Tuesday, February 14, 2012

An Interview with Marc Helgesen

Marc Helgesen
Marc Helgesen is a professor in the Department of Intercultural Studies at Miyagi Gakuin Women's College, Sendai. He's taught in Japan since 1982 and is an author of many ELT books including the 'English Firsthand' series, 'Office File', 'Travel File' (Longman ELT) and the 'Active Listening' series (Cambridge University Press).

Q: What brought you to Japan? A: Like so many people, I didn't plan on teaching EFL, I sort of happened into it. I was teaching adult education/reading in a prison in the US. I started working with the Hispanics who didn't speak English. That created the need to go to grad school to find out about ESL. Prison wasn't some place you want to spend your whole life -- not a totally original observation -- so after getting my degree I decided a couple years abroad would be good. That was 18 years ago!

At the time, the places that were hiring were Spain (interesting but I had mostly been working with Hispanics so I wanted something different), Saudi Arabia (didn't strike me as a place I'd want to spend a lot of time) and Japan. So I sort of ended up here by default. But that was 1982 and I've been here ever since so obviously I love it.
Q: What advice would you give to prospective teachers thinking of teaching in Japan? A: Go for it. You won't know until you try. Of course, if people are hired from abroad, they don't know much about school they're getting into, but if you happen to be at one you don't like, it is a lot easier to find a better job once you're here. I would also say to teachers who have done a TESL degree to expect a lot of what you learned in school to have very little connection with reality, especially if you were trained for ESL rather than EFL. Expect to learn as you go.
Q: How does working in the Japanese university system compare with those of other countries you have worked in?
A: I really can't compare as I didn't work in university in the States. I would like to say, however, that there seems to be an impression that all gaijin get screwed in Japanese universities. It just isn't true. At my school, back when there was talk of getting rid of the long-term foreigners, we organized. We consulted a good labor lawyer (never had to do any legal action -- just got advice) and negotiated with the school. Now we have five foreigners with tenure. I'd suggest that teachers in schools where there are problems shouldn't just scream and shout, they should organize.

Q: It is generally acknowledged that the level of English proficiency among Japanese -- despite the amount of money spent on EFL in the country – is below average compared to other countries. What are your views on this?
A: This is really complex. Most people blame the usual suspects: exam system, an unwillingness to risk, funky Mombusho books, untrained foreign teachers, etc. However, those same things are true in a lot of other countries like Korea and Taiwan where the level of English is significantly higher. I think a few things come into play:
In terms of learning English, the Japanese economy developed too fast for its own good. From the 1970s onwards there was a huge influx of gaijin. So, in university, we had sort of a ghettoization of oral English. It was assumed that NESTs (Native English Speaking Teachers) did speaking/listening classes and Non-NESTs did all the other classes in Japanese. This not only robs the students of a lot of input and good models of English, it creates the feeling that most Japanese really can't learn to speak English -- which is absurd.
What about the economy? In the rest of Asia, there is a very strong incentive to learn English. It really is a key to a better job. The TOEIC is almost a religion in some places. In Japan, unless you are targeting a foreign company, having good English isn't that important. Indeed, someone with good English in a company might well get pegged as "the translator" and move out of any kind of upward, responsible track.
Q: How do you compare Japanese students with those of other nationalities you have taught?
A: One of the real strengths they have is a really solid background of vocabulary and grammar. So I think we need to start by 'activating' what they have. If we treat learners as true beginners, we are wasting all they have accomplished. That's why the traditional P-P-P syllabus (Presentation, Practice, Production) is inappropriate. In addition to it being linear and not reflecting how SLA (Second Language Acquisition) actually works.

