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The Joys and Pains of Language, Learning and Technology:
A Personal Account of a Personal Journey
Andy Curtis

Introduction to the Paper

I would like to present the account of my plenary in a way that is different from the ways in which usually write up such presentations. Normally, having been trained initially in Science, I would write using the passive voice, and perhaps attempt to present an “objective” summary of what I presented. However, I was moved on many levels and in many ways by the teachers I met at BRAZ-TESOL 2002, and so I would like to write a more personal account of my plenary.

This way of writing is also in keeping with “newer” thoughts on the language of academic communities, which says that the substance of what we say is more important than the way in which we say it. I write “newer” because this is also an old and well-established way of thinking about the relationship between style and content, although I know there are some English language teachers who would disagree with me on that.

Technology is also shifting the way we think and use language. For example, so much of our communication nowadays is via email, which is blurring the distinction between written forms and spoken forms of our languages. Many of the emails I receive do not have a formal “salutation” or official greeting in their opening line. In some emails, the whole message is constructed without using my name or the name of the person writing to me, making the writing much closer to the spoken form of the interaction.

ntroduction to the Talk

I started by dedicating the plenary to my father, who has been recently killed. Although he lived his adult life in England, he was from Guyana, and as I have never been there, Brazil is important to me, as the closest I have so far managed to get to Guyana.

The first (PowerPoint) slide was a scanned image from the front of a card that my student teachers gave me some time ago. It shows a teacher of color (brown) with a group of students and the names of around 20 countries written on the board behind her, including Brazil. The caption on the front of the card reads: Teachers Change the World. I strongly believe in this statement, which is one reasons why I left a stable and well-paid career in clinical medicine (in England) to become a language teacher (and learner). The card and the caption are appropriate here, because technology is also changing and shaping our world in ways that we could never have imagined even a few years ago. From this situation emerges an interesting question: Who or what is changing the world more – teachers or technology?

Part One

I then posed a question to the audience, taken from a recently published opinion piece in Mexican newspaper called The News, printed on 22nd April 2002: “But shouldn’t a computer be regarded as a mere tool, with no more intelligence than a pencil?” I am a strong believer in interactive presentations, even with a plenary talk and even, in this case, with an audience of nearly 1,000 people, so I asked members of the audience to talk to each other about this question. This discussion, albeit brief and impromptu, raised many interesting points, including the question of what we mean when use terms and notions like “tools” and “intelligence”.

One of the best ways of promoting interaction is through the use of questions. So I then asked: “What are the essential items you must have to create a language lesson?” and again elicited responses from the audience. Many of the responses showed the breadth and depth of experience of the teachers (and students) in the audience gathered together. I identified six essential features: language, learners, a teacher, teaching/learning materials, a school, and a classroom. Though this list was far from complete, as the suggestions from the audience showed (for example, missing from my list, and conspicuous by its absence, was “desire to learn the language” we agreed that these items were generally essential. However, in the next slide, I showed the same list – but with the last two items crossed out. My argument was that one of the big shifts bought about by the technology is that where we learn is of much importance now that it used to be. Although the promises of “virtual communities” is far from being realized – whatever the tech-gurus may be claiming – it is certainly true that time and space are no longer the constraints they used to be.

Accepting this as true, then I asked in slide 7: Do we still need language teachers? This is, needless to say, a fairly controversial question, but I asked it because many language teachers I meet are genuinely worried that the technology may replace them. My answer is that our need for good teachers is even greater with greater use of technology. To explain this answer, I posed another question: Does technology make things quicker, easier and simpler? By a wonderful coincidence, as I was asking this question, the technology I was using in my presentation turned on me. Microphones stopped working, speakers started to transmit only intermittently, together with a few other “technical glitches”. The answer was clear. Initially, the technology requires more time, is more difficult and more complex. However, benefits can emerge over time. If the potential of the technology is to be realized, time and resources are needed for initial and on-going training and support of teachers and learners.

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