Peter Lowenberg

 Peter

Peter Lowenberg is professor emeritus of San Jose State University. Before his retirement he was a professor in SJSU’s Department of Linguistics and Language Development, having taught courses in general linguistics, sociolinguistics, TESOL methodology and materials, language testing, and World Englishes (WE) and English as an international language (EIL). He has also worked in the field of language testing having served on the Committee of Examiners for the TOEFL and the Research Committee for the TOEIC and also having conducted workshops and seminars on language testing in several European, Asian, and Latin American countries. His publications include journal articles and chapters in the areas of World Englishes, language testing, language contact, and language policy and literacy. He has been interested and active in the WE/EIL and NNEST subfields of TESOL since the 1980s and has given numerous seminars and conference presentations on both of these subfields. E-mail address: lowenber@ix.netcom.com | January Interviewer: Terry Doyle

  1. Thank you for accepting my invitation to be interviewed for our NNEST of the Month blog. First, could you tell us about your educational and academic background? What did you study as an undergraduate and graduate student? I notice from reading your San Jose State University web page that you studied at the University of California Berkeley in the late 1960s. (I was also an undergraduate there at the same time in the English department and later in the linguistics department as a graduate student.) Did you take any classes in the linguistics department? How did you become interested in the field on English language teaching?

First of all, thank you very much for inviting me to be interviewed.  I studied sociology at Berkeley in the 60s with the intention of becoming a juvenile probation officer so that I could help young people who had gotten in trouble with the police.  At the time, I didn’t even know that there was a field called linguistics.  After I graduated, I worked as a juvenile hall counselor and then as a probation officer trainee for the city of Oakland, where I discovered that in those roles there wasn’t much that I could do for the kids that I wanted to help.  So I changed professions and worked for three years on land survey crews until I could figure out what to do with my life.  Then I found out that there was a field called TESOL and that San Francisco State University (SFSU) had a master’s degree program in it.  While at Berkeley, I had spent my junior year abroad in Japan, where I’d enjoyed teaching English in part-time “arubaito” positions, so I decided to enroll in the SFSU program and immediately fell in love with the field.  After completing the master’s degree, I joined the staff of the American Language Institute intensive English program at SFSU, where I taught and advised students for several years.

  1. Your interest in the topic of WE/EIL seems to have started in the early 1980s, or perhaps before, as I notice that you published articles about testing non-native proficiency (Lowenberg, 1982) at that time. In fact, Brad Kachru (cited in Jenkins, 2007) jokingly referred to  Henry Widdowson as “the guru from the Inner Circle”  because of his well known article about the “ownership”  of the English language”(Widdowson, 1994).  But I notice that you were working on these issues a decade before this, so I think you should also be considered another “guru of the Inner Circle” or perhaps “guru of the Inner Circle: West.”  How did you become interested in WE/EIL issues and specifically in testing non-native proficiency and nativization?  How have your ideas on these topics evolved over the next three or four decades?

I have hardly been a “guru” of any type.  My interest in WE/EIL issues developed during 1978-80, when I was working in Indonesia as director of the EFL program for the United States-Indonesia Binational Center in Surabaya.  In that position, two questions gradually began to bother me.  First, why were the few native English speakers on my staff, who had no formal teacher training and relatively little experience in TESOL, being paid a much higher salary than were the Indonesian teachers, who all had college degrees and much more experience in English teaching?  Second, why did the curriculum and teaching materials that we were using seem irrelevant for the English-using needs of the majority of our Indonesian students?  I found answers to these questions in the work on non-native varieties of English by Braj B. Kachru, so at the conclusion of my contract in Indonesia, I began my doctoral studies in linguistics under him at the University of Illinois.  As Professor Kachru’s student and graduate assistant, I did research on the forms and functions of English in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, particularly on the ways that the norms for Standard English in each of those countries have become “nativized” to fit the non-native sociolinguistic and cultural contexts of English use.  My interest in testing non-native proficiency developed later as I discovered that the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), though it purports to reflect how English is actually used by both native and non-native speakers around the world, is based entirely on American norms for Standard English.

  1. In the 1980s and 1990s you seemed to feel, like others, that nativization occurred in Outer Circle countries, but not in Expanding Circle countries, so that norms for English learning, use, and testing were still those of the Inner Circle. But in your chapter in Aya Matsuda’s book (2012), “Assessing proficiency in EIL” your position has changed so that you now believe that nativization also occurs in Expanding Circle countries. Am I right? Can you explain further the implications of this for testing in Expanding Circle countries? What are the prospects for a Global Test of English?  What would such a test look like?

