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Interview with Henry G. Widdowson

Henry G. Widdowson Henry G. Widdowson is an authority in the field of applied linguistics and language teaching. He is perhaps best known for his contribution to communicative language teaching. However, he has also published on other (though related) subjects such as discourse analysis and critical discourse analysis, the global spread of English, English for Special Purposes and stylistics. The Routledge Encyclopedia of Language Teaching and Learning calls him "probably the most influential philosopher of the late twentieth century for international ESOL".

Widdowson is Emeritus Professor of Education, University of London, and has also been Professor of Applied Linguistics at Essex University and Professor of English Linguistics at the University of Vienna. He is the Applied Linguistics adviser to Oxford University Press and series adviser of Oxford Bookworms Collection. Widdowson is co-editor of Language Teaching: A Scheme for Teacher Education and the series editor of Oxford Introductions to Language Study and the author of Linguistics (1996) in the same series. He has also published Defining Issues in English Language Teaching (2002), and Practical Stylistics: An Approach to Poetry (1992).

His most recent book is entitled Text, Context, Pretext. Critical Issues in Discourse Analysis (2004), published by Blackwell's.


His most recent book is entitled Text, Context, Pretext. Critical Issues in Discourse Analysis (2004), published by Blackwell's.

Source: Wikipedia.
Prof. Widdowson conducted this interview by e-mail with ELT News editor Mark McBennett in December 2005, shortly after an OUP-sponsored seminar tour of Japan with Michael Swan.

ELTNEWS
Christopher Brumfit, in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Language Teaching and Learning, described your status in the TESOL world as "probably..the most influential philosopher of the late twentieth century". How would you sum up your philosophy?
Henry
I am not sure about having a philosophy that sounds rather grand. I have a way of thinking about TESOL: that if it is to justify the name of a profession, then its practitioners have the responsibility to think critically about what they do. In my view, they need to be educated and not just trained, that is to say informed about theoretical ideas and research findings but not, emphatically not, simply to accept them as fact or on faith, but to subject them to careful appraisal so as to decide how far they are relevant to their own circumstances.
ELTNEWS
You've said (in the Journal of the Imagination in Language Learning and Teaching) that TESOL cannot be considered as a science, because "it is a domain of practical activity not of abstract enquiry", and that it is more of an art form. But research findings continue to be touted as scientific fact and used to formulate the teaching methodology of the day. What, in your opinion, are the more conceptually flawed theories in general use today?
Henry
Research findings are of their nature generalizations, and always need to be interpreted in the light of particular pedagogic conditions and requirements. They may indicate things that teachers might find it appropriate to consider, but cannot determine how or what they should teach. But teachers are under considerable pressure to adopt what is recommended, indeed touted (as you put it) on the authority of "experts".

Perhaps the most obvious recent example of this is the current precept that English teachers must only use real or authentic English in their teaching - that is to say the English that naturally occurs in the contexts of native speaker use. This directive comes from corpus linguistics and as such has no necessary pedagogic validity whatever.

In language pedagogy, as every teacher knows, the primary consideration has to be how to make the language real for learners in the context of their classroom so that they can engage with it, appropriate it, learn from it. The essential point, I think, is that the English that is taught as a subject is not at all the same as the English that occurs in native speaker contexts. It is a foreign language, and it is this foreignness that is the reality that learners have to be guided to cope with. And English is foreign in different local ways in different countries and different classrooms.
ELTNEWS
And still on the topic of research, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Howard Gardner is known for his theory on different kinds of intelligence, such as social intelligence, spatial intelligence and so on. Do you have any thoughts on how this idea applies to language teaching?
Henry
It is obvious that people vary a good deal in the kind of thinking they find conducive. I am always amazed, for example, at the facility with which colleagues of mine do crossword puzzles that I find completely baffling, or represent ideas by means of diagrams, which I cannot make head nor tail of. And of course I take comfort in the thought that they have a different kind of intelligence from mine, but not, of course, superior. The difficulty is that certain kinds of intelligence tend to be privileged over others in particular cultures and in particular traditions of education, and people who cannot demonstrate this approved way of thinking are then written off as failures, no matter how intelligent they might be in other ways.

