ETAI 2016: Going Beyond the Limits of Language

Last month, on 4–6 July, the 7th International English Teachers’ Association of Israel (ETAI) Conference took place in Ashkelon, Israel, which is on the Mediterranean coast, about 50 km south of Tel Aviv. Ashkelon describes itself as “one of the world’s oldest cities…steeped in history,” which has “absorbed more than 40,000 new residents, some of whom include immigrants and young families.” And according to ETAI’s website, the association was founded in 1979 “as a grass-roots non-profit teachers’ association run on a voluntary basis, by teachers for teachers.”

ETAI’s aim is “to provide professional support, advice, teaching ideas and background knowledge to teachers of English in Israel.” The site also notes that ETAI has around 800 members “from Jewish, Arab, Druze and Circassian schools all over Israel.” Although ETAI has been an association for more than 35 years, its international conference is only held every 5 to 6 years, on average, which is why this event was only the seventh in its history, with the previous one held in 2010.

According to the BBC’s country profile:

Israel is the only state in the world with a majority Jewish population. It has been locked in conflict with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbours over ownership of land considered holy by many Jews, Christians and Muslims since its creation in 1948.

In terms of the history of Israel, the profile goes on to explain that:

The division of the former British Mandate of Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel in the years after the end of World War II was the culmination of the Zionist movement, whose aim was a homeland for Jews hitherto scattered all over the world.

The ETAI 2016 Conference Chair, Eleanor Satlow, opening the conference

The ETAI 2016 Conference Chair, Eleanor Satlow, opening the conference

The 3 days of the conference were packed with a wide range of varied and interesting sessions, including around 50 workshops and talks, a dozen research papers, a dozen keynote speakers, five symposia, and four international plenary speakers, including me. I was able to attend, and to give the Opening Plenary, as part of the TESOL International Association’s Affiliate Speaker Request program, which is an opportunity for TESOL affiliates to request financial support for a conference speaker from the association. (The next due date for applications is 1 September, for conferences to be held between 1 May and 31 October 2017.)

As the theme of the ETAI 2016 conference was “Engage, Enhance, Energize,” my Opening Plenary was titled “Engagement in an Age of Distraction,” and focused on the challenges of keeping our learners (and ourselves) fully engaged in the teaching and learning process, in spite of so many distractions, more and more of which are technological in nature. Following the second “E” of the conference theme, my concurrent keynote talk was on “Enhancing Effectiveness Through Contextualization,” which drew on the new TESOL Press series, ELT In Context. And for the third “E,” I gave a workshop on “Energizing Language Learning Using Film.”

IATEFL President Marjorie Rosenberg giving her plenary on "Making Lessons Memorable"

IATEFL President Marjorie Rosenberg giving her plenary on “Making Lessons Memorable”

Drawing on Wittgenstein’s (1922) assertion that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my words” (prop. num. 5.6), one of the recurring themes of my talks in recent years has been the limits of language. As language teachers, we are perhaps more aware than most people of the power of language—to help, to heal, to hurt. But because we “do language for a living,” we can sometimes overlook its limitations. For me, the day I spent at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, was a day I will never forget; a powerful, moving and humbling reminder of the limits of language, to express thoughts and feeling that are so far beyond words, they leave you speechlessly numb. Likewise, hearing teachers talk about bombs falling within earshot and even within sight of their classroom windows are some of the other things that will stay with me for a long time, as important reminders of the tremendous difficulties that many teachers and TESOL members face every day, in their communities, their homes, and their schools.

The audience at Andy Curtis's workshop on "Energizing Language Learning Using Film"

The audience at Andy Curtis’s workshop on “Energizing Language Learning Using Film”

The ETAI 2016 conference was my first trip to Israel, but it will certainly not be my last, as I was touched by the warmth of the people I met there, how they welcomed me, and how they helped me understand more about their lives and work in one of the more challenging teaching and learning environments I have visited. I also wanted to thank the ETAI 2016 Convening Committee and everyone who made the event such a positively memorable occasion.


Wittgenstein, L. (1922). Tractatus logico-philosophicus. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

About Andy Curtis

Andy Curtis
From 2015–2016, Andy Curtis served as the 50th president of TESOL International Association. He has coauthored and coedited around 200 publications and worked with more than 50,000 language educators in more than 100 countries. His current research is focused on the New Peace Linguistics. He is an online professor in the Graduate School of Education at Anaheim University, and he is based in Ontario, Canada, from where he works as an independent language education consultant for organizations worldwide.
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