Ms. Tara Chadha interviews Prof. Penny Ur

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Penny Ur, a well known author and teacher trainer from Israel held a week-long workshop on materials development at the Institute of Life Long Learning (ILLL), University of Delhi from February 15 to 20, 2010. Tara Chadha had the opportunity to have a tête-à-tête with her over a cup of coffee.
Tara Chadha (TC): I understand that you decided to migrate from your native country some three decades ago.  What inspired you to make Israel your perpermanent home?
Penny Ur (PU) : I was going to study Hebrew and Arabic at Oxford, so in my ‘gap year’ decided to go out to Israel and learn modern Hebrew.  I stayed on a kibbutz on an ‘Ulpan’ scheme which allows you to study half the day and work half the day for five months, and acquired a basic knowledge of modern Hebrew that way. But I also fell in love with the kibbutz idea and the country, and decided I would make it my home. I returned to the UK to finish my degree and teaching diploma, and then emigrated to Israel.
TC: You have been a practising teacher and a teacher trainer.  How far has your experience as a school teacher helped you to carve out the agenda of your training programmes and teaching materials?
PU: I have been for most of my working life a practising teacher of English; my writing and teacher training grew out of this.  To this day, I see myself primarily as a teacher (it’s what I automatically write on things like visa applications where you have to write ‘occupation’).  I have since studied research literature and have published and lectured as part of my work as an academic; but my thinking is shaped primarily by my own professional classroom experience.

