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Interview with Michael Rost

Michael Rost Michael Rost is a prolific author of such global titles as Worldview and Longman English Interactive. He is also series editor of many popular titles in Japan, particularly the English Firsthand series and the Impact series. He has also authored several influential academic articles and books, including Teaching and Researching Listening. Michael has been active in teaching and teacher training for more than 20 years. He has taught in Japan, West Africa, Southeast Asia, England and the U.S. He specializes in oral language development and learner strategies.

He currently teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. He gave this interview by e-mail with ELT News editor Mark McBennett in May, 2004.

ELTNEWS
A large part of your work is focused on listening. Have there been any noteworthy developments in research into listening in recent years?
Michael
Yes, there have been a lot. Actually, I'm keeping a database of research related to listening. I'm experiencing "the Red Queen Principle" – remember, the character in Through the Looking Glass who says that it takes all the running you can do just to stay in the same place. The research has been developing more quickly than I can keep up with it.

One interesting line of research is in the area of decoding, work being done at the Max Planck Institute on metrical segmentation. Some linguists, particularly Anne Cutler – are investigating the specific ways our established L1 metrical decoding strategies influence L2 decoding...the kind of phonological mapping processes that underlie listening...and lead to predictable mishearings in the L2. To me this is very important because decoding is the most automated aspect of listening, and the hardest to remedy if there's an interference problem. Another noteworthy area of research is the role of vocabulary knowledge in listening. People like Norman Segalowitz and Jan Hulstijn have been investigating how vocabulary recognition influences comprehension, and is typically the greatest predictor of overall comfort when listening and of ultimate understanding of the speaker's message. Another noteworthy area is the work on listening strategies – the affective, social, and cognitive strategies – that influence the listener's confidence, willingness to participate, and effectiveness in understanding. Larry Vandergrift, for one, has done a lot of work in this area.

These three topics are important pieces of the listening puzzle.
ELTNEWS
How have global trends and the emergence of many "Englishes" affected the need for, and study of, listening and speaking skills, as opposed to reading and writing?
Michael
The emerging trend is for groups of non-native speakers of English, say Japanese businesspeople, to "own" English and use it for their specific communicative purposes. This means that the preponderance of English that's being used every day for communication is by international – non-native – speakers, using English as a lingua franca. By definition, really, all EFL interactions are intercultural encounters. Barbara Seidlhofer actually calls it ELF – English as a Lingua Franca – rather than EFL.

The norms for intercultural encounters are shifting, as Gabi Kasper says, from exonormative, or native-speaker, standards to endonormative standards, defined by the users themselves. The good news for teachers and learners is that the study of English can move toward more practical standards. The purpose of speaking in an ELF situation – or the EFL classroom that simulates it – becomes situationally defined as mutual comprehensibility and communication-effect rather than some abstract standard of accuracy. Similarly, the purpose of listening becomes relevant interpretation and symmetrical participation rather than full comprehension.

Click here to order from ELTBOOKS One vivid example of the ELF phenomenon for me happened when we were preparing a new edition of English Firsthand. (I'm the series editor.) For one unit in one of the books, in which we talk about international communication, we wanted to add our own and an email exchange link (http://www.efcafe.com) just to see what would happen. Well, this email exchange center has taken off like wildfire – we have Japanese students communicating in English with students from all over the world, Korea, China, Thailand, Europe, the Middle East. And, interestingly, there are a number of native speakers of English who register at the site to meet people from other cultures.

efcafe.gif The communication between them, all in English, is driven by mutual curiosity, a desire for self-expression and comprehensibility. It's great. When you eavesdrop on this communication as a native-speaker, of course, you can find "errors", but that's from an exonormative viewpoint. What's happening from a language development perspective, the motivation and purpose for communicating, the dynamics of self-disclosure and comprehensible output, are so much more potent than what we typically can achieve in classrooms.

