An Interview with Prof. David Nunan

David Nunan is a globally acclaimed linguist, former President of the TESOL International Association (1999-2000 tenure), and one of the leading textbook writes in the world. He has been involved in the teaching of graduate programs for such prestigious institutions such as Anaheim University, University of Hong Kong, Columbia University, University of Hawaii, Monterey Institute for International Studies, and many more. His ELT textbook series ‘Go For It’ is the largest selling textbook series in the world with total sales exceeding 2.5 billion books.He has written over 100 books and articles in the areas of classroom based research, curriculum development and discourse analysis. His recent books include What is This Thing Called Language? and, with Exploring Second Language Classroom Research (co-author).

NELTA ELT Forum Team is proud to have an interview of Prof. Nunan in this issue. Here is the excerpt of the interview that one of our editors had with him during 50th IATEFL International Conference at Hotel Hilton, Birmingham, UK.

Laxmi: Prof. David Nunan, it’s very nice of you to agree to give this interview for NELTA ELT Forum.

David Nunan: Pleasure!

Laxmi: How do you see the scope of English language and English language teaching in present day world?

David Nunan: It does seem to be quite a global phenomenon. It is taught all around the world. It is being taught earlier and earlier grades as well. So, that is one of the big trend I have noticed. It used to be introduced in secondary school and now they are introducing it in upper primary, and in some places in lower primary and even in kindergarten. I’ve been working inVietnam; and in some of the school districtsthey havestarted to introduce English in Kindergarten with four and five year old children. So the scope of both English language and English language teaching is growing every day.

Laxmi: Does it have any implicationfor English Language teaching profession as well?

David Nunan: It has a lot. Many of the teachers who are working with young childrendo not have specific training in teaching young children. Some of them don’t even have training in being English teachers. They may have been trained to be history teachers or teachers of mathematics and then they switched. So they don’t have training either in teaching English or in teaching young children; and I think this is a problem. It’s particularly a problem for teaching children because children have the case of developmental stages that are quite different from one year to the next. The way that you can teach a four year old is not the same as the way you teach a six year old, which is not the same the way you use to teach eight year oldand so I think that is a problem. We need to train teachers specifically to teach youngchildren and to then teach Englishtothe young children.I am talking specifically about the children at the moment butI think it is less marked with adults. By the time they are late teenagers, their cognitive development is pretty well shaped. They are not going to get that much difference.

Laxmi: As a scholar who has taught and published on diverse range of topics, areas and countries, what do you think are the challenges or issues that English language teachers face around the world these days?

David Nunan:  Well, is it depends on the context. I spend most of my time working in developing world where themain challenge is lack of resources, large class sizes, and poor payscales. I see these problems all developing countries. Besides, the issue of competence in the language is a major problem as well. One of the other problems around the world is that very often people who are native speakers of English want to travel and they find that getting the job is easy but they don’t know what they’re doing in the classroom and that’s something which is holding the profession back. People think that being native speaker is necessary and enough to be good language teacher. But I don’t think you need to have a native speaker like competence.

Laxmi: Are there any differences between teaching English in English speaking countries like US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and in non-English speaking countries like Nepal and many other parts of the world?

David Nunan: Well there are. One of the big differences, of course, is the fact that in many parts of the world learners have limited opportunities to actually use their language outside ofthe classroom whereas in English speaking countries there is much access to language outside of the classroom. But you have to be ready to take advantage of the environment and resources. Many years ago when I was still living and working in Australia, a friend of minewho was a doctor asked me if I would givelesson to her mother in English and I agreed. They had come from Russia and her mother had been living in Australia for 28 years and had never spoken a word of English because she was completely surrounded by the Russian community, Russian newspapers, Russian radio andall the rest of it. She did not even have to say hello. But the opportunity is there for the people ifwant to take advantage ofit.

Laxmi: There are discussions and debates going on about the issue of native versus non-native English speaking teachers. How do you view this issue as a dichotomy? Do you think that we need a debate of this kind?

