Copernicus 2.0: native-speakers are no longer the centre of the English-speaking universe

This weekend I presented the results of our first “Europa Report” read-through at the Association for Teaching English through Movies (ATEM) Nishi-Nihon Conference, which was held at Hyogo University of Teacher Education here in Japan. Here are some highlights.

Images: Start Motion Pictures; Magnet Releasing; NASA; JPL; Jan Matejko; Stockfresh; morgueFile

The Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle believed that we were the centre of the universe. The sun, the planets, the stars – everything – rotated around one, single point: the Earth.

In the 16th century, however, there began a revolution. The Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus argued that we are not the centre of the universe, and everything does not rotate around one, single point.

There was just one problem: Copernicus didn’t have any evidence.

The first real piece of evidence came 67 years after Copernicus died, when the Italian astronomer Galileo pointed his telescope at Jupiter and discovered four moons orbiting the planet.

These four moons were clear, unmistakable proof that everything in the universe does not rotate around one, single point. They helped give the Copernican revolution unstoppable momentum.

But Copernican-style revolutions don’t only happen in astronomy. They happen in other areas, too. My favourite example is: the English language.

The centre of the English-speaking universe used to be England: the history of the language rotated around people like Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dr Samuel Johnson.

After the British Empire carried English across the globe, new centres appeared. Now the language also rotated around people like Roosevelt, Kennedy and Dr Martin Luther King.

Today, in the small, interconnected world in which we now live, there are two billion English-speakers, and three-quarters of these are non-native-speakers. It has been a true Copernican revolution. Native-speakers are no longer the centre of the English-speaking universe.

These days, people are not studying English because they want to talk to Americans or to British people or to other native speakers. They’re studying English because they want to talk to Chinese people, to Germans, to Brazilians, and to the rest of the one-and-a-half billion people for whom English is a global communications tool.

This is the first of the key ideas behind a project we call SkypeRead. We bring non-native English-speakers from all over the world together in Skype group calls, to connect with other non-native English-speakers from different countries, different continents, and different cultures.

The second key idea behind SkypeRead comes from neuroELT, a new field that explores potential links between neuroscience and English-language teaching. Studies show that emotion and collaboration play extremely important roles in the process of how the brain learns and develops. And so our group of non-native English-speakers take part in an extremely emotive and collaborative experience: a read-through of a movie script.

The third key idea behind SkypeRead is that it uses real-life language – the kind of language you find when you go beyond textbooks and classrooms and out into the real world.

We launched SkypeRead last year and, so far, we have done read-throughs of five different movies with participants from more than 20 countries. Our most recent project is being undertaken with support from Start Motion Pictures, an independent film production company in New York. To tell you about it, I have to take you back to those Galilean moons of Jupiter.

One of these moons, Europa, is covered in ice. Very excitingly, in 1996, images from NASA’s Galileo spacecraft suggested that, underneath the ice, there might be huge oceans.

There has been lots more exciting news since then. Just two months ago, for example, in September 2014, scientists studying images from Galileo found evidence of plate tectonics on Europa – the first time this kind of geological activity has been seen outside of the Earth.

It all points to a dramatic possibility: there might be life on Europa. This is the starting point for “Europa Report”, a movie about a manned mission to search for life in those ice-covered oceans.

In many, many ways, “Europa Report” is the ideal movie for our SkypeRead experiment.

It’s a very multinational, multicultural movie, both in terms of the characters in the story – where the mission commander, for example, is Chinese – and in terms of the cast and crew – the director, for example, is Sebastián Cordero, an Ecuadorian.


It’s a very tense and suspenseful movie, and it has wonderful dialogue. It’s made in a documentary style, which means it’s rich in the kind of real-world language we want to focus on.

Finally, “Europa Report” is notable for its highly realistic science and engineering. This, of course, makes it a particularly powerful movie for people working in STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – which is an area where cross-border collaboration and teamwork is becoming increasingly important.

So, what kind of results do we achieve? Our first “Europa Report” read-through took place a few weeks ago, with five participants from Japan, Vietnam, the Czech Republic, Spain and Mexico. Here’s some of the feedback we got.

♦  “It felt real.” ROCÍO, MEXICO
Rocío was sitting in her kitchen in southern Mexico on a warm and sunny Saturday morning, but events taking place hundreds of millions of miles away on a cold, dark Europa night felt real. Wow!

♦  “Oh my God, all the tension… It was very, very stressful, you could feel it. It was so great, really fun!” ELENA, SPAIN
It seems counter-intuitive, but Elena’s comment demonstrates that a read-through of a tense, suspenseful movie can be enormous fun!

♦  “My characters, of course.” NGOC, VIETNAM (in response to the question “My favourite character in the story is…”)
Ngoc’s “of course” is a reflection of how fantastically well everybody ‘took ownership’ of their roles, and really ‘became’ their characters.

♦  “It made me realize the power of English.” KANA, JAPAN
Kana underlines the beautiful fit between the story of a multinational team going to Europa (using English as a common language), and a multinational team doing a read-through (using English as a common language).

And, finally, to bring this presentation to a close:

♦  “It was really wonderful experience :-) it is very nice to meet people from so far countries in my kitchen… the story was very exciting and emotional, so I liked our reading!” LUCIE, CZECH REPUBLIC
Lucie summarises perfectly the two key elements of a read-through: emotion and collaboration.

Thanks for listening.

Published by Graham Jones

Astrophysicist and science communicator