So I think this shift in perspective influences the way we teach and study not only listening and speaking, but also reading and writing. Focus on realistic communication tasks and mutual comprehensibility, for a start.
ELTNEWS
From the point of view of listening, what factors would you say are unique to the English language learner in Japan as opposed to say in Latin America or Europe?
Michael
Social factors are the first thing that comes to mind. I was recently in Latin America, visiting English classes, and one of the most noticeable and most entertaining things is how overtly social or sociable the students are compared to Japanese students. I mean, the first five minutes of class, when students are drifting in is spent socializing – students greet each other as they walk in, women kiss each other on the cheek, guys have their secret handshakes and little shoulder hugs, everyone greets everyone individually, everyone seems to have a cheerful word for each other. When the class starts, students are seemingly more connected with each other, and more willing to participate, even when they're not sure what to say, even when they know they're making language errors. And perhaps their fellow students are more sympathetic, more supportive as well.

Of course, students from all language backgrounds have major problems with listening, the decoding, vocabulary recognition, short-term memory limitations. But one area where I know Japanese learners have a special issue is with what Goffman called "footing". Most Japanese learners, it seems, want to have a very firm footing in the discourse before they're willing to participate. I've worked with a lot of Japanese students who have an expectation that they need to understand everything in order to feel they have understood anything. If they're not on the right footing, they just give up.

I heard a crystal-clear example of this phenomenon a few years ago. I was at a psycholinguistics conference in Europe and I met Anne Cutler. As I mentioned earlier, she does experimental research with metrical segmentation, using subjects from different language backgrounds. Her research model involves inducing mishearings and misunderstandings in a lab setting, by degrading the input. She does this to map out the phonological cues listeners use to make sense of L2 speech. I asked her why she had research data from so many major languages, but none from Japanese. She said, frankly, that she was unable to get data from Japanese subjects because they just wouldn't cooperate in the experiment. She said most of her Japanese subjects simply wouldn't report what they heard or understood from the audio input in the mishearing experiments. They knew they hadn't heard a "correct" utterance so they wouldn't report what they did understand. Everyone just answered, you know, "Wakarimasen."

A lot of Japanese students I've worked with in the States find it truly enlightening to realize that it's okay to acknowledge comprehension problems, okay to ask questions, okay to work with partial understanding, okay to guess. Not only is it socially more appropriate in most settings, but it actually helps build listening skills.
ELTNEWS
You spoke at a JALT event some years back of using the notion of "intervening" when the learner is at the point of noticing something new or making a decision about what to do as a metaphor for the teaching of communication. Can you elaborate on that?
Michael
michael_rost1.jpg "Intervening" sounds to many people like a very harsh word – I really mean finding the "teachable moments" and setting up a very specific awareness exercise for the learners at those times. The exercise might be a strategic "insertion", like demonstrating how to ask for a clarification, or a linguistic "reminder" of an appropriate expression or vocabulary item.

I was able to validate this construct of intervention points in a study I did with Steve Ross several years ago, here in Japan. We had our subjects in a one-on-one story telling session. They were given an opportunity – every 15 seconds or so – to interrupt the story to ask for a clarification or an elaboration. We had three kinds of experimental treatments and found that students who took advantage of these intervention points to ask a clarification or elaboration question ended up with better comprehension of the story. Of course, they also exhibited more symmetrical communication, which is another goal of this kind of training.
ELTNEWS
You also mentioned a situation familiar to most teachers: the gap between many students' ability to express their ideas "off-line" - in writing and given enough time - and in "real time" or face-to-face conversation. Do you think this gap is any more noticeable in Japanese students?
Michael
Yes, it's very noticeable in Japan, but certainly this gap in language performance with different kinds of tasks is universal. Any person's language performance without rehearsal – spontaneous, "real time" communication " – will generally be less complex then a language performance with rehearsal, or off-line preparation. I think the phenomenon you're referring to is more related to cultural norms or styles of self-monitoring and self-assessment. You know, if you're very assured about your abilities, you tend to identify the high end of your performance as your "real ability". If you're more modest, you tend to identify the low end of your performance as your "real ability". As teachers in Japan know, Japanese learners tend to be self-effacing, which is a very endearing trait, but not always conducive to language learning.

