Merry Christmas, happy holidays and a magnificent New Year, my fellow ELTABBers!
Over the last 12 months I’ve had a marvellous time interviewing my friends and colleagues and so, to celebrate 2022, I have put together a Frankenstein* of all the interviews of the year! One interview question from every member.
Thank you all so much for being such good sports, and I hope to see you in person in the New Year!
All the best!
*”Actually Frankenstein was the name of the scientist. I, the person correcting you on this trivial point, am the monster.” – Joseph Scrimshaw
First of all, we hope you enjoyed the holidays! Happy New Year!
Do you have anything to say about the wild year that’s just finished? Do you have any highlights or particular thoughts?
Happy New Year to you too. The ‘dooms and glooms’ of teaching during the 2020 pandemic led to a number of ‘red tape measures’, which at times caused confusion, the inability to plan in detail, mandatory mask-wearing, additional strict hygiene measures, asynchronized school breaks, and classes being reduced to small cohorts as well as more imminent monitoring of the students.
From the learners’ point of view: limited capability to participate fully due to lack of IT capabilities or lacking the required equipment or receiving the support needed – and yet the ‘Zooming’ of students acquired a new meaning due to online learning, as well as developing the key attribute of independent learning.
Can you give us an interesting linguistics fact? Linguistics is fascinating!
This doesn’t relate to my own research, but I think it’s important for English teachers to know: One way to understand functional elements like pronouns is in terms of feature specification and under-specification. We are taught in school that ‘he/she’ and ‘they’ are singular and plural respectively. In fact, their distribution can better be explained if we consider them as masculine singular, feminine singular and underspecified or ‘default’. If a referent is plural, a pronoun specified as singular can’t be used, so the default ‘they’ is inserted. Similarly, if the gender of a singular referent is unknown, ‘they/them/their’ works best: ‘Someone left their bag here.’ The fact that it already has this use explains why ‘they’ has taken hold as a pronoun for non-binary people. In the past, feminist and queer activists introduced new gender-neutral pronouns into the lexicon, but even people with good intentions struggle to integrate these into their speech. By contrast, using ‘they’ doesn’t require revising one’s functional inventory—a part of language that is highly resistant to change. It only requires the speaker to internalize the fact that both ‘he’ and ‘she’ are inapplicable (and perhaps shed some of the prescriptivism instilled by their third-grade English teacher).
What role has ELTABB played in your career?
It’s played a fundamental role. The CELTA course, for me, felt like four weeks of intensity followed by being thrown out into the big wide world. ELTABB gave me a sense of community and colleagues. I actually went to my first ELTABB event halfway through my CELTA course. I would heartily recommend volunteering for ELTABB. And definitely, it’s seen as a positive thing by the wider community and that has led to career opportunities. Also, the professional development that it offers has been very beneficial to me (because a CELTA is only the beginning of your professional development).
Which ELTABB event left the most long-lasting memory? Why?
Michael McCarthy’s talk on corpus linguistics in 2019 left the biggest impression on me. I think corpus linguistics has far-reaching implications for language learning and teaching, but what really struck me was the conclusion of the presentation. If I remember it correctly, he analyzed informal and formal spoken conversation and the words with the highest co-occurrence in informal talk were “you know” and in formal talk were “I don’t know” (as in, “I don’t know if you’re familiar with…”). I thought it was really interesting how much of our spoken interaction is based on assuming shared experience in informal conversation and making sure not to assume it in formal conversation.
You were a language student before being a language teacher – can you share any insights from being on the other side of the desk?
In my case I was part of a mixed group of foreigners who were all complete beginners. I know that some language trainers aren’t proponents of target language only instruction, but this was the most feasible option for us, and I believed we all thrived and became closer because of it. I’ve also taken a number of courses in Japanese and recognized that the trainer who let us speak German and ask in German “what is the German name of xyz” was much less effective than the one who forced us to ask the same question in Japanese. Additionally, our German instructor never laughed at our mistakes (for example Arschenbecher instead of Aschenbecher), and took our most trivial questions seriously. We felt like we were equals with him.
