Just writing the word ELEVENSES makes me feel peckish. It has a lovely Pooh Bear quality to it, doesn’t it, redolent of hot buttered teacakes and steaming mugs of tea.
But anyway, I digress. In case you’re wondering what on earth I’m on about thus far, ELEVENSES seems to have become almost a technologically-transmitted disease in ELT blogging circles over the last couple of months. Before Xmas, I started noticing the odd person whose blog I followed suddenly answering eleven questions and nominating others to do the same, like some kind of viral convulsion or online domino-chain.
I had been hoping to escape infection, but was recently nominated for all this by someone I follow on twitter and may or may not have met or even shared pub space with, the mysterious Secret DOS. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I figured answering some peculiar questions that someone else has come up with seemed like a fairly stress-free way to ease back into the world of blogging after a lengthy and much needed break from much of the Web over the Xmas period. Here goes:
1. In your profession, what is the greatest myth that people still believe?
What a great question to kick things off with. There are so many myths that are still fairly common currency in ELT that it’s hard to know where to begin. Is this the time to have that long overdue pop at the snake oil peddlers selling us learning styles and multiple intelligences gobbledygook? Or the notion that a four-week course somehow prepares you for professional life? Or the idea that anyone anywhere can provide accelerated learning that gets students from Elementary to Advanced in a year or less?
I know. We really are spoiled for choice when it comes to fairy tales to cling onto! In terms of the GREATEST myth, though, it’d have to be the deeply ingrained idea that what makes learners better is essentially to do with the study of discrete grammatical structures. Or to paint in even broader brush strokes, the idea that grammar is at the heart of the language, that it’s what students need most, or that it’s even really teachable in any objective and global sense. A lingering myth that should have been killed off at least a decade ago, if not two, but that poisons so much of what we do to this day!
2. What is the single greatest truth that you think a language teacher should be aware of?
That language is at heart lexically driven.
And that learning any language to any serious degree of competence is bloody hard work!
3. If our cognition is located in our environment rather than in our heads, how should language teaching change? (One suggestion is enough!)
4. What do you wish you didn’t know?
I’m assuming you mean apart from the fact that giraffes can kick the head off lions, that meat in southern China has been injected with dirty pond water in a bid to swell its weight and raise its price, and some unpleasant truths about myself, right? Well, I guess I’d rather not have known some of the politics and Machiavellian dealings that go on in both universities and also in the publishing world. I was probably purer and less tainted by knowledge of these things when I first set out in my own naive way to try and change the world with my first book, thinking good ideas would out simply because they were right, whereas in reality we all know that ideas become good when they come with added study trips to the UK, fridge freezers and so on. Other than that, I’m quite happy knowing pretty much everything I know about everything, as even the dark stuff is interesting and helps to flesh out the picture of the world and its inhabitants that I’ve been piecing together these 45 years!
5. The Michel Thomas method offers language learners the chance to go from beginner to confident speaker without books, homework or having to memorise anything – how likely is this?
The first thing I have to say in response to this question is that for people of a certain persuasion – and I include myself in this group – hearing mention of Michel Thomas – even without the A – leads to thoughts of one thing – and one thing only.
Now THAT, my friends, was magic.
Michel Thomas, sadly, is yet more proof, as if it were needed, that if you hype yourself strongly enough and make claims so big and bold that you seem mad to the sane person, plenty will buy into your dream machine and the bucks will surely fly. It takes little bits of Suggestopedia, little bits of Direct Method, little bits of self-help rubbish, little bits of Krashen and his affective filter, boils it all down to a dull, turgid muddy brown and sells it as The Best Thing Ever (TM).
Anyone who’s ever spent time trying to teach a language – or learn one – knows the claims are nonsense, and, for me, such total nonsense that I almost can’t be bothered trying to work out what it is within the hard sell that may actually be of value. Thomas benefited from having a remarkable life story that he could weave into a very salable narrative (not that I’d wish torture on anyone, of course!) and one that resonated particularly in Hollywood, where he built up a devastating client base. The whole privacy of his language school has the kind of cult effect Callan has, and is similarly lacking in any real theoretical grounding.
That said, I’m with him on the idea that anyone – or almost anyone – can learn a language and I guess I too do tend to see failure as a result of bad teaching rather than bad students. Interleaved learning – or mixing old stuff with new stuff – is also very sane, and what any decent teacher does almost automatically. Not totally bonkers, but as the last days of the Maoist commune in Brixton recently showed, cults are really no place to spend the next thirty years of your life.
6. Does language learning have more to learn from the field of linguistics, psychology or neuroscience?
I’m really tempted to just sidestep this question by saying “Yes, it does” and be done with it.
The main issue for me here is that I’m honestly not sufficiently informed in all three fields to be able to comment with any degree of any authority on this. Language learning is generally very slow to learn from even the disciplines closest to, as can be seen from the depressingly limited impact the work of the greatest thinkers in our field, like Michael Hoey, have had thus far, so I think that to begin with, it’d be nice if language teachers learned more about language, which means linguistics, but there are also obviously lots of thins that we can all learn from psychology – and all good teachers pick up a lot of psychological insight on the job, even if they’re not conscious of having done so!