Because of this cultural trait, if you will, adding short rehearsal steps to a speaking activity – like visualizing and mind-mapping – or planning steps – like explicit language priming – you'll see an increase students' fluency and confidence. This is a fairly consistent finding in the task-based language learning research. And it's something I know Marc Helgesen talks about very lucidly in relation to Japanese students (at the English Firsthand Teacher Discussion center).
ELTNEWS
Another theme you have explored is that of "collaboration" between teacher and students. How would you describe a collaborative approach to teaching? And what are the benefits to the teacher and the students?
Michael
Collaboration is the crux of communicative language teaching. I think the starting point is "problem-based" or "task-based" learning. One of my earliest influences in education was Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator, who demonstrated the effectiveness of problem-based education. He said that the teacher's role – I know this translation from the Portuguese sounds weird – is to "regulate the way the world enters into the student." In other words, the teacher's role is to be sure that the student is in contact with the resources needed to confront and solve the problem and in contact with other students who can solve the problem collaboratively. "Problems" or "problem-based tasks" have a kind of inherent power for naturally creating dialogue and for creating abundant language learning opportunities.

An obvious benefit of collaborative learning is that students get more opportunities to do things for themselves, to present their ideas, to talk, to produce more language, to ask for what they're actually ready to learn, to participate at an authentic level, even though this usually means some code mixing of the L1 and the L2. And with collaborative learning, the teacher becomes more of a listener – you spend more energy listening to students, interacting with them more spontaneously, and giving feedback as it's needed.
ELTNEWS
Coming back to Japan again, is a collaborative style more difficult to implement here?
Michael
I wouldn't say it's difficult to implement, but it does requires specific preparation, a willingness to shift learners' expectations. I visited a class at Konan University in Kobe recently, in which the basis of the class was the students working in teams, discussing short readings, preparing short presentations in English on current topics, giving their presentations, answering questions from the audience, making posters, reviewing each other's video tapes, and so on. This is collaborative learning. The instructor said the students really liked the class, that they found it valuable, learned at least as much as they would in regular whole-class instruction. He did say too that it took some time to set up the classroom structure, prepare additional materials, and to remind students of their roles and responsibilities. Once it's in motion though, it's not difficult to maintain.
ELTNEWS
Have you been keeping abreast of the changes in the English education system here in Japan? And if so, what are your impressions of those changes?
Michael
Oh, sure. I've been following the Ministry of Education's strategic plan for English education, to see how these policies are being interpreted and implemented. Some of the recommendations – like promoting contact with "foreigners", encouraging companies to recruit more people with English skills, having more English speech contests – seem like replays of past policy edicts. But other recommendations – like the Super High Schools and the short-term international student exchanges and advocating smaller class size – seem to be new. I think it's important for progressive, internationally-minded educators to receive this kind of "green light."

One of the pivotal ideas in the policy document is the initiative to improve entrance exams, and specifically to add a listening test as part of the "Central Examination" for national universities. That's a step in the right direction, though I expect the initial efforts will be discrete point tests, emulating the familiar ETS models. But you have to start somewhere!

I'm curious about where the "tipping point" is in terms of implementation across the country, across levels of primary, secondary, and university education. I know there is a lot of change going on in Japan in language education, particularly in preschool and primary education, and even in secondary levels – smaller classes, more communicative orientation, task-based learning. But until we see 10 or 20% of classrooms using new methodologies and demonstrating their effectiveness, there isn't enough visibility or believability to ensure an overall success in the education culture.

I believe that Japan is the idea center of Asia, in many fields, including language education, so I feel it's important for these initiatives to succeed, to serve as models for other Asian contexts.
ELTNEWS
In your book Teaching and Researching Listening, you say that pragmatics should play a larger role in language education. Do you think that's true for EFL education here?
Michael
I was talking about Vershueren's definition of pragmatics as involving "perspectives" – language use is driven by personal and cultural perspectives. For listening, what this means is that we never understand language in any situation until we take a perspective, until we establish the basic coordinates: who's talking, why, with what purpose, why am I listening to this or reading this anyway, who else is listening, what does the speaker want me to do. And because people take on cultural perspectives and assume their own idiosyncratic points of view, there is always ambiguity about the "real meaning", there is always some "negotiation" required to achieve any kind of understanding.

I realize that's kind of an airy definition, but for language education, an emphasis on pragmatics would include widening the exposure to authentic input, encouraging interpretations of reading and listening passages rather than focusing on correct answers, encouraging more student production and peer evaluation, encouraging more interaction and more tolerance.

