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Interview with Michael Swan and Catherine Walter

michael_swan.gifcatherine_walter.gif Michael Swan and Catherine Walter are co-authors of several books and courses including The New Cambridge English Course, How English Works and Good Grammar Book.




On ELT

ELTNEWS
When and how did you get involved in English language teaching?
Michael
Purely by accident. In the early 1960s I was doing post-graduate work on some neglected 18th-century German poets, and I got a part-time job at an Oxford language school to earn a bit of extra money. As time went on I found myself enjoying the teaching more and more. I also came to realise with increasing clarity just why the poets were neglected, and just how little talent I had for literary research. The next step was inevitable.
Catherine
After university in Texas, I went to Paris and did my second degree in linguistics and French literature at the Sorbonne. After that, it seemed a good idea to get some experience teaching English as a foreign language before going home, so I enrolled for a certificate course at International House in Paris. Somehow I never managed to go home.
ELTNEWS
How has the ELT scene changed since you started in the profession?
Catherine
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.

Another important difference is the mutual recognition and respect that has developed over the last ten years or so between teachers based in English-speaking countries and those based outside those countries. When I began teaching there was a certain amount of arrogance on both sides (I was told at my interview for the certificate course at IH that the knowledge I had gained from my French university linguistics course would be of no use at all!). In many cases this arrogance is giving way to respect, communication, and cross-fertilisation between different pedagogical traditions, and this enriches us all.
Michael
Things have changed enormously. When I started there was very little in the way of professional training; we learnt on the job. English teaching consisted mainly of teaching grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, with some added fluency practice. 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.

On Grammar

ELTNEWS
What is your definition of "Grammar"?
Michael and Catherine
The regular structural patterns in language, and their description.
ELTNEWS
How would you respond to the teacher who says that fluency in English is more important than knowing the rules?
Michael and Catherine
Boots are 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 rules can help some students to learn some English at least some of the time. (But as we all know, students often spend far too much time learning rules and not nearly enough time practising the language. That's a bad thing.)
ELTNEWS
'How English Works' is one of the few grammar books that don't actually have the word 'grammar' in its title. It also has colour and pictures! How else have you differentiated the book with the others in the market?
Michael and Catherine
Short clear simple explanations; varied and interesting exercise types; 'do-it-yourself' grammar discovery exercises; selective use of authentic corpus-derived material; work on the grammar of spoken English; the use of layout, design and other visual elements to focus learners' attention on what is important; a general message that grammar doesn't have to be grey and boring.
ELTNEWS
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 grammar?
Michael and Catherine
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 musicians need to practise scales, and learner drivers need to practise coordinating the different pedals, but there is a certain resistance to language learners' needing to practise forms.) 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 boon.

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 learner.

On Writing

ELTNEWS
How did you get involved in writing EFL textbooks?
Michael
After teaching for ten years I had a big pile of notes on grammar, and took time out to try to turn them into a book. The draft was accepted by OUP, and ultimately turned into 'Practical English Usage'. At around the same time CUP, who were starting to build up their ELT list, also asked me to do a book. One thing led to another …
Catherine
My first EFL book was a reading skills book. I submitted it to CUP because, after using what was around at the time, I thought I could do better.
ELTNEWS
What advice would you give to a potential course writer?
Michael and Catherine
Don't give up your day job. Be prepared for the writing to take 18 times as long as you expect. Bear in mind that your course may be used by students very different from yours, and by teachers very different from you, including some who are not highly trained or experienced. Make sure you choose a publisher who can edit, design, produce and market your course properly. Be aware that the years of work you will put in are a very high-risk investment: many courses, including some very good ones, sink without trace. Don't try to do it alone – work with a collaborator you trust and respect.

On Michael and Catherine

ELTNEWS
What has been your greatest satisfaction from working in the ELT industry?
Catherine
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 Ethiopian refugees 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 learned 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.
Michael
And three for me. Firstly, the fascination of working with language, humanity's greatest and most complex invention. 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 the two – from finding ways of helping people to succeed in that most difficult of enterprises: learning to communicate well in a foreign language.
ELTNEWS
Finally, are there any projects you are pursuing now? What do you see yourselves doing in 10 years time?
Catherine
I've just completed a PhD. I loved the research, in which I studied how French learners of English transferred their first-language reading skills to their second language. I've found out some fascinating things about that, and about second language ‘working memory', which is the name given to the set of cognitive systems that people use to manage complex input. So one thing I'm doing is writing up that research into articles, in order to disseminate what I've learnt.

Another recent project that has been fun is our involvement in the UK's National Literacy Strategy. The NLS aims to improve first-language literacy in primary schools. Michael and I are on a small committee of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain that has been advising the NLS team on the linguistic aspects of the Strategy, and it's been very rewarding to put EFL skills and knowledge to work in a first-language setting.

I'm also active as a member of the British Council's English Language Advisory Committee - it's exciting to see what the Council is doing worldwide and to help with the thinking behind it. I have a special interest in English language teaching in Russia, and I'm on the Council's EL advisory committee there too. The way in which the Council is promoting ambitious cooperative projects between groups of teachers separated by enormous distances in Russia is admirable.

Ten years' time? Ideally, teaching applied linguistics students somewhere in Britain, transmitting to them the excitement I feel about language and how we learn it; continuing my research into working memory and second language acquisition; and working with teachers in developing countries to help them write local materials for language learning.
Michael
My current project is to become an ex-writer, and to start reading all those books that stare reproachfully at me from my shelves (not to mention listening to all those CDs and watching all those videos).

In ten years' time? I should be well placed to start on a new venture. Look out for something ground-breaking on English for geriatrics...



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Comments

Could I possibly have Michael Swan's email address?
I'd like to ask him a question on English grammar.
Thanks a lot


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