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ESL MiniConference Online!

Achievement Profile: Anthea Tillyer
A Visionary Who Helped Build the ESL Internet Superhighway

Anthea Tillyer is one of the Internet pioneers in the ESL profession. She created the world-famous TESL-L mailing list in the early 1990s, nurturing its growth from when it was only growing at a rate of about ten new subscribers each week to the present day, when nearly 30,000 English professionals from all over the world exchange ideas via the TESL-L listserver. The ESL MiniConference Online newsletter is honored to share Professor Tillyer's comments from a recent interview.

Some Anthea Tillyer links:

Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages Electronic List (TESL-L) (Join today!)
The InfiNET Possibilities: English Teachers on the Internet (1997)
The TESL-L Electronic Network (1995)
Electronically Yours: Cross-Cultural Communication through E-Mail Penpals (1993)
Beyond Portfolios: Looking at Students' Projects as Teaching and Evaluation Devices (1992)

An ESL MiniConference Online interview
with Anthea Tillyer:

Anthea Tillyer

What is your main ESL activity now? What are your principal projects, and what is on the back burner?

My main projects are all related to instructional technology, primarily online teaching. In teaching, I teach various online writing courses for the US government and also for the City University of New York. My other project is as assistant to the Director of Instructional Technology for the City University of New York. In that position, I am currently creating online help files for CUNY teachers who want to use technology.

How did you start your ESL career? Who influenced your decision? What were some important formative experiences in the early stages of your development?

Like most ESL teachers, I think, I fell into it. My first interest and studies were in economics, particularly the structure of colonial economies. But I also had a huge interest in the poetry of Arabic Spain and the whole Arabic era in Spain, and eventually I switched my major to medieval Spanish literature. Once, when I was doing research in Spain and giving English classes to supplement my post-graduate study grant, I found that I really enjoyed teaching English and that English was a fascinating language. So I switched my graduate studies yet again to English linguistics and have been teaching ever since. I am glad I made the switch. And I remind myself that if I think I am underpaid as an ESL teacher, the prognosis for specialists in Arab-Spanish literature is even bleaker!

What are the four or five language/culture backgrounds with which you are most familiar as a teacher? Which ones are you familiar with from the perspective of a language learner yourself? What insights have you gained in how to meet the needs of English learners from these cultures and language backgrounds?

I am bi-lingual in French and English, the languages I learned in the bosom of my family (so to speak). I learned Italian as a child living for two years in Italy. I didn't study it, I just learned it by being thrown into it. Although I have lost fluency when speaking Italian, I have perfect understanding still when I hear it or read it. I'm sure the background of these languages has helped me learn Spanish and Portuguese. But I another language helped me more than almost everything else as a teacher and a student of language - Latin! My education was such that I studied Latin for TEN YEARS. It was required and I absolutely HATED it because it was required and badly taught. Now, however, I find I know a lot of Latin and that my understanding of its highly inflected grammar and my miserable experience learning it are the things that have had the most influence on making me a good language teacher myself. I studied Spanish in school and then again in graduate school, of course. As part of my graduate studies in medieval Spanish, I was able to see almost the exact moment when Spanish and Portuguese became distinct languages rather than similar dialects. That was exciting! I have never studied Portuguese, but I can speak it and understand it reasonably well, though I suspect that I am often just speaking medieval Spanish!

I am familiar with Iranian culture and the Persian language (now largely forgotten except for the script which is mostly the same as Arabic) because of having been married to an Iranian. I greatly value the languages and culture of the people of the Middle East, and I include Arab Spain in that.

I don't think that my experiences as a language learner have helped all that much with my teaching, except that I know that I love Spanish and learned it easily mostly because our teacher used music as the basis of all classes! We all learned a lot and enjoyed ourselves. But I was a highly motivated language student, bi-lingual by the age I started school. So my circumstances were different from those of my students. I think talking to my students is the thing that has helped me relate to their issues best.

If you had to give three pieces of advice to a new ESL teacher, what would they be?

Don't do it if you don't love it.
Learn English grammar.

What do you see as the most important issues facing the ESL/EFL teaching profession today?

1. Access to technology and materials in the developing world.

2. The appalling working conditions and status of many ESL teachers. EFL teachers are better off, but ESL teachers need to organize.

Interviewed by Robb Scott

2002 ESL MiniConference Online

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