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Interview with Mario Rinvolucri

mario_rinvolucri.gifMario Rinvolucri is a well-known teacher trainer and has been in the English language teaching field for over 30 years - the last 26 years with Pilgrims. Rinvolucri also edits Pilgrim's online magazine Humanising Language Teaching, and his latest work is the CDROM-based language-learning software, Mind Game. (March 2000)

On the Profession

ELTNEWS
How has the EFL field changed since you started in the 1960s?
Mario
Changes? Providing English has virtually become a utility, like providing electricity or water. In many countries knowing some English is one of the things necessary if a person wants to rise into the lower middle class. It is a social gateway skill. In Athens, Greece, where I taught my first TEFL classes in 1964, the elite had learnt French but their children were dropping it in favour of English. In those distant days you could still talk of a rivalry between French and English to serve as the main lingua franca of the world. Today, French is not in contention anymore.

As is normal in world history, the spread of a language is linked to military and political matters. The last 40 years has seen the parallel spread of US political, military, commercial, scientific, intellectual and linguistic domination of the globe. In a very real sense EFL teachers are as much propagators of the Imperium Americanum as F22 pilots or managers of Kentucky Fried Chicken stores.
ELTNEWS
How about changes in methodology?
Mario
When I started teaching English in Greece in the mid-1960s there was nothing around called 'methodology'. There were one or two things you did like dictation and gap-filling but the techniques we used at the time could have been summarised on four sides of A4. The creation of a huge bank of techniques had to wait until the 70s, 80s and 90s. In 1986 Paul Davis published a book called Dictation with Cambridge University Press (CUP) that offers 30 or forty ways of giving a dictation. I would not have taken a second look at a book with that title in the 60s; my reaction would have been "What do you need a book for? Everybody knows what dictation is."

Alan Maley and Alan Duff started creating the wave of teacher's resource books in the mid-70's and here is where you will find most of the innovative ideas that feed the profession today. The creation of a serious body of techniques for teaching language has impacted world EFL very unevenly however. The Chinese learnt English in the 60s with the grammar translation and rote learning methods. This is still mostly the case today. When I visited the Malay University English department in 1989, I found the gap-fill grammar exercises that Stannard Allen stuffed into his Living English Structures to be still alive and flourishing. Filling gaps was the main way that Malay University students passed their time in EFL classes. CUP's most popular grammar book in the world market today is Murphy's English Grammar in Use, which is full of mechanical transposition exercises. In the late 90s Hong Kong-based Clarity brought out a CDROM called Tensebuster, crammed with yet more gap-fill stuff.

Yes, the picture of methodological change is very uneven. In Europe, take Austria. In the 90s the books of Herbert Puchta and Guenther Gerngross came to virtually monopolise the state secondary school market. These coursebooks are strongly multi-sensory, they draw on all the latest techniques and both the authors are strong NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) practitioners. Teachers in the secondary State sector across Austria have been directly trained in the use of the books by Herbert and Guenther rushing round the country and doing teacher training workshops on the lower slopes of almost every Alp. Neighbouring Germany plods along 2 language teaching decades behind Austria, with its coursebooks created to the satisfy the prejudices of seventy-year-old committees on the various State Education Ministries.

On Teaching

ELTNEWS
What particular aspects of language teaching methodology interest you?
Mario
I am a person who is happiest thinking about very detailed practical things. In the area of methodology I am interested in the scenarios that stimulate students, scenarios that keep them awake, that have them access reasonable levels of energy. I am interested in the choreography of lessons, in the rhythm of lessons, in the beginnings, the middles and the endings. Like a medical surgeon I am proud if a good teaching technique is associated with the Pilgrims group I work with or with me personally. I have no time for the sort of waffly discussions that filled the UK airwaves in the 80s and 90s, for example the writings of Widdowson and Brumfitt. What had their musings to do with the nuts and bolts of language teaching?
ELTNEWS
When did you first have the concept of the on-line magazine Humanising Language Teaching? How much time do you spend on it?
Mario
In 2000 we are bringing out six issues as against the eight we produced in 1999 and Pilgrims gives me 2 working weeks to edit the magazine. I guess this year's editorial work will take more like three weeks, if you think of the working day as eight hours. I am a very commissioning editor always asking people to write things for HLT. But I not a very editing editor. I don't spend hours helping people to hone their stuff to perfection. You will find some marvellous stuff in the magazine but if you are a perfectionist you could be disappointed.

