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Interview with David Nunan

David NunanDr. David C. Nunan is a world-renowned linguist and specialist in the field of TESOL. An acclaimed author of many teacher training textbooks as well as coursebooks, Professor Nunan has also served on a number of executive, academic and editorial boards. He is past President of TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) and the Vice President of Anaheim University.

David Nunan talks with Russell Willis about being a best-selling author in China, his involvement with Anaheim University and its TESOL programs, the new Magical Lab project and his ELT travel memoir…

The interview was conducted in late June 2008 in Tokyo.

Russell
I’m here today with Professor David Nunan. It has been – goodness, about 7 years or so now since ELT News last spoke to you.
David
Is that right? Can’t believe it.
Russell
In fact you’re the first person ELT News interviewed. We’ve interviewed over 40 people since then.

So: what you have been up to while you were away?
David
Well, where do I start? There has been a huge amount going -- on perhaps the biggest project that I have been involved in during that time has been a project I started in 2003 which was to design a curriculum and write text books for the middle schools and junior high schools in China and since that time we have sold 700 million copies.
Russell
700 million?
David
700 million, yeah.
Russell
This is Go For It!, right?
David
Right. And it took everybody by surprise, including the publishers. They thought it was just going to be a testing of the waters and they thought maybe we would sell a million copies a year.

And now there are 9 publishing houses across China publishing it – churning out the books, it won't stop.
Russell
And that’s for the middle schools.
David
That’s, yeah, junior high school. The first three years of high school in China.
Russell
That’s very impressive. What considerations did you have to take in to account when you were designing the curriculum?
David
I had to modify the international Go For It! series to fit into the specifications of the Ministry of Education in China and that meant modifying the series in terms of the syllabus – because the series itself is basically uses a task-based approach and the ministry of education in China has embraced task-based learning as one of its central tenets; the idea that kids should be learning language in order to use it for functional purposes rather than to pass exams. Obviously passing exams is still a major consideration but then we have to calibrate the course against the Ministry of Education’s core vocabulary and core grammatical specifications and so that was something that I had to do. I took six months off from Hong Kong U to do the series and customize it for China.
Russell
I see. For those not familiar with it, could you give us an example of what a task-based learning approach might consist of as opposed to another approach?
David
Well, I mean, in the traditional approach one starts with analysis of the language and you have sets of grammatical and vocabulary items. In a task-base approach you don’t start with the language, you start with the learners and you layout the kinds of things that the potential – that the audience for the series whatever it is – in this case it’s junior high school students, what the kinds of things that they may potentially or actually need to do with the language. So instead of having a list of grammar items you have a list of tasks -- the things the people want to do with the language.
Russell
So this book will booking into hotel. Asking to someone to fix something, giving directions etc.
David
Sure, yeah.
Russell
I see.
David
And then you lay out the grammar and vocabulary as a kind of second order activity.

A kind of extreme view of tasked-base learning has it that you don’t actually need to do that second order stuff. You don’t actually need to specify the grammatical syllabus. The structures come along kind of naturally. But there seems to be increasing evidence that most learners do actually benefit from also having a focus on language forms.
Russell
And this is a four skills course for China?
David
Yes. Yeah. I am currently doing the second edition for the series and what we’re doing there is, we’re actually adding in more grammar and we’re adding in – we are bulking out particularly for the later levels – we’re bulking out and adding in much greater reading and writing, much greater emphasis on reading and writing because the first series focused very much on developing listening and speaking skills with reading and writing as a kind of second order activity.
Russell
So the course has a number of role-plays in it, I’d imagine, in terms of being able to act out the task-based situations?
David
Yeah, role-plays, simulations and so on. Each lesson culminates in an activity or task that gets the learners to actually use the language they have been learning in some kind of simulation or role-play and so that has a number of benefits. The main one is that it dramatizes to the learners and the teachers and all those involved that they can actually do something concrete at the end of each lesson, so hopefully that is going to be motivating for the learners.
Russell
It will give them a sense of achievement.
David
Because as you know learning language is a long term business and particularly once you get beyond the very initial stages of learning a language it becomes very kind of frustrating and de-motivating for learners as they seem to be putting in a huge amount of effort and they don't seem to be getting any payback for that effort.
Russell
Right -- those role-plays gives them payback almost immediately.
David
Yeah, yeah, they can say they can actually do something.
Russell
So, 700 million copies do they have your picture on the books?
David
No.
Russell
You would be quite a famous person in China.
David
Yeah, it surprises me when I go to China and they say that, yes, you’re very famous.
Russell
So if I meet a Chinese person in a few years’ time they will say that they have learnt English…
David
through…
Russell
Through David Nunan.
David
Yeah, yeah -- or have failed to learn English! Hopefully not!
Russell
So that’s an amazing achievement -- probably a world record I’d have thought.
David
I think so. I can’t imagine that any other series has sold more than that.

