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Interview with Rod Ellis

rod_ellis.gifRod Ellis is the Head of the Applied Language Studies and Linguistics Department at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. He is the author of a series of books on Second Language Acquisition.

Rod Ellis graciously accepted our request for an interview that was completed in late December 2001 in Tokyo by then editor Kevin Ryan.

ELTNEWS
Before we get started, let's run through a quick history…
Rod
I started off as an English language teacher in Africa, working in Zambia in 1967. I then went into teacher training in Zambia until 1977. After taking some postgraduate courses at Bristol University, I was employed by St. Mary's College in Surrey, based in Twickenham. And then I became head of the ESL Department of Ealing College of Higher Education, which eventually turned into Thames Valley University.

I left in 1989 to work, initially, for one year at Temple University in Japan. I liked Japan so much that I decided to give up my position at Ealing. I worked at Temple University in Japan through 1993 when I was offered a tenured position at Temple University in Philadelphia. I stayed five years in Philadelphia until I moved to my current position, which is at the University of Auckland in New Zealand in the Department of Applied Language Studies and Linguistics.
ELTNEWS
Should we mention your visiting professorship at Showa?
Rod
Tomoko Kaneko, Showa Women's University English Department head, was the first Ph.D. graduate from Temple University in Japan in 1989. Since then we have kept in contact and I do two weekend seminars each year for the graduate school at Showa. This semester I'm a visiting professor here at Showa, and will continue with twice-yearly visits to Japan for the weekend seminars.
ELTNEWS
What do you see as the relationship between research and teaching?
Rod
>My career in this field started out as a classroom teacher, and research is something that I learned to do later. I have always felt that the kind of research that I do has some kind of relationship to actual teaching, to its practice. These days you read a lot about the gap that divides research and teaching. To a certain extent, there is undoubtedly a gap. Researchers and teachers belong to different kinds of communities, different allegiancies, and they are evaluated in different ways.

In my own work, I've increasingly felt that what researchers do cannot be used to describe what teachers should do. That all it can do is illuminate some things. But it seems to me that some of the major developments that have taken place in teaching have been top-down. They have been from researchers or theorists.

An example, perhaps, would be notional-functional teaching, the origins of the communicative approach. But equally, a lot of the other ideas in teaching come from the bottom up, from those who are daily involved in classrooms. I think to a certain extent task-based teaching began that way. Very often ideas begin with teachers and then are taken up by researchers and investigated that way, and maybe further developed. So there is more of a symbiosis between teachers and researchers than is often admitted. People tend to focus on the differences rather than on their points of contact. And they are many points of contact.
ELTNEWS
Do you have any suggestions for teachers doing research?
Rod
The gap between research and teaching, as I said before, is less than it seems. In a way, all teaching is research because when teachers go in with an idea for a lesson they are, in effect, seeing whether that idea works. So teaching is research, but there is one difference. Research by definition has to be something that is systematic and has to, potentially at least, be public. And that is what makes the difference between what we do as teachers and research.

Suggestions for teachers for research is perhaps simply to do some of the things that you like doing, and you think work, but to try to find out, actually, whether they do work, and be prepared to make public your findings in one form or another, at a conference, for example.

So this can be done in a fairly simple way. One simple way is if you have an idea for an activity that works in the classroom then, research it. But that means thinking about how you can decide whether in fact it really does work, how you can collect some evidence to actually find out whether it is working in terms of the way that you think it might work.
ELTNEWS
So the first step is to form a research question?
Rod
Yeah, the research question could be quite simple, it could be, "Does X activity work?" Then you have to operationalize what you mean by "X activity" and what you mean by "work." Because it is how you operationalize those two terms that will enable you to actually do the research.
ELTNEWS
And it also affects how much you can generalize your finding to other situations.
Rod
Right. I mean, many teachers' idea of an activity that works is an activity that gets a good response from the students. So that would then lead you to think, well, "How can I measure whether the response from the students really is good?" What is an adequate way of measuring that, and therefore obtaining evidence as to whether the activity works?

The easiest way would be to, perhaps, record a lesson and examine the nature of the student participation. How many students are participating? How much are they participating? How long are their turns? Are they producing one-word responses or short phrase responses? Or are they producing somewhat more extended responses?
ELTNEWS
Over the course of your research, how have your views of language acquisition and research about it changed?
Rod
When I was a teacher back in 1967 the prevailing psychological theory that informed teaching then was still really behaviorist, a notion that in some way you could inculcate a habit through extensive, thorough practice. So I guess my starting point was that.

