Previous Profile
Next Profile

April Main Page
Report from West Tokyo JALT
Featured ESL Professional
Does SLA Theory Really Help?
Creating a Din with the Conversation Bus
Ten Sessions You Must See in Salt Lake
What We Can Learn from Basketball
An Index of ESL MiniConference Stories
Notes and contacts
Search the site

Submit your email,
join ESL MiniConference

ESL MiniConference Online!

Achievement Profile: Robert O'Neill
Elucidating the Distinction Between Learning and Acquisition

Robert O'Neill is an ESL/EFL author, teacher and humorist whose irreverent creativity has challenged and inspired colleagues and peers over the years. From the Kernel series to "The Lost Secret" (now a CD-ROM), the materials produced by Robert O'Neill always set a higher standard. ESL MiniConference Online is pleased to share Mr. O'Neill's comments from a recent interview.

Some Robert O'Neill links:

The Lost Secret 2000 (Video)
The Lost Secret CD-ROM Program
The Rainbow Project, an intermediate, story-led coursebook (Zastrugi Books) (2001)
American Kernel Lessons (1978)
Contact Robert O'Neill by email (

An ESL MiniConference Online interview
with Robert O'Neill:

Robert O'Neill

What is your main ESL activity now? What are your principal projects, and what is on the back burner?

I am writing a kind of practice grammar for a small, independent publisher. I also do free-lance teaching. My last contract involved teaching bio-chemists and laboratory technicians at a Research Institute near Frankfurt in Germany. And I am also writing a series of 'open-ended' texts which use short narratives that lead to different possible outcomes. If I can get a publisher interested in this - which I frankly think is rather unlikely - I will develop these 'open-ended' narratives into a new kind of textbook. In addition to this, I am working on a novel. One of the central characters - a serial-murderer - is also an EFL author. He goes to ESL and EFL conferences all over the world, and leaves disemboweled corpses behind.

How did you start your ESL career? Who influenced your decision? What were some important formative experiences in the early stages of your development?

I had left the United States and was in Europe - first in Italy, then in France, where I studied Italian and French. But I really wanted to be a Shakesperian actor (I had been in a drama festival in San Diego; one of the other young actors in one of the plays was Dennis Hopper.) So I spent about three months in London, trying to find a way to get into the theatre there. My money was running short and when I was down to my last 150 dollars - just about enough in those days to buy a ticket on a boat back to New York - I had to make a decision. Either buy the damned ticket or find some way to make enough money to stay in Europe. I went to an academic placement agency, hoping I might get a job as a teacher of French in England. The only job they could offer me was in a Berlitz School in Dortmund, Germany, teaching English. So I went to Dortmund, at that time a very industrial city (steel mills, coal mines) in the Ruhr that had been bombed flat in the Second World War and was being re-built. Everybody wanted to learn English and nobody really examined my qualifications as an English teacher. I stayed there for three years, got married to an English woman (we are now divorced but on friendly terms) and eventually moved back to England with her where I taught adults in a language school in Bournemouth (a seaside resort on the south coast of England). I did that for twelve years, but also started writing short plays - 15 minute radio programes - for the BBC World Service - aimed at beginners and lower intermediate learners all over the world. And then I wrote a textbook called KERNEL LESSONS INTERMEDIATE - and then more textbooks. My most formative experiences in those early years was, first of all, learning three foreign languages myself (I added German to my Italian and French while I was in Dortmund), then teaching adults who were often eager to learn but came to my evening classes after a full day's work - and so were usually tired - and then teaching adult beginners in England. Another VERY important formative experience was teaching German as a foreign language to adults in the evening in England - again to people who wanted to learn but were often tired.

What are the four or five language/culture backgrounds with which you are most familiar as a teacher? Which ones are you familiar with from the perspective of a language learner yourself? What insights have you gained in how to meet the needs of English learners from these cultures and language backgrounds?

The foreign language I speak best is German - and Germany is also a country I know well. I have spent -on and off at various times - about 8 years of my life over the last 45 years there - in different cities, including Munich, Hannover and Frankfurt. I probably learned most of my German initially through reading rather than speaking - and this has certainly influenced my ideas about language learning and teaching. I mean, speaking is of course important, but before you can say anything really worth saying, you need a reasonable vocabulary and a good idea of how the grammar of the language influences meaning - and I believe that READING is undoubtedly the best way to do that.

But I have also spent some time in Spain and Latin America, especially Argentina. That started rather late in my life - when I was approaching 50 - and I have continued studying Spanish, reading and speaking it, over the last 15 years or more. I have a deep interest not just in Spain itself but also in the Spanish-speaking world. No other foreign language, other than English, gives you a kind of KEY to so many other countries and cultures. I am fascinated by Spain as a country and its literature, especially its popular literature - the distinction between 'popular' and 'literary' writing is not sharp in the Spanish-speaking world as it is in the English-speaking world. Writers like Marquez write best-sellers, and are taken seriously, as well.

I spent a number of years in Japan, as well - I had a long relationship with a Japanese woman - and I lived with her and her two sons in a very small flat and then an equally small house in Yokohama for a period of about six years. But I would not say I was really familiar with Japanese culture. The longer I stayed there, the less I thought I really knew or understood. All the stereotypes about Japan are hopelessly wrong - childish, naive ideas we have about the Japanese - for instance the idea that women in Japan are weak and submissive, or that the Japanese just imitate other people's ideas - such ideas as those are hopelessly wrong and foolish.