Russell
The world’s best-selling book would be enough for most people, but you have been up to some other things as well….
David
A lot of things, yeah. I have been involved with Anaheim University where until a couple of months ago I was the president of the university. I have now stepped down a notch to being Vice President for Academic Affairs because I preferred that kind of focus -- rather than doing a lot of the administrative stuff that we have been working on. They have just established the David Nunan Institute for language education…
Russell
Oh really?
David
…and through that we’re favoring certificate courses. We’ve got a certificate in TESOL and we have a certificate in teaching English to young learners which is one of the major trends that has happened in these 8 years since you last interviewed me.

And that is very exciting as well because of the huge explosion in the demand for English around the world, the industry itself simply can’t keep up with that demand and so one of the things that we’re doing is developing these online courses to provide people who are perhaps coming into the field for the first time or perhaps switching from being say teacher of science or geography into teaching English.
Russell
And this gives them a grounding.
David
This gives them a basic grounding…
Russell
You have two courses: one for teaching adults and one for teaching young learners.
David
Young learners yeah.
Russell
So that is separate.
David
Yeah.
Russell
I see -- and these are recent developments?
David
Yes, we have only just – we’ve got our first cohort of TESOL certificate students, the young learners course will probably be rolled out in full in a few months’ time, but we have just signed an agreement with GEOS in Japan here for their teachers to enroll in the TESOL certificate.
Russell
Excellent.
David
Yeah, so that should be really exciting and I look forward to working with those teachers.
Russell
So you have been behind the development of both of those courses?
David
Yeah.
Russell
There has been a lot of discussion about young learners in Japan given that the government will make elementary English education compulsory. In a recent survey about the value of early English education, many parents -- 40% of parents -- said that they had very, very low expectations of the difference that elementary English education would make. How do you feel about the issue and specifically, do you think that starting to learn English at a young age is a key benefit?
David
The research is very controversial but the bulk of it seems to show that starting at a very young age doesn’t make a difference or historically it hasn’t made a difference. So if you take a group of learners from a particular demographic and you start them learning English at the age of 5 and you take another group of learners from the same demographic and you start them learning at the age of 10 and you test both groups at the age 15 you find no difference.
Russell
Really?
David
Yeah.
Russell
That will surprise most people, intuitively you would think that…
David
You would think so, wouldn’t you?
Russell
…it would make a difference, yeah.
David
So then the question then is: why is there no difference? Is it that -- some psychologists and psycholinguists believe this --- that it’s because learners at an early age really can’t benefit particularly from learning foreign languages and the older you get the better you’re at learning anything -- as long as you begin learning prior to puberty -- so around the age of10 or 11. There is no comparative advantage starting at the age 5.
Russell
There is cut off point in terms of effectiveness.
David
Yeah, it seems to be puberty and again this is controversial, but there is this theory called the “critical period hypothesis” that something happens to the brain around about puberty and that if you start learning a language prior to puberty you are given a comparative advantage, but starting at very young age doesn’t give you an advantage.

Now, I think the jury is still out because I think that one of the problems is that a lot of young learners programs are not specifically designed for young learners so they simply – they have just imported a curriculum that's been designed for older learners and given it to young learners.

So the curriculum, the materials, and also the teachers are not adequately trained to teach younger learners and that’s one of the reasons why we have launched this TESOL certificate for younger learners to provide that kind of training. I mean, I think that --- even if it were the case that there is no difference between someone learning from 5 and someone learning from 9 -- it’s not necessarily a good enough reason not to start for people learning at the age 5 because I think there are a lot of cultural and attitudinal aspects of language learning that can be inculcated at a young age.
Russell
These sound like great courses. The adult learners course, you say, is already going, you’ve got your first cohort. Is that an expensive thing? Is that something that your average teacher can afford or do you need your company to pay for it?
David
It’s a 90 hour course and it costs around $700 US so it’s accessible to all. And for that they get 15 modules and each module consists of a lecture from me, which is uploaded through the website. They have a set reading. The course itself is based on a book that I did for McGraw Hill a number of years ago, Practical English Language Teaching and there are 15 chapters in that book and the course itself mirrors those chapters, so each module has a lecture from me, has the set reading that goes with it from the text book, and then there is a set of discussion questions that students – there is a discussion forum and students can interact with each other discussing these questions through the online environment.
Russell
Critics would say that, unlike the Trinity exams or the UCLES exams, that there is no practical teaching component in online courses like this. How do you respond to that?
David
True yeah. Yeah, there isn’t, and that’s something that we try to deal with by building in classroom-based activities. About a third of the tasks for each of the modules require that the students actually go and do something in class and then come back and discuss it.

