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Who’s the expert?

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At every ELT conference, there are plenary speakers. At major conferences, these are often “big” names who are well known in the field. The reason for their fame is normally either that they have published a lot of books or done a lot of research on language learning, language teaching, or both. They are acknowledged “experts” in the field, which is, of course, why they get invited to be plenary speakers in the first place.

Over the years, I have noticed a couple of things about plenary speakers. The first, I’m afraid to say, is that a great many of them turn out to be a major disappointment. In some cases, they are poorly prepared; in others, they have nothing new or of interest to say. In a surprising number of cases, they are simply very bad at public speaking!

The second thing I have noticed about the most famous experts in our field is that an astonishing number of them are monolingual. In other words, they are afforded expert status in the study of an area in which they have failed to achieve any degree of success at all. I think I have mentioned before that in a talk I saw given by one very famous researcher, he opened with the admission that, “I have never been much good at learning languages myself.”

In case any readers are getting hot under the collar at this point, I wish to make it quite clear that I am not saying that people like this professor do not have expertise in the field; they clearly do. Nor am I suggesting that people like that are not suitable candidates to be plenary speakers at our conferences; clearly, they are. What I am saying however, is that conference organizers seem to be ignoring a rather important category of people from whom we would appear to have a lot to learn – successful language learners.

Last week, I started reading a book that was recommended to me by an American friend. This is a man who speaks four languages himself (English, French, Japanese, and Korean), so I take his recommendations for reading material very seriously. The book is called “Fluent Forever,” and it was written by an opera singer called Gabriel Wyner. In the book, Mr. Wyner describes how he learned to speak six languages over a remarkably short period of time. (Check out this video to see for yourself if you doubt his claims.)

I have only read the first chapter of the book so far, but so much of the advice makes perfect sense to me as a language learner that I am very much looking forward to reading the rest.

Last weekend, I found myself once again at a teaching conference here in Japan. At that conference, I bumped into an old friend whom I shall call Ms. A. Ms. A teaches English at a university in Japan, and she is known within certain circles, but she does not have a PhD, and she could certainly not be described as an internationally renowned expert. I cannot imagine her at this point in her career receiving an invitation to be a plenary speaker at a major conference.

But here’s the thing: Ms. A is extraordinarily good at learning languages. She was born in Uzbekistan, and so her first languages are Uzbek and Russian. Despite never having lived in an English-speaking country, her English is of a level that would have you wondering whether she might actually be a native speaker. After graduating from university in her home country, she moved to Japan, where of course, she became fluent in the language within a year. Her children were born here, and that is the only language she uses with them at home. Just for good luck, she also speaks Turkish and a bit of German, although I’m not exactly sure where she picked those up.

It seems to me a bit perverse that we give so much weight to the advice and opinions of people who, in many cases, have never actually been able to learn a language themselves whilst at the same time completely ignoring incredibly successful learners who could give us definitive answers to many of the questions that researchers spend so much time, effort, and money investigating.

The book I mentioned above seems to have done very well in terms of general sales, but I have never come across any reference to it in an academic paper. The reason for this is clearly that qualifications matter. “Experts” are people who have PhDs in researching how something is done, not the people who actually know how to do it. Does this not strike anyone else as strange? Next time you have a chance, ask a non-teacher what kind of person they would expect to be a plenary speaker at a conference on language teaching and learning. What skills would they expect a person like that to have? I suspect that the word “polyglot” would appear on many people’s list!

Some of the plenary talks I have seen over the years have been excellent, but a great many have been extremely disappointing and, quite frankly, a waste of time. If anyone out there is planning a conference, by all means invite some interesting “experts,” but please also give some thought to inviting one or two successful language learners. There are millions of them out there! Choose people who speak a lot of languages, people who have learned languages particularly quickly or well, or people who have learned languages successfully in unfavourable environments. They may not have the academic status of the more famous speakers, but you will probably find their presentations far more useful and relevant for practicing teachers and learners. I suspect that as an international best-selling author and opera singer, Mr. Wyner would probably be a very expensive speaker to invite, but I happen to know that Ms. A is both willing and available, so please let me know if you would like to get in touch!
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