But even before I ever began to research or read about language acquisition, I began to have doubts about that. The things one was practicing, that students were getting right, in the context of the practice, they didn't get right once they left the practice. They went back to trying to use their own language.

So, it seemed to me that there was something essentially wrong with the behaviorist view of language learning. And then of course I began to read people like Pit Corder, and began to understand notions like "interlanguage." I began to see that the process of acquiring competence in a language is an extremely gradual one, and nor was it an incremental one, a bit by bit building-block process. It was an organic process-an evolving a competence in the language.

And I guess the only thing that's likely changed is perhaps what the nature of language representation is. I still used to adhere to the idea that learners learn rules. Maybe the rules that they internalize are not target language rules but rather interlanguage rules. But I still felt that they probably construct rules. A lot of current theorizing about second language acquisition based on the connectionist model of language and language learning suggests that there are no rules, that all we have is a network of enormous, elaborate connections between neurons in the brain. And that language is somehow represented in this complex network.

As a result of the exposure of using the language certain pathways in that network get well trodden and as a result of that learners appear to be performing in accordance with rules but those rules don't actually exist mentally. All that exists is a hugely elaborate network of bits and pieces of information, not necessarily even corresponding to words or morphemes, etc. And that I find a compelling vision of how input comes to be represented in the human mind.
ELTNEWS
Yes, then behaviorism obviously cannot handle…
Rod
No, but neither can a generative Chomskyan model, or even the traditional grammar model because they're all premised on the idea of rules. We can formulate specific rules about grammar but they don't necessarily reflect what actually is represented in the brain.

So we can talk about a rule for regular past tense, we can talk about a rule for making relative causes but it simply doesn't follow that the knowledge that we use in order to produce sentences with regular past tense, or sentences with relative causes actually consists of those rules. Your behavior, if you like, becomes rule-like without you representing knowledge in terms of rules. And that is what current research is saying.

Of course it is still controversial, people still cling to the idea that even implicit knowledge does consist of rules. But computer simulations and theorizing with a connectionist model are going to take us an enormously long way towards actually explaining what our knowledge of language consists of.
ELTNEWS
So there is no black box.
Rod
(Laughs) There is no black box, because the other thing that would follow from a connectionist theory is that the mechanisms by which we develop these networks are essentially the same as the ones involved in any other type of learning, like perception. How it is we come to perceive objects and the way in which we perceive them? And again it is the result of exposure to a variety of objects that enable us to develop patterns in a network and so to very rapidly perceive things in certain ways.

Similarly with language. Perception and language involve the same pattern detector. Then if there is a black box, it is simply a pattern detector. That is to say, we are simply equipped with the ability to see patterns and regularities in input, whether it is visual or oral input.
ELTNEWS
What about consciousness-raising? How does that fit in with these ideas on rules?
Rod
I have for long time thought that perhaps the best way to actually teach language as opposed to simply giving learners experience with using and hearing language is to treat it as an object so that we can teach a bit about it. The only way that we can do this it seems to me that is compatible with what we know about learning is through consciousness-raising. That is to say we don't actually directly try to influence the construction of the complex network that I've been talking about, because really learners can only do it themselves. We cannot implant rules into that network.

Learners extract from the available information around them the regularities that go into their knowledge system. If that is the case, all that we can do is make them aware of some of these patterns and bits and pieces of language and how they work under the assumption that if you have an awareness of them, then ultimately your pattern detector might function a bit more efficiently. For example, if you know that relative causes have a certain structure, a shape, then maybe you are more able to detect them in the input to which you are exposed. And through the process of the detection, you gradually build up the connectionist network that I've been talking about.