And given the hundreds or thousands of teachers that need training around the world it’s clearly not feasible to have supervised practical lessons for everybody, so I think the idea of online instruction is a good one and the beauty is, for example, a student who, for example, is not a native speaker of the language can look at this online lecture and can go back and look at it as many times as they like.
Russell
Yeah, so obviously this is going to bring a level of training to people who previously didn’t have the time or the money to be able to afford it. So a lot of people who would not otherwise be trained are going to be trained, so this is obviously a worthy thing to be involved in.
Russell
So 700 million books, training courses for teachers, to teach adults, and young learners and you are involved in the Anaheim University, anything else?
David
There are some interesting projects just coming up. There is a project in Malaysia called Magical Lab, which is very exciting and I have just become involved in but which I’m quite excited about because it isdeveloping e resources and tools for teachers related to vocabulary.
Russell
That’s interesting. I mean vocabulary is a topic which I found is often ignored -- even perhaps in your description of the course you just mentioned. Vocabulary learning isn’t considered central to language learning -- perhaps by many. From your perspective where does vocabulary lie in this sort of range of things that people have to involve themselves as a student and, in fact, facilitate as a teacher.
David
Well I think it’s central and it’s becoming more and more important. When I started my career about 30 years ago as a language teacher we were actively discouraged from focusing on vocabulary because the…
Russell
Discouraged?
David
Yeah, the dominant method at that time was audiolingualism and one of it’s central tenets was that, fundamental to language acquisition was acquiring the basic pattern, structural patterns of the language or grammatical patterns of the language, and so you consciously limited the amount of vocabulary in order to teach all of the basic structural patterns in the language and the idea was…
Russell
The vocabulary sort of got in the way of their method if you like.
David
Well, yeah, there is only a certain amount of attention that a learner can pay to the language that they are learning and if you…
Russell
Focus on the structure and the patterns…
David
Yeah, if you try to teach vocabulary as well then the learners are going to be overloaded and that if you’re going to focus on anything it should be on the structural patterns, but then with the development of the communicative approach to language teaching, vocabulary came back into focus. My view and this is viewed as reflected in the book that I wrote last year for MacMillan called What Is This Thing Called Language, is that there are only three systems or subsystems of language. There is a subsystem of sound, of phonology, subsystem of vocabulary or lexis and subsystem of grammar with structure. If some people say what about discourse? what about pragmatics? and so on, I say, well, they are not systems and I give the rationale for that in the book, if people are interested.

