An Interview with @EBEFL!

We here at ELT RRR are honoured to have Russell Mayne, aka @EBEFL. Russ’s blog  has been called lucid, controversial, enlightening and a “damned good read.” It is highly recommended. He recently delivered a much talked about presentation at IATEFL this year. Aside from being praised for his honesty and courage his “sexy voice” was also noted. Russ was mentioned favorably in a few blog posts including Steve Brown’s “Never Mind the Bo**ocks-here’s the TEFL Skeptic” and “A Glut of Celebrity ELT Encounters”  from Nicola Prentis.   What follows below is an interview conducted over a 36 hour period on google docs. Please note: at one point in the interview Russell mentions a specific slide. The whole Powerpoint (including what some have called the bravest slide ever) can be downloaded from here


Hello and thanks for much for stopping by. It is so nice to have you.
OK…First question. Why @EBEFL? What is your interest in this? How did you become interested in this? Why is it important?
Hi Mike, As you know my name on Twitter used to be “evidenced-based EFL.” I came up with the idea after reading, and loving “Bad Science” by Ben Goldacre. It crystalised a lot of things I was thinking at the time.  It’s a  fantastic  book and really funny.  Go and read it! I think that was what started me on the road to skepticism. At the same time I was running courses in Taiwan and everyone kept talking about this method or that approach or whether A or B was better and I just kept thinking…How do we know? Has anyone actually looked into this? Is everyone just blagging?

Another factor was I learnt to speak Japanese to a pretty good level in about 4 years and when I looked at material and things we did in the classroom I just kept thinking “I never did any of this when I learnt Japanese.” So much of it seemed boring or artificial or just for the benefit of the teacher. Anyway it all came to a head when I started my current job. Ironically we were teaching a lesson from Marjorie Rosenberg’s book about learning styles (I didn’t know that at the time but only found out recently). The lesson just had students coming out as “multi-modal” and I’m couldn’t help thinking -hang on, does any of this actually make any sense? we also never seemed to do anything with the findings. Like, “OK, Chen you’re visual, now do the same course as everyone else.”

It wasn’t just this stuff though, skimming and scanning, guessing from context and loads of other stuff bothered me too. I thought I was going crazy but then I came across Michael Swan’s articles and felt like I’d found someone who was saying things I was thinking. A bit later I actually wrote to him to thank him for writing them. I wish I could meet him. He’s always replied to my emails and seems a really nice guy.

What sort of things seem to be for the benefit of the teacher?
This sounds like a dodge but I’ve got a series of posts coming out on this  soon so….

Fair enough. We can be patient. Can you say more about your study of Chinese and Japanese and Japanese and how they are different from usual TEFL fare?
Haha I have a whole post written on how I learnt Japanese. It seemed a bit self-indulgent so I’ve left it for the time being. Basically my Japanese is pretty good, 1kyu level in 2004. I couldn’t be a translator but I I can watch movies/read books etc.  My Chinese isn’t as good despite being married to a Chinese speaker. I think that’s really interesting too -as a one person case study. People say “Oh you have a talent for languages” or “Oh you have natural ability” but I if that were true wouldn’t my Chinese also be pretty good? The difference is A) motivation which leads to B) the amount of work you do.

Can you tell us about your talk at IATEFL? What did you talk about? How did it go?
Hahahahahaha. You know, I really thought there would be around 10 or 15 people, maybe some of the folks from twitter. My friend Louise from Leicester told me she thought I would be lynched. When they said they were recording it I thought it was just to stick online later. I didn’t know it would be live. That was terrifying. A lot of people have commented on my saying “oh god!  at the start. I’m glad so many people came and I’m glad they enjoyed it. I do think I may have been preaching to the converted though….

Haha, I heard that “oh god” moment.
Yes, preserved for all of history…

So, what is it like to be famous?
(This question was brought to you from Anne Hendler
Erm…I’m not famous. Not even TEFL famous. but the reaction has been pretty surprising for me. As one of the first people to follow me and as probably the person who has supported me more than anyone else, I’d say, you must be pretty surprised too? (your comment about ‘bands getting famous was really funny).  I’ve been blogging about this stuff for about 2 years now and getting pretty happy to get a few hundred views. A few retweets was my aim but I think, as of yesterday I counted 50 retweets of the talk. That’s pretty surprising.