But living in Japan and trying to learn Japanese has also had a profound effect on my own ideas about language-learning in general. In particular, it has persuaded me that a great deal of current methodology is as hopelessly wrong as those stereotypes about Japan and the Japanese.

If you had to give three pieces of advice to a new ESL teacher, what would they be?

First, learn AT LEAST one foreign language yourself - and I don't mean just a few phrases. I mean, learn it at least well enough so that you can read books in that language, explain complex ideas, and engage in the kind of conversation that is not predictable.

Secondly, be very sceptical of teacher-trainers or would-be gurus who have NOT learned at least ONE foreign language themselves.

Thirdly, do not accept any ideas about language and language-learning uncritically. Be prepared to listen to new ideas, but be aware that a lot of the ideas that have the greatest intuitive appeal are very shallow and misleading. You have to develop your OWN style and you can do that only on the basis of your own experience both as a teacher AND hopefully as a LEARNER of foreign languages yourself. And that requires TIME and PATIENCE.

What do you see as the most important issues facing the ESL/EFL teaching profession today?

Read Stephen Krashen's reply!

The single most important issue in my opinion is the distinction - the PROFOUND difference - between L1 ACQUISITION and L2 LEARNING. As Chomsky once said "You simply cannot teach a foreign language to an adult the way a child learns a language. That's why it's such a hard job." And by that I think Chomsky meant that's why it's a hard job BOTH for the adult and the teacher. It's a hard job but it can also be very rewarding - for both learner and adult. And what Chomsky says may SEEM obvious - but it isn't, because the main trend in methodology is still AWAY from the idea that there is this profound difference between ACQUIRING and LEARNING. Acquisition is GENETICALLY TRIGGERED and largely BIOLOGICAL in nature. All over the world, children go through very predictable stages of acquiring their L1 - they all go through the same stages and by the time they are about 5 or perhaps a little older - the FOUNDATIONS of comptence are in place - and then after another 7 years or so, they have in at least one sense become what you might call MATURE speakers of that language - mature in the sense that although nobody can say 'I've learned all there is to know that really matters about my language' (I am almost 70 and would never say such a thing) - a child of 12 or 13 COULD say (but probably would never say) that 'I have an instinctive, intuitive grasp of how my language works, its syntax,and so on. I can intuitively and instictively tell you whether or not a particular utterance is possible in my language, even if I am still not an adult.'

Now, L2 LEARNING is not genetically triggered or biologically driven in ANY WAY. There seems to be a'cut-off' point for L1 acquisition - at or just around puberty - and for various reasons, after that point, it is impossible for most people - perhaps all people - to ACQUIRE language (there may be a very few exceptions). It can only be learned. I don't see why we should be afraid of the word LEARN. I don't understand why so many teachers shy away from using that word. They aren't squeamish about saying 'I'd like to learn to play a musical instrument' or 'My 15-year-old daughter is learning to drive' and so on.

But in ESL and EFL teaching, the words 'learn' and 'learning' are viewed with great suspicion. The terms 'acquire' and 'acquisition' have far more intuitive appeal because they suggest a 'natural' or 'nativist' process, similar to if not exactly identical with the way children become competent native-speakers. And this also explains the popularity of other claims or current ideas such as 'the process of learning a foreign language can and should be much more like the process of L1 acquisition' and 'language is merely an instrument of communication'; two beliefs I regard as naive and childish.

This distrust of learning also helps to explain the intuitive appeal of methods that claim to lead to the acquisition of English through 'authentic communicative-tasks that re-create the natural conditions that favour L1 acquisition'. I have come to regard such claims with deep distrust. Even if we could re-create in a classroom more or less the same conditions that are thought to promote first-language acquisition, (which, by the way, would require at least 8,000 hours or more of deep engagement with the language - because that is what all native-speakers get - and more - while acquiring their L1), those 'natural conditions' would no longer be appropriate for learners past puberty, the point at which there is a 'natural' cut-off point for 'acquisition' as opposed to 'learning'. The human brain is just not the same any more after that point. Acquisition is a process that is not only favoured by an immature brain; it actually REQUIRES such a brain. Learning is a process that is favoured by more mature brains, learners past puberty.

This does NOT mean that I think everything has to be learned consciously, through rules and explanations. It means only that it is foolish and even DISHONEST to claim that a foreign language can be learned in anything like the same way children appear to acquire their L1. Even 'unconscious' learning is different once you have passed puberty. And it also means that CERTAIN KINDS of conscious learning can and do promote real learning for most if not all learners past puberty - and that teachers should be able among other things to explain and elucidate some of the formal features of a foreign language that at first seem so impenetrable to so many learners (things like tense and aspect and how in a language like English, word-order functions also as a case-marker system.)

In short, if we ACCEPT that we are teachers of a foreign language - that it is a hard job for both teacher and learner but that it CAN be enormously rewarding if we are prepared as learners to develop good study habits - and if we are prepared as teachers to accept that there is no magic method, and no SINGLE method or 'approach' that can possibly work in all circumstances, we may be able to break out of such childish and sterile dogmas as 'teacher-centred is BAD' and 'learner-centred is GOOD' and also be able to understand why we cannot expect our students to do what children acquiring an L1 do. The two things are just completely different and anybody who doesn't understand that is just hopelessly confused.

Interviewed by Robb Scott

2002 ESL MiniConference Online

Previous Profile / Next Profile