Earlier research on nativization focused on English usage in the Outer Circle—countries that were formerly colonized by Great Britain and the US, such as Nigeria, Kenya, India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, the Philippines, and Fiji.  In those post-colonial settings, as English continues to be used as a second, often official, language in non-Western sociocultural contexts, in constant contact with other languages, and in the relative absence of native speakers of English, non-native norms for English have become widely institutionalized in many domains, including, but not limited to, government and other legal documents, newspaper style manuals, the broadcast mass media, and standardized teaching materials and examinations in English-medium educational systems.  However, in recent years, research on English usage in several Expanding Circle countries, including much of Western Europe, Japan, Korea, and China, has identified non-native norms in many of these same domains, leading to the realization that Inner Circle norms are not blindly followed throughout the Expanding Circle and that valid test items in the Expanding Circle should reflect these local norms.  The more nativized norms are found to occur in non-native settings around the world, the less likely it is that a single test of English can be developed that will be valid in all of these settings.

  1. In your 2012 chapter, “Assessing proficiency in EIL”, you write “norms for Standard English are the linguistic forms that are actually used by institutions and individuals that have power and/or influence in the above domains of Standard English use.” (p. 87) In her chapter in the same book Ryuko Kubota also analyzes power issues in relation to WE/EIL issues.  )  How important is power and prestige in determining what the norm for testing is in Expanding Circle countries? 

The focus on forms that are actually used comes from Dell Hymes’ original (1971) conceptualization of communicative competence, his intent being to provide an empirical basis for sociolinguistic description rather than relying on the introspection of linguists.  In all of the three circles, for each domain in which Standard English is used, certain institutions and individuals have power, prestige, and/or influence over how English is used in that domain, such as the editorial staffs and writers of style manuals for major English-language newspapers, and writers and editors of English-language textbooks,  In the Expanding Circle, though to a lesser degree than in the Inner and Outer Circles, the usage of these institutions and individuals provides some of the norms for English testing.

  1. In your BIO in the book edited by Matsuda, it is stated that you have worked on the Committee of Examiners for the TOEFL and the Research Committee for the TOEIC.  I worked for ETS as a supervisor of proctors in the 1990s, and I found the trainers at meetings pretty rigid; in fact, I found ETS to be very conservative and not very willing to change. My goal was to make the procedures more humane and the whole atmosphere on exam day less stressful for examinees, but the trainers, at least those I met, didn’t seem to want to hear anything about this. I found that they treated the TOEFL examinees especially harshly, like they all wanted to cheat….something like passengers are treated nowadays in airports.  How likely do you feel that such a very conservative organization as ETS can change, accept the kind of changes that you and Canagarajah suggest: “to reflect accurately how English is actually used in the world today, tests of English as a world language must focus on more pragmatic and discourse features of Standard English”?  Also, in order to test learners’ English proficiency in in each country, shouldn’t tests be prepared in each country by experts in those countries? How likely is it that huge testing company like ETS will relinquish its economic interests?

The whole enterprise of language testing tends by its very nature to be conservative since from a broad range of possible language usage, it must selectively adhere to a narrower range of language norms, whether discrete point and norm-referenced or discoursal and criterion-referenced.  Perhaps as a result of this, agencies and institutions that administer large-scale standardized testing programs, such as ETS, tend likewise to be conservative. However, I have found ETS to be open to considering change.  In fact, I was appointed to the Research Committee for the TOEIC as a result of articles I wrote that were critical of the TOEIC.  On that committee, though I often differed in opinion with the ETS TOEIC staff, I found them to be quite open to my perspective, and in at least one case, they changed a test item type of which I had questioned the validity.

With regard to test security, experience has painfully taught ETS that cheating, often large-scale and extremely sophisticated, occurs frequently and must be guarded against vigilantly.  However, safeguards against cheating can always be implemented without sacrificing the dignity and comfort of the examinees, and I am certain that the ETS staff with whom I worked would be dismayed by the harsh treatment that you observed.