It was wild for me to hear, for maybe the second time, someone I’d been talking with online for about 2 years now.  And yeah, I have to admit I was feeling a bit funny (but it was not at all surprising) seeing all the RTs. Like, “Where have you people been the whole time? The guy has been pumping out great stuff for ages.” Anyway, enough about me and my feelings.  Back to the talk for a second. Is there anything you wish you’d said in the talk but didn’t?
YES! I really wanted to say something but I forgot. I wanted to say , in the second slide, that teachers who try to use these neuromyths, in my experience, are often the most hardworking teachers. They want to give their students as much help as possible and these kinds of things could seem to give people an edge. I never hear lazy teachers say “I’ll check their learning styles” and I think that’s important because it shows how well motivated teachers’ good intentions can be perverted. Imagine if that energy was turned toward something that might work.

That is a really nice point, and maybe one that might help protect you from your potential attackers.  Something I have been wanting to ask you for a while now is this…Learning styles is, of course, nonsense. So what?
Don’t you think it’s interesting? Something so common that’s essentially groundless? And that some people have been saying that for about 30 years?

Sure, I think it is interesting, but what do we care if others believe in it? What is the harm?
See slide 5 😉

Is it possible it has given a net positive effect even while being utter bullshit?
Of course it’s possible. In fact I was asked something similar at IATEFL. the problem really is what comes along in the package with that. If you say “Oh well NLP is nonsense but they have this really great technique…” which they may well have, “…so let’s use it anyway” then how do you distinguish the ‘good’ NLP from the ‘silly’ NLP? Isn’t it easier just to use techniques, like rapport building etc. etc. and dissociate them from NLP? They’ll still be as effective right? But you won’t be giving legitimacy to pseudoscience.

Well said, and I think there is room for us to go back on forth on this one for ages.
For now in this interview, however, we have reached the lightning round, where random questions and their answers come fast and furious.

Do you believe in ghosts?
No. I don’t see how they could work, or why they have clothes on? Why would a ghost have clothes? And if it can float through walls how come it can stand on the floor? All very odd.

If you were in a band what kind of music would you play?
I used to be in a band hahaha. I had really long hair and we played Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins covers.

Excellent. I think EBEFL is a pretty cool name for a band.
Keeping with the lightning nature here, can you please define/explain ‘woo’ in 140 characters or less?
‘Woo’ such a lovely word. Woo is pseudoscience. I think ‘the amazing’ James Randi came up with the term, woo-woo. I think it’s great cos it sounds like someone making a ghost noise “wooooooOOOooooOOOO” It’s a kind of handwaving thing isn’t it? “How does homeopathy work?” ”We don’t know, it’s magic” -woo. Am I making any sense?

You are making sense but you are well over the character count. I will let it pass.
Moving on…Choose 1.  Green tea or onsens.
Onsens every time.

Tell me 1 absolute truth about teaching English.
To quote Ellis 2004
“It can be claimed with confidence that, if the only input students receive is in the context of a limited number of weekly lessons based on some course book, they are unlikely to achieve high levels of L2 proficiency” (Ellis 2005:218)

Boom. Nice one. Tell us 2 posts of yours you’d most want people to read.
It’s a man’s world.” I just can’t make sense of the current situation and also….erm….I dunno, any you liked?
I like them all, Russ. I celebrate your entire catalog. Really.
Please share 3 books not by Ben Goldacre to recommend.
Although not a TEFLer, Tom Bennet’s  “Teacher Proof” would probably be of interest to a lot of teachers. It has some problems IMO but it’s entertaining. I actually have a list on my blog

Thanks. Next, 4 research studies you think English teachers should read.
Start with Swan’s most recent book on ELT. It’s pure gold.Not particularly research based but  he backs up his arguments and is well-considered. You’d probably enjoy the one about why we need textbooks, Mike. 😉

This is a pretty good overview (2005).

Next I would probably look into what area interests you personally and start digging around. There are so many different flavours of teacher that it’s hard to say “this book is the one”. There are also more journal articles and books, in the field of TEFL alone, for anyone to reasonably read. What do you want to find out about? Then head to Google Scholar and use the icanhazpdf hashtag to get hold of the articles.

Alternatively ask people who know. A lot of academics and TEFL bods are on twitter. Wanna know about the lexical approach? Ask Hugh Dellar or Leo. Wanna know about identity in SLA? Ask Florentina Taylor. Julie Moore might answer your corpus questions. There are tons of people on there now and many of them blog.

Thanks so much for taking the time. That was fun. I can’t believe we didn’t even touch on the use of quotation marks on the term native speaker. In any case, it was great. Thanks so much! It was also nice to share the fruits of a google doc collaboration with the world. So, thanks again and best of luck with all, including the woo hunt.  


