Everybody needs English: a journey in ELT. An interview with Marjorie Rosenberg
Interviewer: Eva Göksel
Eva Göksel: Marjorie, you are well travelled in the world of ELT. How did your journey begin?
Marjorie Rosenberg: When I first came over to Europe from the United States, I began my career as an opera singer, but I didn’t get a job. However, I did have a degree in teaching music, and the experience I had helped me to get work at the Chamber of Commerce in Graz teaching adults. In the meantime, I gave concerts, but I realized that I wasn’t living on the money I made singing and so, instead, I focused on teaching. In order to continue at the Chamber of Commerce we were required to complete their programme, which led to a Diploma in Adult Education, something that has proved to be very useful through the years. Luckily, one of the institutes at the University of Graz also offered a great deal of continuing education, specifically for ELT, which I was able to take part in. In addition to these seminars and workshops, I completed three courses on Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) in the United States, which took me up to trainer level. After teaching for about 14 years, I began expanding into conferences – my first conference presentation was actually in 1994. I think that once you’ve done one, you become a conference junky! (I’ve been to two ETAS conferences). As you keep attending conferences, your name slowly gets out there, and when you apply to talk, you are generally accepted. I remember the first conference I spoke at I thought: “why not share what I’m doing?” At that time, I thought teacher training was interesting because I had taken so many courses in alternative teaching methods, such as cooperative learning and different learning styles, and it was exciting to pass this knowledge on, as many people didn’t know about these methods at the time. So, sharing my knowledge at conferences was the next step. And it was through the conference circuit that I began to be invited to speak to local teacher’s associations. I was frequently in Germany, and I also travelled to Malta, Russia, France, the UK and Israel, to name a few.
EG: You also worked at the University of Teacher Education in Graz.
MR: Yes, I worked there for a good 15 years. I was in different departments, working with students who were going into primary and middle schools and into vocational schools and upper secondary professional schools (the schools that teach cooking and engineering), because in the end, everybody needs English! Even the hairdressers and the plumbers need English.
EG: How has this experience in particular resonated with you? Have you heard back from students over the years?
MR: I did hear from a lot of people afterwards, and I’m still in touch with some of my students. In fact, one of my students from about ten years ago went into journalism and she just wrote a book which I read in German! I was very proud of myself! So, I do hear from students every now and then. A number of them were actually colleagues of my partner, who worked for the automotive field for 25 years. And of course, they need English – they all need it because it’s a global business; it’s a global world. In fact, in many places, it’s hard to get a good job or to move on without English. There has been discussion of English classes being attended so that people could get promoted, but I think people wanted to learn English in order to establish better relationships. There might be a lot of fighting against English as a common global language, but often, when different language groups gather, the common language is English.
EG: Could you elaborate on what you meant by people “fighting against English as a global language”?
MR: Well, I recall hearing at one point, some 10 or 20 years ago, that the global common language was going to be Russian, or Chinese, but English seems to have established itself. For example, we spend every summer in Crete, and there we often witness groups of people from all over the world choosing to communicate in English. Recently, we overheard a group of windsurfers from various European countries, including Belgium, France, Austria and the Netherlands, speaking together in English. So, I walked over to tell them that it was interesting that they had chosen to speak in English. And they said: “What else should we use? How else can we communicate?”
EG: Tell me about how you expanded your expertise in ELT: was it a strategic move?
MR: (Laughs) It was kind of by accident, I would say! Partially, in the freelancing business we get a job and then that job ends and then we look for something new. Many of the jobs I got, I kind of fell into or came across by accident. I lost my job at the University of Teacher Education Graz when it became a university because I didn’t have a degree in English. However, the University of Graz was looking for people, and because I had a Master’s degree, I was able to get a job there. I stayed there for nine years teaching and put in an additional two years doing research at the Language Institute. Many of these things were, in fact, by chance.
