An Interview with ... Hugh Dellar
Hugh Dellar is a teacher and teacher trainer at the University of Westminster, London. He is also the co-author of the General English coursebook series, Innovations. His main interests revolve around teaching naturall useful language. He previously taught in Indonesia and has given papers, workshops and teacher training courses all over the world. In March 2006 he led a very successful seminar for MATEFL. There were two different workshops which were 'New routes to fluency: phrasebooks, coursebooks and teaching Spoken English' and 'Five Golden Rules' (of teaching). Shortly after the seminar Hugh met with MATEFL newsletter editor, Julia Pearson, and kindly agreed to this interview.
How and why did you choose to go into EFL teaching?
It was really just a lucky accident, to be honest. I did English Lit for my degree, with no real view to a career. I'd been in a vaguely semi-professional band since I was 16, and the year I graduated that all collapsed. I then drifted around doing horrific jobs in factories and on building sites for a year or so before deciding I really needed a break from London and that I was ready for a spot of travelling. I decided to work and save up and go, but in the midst of all this, an old friend I'd known from my band days, Julian, arrived back in the UK after a stint in Indonesia and, over a pint one evening, essentially managed to twist my arm into following him down the teaching road. I believe the clincher was when I claimed I could never be a teacher because I'd hated most of my teachers at school and Julian said, "Well, that's the best reason there is to become a teacher. Look at it as a form of revenge!" And so it came to pass!
You are involved in various aspects of the EFL business: teaching; teacher training; lecturing; writing books. If you had to choose just one of these, which would you choose and why?
This is a no-brainer for me. I'd take the day-to-day teaching over all other areas of what I do any day. I love being in the classroom. I get many of my ideas from what happens whilst teaching; I love meeting all the different people; I love the craftsman-like feeling of learning to do the same thing over and over again, but honing the way I do it ever so slightly every time; and I love the interaction, the humour, the banter, the warmth - and the feeling of satisfaction that comes from teaching.
Which is your favourite area of language teaching?
I don't really have one, or think of things like that, but I guess I generally derive most pleasure in class from going through lexis - whether it be from vocab exercises or from texts or whatever. I find this involves real teaching, and I like the board work that ensues and the interaction with the class as you ask questions about the language being looked at. Then the personalized practice side is always fun as well.
Which is your least favourite area?
Well, the stuff I used to hate doing most were endless grammar exercises seemingly only designed to make life hard for students - discussing the subtle differences in meaning between sentences you'd never even heard anyone ever say anyway, having to lecture on what exactly was 'stative' about so-called 'stative verbs' in sentences like 'I see what you mean' - and so on. That said, I basically just abandoned that whole side of my grammar teaching years ago!
Do you have a favourite level?
Again, not really. I've always been happy to teach whoever is thrown in front of me, but I guess there is more satisfaction to be gained from teaching Elementary and Pre-Int, as you get to see the progress more clearly and there's more of a sense of everyone being all together in the same boat than you sometimes get with the higher levels. That said, some of my most memorable classes have been my CPE exam classes, so there you go!
I believe you speak other languages ... which languages do you speak?
Pretty respectable Indonesian, a smattering of French, absolute survival level Spanish and about twenty words of Japanese!
Did learning a foreign language help you become a better EFL teacher?
Undoubtedly so, yes. I think that the way I learned Indonesian - predominantly out of class and on the street, learning whole chunks, sentences, and conversations and then getting the chance to practise similar conversations time and time again - allowed me to attain a fairly decent degree of communicative fluency quite quickly, and also ensured both accuracy and fluency, albeit within admittedly limited contexts to begin with. This in turn made me reflect on the problems my students were having attaining anything like a similar degree of fluency, and made me start to cast a critical eye on such aspects of ELT as the separation of grammar and lexis, the general obsession with sentence-level - rather than text-level - language, the reluctance of materials to recycle conversations and revisit topics, and so on. Later on, many of these ideas led me into the world of coursebook writing.
Did being a language teacher make you critical of the way you were being taught a foreign language?