But these three subsystems -- for the purpose of a study you can separate them out -- but ultimately you can’t. I have got a lot of examples in the book to show that ultimately you cannot really separate these, particularly vocabulary and lexis you can’t separate these out ultimately, for example, the issue of say pluralization, you know, dog : dogs, cat : cats. We add the s to the end of the word. Is that vocabulary issue or is it grammar issue? And it’s both.
Russell
How have computers and corpus linguistics affected the way English vocabulary has been…
David
They have had tremendous influence. I’ve just started to work on a new series and they’re giving vocabulary a central place and we’re using the Cobuild corpus that was originally developed at the University of Birmingham in the UK, we are using that as one of fundamental tools and one of the things that it does is, first of all it gives insights into things such as word frequency, but also more importantly how the given word is used functionally because most words have multiple functions and a corpus of millions of words can tell us the appropriate function to teach at a particular stage. And it also gives example that we can pull out from the corpus and then put in to the series as well.
Russell
I remember that for teachers around my age, the first time they came across corpus linguistic was through Cobuild. I mean, Cobuild goes back to the '80s and I remember a course book by Dave Willis which was based on a lexical syllabus, but didn't succeed. It was very much focused on the centrality of vocabulary but never became popular and really wasn't copied in anyway. Why do you think that was?
David
I don't know - I don't know what counts as success? I don't know how many copies Dave sold. If it didn't reach its potential, I suspect it was because teachers themselves weren’t ready for the approach and this is something I have learnt in some ways to my cost over the years. And a very important lesson that I have learned is that there is no point in launching a fabulous new approach on the marketplace whether it’s task-based learning, the lexical approach, or learning languages through standing on one leg, or wrapped in a blanket and…There is no point in launching the latest, most fantastic research-based thing if you don't also have a very comprehensive and effective teacher-training program that goes with it and that's also something we have been working very hard at in our China project…
Russell
Because if people don't understand it they won't use it, they won't understand or recognize the benefits.
David
Again, in some parts of China you have got people who may have been teaching geography or history and they have suddenly had to switch into teaching a language and they are not equipped to do it and so they will tend to teach the language the way that they were taught and so this really enforces a kind of very traditional approach to language teaching and so I have actually had to modify my approach when I write the series and I had to build in a lots and lots of teacher training opportunities and so we developed a very comprehensive website, we found master teachers in China and we uploaded 100s of exemplary lessons from different levels of the series and so on.
Russell
So it was a very coordinated effort to make sure that methodology and theory behind the course was understood.
David
Yeah.
Russell
Was vocabulary an important part of that course?
David
Yeah it was and this comes back to Magical Lab because I think one of the things that – one of the potentials here is that it can provide tremendous amount of assistance to curriculum design and material writers such as myself. When I wrote the series when I was adapting the series I was given the official Chinese ministry of education set vocabulary list and I had to then calibrate, I had to build in vocabulary items at different levels and there were times I was scratching my head and I would say well you know why do I have to teach kangaroo in book two, unit four. I mean who says that learners in China have to learn the word kangaroo in this particular unit? And one of the things that I think would be a tremendous resource and one of things I am going to be encouraging the people behind the Magical Lab project to do is to upload the official vocabulary lists from different national syllabuses in China, Japan, Korea, and so on and it will be interesting from a research point of view to look at the commonalities and differences. From a materials writers point of view they can draw on those resources when they're writing materials for these different markets.
Russell
Magical Lab is going to have variety of resources such as wordlist and actual tools to process language online in terms dictionaries, applying definitions, frequency counts, comparing lists of words.
David
Yes, I think it's an exciting project and it's one that it's very much in tune as we said earlier with current trends, which suggest that language acquisition is basically lexically driven.
Russell
I always feel that if I was given a choice between learning the grammar and no vocabulary or vocabulary but no grammar, I’d go for the vocabulary.
David
Yeah, absolutely, yeah. When I first moved to Hong Kong, and that was 14 years ago and I was trying to learn Cantonese, I didn't really give a damn about the grammar. All I wanted was the whole vocabulary because it was that enabled me to communicate in a fairly rudimentary way.
Russell
You have done a lot of things David. I imagined there are many aspiring English teachers and authors who are reading this who would like to know the secret of your success. So what is the secret of your success?
David
Insomnia.
Russell
Insomnia.
David
I need about 4-hours sleep a night. No, I think it comes down to really loving what to do. I have always loved teaching and I’ve loved words and writing and… as a kid about 7 years of age, I think I wrote my first short story when I was 7 or 8 and won a prize for it… I think it was about a day at a theme park in my hometown.

I have never actually seen writing as a job. It is something that I do. It defines me, it’s part of my identity. It's yeah, it's hard work, I mean, somebody once said that writing is easy, you sit and stare at the computer until drops of blood appear in your fart, but yes it's something that I really enjoying doing -- and I do a thousand words a day. Often I throw 900 words of those out in the evening. The first thing I do in the morning when I get up at 4 or 5 is to sit and write 1000 words -- it could be a newspaper article or it could be part of new book that I am writing, but I do these 1000 words and it's almost like…
Russell
That's a very disciplined approach.
David
Yeah, it's like five finger exercises.
Russell
Right, just get up and get it down.
David
Yeah, don't wait for inspiration because if you do then you may be in for a very long wait.
Russell
The muse may not visit you.
David
Well exactly. And there are times when I would spend 5 to 6 hours trying to get those 1000 words down and there are times when the 1000 words flow out in 30 or 40 minutes.
Russell
Academic writing, course book writing--do you do creative writing as well?
David
Well, I do -- I have just written a book. I have written a book which -- I think it's creative. I‘ve called it Road Show and it's a book of about anecdotes about my travels mainly around Latin America launching book series and that was great fun to write.
Russell
So an ELT travel memoir. Bill Bryson watch out.
David
Yeah. Yeah it's a travel memoir -- it’s ELT. Although, I am not nearly as funny as Bill unfortunately. Some of the stories are frightening, though!
Russell
Well, I’ll certainly be buying the book when it comes out…

David Nunan, thank you very much.
David
My pleasure.



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