Thursday, May 28, 2015

Who’s the expert?

David-BarkerBy David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

At every ELT conference, there are plenary speakers. At major conferences, these are often “big” names who are well known in the field. The reason for their fame is normally either that they have published a lot of books or done a lot of research on language learning, language teaching, or both. They are acknowledged “experts” in the field, which is, of course, why they get invited to be plenary speakers in the first place.

Over the years, I have noticed a couple of things about plenary speakers. The first, I’m afraid to say, is that a great many of them turn out to be a major disappointment. In some cases, they are poorly prepared; in others, they have nothing new or of interest to say. In a surprising number of cases, they are simply very bad at public speaking!

The second thing I have noticed about the most famous experts in our field is that an astonishing number of them are monolingual. In other words, they are afforded expert status in the study of an area in which they have failed to achieve any degree of success at all. I think I have mentioned before that in a talk I saw given by one very famous researcher, he opened with the admission that, “I have never been much good at learning languages myself.”

In case any readers are getting hot under the collar at this point, I wish to make it quite clear that I am not saying that people like this professor do not have expertise in the field; they clearly do. Nor am I suggesting that people like that are not suitable candidates to be plenary speakers at our conferences; clearly, they are. What I am saying however, is that conference organizers seem to be ignoring a rather important category of people from whom we would appear to have a lot to learn – successful language learners.

Last week, I started reading a book that was recommended to me by an American friend. This is a man who speaks four languages himself (English, French, Japanese, and Korean), so I take his recommendations for reading material very seriously. The book is called “Fluent Forever,” and it was written by an opera singer called Gabriel Wyner. In the book, Mr. Wyner describes how he learned to speak six languages over a remarkably short period of time. (Check out this video to see for yourself if you doubt his claims.)

I have only read the first chapter of the book so far, but so much of the advice makes perfect sense to me as a language learner that I am very much looking forward to reading the rest.

Last weekend, I found myself once again at a teaching conference here in Japan. At that conference, I bumped into an old friend whom I shall call Ms. A. Ms. A teaches English at a university in Japan, and she is known within certain circles, but she does not have a PhD, and she could certainly not be described as an internationally renowned expert. I cannot imagine her at this point in her career receiving an invitation to be a plenary speaker at a major conference.

But here’s the thing: Ms. A is extraordinarily good at learning languages. She was born in Uzbekistan, and so her first languages are Uzbek and Russian. Despite never having lived in an English-speaking country, her English is of a level that would have you wondering whether she might actually be a native speaker. After graduating from university in her home country, she moved to Japan, where of course, she became fluent in the language within a year. Her children were born here, and that is the only language she uses with them at home. Just for good luck, she also speaks Turkish and a bit of German, although I’m not exactly sure where she picked those up.

It seems to me a bit perverse that we give so much weight to the advice and opinions of people who, in many cases, have never actually been able to learn a language themselves whilst at the same time completely ignoring incredibly successful learners who could give us definitive answers to many of the questions that researchers spend so much time, effort, and money investigating.

The book I mentioned above seems to have done very well in terms of general sales, but I have never come across any reference to it in an academic paper. The reason for this is clearly that qualifications matter. “Experts” are people who have PhDs in researching how something is done, not the people who actually know how to do it. Does this not strike anyone else as strange? Next time you have a chance, ask a non-teacher what kind of person they would expect to be a plenary speaker at a conference on language teaching and learning. What skills would they expect a person like that to have? I suspect that the word “polyglot” would appear on many people’s list!

Some of the plenary talks I have seen over the years have been excellent, but a great many have been extremely disappointing and, quite frankly, a waste of time. If anyone out there is planning a conference, by all means invite some interesting “experts,” but please also give some thought to inviting one or two successful language learners. There are millions of them out there! Choose people who speak a lot of languages, people who have learned languages particularly quickly or well, or people who have learned languages successfully in unfavourable environments. They may not have the academic status of the more famous speakers, but you will probably find their presentations far more useful and relevant for practicing teachers and learners. I suspect that as an international best-selling author and opera singer, Mr. Wyner would probably be a very expensive speaker to invite, but I happen to know that Ms. A is both willing and available, so please let me know if you would like to get in touch!


Comment from Singingbones
May 28, 2015 at 2:36 pm

I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of ‘experts’ vs. Polyglots. Thank you for your candid wisdom!

Comment from Dorothy Zemach
May 29, 2015 at 9:03 am

I think someone who knows how to learn many foreign languages, through a generalizable method, would be welcome in a featured spot at a conference. I would hope so, anyway! However, someone who has learned several languages successfully but can’t explain how they did it would be less appropriate.

We accept advice from coaches even if they can’t play the sport they’re coaching. So I wouldn’t want to say that someone who hasn’t learned a second language couldn’t teach others–but I’d want to look at the successes of those people he/she taught.

Are you familiar with the Fair List, started by Tessa Woodward? It’s an organization that looks at gender balance in plenary speakers (I will let you guess which gender is sometimes less represented in those slots). Non-native speaker representation is another important issue, as you’ve brought up. Then too I appreciate someone who is good at delivering a message–it’s possible to be an expert in your field but not a good public speaker.

Then too, not all speakers are able to travel. Plenary speakers generally do not get paid or have any of their travel expenses covered (at least, not for the conferences I’m familiar with), so even if invited, they need to be able to take time off work and pay for their travel, hotel, meals, etc. (That’s why you see some speakers sponsored by publishers–it’s the only way they could afford to attend!) I think people assume sometimes that places like TESOL pay their top speakers, but actually, they don’t even waive the conference registration fee. It can cost over $1000 to accept a speaking slot at a conference like that, even if you already live in the US.

Conference organizers do not have an easy job!

Comment from David Barker
May 31, 2015 at 4:53 am

Hi Singinbones,
Thanks for your comment. Glad you liked the article.

Hi Dorothy,
When I wrote the first draft of this article, I actually wrote that plenary speakers tend to be white, male, and monolingual, but I decided that might not be true in other countries. I’m not surprised to find out that it is, however!

I agree with you about the coaches analogy, which is why I was careful to say in the article that I am not rejecting the traditional idea of “expert,” but rather suggesting the inclusion of another category. Having said that, whilst it is certainly true that successful coaches are not necessarily top-level players of their chosen sport, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of someone coaching a sport that he or she couldn’t play at all.

I must admit that I was shocked to hear plenary speakers at TESOL do not get paid. Here in Japan, most university teachers have research money, so we do not have to pay out of our own pockets when we attend conferences, even if we are not sponsored. It must feel like a very mixed blessing to be invited to give a plenary talk at a major conference and then be told that you will have to pay for the honour!

As I get older, I’m beginning to think that there is a very shady side to our profession. At major conferences, speakers pay (through their registration fees) to present their ideas to an audience who pay to listen. Researchers write papers for free that are then published in journals that charge teachers and other researchers for access. And these days, the pressure to publish has even led to a situation where researchers are having to pay to have their papers published! It’s all a bit seedy, if you ask me. Come to think of it, there’s probably another article in that!

Comment from Dorothy
June 7, 2015 at 11:29 am

Well, some teachers in the US have institutional help too–but certainly not everyone. Nor is everyone tied to an institution at all. I’ve had speaker invitations I couldn’t accept because I simply couldn’t afford to.

I think an article on the “pay to publish” research “journals” is a terrific idea! I hate those.

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