Leading the way in language and pedagogy research
Claire Dembry: I saw the job of ‘Corpus Manager’ advertised and I remember thinking ‘You never see that!’ – I hadn’t before and haven’t since. I’ve been here for five years now, and I’ve done a CELTA to really immerse myself in ELT, and it’s fascinating. I hadn’t really realised how closely interlinked Corpus Linguistics and ELT are – so it’s been really interesting to combine the two.
Laura Patsko: I have an ELT background – I did my CELTA, taught for a while, did my DELTA, kept teaching, then started teacher training. I loved being in the classroom, but realised that I couldn’t go much further in a language school. I joined BAAL (the British Association for Applied Linguistics) and saw this really interesting role – and the advertisement was like reading my CV!
What makes your role different?
CD Both of our roles were new positions, and they were both quite different – quite cutting edge. You don’t see roles like these too often in ELT – and you don’t see other organisations doing anything similar.
LP It’s the combination of theory and practice – helping one inform the other. People often assume that the theory informs the practice and then it stops, but it can be the other way – which is one thing I like about doing pedagogy research here. You do research with people rather than on people – working with teachers, visiting classrooms. You’re connecting the dots between language and its forms, the way people use it, and the way people learn it. And that’s a lot of fun. I feel like I haven’t gone too far out of the classroom now I’m not teaching.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
CD We get to work across such a broad range of materials and courses, with different people. It’s fantastic to see right across the board, from adult courses, to schools materials, to academic English, across all the different levels. But what’s really important to me is that our work isn’t for nothing. Before, other research I was doing was dead interesting, but wasn’t for anything. It wasn’t making a difference, wasn’t improving anything, it was just for endeavour – which is fine, but it’s not really meaningful. It gives you a sense of purpose when you’ve worked hard on something and it makes it into a product – knowing your work will make language learning easier for somebody, or make the materials better.
LP When I was teaching, I had a sense that I was doing something meaningful, and making a difference to those students in my classroom. But now, my work benefits teachers and students in classrooms all over the world, helping them to enjoy what they’re doing, whilst learning and continuing to improve.
What is the aim for research at Cambridge?
CD Although this is cheesy, it’s about making learning better making it faster, more interesting, more useful…
LP Helping people actually learn the language. You have to remind yourself why a particular student is in that classroom – he wants to learn English, so how can we help him do that? What are the actual, practical things that we can do to help a person in the real world achieve that learning?
Why is research important to ELT materials?
LP Whenever you add something to your life that you’re putting a lot of faith into those with the expertise you need to help you achieve what you want to do. When I moved to Cambridge, I bought a bicycle. I needed to make sure I wasn’t going to be unsafe, so I took it to a cycle shop to have it checked over. I know nothing about mechanics, so was putting so much trust in this guy in the cycle shop – but I can’t check that he’s done a good job because I don’t have that expertise. It’s the same in language learning. People land in a classroom and they’re given a book. They don’t have years of language research behind them – so they have to trust that that book has been designed in a way that will actually help them learn the language. So, research is massively important to ensure the materials we are providing are the best they can be. Anybody who speaks English could write some activities down, but it doesn’t mean that it’s going to address the things learners are likely to have trouble with, or that it’s going to be designed in a way that we actually use English in the real world. I think you really need that research to make sure that materials are informed by something other than just a general intuition.
How do you use insights to impact Cambridge materials?
CD We can look at the most frequent words, the most difficult thing for learners with different first language, why some levels or groups of students find particular things very easy or very hard. We might look at which level we should teach something at, or why you should teach one word over another one with a similar meaning, because it might be less useful. Teachers and authors have a general feeling about things like that but we can help prove it – we can find that stuff out. Research adds something else that’s beyond expert instincts and experience. It’s an extra ‘check’ if you like, which can support ideas and perhaps provide extra insights or new methods to consider.
What do insights bring to the language learning experience?
LP It’s about taking into account the whole person – there’s so much more to learning a language than just memorising rules. You really have to know about who’s using it and how they’re using it, and when it’s appropriate to say this or that. That whole package needs support from something other than a person’s intuition. Everyone’s own experience is so personal. If you’re going to interact with people all over the place in a language you need that extra insight to feel confident that you’re going to be able to meet all the challenges that you’re going to face.