Spinning yarns on PAC7@JALT2008

Writer(s): 
Alan S. Mackenzie, Regional Project Teacher Training Manager, British Council East Asia

 

Caroline Latham’s call for papers for the Pan Asian Consortium’s seventh conference, hosted by JALT this year, was one of the most intelligent calls I had read in a very long time. So often, conference descriptors are so loose as to be completely meaningless, acting as a cover-all for any-old-piece-of-tat presentation about "my favourite lesson" to get into the programme. The obverse is rarely true: a tightly-knit description that focuses presenters on a theme that creates a consistent programme that explores different aspects of a big idea without being so tight as to exclude breathing space.

To my mind, Caroline’s call is a masterpiece of framing within which all the presenters could find their own threads and coordinate their own patterns. When I was asked about plenary speakers for the conference, I went through my own artistic process. How could I choose the best people to represent the themes of shared identity and interweaving of cultures within Asia?

David Graddol immediately came to mind. As the author of English Next, David has a global perspective but also, having worked extensively in the Asian region, he has firsthand experience of most of the countries represented in PAC and can talk knowledgably about language development in those countries. He can see the big picture and knows which threads to highlight to make the pattern clear to his audience. This he did with great flair, setting a context within which other presenters could refer back to his masterful weave, and many did. In fact, the delegation from the Philippines Association for Language Teaching completely refocused their conference theme for 2009 based on his plenary. It is rare within conferences to see such a strong impact from an individual presentation, but David’s messages are so strong that they have the power to change the fabric of our understanding of the place of English in the world and the way in which English language learning and teaching is developing. If you have not yet read English Next, please go to <www.britishcouncil.org/learning-research-englishnext.htm> to download it for free.

Elementary school is where our basic sociolinguistic and societal patterns are set. With English moving into lower and lower grade levels across the region, it made sense to find a researcher examining these trends and looking at teaching practices across cultures. Yuko Goto Butler is the region’s premier researcher in primary English language learning. She is one of the few people conducting such cross-cultural empirical studies in this area. Her presentations deftly intertwined the differences and similarities between Korea, Japan and Taiwan and clearly highlighted issues for further exploration in assessment of young learners (a very controversial area) and appropriate pedagogical models for elementary school English.

With the Global English Project heading full tilt towards the goal of embedding English as a basic skill within the curriculum of most Asian countries, the question of what form of English to learn/teach becomes very important. No longer is it (and perhaps it never was) the simple choice between American and British English. When I first heard Andy Kirkpatrick speak about English as a Lingua Franca or International Language, I was very happy to finally see that the profession was recognising the diversity of forms of English in the world. As a "non-standard" speaker of "British English" myself, I have always conflicted with textbooks that present a middle class southern England "norm" that very few Brits actually speak.

For practitioners, Andy raised some difficult and important questions about what we should be teaching, what learners should be learning, what is most useful to them and what models we should be using as the basis for international communication. In Asia, when we consider that 80% of communication in English is between non-native English speakers, what is the point of using a native speaker model which hardly any of these speakers is going to achieve? The goal of competent bilinguals is to communicate with other competent bilinguals, not a guy from Aberdeen in Scotland or girl from Birmingham, Alabama: two very different native speaker models. Andy’s field of research is cutting edge and points the way to a very different view of learning and teaching English which is only just beginning to emerge. We can see the big picture and tease out a few of the threads but the details of the weave are still emerging and it is the audience who at some point in the future will be able to contribute to the formation of what promises to be a very interesting and dynamic reformulation of our teaching loom.

This PAC/JALT conference was highly fulfilling for me as a Conference Co-chair. Noting how well presenters crafted their presentation descriptions to the themes, and how often plenary presentations were referred to within the parallel sessions, and the comments of the Asian Youth Forum delegates all showed me how tightly woven this conference had become. In essence we all achieved Caroline’s vision of coming together to share our threads and weave a pattern of intercultural understanding across the region that acknowledges and celebrates our diversity but also brings to the fore the common underlying weft that binds us all together.

Thank you all for a truly great conference experience.

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