You may not have heard of Kyiv much recently, but at the end of October we hosted the English Language Teachers’ Association International Symposium with representatives from teachers’ organisations from neigbouring countries and none other than Margit Szesztay, the President of IATEFL. Quite newsworthy, I think!
I had met Margit almost 3 years ago, when she was an honoured visitor to IATEFL Ukraine and agreed to do a workshop for our Teaching Centre at the British Council. As it turned out, she is a great teacher trainer and an incredibly nice person. So, I was delighted to see her again and, since there was no time for another workshop, collected questions from our teachers, which Margit was awfully kind to answer over dinner. Here is our small impromptu interview, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
What can you say to non-native speaker teachers who want to be more confident with high-level students, but don’t know how to rely on their qualifications rather than their nationality?
First of all, there is no way of getting around the fact that language competence is very important. I think that non-native speaker teachers need to feel really confident with their language and they always need to work on improving all aspects of their language competence. But having said that, you don’t need to sound like a native speaker – I think there are excellent non-native speaker teachers. It actually would block you if you wanted to be perfect, to have perfect pronunciation. It’s going to create anxiety. So, first of all, just relax and be happy with the language competence that you have, be more courageous and use English more.
Also, make use of the fact that you can bring in so many different kinds of input like video recordings on the Internet; a lot of coursebooks have great supplementary materials these days, as well. The teacher is no longer the main source of input for the learner, there is excellent input out there. The teacher’s role is changing, and our role as non-native speaker teachers is being supporters, encouragers, organisers of classroom activities, and also being able to analyse what problems students with the same mother tongue as us have, or might have. So, helping them with that, sharing our own stories of how we became a better language learner. These are incredible pluses that we have at our disposal.
That’s what I would say: make use of all that you do have, and just feel comfortable with what you’ve got. You know, like we used to say: ‘The teacher is not a walking dictionary’, and they’re not. And the teacher doesn’t have to have perfect pronunciation – anyhow, what’s perfect pronunciation? But you do need to have good language competence, you need to be expressive, you need to feel at home in the language.
And what honest advice would you give to those teachers in particular who don’t feel confident enough to upgrade their students’ language, deal with emerging language?
My honest advice? I’ve had the privilege to observe many teachers, mostly in Hungary, but in other contexts as well. Language competence shouldn’t block you from dealing with emerging language. If someone comes up and asks you for something, and you have to think about it – it can happen to anybody! And then you can check it out, or you can ask that person to check it out. So, I think it’s got more to do with if you are a good listener, if you are interested in your students, because this is the idea behind emerging language: it’s not just ‘this is what I want to teach’, but I’ interacting with you, listening to you, and then whatever emerges, I work with that. But it’s not just a language skill, it’s a reaching-out skill, an ability to have rapport, to have curiosity, and to interact with your learners. So, I would say: do it, and be comfortable doing it.
But, having said that, I’ve also seen teachers who need to work on their language competence. There’s no way of getting round that because even though when we talk of English as an international language, English as a lingua franca, maybe a certain type of accuracy isn’t important, maybe lexical accuracy is more important than grammatical accuracy, but if you’re a teacher, it’s still very important for you to be accurate as well as fluent. You always need to learn, you always need to pay attention to your mistakes, and don’t feel bad about it, it’s part of learning. Sometimes teachers fall into this anxiety cycle, they fret: ‘Oh, I’m never going to get this perfect!’, and they are not learning because they block themselves. So, get rid of this anxiety and be a lifelong learner we all have to be, but don’t let your lack of perfect language competence block you.
You obviously speak perfect English, it’s very expressive — what would you recommend those teachers do to approach your level of competence?
It depends on what they need to work on, but I think, choose something you really enjoy. It could be learning to do something, or could be your favourite series, or watching vlogs – you can choose anything, but watch it several times – not just indiscriminately watching, watching, watching in a lazy way, because you’re watching to learn. Choose a section, watch it several times and really listen – or, if you like TED talks, choose a TED talk and listen to it, then read the transcript, then listen to it again and do this regularly. I think just watching series or films is also good, but you have to take some short cuts. You need to ask yourself, ‘What did he say?’ and then listen to it again, several times, or read the transcript, because then you would teach yourself to listen better, to pick up things that you didn’t pick up before. So, choose two days a week, depending on how much time you have, half an hour or 20 minutes: and make it your attentive listening time.
