Back to you and your experience
Have you ever gone wrong with your decisions, made mistakes, in class or outside it?
I've made more mistakes than I would care to admit. One of my last talks in APAC was a reflection on the more serious ones in my life -the ones I remembered or was aware of-. And on the lessons I learned from them. Mistakes are necessary. Quite possibly, reflexion on the difficulties we face and on our mistakes makes us grow more than anything else. I believe that my life has been rich in both difficulties and mistakes. And I'm grateful for both.
Are there any books you've treasured all these years?
I'm in the process of giving away many of my books to make space for new interests in this last period of my life. A few, though, will never leave my shelves. Among them, Capra's The Web of Life, Maslow's The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, or Wilber's (ed.) The Holographic Paradigm. Among recent ones, Daniel Bahrenboim's El so de la vida.
None of these are linguistics or language teaching books. Are there any books that all teachers should know?
I will not recommend books on grammar teaching or basic classroom techniques. These come and go. Just browse through any big publisher's catalogue and make your pick.
There are books like Krashen's short but powerful The Power of Reading, virtually unknown among us. It's actually a book about reading and literacy, but so useful in destroying some of our myths as foreign language teachers! Frank McCourt's Teacher Man is in fact an autobiographical novel, almost a treatise on difficult teaching conditions, but so inspiring! I'm sure you have your own list of favourites.
How do you come across books that interest you?
I learned a technique for choosing them. I went into a big library and started going through the shelves in its different sections keeping a totally open mind. As soon as something called my attention, I picked it up for browsing. I would spend hours doing this. Sometimes librarians went mad when they saw the huge piles on my desk.
In this way, however, I learned several things: that some of the most useful books for the FL class come from other areas -drama, music, painting, psychology, general pedagogy..., that some prestigious books about the FL classroom are written by academics who have never been FL teachers themselves, and that we all have hidden interests that are unknown to us until this kind of open browsing reveals them..
Can you mention people you've admired or have influenced you?
A list of colleagues and students I've admired and have influenced me is a long one. Among the dead ones, H.H. Stern. For years before my stay in Toronto in 1993, his massive volume Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching (OUP) had probably been the most frequent presence on my desk.
Frankly, I don't know much about Stern. What did you admire in him?
He was an excellent paradigm of what I call "dual perspective" on teaching. Rich experience outside the classroom influences everything that happens inside it and gives teaching a dual and much richer texture. Stern was expert in other areas before going into foreign language teaching and linguistics. A musician while still very young, he was also good at sports, and a notable actor who for a while earned a living from the theatre as a newly arrived immigrant in the UK.
David Stern was born Heinz Heinrich, and had been expelled from Heidelberg University following the antisemitic policies of the thirties. In the UK he changed his name, graduated from King's College, worked as a schoolteacher, got a doctorate from the Institute of Education in London and taught at several British Universities. Worked for UNESCO and promoted teachers' cooperation everywhere. He was director of the Modern Language Centre within the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (1968-82) and turned it into one of the most prestigious centres of that period. His posthumous work Issues and Options in Language Teaching (OUP 1992) was a pioneer attempt at defining an integrated syllabus for language teaching.
How do you know all this?
I didn't have a chance to visit the Modern Language Centre at OISE until a few years after Stern's death, but one of the reasons for my stay in Toronto was that some of his closest collaborators where still working there. I tried to learn about him through them. In 1999 I wrote a list of questions and composed a virtual interview with him. Alice Weinrib, for many years one of his closest collaborators and friend, and at the time director and soul of the Centre's Language Teaching Library and Information Service, helped me and provided generous answers to all my questions.
This is a leading question and I apologize. You've worked with many colleagues, here and outside. I'll ask you only about one -Núria Vidal. Who has influenced whom?
Núria and I did a shared presentation in a training course we both took while still very young teachers. We didn't meet again until much later when we both were doing teacher training. We saw we had parallel views on language teaching, though our personalities differed. This led to friendship and the co-authoring of several books, as well as giving some courses together. She's a wonderful teacher. I learned much from her and I hope I also influenced her a little.
Tell me something that has made you particularly happy as a teacher?
Lots of things. In the past, seeing my students feel proud of their work. These days, reading a book written by a former student, be it a novel, a linguistics book, poetry, ... Being asked to write an introduction for them. Having a former student collaborate with me in a project. Learning about what one of my students does.