A CONVERSATION WITH DR. BILL VANPATTEN: PART 1
Marianela Serrano, OFLA Professional Development Chair
Spanish Teacher, Hathaway Brown School
It is a wonderful and warm Monday here in Ohio, and I have the pleasure and honor to interview one of my heroes in the field of Second Language Acquisition, Dr. Bill VanPatten.
Dr. VanPatten is now a talented fiction writer who also spent several years in academia and in the classroom teaching a second language. Most recently he was a Professor of Spanish and Second Language Acquisition at Michigan State University. He also taught and researched at the University of Illinois at both the Chicago and Urbana-Champaign campuses, as well as at Texas Tech. Dr. VanPatten focused on the expanding of SLA and developing the theory of Input Processing, which also led to substantial work in both processing itself and in processing instruction. He is a pioneer in his field and continues to educate about the importance of Second Language Acquisition to educators.
In our conversation, I asked him about the future of language teachers. His responses gave me much to ponder about as we begin to move forward into a more hybrid world.
Q: What do you identify as the top two or three challenges/threats for world language educators and why?
Dr. VanPatten: I think there are a couple of challenges and I am not going to give them to you in any order.
The first one is a continuous challenge that we face: making sure that technology is not used as a substitute for what we do. Under Covid in 2020 and still in 2021, lots of people had to go online. My concern is that this may give some administrators, probably more at the university level than in the K-12 level, the idea that they could streamline some of the education because they can go online.
Another concern I have is that I perceive that there is a polarization of language teaching going on. There are camps that have been developed, and in my estimation, some people are talking past each other. There are people who are pushing more and more for input-based, comprehension-based classrooms that are fully communicative and there are some people pulling back and going a different way.
Part of the problem is that scholars and university people are not doing their job in helping teachers understand the basics of Second Language Acquisition, and what they might suggest if anything, for how we envision the language classroom. There is this increasing distance between research and scholarship and language teachers. I am not saying that research has to always be about language teaching; this does not make sense. However, there are facts that have emerged after forty or fifty years and they have yet to trickle down to mainstream language teacher thinking. I have been working on closing this gap for years but I am just one person. If we get that information out to people in a way that makes sense and it is not threatening to them, it will help depolarize what I see going on in the profession. Scholars have not done a good job saying here is what we know, here are the facts. So part of the challenge of educators is distinguishing between facts and beliefs in their field.
I see all this related to the technology issue as well because comprehension-based communicative language teaching cannot be replaced by technology but grammar teaching can. When we get to the point when people understand the comprehension-based communicative language classroom, they will go AAHHH!!! And they will see the problems with trying to do this with technology.
Q: What do you see the future of world language education becoming?
Dr. Bill VanPatten: Since there is no national policy in the United States, and everything is local, it depends on where you are and what the local leaders believe is important and unimportant. We currently have an administration in Washington D.C. that is more pro-language now than before, but that can change. Even if they are pro-language, it all depends on what states do and local governments do.
The interesting thing is that the importance of other languages being spoken in the United States is going to keep growing. What impact that has on the way people view language learning I do not know.
We need to stop seeing what we do as teaching subject matter like instructors of other disciplines. We have bought into that framework in K-12 and even the university system. What do we do when parents, administrators and politicians want to know why we can’t show results in two years? If we cannot show results in two years, why do we have this requirement? One of the difficulties we face is educating non-language educators about language acquisition how it happens and the time it takes. We have to start advocating for language education to be something other than subject matter. I am not sure how to go about doing that but it is something we need to do.
Q: Talking about language acquisition, what teaching changes may speed up the process of acquiring a language?
Dr. Bill VanPatten: Getting rid of textbooks and getting rid of standardized testing. That would cause a monumental shift and would get people to look at ways to do things that would actually foster more acquisition and proficiency development. People are stuck on textbooks and what they are doing is they are teaching the textbook, not teaching language. People are too textbook-bound. That is, because we are treating second language as any other subject matter, people believe we need to have a textbook.
Q: What are the best ways to engage students and make second language acquisition fun?
Dr. Bill VanPatten: Start making the classroom more about communication and the students and less about the language itself. That will make things more enticing and more fun. If you focus on the people in the classroom, the teacher and the students, what they can communicate about and how they can communicate about it, you will make a giant stride towards making classrooms much more interactive, fun, and enticing.
I think right now teachers are saddled with the idea of teaching “the language” because they are trained this way; they are teaching language like a subject matter. So the focus is on language as opposed to communication and the people in the classroom.
What happens, then, is that I am a student learning Spanish, French, or Russian and nobody cares about me, and I do not care about that person over there, all because our focus is on the language and not on communication. I tried to say that in my book, While We’re On the Topic: communication has to be front and center. That means dealing with the context in the classroom, and the context is the participants, the teachers, and the setting they are in. That has profound implications for what we do and it also has profound implications for interests and engagement.
Something to use are tasks in the class where students are finding things out and they are learning about each other, about the world around them. They are engaged, interacting, and they are bringing things out. They are sent out to find out real-world information to bring back to the classroom. They are using Spanish to do it. When you do that you get incredible interest in the part of the learners.
When teaching at the university, I was assigned a conversation class that no one liked to teach. They asked me what book I was going to use and I said that I would not use a book because it was a conversation class. I made a course using the movie Pan’s Labyrinth and I broke it up into different sections to watch over the course of the semester. Then I framed units where we personalized it and did things to make connections and you should see how students would take over the class.
Another thing I did is I stopped making students responsible solely for themselves. One of the things that teachers like to do is make students responsible only for themselves. I think that is wrong. Teamwork is what we should be fostering in education. So in my course, we had these little writing assignments that they did but it was all team writing. They had to work in groups of four. That fostered teamwork in the class and everyone got to know each other.
There is not a particular thing that I can tell teachers that will make classes enticing. The best ways to engage students is to start with a premise that you have human beings in the classroom and you make communication central. Language is secondary. You do it all through language but you are not teaching language to people; you are teaching people through language.
This may be difficult for some teachers. Teachers tend to stand apart from the students as opposed to forming part of the classroom community. In my language class, I am like the ringleader and I am always helping, but I am not apart from them. I don’t hide things about myself or my life. That is why the students have no problems raising hands or getting up and doing things because they feel so comfortable and see me as part of their group. It is not always easy in every context to do this. But when the comfort level is there, the students are more engaged because they feel that you are with them.
The second part of this conversation will be featured in the Fall newsletter.
Many thanks to Dr. Bill VanPatten for his time and willingness to answer my many questions.