TC:    What basic difference you do find between dealing with young school children and mature users of English language?
PU:     They learn in different ways.  Adult learners are more cognitively and metacognitively developed, can make use of more abstract explanations (grammar rules, for example), or of conscious, effective learning strategies – and use them to inform their own developing proficiency.  Younger learners learn more intuitively, so it is better to use activities that have them learning by heart or playing games or listening to stories – acquiring the language through meaningful rehearsal and exposure.  In a classroom environment, incidentally, older learners learn much faster than younger ones, so that’s another difference.
TC:     In the situation of learning English as a second or third language (as in India) which of the skills should be given priority?
PU:    Very difficult to answer! It depends on what the learners need English for. If it’s for work in call centres, then obviously listening and speaking skills predominate.  If it’s for advancement in an academic career, then perhaps reading and writing. Internationally, perhaps, because of the development of IT, the skills of reading and writing are becoming more important than they were previously, and for many learners these will take priority.
TC:    Earlier the emphasis was on reading and writing but with globalization and communicative methods having come in to focus the emphasis has shifted to the oral skills. In our situation teachers and resource persons are not well exposed to listening and speaking.  Even when they have mastery of grammar and lexis of the language, they can not speak with confidence and fluency.  As a teacher trainer could you suggest some methods and specially designed materials for a situation like ours to help our teachers?
PU:    I’m not sure I agree with your first statement. As I said earlier, the development of IT internationally has meant the development of the use of the written skills: for emails, ‘chat’, SMS, Twitter, Facebook and so on, which taken together have to a large extent supplanted the telephone as the major channel of communication.
Having said that, I would agree that the oral skills are primary and essential, and how to develop confidence and fluency in the use of the oral language is an important challenge.  There are some books which suggest ideas for speaking activities: my own Discussions that Work or Frederike Klippel’s Keep Talking, for example.  But it’s also important within course books that teach general courses in English to have components that provide students with opportunities to use the speaking skill and develop their fluency.
TC:    How much importance should be given to the teaching of grammar at different levels?
PU:    I think grammar is fairly important, and that there should be an explicit grammar syllabus of the basic structures at elementary and secondary school level, with the grammar structures being taught and practised systematically.  At tertiary level however grammar can be taught ‘reactively’: i.e. the teacher will respond to lack of knowledge or mistakes as she encounters them, and take time occasionally to draw students’ attention to correct usage.
Note that the methods change as students get older, younger students benefit from a lot of learning by heart, game-like practice, and very simple, concrete, explanations.  Older students, with more highly developed cognitive and metacognitive abilities can cope with more generalized and abstract explanations, and more demanding practice.  
At school level, I would estimate that grammar teaching in any case should not take up more than about half a lesson a week on an average, the rest of the time can be devoted to teaching vocabulary and the four skills.
TC:    You have been interacting with a cross section of users of English in India.  How would you place them vis a vis the users of English in other countries?
PU:    The people I’ve been meeting and talking to have been people with MA or even PhD. degrees in English literature, so I wouldn’t claim to have met a cross section.  These people have an excellent knowledge of English, comparable to academics in other countries I’ve visited.   
TC:    During the course of your talk you made an observation that the majority of English speakers today are located, to use Kachru’s terms, in the ‘outer’ or ‘expanding circles’, using English as a lingua franca.  Do the native speakers of English consider this global linguistic development as some sort of threat to the monopoly they have enjoyed for years?  Or do they feel happy that English has acquired a global status?
PU:    I think on the whole native English speakers are quite happy that English has achieved the status of a lingua franca: those of them who speak a fairly ‘standard’ variety of English are thereby enabled to communicate with all sorts of people worldwide with whom they could not communicate before. Those who speak a ‘non-standard’ variety – like ‘Singlish’ for example, or Afro-American English – need to develop the ability to function in standard English side by side with their ‘native’ dialect.
TC:    In what way is English as a lingua franca different from the Standard English variety?  Could you spell out some of its linguistic features?  Has this variety been codified to be used as a teaching-learning model in a second language learning situation like that of India?  If it has not been codified, who will be the deciding authority in the event of any dispute?
PU:    Users of English as a lingua franca have to use some kind of Standard English, defined as that variety (or range of varieties) of English that will be universally comprehensible and acceptable worldwide. This is very similar to, for example, American English, or Indian English; the only difference is that speakers of these varieties need to ‘weed out’ those items which are peculiar to their native community and not used worldwide: ‘fortnight in British English, for example, or ‘lakh’ in Indian English.
No, there is no codification at present.  As I said in my talk, I think there is likely to be some kind of ‘wiki’ that will provide the information necessary, contributed to by linguists from all over the world.
I doubt if there will be any ‘authority’ that will decide on which is preferable of particular differences of usage.  It is likely that the speakers of the language will decide, gradually one usage will become predominant.  The experience of academies, as in France, who try to proclaim what shall be the ‘right’ way to say things is that this kind of authoritative imposition doesn’t work: it’s the speakers of the language on the street who eventually decide. It will be the same, surely, with ELF.
TC:    Despite the fact that local varieties of English have cropped up and are widely used in different parts of the World; there is a strong bias against the local varieties. Do you see any possibility of similar bias against FLF?
PU:There is an interesting phenomenon of the growth and flourishing of different ‘Englishes’ at the same time as the growth of ELF. I don’t think there’s any contradiction.  And I don’t really understand or sympathize with the bias against local varieties as ‘inferior’: they have the same right to exist and be respected as any other language or dialect. I doubt if the same problem will arise with ELF; it isn’t a variety linked to any particular (superior or inferior) community, but rather an instrument, a useful tool, for achieving certain communicative goals.
TC: What, in your opinion, has led to the rise of ELF?
PU:  We need to divide this question into two: why a worldwide lingua franca, and why English?
There is a need for a worldwide lingua franca: simply because of the rapid increase in contact between people round the world due to the amazing developments in communications technology and increased speed and amount of international travel. At the same time, various fields of human activity (business, entertainment, finance, politics, scientific research and so on) are rarely limited to one country these days; if they are international, they need to have a common language in which to function.
Why English: mainly because at the same time as all these developments were occurring and the need for a lingua franca arose, English happened to be the most widely spoken language already in the world. The reasons for the spread of English were mainly political, military or economic: the expansion of the British Empire in the 19th century, and the economic and political power of the United States in the 20th century, to give two examples. It has nothing to do with the linguistic characteristics of English itself.
TC:    What relationship do you visualize between ELF and the Standard English variety?  Do you think that ELF will be able to acquire a sort of complete autonomy?
PU: I think ELF will be a ‘standard’ variety of English, in the sense of being universally comprehensible but this standard variety is likely to embrace a range of usages, not just one ‘correct’ usage – as indeed does any language. So no, I don’t think it will ever be a separate, uniformly accepted autonomous language with only one set of ‘correct’ form in all details of its grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation: as long as its usages are universally comprehensible, it will tolerate a variety of forms, different accents, for example.
TC: Will there be ever native speakers of EFL?
PU: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think the concept ‘native speaker’ is useful or even meaningful if we are talking about English as a lingua franca.
TC: What are your general impressions of your visit to India?
PU: I’ve had a wonderful time in India, but my impressions are limited to my experiences within University of Delhi and some sight seeing in Delhi itself.  I got the impression of an exciting country, going places and developing fast; a lot of ongoing controversies (but then, what country doesn’t have these!), a rich and very varied cultural heritage, very warm and welcoming people.

Tara Chadha is retired Associate Professor, Shyama Prasad Mukherji College, University  of Delhi

* Interview forst published in FORTELL, May 2010

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