The benefits of neuroscience I, far less convinced of, personally, especially as it’s been used to dress up some of the multiple intelligence dribblings we’ve been subjected to! I’m wary of the way the new brand of folk neuroscience seems to be getting used to validate personal identity and subjective experience, and where the harder, purer stuff does get though, while it’s interesting, I’m not convinced it tells us a huge amount about what we should be doing in our classrooms.
7. What single small change would make a classroom a more effective place for learning?
The obvious answer to this would be a question – or two: which classroom? Where? If we’re just talking in very general terms, then I’m not sure I am able to narrow it down to one. There are three or four things that I think would make a huge difference: see language less as a machine or the linguistic equivalent of some obscure kind of algebra and start treating it – and using it – more as a means of communication that enables people to get to know each other better and to discuss a wide range of things of interest to them; work the language that is there in the classroom – explore and exploit it, and involve the students in this process; focus on whole language – lexis with grammar, and grammar with lexis – all the time; two steps forward and one back! Those four should start to make some kind of positive change in combination.
8. Can language actually be taught?
Or only learned? I’m guessing that’s the sub-text here. If so, then I think it’s a false dichotomy as whilst in one very fundamental sense of course everything one learns to do has to be learned by the individual, teaching by another can help smooth the whole process and ensure the learning is more focused, more effective and more interesting. Things can’t ONLY be taught, but teaching can aid and assist learning in profound and remarkable ways.
9. Who has more to teach us: Tony Soprano, Jimmy McNulty or Walter White?
About what? About language teaching? Or about life? if the latter, all three shed light on many pertinent areas of the human soul and condition. If the former, I’m not sure any of them are particularly brilliant role models or mentors. If push came to shove, though, I guess I’d go with Walt, if only because watching Jesse Pinkman shouting “Yeah! Science, bitches!” as Mr White cooked up some new recipe or took out rival cartels with demented chemistry was testament to the fact that even the most unlikely students could be won over if he subject were to be pitched to them on a level they related to.
Incidentally, while we’re here, ever notice the marked similarity between Dominic West as Jimmy McNulty and my friend and co-author Andrew Walkley?
When you add to this the fact that Dominic West also played mass murderer Fred West (no relation), it all starts getting very sinister indeed.
10. If somebody doesn’t have what it takes, can they get it?
That all depends on what you think IT is, of course.
I’m guessing you mean in terms of being a teacher? Well, up to a point, I think the answer is yes. Every now and then, as any trainer will tell you, you do encounter trainees who struggle immensely during their early teaching practices and who seem destined for disaster, be it due to crippling shyness or nerves or whatever, but even these folk can learn the basics and get to a stage where they can function to at least the point of being employable somewhere. Once there, if they have the right contacts and colleagues and conversations, there’s no reason why they can’t push on and develop and get better. Having spent many years watching Tony Adams play football – a man of essentially limited capabilities who ended up excelling at his craft simply though sheer exertion of effort and willpower – I’m a firm believer in the notion that desire and hard work and focus can trump innate talent. And we can all think of examples of seemingly ‘naturally’ gifted folk who’ve got complacent or failed to live up their potential for whatever reason, so yes I suppose is my answer here.
We’re actually in the middle of a methodology book that is an attempt to break down and define in step-by-step forensic detail what we think IT might involve, by the way, and how teachers can slowly go about acquiring it!
11. Is language learning a uniquely human endeavour? Are there any parallels to it elsewhere?
It clearly is not only uniquely human, but also, arguably, what MAKES us human.
Right. Well, that’s that, then.
Officially, what I’m now supposed to do is nominate eleven other bloggers to answer eleven questions of my won choosing, but I’ve never been much of a one for dumping work on others if I can at all help it. Add to that the fact that I’ve come to this rather late, and pretty much everyone I know who might’ve been interested in playing has already offered up their own version of this parlor game and you have my get-out clause! I’ll get my coat . . .
The final part I’m now supposed to add is eleven random facts about me, so here goes nothing:
1 My dad was once arrested for lobbing a Molotov cocktail through the window of Rhodesia House. And again for catching, killing and cooking a swan.
2 I went to school with Mary McCartney and used to see Paul around town and at parents’ evenings and the like.
3 I lost my virginity on my sixteenth birthday. Sort of by accident.
4 I spent a fair chunk of my teenage years writing for a fanzine called FREAKBEAT and now do a fair bit of scribbling for another zine called SHINDIG!
5 My Indonesian is pretty decent.
6 I worship at the shrine of Bo Diddley.
7 I have never knowingly refused a free drink.
8 Possibly my favourite ever novel is The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.
9 I sing in a rock’n’roll band called The Beatpack.
10 My house is home to over 8000 LPS and 2000 45s.
11 I get a monthly haircut, cutthroat razor shave, hot towel treatment and so on – the full works – done at my local old school Turkish barbers.