BLOG: Philip Kerr: ‘There’s no ‘single’ way of learning language’

Philip Kerr, a Vienna-based teacher trainer, lecturer and materials writer, the author of publications such as Straightforward and Inside Out and Translation and Own-Language Activities, is the first speaker at the English Language Teaching Forum (ELT Forum) which will take place on June 5th - June 6th, 2015 in Bratislava. In an exclusive introductory interview, he expresses his opinion on technological innovations and effective forms of acquiring foreign language.

Philip KerrPhilip Kerr (Source: Courtesy of Philip Kerr)

When did you first become interested in teaching English? Did you always know you wanted to teach English, or have you tried other subjects as well?

I've been teaching and teacher training for over 30 years now, and I enjoy what I do. But, at the beginning, I had no strong desire to become a teacher - of English, or anything else, for that matter. I drifted into it. With a first degree in English literature in the early 1980s when unemployment in the UK was very high, I didn't know what else to do, and I thought a few years of teaching would buy me some time to make some decisions. As the years went by, I became more and more interested, did more qualifications and I found that I no longer had any desire to do anything else.

When speaking of technological innovations, what do you think is currently the most efficient form of acquiring language?

There are, I think, two parts to your question. First of all, we know that there is no single 'most efficient' way of acquiring a language. Different things work differently for different people. There is no magic bullet. As far as technology is concerned, though, I can be more specific. The history of technological innovation in education in general, and language education in particular, is a history of hype and unfulfilled promises. The introductions of the radio, TV and computers were all heralded with enormous fanfare. They were going to change learning as we know it, and we would all find ourselves living in a brave new world of efficient learning. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the current wave of VLEs, apps and adaptive learning will be any different. Some things will change, but history teaches us that the things that change are not usually the things we expect to change. There is a huge industry trying to sell us technological solutions: we should be very wary of their claims. 

Having said that, it is also clear that technology offers some help. The internet has made it possible for learners to access, freely, huge quantities of English language material. It has made it relatively easy for learners to communicate with other learners in English - something that was quite impossible back in, say, the early 1990s when I first visited Slovakia. There are apps, too, which research have shown to be effective. Most notably, there are (free) flashcard apps, such as Quizlet, which are an excellent way of accelerating the initial acquisition of vocabulary. There are some good apps for pronunciation work, excellent apps which accompany dictionaries, and so on.  These are partial solutions to the problem of acquiring another language, but it's important to remember that they are only partial. Equally important to remember is the fact that many of the technological language learning products that are available are ... rubbish!

What do you think of activities such as listening to songs and watching movies during the lessons? Do you consider them effective?

Songs and movies can be valuable learning resources. But the resources themselves are less important than what the learner or teacher does with them. Gap-filling exercises, for example, which accompany songs and movies are probably of limited value. I don't know of any online resources for songs which I think are very good, but for exploiting video material, there is some very high quality free online material these days. Kieran Donaghy's 'Film English' and Jamie Keddie's 'Lesson Atream' are the first that come to mind.

Can you tell us what we can expect from your speech at the ELT Forum?

In recent years, we have seen the development of three different frameworks for evaluating the competencies of language teachers. These are comparable to the Common European Framework of Reference for language learners. I'll be looking at these different frameworks, at what they have to offer for teachers as a way of directing their professional development, and at the ways - positive and negative - that they are likely to influence our profession.  At the same time, I hope that the talk will suggest directions for individual teachers to pursue paths of professional development. The theme of the conference is the 'building blocks' of ELT, and I'll be looking at precisely what these building blocks might be.

By Dominika Susková

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