As for shifting the focus of testing to pragmatic and discourse features of Standard English, ETS has been working on this for at least the past quarter century, as reflected in the direct measurement of writing and speaking in the current TOEFL, but progress has been slow and incremental as they try to balance the quest for increased item validity with their traditional concern for reliability.

I agree with you that tests of English proficiency for use in each country should be prepared by experts in English language teaching and testing in that country, regardless of which circle that country is in.  However, a dilemma occurs in the construction of examinations of English proficiency that will have international validity and reliability, which is the goal of the TOEFL and TOEIC programs.  I have been arguing that test items in such examinations should be constructed and scored in ways that accommodate the broad range of norms that are found in varieties of English around the world.  For example, some problematic test item types involve prepositional collocations.  A test item that requires as a correct response the Standard American English construction to “agree on a solution to a problem” would not have international validity because in Standard British English, and perhaps in other varieties of Standard English found across the Three Circles, the correct response would be to “agree a solution to the problem.”

With regard to the economic interests of the large testing agencies, our central concern as educators should probably be the validity and fairness of the examinations that they administer rather than their willingness to relinquish these interests, over which we will never have any control.

  1. To change the subject, I think that error correction of students’ writing and proofreading and editing of writing by writers of English from other countries is related to the same issues you discuss in relation to assessment. I do quite a lot of proofreading of blog interviews for this NNEST of the Month blog, for example, and of papers for possible publication in journals or Ph.D. dissertations.  This writing is usually written by “non-native” writers. I always wonder (and indeed fret about) what corrections I should make and how I should explain the corrections I make. I don’t like to make too many corrections, especially in writing that is very logical and well organized (much better than I could write) but just contains small errors in morphosyntactic forms or vocabulary.  In research on error correction, the prevailing conventional wisdom is not to correct all “mistakes” but only global ones.  But if a person wants to publish a paper in a journal, the journal editors are going to be very strict, so as a proofreader, I must also be very strict.  Otherwise, the editor will respond to the draft with something like “Why don’t you have a native speaker read your paper, and then re-submit it?”  (I have seen this comment even after I have read the paper carefully or even for a paper that I co-authored just because the first author is a non-native. It made me laugh.) Also, there is the problem of my correcting things that I think are mistakes, but it turns out that they are special academic jargon that I don’t know or new phrases and idioms that are constantly coming into English. For example, just recently I learned a new (new to me, anyway) use of “check in”, meaning to “say hello and inquire about what’s new with a person.”  I hear that this phrase comes from its use on Facebook. In proofreading, I always worry that a “mistake” I correct is just something an old guy like me doesn’t know, but something that young people are using often. Have you had similar experiences in responding to the writing of your international MA TESOL students?  What advice do you have for me when I am proofreading NNEST of the Month interviews, papers for possible publication in journals, and Ph.D. dissertation drafts?

In answering your question, I’m reminded of a distinction that Henry Widdowson made long ago between “learning needs” and “target needs” in language teaching.  In correcting the errors or mistakes of English language learners, I think we need to consider the purpose of their writing.  If they are completing classroom writing assignments as part of the development of their English language proficiency, then we consider their learning needs and make corrections selectively, depending on their level of English proficiency and the strategy of correction that is most likely to enhance their language acquisition.

However, in working with international MA TESOL students, I focused on their target needs, which were to qualify as TESOL professionals teaching writing themselves or getting their own work published.  In these latter cases, I always held the students to the highest standards and demanded that their work be as nearly free of errors as I expected from the American graduate students.  I felt that not to do so would eventually put the international students at a competitive disadvantage since their future employers, Ph.D. committees, and journal and book editors would expect them to be writing in nearly error-free Standard English.

That said, in making corrections, I tried to be cognizant of the possibility that deviations from the norms of Standard American English in these students’ writing, whether at the intra-sentential or discourse level, could be the result of nativized norms that they had been taught in their learning of English prior to coming to the United States.  For example, the pluralization of certain mass nouns that comprise aggregates of countable units, such as equipments, luggages, and furnitures, is normative in several non-native varieties of English in the Outer and Expanding Circles.  When I encountered such constructions in my students’ writing, I tried to point out to the students that while these constructions did not necessarily reflect deficiencies in their acquisition of English, the target audiences of their writing might well consider them to be deviant and wrong.

