NR: How much does teaching a language have to do with communication?
CS: I think it has everything to do with communication because language teaching is a form of communication and language has everything to do with communication, so, I don't really think you can separate the two.
NR: Do you think it's compulsory for teachers to be a communicative type?
CS: No, I don't. If you mean by communicative type a communicative language teacher, I don't think it's absolutely necessary. I see the number of teachers in Brazil and in other countries around the world who employ more traditional methods in the classroom into a fine job. But even with these teachers who have labelled themselves more traditional, I see them do things in class like pair work, group work and incorporating some of that communicative technique in the classrooms. So, I think it's not necessary for a teacher to label him or herself a communicative language teacher, but it's necessary for some communicative activities to take place in class.
NR: To which extent, do you think, does a language teacher need to have the profile of their students before setting out to teach?
CS: It's absolutely necessary to know who you're teaching. It's not that I think that different nationalities are different beings, but different groups of learners, even within the same institute, the same context, ought to have different needs for learning, for the goals, for what they like to get out of the class, and difficulties they are bringing into the class with them. Also, personal information. I think it needs to be gathered, so it's absolutely necessary to do, at least a needs' analysis of the students.
NR: Have you been in contact with Brazilian students?
CS: I have, yes. I've had some students in Brazil, and I've also some Brazilian students in the US.
NR: What would you say differentiate Brazilian students' needs in Brazil from those of immigrants in the US?
CS: I think immigrants themselves have a lot of different and unique needs coming to the States to live as an immigrant. But if you are talking about students in a particular country like Brazil versus students studying in the United States, or versus Japanese students, or versus Korean students, I don't feel that Brazilian students really are all that different from Japanese students, for example.
NR: What would be the needs of an immigrant who comes to live in the States or a refugee or something like that, in contrast to someone who comes to learn in the States and then go back to his or her country?
CS: They have completely different needs, really. Because in a class in Brazil, unless you're doing needs analysis of who your students are, it's hard to say what their needs are; whether they are learning English for business, they are learning English to help them with their studies, they are learning English for academic purposes. There can be even a number of different kinds of needs in the classroom. And the immigrants, of course, face the survival questions; how to fill out a driver's license application, how to apply for a job, how to adapt and feel into the society. I think in a sense that the goals are much clearer in an immigrant language program than they are in an ESL program. For example, I taught in Japan when we often say we teach English for no specific reasons, which means that we do not, when we walk into the classroom on the first day, have a clear idea of why students are there. As I said, it could be any of the number of reasons, including just that they have a faint desire to study English. Therefore, it's important to find why students need to study or why to study and to tap into these motivations.
NR: What would we exactly offer to a student who wants to reach something more than the basic ability of communication in the foreign language? Let's say he wants to read a book and be able to get through it without resorting too often to a dictionary. So, you're done with the basics, what else would you have to give them to reach that level?
CS: Once students get through, say, a three-Level course book, and they've got all of the basics, they've got through all of the tenses about English, I think it's important for them, if they are going to continue, to start focusing on the fluency issues and developing their vocabulary and their ability to speak at length, to refine the tenses and the grammar they've already covered and start working on their fluency more than focusing on their structures and their basic vocabulary, and to work on things like hesitation devices, to make the speech some more fluent, to work specifically on vocabulary collecting more adjectives and adverbs to describe things, to begin working more with two-word verbs, idioms, to begin using structures in different ways, structures that they've already learnt in different ways, to have extended discourse, start comparing different structures, to see one function as compared to another, start putting things together and then start making longer discourses.
NR: What kind of teaching does this type of student need? What sort of books do they need?
CS: Well, I don't mean to advertise myself, but I just wrote this book with Jack Richard, called Passages, which is meant really to bridge this gap between, not just a basic Level but once students get beyond the basic level, a student who has been through a 3 or 4 book series and in advanced students, a student who is already quite fluent in the language. So, I would recommend this new book. I'd also recommend that students of this Level do a lot of outside work, as well as on their own as they develop their own interests, whatever those may be, to go out and start reading widely and to make use of the Internet, to do things like that.
NR: Speaking of teaching fashion in the ELT world, such as TPR, communicative approach, etc, what's the fashion today?
