Visiting scholar happy to say "yes"

Monday, July 27, 2009

Professor David Little, the Faculty of Education’s visiting scholar, and world renowned expert on language learning accepted Shelley Taylor’s invitation to come to the Faculty as visiting scholar for both personal and professional reasons. Shelley heard Professor Little speak in Ottawa and knew he would bring great insight to Faculty and staff studying multilingualism. Shelley, along with Professors Majhanovich, Faez and Smith are involved in a project funded by the Ontario Government examining the implications of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for language education in Canada.

Professor Little, Chair of the European Language Portfolio Validation Committee, does a great deal of world travelling and is happy for the opportunity to be in one place for a month. “From a personal perspective, being at Western gives me the time and space to read and think and to write. I am not,” he said, appearing relaxed in the garden at Elgin Hall, “bored with my own company.” From an academic perspective, the interaction with colleagues eager to speak with him on the subject in which he has been immersed for more than 30 years revitalizes his thinking. “One is constantly learning,” he said, “The questions and comments that come up in the seminars makes one see things more clearly but in a different light.”

His work began in the 1970’s, in the early stages of the Council of Europe’s work in language education. With the emergence of migrant populations and the increasing cross border mobility of professionals came a greater need for multilingual proficiency. Questions arose: “What are the implications of understanding language as a social communications vehicle? How do we find a new way of teaching language? What tools are needed to develop curriculum and generate a new approach to language testing? What measures are needed to test proficiency levels from one country to another, one language to another? Professor Little quotes the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages to describe the need for a departure from traditional approaches to language teaching. It is “language use embracing language learning, ”a learner-centered theory whereby the “autonomous learner” understands that one’s success depends on one’s efforts, that the assessment of the level of one’s language proficiency is determined by a series of “can do’s,” or descriptors of what one is able to do around listening, reading, speaking and writing in another language.

In the 1990’s, Professor Little had the opportunity to see the theory of the of CEFR come alive in classrooms in Ireland where he developed and led a government funded project to teach English to new immigrants. Unencumbered by tradition and bureaucracy, Professor Little and his team were able to develop a curriculum and a teaching methodology that resulted in a program that was “stunningly successful.” In a setting that proved “small is beautiful,” the language learners in the program identified their proficiency level, set personal goals, and importantly, recognized the connection between successful language learning and their ability to fully integrate into their adopted country. Sadly and ironically, for bureaucratic reasons, the program was suspended but not before Professor Little was convinced of its universal applicability. The Irish experiment serves as a model in his continuing research.

Professor Little will leave the Faculty of Education on August 8 to continue his world travels. He will leave many Faculty members and students who are grateful for his research and his inspiration.