A Conversation with Dr. Bonny Norton

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by Natalia Balyasnikova

[This article was first printed in the Fall 2017 issue of TEAL News.]

BC TEAL sat down with Dr. Bonny Norton, one of BC TEAL’s 50 at 50, to discuss current issues in language teaching and learning. Dr. Norton is a Professor and Distinguished University Scholar in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at UBC, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Her extensive publications and research focus on identity and language learning, critical literacy, and international development. More information about Dr. Norton’s research can be found at http://faculty.educ.ubc.ca/norton.

Thank you for agreeing to talk with us today. The first question we have is what brought you and inspired you to do the work in the field of language education?

I was born in South Africa, which is a multilingual country, but I was aware at a young age that some languages were considered more powerful than others. Because of this, I became interested in learning how language can be used to promote democracy, rather than perpetuate inequality.

I started my profession as a high school teacher, and then proceeded to more advanced degrees in applied linguistics and sociolinguistics. I was very interested in language as a social practice, and the ways in which identities get constructed through different language practices.

I’ve been very privileged to be an academic, because I have been able to pursue the questions I am passionate about. The connection between theory and practice is very important to me, and the link between them is often research. How does practice inform theory and how does theory inform practice?

And speaking more locally, how did you start your journey with BC TEAL?

Wherever I go, I like to connect locally, because this is where I live and these are the people I see on a day-to-day basis. It also provides another research site for my work. When I did my PhD degree in Toronto and lived in the Toronto area, I did research in that context. It was very interesting and rewarding. When I came to BC, I thought: “What are the local issues I need to address and in what ways is British Columbia different from Ontario?” I immediately got involved in the BC TEAL organization, because this is where ideas are debated, where work gets done, where research findings are shared. I’ve been an active member of BC TEAL ever since I arrived in British Columbia, which was over twenty years ago.

This year you were named among BC TEAL’s 50 at 50. What does it mean for you to have this distinction?

I am greatly honoured to be recognized that way. I was at the ceremony when we were all recognized, and it was wonderful to be part of a group of colleagues that I respect so much. It was a privilege to see that my work has had some impact locally, as one of my goals is to work both globally and locally.

You have been in the profession for many years. How have you seen the field change over this time?

It has certainly grown enormously. Applied linguistics as a field is 30-40 years old, and I was in the second generation, learning from those who had established the field. The field of applied linguistics and language learning has multiple dimensions, which can be seen partly though the increasing diversity of academic journals, and the growth of impact of these journals.

Because English is a very important part of our world, it raises many questions for educators: What does it mean for practice, for policy, for local languages?

The theme of this issue is Reaching Out with Technology. How do you see the connect ion between technology and language learning?

As technology became more powerful, one of my first tasks as a professor was to develop my own website, which has many resources. Having my work on a website makes access much easier for many students, particularly in poorly resourced communities. Thus technology can be very powerful in democratizing information flows. In 2006 I also helped set up the Africa Research Network on Applied Linguistics and Literacy, to ensure that people in more remote parts of the word are part of our global professional conversation.

Through technology we can make language more accessible, and we can use digital systems so that people can learn languages by reading, by listening, and through other multimodal means. At the same time—if you look at the work of Ron Darvin—we have to ask who is not part of this conversation? We need to be cautious about embracing technology unthinkingly. We need to understand what innovations works best, what some of the downsides are, and how we can use technology for democratic purposes.

Speaking of that, what are some of the challenges and opportunities in using technology for language learning or with language learners?

Well, this is where research comes in. You go into classrooms and schools, you go into families and community centres, and you see how people are using technology. You need resources in many parts of Africa that many people take for granted in wealthy regions of the world. However, even in poorly resourced parts of the world, the cellphone is ubiquitous. As a result, many of our projects are geared towards the use of the cellphone, such as our Storybooks Canada project. That’s the beauty of technology: we can promote multilingualism and mother tongue maintenance by having open access stories in English, French, and home languages. We are only limited by our imagination.

How do you think the practice of language teaching is going to change with the increase of technology?

One exciting feature of technology is that computers are very patient; you can repeat the same exercise until you are confident of your understanding. For example, with Storybooks Canada, if children don’t understand the story the first time, they can listen to it again, reflect on the illustrations, and discuss it with friends. This process is very learner-centred, and can help children pace themselves. Teachers have limited time, so they can refer students to websites and materials for self-directed learning.

At the same time, the human connection is always important and language is central to this connection. Even though we have technology, we still want to have human interaction as well. People want to be able to feel comfortable in the classroom, to go to a store and use the language. While the human element will always be there, technology is entering those conversations in multiple and diverse ways. In fact, people are saying that knowing how to use technology is now a human right. We help our learners by teaching them language through technology. As the world changes, we must keep up with that changing world.

In your opinion, what is the most important thing to remember, while working with language learners?

At some level it depends on what age you are working with; you can have one type of conversation with a child and another with an adult. Sometimes adults feel infantilized in our language classrooms. We must always remember that while a language learner’s English might be limited, they have a wealth of knowledge in their mother tongues. We need to value our learners as people who have complex identities, histories, and talents that go beyond the identity of the language learner.

In many ways, children have different needs. I try to encourage teachers to consider the talents of children beyond language proficiency, and to help other children recognize the multiple talents that language learners have. Children need to see that their peers are not just language learners; they are also musicians, artists, swimmers, and soccer players, with extensive knowledge of their mother tongue. This will help language learners connect with others, build relationships, and improve their language learning.

We would like to conclude with your advice to those just starting their teaching journeys. What would to say to them?

Good language teachers are also good teachers. Language learners need to learn language as a linguistic system—the formal structures of the language—but they also need to understand language as a social practice – how to connect with the wider community. How can teachers expand possibilities for learners to engage more broadly, while learning the language? Teachers can help students develop a wide range of identities inside and outside the classroom. I often talk about language learners being ethnographers of their communities who can bring their observations and questions back to the classroom. If students see themselves as ethnographers and not just language learners, they have more powerful identity positions in the wider community. In a way, teachers are cultural brokers between their students and the social world, and are ideally placed to help students make connections between the classroom, the home, and the community.

At the same time, there are many unexpected events in the classroom, and teachers must navigate the unexpected. Flexibility helps teachers find the best fit between pedagogy, curriculum, and the needs of individual students. I’ve been a teacher for 30 years and I am always learning, trying out new ideas, and continually reassessing my practice. This is what makes teaching such an exciting and rewarding profession. If I have a bad day, I can start again tomorrow!

Biographical Information

From the Fall 2017 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter:  Natalia Balyasnikova is a PhD Candidate in TESL and a sessional instructor at the University of British Columbia. (Editor’s Note:  Dr. Balyasnikova has now completed her PhD program, and she is an assistant professor at York University.)

This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Balyasnikova, N. (2017, Fall). A Conversation with Dr. Bonny Norton. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/TEAL-News-Fall-2017.pdf

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