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Interview with Michael McCarthy

michael_mccarthy.jpg Michael McCarthy is a Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Nottingham in the UK. His main research interests are applied linguistics, discourse analysis, and spoken corpus linguistics. Among his published works are Language as Discourse: Perspectives for Language Teaching (Longman), English Vocabulary in Use (Cambridge), Issues in Applied Linguistics (Cambridge) and the new coursebook Touchstone (Cambridge).

Michael spoke with ELT News editor Mark McBennett at the JALT national conference in Nara in November 2004, and gave this interview by e-mail in January, 2005. He also took part in the ELT News "Think Tank Live" event at the JALT conference.

ELTNEWS
First of all Michael, I'd like to thank you for your participation in our Think Tank event at the JALT conference in Nara last month. It was a great success, especially for an event put together at the last minute. What did think of it yourself?
Michael
I enjoyed it very much. It was an interesting panel of people, each of whom have been in the language pedagogy business for many years we must have combined well in excess of a century of experience. The theme what we wish we'd known then that we know now was a good challenge and one that was designed, quite rightly, to steer us away from tub-thumping on our favourite hobby-horses, if you'll excuse the mixed metaphor. I hope members of the audience enjoyed it as much as we, the panel, did.

I felt particularly stimulated by the more theoretically-oriented questions asked of me directly, especially in relation to the grammar-vocabulary equation. I firmly believe now that language is lexis-driven, not syntax-driven; grammar is a 'trace' after lexical choices have been made. It's not the case that we choose syntax then slot vocabulary into it. And so for me, vocabulary learning is primary in second language learning.
ELTNEWS
One of the topics you included in your list at the event, but didn't get to talk about, was how you've learned to not always jump on the latest language-learning "bandwagon". What examples have you seen in recent years?
Michael
I guess task-based learning (TBL) would be on my list, or should I say the stronger versions of TBL which would relegate learning about the language system to a secondary place, subservient to some real-world task. Tasks are great, but they should not exclude good, old-fashioned grammar and vocabulary learning via systematic syllabuses, since the feeling of progression and systematicity are key psychological concepts for learners.

Another bandwagon I would not jump on to is the view that teachers should just take a back seat, become 'facilitators' and just let learners get on with it. Learners enroll in language programmes because they expect teachers to assist them through attested methods using tried and tested materials. They also expect correction, support, feedback, and the feeling that they are in the hands of a competent professional, and they have the right to all of those elements of service from us. They are not guinea-pigs in some big academic experiment; they are thinking human beings struggling with a huge and difficult task to make sense of a new tongue.
ELTNEWS
You've said that you believe vocabulary to be the real key to learning a language, more important than getting stressed over grammar. Can you give us some practical tips on how to most effectively get your students to boost their vocabulary?
Michael
Practical tips, right. Well, first of all, get to the 2,000-word threshold as quickly as you can, using any method whatsoever, flashcards, translation lists, rote learning, anything, because without those 2,000 most common words you can't do much, and especially you can't use the words you know to guess the meanings of the words you don't know if you haven't got those 2,000.

Good elementary level vocabulary books should be based on the first 2,000 words. Don't buy them if they aren't! Next, always learn words in pairs (collocations): for example, if you learn a verb, learn either a noun or adverb or preposition that goes with it (run quickly, search for, a ship sails from X to Y, etc.).

Next, after the first 2,000 words, personalize! Make a special effort to memorise and use the vocabulary that relates to your personal experience, your history, your dreams and ambitions, your environment, your relationships. You can never learn all 400,000 or so words, so learn the ones that will enable you to communicate about your world.

Next, always keep a small vocabulary notebook in your pocket and jot down new words and collocations. Research shows that transferring a word from the source you encounter it in to another source such as a notebook or a workbook to be one of the best ways of learning.

One last tip: every time you look a word up in the dictionary, make a little coloured mark in the margin next to it. Any word that gets three coloured marks must be a word that's important for you. Make a special effort to learn that one, and transfer it to your vocabulary notebook.
ELTNEWS
Would you agree that a "think globally, act locally" kind of approach is best for young people starting out to teach English as a second language? By which I mean, to recognize English as a global, multi-faceted language but also to see what the students actually need to learn as a "local" issue.
Michael
Absolutely. There is a great deal of attention being paid these days to the idea of 'local knowledge'. We are in a global economy, and language teachers are very mobile, much more than they were when I first started out. My first job was in Spain in 1966, and at that time, British teachers rarely looked beyond Europe for teaching posts.

But now, in this global village of ours, it's more important than ever that we respect local cultures, especially modes of transmission of knowledge, classroom cultures, learning cultures, world-views and philosophies, and do not try to impose linguistic imperialism or pedagogical imperialism of any kind. Even so-called 'primitive' societies have been successfully educating their children and transmitting their culture for millennia, including successfully learning other people's languages. And they didn't have multimedia course books, CD-ROMS and websites!

And also in your question is the notion of 'global English' versus what students need as a local issue. Let me say one thing that does irritate me sometimes. People talk glibly about 'International English' and 'English as a lingua franca', as if they were encoded varieties of English just waiting to be put into course books and other materials. The truth is that there is no one variety of International English there are as many varieties of English as countries and regions where English is spoken. Even within a small area like the islands of Britain and Ireland there are at least four, probably more, major distinctive varieties of English. And the English of Asia is very different from that of Africa, or the Caribbean, and so on.

