Attending the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) 2014 conference as a Cambridge English scholar this year gave me a ringside view of the world’s largest conference on English language teaching. The charming town of Harrogate in northern England came alive with the conference in early April this year. With the impressive International Centre as the venue, it was an ideal location to accommodate over 2500 delegates from around 100 countries. The ubiquitous bright red delegate bags in the conference kit were visible all the time. It reminded me of a splurge of poinsettias blooming all over at the venue and on the streets and corners of Harrogate!
The conference days were packed with five plenary sessions and over 500 presentations, talks, workshops, symposiums, forums, Signature events, poster presentations and early morning ‘How to--’ activities. Besides, there were many Special Interest Group Days and Associates’ Day functions on the day before the conference. As for the evenings, we had receptions, award ceremonies, social dinners and sponsored events to attend leaving us scarcely any time to breathe!
Each day began with a plenary by leading luminaries in the field. On the first day, David Graddol stunned a huge audience with his findings on “English and Economic Development”. He referred to his recent work in India, China and Brazil when critically examining the question, “Is it necessary for everyone to learn English?” On the second day, Kathleen Graves set her audience thinking about “The efficiency of inefficiency: an ecological perspective on curriculum” in her plenary session. The thrust of her talk was on how an ecological perspective on curriculum focuses on growth and development. The well attended plenary on the third day was delivered by Michael Hoey on “Old approaches, new perspectives: the implications of a corpus linguistic theory for learning the English language”. He discussed the work of Michael Lewis and Stephen Krashen and surprised the audience with provisional evidence that Chinese has the same lexical properties as English.
The last day was a treat as we had not one but two plenary sessions! The first one by Sugata Mitra was well timed as it looked ahead to the time that is coming for all of us in education. I daresay India’s stock went up a couple of notches with the acclaim and debate his session generated. Talking about “The future of learning”, he held forth on his many experiments, like the ‘Hole in the Wall’ and had the audience hanging on to his words. Lastly, creative writer Jackie Kay delivered the final plenary session, bringing the house down with an absolutely riveting performance which included biographical anecdotes, readings from her work and insightful observations about life, letters and literature. One of my last impressions of an eventful conference was of the long queue of eager delegates getting their copies of her new work signed by her.
As for some of the other highlights of the Conference, the Signature events drew large crowds. Cambridge English had a thought provoking one on “Bringing Learning Oriented Assessments into the ELT classroom”. The British Council’s Signature event on “English medium instruction- cure or curse” was interesting. The ELT Conversation between Jeremy Harmer and Scott Thornbury on “Communicative Language Teaching: what have we gained or lost?” was a delight to attend. The Interactive Language Fair and symposium on Creativity were also popular events. “Open Spaces”, led by Adrian Underhill was to be a popular experiment but did not get the expected participation levels. Delegates’ presentations on creativity, technology, methodology and research projects were sought after and crowded affairs. Rama Mathew and Annamaria Pinter’s presentation on “Children and teachers becoming researchers- a project in India” generated a lot of discussion.
On the fun side, there were sold- out day time trips to local tourist sites as North England has so much to offer. Of the evening functions, the opening day reception attended by the Mayor of Harrogate at the Royal Hall was jam packed. The Pecha Kucha event was a rip roaring success as delegates let their hair down and enjoyed themselves. Then we had Dave and Luke do a spoof on “Hard Times for English Teachers”. The social evening on the last evening had delegates exhibiting their considerable musical talent.
IATEFL 2014 was an outstanding event in many ways. The administration worked with clockwork precision with not a hair out of place. The efficient handling of all the sundry affairs that such a massively mounted event would have entailed was a lesson to learn. In retrospect, the back to back events, spotting of the veritable who’s who of ELT luminaries, starting with the distinguished David Crystal no less, the books exhibition, the ever- smiling IATEFL president Carol Read, huge amounts of food for thought, presenting my paper, sharing experiences with colleagues from all over the world and getting to hear experts first hand were so very worthwhile. And of course the icing on the cake for me was being awarded the Cambridge English Teacher Training scholarship at the event!
Sabina Pillai, Ph.D is an Associate Professor of English at SBSE College, Delhi University. Her specializations include Semiotics, Applied Linguistics and American Drama.