features of the shift to communicative methodologies in British schools have been the concern for genuine communicative contexts and for enabling pupils to use language for actual communication (as opposed to rehearsal) through information-gap and problem-solving activities. The focus is on future contexts in which language will be used and an explicit preparation for those contexts rather than on language as an abstract system. As well as making the question of truth-telling pertinent, these developments have also created ambiguities which have helped to obscure it.

The first of these is the question of teachers distinguishing different kinds of language use not simply in terms of complexity but in terms of proximity to formal drill on the one hand and personal communication on the other. Clearly many activities are `just practice’. These are necessary and do not usually raise questions of integrity. It is when pupils are asked to communicate information about themselves that the question of truth-telling arises. In view of the confusion engendered when pupils are thrown “without preparation into the `deep end’ of `communication'”, Hawkins emphasises “the need for teachers to be trained to analyse more systematically the levels of communication and the kinds of language transactions that they set up in the classroom.”10 Confusion here on the part of the teacher can only hinder concerns for truth-telling. If the teacher is unclear about when she is offering practice and when she is looking for personal communication, confused expectations will be communicated to pupils. When, for example, personal information is regularly used for drill purposes, this creates an ambiguity for pupils and leads to them varying their answers out of playfulness or boredom. If it is only a drill, they cannot properly be said to be lying – it was not really communication, but rather reproduction of form which was asked for – but I wonder what effect this has on the degree to which they value genuine communication during other phases of their learning.

This brings us to a second potential ambiguity – it is important for pupils’ perceptions of what is going on to be clear. A mismatch can easily arise between teachers’ and pupils’ perceptions. Teachers tend to view tasks in terms of medium rather than content – the teacher is less concerned with whether or not the pupil actually went to Sardinia than with whether she has learnt to describe journeys in the past tense. It is important, however, to recognise that pupils do not always make such neat conceptual distinctions, especially in the earlier stages of language learning. I cannot be the only teacher who, having asked year 7 pupils to do a class survey on how many animals everyone has in order to produce multiple repetition of the question `do you have a pet’, has had some pupils proudly present the statistics having gathered them using English. Pupils tend to focus on the message; to focus on the medium takes training. This may be why pupils often have to be trained to substitute false answers in an emergency. Precisely this tendency has been strengthened by the move to communicative methodologies, which have sought to present tasks in a way which focuses on meaningful content rather than linguistic form.

The significance of this for the present discussion is that an activity which to the teacher is a simulation or exercise purely for the purpose of language practice may not be that to the pupil. It is likely to be viewed as an actual personal communication if personal information is being offered. In my experience, in modern languages departments where pupils are encouraged to answer arbitrarily because, in the mind of the teacher, the activity has the sole purpose of practising a certain area of language, it is not long before pupils begin to ask questions such as `It’s alright to lie in French, isn’t it?’ If this kind of attitude is left unchallenged, the foreign language can only be devalued in the eyes of the student – it is a medium in which content does not matter, in which you can say anything, in which words are cheap.

My approach to this problem has been to attempt to make a consistent and overt distinction between communication of personal meaning and fiction. If, for instance, I ask pupils to write about their family (/town/etc.), I tell them that they can either write about their own family or they can write about an imaginary family (of Martians, of a pop-star etc). If they write about their own family they must seek to describe the family as accurately and truthfully as possible, resisting the temptation to make life easier by amending details. In either case I want to know (and I want them to be clear) which they are doing. This is a simple distinction, but one not always clearly made in classrooms or clearly appreciated by pupils.

A concern for the distinction between practice and communication and between levels of personal meaning has been characteristic of many communicative and `humanistic’ commentators on language teaching. What usually remains ambiguous even after such distinctions have been made is whether the teacher should be concerned about the truth of what is expressed. The usual emphasis on the expression of personal meanings and on the pupil’s volition and emotions leaves open the question of pupils’ freedom to choose a meaning which represents an untruth. Defining communicative competence as “saying appropriately what you want to say in whatever circumstance”11 leaves aside the question of what you ought to say; the question of possible moral constraints on self-expression and an educational concern for moral development are left hanging.12


Having discussed the reasons why, after due consideration, I am convinced by none of the objections which I have heard thus far to a concern for truth-telling, I shall close with some positive conclusions. First, language teaching should take fuller account of the fact that communication has an ethical aspect, as well as affective, linguistic and social aspects, and seek to develop attitudes in pupils which will lead them to honour those with whom they communicate and to honour communication itself as something deeply human and valuable, yet easily cheapened and distorted. As a Christian I relate this to the existence of pupils, teachers and foreign nationals as made in the image of God. This implies care in arranging classroom activities so that genuine communication is recognised, accepted, valued and distinguished clearly from formal practice, while providing creative ways of dealing with the latter. It also implies that teacher response to self-disclosure from pupils (whether oral or written) should communicate warmth and interest in the content communicated rather than the form of the communication and should not trivialise the realities of pupils’ lives. If learning activities are preparation for real life communication then the ethics of real life communication should be part of what is being rehearsed, not something added later if the pupil sees fit.

