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Editorial NRInglês

★ Interview with John Corbett

JS: First of all, John, I would like to thank you on behalf of New Routes and all our readers for having been a regular and important contributor to the magazine since 1999 (Issue numbers 7, 31, 34, 51, 54 and now 63). Your articles covered a very wide range of topics. Could you please tell us first a little bit about your background and professional experience?

JC: Thanks so much for the invitation to contribute again, Jack. Ah, this is the kind of question I dread at job interviews! My career has been quite wayward: like many EFL teachers, I began as a university student of literature and linguistics, and then, after I graduated, I found there were greater opportunities in language teaching. My career has led me to work in a commercial school and universities in Italy, Russia and Macau – as well as Brazil and Scotland – and it has been a privilege to see how different educational systems work in these countries. Over the years, my main focus has been language research and education. However, I have always retained a sense of the importance, value and excitement of literary studies. Unlike some, I fail to see a sharp distinction between language studies and literary studies – both have the ultimate goal of helping us explore the world, or worlds, we live in.

JS: You joined the University of Macau in early 2011 as full Professor in the Department of English. What were some of the challenges, both personally and professionally, that you faced. What were some of the highlights and also the low moments during your time there?

JC: It’s a fascinating time to be in Asia. Macau is a strange and wonderful mixture of East and West, and in some ways typifies the virtues and dangers of modern China. It’s a small city but compresses into its restricted space baroque Portuguese churches, the oldest European architecture in Asia, old Chinese temples and grandiose, jaw-dropping temples to Western capitalism, the American casinos that have sprung up since the Chinese handover in 1999. Macau is sometimes called ‘China lite’: we have all the social media and no obvious censorship, but the environment is still pretty much Chinese. The casinos have provided the city with enough tax revenue to fund the dizzying transformation of the University of Macau from a small, local tertiary institution in a cramped location, to a world-ranked university on a new US$ 3 billion campus.

During the transition period, I was Head of the English Department. Anyone in a similar position will know that it involves juggling senior management’s priorities with staff interests and student demands. That can be really rewarding – it is so exciting to be part of a buzz of growth and change. However, a hierarchical educational and political system means that both good and bad decisions are usually made and implemented at the top, and so the HoD is in the position of trying to get junior colleagues and students on board for the good decisions and to protect them from the poor ones. So it could be frustrating as well as exhilarating.

JC: Yes, that was one of my happiest experiences with colleagues and students. One problem we had in our Masters degree in English Studies was that the majority of students tended to choose or transfer to linguistics courses, which they saw as being more accessible and vocationally useful than literature. The discourse of literary studies can be very abstract and forbidding! To its credit, the University funded us to invite some writers to the campus, and we also began working with an annual literary festival that had been established in the city (

And so we have been working personally with a range of contemporary writers in English – some regional, like the Singaporean poet and novelist Grace Chia, and some of international standing, like the Pulitzer prizewinner, Adam Johnson, and the Man Booker prize nominees, Madeleine Thien and Graham Macrae Burnet. Our students and colleagues are currently developing a website for the project (and it does take time!) but some videos are already available via playlists on YouTube and the Chinese version Youku, (web links, are given at the end of this article).
Students really rise to the challenge of reading the authors in advance, devising questions, conquering their reticence to interview the writers on video, editing the output, and transcribing, translating and subtitling the interviews. Most importantly, we hope they have caught the ‘literature bug’ and will carry on reading novels and poetry, contemporary and historical, long after their course has ended.

JS: You have published widely on Scottish literature and the Scots language. Do you think these subjects could or should be included in TESOL courses? If so, how could this be done? What about the idea of Scots as a foreign language or Scottish Gaelic as a second language?

JC: Indeed, when I was a Visiting Professor in at USP for a year in 2013, we blended literary studies with TESOL techniques, to really good effect. The undergraduate students at USP also contributed to a web resource that I hear is even being used in Scotland today! In today’s multicultural world, it is now widely recognized that learners need to cope with all kinds of diversity, and exploiting my own ‘mither tongue’ is one way into a discussion of different kinds of English, old and new. In the USP course, for example, the students wrote metrical poetry that included words ‘borrowed’ from an online dictionary of Scots (, and did a ‘jigsaw reading’ of a short Scottish novel by turning each chapter into a tweet. A description of the course was published in an EFL teachers’ magazine, The ETAS Journal (the reference is given below).

In Scotland, there are actually some books published that attempt to teach Scots as a second language, and, certainly, if you are looking at Scottish literature, you need a good dictionary and a tolerance for lexical density! But you can approach this kind of thing at different levels – as a brief introduction to different varieties of World English, demonstrating that there is considerable variety even within the ‘core English’ group of dialects, or as a deeper engagement for those actually interacting with Scottish speakers or texts. And courses in Scots Gaelic for learners of all level are now quite common – for example, you can do a course at the Gaelic College in Skye, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, if you so desire (see cursaichean/cursaichean-goirid). They even do distance courses!

JS: Another important area in which you keep an active interest is intercultural language education. There seems to be an increasingly urgent call for teachers around the world to combine language knowledge and skills with a set of intercultural skills and competences. How can we teach intercultural awareness and translate these aims into classroom practice?

JC: Even the CEFR underlines the importance of intercultural communicative competence. And it is an urgent issue. Twenty years ago, Brazilian public school teachers of English pointed out to me that it was difficult to motivate their pupils, many of whom, quite rightly, complained that they would never be called upon to interact with an English speaker. Since then, the internet has put most Brazilians directly in the position of being able to chat online, at least, in English, with friends and colleagues, practically anywhere on Earth. To do this effectively, though, we need to align our culturallyderived attitudes, beliefs and assumptions as well as polishing our language skills. Intercultural language education has a number of goals, but at the heart of it, we seek to foster the emotional and intellectual resources to be able to respond positively to cultural difference.