Q: How did you get into writing course textbooks?
A: I got invited to submit a sample. I had been doing a lot of workshops at JALT, writing articles for the JALT Language Teacher and other magazines, basically just being part of the profession. Mike Rost, the editor who founded Lingual House (which later became part of Longman), heard about what I was doing and contacted me. We talked about the kind of thing I might be interested in and I submitted a proposal. That became 'English Firsthand'.
Q: What advice would you give to prospective textbook/material writers?
A: Most authors are approached by the publishers, not the other way around. But, of course, you make your own luck. Put yourself in a position to be discovered. Present at JALT and other conferences. Write for ELT publications. Book reviews are a good place to start. Be active in the professional organizations like JALT, AJET, etc. Offer to review or pilot prepublication manuscripts.
Since we're on the topic, readers might want to check out an article I did with a group of other Japan-based authors. It's in the February issue of the JALT Language teacher.
Q: What essential points must be covered before submitting proposals and ideas to publishers?
A: When submitting a proposal, you usually submit about two units of the book. You don't want to write more than that before a publisher has expressed interest. Definitely don't write the whole book. You're going to end up rewriting it all several times anyway. You also need to submit a proposal itself which includes the a syllabus/scope and sequence for the book, a statement of the market (type of school, level, is it Japan specific?, etc.), books that are competing in that market segment.
A very, very important part of your proposal is how your project will differ from what is already available. So if you figure there's nothing new under the sun, don't even bother. You'd be in the wrong business. Anytime you even think about writing a book it should be to do something in a new way.
A good source of information on publishing materials is 'Material Development in Language Teaching' by Brian Tomlinson and published by CUP. Another good book is 'Material Writer's Guide' (published by Newbury House).
Q: What were the major challenges writing Firsthand?
A: Things have changed a lot. When we first started, textbooks that were filled with activities – pairwork, task-based listening, etc. – were rare. So we had to figure out put them together in a way that made sense to teachers and learners. Now activities are something we take for granted but it wasn't that way back then.
More recently, when we did the new editions, we faced a different situation. The books were already successful and popular. But what the other authors and the editor and I all felt is that we didn't want to just do a cosmetic change – new pictures and all. So we asked ourselves how methodology had changed and also we looked for things that hadn't been done before. That's how we ended up putting the CD in the student's book, adding personalized About You questions to the listening, adding the Five-minute Grammar Search putting language and the senses activities in the Teacher's Manuals, etc.

Q: How many presentations do you give every year and how do you select the theme of your presentations? What themes are you going to cover in future events and conferences?
A: 30ish. In addition to book related sessions, I like to play with things I'm working on and experimenting with. Over the past couple of years I've been doing some things with grammar and with personalization and some of the ideas I've been trying are now making their way into my books.
For example, I've done a lot with listening over the past few years. One very simple idea to personalize listening -- so it's not just 'overheard conversation' -- is having the recording talk directly to the student. That started out as something I was doing in class to personalize tasks and we ending putting it on the page in 'English Firsthand' as an item called "About you."

Q: A significant number of schools in Japan, particularly in the conversation school sector, don't require teaching job applicants to have any formal teaching qualifications. Some people argue that knowledge of EFL methodology is essential in providing students with good quality lessons, others say that it is not. What are your views on this?
A: I think knowledge and some kind of training is essential. But we all know that a lot of people in this profession stumbled into it. At some point, many decide, "Yeah, I'm not just a tourist. I'm teaching. What do I need to know?" A lot of people decide to go for a degree. It's wonderful that we have programs in Japan like Columbia University Teacher's College (I mention that one first since I teach there part-time), Temple University and the many distance education programs.
But just making use of other resources is a lot of help. There are local JALT meetings, seminars at the British Council and some universities. David English House is starting a series of seminars around the country. There are lot of options.
And of course, there are a lot of excellent books and magazines available. Not to mention web sites. One simple place to start is with the Teacher's Manual of the textbook you're teaching. Many TMs are essentially teacher training courses.
I really think the more teachers get involved in the profession, the more they really find that there is a lot of support for them out there.
Q: What resources (e.g. books, web sites, teacher organizations) have been beneficial to your professional development as an teacher? What resources would you strongly recommend to a teacher?
A: Where should I start? I guess a beginning teacher should start with a basic methodology book like Penny Ur's 'A Course in Language Teaching' (CUP) or Jeremy Harmer's 'How to teach English' (Longman). It's been out a few years but 'Handbook for Teaching English in Japanese Colleges and Universities' by Paul Wadden (Oxford) is still a very helpful book.
I'd also recommend 'Inside Teaching' (Heinemann) especially for people who've been teaching a few years and want to reflect on what they do and why. Another good one is 'Challenge and Change in Language Teaching' (Heinemann).
There are a lot of good websites. I stop by your site every morning, just to see what's going on. I'm involved with Extensive Reading which has a useful site. I like the Internet TESOL Journal as well. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the English Firsthand Cafe. One of the things I really like about it is Teacher Discussion. Teachers can talk about the books, ask questions, give suggestions, recommend activities and other sites -- whatever. What I really like is the democracy of the web. Even in the best of workshops, it is largely the presenter's show. In something like 'Teacher Discussion' everyone writes in the same size font. I like that.
And people really should get involved with the professional organizations like JALT, TESOL, IATEFL. Really important way to learn and to network.

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