Achievement Profile: Sandra J. Savignon
Celebrating the Struggles and Joys of Learning Languages
Dr. Sandra Savignon is perhaps best known for her research
on issues related to second language acquisition, language testing
and communicative language teaching curriculum design. She
is a past president of the American Association for Applied
Linguistics and currently serves as convenor of the Scientific
Commission for Language Teaching Methodology and Teacher Education
for the International Association of Applied Linguistics (AILA).
She travels widely, consulting and giving seminars on communicative
language teaching around the world. Dr. Savignon's books include
Communicative Competence: Theory and Classroom Practice, winner of
the Modern Language Association of America Mildenberger Medal for
an outstanding research publication in the field of second/foreign
language teaching. The book is now it its second edition (McGraw Hill 1997).
More recently, Yale University Press has published a text
she edited, Interpreting Communicative Language Teaching: Contexts and Concerns
in Teacher Education, 2002, which looks at CLT and teacher education
from an international perspective. The contributors include distinguished
researchers from the US, Asia, and Europe. The ESL MiniConference Online
is honored to share comments from Dr. Savignon's Achievement Profile
interview with our readers this month.
Some Sandra Savignon links:
American Association for Applied Linguistics (www.aaal.org)
Sandra Savignon's Home Page (www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/s/j/sjs25/)
The Pennsylvania State University
Interpreting Communicative Language Teaching (2002, Yale University Press)
Communicative Language Learning (1987, Theory Into Practice)
A Letter to My Spanish Teacher (1981, Canadian Modern Language Review)
Films for French: A Teacher's Guide (1973)
Teaching for Communicative Competence: A Research Report (1972, Audio-Visual Language Journal)
Other Peoples' Languages: A Game Everyone Can Play (1973, Indiana Foreign Language Teachers' Association)
An ESL MiniConference Online interview
with Sandra J. Savignon:
What is your main ESL activity now? What are your
principal projects, and what is on the back burner?
I came to Penn State six years ago to help develop what is now a
doctoral program in Linguistics and Applied Language Studies(LALS) in
a new department with the same name.. I work with graduate students
from many different parts of the world. My current research and
writing activities include communicative language teaching practice
and problems and norms and varieties for English. Language and
gender is a new interest of mine.
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 began my career as a teacher of French and did research on
classroom learning of French as a foreign or second language. Then
when I found that many teachers of English were also interested in my
work, I broadened my base to include education and English as an
international language. From the beginning, my interest has been in
teachers who are not necessarily 'native speakers' of the language
they teach and who often must struggle along with their students to
gain practice in using the language as communication. My own
struggles (and immense joy) as I developed my communicative abilities
in French beginning at the age of 16 were surely a powerfful
motivation in my career decisions.
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?
I have worked with English language teachers from many different
parts of the world and have found their needs and interests to be not
much different from those of teachers of other languages - for
example French, Mandarin, Spanish, and Arabic - here in the U.S.,
those often referred to as 'foreign' language teachers. The world
over, it has been a struggle to help learners develop their
communicative abilities in their new language, sometimes despite
long years of study and rigorous exams. With the current widespread
interest in using English, the demand for competent users is great.
I like to work with not only teachers but curriculum designers,
ministries of education, and textbook developers to help meet this
demand. My recent travels have taken me often to Asia, and I will
be in Europe again this coming year (France and Russia). In the
Americas, I have experience with ELT in Brazil, Costa Rica and
Columbia, in particular. I have also worked with teachers from
Egypt, Palestine, and Iran.
If you had to give three pieces of advice to a new ESL
teacher, what would they be?
Don't expect to be prepared. Allow yourself to make mistakes. You
will learn as you teach. In fact, one of the great satisfactions of
teaching is that you continue to learn from your students even after
many years in the classroom. (Unless of course you begin thinking
you know it all and don't care what your students are thinking and
feeling!) This is because each generation of students is different.
Times change, learners change, and YOU also change. This eagerness
to learn is what has kept me in the classroom for over forty years.
What do you see as the most important issue facing the ESL/EFL teaching profession today?
Along with a cadre of well-qualified teachers, ministries of
education must provide those teachers with the support and resources
they need to teach English as communication. Meeting the need for
communicative skills in English, whether in eletronic correpondence,
speaking, reading or writing technical manuals, requires
cooperative efforts.. Increasingly, I think we will see greater
involvement of those most familiar with a particular context, as
opposed to outside 'experts'.. Language teaching is not a matter of
'one size fits all'. Programs must be designed to fit the needs of
those learners and teachers directly involved.
Interviewed by Robb Scott
2003 ESL MiniConference Online