It has been argued that a difference between ‘business’ and ‘general’ communication is that business English doesn’t need to be as grammatically ‘correct’ – the emphasis is solely on successful business communication. What are your thoughts on this?
I think I agree with that, up to a certain point of course. You can’t send around messages with horrible grammar to your manager or executives just because your business idea is so good. If you have a good manager though, they will recognize that and put you in a business English course.
From my experience, the most important things were speed and understanding. Be short and concise in your messages, make sure everything that needs to be said is said and nothing more. If you make sure the other person, whether it be your manager or a C-level executive, knows exactly what you are saying and you can get that message across quickly, you’re doing well. This also means that you need to be aware of the terminology in the field.
Bar owners are known for picking up interesting stories in their line of work. Do you have one to share?
One printable funny memory (send me the rest! – Ed.) is being surprised to overhear a couple of on-leave soldiers from the French Foreign Legion enthusiastically discussing the handbag clasps that we had installed just under the lip of the bar counter. The legionnaires thought that the idea was to slip your belt over the hooks, so that you could drink as much as you liked without fear of falling off your barstool.
You’ve taught English to zoo employees – is there any interesting zoo-specific language you had to teach? Or general zoo anecdotes?
Anytime I tell someone I teach English at the zoo, there is first a perplexed look on their face as they try to figure out who I teach and the animals first come to their minds. Zoo keepers are nice people! Best moments have been when I’ve taught behind the scenes, seeing some gentle animals up close and personal. One group of students took me to feed the llamas on my birthday!
The first incarnation of ‘Law Jaw’ was ‘Lesson Jam’? Can you tell us what this was about?
(Tom is also responsible for the brilliant-sounding ‘Law Jaw’ workshop/lesson, which connects students from around the world to learn English through discussing their specialist subject. Read all about that over on the ELTABB Journal!)
Law Jaw and Lesson Jamming are a bit different. Lesson Jamming was about bringing teachers together to work on lesson planning and to swap ideas. Law Jaw is about bringing students together to talk about law in English… but you could apply it to other subjects or common interests as well.
On a more abstract level, what they share is that it is the participants who generate most of the content for the sessions and that, through collaboration, teaching and learning become more fun and rewarding. Teachers are brought out of the isolation of freelance work contracts in the case of Lesson Jamming; students are given the chance to chat with international peers (after 18 months of travel restrictions) in the case of Jaw. But Jaw isn’t just about the students. If you organise one, you’ll have to get in touch and work with an international colleague. I found that hugely rewarding!
How important is it to know the L1 of your students? (And is this the same for business- and general- English and English-for-specific purposes)?
I think it can be both a help and a hindrance. On the one hand, it’s an advantage because you have greater awareness of the typical mistakes students will make, even at a micro level, such as why they are putting commas in the wrong place. It means that to a certain extent, you can anticipate the problems they’re going to have with a certain task.
On the other hand, when you know the learners’ L1, it can be tempting to use translation when explaining the meaning of a word. And students can get a bit lazy and ask you how to translate a German phrase into English and vice versa. In my opinion, it’s better to strive for maximum use of English to get meaning across, whether that’s through the use of drawing, mime, pictures, etc. I try to do that in my Business English class. However, in my ESP class (English for Agriculture and Conservation), this isn’t always possible, as certain concepts can be more difficult to explain in a simpler way that remains scientifically correct. Because my students often know more than me in these fields, I tend to ask individuals to explain concepts in English in their own words. I also encourage the use of (monolingual and bilingual) dictionaries.
With so many language skills at your command, will you be moving on across Europe, or is Berlin your home for the foreseeable future?
For now, Berlin is my base camp and I’m working on getting German to a decent level. Who knows what the future will hold…