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‘‘I worry about all the military metaphors that circulate when grammar is discussed’’

Ronald Carterweb

ELTons lifetime achievement award winner Ronald Carter, emeritus professor of modern English language at Nottingham University, tells Claudia Civinini his thoughts on the battle for grammar in schools, the impact of social media on language and the need for multi-disciplinary studies.

How did your career start and what was the biggest thrill and the biggest challenge?
I started work as a teacher of English in comprehensive schools and further education in the UK, moving after a few years to work in teacher training and teacher development. The biggest challenge has always been finding ways of making academic research relevant to classroom contexts. The biggest thrill has always been on the rare occasions where this has been achieved.

What are you working on at the moment?
I am working, in part with Cambridge University Press, in developing corpora of social media and trying to understand how language is used for e-communication. It is especially challenging as many forms involve a mixing of spoken and written discourses. In other words, we write e-messages but write them as if we were speaking.

What are the most important issues that need further research in applied linguistics for language teaching/learning?
For me personally, it’s better understanding of e-communication – the key linguistic phenomenon of our times.
But overall, we need more effective and teacher-friendly descriptions of how the English language works. Why is description of English still important? Well, each year we see, for example, astonishing levels of pedagogic and technological innovation in all aspects of course materials.

It is easy to think we know a lot about the English language; and, of course we do. But there is a risk, dazzled (and rightly so) by ever more creative technologies, that we may take for granted our knowledge of the English language.

My main hope for the future is that we do also continue to keep a precise description of the English language firmly in our sights.

You were involved in the reintroduction of grammar instruction in UK schools, which turned out to be a controversial issue. What are your thoughts on the current situation?

It’s at least a better situation now than ten years ago. The SPAG [Spelling Punctuation and Grammar] curriculum in primary schools continues to be problematic, however.

I have no worries about the spelling and punctuation curriculum, which is generally taught and tested in basically sound ways.

But as you suggest, the teaching of grammar in UK schools is still a challenge for all involved, not least for teachers. For governments, grammar is felt to be a discipline that should be difficult, is best taught and tested in drills, with a clear sense of a set of uniform standard rules that show what is right and what is wrong (with the overall aim of producing the right kind of citizens, of course).

I worry about all the military metaphors that circulate when grammar is discussed (drills, standards, uniform, discipline) but don’t object to students knowing more about grammar and how it works. I do think our testing of grammar needs a complete re-think, though.

Too many UK school tests simply test a knowledge of metalanguage or grammatical terms, often in decontextualized drills or exercises involving invented or contrived examples.

You have called for the teaching of literature in the language classroom. Why is it important to teach literature to EFL students as well?
Yes, that’s true. I have always thought, in a perhaps now somewhat old-fashioned way, that learning a language should involve knowing something about, and where possible, reading closely and engaging with key texts from the culture enshrined in that language.

Furthermore, learning to read and interpret the language carefully is a key part of all language learning. However, I do think that we also need to go beyond this potentially quite narrow view and embrace literature with a small ’l’ and culture with a small ‘c’ as well. This means being aware of and appreciating how language is used in everyday texts such as advertisements, newspaper headlines and jokes where language play and creative language are often in evidence.

You were a panel member for the Research Assessment Exercise (now the Research Excellence Framework), can you share your thoughts about this?
The RAE is one more part of a national UK obsession with measuring educational performance and outcomes, often while remaining blind to the downsides. It’s basically ok to assess research but the best research is often interdisciplinary in nature and yet the RAE is focused on research in individual subject disciplines. Similarly, it’s ok for governments to expect that research funded by tax payers should have a payoff in terms of relevance and usefulness (and, understandably, applied linguistics tends to score well on this basis). But it’s often never quite as simple as this.

Relevance has to be defined very carefully and it needs to be recognised that it can lead to short-termism and not fully account for the fact that the best research can result when you don’t quite know what the outcomes might be!

What would you study with a £1 million research grant?
The temptation here is to indulge yourself in a personal wish-list. But I think research is always best done in teams and from different disciplinary perspectives. So, I suppose I’d really like to set up a multidisciplinary project devoted to the question: What is effective communication?

This would involve applied linguists, of course. The project would also involve professionals in subject areas where communication and cross-cultural communication are key: for example, medical and health professionals; those involved with business development; legal teams etc.

I think there is a lot to be learned from such a project. There would be distinct benefits for EFL as it may deliver better insights into language learning pedagogies and help us better understand what we mean when we present, explain, support, exemplify in our work with language learners.

It is likely too that we would see ‘effective communication’ as not being only confined to language forms but as involving gesture, body language and other forms too.

CV Ronald Carter

  • Emeritus research professor of modern English language at the University of Nottingham, where he has been working since 1979.
  • Former director of the Centre for English Language Education and head of the School of English of the University of Nottingham.
  • Founder member of PALA (Poetics and Linguistics Association).
  • Director of the Language in the National Curriculum (LINC) Project from 1989-1992.
  • Life member of NATE (National Association for the Teaching of English).
  • Fellow of the British Academy for Social Sciences.
  • Member of the English Panel for the 2001 and 2008 RAE (Research Assessment Exercises).
  • Received an MBE for services to local and national higher education in the 2009 New Year’s Honours list.