We got the idea of starting an online magazine by looking at OUP's Spectrum and thinking that it made their book-selling site more interesting. By late 1998 we had established a solid, navigable site for selling our courses but it was a bit boring. We only changed it significantly each January. HLT is there to make the Pilgrims site more interesting.
ELTNEWS
Do you think technology will play a role in TEFL in the near future?
Mario
The Web is already playing a major role in the lives of language learners. They are learning a huge amount of English simply by their general interest in searching for things on the web in English. And this is happening outside the control of any school or teacher.

The problem is how to persuade 40 year-old teachers into cyber times. Only one or two of my local Pilgrims colleagues here in Canterbury, UK, actually go to the web to read their own magazine! Over the past year I have printed out the table of contents and one or two articles so that they have the pages in their hands. I hope that gradually they will acquire a “periodical” web habit. How long will it take? Wakaranai.
ELTNEWS
Are there any Web sites that you visit regularly?
Mario
At the moment my web interests are dry and narrow, and largely confined to EFL. I keep an eye on other web magazines and try to learn from them. I keep in personal contact with a large number of print and web EFL editors. What I plan to do is to use the web to start keeping up to date with advances in brain neurology since this is a central field for anyone interested in how language is learned and spoken. My problem here is that I find six Web sites on something like the anterior cingulate cortex (a bit of the brain linked to error correction) and find I don’t have the lexis to understand any of them! I need to take a year off to study basic brain anatomy and neurology.

On Teaching Teachers

ELTNEWS
How and when did you become interested in teaching teachers?
Mario
When I was working in Chile during the Allende period, 1971-3, in a small university we had bright 4th and 5th year students who worked with us as assistants in the first and second year classes. I really enjoyed team-teaching with Erasmo and Sergio and this was my first and maybe best teacher training. It was 'doing together', a sort of apprenticeship scheme. It is a much better model than 'input sessions' and observed teaching.
ELTNEWS
Do you think the current syllabuses, such as CELTA and Trinity adequately prepare a teacher for teaching English as a foreign language?
Mario
Well, no but it is hard to blame the course designers. Who, in their right mind, believes you can fully train a professional in a hundred to two hundred-hour course? These courses are brilliant in their directness and practicality. They are modelled on no-nonsense army courses. They shine in comparison to most MA courses, replete as these are with aboutism, half-baked theorising and vapid intellectualisation. But they are insultingly too short.
ELTNEWS
What syllabus components would you add to or emphasise more?
Mario
1. Knowledge of your own person. When you teach a language you inevitably teach yourself, you teach your own ways of feeling and thinking. As a teacher you need to know a bit more about who you are and how you affect others, you need to know something about your hidden demands from students and how you create your "bad student". You need to know about the sort of projections you indulge in and the particular ways you map reality. For more on this see Bernard Dufeu's brilliant book with Oxford Teaching Myself (1994 ).

2. One-to-one teaching. I feel that teaching practice should start with several hours teaching of one student, so you really have to cope with his or her needs as a learner and so you cannot hide behind your lesson plan or the fantasy of the group. Your teaching career would thus start in the interpersonal area, not fiddling with grammar explanations and lesson plans.

3. Cultural awareness. Certainly for those who are going to teach English in lands they do not belong to this is a central area that the short training courses deal with very skimpily. Cultural awareness is a big chapter and it cannot be learned simply intellectually. It has to be visceral learning, and so hard to achieve, maybe, on a course.

