The on-line magazine ELTNEWS interviews
Catherine Walter and Michael Swan, co-authors
of several books and courses designed to teach
English as a Foreign Language ELTNEWS
How has the ELT (English Language Teaching)
scene changed since you started in the profession?
Mostly in terms of the materials available, I think.
When I began teaching, classroom materials were
thin on the ground, and creating materials for classes
took up a lot more of teachers’ time than it does now.
This gives today’s teachers a great start - they can
see lots of examples of good practice and look at how
to build on it. In fact, in many cases, good materials
have led professional developments. For example,
the growth of interest in learner independence would
not have taken off as it has without the excellent
self-study books, CDs, readers and so on that are
available today. […]
Things have changed enormously. […] Textbooks
were pretty unattractive. Applied Linguistics was in
its infancy. The buzz-words from the research front
were ‘structural syllabus’, ‘audio-visual’ and ‘language
laboratory’. Professional associations scarcely
existed. All this has changed, mostly for the better.
There is excellent professional training. We have a
wealth of good textbooks. Applied Linguistics is a
long-established and productive field of research. We are
supported by several very professional professional
associations. Language teaching now has so many
components that it’s difficult to list them all.
One thing that worries me, though, is that language
itself (especially grammar and pronunciation) has
tended to disappear from language teaching, at least
in the UK-based orthodoxy of the last twenty years.
Learning a foreign language centrally involves learning
the key structures, phonology and vocabulary of that
language, and no amount of activity-based fluency
practice can compensate if that is neglected.
How should one respond to a teacher who says
that fluency in English is more important than knowing
Boots might be more important than socks, but
most people find it useful to have both. Fluency and
accuracy are not alternatives - students need to be
fluent in reasonably good English, not in a highly
deviant interlanguage. And knowledge of rules can
help with this. We believe that, in ways that are not
completely understood, declarative knowledge can
often aid the development of procedural knowledge -
so that knowing some grammar rules can help some
students to learn English. […] Unpopular as it may
have been recently, practice of forms is important for
the development of fluency in a foreign language. We
seem to accept that if musicians are good they must
have practiced scales. We also know that learner
drivers have to practice coordinating the different
pedals, but there is a certain resistance to language
learners’ needing to practice forms.
Dictionaries are being made available over the
Internet and students can now practice their English
from a variety of interactive English-learning Web
sites. What role can technology play in the teaching
and study of foreign languages?
Anything that can make practice of forms more
attractive will help learners to develop fluency more
readily. Some people are more willing to spend
time on a game-like activity on a computer than in a
classroom; for these people, technology can be a real
As interactive sites get more sophisticated, it
should be possible for individual learners to take
the path that suits them towards mastery of forms
- perhaps not the same path for each form or each
What has been your greatest satisfaction from
working in the ELT industry?
Can I have two? One would be the pleasure of
putting people in touch with one another: teachers
from Russia with teachers from the UK; people
teaching refugees from Ethiopia in Israel with people
teaching East Asian refugees in Thailand; the Literacy
Strategy team of the UK’s Department for Education
and Employment with EFL grammar experts.
And the other would be the buzz that I get when a
teacher comes up after a presentation and says “I’ve
been teaching for a long time. But I really learned how
to teach from the teacher’s books to your courses.”
We put a lot of time and effort into those teacher’s
books, trying to think carefully how to make them
useful to teachers in different situations, and I think it
has made a small difference to the profession.
And three for me. Firstly, the fascination of
working with language, such a complex cognition
that is exclusively human. Secondly, the privilege
of being able to work with and for so many different
kinds of people, with such multifarious and endlessly
engaging ways of thinking and being. And thirdly, the
satisfaction that comes from building bridges between
people – and from finding ways of helping people to
succeed in the most defying of all enterprises: learning
to communicate well in a foreign language. Available at: http://www.eltnews com/features/interviews/2001/06/
interview_with_michael_swan_an.html. Retrieved on: 27 Oct. 2011.
The hyphen in “long-established” (line 26) is used in Text I to connect the elements of