When I started out, I was very glad to get the jobs I got, but I then became semi-strategic. I went to a conference in Vienna and heard about a new group called TEA, which was Teachers of English in Austria. I thought this was an interesting idea, I joined and I was a member for its entire existence. It disbanded about two years ago. During my time with TEA I joined the committee and I was chair for a time, which got me involved in volunteering. Around the same time, in 1995, an IATEFL BESIG (Business English Special Interest Group) conference was held in Graz and they offered a reduced membership to IATEFL, which I had to join in order to become a BESIG member. So, I joined both IATEFL and BESIG. I didn’t attend the BESIG conferences for a few years, but from 2000 onwards I went to every conference, including the one in Bern, Switzerland, which was in the post office! That was fantastic. I became so involved with IATEFL’s BESIG that I ran for Events Coordinator and got the position. The year after that I became the BESIG Coordinator. That then took me to meetings in the UK, at which I met the trustees of IATEFL, and I thought, this is really interesting. I’m fascinated by the whole association, and so I ran for president. The first time around I lost, but then the person who won the election resigned. I then ran again, unopposed, and got the position. I came in as VP, was president for two years, and then was outgoing VP, which is the normal thing to do. The interesting thing about this whole experience is what it taught me about business English. In fact, you have to be very organized: you have to be able to delegate; you have to be able to run meetings; you have to know what an agenda is and how to use it to build your minutes, and how to read the minutes; how to acknowledge people at meetings; how to keep meetings in control; and even how to deal with difficult people. So, I would go to class and I would talk about this with my students, and they would say “you understand our jobs in a way that no one else does!”
EG: So, you could say that your experience volunteering for IATEFL gave your teaching, especially of Business English, a boost.
MR: Indeed. For example, I also learned a lot about recording speeches during this time, as IATEFL was awarded the TESOL President’s Award and I had to record a speech to thank them. It was going to be shown to about 6,000 people on the big screen at a TESOL convention. We wanted it to be perfect, so we recorded the speech at IATEFL with the logo in the background and we used a teleprompter, which got stuck! It was quite an experience. But it came in handy, as one of my students, who was a member of the board at the bank, told me he had to record a speech in English. When I shared my experience, which was already challenging on my own, let alone in a foreign language, my student was thrilled to have someone who understood the difficulties. So, we practised together. And it was helpful that I had had a similar experience – I knew how difficult the task was! And that kind of connection, that kind of experience, puts you, as a teacher of business English, in a different light. For the past few years, I’ve only taught corporate clients, and they really do see you differently – they see that you understand their world. It is not something you can read about in books. Just like singing, you cannot just read about it; you actually need to have the experience of performing on stage.
EG: Were you aware of how much the BESIG/IATEFL experience would teach you in terms of being a better teacher?
MR: I don’t think so. Even though I was on the membership Committee, an executive committee of IATEFL, and I had been BESIG coordinator, I had no idea what went into it because it’s a UK charity and the trustees guide the institution. They are responsible for risk analysis as well as many other aspects of running an association that I had no idea about but that I was very interested in. I just liked doing what I was doing, and I also felt it was important to contribute to the ELT world — which has been very good to me over the years — and I wanted to give something back to the community.
EG: How else has your particular expertise in Business English steered your professional journey in ELT?
MR: It was very helpful to be able to bring my experiences in the working world into my business English classroom. I had, for example, previously worked as a media buyer in the United States, and at one point I taught a course on sales. I thought this was great because some of my best friends are still in sales, so I could bounce ideas off of them. I like being able to combine the two worlds, and I find Business English very interesting. I am now only teaching bankers, and I find the subject matter I’m teaching them to be interesting. We’ve moved beyond just teaching grammar and vocabulary. I’m actually teaching concepts of banking and learning from my students too.
EG: Would you say that this is one of the secrets to your success? That you’re teaching something that you genuinely care about?
MR: Well, I’m not a banker! Actually, it’s hard to say. I think we can’t really judge our own success. I am still working, although I am officially retired, so I could stop, but I still get work. I think it has to do with enthusiasm and passion for what we do: I like my students. At this point, I’m lucky that I can say no if I don’t want to do something, which is very important, and I like the people I work with. For me, it’s the ideal job.
EG: You also have an interest in learning styles, which has shaped your career, and you’ve written two books on the topic. Can you tell me more about that?