  1. Rose Bard

    Thanks so much for bringing to my attention Russ’s presentation. It’s the first one I watch from this year conf. I’ve gotta to read the post later though. You made me curious right from the beginning of the post and I couldn’t help but go and check it out. Glad I did. 🙂

    • mikecorea

      I’m so happy to share it Rose. I think you made the right choice to watch the video immediately. I hope you came back and enjoyed the interview. I sure enjoyed doing it. 🙂

      • Rose Bard

        It’s on my reading list for the afternoon dear Mike! I’m sure I’ll find it interesting as just did the presentation. Russel is a great presenter too.

  2. Hana Tichá

    Hi Mike,
    Thanks for this interview and the useful links. My head’s spinning. There’s so much happening in the world of ELT at the moment. I suppose there’s always been a lot to think about but I feel I’m becoming part of it even more intensely than before, and I’m having a great time. Russ’s talk at Harrogate conference was really intriguing for me, especially because I’m someone inclined to believe horoscopes and I think I have unsupported intuitions and the like. But I’m becoming well-behaved and more analytical, with my feet more on the ground and my head less in the clouds.
    This brings me to another point; I really enjoyed Russ’s post ‘It’s a man’s word’ and I can’t help thinking that this big world of ELT may, indeed, be more suitable for men with their analytical minds and the need to find evidence and proof for every hypothesis (by the way, women tend to use modals of probability more than men and I DO as well because I subconsciously fear someone may well disprove what I claim). Anyway, I hope I won’t be lynched but I still believe people learn in different ways and I knew Russ was a Sagittarius long before he uttered it 😀

  3. laurasoracco

    Such a great read! thanks for all the links, too. Feel like I’ll be coming back to this interview at least a few times 🙂 I’m one of those RTrs who came in late to the party of Russ’ blog, but how could I not follow now that I know he played Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins covers? hehe. Love these interviews you’re doing!

  4. Nicola

    I was at the talk and it was the best one of the whole conference despite some pretty fierce competition. Very fresh. I watched it online later with someone I’d been raving about it too and the “oh god” came out much more obviously online than live!

  5. Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

    I certainly enjoyed the first bit of Russ’ session before he began. But I really loved the actual bit when he was presenting. Almost like no other, he has pushed me (though he probably realises little about that). Wonderful chap. Hope I get to have a beer with him in person one day.

  6. Rose Bard

    And 9 days later… pleasant to read and thought-provoking just as his presentation. Thanks for the interview. I have read Swan’s article before, but now I feel I should revisit to see what Russel is seeing. + Vocabulary Myth has been in my list since Kathy posted it in her blog. I had the same reaction as Russel’s friend while I was watching his recorded session. I wouldn’t say I’m skeptical but more of a curious type. And I’m not interested in making generalisations for the whole world to see and follow. I don’t believe in that as I believe in individuality. Because it is more about the individual than anything else imho. It seems to be more about the person’s motivation, interests, beliefs and like Russel stated in his interview also the effort one puts into it. I would expect us teachers to be more reflective in nature but we easily parrot what we hear/read based on admiration, or because what we have read seems to match our own ideas. When I took John Fanselow’s course I was shocked at first that he wouldn’t give us ready answers, but made me reflect and collect data until I accepted the fact that I assume too much with very or none info about the situation, or that we often and easily make generalisation that are not true. I remember that when I stated or asked that “that students don’t speak because they are shy”, he asked the study group what the other reasons students might not speak in class could be. That was enough for me to make a mental note to stop making generalisations about my learners. That was in 2012 and “believe nothing I say” is my mantra. Before that I did ask students to give me feedback but again even their feedback wasn’t enough to allow us to see and understand what was going on in our class, my teaching and their own learning in order to improve anything. I’m still not able to record/transcribe/analyse in regular basis, but the most important lesson was learned.
    Russel your session was really amazing. I praise your courage to stand there in front of those people and say all you said. I have to say some of it was greek to me. I’m more the sort of practical person and reading long researches is not something I have the time to do. I wish I had. I have been trying to finish Paul Nation book “Learning vocabulary in a second language” for more than three months now and I only manage to read a bit everyday. Of course, reading and re-reading. Just being reading the section on “learning from context” 😉 It might be easier and more comfortable to not to endeavor in the world of research because then you won’t get your head spinning around with so many different ideas/views/perspectives, etc. and not having enough time to question and test them yourself. At the end we ended up with the option to follow who ever screams louder. After all they have the credentials, don’t they? With their diplomas hanging on their walls and we are merely teachers. I dunno. but what I won’t do is not think for myself and teach my learners to do it themselves. Nowadays that is what I do: WE (students and I) set our goals. WE evaluate if we have gotten there or not and why! So WE can think of how.

    ps: why my comments in your blog Mike is as long as a blogpost? Almost every time this happen. I hope that is not a bad thing.

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