CS: I did a talk not too long ago in Brazil called "The Communicative Approach: Where are we now?" and as we all know, the communicative approach has been around for this 20-25 years now. And it's constantly evolving, so that things are changing within that frame work, so that more has been brought into it, learning styles, strategies, more humanistic approaches to language learning, looking at the whole learner. So, I think though that also, at the same time, we have this focus on the communicative methodology, there are other things to be tried out, things that we think that we've discarded but are still with us. Things like earlier forms of teaching TPR for example, and these things are really incorporated in the classroom, in the communicative classroom. I've never seen a class anywhere for the last 5 years that is completely one thing or the other. I think classes are very eclectic these days as people try out different things within the teaching framework that we now have to the communicative approach. So, I'd say that really at this period in time, we are in very eclectic place in the profession, where there is no one dogma that is completely right. If you think about communicative language teaching, I can answer the question: What's the opposite of the communicative language teaching? It's an uncommunicative language teaching, which makes it absolutely nonsense at all! So, we have a framework right now, 'communicative language teaching', which is so big that it can incorporate many different things within its framework - which is giving us a very exciting time of the eclecticism in the classroom. If you come to a large convention like this Bras-Tesol, you hear presentations on different approaches in the classroom, and they always do not work together. People are trying different things and trying to incorporate them more and more into the communicative framework. I think it's an exciting time to be a language teacher.
NR: How much of memory ability is employed in the process of learning, in your opinion?
CS: I think at the lowest levels, at the beginner levels, the memory is very important. Not in the terms of rote memory, but there is a certain amount of memorisation that has to take place. It just has to. I'm not advocating, of course, that students sit down and memorise a list of vocabulary to take home. There are certainly better ways to do this. But in order to acquire basic nouns and verbs and beginning adjectives, beginning structures and beginning grammar rules in any language, it's necessary to memorise them in order to learn them to the point of automaticity in some fashion.
NR: So where does it stand? In Japan, for example, teachers are famous for teaching language through memorisation drills. Teacher trainers in most countries say that memorising is a rather inefficient tool in learning in a sense that it's like learning a lesson by heart for tomorrow's exam, and then forgetting every bit of it.
CS: And that's certainly true. And as students increase their ability, increase the level, memorisation becomes less and less important. Because what happens with memorisation is that we're trying to reach a point of automaticity, where you don't have to, any longer, think about "What is that word?", "How does that structure work?", or "Where do I put the verb here?" You want to reach the point where you don't need to do that any longer. So, when we were talking about memory at the beginning, I think there is a certain amount of memory in the beginning, let's say that is important. But once we move beyond that, it's practice. It's practice in different contexts.
NR: And, on the other hand, a lot of people say that memory is a strong vehicle to learning, and there are various ways of developing memory. One of these is memorisation.
CS: For me, at the very beginning level, memorisation is absolutely useful to me as a language learner. In fact, speaking about my acquisition of Portuguese, which is not in a very high Level now, but I don't memorise. I hear a word, I want to know more about it and I find what it means and I start using it in different ways. I think a lot of it depends upon the learner him or herself, their own particular styles. I don't think, though, that anywhere beyond that beginning level, that it is going to do the students much good to sit down with a list of 20 vocabulary words for homework for the next day. In that sense, I think you are exactly right. So, students are going to memorise by heart for the test and forget them the next day.
NR: You mentioned homework. I think homework is essential to the process of learning and also that every student has a natural tendency to avoid doing homework. What sort of personal communication skills does a teacher have to utilise to bring students around doing homework without being authoritative or resorting to the stick-and-carrot sort of thing?
CS: I think if you believe that homework is important and I do - I teach in Japan where students are seeing me in the classroom for 90 minutes once a week, and, in some cases, for 90 minutes twice a week. When I walk out of the door, they're no longer doing very much for the language because they are going for other thing at the university or in their lives. So, homework is essential for them. Having interpersonal skills to help students do homework is important. I think that it's a matter of convincing students in a gentle way that the homework you are giving them is doing them some good. And, in that sense, it's also important that the homework the teacher is giving to his or her students is useful. It's not going to help anyone believe that homework is an important process out of the learning process if during the last five minutes of class the teacher says: " Oh, do the exercises on the bottom of the page 26 for homework." And, then, in the next class, the teacher just goes over the answers on the answer sheet or something. I think in planning a lesson, planning homework needs to be an essential part of the planning, so that at the end of the class students can see when a teacher assigns the homework that it's a clear part of the lesson, it's an extension of the lesson and not just simply busy work. So, if a teacher can keep students to see this and also keep, I'd like to say, a relationship of trust then that is going to do more to convince students that homework is as a good thing as anything else.
NR: Our lives as teachers have really changed. I mean, you mentioned the Internet before. There are a lot of changes brought by the Internet and its advances. There's a positive sense to that: more access to information, and perhaps a negative one: more and more responsibility to learn. What do you say about that?