On Writing

ELTNEWS
Many first-time teachers come across your name through your 'Grammar Games' series. Did you write the various activities with a book in mind?
Mario
In the case of that project yes, I spent the best part of six months coming up with different activities and testing them out in classes in the Cambridge Eurocentre. I had an intense conviction that there really was a book there. Grammar Games came out in 1984 with CUP and has now sold well over 100,000 copies, which is not bad for a teacher's resource book. Yet it is not my best book, whatever the market's judgement is. The one on story telling with John Morgan, Once Upon a Time, (CUP 1985) is way better, as is Ways of Doing, with Davis and Garside. Ways of Doing opens up the whole exploration by the students of their own processes, it is like an initial action research guide, but for students - not teachers.
ELTNEWS
You never thought of writing a coursebook?
Mario
Financially… of course. But never seriously. I firmly believe that what happens in my classes arises from the meeting between the students and me and the students and each other. How, rationally, can any outside person map this meeting out in advance? Suppose you go to have dinner with a few friends, do you all arrive with a pre-arranged conversation script? A coursebook is as daft and off-course as that. Feeling this, how could I contemplate writing one?

On Japan

ELTNEWS
A newly qualified teacher is about to go to Japan for her first TEFL job. What reference books should she take?
Mario
I think these two books will help her begin to get her head round a way of doing things and a belief system that she has never dreamt of. They are:

- "The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon" which gives an entry into Japanese formalism, delicacy of perception, sensuality, clarity, concreteness and withering contempt for things disliked.

- "The Enigma of Japanese Power", by Karel van Wolferen, which describes the complex working of a society that manages to combine being super-modern with continuing to live in a 'mura' (village) state of mind.

Insights from both books might help the teacher cope with the bewildering stuff which will hit her in her first Japanese school.
ELTNEWS
How many times have you visited and presented in Japan? What impressions do you get from the ELT scene here?
Mario
I have been invited to three JALT conventions and have done two round-the-archipelago JALT tours. But actually I have learnt most of what I know about Japan by working with Japanese women students from Gifu in the context of The Cambridge Academy, in UK and with young Japanese managers in the Executive English Division of Pilgrims, again in UK.

My impressions of the EFL scene in Japan? First, there are several EFL 'scenes' in Japan. There is the typical JACET-style applied linguistics classroom in a university, there are the language and literature classes in the universities, there are the junior high classes, which are quite different from the junior high clubs which are again different from the juku (cram schools) to which half of this age group goes twice a week. My impressions are too varied to be summed up in a few words.
ELTNEWS
How similar or different are Japanese students to European ones?
Mario
The question seems to imply a homogeneity among European students and among Japanese ones. In Finland when you have four people at dinner then main speaker will be the silence, in Italy, at a dinner table with four people, five of them will be speaking at once, while in Greece, six out of the four will be trying to make themselves heard! I know Japan less well then Europe but I guess the reactions of Aomori province students may well be different from those people from Okinawa some 2000kms to the South of them and with plenty blue water in between. One thing I did find with the college students from Gifu, studying in UK was that their emotionality almost overwhelmed me. They took the first month of intensive work to warm up, but my God, once they were warmed up the things they wanted to talk about and their affective openness amazed me. Those girls made Italian woman seem reserved and cold. Yeah, of course they were abroad and at least partly out of the Japanese rule system…. But all the same… wow, what emotional power!

On Mario

ELTNEWS
You have been with Pilgrims for over 25 years. You never once thought of pursuing your career elsewhere?
Mario
Good question. You could call it lack of imagination!

26 years with Pilgrims.
37 years married to Sophie.
36 years as Lola's father.
32 years as Martin's father.
14 years as Bruno's father.

A long term stick-in-the-mud!
ELTNEWS
Where do you see yourself in five years time?
Mario
Five years into my 30 year plan, which kicked in this January. I intend to retire at 90, so I am currently in mid career. By 2005 I hope to have produced four more CDROMS to follow on from Mindgame, which Clarity in Hong Kong brought out last month. The work on CDROMs puts me in touch with professionals in their late twenties and early thirties while the users are people of today like my Bruno, who will shortly be 14.



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