(I have to admit that I didn't know exactly what a blog was when I was asked – yes, there are a few of us left.) They said I should start with some autobiography, so here goes.
I got into English language teaching half a century ago, quite by accident. After doing a Modern Languages BA at Oxford, I decided to stay on and do a research degree rather than going out into the hard cruel world. But since even postgraduate students have to eat, I picked up a bit of part-time teaching, one summer vacation, at a small Oxford language school that had suddenly lost a teacher. (He had run off to Scotland with one of his students. Really.) I knew nothing whatever about teaching English, but the students were tolerant and my colleagues on the staff were very nice. As time went on I got quite skilled at keeping one lesson ahead of the class, and began to learn the rudiments of the craft – not least because of the advice and encouragement of the Principal, John Eckersley, to whom I owe a considerable debt. Also, as time went on, I found the work increasingly interesting and enjoyable, and discovered that I had a modest talent for it; none of this was true of my academic research into some justly neglected 18th-century German poets. So after a couple of years I finally saw the light and turned into a full-time English language teacher.
Three years or so working for John Eckersley were followed by a longer period during which my first wife and I ran our own small language school, the Swan School, in Oxford. My involvement in this came to an end when we split up. She continued running the school, very much better than I had (I should never try to organise anything, ever), and I moved to Paris, where I taught English to adults and wrote my first books. Paris in the 1970s was a very good place to be an English language teacher. The Communicative Approach was just beginning to make waves, and the place was buzzing with new ideas, many of them sensible. Most importantly for me, the British Council's brilliant and dynamic English Language Officer, Alan Maley, organised regular seminars, open to all for a small fee, where one could spend a day or a weekend learning from the brightest stars in the ELT firmament. This helped me to fill some of the gaps in my knowledge and thinking – having drifted into the business before ELT training courses existed, I had no formal training at all. (I'm still totally unqualified. If I applied to myself for a job as a research assistant, I'd have to turn myself down.)
By the end of the 1970s, after 20 very enjoyable years teaching, I decided I'd been in classrooms for long enough: spending your working day telling people things you know and they don't is ultimately bad for the character. (Me, dogmatic?) By that time I'd already published several textbooks for Cambridge University Press, as well as a reference book for Oxford University Press (Practical English Usage), based on my long experience of learners' difficulties with English. The following years saw me back in Britain working on the Cambridge English Course series, written together with my partner Catherine Walter. (Warning to anyone contemplating writing a full-scale language course: it's likely to take all your time, including evenings and weekends, for three times as many years as you expected.) And then various other books got written, along with revisions of earlier material. The last three years have gone into a very big project, the Oxford English Grammar Course (Swan and Walter), which will be published a little later this year.
Although I've spent my working life as a practitioner of one kind or another, I've always been interested in more theoretical questions – particularly those relating to first and second-language acquisition, the role of the mother tongue in the learning of a new language, models of grammar, and the nature of language in general. I've written a number of articles addressed to teachers and applied linguists, some of them critical of the conventional wisdom: big ideas in our field come and go, and I'm often sceptical about the value of currently fashionable theoretical views. (Some of these articles can be found on my website: www.mikeswan.co.uk.) However, I have considerable respect for the increasing contribution of academic research to our work (how could one not?), and it's a long time since I used 'Applied Linguist' as a term of abuse. Indeed, for several years I was myself a Visiting Professor of Applied Linguistics at a British university, rather to my surprise.
As a freelance writer, I spend most of my time working at home. However, I find myself asked from time to time to speak at teachers' conferences in various countries. This gives me a chance to come out of my mole-hole, emerge blinking into the light, and travel to beautiful places, where I meet interesting people, sample the local food and wine, and get to talk to friendly audiences of co-professionals. It's tough, but somebody's got to do it.
Over the years, I've developed a number of fairly clear ideas about what kind of thing works and what doesn't in English language teaching (and a number of less clear ideas beginning 'It depends'). In future blogs I'll let some of these ideas fly around for you to shoot at. In the meantime, I hope to hear from you.
Michael's now finished his period as our Guest Writer - many thanks to all of you who contributed to the discussion on his blog.