I’ve heard it called narrow listening, or narrow reading, when you read or watch the same thing again and again…
Yes, and it could be reading as well. Choose something you enjoy, and just notice how it’s organised. Sometimes my students say, “Oh, there’s nothing new in this”, but then the question is, “Would you be able to write it like this, or say it like that?” And often the answer is, “No, no way”. It’s like ‘go up to somebody’: you could say, ‘He went to him’, but it would sound strange, or you could say ‘He went up to him’. Always highlight these language chunks, put them at the bottom of the article, story, whatever you’re reading, so that you are focusing on the language as well as the content.
I think it’s good advice for all language learners, not just English teachers!
Now my next question: which do you think are the most important trends in language teaching nowadays?
Well, there are so many trends, and if I think about IATEFL’s 16 SIGs, they all represent trends in a way. I would say creativity definitely is a trend, it’s not a specific thing, but ways of being creative, helping our learners to be creative – because that also means moving away from the kind of teaching where there’s always the right answer. It means playing more around ideas, being playful and spontaneous. Actually, the emerging language you mentioned also has to do a lot with creativity. I would say that it’s fortunately a trend, and there are many articles being published with lots of creative ideas.
Then, English as a medium of instruction, EMI, and Content and language integrated learning, CLIL, is definitely a trend in the sense that it’s spreading all over the world. A lot of higher education institutions, and not just them. It’s partly to attract foreign students, and partly to make language learning effective by bringing in good content. It’s definitely a major trend around the world, and sometimes maybe pushed too hard. But it does have some benefits, so it’s worth thinking about.
And then of course there are all these trends related to the technology around us, using mobile devices for learning, and not just devices, but technology in the classroom as well. The potential is incredible, so on the one hand, I’m a fan, but on the other hand, I see the dangers because there are so many addictions to the screen and because we’re not disciplined enough to know when to stop, and also because people don’t get enough face-to-face communication. So I would say, think about using it, but in a very focused, narrow way, so that you don’t use it all the time, so that we don’t forget about face-to-face communication.
And what about all those lessons that people do on Skype online, do you think they are good or bad?
I think they’re good. When you’re using Skype to teach English to people who are actually not there, I think it’s a bridging thing. I’ve never taught through Skype, but I’ve got many friends who have, and based on what they tell me and what their learners tell me, it’s very good. You still need to plan, really carefully, sometimes even more, but if you structure the lesson, I think it can be really good. I had a lot of positive stories about it.
We’re actually experimenting with group online teaching at the moment.
I think that’s putting technology to good use, because maybe not everybody would be able to come to the location, but as I was talking about before, when you’re actually there, face-to-face, technology can stand in the way, it doesn’t always enhance the quality of learning or teaching when you use devices. I’ve still got questions about that.
Anything else you’d like to share with the readers of this interview?
Well, there are many things I’m excited about, but my big area is groups. I’ve always been fascinated by groups. Each group that I meet is like a new person, and just to see how they change, all the chemistry, and the different roles that members pick up, the dynamic, is fascinating. Also, I think, we need to learn more about how we can learn together. I’m interested in creativity and even more interested in group creativity. I’m interested in critical thinking, but I’m more interested in how a group can become critical and how you can learn more about yourself through the group, and ways of tapping into group wisdom.
One of the things I’ve been working with in the past few years is the idea of the group challenge: to motivate my groups by challenging them to work together rather than bringing in competition, which of course is a great motivator, but there’s so much of it and it has so many detrimental effects. So, for any small activity like brainstorming that you want to do, turn it into a group challenge: two minutes, can you come up with twenty ideas? Because bringing in the time dimension is a good way to get people excited, and not necessarily two teams, just the class is a team as a whole. Or, can you together as a group remember all the new words? And that’s not asking anyone individually. The group collective memory will always remember more than individual memory. Collective wisdom.
And maybe some synergy as well?
Absolutely! And I think that’s a potential that we don’t know enough about yet, and desperately need to learn. Because in order to collaborate, we need not just to use cooperative techniques, but also to know more about the group and the dynamic of the group, and ourselves, how we behave, how we can influence that. And that’s something I would like to focus on.
Then we’ll be on the lookout for your articles about it, or maybe a monograph?
Actually, I’m working on a book related to that, so one day it will be out there.