The TESOL President’s Blog
In 1973, the German economist E.F. Schumacher published a book subtitled A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, making its financial focus clear, but it is the main title that he is best known for: Small Is Beautiful. As an indication of the importance of the book, The Times Literary Supplement ranked Small Is Beautiful as one of the top 100 most influential books published since World War II. I referred to Schumacher’s book in my reflections at the closing ceremony of the seventh biennial international conference of the Penang English Language Learning and Teaching Association (PELLTA) last month.
The conference, which took place on 25, 26, and 27 of May, drew approximately 100 participants, mostly from Malaysia, but also from China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Iran, South Korea, Thailand, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Vietnam. Around 30 workshops and 20 papers were presented, as well as an opening keynote from Emeritus Professor Tony Wright, and five plenary speakers, of whom I was one.
The theme of the conference was: “Enhancing ELT Professional Practice: From Current Questions to Future Action,” and it was opened by YB Datuk Mary Yap Kain Ching, the Deputy Minister of Education for Malaysia, who used to be an English language teacher in Malaysia. She was, then, able to speak not only about the government’s plans for ELT in Malaysia, but also to draw on and share with us her own experiences, as both an English language learner as well as an English language teacher.
Also, in spite of the relatively small number of attendees, the program was very varied, under the 15 subthemes of the conference, which reflected the current concerns and challenges of TESOL professionals there. The subthemes included: Innovations in ELT; Professional Learning Communities; Special Needs in ELT; Assessment in ELT; Teaching English for Specific Purposes; Material Selection, Adaptation, and Production; Managing Change in ELT Trends & Curricula; Literature & the Language Arts; ELT and Intercultural Communication; and Teacher Education.
For my plenary talk and the follow-up workshop I presented, I focused on the conference subtheme of “ELT and Intercultural Communication,” as modern Malaysia is the culmination of many different cultures, including Malay, Chinese, and Indian, as well as the historical influence of Persian, Arabic, and British cultures, together with local, indigenous cultures. Given the unique complexity and complexion of Malaysian multiculturality, this was an ideal setting in which to consider how intercultural competence and linguistic competence impact each other.
In my presentations, I showed a “3-I” model of intercultural competence, the first part of which is based on the idea of the “individual as cultural artifact.” That is, in some ways, in opposition to many of the most widely accepted definitions of culture, which are premised on the notion of large numbers of people sharing beliefs, customs, values, and so forth. Therefore, one of the questions we considered was: What would happen to our definitions of culture if each of us constituted an entire culture within our individual selves?
The second side of the “3-I” triangular model related to the notion of institutional culture, and the third side of the model related to international culture. In language classrooms, perhaps especially in countries like Malaysia, which may be one of the ultimate cultural melting pots, it is important to consider the relationships between language and culture in our teaching and learning contexts. Some of these ideas are further developed in the new TESOL Press book series, ELT In Context.
Although Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful book is about economics and not ELT, while I was doing the research for my presentations, I found a fortuitous coincidence between the theme of this year’s PELLTA conference (“Enhancing ELT Professional Practice: From Current Questions to Future Action”) and something Schumacher wrote in his Small Is Beautiful book: “To talk about the future is useful only if it leads to action now.”
The conference was a great reminder of the benefits of attending and contributing to smaller events, which can be just as beautiful as the larger ones—and sometimes, in some ways, even more so.