Later, as an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, I found myself gravitating toward courses in linguistics and psychology that allowed me to deconstruct many of the listening-related phenomena I had been experiencing. Because I didn’t know that there of clear career possibilities in linguistics, I got a degree in education and certificate in high school teaching. However, my student teaching experience scared me away from high school teaching as a career path. At a job fair in my final semester at U. of M., I stumbled upon a Peace Corps booth. In short order, I felt that I had found a possible career direction – or at least a life plan for the next couple of years.
An early memorable experience that formally kick-started my interest in the role of listening in language learning occurred when I was a novice teacher in a high school in West Africa. In my first few weeks of teaching as a Peace Corps volunteer, it was becoming clear to me that the most successful students in my classes were the best listeners. It wasn’t that they understood more or had a better command of English, but these successful students were obviously engaged, curious, and invested. They wanted to be involved. Over time, I began to equate successful listening with these same affective qualities: engagement, curiosity, and personal investment.
The positive impact of my first real teaching experience and my first real bilingual experience (speaking West African French as my lingua franca) has literally stayed with me and guided me throughout my career. When I returned to the U.S. after my experience in Togo, I did a brief teaching stint on the Hopi reservation in northern Arizona, then enrolled in the M.A. TESOL program at Arizona State University in Phoenix, intending to “formalize” what I had been learning informally about language acquisition and intercultural communication. At ASU I had the great fortune of working with some astounding mentors, especially the late great Bill Landon. Two important career-altering experiences took place during this period.
The first concerned my accidental involvement in the world of assessment. Working in the English Skills Program at Arizona State University, under Bill Landon’s direction, I became interested in discovering ways to expedite students’ pathway through the program, toward entry into the university. (Ironically, the goal of teaching is to get your students to need you for as short a time as possible.)
One thing I learned in this pursuit was how to “hack” the listening portion of the TOEFL test that students had to pass. Without knowing exactly what I was doing (a trait I carry into most endeavors), I was able to reverse engineer the test by taking it myself multiple times and figuring out the constructs that the test was (supposed to be) measuring. These are intangible skills like: inferring speaker intention, deducing speaker attitude, answering gist-content questions, making lexical inferences (about ambiguous or unknown terms), phonological discrimination. In the process, I created what turned out to be popular TOEFL listening classes oriented around these skills and test-taking strategies. This experience (which in a way felt like cheating) turned me onto the whole field of assessment and proficiency measurement, though I still maintain that much of the institutional use of testing I see today is flawed and unbalanced.
Another experience at ASU, also related to listening, was working with a colleague, Ken Stratton, to create a phonology-listening course. We called it, boldly, “Listening in the Real World”, with the concept of comparing “citation forms” of phrases (that is, each phoneme is pronounced distinctly) with their more natural “real world forms” (that is, with necessary reductions and assimilations). We called this distinction simply, “long” vs. “short,” and in the Zeitgeist of the time, organized the course around grammatical concepts. Based on the success (i.e. popularity) of the course, we tried shopping the idea to publishers, but with minimal skills in navigating the commercial world, we had no takers. Of course, in the Sufi spirit of interpreting experiences, this turned out to be a good thing. We eventually self-published, forming a company, Lingual House, and keeping our course title for the book, Listening in the Real World.
While I was in Arizona, I met my future wife, Keiko, and shortly after getting my M.A. from ASU, I took a job in Japan at Athénée Français, a revered institution in Japan. (The director, it turned out was also a former Peace Corps volunteer, a commonality which he later admitted was a decisive factor in hiring me. Connections really do matter.) While in Japan, I experienced the struggles and frustrations of learning to communicate in a non-Romance language beyond an intermediate level, after a relatively easy experience in acquiring French in Africa (actually relearning, as I had taken French courses in high school). It was my quest to understand the source of this language acquisition difficulty that led me to leave my pretty cushy job and pursue a Ph.D.
After a bit of degree shopping, I applied to University of Lancaster, again with a kind of inside track after meeting the inimitable Christopher Candlin at a conference in Hawaii. I narrowed down my dissertation focus from listening-in-general to second language lecture comprehension, eventually realizing that the narrower the focus, the more likely I was to succeed! (One of the boot-camp level take-aways from being a naive American studying at a British university is that your instructors have no qualms about berating you when you venture too far afield, all in the interest of “helping” you.) Lessons learned, the dissertation was definitely a springboard into my academic life. And I was able to publish a book based on my Ph.D. topic, Listening in Language Learning, which catapulted me onto an academic listening path — and gave me an early baptism into the world of commercial publishing. Listening remains my primary focus in my professional life, and much of my published work (here referenced on Google Scholar) is in this area of second language listening, including Teaching and Researching Listening and Active Listening.
Simultaneously with my academic career, and partly birthed through my earlier experience in Arizona with self-publishing, I began writing and creating courses in the field of English as a Second Language. Perhaps the most challenging and enduring and rewarding projects have been four multi-leveled series:
Not only have these projects contributed to my professional development, but being an author or series editor has enabled me to travel to many countries for presentations, broadening my knowledge of intercultural education and enriching my personal life.
My professional research began when I entered the Ph.D. program at the University of Lancaster, which was at the time the top linguistics research department in the UK. Prior to entering this new arena, which provided for me an exciting mixture of culture shock and learning shock, I was a pragmatic “educational generalist.” Like all of my colleagues, I learned what I needed to in order to “get by” in my teaching – bits of learning theory, bits of linguistics, bits of the commerce of “selling” instruction, bits of the politics of getting along with colleagues and the administrations of the programs I worked for.
I brought with me to Lancaster a strong interest in listening, and naively I believed my dissertation would be on the topic of “acquiring listening ability in an L2.” No, way too broad! I remember one of my advisors (MB) in my introductory seminar literally ripping up my presentation proposal, saying “This is rubbish!” Big splash of culture shock: The “American way” would dictate softening any criticism, particularly to one of your proteges, suggesting perhaps, “I’m afraid you’ll need more work on this…” Maybe proceeded by “This is really good, but…”
Through a careful whittling process, I narrowed my research focus to “lecture comprehension in English as a second language”, zeroing in on tertiary academic contexts. Essentially, learning to focus on what I could actually dig into and understand was a tipping point from being a generalist (with a lot of partial understandings and anecdotal beliefs) to an “expert.” Not that “expert” means “knows everything”, but rather “is willing to explore everything in an accountable way”.
Happy ending: The same advisor who “rubbished” my initial proposal years earlier gave me a hearty congratulations at my “viva” (dissertation defense). It was truly heart-warming to come full circle on this undertaking. I suppose it revealed how “tough love” (if that’s what you call it) is often the best approach in academic settings…at least for the survivors!
The vast majority of the blog postings here relate to my professional research on listening, starting with the initial phases of my research at Lancaster, including parts of my Ph.D. dissertation. My advisor, Chris Candlin, gave me a wondrously fortunate boost in my career by encouraging and guiding me to modify and reframe my dissertation into a book, Listening in Language Learning, which eventually became a widely acclaimed source in applied linguistics.
The topics in that book and updated in this blog include aspects sociolinguistic, psycholinguistic, technological, and educational aspects of listening.