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English Language Teaching Global Blog


Why does something become popular?

Stack of different denim jeansAs part of our series of posts exploring a “question-centered” teaching approach, we asked Douglas Holt, co-author of Cultural Strategy: How Innovative Ideologies Build Breakthrough Brands, to give us his thoughts on the above question, featured in the new course Q Skills for Success.

As a Professor of Marketing at Oxford University, I am very interested in how icons and brands become popular.

I believe that popularity works through two very different processes. The most intuitive for most of us is the ‘fads and fashions’ process.

People, brands, and styles become popular because the right people have adopted it — rich people, celebrities, opinion leaders, hipsters in subcultures — and we copy them in the eternal human quest to be fashionable and admired.

My work examines the second popularity process — the emergence of cultural icons — a far more durable and powerful form of popularity, and much less well understood.

Icons emerge because they express a particular ideology that society demands at a particular historical moment.

Consider Gloria Steinhem or Ann Coulter, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, John Wayne or Bono, Ronald Reagan or Hugo Chavez, Greenpeace or Focus on the Family.

These individuals and groups became immensely influential by advancing innovative ideology, and thereby developing intensely loyal followers.

Or consider farmer/cookbook author/television host Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, author Michael Pollan, the international Slow Food movement, and the American grocery retailer Whole Foods Market, amongst others, which have transformed food consumption for the upper middle class.

These cultural innovators have championed an alternative approach to agriculture and food. They have made an ideological challenge to the dominant scientific–industrial food ideology. They have brought to life the value, even necessity, of winding the clock back to some sort of pre-industrial food culture in such a way that it is irresistible for the upper middle class in the United States, the United Kingdom, and many other countries.

We call this phenomenon “Cultural Innovation”. It is something that can be thoughtfully researched and planned, unlike the seemingly random birth of fads and fashions.


Douglas Holt is L’Oréal Professor of Marketing at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, UK, and previously a professor at the Harvard Business School, USA. He is the co-author of Cultural Strategy: How Innovative Ideologies Build Breakthrough Brands (OUP).

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Kind of… sort of… not really

Girl biting her lip and looking to the rightKieran McGovern discusses the question of whether language shapes thought, or whether culture shapes language.

New cognitive research suggests that language profoundly influences the way people see the world — Wall Street Journal, ‘Lost in Translation’, 30 July 2010.

The always-entertaining Michael Winner recently used his Sunday Times column to describe a visit to a London primary school (Winner’s Dinners: Heading back to school to award an A for effort). His guide was seven-year-old Skye Harris and the two had the following exchange about school dinners:

“Is the food good?” I asked Skye.
“Yes,” she said.
“Good as your mother’s?” I continued
“Not really,” responded Skye

The tentative ‘not really’ is characteristic of the answers I receive from my own seven-year-old daughter. Ask her if she likes this or that and the answer is usually ‘kind of’.

What is it that creates this reticence? Is it the hard-learned lesson that if you say you liked that trip to the museum you’ll be going there every Saturday? Or a reluctance to give a ‘wrong’ answer to an adult?

Or perhaps it’s an early manifestation of something more culturally and linguistically specific:  the famous English reserve.  English speakers generally prefer soft modals to harsh imperatives when expressing opinions: (“Do you want to listen to my new thrash-metal album?” “Um … I think I’d prefer to boil my own head…”). This can cause misunderstandings

In some cultures it is considered rude to give a negative answer – even if it involves sending someone asking for directions up the wrong street. In British English we perhaps do this too subtly. After battling through that awful spider soup we tell our dinner host it was ‘very distinctive’. We then watch in horror as she serves up a second helping.

Is this peculiar to the British? Or is it something inherent to the English language itself? What are your thoughts?

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What does it mean to be British?

Big Ben, Westminster and London Buses

Chris Hooper is an ESOL Tutor, Manager and Advanced Practitioner at Leeds City College, UK. In this guest post, he considers the extent to which knowledge of national culture benefits language learners.

Teaching English to immigrants in the UK, US, Australia and other English speaking countries brings its own challenges.  Teachers often find themselves trying to help people make sense of their new homeland, as well as developing language skills. Many of my students from a range of different countries want to try to understand what it means to be British. That’s not an easy thing to define… Tea? Fish and chips? Cricket? Fair play? Island nation? Arrogance? Modesty? Irony? Sarcasm?

There are some excellent travel books (Kingdom by The Sea by Paul Theroux, Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson) in which the writers give their outsiders’ views of the UK. I’ve recently used extracts from the Paul Theroux book (quite old now but wonderfully written) to provide stimulus for vocabulary work and prompt students to create their own writing about their views of the UK. There was an instant feeling of recognition amongst the students in the group (“yes – 2 taps in the bathroom!”, “British people – always embarrassed!”) that they were highly motivated to get their ideas down on paper for homework.

There are plenty of resources specifically made for ESOL learners – the UK Home Office/ NIACE pack http://www.learningandwork.org.uk/ and the excellent www.esoluk.co.uk which is run by local tutors in my area are two examples. There are paper based and online activities which can be used to explore questions of national identity within a controlled language context.

The BBC has a good section on this which I use to provoke some interesting discussion on What makes you British? In this, British people give their own views of what it means to them to be British. There are many different ideas – from those who feel it as an integral part of their lives, to others for whom nationality is irrelevant. The discussions we’ve had around national identity have been a great opportunity to put into practice the techniques for interrupting we’ve been working on – everyone has a lot to say about their experience of the British and is keen to get a word in.

It leaves the question though… does it matter what it means to be British? Or American? Or Australian? How much of a role do English teachers have to play in these discussions? And is it important for people learning in their own country to have an understanding of culture and identity of English speaking nations? Maybe in the world we live in we should just accept that English is a multi-national means of communication and culture is very low down the list of priorities for most learners?

Related resources:

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