  1. To change the subject again, you were a professor in the San Jose State University MA TESOL program for many years. How important do you feel it is for MA TESOL students, especially international students, but also US-born students, to know about NNEST and WE/EIL issues? Also, the idea of hiring more NNESTs for teaching positions in TESOL programs and therefore increasing their visibility in the field of TESOL and in the education of ESL teachers came up in a study by Liao (2012), and I asked Liao a question about this in my interview of her for the NNEST of the Month blog (February, 2013). Do you think that MA TESOL programs in the United States should make an effort to hire more professors who have done research and written dissertations and articles about NNEST issues? Also, do you think these MA TESOL programs should hire some professors who are themselves NNESTs so that they can be role models to the many international MA TESOL students enrolling in MA TESOL programs in the United States?

I believe it is extremely important for all MA TESOL students to know about NNEST and WE/EIL issues, given that approximately 80% of the world’s English users and by far the majority of the world’s English teachers are non-native speakers of English.  For the international students, familiarity with these facts can reverse their traditional self-image as second-class members of the TESOL profession and enable them to see themselves as the vanguard of change in the profession.  For the US-born students, they can begin to see their international classmates and future colleagues as true equals.  For all MA TESOL students, familiarity with these issues will enhance their future effectiveness as TESOL instructors, including the ability to begin to differentiate acquisitional errors and performance mistakes from possible nativized norms in their students’ deviations from the norms of Standard American English.

With these objectives in mind, having faculty with research experience in NNEST issues will be beneficial to MA TESOL programs as these faculty will be better equipped to teach about these issues, to direct NNEST-related research by their graduate students, and to share their knowledge and experience with their colleagues.  Of course, there are many other areas of expertise required for MA TESOL faculty members, so research experience in NNEST issues shouldn’t be a sole criterion for faculty hires.  Similarly, as Liao has pointed out, NNEST faculty members in MA TESOL programs can provide extremely effective role models for international MA TESOL students and can enhance the credibility of non-native speakers among their NEST faculty colleagues.  I think that one of the true strengths of our MA TESOL program at San Jose State University has been the large number of NNESTs on our faculty.  However, once again, I don’t believe that being an NNEST should be the main criterion in a faculty hire.  Specializations in sub-fields of TESOL, such as curriculum design, materials development, and teaching methodology, are equally important.

  1. Many of this blog’s readers are graduate students studying applied linguistics and TESL in the United States and around the world. What advice would you give young graduate students, especially international students, based on your experiences of working with MA TESOL students for many years? What advice would you give young international Ph.D. students who are preparing for an academic career and preparing to search for their first job either in the United States or back in their home countries? For example, how important is it that they publish before they begin their job search?  Can you suggest journals where young scholars can publish?

For native-English-speaking MA TESOL students, I would advise them to get substantial overseas teaching experience as soon as possible, as this will provide them a more accurate picture of why and how English is learned and used around the world and will also make them more attractive to prospective employers both at home and in other countries.  For international MA TESOL students planning to teach in their home or other countries, I would advise them to consider the content of their MA courses, such as teaching methodology and curriculum design, as possibilities rather than categorical truths about teaching English that will apply everywhere in the world.  Why and how to teach English vary significantly across sociolinguistic and cultural contexts, and there may be important reasons—including historical, political, economic, and sociological–not to apply unquestioningly what they have been taught in their MA courses.  I found this to be the case when I was teaching English and doing program administration in Indonesia.

For all Ph.D. students, both American and international, it has become critical to have some publications, particularly refereed publications, when they begin their job search.  Faculty hiring committees want the candidates they hire to get tenure, and candidates’ “track record” of publications is important evidence that they will be able to publish sufficiently to be granted tenure.  Having publications “in press” is usually sufficient as long as there is proof that the work will be published.  In my case, this meant that my choice of a thesis adviser was extremely important since this was the person with whom I did my most important early research and who guided me in getting it published.  Of course, the best journals in which to publish depend on one’s field of specialization.  In the case of world Englishes and English as an international language, two good journals are English Today and World Englishes.  Before writing an article for these or other journals, it’s important to read those journals in depth to get a good idea of the type of work, including topics and research methodologies, that they publish.  The editors and referees of those journals are the immediate audience for whom you are writing in order to get published.

  1. I know that teaching is a very rewarding profession. What memorable experiences do you have as a teacher and professor during your career?

