AN INTERVIEW WITH
What makes a good language teacher?
good language teacher makes language learning pertinent to the real world. Good
language teachers are attentive to the needs of their students, have near-native
proficiency in the target language, and have a good background in
language-teaching methodology. This should be combined with patience,
organization, and enthusiasm. No one can remember everything, so students need
to realize that there are no “stupid” questions and that it’s only natural for
mistakes to occur while learning to communicate in another language. Error
correction is necessary, but encouragement and subtle, yet effective, error
correction yield better results than sarcasm or criticism. Classes should be
well planned, well paced, and challenging. It is important to set definite goals
for each class and to make up detailed lesson plans that include activities in
all four language skills. Good language teachers are enthusiastic about their
subject and convey this enthusiasm to their students. This is important for
teaching the “fifth” language skill – sensitivity to the culture and history of
the people who speak the language. Language learning should be an exhilarating
experience for the student. Each class should give students a sense of
accomplishment and the feeling that this is the best class of the day.
How did you enter the profession? Why
did you decide to become a professor of Russian language (as opposed to being a
professor of literature or linguistics)?
actually began my career by teaching advanced Russian, in Russian, and by making
up teaching materials at the same time in the Indiana University Russian
Workshop. One of the first programs to offer language study in the USSR was the
IU Russian Language Study Tour – a ten-week program with five weeks of intensive
language study on the IU campus and five weeks of language study during a tour
of the Soviet Union. The main focus of this program was teaching students the
language skills they would need to talk about themselves and the USA and to deal
with various aspects of life in the Soviet Union. This type of teaching was very
different from the way I had originally learned Russian. I found this type of
teaching very rewarding and taught in the summer program for several years.
During my years as a graduate student at Indiana University I also had the
opportunity to be in charge of the first- and second-year Russian courses and to
make up supplementary materials for these courses. In 1972 I began teaching in
the summer Russian School at Middlebury College, where I taught until 1986. By
the time I received my Ph.D. in Russian literature in 1976 I had amassed a great
deal of experience in teaching Russian at all levels, so it was only natural
that I continue to devote the greater part of my energy to language teaching
Are there fewer or more opportunities
for American speakers of Russian and other Slavic languages than when you began
Government jobs have always been available for speakers of Russian and other
Slavic languages. When I began my career, few American companies did business
with the USSR and Eastern Europe, so there were almost no jobs available in this
area. This of course has changed, and those who look hard do find jobs in
The number of
academic positions available each year has remained quite small over the past 20
years, but this past year the situation changed dramatically – evidently my
generation of Slavists is beginning to retire. In the late 1960s there were
numerous job opportunities in Russian and the other Slavic languages, but in the
early 1970s the job market dried up. There were years when there were so few
jobs available that many graduate students were in no hurry to finish their
dissertations. The job market will probably remain good for the next three or
four years, and graduate students who are working on their dissertations should
finish them as quickly as possible in order to take advantage of this situation.
Have your teaching methods changed
over the past 20 years?
My methods have, of course, changed, but my main goal of getting students out of
the textbook and using the language in realistic everyday situations has
remained the same. When I first began teaching, the ALM approach to teaching
language was popular. Since then other methodologies have come and gone, and
we’ve derived benefit from all of them. Most important, I think, has been the
transition from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered classroom.
Newer “smart classrooms” and the Internet enable us to bring the real world into
the classroom, and newer technologies like Wimba (www.horizonwimba.com) give
students the opportunity to develop their speaking skills and to submit oral
assignments as email attachments.
What should someone starting out in
the profession focus on?
Professional development. Most new Ph.D.’s do teach language, and all good
language teachers continually try to improve their skills and keep abreast of
the latest technology. Good teachers learn from each other, and one can learn a
great deal by observing good teachers of any language. Most good teachers
welcome observers in their classrooms; new teachers should find out who they are
and ask to observe them. One should take advantage of opportunities to attend
workshops on technology and learn to use “smart classrooms” for language
One should also
be aware of the ACTFL proficiency guidelines and try to attend an OPI workshop
and become a qualified ACTFL tester. It is most important for one to be active
in professional organizations such as AATSEEL, ACTFL, and the MLA. The worst
thing one can do is not to keep aware of what’s going on in the profession.
What should one look for in a
graduate program or a study-abroad program?
have often heard graduate students comment that their language proficiency
actually declines during graduate study. This is because most or all of their
courses and readings are in English and little or no attention is paid to the
development of their language skills. It is therefore important to look for a
graduate program that offers courses and opportunities for language maintenance.
One should also look for a program that trains its students to teach and
prepares them adequately for the job market.
Students who are
interested in study-abroad programs should speak with other students who have
participated in these programs and then decide which program is for them. Many
study-abroad offices keep a file of student evaluations and comments and, if
available, these should also be consulted.
Frank Miller is
Professor of Slavic Languages at Columbia University. He has chaired the
Department and has been the Russian Language Coordinator for Columbia University
and Barnard College since 1985. He received the Ph.D. degree in 1975 from
Indiana University where he began teaching Russian in 1964. He is the author of
several books and co-author, with Olga Kagan and Anna Kudyma, of В пути
(2nd. ed. Pearson-Prentice Hall 2006). He received the AATSEEL Award for
Excellence in Teaching at the Postsecondary Level in 1996 and was AATSEEL
President in 1999–2000.