As far as language teaching is concerned, this should alert us to the possibility that certain kinds of activity that are to be found in textbooks, particularly those perhaps associated with task based learning, might presuppose ways of thinking that are alien to certain individuals, or groups of learners, who might then have to cope not only with the foreignness of the language but the foreignness of the way of thinking that the activity requires. We come here to the very general issue of individual and cultural differences among learners and how far these can be, or should be, accommodated in teaching. Again, having identified a possible problem, its solution can only be a matter of local decision.
ELTNEWS
Anyone looking up 'stylistics' on the internet will have to sift for it amongst a lot of information about the R&B group of the same name. Tell us a little about this area of linguistics.
Henry
Generally speaking, stylistics is the study of the linguistic features of texts, the actual verbal texture of occurrences of language use and its effects. Originally the texts in question were literary, and stylistics was seen as an extension of traditional work in literary criticism in that it linked interpretation to a more precise linguistic analysis of texture. These days, stylistics has extended its scope to include texts of all kinds, and has become more or less identified with critical discourse analysis and is primarily concerned with revealing how linguistic features are indicative of underlying ideological significance.

As applied to literature, the central claim of stylistics (at least as I see it) is not that it can lead to a more exact interpretation of a text but that it can provide students with the means for substantiating their own understanding of a text, and so make them less dependent on the ready made and second hand interpretations handed down to them by critical authority. So for me, stylistics is essentially an approach not to literary criticism but to literary education.
ELTNEWS
You are credited with introducing the idea of Information Transfer back in the early 1970s. I understand this to be the interplay between verbal and nonverbal material, such as graphs, tables and so on. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Henry
teaching_language_as_com.gif This was a procedure that Patrick Allen and myself devised when we were developing ESP materials in Edinburgh in the early 1970s, which resulted in the English in Focus series. We noted that technical and scientific writing typically made use of visual devices like diagrams, graphs, charts and so on which supported and complemented the verbal text in various ways. It occurred to us that since these were an alternative and non-language specific means for conveying information, they could be used as a prompt for developing abilities in English. Thus students could be asked to demonstrate their understanding of a verbal passage by means of a diagram, chart or whatever (a comprehension activity), and conversely could be asked to compose or complete a verbal text by reference to such visual devices (a composition activity).

Although these information transfer activities were originally developed for teaching ESP, they can clearly be used more generally, and would seem to be particularly appropriate for task-based teaching. Anybody interested can find a detailed discussion of these information transfer activities in my book Teaching Language as Communication (OUP, 1978 - details here).
ELTNEWS
I greatly enjoyed the presentation you gave at the JALT conference in 2002 (Creativity and Conformity in English Teaching) as well as the Oxford Debate that you chaired the following day. In both cases, your humour provided a very nice balance to the academic nature of the events. Have you found humour to be an important aspect of your work as a teacher?
Henry
Teaching is an interactive process which naturally depends very much on establishing rapport with learners, and humour can be a very effective way of doing this. Humour can also be effective in making ideas more accessible and more readily retained. Amusement does not preclude serious thought. On the contrary, it can stimulate it, as satirical comedy makes clear. People are more likely to take note of things if they find them amusing, and I think that a lot of theoretical work in our field would have more impact on teachers if it were more entertaining. You do not have to be solemn to be serious..
ELTNEWS
You may be aware that the Japanese government set up a panel to consider whether or not to fully integrate English in the elementary school curriculum. If you were on that panel, what would your advice be?
Henry
Since I know next to nothing about English teaching in Japan, I would be in no position to offer advice on this particular matter, which would need to take local conditions into account. All I could do as an outsider would be to raise certain general questions about the rationale for introducing English at that stage, about how it would be taught as a subject, what language abilities would be focused on and why, and so on.
ELTNEWS
The ELT Journal Web site mentions a "famous debate" between yourself and Michael Swan. What was that about?
Henry
It was about the communicative approach to language teaching. Michael Swan had written two articles in the English Language Teaching Journal which I took objection to on the grounds that instead of evaluating the basic principles of the approach, he simply reduced it to absurdity. Anybody interested can read our exchange in Currents of Change in English Language Teaching (OUP, 1990). Since then, Michael Swan and I have recognised that much of our disagreement was apparent rather than real, and mellowed by age and friendship, we have either resolved our differences or have become reconciled to them.
ELTNEWS
Vienna ranked third in a recent survey of the world's best places to live. How do you find living there, especially as (I presume) a non-native German speaker?
Henry
I love living in Vienna. You can walk in streets untroubled by traffic, you can go almost anywhere safely by bicycle along the Danube as far as Bratislava if you are so inclined. And it is the only city in the world where you can get a tram in the centre of town and find yourself in a wine tavern among vineyards half an hour later. Where else would one want to live?



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Comments

I think what Henry's philosophy is basically saying is don't tell someone to do something educate them and explain the reasons for doing it in the first place.


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