Dr. Anne Walker, professor of education, has been selected by the U.S. Department of State for a prestigious English Language Specialist (ELS) project to be held virtually with the Russian National Association of Teachers of English (NATE).
The Specialist program is an opportunity for leaders in the field of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) to enact meaningful and sustainable changes in the way English is taught abroad. Through projects developed by U.S. Embassies in more than 80 countries, ELSs work directly with local teacher trainers, educational leaders, and ministry of education officials to exchange knowledge, build capacity, and establish partnerships benefiting participants, institutions, and communities in the U.S. and overseas.
This isn’t the kind of thing people usually think of when they hear the words U.S. State Department.
“It’s really a soft diplomacy because the U.S. State Department really wants to maintain and build relationships with the people of foreign countries, in this case Russia,” Walker said. “As an English Language Specialist, I'm an ambassador for the United States and in working with English teachers, they’ll get to know me on a personal level. It's not political, it's teacher to teacher. Hopefully they’ll get to know who I am as an American, and I get to know who they are as Russians without all the political stereotypes.”
This isn’t Walker’s first work with the State Department or her first ELS appointment, either. In 2017, she spent three weeks as a specialist working with the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education in rural areas of Saudi Arabia. She has also conducted several State Department-funded teacher exchange and training programs for English teachers from Russia, Turkey, and 11 developing countries across the globe.
Walker will deliver a keynote address at the NATE conference Oct. 8 titled “The Future of Teaching English to Young Learners.” She will also lead a workshop for Russian K-6 teachers. Though the conference spans only three days, the preparation is extensive including several meetings with the Russian U.S. embassy, now located in Estonia, the NATE conference planners, and technology checks.
“The keynote speech that I'm giving is on young learners in early childhood and primary school,” Walker said. “In many countries around the world, including Russia, students would study English in middle school and/or high school as a foreign language, but we now know that it is better to start learning a second language at a younger age. In Russia, the age they start learning English is becoming younger and younger.”
“We now know so much more about the brain and the neuroscience behind learning and second languages acquisition,” Walker added. “A lot of schools are teaching a second language not just for communication but also for the cognitive benefits.”
Walker said when you’re a child, your brain has the ability to acquire a second language naturally similar to how children develop their first language. But gradually your brain stops losing that natural ability and older children or adults have to consciously learn a second language, which is much more difficult. So, the best time to learn a second language in school is in preschool, kindergarten, or first grade because it's much more of a natural acquisition process.
Walker will also be talking about the theme of the conference, which is English for the future, including why we teach English as an international language, how we teach English, and how technologies such as Google Translate, Babbel, and artificial intelligence will change all that.
“Today you can speak into a computer, and it will correct your pronunciation,” she said. “You no longer need a live teacher for that.”
Workshop for English Teachers
After the keynote address, Walker will deliver a workshop for teaching English to young learners.
“With young kids, instead of teaching grammar or pronunciation, it’s important to immerse the child in meaningful activities where they’re just learning English naturally,” she said, “not through the use of a textbook, but through things like songs and games.”
Walker plans to talk a lot about using children's literature. For example, using the classic children’s book “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” children can learn colors and animal names in a very natural way, a very different approach from what Russian English teachers are used to.
“They’re very used to teaching grammar and memorization,” Walker said.
Previous State Department Opportunities
Walker said she loves traveling for the State Department and has traveled all over the world training teachers.
“When I was in Saudi Arabia, it was hard work,” she added. “They worked me for three weeks. I mean they got their money’s worth, but it allowed me to experience different cultures. I loved getting to meet the teachers and a lot of times they would host me in the evening for some kind of cultural event.”
Her first project was when she worked at the University of North Dakota, and they brought eight Russian English teachers to Grand Forks where they studied with Walker for six weeks. At the end of the six weeks, she went to Russia as part of an exchange.
Walker speaks two languages in addition to English — German, which she studied but doesn’t feel she’s very proficient in, and Marshallese, which is the spoken language in the Marshall Islands where she spent two years as part of the Peace Corps. It was the only language spoken there so she learned by immersion.
For further information about the program, visit English Language Programs.