And as for English as a lingua franca, I see that more as a function of English than a variety it is a way that speakers accommodate to one another when they're using English, just as an Australian user of English might accommodate to a Hong Kong user, and vice-versa. The short answer to your question is: always respect local learning wants and aspirations, rather than some externally imposed idea of 'internationalism' or even 'needs'. People know what they want; we shouldn't tell them what we think they 'need'.
ELTNEWS
Another of your main areas of interest is corpus research and use, a field that is having a growing impact on all aspects of English language learning. How did you first get involved in that area?
Michael
I was very fortunate to get a job in 1982 as a lecturer at the University of Birmingham in the UK. I became a (rather junior) colleague to an inspiring and fantastic group of people headed by Professor John Sinclair, who, to this day, is the most brilliant linguist I have ever encountered. Associated with him were legendary names such as Malcolm Coulthard, Michael Hoey, and David Brazil, and it was where I met my writing partner of so many years, Ron Carter.

It was an amazing environment in which to work. Sinclair was developing corpora for the production of dictionaries (the COBUILD dictionary was the first, ground-breaking product). But not only did he convince us corpora were a good thing on which to base the language input for materials and resources, he also showed us how researching corpora could change forever our theory of language in use. His inspiration led me to understand the power of lexis in the organization of language, quite different from the dominance of syntax, due to the influence of Chomsky. Without Sinclair, my later work on spoken corpora, and my books and materials on vocabulary and spoken language would never have happened. I'm now a corpus addict!
ELTNEWS
What, for you, has been the single most interesting revelation to come out of corpus studies?
Michael
Probably the power of 'chunks' in language. When you research corpora, especially spoken ones, you realize that some phenomena are so frequent and all-pervasive in language that we simply can't ignore them. For instance, the two-word chunk "you know" is the 15th most frequent item in the language, more frequent than single words such as they, have, so, what, and many other 'core' items. Other chunks are also massively frequent, for example, "things like that", "a lot of people", "know what I mean", and so on.

What the corpus insights into chunks show is us that they are extremely frequent, that they are responsible for some of the most basic interactive meanings in conversation (e.g. showing shared knowledge, making vague references, organizing the talk, etc.), and that, without them, fluency would be impossible. We simply have to have a repertoire of ready-made, off-the-peg chunks to structure our utterances; we cannot possibly invent every utterance anew, every time. So I think chunks should be at the centre of vocabulary learning. Vocabulary is not just single words. That's been a big insight for me as a corpus researcher.
ELTNEWS
Tell us about your latest coursebook, Touchstone. You've said that it looks very similar to most other coursebooks. But it has some fundamental underlying differences, doesn't it?
Michael
It does look like other course books, that's because we don't want to scare people, and we know that teachers are busy people, who don't want to think they need a six-week training course before they can use a piece of material. So it's got all the familiar things you expect in a course: grammar presentations, vocabulary, pronunciation activities, speaking and listening activities, writing, and so on. It has the familiar four levels.

But there are important differences, which we, the authors, think make it very exciting. First there's the fact that it's based on the North American segment of the Cambridge International Corpus, which means we've got evidence of how people really speak and write from millions of words of English as it has been used by a wide range of users. The corpus has informed us in our choice of vocabulary, our priorities in the grammar, and, above all, on our special sections on speaking strategies in every unit.

As well as seeing how people perform strategies such as asking follow-up questions, responding with more than just yes or no, we can actually see the words and phrases they use to achieve these strategies (what we call our Strategy-Plus language). And we share some of the exciting information we find in our corpora with the teacher in the teacher's edition, as well as having occasional fun 'In Conversation' boxes in the student material, where you learn just how common (or uncommon) some things are in the language.

Then we have our 'Vocabulary Notebook' in every unit, where we focus on helping learners to become good vocabulary learners and to be more autonomous, because we know that we can never (no course book can) teach enough vocabulary, and that it's important to foster good learning habits. And there are many other features too that make Touchstone familiar but special and different.
ELTNEWS
When can we expect to see future books in the series?
Michael
Book 2 will be out in the spring of 2005, and Book 3 at the end of 2005. Book 4 will follow soon after in 2006.
ELTNEWS
Do you have any thoughts on how the Japanese government's move towards introducing English into the primary school curriculum - assuming they actually follow through with it - will play out?
Michael
I'm no expert on either Japan or primary education, as I've always taught adults, but I will say this. Kids may be quick to pick things up, but adults can focus their learning more efficiently (I'm always amazed that it takes 10 years to give to a kid all the literacy and numeracy skills that an illiterate and innumerate adult can be taught in two years) and adults can achieve greater depth. Also, adults usually know why they're learning the language; such motivation may be absent from small kids. But I wish Japan every success in this venture.
ELTNEWS
Imagine for a moment that you have a bottomless bag of cash and unlimited personnel resources. What aspect of English language learning or teaching would you want to spend the rest of your career working on or researching?
Michael
I'm lucky. I can already devote much of my time to researching and writing. But, if I had bottomless funds, surprise-surprise, I'd go on building spoken corpora (which are very costly to collect and transcribe) from as many places as I could around the world where English is used (and not just in English I'd love a big Spanish spoken corpus too) and buy a very powerful computer, and continue to research everyday communication, because that's where the exciting insights are to be gained.



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