MR: Well, I had to learn French via the audio-lingual method in high school. The teacher talked at us and told us not to picture the word. The first time I saw “qu’est-ce que c’est” written, I thought I would never learn this language! I spent hours in the language lab, listening, without seeing any written language, and I was miserable! I despaired of ever learning a foreign language. Then I moved to Austria and I needed to learn German. I made flashcards and wrote down words, and when I was later introduced to learning styles, I realized that I am a visual learner. It turns out that I need to see the language. That was when I started finding out about learning styles, which include various learning channels such as the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic, as well as whether we are global (big picture) or analytic (interested in the details) learners. My interest in the topic led me to publish two books on the topic. Then, about five years ago, it became “in” to say that learning styles were a myth and it was often spoken about at conferences. I, however, don’t subscribe to this school of thought. I feel that it’s important to cater to different learning styles within a lesson, as the learners have different needs: as teachers, we need to be flexible. I never teach to one type of learner: I don’t say “you are a visual learner, learn like this”. Unless a student asks me, for example, if they say they cannot learn vocabulary, then I will try to identify their learning style and give them tips. If the tips don’t work, I give them other tips. The important thing is for them to discover what works best for them. In class, the most important thing is to go beyond the way we learn ourselves and teach to everybody. So, if I’m a visual learner who dislikes listening comprehension, I still need to do them for my auditory learners. I need to understand that the visual learners will want to read along with the listening, and that’s okay. With one of my groups we recently listened to a text, then we read it, and then we listened again, and the group felt much better about the experience overall. It’s important to realize that not everybody needs this, but some do. And to ignore those needs, I think, is ignoring the experience of the learner. A topic that I would still like to research is what happens if we ignore the fact that people learn differently. My feeling is that if we do so, we might interfere with their motivation. It could well be that somebody is told “no, you’re not allowed to learn that way”, which really does happen, then their motivation to learn the language could disappear.
EG: What is one of the aspects of your work that you most enjoy and why?
MR: Getting to know my students and feeling that they are learning something. For example, hearing back from a student who unexpectedly had to speak English in a meeting, and who was able to do it. The student told me “I was able to communicate, and they understood me, and I understood them!” That is so rewarding, much better than the salary – which is also important, of course, but knowing that the students are improving is worth a lot. Another student I had, when we first started, every second word was German, and now she speaks English for the entire hour. Moments like that are very important to me. I also enjoy learning more about the topics I teach, as well as learning about people.
EG: Would you recommend a career in ELT to others?
MR: Well, it depends on who they are. I think one danger is the native English speakers who travel abroad as I did, thinking that speaking the language well is enough to teach it. There’s an awful lot of learning before English can be taught well. I actually learned how to teach English grammar by reading a book written for kids on English grammar. I had to learn how our grammar works; we need to know this as teachers. You have to be willing to do the homework. For example, when you get up to C1 level, we all feel lost at times, and I had to start searching for people who could explain the grammar. I went to some of the top names in ELT to get answers to some of the trickier questions. Indeed, grammar is very complicated: I recommend getting a hold of some good books; for example, I have Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage and the Cambridge Grammar of English by Michael McCarthy and Ron Carter. The important thing to bear in mind is that you cannot stop learning. This is not something you can do in your free time; the commitment has to be there. So to come back to your question, I would recommend a career in ELT to somebody who is looking to expand their horizons, looking to learn new things about themselves, about the language, and about others. Also, if you are abroad, I think it’s very important to learn the language of the country you are in, to learn the language of the people you are teaching.
EG: On that note, what advice do you have for teachers living abroad who are looking to build a career in ELT?
MR: Integrating into the community is key, but I would particularly stress the importance of volunteering in teacher associations. You can start small, for example, by writing for the newsletter. You can go to their meetings, conferences and events to start meeting people. you can join a committee, which often leads to joining a larger committee, as I did within IATEFL. You can start a SIG (Special Interest Group). IATEFL, for example, needs a CLIL (Content & Language Integrated Learning) SIG. There is room for more topics. You can also be involved on a smaller scale. IATEFL’s BESIG, for example, has started finding volunteers to help out that are not on the committee, so there’s less pressure and less responsibility, but they are involved. Also, go to ELT conferences, including international ones. Present at conferences, exchange business cards, learn from others, find a mentor. There is always something that you can do.
Marjorie Rosenberg has a rich and diverse background in teaching English – in particular business English – across Europe. She is currently based in Graz, Austria.