Not at that point, because, as I said before, I wasn't learning my language in a classroom. Later on, though, when I made several attempts to learn Japanese in a classroom situation, then yes, being a teacher actually made it almost impossible for me to just sit back and enjoy the ride, such as it was. I was constantly getting irked by choices the teacher was making.
Which country have you most enjoyed teaching in?
Well, given that I've actually only ever really taught in Indonesia and England, I'm not really in a position to answer this one. I have given workshops and done conferences and so on all over the world, but it's only those two I feel qualified to really comment on - and I love them both!
From your experience which nationality has the most difficulty in learning English?
I don't think it's really fair to view things in that way as so much to do with success in language learning comes down to opportunity, personal motivation, teaching and so on, rather than any supposed national characteristics. Having said that, I think there are certain cultural / political / historical reasons that impact upon the generally poor level of language in certain countries, as well as linguistic reasons. For instance, to make a gross generalization, I sometimes find both my Spanish and Italian students struggle to really get much past Intermediate. I think the problem often is that they go into cruise control due to the similarities of the language, rely on being able to use language transferal - and cease to really pay attention to how English is actually different from other Latin-based languages. There may also be some sub-conscious feeling on not really wanting to get too immersed in the language too.
Japan also seems to have real issues, especially given how incredibly motivated most Japanese students seem to be. I think there are some issues surrounding mono-lingual Japanese classrooms, and the teaching styles that predominate in high schools there, that make fluent language use tricky, and that becomes exacerbated by the well-meaning but misguided attempts to then treat Japanese students as some kind of special cases when they venture over to Europe.
You lead a very busy life, what do you like to do in your spare time?
Sleep!! I also watch the mighty Arsenal FC whenever I can, which occasionally becomes a pleasurable experience; I cook a lot and like learning about food; I read a lot; I still try and study Indonesian when I get the chance; I'm a fairly obsessive collector of 60s and 70s psych / jazz / soul / library / pop records and do the odd bit of DJ-ing; I watch obscure art-house flicks at the cinema; I sit in pubs with friends and drink and gabble. The usual, really!
Are you planning another book? If so what is the subject this time?
My co-author, Andrew Walkley, and I have actually just started work on another series. It's looking like it'll be another 5-level General English series. We're aiming for it to take the main ideas behind Innovations and move that closer to the market mainstream. We've also got half a theory book done, and that should hopefully one day see the light!
What are your reactions to Malta in general and Maltese EFL teachers in particular?
Malta is an interesting place, in terms of ELT, as English is so central to the islands. I found that there still seems to be a deep-rooted reliance on the old Headway / Murphy's approach in many of the private language schools, and a general innate conservatism to the market there, based primarily on financial imperatives, and a feeling of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' towards implementing change. There's also the fact that many, many teachers seem fairly settled in Malta, and there's less of the constant coming-and-going that other schools elsewhere may have, thus perhaps less flux and friction. On a more personal level, the people I met in Malta were lovely.
Do you have any advice to give the profession in Malta?
As a coursebook writer, my advice would obviously be entirely self-serving and would revolve around urging you to use Innovations in your classrooms. Given this, it's best to simply follow Bob Dylan's splendid advice and suggest you simply keep a good head - and always carry a light bulb.
Will you be coming back to Malta in the foreseeable future?
I honestly don't know. I would love to, as I have really enjoyed it. It usually all depends on my being invited, of course (hint, hint!!)
Finally, what are your thoughts on the future of EFL?
Blimey! You've saved the killer question till the end!! Given my appalling failure to predict football scores, this is a big ask! My crystal ball is pretty cracked in general, but I think some general trends will be ... fewer and fewer young native-speaker graduates will go into the profession and British ELT in particular will become an increasingly ageing field; the level of English spoken around the world will continue to rise and the standard of non-native speaker teachers will continue to rise along with it; the white elephant that is EFL / 'Globish' will lumber around aimlessly before stumbling to its death; materials will become more country and market specific, and will eventually move away from the Headway template; the CEF (Common European Framework), despite being a potentially revolutionary document, will continue to be misunderstood and marginal.