Interview of Dr. Elaine Tarone
By: Chad Elliott
Dr. Elaine Tarone is the director for the Center for Advanced Research in Language Acquisition (CARLA), and a distinguished university teaching professor at the University of Minnesota. On February 20, 2010, she was the plenary speaker at the 7th Annual TESOL/Applied Linguistics Graduate Students (TALGS) Conference at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC. Her plenary session, “Alphabetic Literacy Level and Oral L2 Processing,” examines the literacy rates of Burmese immigrants in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. She discovered that illiteracy is not an indicator of unintelligence; rather, illiterate individuals were still skilled at acquiring second languages. Additionally, Dr. Tarone also gave a presentation on how teachers can approach learner language, and how native English-speaking teachers can engage non-native students in their classrooms. This second presentation also provided a review of her latest workbook on adapting existing pedagogies to learner language, titled Exploratory Practice.
Below is a transcription of an interview taken with Dr. Tarone during the post-conference reception dinner. In this interview, we explore not only her reasons behind wishing to speak at the TALGS Conference, but also her interests in pursuing linguistics in general.
I’d like to know your thoughts about when Dr. Cope first contacted you. Between then and now, what made you decide to come to TALGS as opposed to some other linguistic conference?
Well, I don’t have graduate students of my own, for the most part, so I feel that these are the future of our field. I wanted to talk about themes of linguistic and literary studies, and also about a way of teaching second language acquisition, because I’m not confident that graduate students are getting enough of this information. I want graduate students to hear this and to think about dissertations or theses, to build on this or explore it as they see fit.
You have given us a great deal to think about: your plenary session was very interesting and informative. But what made you fall into literacy? What drew you to the field?
Because this group of immigrants settled in the Twin Cities.
Oh, so the group you talked about in your plenary session initially drew you to the field?
That’s right. I mean, nobody was really interested in literacy before that. It’s just…when the first waves came, and there were no [literacy researchers], everybody said, “Oh, we’re SLA, I don’t have to do anything with illiteracy.” So, nobody did anything! Nobody “cracked,” or gave in, so nobody did anything to solve these issues. When it happened the second time, I said, you know, “Enough’s enough.” I wasn’t about to let it happen twice.
Then I had to learn about literacy, and the rest of us were people who did SLA. We needed to find some way to measure literacy, and there weren’t any indicators. We developed some strategies for measuring literacy, but it was difficult. The other thing that was frustrating was that our colleagues were trying to talk about this population only in terms of who needed formal schooling. They weren’t measuring literacy.
Since we were SLA researchers, we wanted to be precise. We needed to measure literacy, then replicate SLA studies either with illiterate and literate or – what we ended up doing – with lower and higher literacy. It was driven by who we had, and there were thousands, thousands, of language learners right next to our campus. I mean, what a great opportunity.
That is quite an opportunity. It seems like you’re working toward a goal, not just with literacy but with CARLA as well. Where do you see CARLA or literacy studies in the next five years?
CARLA, so far, has not done much with literacy. Looking at language teaching, we’re looking at trying to get Americans to be bilingual, and that is a daunting challenge in itself, as you know.
We’re going to be applying in CARLA this summer for an NSF grant to try to do more literacy work. As with the last one, we have a batch of immigrants from Burma who are coming, and they are illiterate. We actually have some connections with that community, so it would be easier for us to deal with them than it would be for others. As I was saying, we are going to try to get an NSF grant and through CARLA we can successfully reach people who don’t have any access to learning materials.
Turning to your experience, you’ve grown up all over the world, haven’t you? You went to college overseas; how was that experience?
I went to Edinburgh University, in Scotland. I went because I was interested in African-American vernacular, and somebody at Berkley told me that I wanted training in applied linguistics. She told me that there were two good programs in the world: one of them was Teacher’s College Columbia, where a guy named William Labov was [teaching]; the other one was Edinburgh, in the department of applied linguistics. So, I applied to both, and I waited…and I waited…and then I heard from Edinburgh. They accepted me, and at that time I still had not heard from the Teacher’s College. I had totally grown tired of teaching high school; so, I sold my car, took my savings, and went to Edinburgh. It was only after all this that I heard from the Teacher’s College.
[At this point, another speaker interjects]
Speaker: I really love your book. I plan to use it a great deal in my classes and research. I want to use it particularly when examining methodology, as a big portion of our courses is about the different theories about language acquisition. They look for models and examples outside, but this [book] is so much simpler because it keeps it all in one spot.
Yes, it is. But, actually, there are methodological consequences to what you decide is going on in learner language [acquisition].
Speaker: Yes, it is so important for them to realize that they can miss the point – I mean teachers, they can miss the point so quickly.
Sure. With the theories we have, it’s difficult to stick with one. At one point, you’re going to tell me that the theories disagree, and that they don’t work in certain situations – so it’s better to have them together. When [teachers] look at it, at researchers arguing with each other about what’s going on, they realize that the point is that nobody’s ever sure about what’s going on in language learners’ heads.
Speaker: Have you always been studious in English?
I taught Spanish for years, before I went to Edinburgh. Actually, I taught English literature and Spanish – first- and second-year Spanish.
Aside from your dealings in Minnesota, do you have any interesting linguistic ventures that come to mind?
As a sociolinguist, I don’t have a lot of interest in “poetic” linguistics. I’m interested in descriptive and applied linguistics, that’s just what I study and do.
In your meetings with students, or in your discussions with them, did you ever find anything unexpected in your results? Was there anything that, when you encountered it, knocked you for a loop?
Oh, each chapter of my book it full of it. Every time I look at learner language, I’m surprised by what I see simply because there’s just so much to fathom. Especially when you look at it in context, in detail, over any period of time, there’s all kind of stuff that learner language presents you with, as an analyst. Everything is just…unexpected.
So, it’s been a very fulfilling career for you?
Yes, absolutely. I’ve always been more interested in the questions than the answers. Even in the beginning stages of immersion studies – Immersion 101, so to speak – we’re looking at the challenges of immersion, and we deal with these challenges all the way through advanced study. So, yes, this field has given me many questions to address, so it has been a satisfying career.