CS: I think that we really haven't begun to see what the Internet can do for us and for students as language learners yet. Despite the big advances right now in Internet and World Wide Web, these technologies haven't really entered the classroom yet. For teachers who are in EFL settings in Brazil or in Japan, they've made a lot of material more available. The Internet has also allowed teachers from around the world to keep in contact with each other and discuss things. It made the world much smaller, in that sense. There are certain sites and resources available on the Internet for students that make it a very valuable tool for students to work with the Internet in language laboratories and multimedia centres. But as for teaching, our lives as teachers, I don't think it's begun to do that yet. And it may, but if we think about the technologies of the past, people were very excited in the 1950's about tape recorders and then televisions and then CD players in the classroom. In the 70's, every classroom in the world had a television set, but few of those technologies had a significant impact on language teaching. So one wonders whether the Internet will or not, because essentially, if I can finish up, teaching is a human progression that takes place between human beings. There are certainly a lot of good call programs that go through the Internet but as for changing our lives as teachers, it hasn't happened yet. I don't know for sure if it will.
NR: The turn of century is coming close. We've seen revolutions in all aspects inside of our lives, not just in teaching, but especially medical and genetic sciences. Can we expect a revolution and a drastic change in language learning still within the 90's or will we have to wait a little more?
CS: I think it's hard to predict exactly when revolutions will take place because, I mean, a revolution is a revolution. They take place overnight, because one is necessary and needed and because an opening has occurred. Someone's taken research far enough that a revolution can take place. I don't think we've reached that stage yet, but I'm encouraged by a lot of the research that's taking place: brain research, learner styles, multiple intelligence and all of these different areas we're learning more and more about. We're learning more about learners themselves. We're beginning to open up the black box of the brain and learn more about what takes place when people learn anything, including learning a new language. So I think we'll see significant changes happening based on these researches and based on the methodologies that come out of these researches. But I think we're going to be in a continued period of eclecticism for some time yet. One thing that I think is clear, in the 60's and 70's, we came to the conclusion that we found the answer, this is the answer. For example, the audio-lingual approach is the answer or the communicative approach is the answer. I think we've learned enough about learning now to know that we don't know, and I think that's a very healthy place to be in. So, I don't think anyone's going to step out of the class or out of the universities and say: "I've got the answer!" and if someone does, please, don't believe them, because the more we learn about language learning, the more we learn about learning, the more we learn about being human, the less we know. And so I think we're going to continue in this period of eclecticism for a while. For a long while, I think, until we start to refine our teaching methods, our teaching styles and I think if there's any revolution taking place is that we're beginning more and more to see our students as whole human beings, not as language acquisition devices or as people in need of our help, in a technical sort of way. But I think language learning, language teaching, will continue to become a more human process and it will change as we learn more about what it means to be a learner and what it means to be human.
NR: A philosophical question: is teaching a profession or predestination?
CS: That's a difficult question actually. I don't think anyone can deny that there are people who possess all the qualities necessary to be a teacher. They're caring, they're outgoing, they're sensitive to people's needs and they're engaging in the classroom. You see people who just walk into a classroom in the very first day of their teaching career and connect with their students in some way that really can't be defined. Are these people teachers? Well, yeah. They're, in some way, fastened to work with others in this style. Yet, those people are still untrained. It's certainly necessary for a teacher to go through a period of training, to work with older teachers and more experienced teachers so that they can become professionals. So, I don't think it's possible for a teacher to be a great teacher without training. On the other hand, this is a difficult area to talk about really. There are teachers who go through training who aren't destined to be teachers. Again, teaching is a human thing, a human-to-human process and one certainly needs to be good with people, needs to be able to connect with a class full of other human beings. So, it's impossible to say really whether teaching is a predestined thing or something that someone can be trained to do it, no more than if you were going to be talking about some other profession. Are there the people who are predetermined to become doctors or lawyers? Maybe... But no one's going to become a doctor or a lawyer without training.
NR: Do you have a final message for teachers? You've got to get back to the middle of the launch of your new book with Jack. Any message for Brazilian teachers?
CS: Well, I'll be coming to Brazil often, I hope, in the future and I'd like to invite all of you to come to my presentations while I'm there and I'd like you to consider taking a look at passages of my new book that's been designed in many ways for the Brazilian market.
NR: Thanks Chuck and good luck with your new book.
CS: Thank you very much.
Professor Chuck Sandy has directed English language programs and taught in universities, language institutes, and teacher-education centers in Japan, the United States, Korea, and Brazil. In addition, he is frequent lecturer on English language teaching throughout Asia, South America, and the United States. He is Professor of English Language and Culture at Chubu University in Japan.