Thus to me, consciousness-raising serves to equip people with explicit knowledge, which in someway may facilitate the construction of implicit connectionist systems.
ELTNEWS
The constructionists think that for people to really learn well, they have to construct a pattern by themselves.
Rod
You can't do it for them. You can give them hooks. You can perhaps choose the way in which the pattern detector works by making them aware of the kinds of things they may well come across when they are exposed to language.
ELTNEWS
You've written quite a few books. Do you have a personal favorite, or one that may be a good introduction to your ideas?
Rod
My books have been written over a period of 17 years. The first one that I ever wrote was in 1984 called Second Language Classroom Development, which was actually a version of my Ph.D. Shortly after, followed Understanding Second Language Acquisition in 1985. I guess, in some ways, that was my most successful book. It's still sold and used quite a lot today, though, in many ways it is out of date. So, in some ways, I'm grateful for its success. If you're going to have an academic career you have to write successful books. So that book has a special place for me.
ELTNEWS
But as a starting point for our readers, what would you suggest?
Rod
There is a little book I wrote for Henry Widdowson's series in applied linguistics by Oxford University Press that is just called Second Language Acquisition. That is just a 90 page survey of what second language acquisition is about. That does a reasonable job in introducing what is now very complex field.
ELTNEWS
I read this a report written by Brett Reynolds on a seminar of yours in February 99 where you talk about a definition of a language task. Has the definition changed at all since then? Could you talk about learners being USERS rather than LEARNERS of language?
Rod
"Ellis asked those present to consider some definitions of a task proposed by other researchers. Once we had read them over, he proposed the following as hallmarks of tasks:
* A task is a work plan.
* A task involves linguistic activity.
* A task requires primary attention to be on message (cf. "exercise").
* A task allows learners to select the linguistic resources they will use themselves.
* A task requires learners to function primarily as language users rather than learners.
* A task has a clearly defined non-linguistic outcome."

That is one of the things I've been working on here at Showa, I've been finishing off a book for Oxford University Press which is called Task Based Language Learning and Teaching. It is an attempt to bring together all the kinds of research that have been done on tasks. And also all the work that has been done on task based language teaching. It provides a sort of account of these areas of work. The book should be published sometime in 2002.
ELTNEWS
This difference between users and learners of language that you have pointed out seems to be a very key difference, but one that is counterintuitive.
Rod
This is quite essential, I think for understanding the problems the Japanese people have about language learning because, ultimately, to be a successful language learner you have to be a language user. You cannot treat language like any other school subject, a set of facts that have to be memorized, or set of chunks and bits of language that you can perform. One of the things that is least satisfactory about the main textbooks that you find in Japan is that they are all predicated on the notion the Japanese students cannot produce their own sentences in English and therefore what we must do is in some way either give them the sentences that they need to use or, alternatively, simply ask them to finish off a textbook sentence.

That's not language use. That's the kind of thing you do as a language learner. When you are a language user, you must first formulate what it is you want to say about a topic, and then you have to find the language to try to say it as best you can. Now, everything that I know about second language acquisition tells me that you just cannot be successful unless you become a language user.

That's not to say that treating language as an object cannot also help you. I think it can. You can learn vocabulary and some useful chunks, etc. But ultimately you've got to be able to express your own ideas in English as well as you can so someone else can understand you.

It seems to me that is what Japanese learners have such enormous problems with. I think this is a product of the sort of Confucian educational system which basically leads to Japanese people envisaging language as a set of facts, a set of words, a finite number of grammar rules that if you master you will somehow learn the language. It just doesn't happen that way. So Japanese learners are just very reluctant to play the role of language user. They think you have to be a native speaker to be a language user. Otherwise, you have to be a language learner.

Another thing I find a bit depressing about the Japanese view is that if we are going to teach English what we must do is "get native speakers to do it for us because we Japanese are useless at languages, and so cannot possibly teach it to ourselves." Which is absolute nonsense. In most parts of the world it is nationals of the country that do the teaching. This is what we have in Germany, this is what we have in Spain, this is what we have in Zambia, this is what we have in China, mainly.

The Japanese have to take the responsibility. They can't in some way slough this off on native speakers. They have to take responsibility for teaching themselves. And they need to recognize that this is perfectly possible. But to make it possible Japanese learners of English have to learn to be users, and therefore they need textbooks and materials that encourage them to be users of the language rather than learners of the language, and such books are thin on the floor in both high schools and universities.
ELTNEWS
Thank you very much for your time, along with those stimulating ideas. You've rejuvenated a desire to look more closely at my teaching in this new and different light. Can't wait until your new book comes out.



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Comments

I think Prof. Rod Ellis is my guide to integrate myself in the fied of applied linguistics. I did my MA in the University of Birmingham in 2006, and since 2008 I have been studying for my PhD in UWE in Bristol following all the books written by Ellis and trying to find a practical method for teaching L2 and investigating the last question that Ellis asked in his last article about corrective feedback, which is the most effective startegies in corrective feedback? Direct, indirect or metalinguistic? I got the answer after implementing emirical study on Arab Learners of English in Oman. the findings indicate metalinguistic feedback is the most effective strategy in coorective feedback


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