Monthly Archives: February 2009

Henry G. Widdowson

The NNEST of the Month
February 2009

henry [dot] widdowson [at] univie [dot] ac [dot] at
Ana Wu: Could you tell us your background and how you became interested in being an educator?
Prof. Widdowson: I was born and brought up in Leicester, a nondescript city in the English midlands which is unlikely to figure on any tourist itinerary.. My father had a small building repair business and my mother kept the accounts. I attended a local grammar school and like many others of the same background was the first of the family to go on to university. My parents were impressed by the achievement, and so was I, particularly since the university was Cambridge – that revered and mystical seat of learning quite remote from our reality and belonging to another world that seemed beyond our aspiration. So off I went in 1953 to study English literature at King’s College, immensely proud, but apprehensive too, uncertain as to what awaited me there. One thing, however, I was sure about: that there was no human activity more important than the exercise of the mind, especially when applied to literature. Though my teachers at school were by no means uniformly expert in their craft, and some were distinctly idiosyncratic in their methods, they all seemed to me to represent an intellectual authority and this I greatly admired. At Cambridge, the teachers were even more impressive. They gave lectures of remarkable, and apparently effortless, erudition, did something called research and wrote books. They inspired me to emulate them. I got hooked on education.
Ana Wu: As an internationally acclaimed authority in applied linguistics and language teaching, what advice would you give to professors who want to engage their students in critical inquiry about the English language and expose them to world varieties of English?
Prof. Widdowson: The first thing perhaps is to encourage them to be skeptical about the advice of any authority, especially if it is acclaimed. It seems to me that the purpose of education is to get people to think critically about their customary ways of thinking and doing things. Education, to my mind, is essentially subversive. There has been a tendency in our profession to be too submissive to authority and to be too readily persuaded by ‘expert’ opinion. Teachers, of course, need to be informed about ideas of potential relevance to their practice, but they also have to enquire into how these ideas can be realized as relevant in their own local circumstances. So English teachers need to know about the English language and how it is variously developing in encoded form and communicative function as an international language but in order to think through what bearing all this has on the subject they teach. The English language has now been appropriated as an international means of communication and can no longer be considered the exclusive property of its native speakers. So since the language has been subjected to change, should the language subject not be changed too? Whatever the answer to that question, it should come as the result of thinking that is both informed and critical. Teachers, in other words, need to theorize about their practice. That does not mean accepting a particular theory or set of received ideas, and nor does it mean rejecting them out of hand. It means getting clear what these ideas are and establishing their pedagogic relevance.
Ana Wu: Your article “The Ownership of English” (TESOL Quarterly 28, 377-89, 1995) is often cited in NNEST issue publications. What do you think of the NS-NNS dichotomy? What is the accurate definition of a native speaker? What do you think speakers will be called in the future?
Prof. Widdowson: Nobody seems to be entirely sure what a native speaker of English is, and certainly none of the definitions have come across seem to be satisfactory. The curious thing is, however, that the absence of any clear definition does not prevent people from invoking the concept as if it were clearly defined. So we hear a good deal about native speaker norms that non-native speakers do not conform to, but we look in vain for any specification of this norm. Traditionally, it has been equated with the kind of English which has been sanctioned as standard on the authority of reference grammars and, to a lesser extent, dictionaries, but these too are based on an appeal to some intuitive notion of the ‘educated native speaker’. With the advent of corpus linguistics, the notion of the norm now relates not to what is grammatical but to the patterns of performance, the language that is attested as having been actually produced – again by this mythical creature the ‘educated native speaker’. Obviously enough, if you cannot define what a NS is, you cannot define what a NNS is either, so there is no dichotomy. And this is just as well. For if you accept that English has now been appropriated as an international means of communication, there seems to be reason why certain groups of its users, who are actually in the minority, should be identified as having some privileged status and providing a norm against which the language of all other users should be negatively evaluated. As you say, I talk about this is the article you mention. I also discuss it in my (not so often cited) book ‘Defining Issues in English Language Teaching’ which relates this ownership issue to others which I think are of crucial importance for TESOL.
Ana Wu: In terms of studies in the fields of NNEST and World Englishes, what topics do you think need further research? Are there issues where NNES professionals could best contribute using their background as a resource? What kind of research is still missing?
Prof. Widdowson: The term ‘World Englishes’, like the journal that bears that name, is usually restricted to those varieties of English adopted and adapted for intra-national communal use in ‘Outer Circle’ ex-colonial countries like India and Nigeria. The idea that the much more extensive use of English in the world as an inter-national lingua franca – ELF – might also be included has only recently, and reluctantly, been given any serious consideration. The common view is that ELF users are simply unsuccessful learners, no matter how successful they may be as communicators, and so should not be encouraged but corrected. Gradually, however, the recognition that ELF is a legitimate use of English in its own right is gaining ground, and research into how it functions is already well under way, notably in the VOICE project here in Vienna directed by Barbara Seidlhofer. More descriptive research on ELF will be needed, and careful consideration given to its possible pedagogic implications, but it is already obvious that this global appropriation and exploitation of English in the world cannot just be ignored or dismissed.NNESTs are, of course, ELF users and have often been made to feel inadequate for that reason, aware that their English may not in all respects measure up to NS norms, whatever these may be. They have also often- too often – been persuaded that these supposed imperfections of language necessarily reduce their competence and credibility as language teachers. There is a firmly held conviction in our profession that knowing the language as a native speaker bestows upon you an authority to pronounce on how it should be taught. So it is that NESTs will frequently appoint themselves experts as advisers, teacher trainers and even teacher trainer trainers simply by virtue of the fact that they are NESTs, apparently with no other credentials except this and their experience. This results in the curious paradox that people who are notorious for their failure to learn foreign languages (ie native speakers of English) claim a special expertise in teaching a foreign language when it happens to be English. But there can be no basis for this claim, for the fact is, of course, that NESTs have no experience whatever of English as a foreign language. NNESTs, on the other hand, do – and it is this experience that they have in common with their students. So in this respect they have a natural advantage over NEST teachers – their background serves as a particularly relevant pedagogic resource. This, by the way, is another issue I discuss in the book I have mentioned.Ana Wu: Besides being the Applied Linguistics adviser to Oxford University Press and series adviser of Oxford Bookworms Collection, you continue publishing and giving presentations around the world. What keeps you inspired and motivated?
Prof. Widdowson: I am actually not all that active these days, as retirement sets in. But I still enjoy engaging with other people’s minds and exploring what it is that motivates their way of thinking and doing things. I still give presentations from time to time because I persist in the belief that my own way of thinking about TESOL is still relevant. Whether that belief is widely shared is another matter. The ideas of other people continue to be a source of inspiration – especially when I disagree with them.Ana Wu: Thank you for your time and insightful interview!