'Why me?' by David Crystal

10th June 2017

A question I’m often asked is how I became patron of IATEFL. The short answer is that Catherine Walter, who had the presidential role in 1993, asked me. And I asked her: Why me? For I am in no way a teacher, in the sense that most of the IATEFL membership understands that word. Although I have spent a fair amount of time observing classroom practice around the world, and done a great deal of teacher-training, I have never done the difficult hands-on job, day by day, myself. Frankly, I don’t think I would ever have had the energy. Or the multi-faceted expertise.

And that, I think, is why IATEFL approached me: to add another facet to that expertise. My special field, within linguistics, has always been the English language – its structure and uses, its past, present and future, its varied usage among individuals and societies. It’s a full-time job studying it and writing about it, let alone teaching it. And I suspect that what was in mind was the thought that a linguist’s perspective could add a dimension to the teaching task that would be appreciated by those who never had a systematic introduction to English or who felt that their knowledge needed updating, especially in the light of such major developments as the growth of English as a global language and the emergence of electronic communication. It was also the case that some of my books were being quite widely read around the ELT world, and it is just human nature that people like to have as a patron somebody they may have actually heard of.

That is how it has worked out, anyway. As I look back over the plenary sessions I have given over the past twenty or so years, the emphasis has always been on the facts: what is actually happening to this thing that IATEFLers have to teach? And what is the best way of presenting the research findings of linguists who work on English so that they become understandable and useful in the context of language teaching? This is all part of the field of applied linguistics, which is where I most like to be working. Everyone wants to be useful, and it is in the various domains of applied linguistics that I’ve always found it most possible to see ways of ‘making a difference’.

But how do you know you’ve been successful (or not)? Only if people tell you. The one thing authors need to keep themselves on track is feedback. And this is where IATEFL, for me, has been of greatest value. Whether it is at the annual conference, or at one of the local branches in various parts of the world, or (most recently) in online webinars, the organization presents innumerable opportunities to discuss the way linguistic theories, methods, and findings relate to teaching practice – opportunities to talk informally to the people who do the job – and opportunities to discover how far my own writing and thinking about language has helped – or not. The introduction of ‘Meet the Patron’ sessions at the annual conference, a couple of years ago, was another way of fostering interaction. I think it’s an important function of the patron’s role, especially as attendance has grown.

It’s the acknowledged intimacy of IATEFL meetings that provides so many positive outcomes. People often talk about the IATEFL ‘family’, and it certainly seems like that – for actually I meet up with IATEFL colleagues from around the world far more often than I do some of my relatives! And the family metaphor has a second application: it suggests friendship and fun. My role as patron hasn’t been an entirely academic experience. Thanks to a background in literature and drama, it proved possible for me to add a social dimension to conferences, ably abetted by my wife, Hilary, and often by our actor son, Ben. Evening events have ranged from serious play readings to light-hearted linguistic extravaganzas, with Shakespeare playing an increasingly prominent part in recent years. They have provided us – and I hope the audiences – with some of our most enjoyable and memorable moments.

When I started as patron, Hilary and I would turn up at the annual conference for a day, perhaps two, then leave to get on with the million other things that have to be done, like writing the next book. But gradually, as we got to know everyone, we stayed for longer – and today, we find ourselves staying for virtually the whole time, with the Associates dinner, the SIG meetings, the invariably fascinating array of plenaries, and a plethora of evening events providing the motivation. I don’t usually go to individual sessions, because – as I said above – ELT is not my professional world, so I wouldn’t get much out of a brilliant presentation on how to teach the present perfect to reluctant teenagers in wherever. I like just to hang around, to be nobbled, to be available to answer questions about the language or (if I don’t know the answer) to point people in the direction of someone or somewhere else – an important feature of professionalism is to know what you do not know (the ‘known unknowns’, as US secretary of state Donald Rumsfeld once said). And I almost always come away with a new set of research challenges, arising from questions about some aspect of the English language that I’d not thought about before. To illuminate and to be illuminated. That is why I like being patron of IATEFL.

David Crystal works from his home in Holyhead, North Wales, as a writer, editor, lecturer, and broadcaster. He read English at University College London, worked for a year on the Survey of English Usage under Randolph Quirk, then taught at the universities of Bangor and Reading, where he became professor of linguistic science. He is now honorary professor of linguistics at Bangor University. He lives online at www.davidcrystal.com, where there is a complete listing of his publications.

David will be holding an English language weekend in the Ucheldre Centre, Holyhead, Anglesey, North Wales on 19th-20th August 2017, which you may be interested in attending. You can find out more information on his blog.