And cultural difference comes in many forms – it is not just a question of national identity. There are cultural differences around gender, ethnicity, religion, race, social class, and so on. Some time ago, I became very interested the intercultural journey that people make when they become ill. A Taiwanese colleague, Professor Peih-ying Lu, and I have been working on developing intercultural communicative competence amongst trainee doctors who need to understand the professional culture of medicine and the different attitudes, beliefs and assumptions of those who are affected by disease or incapacity. Often literature and the visual arts offer ways to develop the emotional and intellectual resources that inexperienced doctors need in order to establish empathy and rapport with patients, and to cope with the stresses of their profession.

JS: How can telecollaboration be used in intercultural education?

JC: Oh, wow, that is such a huge topic. Over the past 15 or so years, since the internet became a global phenomenon, I’ve been directly or loosely involved with projects that have connected learners and sometimes native speaking students in different places around the world: Argentina, Brazil, Macau, Poland, Scotland and Taiwan.

Out of this experience I wrote a Cambridge University Press resource book, Intercultural Language Activities, which, I know, has been extensively used in other telecollaboration projects in Brazil and elsewhere. It’s great to hear about these projects – Hugo Dart in Rio has been working with learners in Brazil and Poland, I recently learned of a really exciting project organized by Bruno da Lima that has linked up public school pupils in NE Brazil and university students in California. We are now trying to expand these networks.

The basic idea is to develop a community of learners in different locations – the participants usually perform tasks that require them to explore their own culture and then explain it to the partner group elsewhere. It is quite demanding, for example, to explain the shape, taste, texture and smell of pão de queijo to an American or a Chinese partner, and to describe where you would eat it, what you would eat it with…and how it makes you feel! Then you can learn more about the favourite dishes of your partners, like the stereotypical favourite, fish and chips (or a haggis supper!) in Scotland, or chicken feet in Macau and Taiwan.

JS: You are now President of a relaunched BRAZ-TESOL Intercultural Language Education SIG. What plans do you have for the future, especially with regard to workshops and events in Brazil?

JC: Yes, for a number of years, Andrea Assenti del Rio, in Argentina, and I have been presenting with others at BrazTESOL Pre-Conference Institutes, but because we both have been living outside Brazil we have not been able organize many other SIG events. Happily, Karin Heuert Galvão and Hugo Dart have now joined the SIG and anchored it firmly in Brazil. Now that I am coming back to Brazil myself, I also plan to get involved in workshops, and chapter events across Brazil.

We expect to have a webpage up and running soon, linked to the BrazTESOL website, and that will give more information about future events and opportunities across Brazil. We have been furiously brainstorming over this summer, and plan to keep Andrea and others outside Brazil closely involved too, through telecollaboration projects for example.

JS: One of your many research interests is corpus-based language studies. What exactly is corpus linguistics and why is it important? Can you recommend any websites or links for teachers who are interested in finding out more about this?

JC: Sure, it’s the exploration of large, electronic archives of text using special search software. Corpus linguistics might seem like quite a specialised discipline, but Wendy Anderson, of Glasgow University, and I recently published the second edition of a textbook that we designed, really, for anyone who is interested in using online corpora to explore English. To accompany the book, I also recorded a short series of video lectures that guide viewers in the use of these fantastic resources. Again, the lectures are freely available on a YouTube playlist (the link is given below). A Chinese language version of the lectures is also available, recorded by Zhang Rui, a Macau graduate student. My infinitely supportive wife, Augusta Alves, is currently preparing a Portuguese version.

JS: In 2013, you were Visiting Professor in the Department of Modern Languages of the University of Sao Paulo. You have now been offered an International Fellowship in the English Department by CAPES-USP starting in September 2017What subjects will you be teaching there and what do you think some of the challenges might be?

JC: Jack, I am so delighted to be returning to Brazil and to USP. I’ll be teaching English Language to undergraduates and graduates, anything from Morphosyntax to Corpus Linguistics. And I am also beginning a research project based on the challenges of teaching Academic English and Intercultural Communicative Competence across the USP curriculum. Since that project in principle could involve up to 90,000 students, the prospect is both exciting and scary. But if the experience of working in China taught me anything, it is that you should never be afraid of thinking big!

Anderson, W. and J. Corbett, Exploring English with Online Corpora 2nd edn. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017

Corbett, J. Intercultural Language Activities Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010

Corbett, J. ‘Imaginative Responses: Integrating creative writing tasks into a university survey course on Scottish Literature.’ The ETAS Journal 32:1, pp. 34-36, 2014 [; the Introduction to Scottish Literature website is available at http://]
Lu, P. and J. Corbett, English in Medical Education: An Intercultural Approach to Teaching Language and Values.
Bristol: Multilingual Matters 2012

YouTube playlists:

‘Exploring English with Online Corpora’
English version:
Chinese version:

‘Literature Macau’: nyixBwzsdjnA0UR4


Intercultural Language Activities With Cd Rom

Intercultural Language Activities offers practical teaching ideas which encourage learners to reflect on their own language and culture, as well as that of others. Topics covered in the fourteen chapters include childhood, food, sport, icons, politics and body language. The book also helps learners mediate in situations of cultural misunderstanding and start web-based intercultural exchanges. It examines interview techniques, how people present themselves, and ways to interpret cultural symbols and characteristics, such as those found in postcards, advertisements and online newspapers. In engaging with these topics, learners become intercultural explorers and raise their level of communicative competence. This is an invaluable resource for any teacher who wishes to combine language learning with cultural exploration. In addition, the accompanying CD-ROM provides print-friendly photocopiable worksheets and reading texts which can be put to immediate use.

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