Second, a concern for truth-telling will imply that pauses for thought and semi-successful efforts should be accepted. Pupils must also be free to decline appropriately if their circumstances do not supply them with an appropriate answer. The teacher must be prepared to supply, work with and encourage pupils to research vocabulary and structures which have not been covered with the class. This implies acceptance of a measure of insecurity for the teacher, who is not and never can be in control of the diversities of learner’s lives. A concern for truth is thus congruent with concerns for individualisation and encouragement. Myhren offers eight specific methodological recommendations to support a concern for truth-telling which show clearly how such a concern relates to more usual concerns of communicative methodology. These can be summarised as follows:

1. Challenge answers on the basis of an explicit concern for truth. 2. Use non-personal activities for practice of a wider range of vocabulary and correction of grammar. 3. Do not use personal activities as mere language practice – find other ways. 4. Be sure that students have a variety of likely responses. 5. Avoid embarrassing questions/allow pupils to refuse to answer. 6. Focus correction on potential problems in communication. 7. Follow up the content of answers with further questions. 8. Let students know that you would rather they continued an interesting line of discussion than complete the activity.13

A cross-curricular concern for moral development is a practical concern, not mere rhetoric, and can have specific methodological consequences in modern language teaching. If it is neglected, we risk devaluing the foreign language, encouraging laziness in teachers and pupils, and inhibiting a proper educational concern for moral development. Stated ethos and general moral concerns must be examined in relation to specific practices if they are to become more than fond hopes. Language teaching in schools, far from being a value-free process, is an educational activity and as such carries important ethical implications which should be granted the same careful attention lavished on linguistic matters.


1. Proverbs 12:19.

2. cf. National Curriculum Council, ‘Spiritual and Moral Development – A Discussion Paper’, York: NCC, April 1993; Office for Standards in Education, ‘Handbook for the Inspection of Schools’, OFSTED, August 1993, p.18: Opportunities for inviting pupils to come to terms with ethical issues and personal values can arise in every subject of the curriculum, without exception: no subject matter is value-neutral’.

3. For a rare discussion which does tackle this issue, see Note 5. For briefer treatment in the context of more general discussion of spiritual and moral development in modern language teaching, see David Smith et al., ‘Teaching Modern Languages – A Fresh Approach to the National Curriculum’, St. Albans: Association of Christian Teachers, 1994, p.28-33.

4. The other main stimulus was Patricia Myhren’s helpful discussion in her paper on ‘The Nature and Role of Personalized Questions in the Foreign Language Classroom’ (Proceedings of the North American Association of Christian Foreign Language and Literature Faculty Annual Conference, 1991, pp.132-144). I shall draw on her observations at various points in this paper.

5. For an overlapping set of reasons for being concerned with truth, see Myhren, op. cit., pp. 141-142.

6. See e.g. Earl W. Stevick, ‘Memory, Meaning and Method – Some Psychological Perspectives on Language Learning’, Rowley, MA: Newbury House, 1976; and by the same author, ‘Humanism in Language Teaching’, Oxford University Press, 1990, pp. 45-48.

7. Myhren, op. cit., pp. 141.

8. Myhren, op. cit., pp. 138.

9. Wilga Rivers’ dismissive comment that ‘lying is a common form of real communication’ comes under this heading. (Wilga M. Rivers, ‘Communicating Naturally in a Second Language – Theory and Practice in Language Teaching’, CUP, 1983, p.44).

10. Hawkins, Eric W., ‘Modern Languages in the Curriculum’, Revised Edition, Cambridge University Press, 1987, p.274.

11. Wilga M. Rivers, ‘Teaching Foreign Language Skills’, 2nd edition, University of Chicago Press, 1981, p.231.

12. In this paper I have restricted my focus to truthful communication of meaning; a number of writers advocate the enabling of emotional honesty in the language classroom. This raises questions of how this can be tempered by awareness of the effects of such emotional honesty on others.

13. Myhren, op. cit., pp. 142-143.

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