David Nunan: Well, we’ve been having that debate for many years. When I was TESOL president in 1999, I was involved in establishing a corpus for an intersect section for non- native teachers of English and that my good friend Jun Liu who was president of TESOL few years after me was one of the first non-native English speaking teachers to be president of TESOL. At that time we developed professional standards for teachers and we specifically excluded the fact of somebody’s first language background was being the factor that was not the factor. We did argue that teachers should have a certain level of proficiencyinthe languagethey’re teaching. That’s always a problem. How good somebody’s English has to be in order to be able to teach English is always contested issue.

Laxmi: That’s an issue because we are talking about need for good English but what is that good, what is the indicator to measure good English?

David Nunan: Yeah, that’s an issue. I mean it depends on the level you are teaching at. I have observed the classes where the whole lessonis supposed to be in Englishbut there was no English at all. Imagine how long do they last if there are teachers of mathematics and don’t use any numbers. Therefore, English language teachers should focus on developing their English language proficiency first before they learn to teach.

Laxmi: Every year hundreds of teachers travel around the world to participate in conferences at national and international level like this one organized by IATEFL. How do you see the role of these events and associations in developing profession skills of the English language teachers?

David Nunan: Well, the reason I come is not really to go to presentations but to meet, interact andconnect with people like you. I thinkconferences are platforms to meet real people and develop community of scholars and practitioners. I am now connected to you, with other scholars and we know each other and become friends. We can be reconnected and communicate with many people through e-mail and share ideas and resources. That’s the real benefit.

Laxmi: On the basis of your experience, what are the common trends and waves that English language teaching around the world I mean teachersof English should be familiar with?

David Nunan: Well, I think one of them is the notion that we just talked about. The fact that in some classes there isn’t any English but for many years the idea was that there should be only English in the classroom. That ‘there should not be any use of the first language’ is taken as a myth now. So, using the learners’ background as resources is one trend – the notion that we should be developing learners as resourceful learners. Therefore, we are working on developing a number of resources including the first language as resource in learning the second language learning.

The other trend is related to native versus non-native English speaking teachers. Eighty percent teachers are non-native speaker teachers now. But in many places like Japan, Korea and China they prefer hiring native speakers because the parents do not send their children to the school if they use only Japanese, Korean or Chinese teachers of English. That’s a big problem as well.

Laxmi: If you have to make a list of most important skills that a teacher needs to have to be effective, what would the list look like?

David Nunan: Number one will be you have to love what you’re doing. You should have passion for teaching. The second is giving care, compassion and concern for the children. You should love and care the children the way you want the teachers of your children to give them. Then you have to have a certain level of confidence to really be an English language teacher. You also need to have classroom management skills. You need to know how to organise the learning courses and how to structure learning and how to structure a lesson. You obviously need knowledge about English. One of the problems for many native speaking teachers of English is that they speak English but don’t know about English very well. They don’t know about the grammar of English; they don’t know about aspects of pronunciation and so on. Often they thinkthey do but they don’t and that’s a major issue. The other thing is that you need to know teaching methodology.

Laxmi: The number of teacher education colleges and universities are growing around the world. What do you think these teacher preparation colleges and universities should focus on while preparing their graduates so that they best fit the market that they are going to?

David Nunan: I think they need to know the context and the situation they’re teaching and studying. For example, very often I hear people saying “well I did this course, I did the masters degree in the UK or in Australia but the content that I was taught wasn’t really relevant to my situation – the lecturers did not understand my situation”. So, I think the lecturers need to understand the situation in which their graduate students will be working in and then build that into the content and the procedures they introduce in the classroom. They have to design the programme to fit their context.

Laxmi: Any final words that you’d like to share with the readers of our blog?

David Nunan: I would like to say that it’s important for teachers to see themselves as educators first and then teachers of language. Particularly if you’re teaching children in schools, you’re responsible for the whole child not just their intellectual development. You should help in their emotional and social development as well. So, it is very important to see yourself as someone who is developing the whole child. Whether you’re teaching Mathematics or English or Geography or History in some ways is the secondary consideration but you need to be looking at the child himself or herself and thinking about the child first before you think about the actual subject matter you’re teaching.

Laxmi: Yes, that’s a nice statement! Thank you Professor for your time for the interview! It was a real pleasure talking to you!


One response

  1. Honored to be reading the interview with Dr. Nunan! Will be back soon at some point for a re-read! Many thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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