My most memorable experiences are when my students taught me new things or forced me to be more rigorous in my thinking about old things.  One occasion that I particularly remember was when I was teaching a freshman course in linguistics during the spring semester of 1985, my first year as an assistant professor at Georgetown University.  I had recently finished my graduate studies and, as was the gospel at that time, I was convinced that generative linguistics and cognitive psychology offered an explanation for the speed of child language acquisition that earlier approaches to structural linguistics and behavioral psychology could not.  One of the students questioned this on the basis of the lack of actual empirical evidence that I was providing.  His observation didn’t change my mind on this issue, but it did force me to research for more empirical data to provide in future classroom presentations on this topic.

More recently, when I was teaching a course on sociolinguistics at San Jose State University, one of the students pointed out a dialect difference between northern and southern California that I had previously been unaware of: that in spoken English, numbered highways in much of southern California tend to be preceded by the whereas numbered highways in northern California are not.  For example, in southern California, direction givers are likely to instruct a driver to “take the 101 to Ventura,” while in northern California, direction givers are likely to instruct a driver to “take 101 to San Jose.”  Since we had just been discussing William Labov’s methodology for studying the occurrence of post-vocalic [r] among English speakers in New York City, as a class, we designed a quantitative study to identify the dialect boundary for the occurrence of the before numbered highways in California.  Two of the students undertook pilot studies by using the telephone to ask respondents throughout California for directions to local franchises of a restaurant chain (this was before Google maps!).  The requests for directions were made in such a way that the respondents had to include numbered highways in their responses. Based on over 200 such requests for directions, the students concluded that the boundary for the occurrence of the before numbered highways in California was roughly a diagonal line between the towns of San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield.  We never published the results of this study, but I was impressed with the resourcefulness of my students and began to realize that I could learn just as much from my students as they could from me.

  1. Like me, you are now retired.  I find that some people after they retire like to do things totally different from their lifetime work.  Others like to continue their work into their retirement, but just cut back.  In my case, I don’t really want to teach (somebody suggested that I could do volunteer teaching) anymore, but I am very happy that I have time now to read all the books and articles (like those you have written)  that I never had time to read when I was teaching ESL and preparing lessons every day. But I am also spending time to travel a lot with my wife. How about you?  Are you continuing your research and your participation in the field that you have spent the past 4 or 5 decades in?  How do you spend your time to enjoy your retirement?

I’ve actually tried to continue my participation in the profession.  I’ve recently written a book review on a volume analyzing English language policies in South, Southeast, and East Asia, and I look forward to writing more such reviews.  I’ve also spent the past year helping to edit the first three volumes of The Collected Works of Braj B. Kachru, which will be published soon by Bloomsbury Press.  I’ve continued teaching as a part-time volunteer reading tutor for Spanish-dominant elementary school students in Half Moon Bay, California, which I’ve found to be a great deal of fun and a totally refreshing change from higher education.  Other volunteer activities, which I’ve found extremely rewarding, have been serving as the vice-president of Coastside Hope, the primary safety-net social services non-government organization on the San Mateo County coast, and working as a docent on one of the coastal trails just south of Half Moon Bay.  Hiking and bicycling round out my days.  So far, my wife and I have traveled to the Philippines, Thailand, Japan, and China, and we’re currently planning a trip to Spain.  In sum, as is true of so many other retirees, I find that I’m actually busier and doing more things now than I did when I was working.

References

Jenkins, J. (2007) English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kubota, R. (2012) The Politics of EIL: Toward border-crossing communication in and beyond English.  In Matsuda, A. (Ed.) (2012) Principles and Practices of Teaching English as an International
Language
. Buffalo: Multilingual Matters

Lowenberg, P. (2012) Assessing Proficiency in EIL. In Matsuda, A. (Ed.) (2012) Principles and Practices of Teaching English as an International Language. Buffalo: Multilingual Matters

Matsuda, A. (Ed.) (2012) Principles and Practices of Teaching English as an International Language. Buffalo: Multilingual Matters

Widdowson, H.D. The ownership of English. TESOL Quarterly. 28/2: 377-89

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About Terry Michael Grayling

I was an ESL teacher at City College of San Francisco for 34 years. Now I live near the campus of the University of Oregon in Eugene where I read a lot, am working a book on EIL issues for specifically for new MA TESOL students, and work on the NNEST of the month blog and other activities related to NNEST and EIL issues, and enjoy exercising and taking walks.

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