Laura Baniulytė interviews Phil Ball

1.What problems do teachers encounter while using the CLIL approach?

Well, it depends on whether it is the subject or language teachers, but CLIL was originally designed for subject teachers. Obviously, subject teachers think that their problems will be linguistic.They might have been teaching for thirty years, but they thinkthat while teaching their subject in Spanish or Lithuanian or English, whatever, they will have to deal with linguistic problems. But it’s usually not the case. That’s just what they think it is. Sometimes people have trouble finding resources as well. If you’re teaching Biology in English in the Basque country, for example, it’s difficult to find a nice textbook that will just do thatautomatically for you in English. So often it’s a problem of resources. Generally, the problems are linguistic and concerning the resources.

2.How could I, as a future English language teacher, make learning easier for my students? Do you have any tips that motivate students to improve their English language skills?

I don’t think that we should teach language. I think that’s the problem. In CLIL you use language. And the more you use language as a vehicle for doing something else, the more motivated students are. And it doesn’t have to be kids,it’s the same with adults. If you look at how people teach kids in primary school, they understand that kids don’t know very much, they understand that young kids have to be motivated. When they get to secondary school or university, they think that people don’t have to be motivated anymore. It’s not true. So, oftenyou will find the best CLIL practice in primary schools, because people are supporting language, they’re supporting concept, they’re supporting procedural thinking. People stop supporting them when they get into secondary school.Well, if you want people to learn languages, then they need to do things. They need to be talking about real things. And that’s why CLIL is a good option if you do it properly, if you do it carefully.

What do you talk about in a language class? More often people talk about language. But kids don’t want to talk about the differences between the Present Perfect and Past Simple on a Friday afternoon, do they? They’d much rather be doing things like Keith Kelly was talking about: exploring the environment down by the supermarket. The traditional language teaching doesn’t really do things. It just talks about language. The theory is important, but it’s not necessarily important to know the theory of a language.

3.Has there ever been a moment in your life whenyou learnt something by disobeying the rules?

I live in the Basque country and Basque is a very difficult language, even more difficult than Lithuanian which is older. It has no relationship to any other languages, as far as we know. When I went to an academy, in order to learn the language, the problem was that the teacher didn’t allow us to speak. The teacher thought that we had to learn the rules before we could say anything. Well, we spoke, we said things in pairs. We would say things like: “My name is Philip. I have a brother. He is older than me.” That kind of stuff. And once I was so fed up with this that I pretended I had a headache. I said: “I’m sorry, can I go? I have a headache.” But I really didn’t. I left the academy and I went across the road where there was a bar where everybody spoke Basque. And the barman spoke Basque, and everybody spoke Basque. And I sat in the bar speaking Basque. Even though I had a beginner’s level, I spoke Basque with these people. That was the way I felt I could learn. So that experience taught me that I had to get out of thetraditional idea of having to know the rules of the language before you can speak it.I escaped from the language class in order to learn a language.

4.Since one of your passions is football, could you draw a parallel between football and teaching?

It’s all about confidence. It’s the best parallel, isn’t it? It is easy to destroy people’s confidence and it’s also very easy to make them confident. It’s very easy to make people feel ok about themselves as teachers, I mean.And in football it’s also all about confidence: you can be a very good player, but you can play terribly for a whole year if you’re not feeling confident, if the trainer doesn’t like you, if something’s wrong in your life, if you don’t feel loved by the trainer. It’s exactly the same in a language class. People don’t feel valued, people don’t feel like their achievements have been recognized, their opinions are being asked for, if people really don’t feel that they’re being asked to do real things by the teacher, then I can’t see how they can possibly be confident. And if they can’t speak, then how could they really be confident about the language? I think that’s a nice parallel between sports and language. People who don’t have confidence about learning a language won’t learn a language. They have to feel confident and that’s important in teaching. And it’s very important in CLIL, because it can be difficult when you’re faced with all this sort of tsunami of content. You have to feel that you can do it, that you can understand it, that you can say it.

5.How have your teaching methodschanged since you first started teaching? Have you noticed any particular improvements?

Well, I don’t teach much anymore, I spend most of my time writing materials for teachers. But in order to do that correctly, you have to watch the teachers using it[your teaching material]and you have to do it [teach] yourself sometimes.So I do stay in touch with the classroom, but I don’t teach full-time anymore, I’m too old. It’s a young person’s job. But I think that what I do now, when I do teach, when I train, I don’t talk so much. In Spain the idea is that a teacher has to show their knowledge, they have to be in charge. There’s a teacher-centered philosophy there.You show your knowledge by helping other people to develop theirs. Not by telling them things. People think that you got to tell things. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. In CLIL you have to facilitate, because you can’t keep ‘blablabla’ing at people. If you ‘blablabla’ at people in a CLIL class, they’re not going to understand you.What you have to do is facilitate them to do things themselves. The teacher takes a back seat. Traditionally, in English language teachingthe idea was that you, the teacher, were the model. And they had to pick up the model from you. But I think that we’ve realized that’s wrong now. It’s true that you do have to model language, but it’s not the only thing. The kids themselves have to use it.

6.Youhave worked as a teacher in England, Lima, Peru, Oman as well as in Spain. Have you noticed any differences between the teachers and teaching methods in these countries?

Teaching methodologies in countries are very connected to the culture. And what does that mean? It means that countries or regions have a particular philosophy about how we best learn. Look at China, for example, where the teacher is everything. The teacher is the fountain of knowledge. In Japan as well.It’s very difficult to do CLIL in Japan, because you’re taking away the teacher’s power. You seem to be doing that, but you’re not, actually. That’s just what they think. So when you go to different cultures, that’s what you see. The methodologies are very connected to the cultural view of what an educator is. In Spain it’squite traditional, but it’s changing. And CLIL is changing it. You find better practice in CLIL, because people know that they can’t ‘blablabla’. They don’t have to be the fountain of knowledge. I don’t know what the situation is like in Lithuania. I’ve seen a couple of clips of teachers in Lithuania teaching and it seems to me to be quite traditional. I’m making a guess that it’s quite teacher-centered.

7.What is your most embarrassing experience as a teacher?

Well, quite a lot, I suppose. When I was young, I made lots of mistakes, said the wrong things. I began teaching a literature course for fifth forms in 1982 in England, in a comprehensive school. I was teaching them from a set book of the examination course. And after two days one of the students said: “Sir, excuse me, this is a very nice book, but it’s not actually one of the exam books. That was last year.” And I said: “Sorry about that.” That was very embarrassing. So we had to change the books. That was a big mistake of mine.