I was in a conversation recently that illustrates to me a way that pragmatics needs to be incorporated in language education here. A high school teacher in Osaka was complaining to me that we included too many "foreign names" in our listening extracts (in Impact Listening) and that she felt we should use only "American" names or Japanese names so that the students wouldn't get confused. Well, that's a valid complaint: you don't want your students to be perpetually confused or overwhelmed. At the same time you do want to teach your students to tolerate some ambiguity, to allow for misunderstandings not to derail them completely, even, dare I say, to ask questions about what they don't understand. This is part of what it means to let pragmatics play a larger role in language education.
ELTNEWS
You have written a great number of both textbooks and academic titles. Which do you enjoy working on more?
Michael
I personally need both, to keep some kind of balance in my life.

Academic articles and books are very fulfilling, because you can generally work at an academic piece indefinitely until you get it right. But it can get to be very stressful – the endless worrying about whether you've got the right resources, the obsession with wording your arguments, bracing yourself for the review cycle. And the review cycle for bone fide academic publications is absolutely brutal. Reviewers – anonymous reviewers – will attack you, attack your research models, attack your arguments, attack your language skills. But if you're in an academic field like applied linguistics, this is what you live for – you want to produce an original, enduring, influential piece of work that genuinely contributes to your field and that's valued by the top people in your field.

With textbook titles, the main criterion for success that most people use is not "does it contribute?", but "will it sell?" And that success is largely determined by marketplace phenomena rather than by an awareness of or an interaction of ideas. One thing I enjoy about designing textbooks and learning materials generally is the architectural aspect – syllabus design, information design, graphic design. With each page, or screen, or whatever medium you're working in, you are trying to present a learning concept or a learning task dynamically, visually and audially, in a way that's engaging. You're trying to create a simulation that's believable, almost in the way that novelist tries to build a engaging story.
ELTNEWS
You were heavily involved in the development of the Longman English Online project, which was subsequently taken off line. Was it too early for such an online project?
Michael
It's a long story, and I've certainly learned a lot from my involvement in the project. Pearson Education made a very ambitious commitment to this online intiative, and I was fortunate to work with some really brilliant people in editorial, design, and marketing.

Even though we decided to take the course offline, the upshot is that we now have a very viable multimedia course, called Longman English Interactive (Levels 1-4). The whole course is deliverable on CD-ROM now, with an accompanying classroom and home-study workbook. It has all of the content, the video, the dynamic presentations, and feedback functions of the online course, but of course, not the e-mailing, or website connections, or whiteboard interactivity of the online version. Users seem to be very happy with it – I guess it's what's most suitable for the educational market right now. The other online technologies – the email submissions, discussion boards, and so on can be added with WebCT or BlackBoard, or other dedicated online services, so teachers can have the original service if they need it. And the course is ready to go back online if there's sufficient demand.
ELTNEWS
What is your current work schedule and what projects do you have in the pipeline?
Michael
worldview.gif Like most people these days, I usually have 4 or 5 projects going on simultaneously, so it always seems that there's something to do.

I'm now doing a tour for WorldView, which is a new international series from Longman. I'm series editor and I travel around and give workshops on student motivation, grammar teaching, task design, topics of some interest to classroom teachers. It's been very enjoyable to work with teachers in different settings.

I'm also taking on a role as "oral language specialist" for the No Child Left Behind program in the US. (See also here). My contribution, as part of a team of experts, is – hopefully – to define and formulate the actual speaking and listening tasks that the learners are involved in in the school setting – academic, interactive, and social tasks. I'm trying to help move assessment into a task-based system, using video-based scenarios and inter-subjective evaluations, rather than purely text-based tests with discrete point objective scoring. As in language education in Japan, it's important here not only to create valid tests, where everyone agrees with the assessment purposes and understands what the results mean, but also to create a washback effect, so that teachers can identify the kinds of tasks and performance scaffolding they need to prepare their non-English speaking students for fuller participation in the classroom.

And I'm now devoting some energy to a pet project of mine, LingualNet. I'm teaming with a few people in the video gaming industry and the film industry to produce a kind of "language experience" resource online. We're experimenting with different models of language learning, alternate ways of making learning engaging and fun. These are the things I've been trying to do as a language teacher, and this is a new medium to try it out.
ELTNEWS
Well Michael, the best of luck with all those activities. And thank you for taking the time to talk with us.
Michael
Sure, my pleasure. And good luck with your work at eigotown.



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