Dr. Suzanne Matula is Associate Director of Programs in Georgetown’s English Language Center (ELC). Interviewer Regan Carver is a Program Coordinator in the ELC.
RC: Please describe your work in the English Language Center
SM: I oversee the day-to-day aspects, curriculum, program development, and evaluation of our customized or sponsored English language and teacher training programs; this also includes some of our open enrollment coursework such as the Evening & Weekend English program, the English Skills for Graduate Students course and our Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) Certificate program.
These programs are created on an individual basis and tailored to the needs of the sponsors and participants. Groups of students, ranging from 8-10 per group all the way up to 40 per group, come to the US for a period of time to participate in the program. Some of our programs are delivered to groups of participants in their own country, either remotely or in person. Some programs focus solely on language, and others include content areas, such as English for public policy or language pedagogy (teacher training). Part of my work has also involved managing US federal grants, including working with students and program partners here in the US and providing monitoring and support to programs delivered overseas.
RC: How did you get into working in the field of language instruction?
SM: I grew up with amazing opportunities to live overseas while I was young; these included two years in Canada, two years in Norway, and then junior year abroad in high school in Germany. This really instilled in me a love, not just for language, but for meeting people from different cultures and getting to know them, beyond being a tourist; getting to know the language, the culture, the history, the traditions and celebrations, and the food. In college, when it was time to see how I could put all of this together in terms of ‘what I wanted to do with my life’, I decided to study. My undergraduate, Masters, and PhD are all in different aspects of linguistics. With degrees like that the two main choices seemed to be university level linguistics teaching and research, or, as was more appealing to me, practical hand-on application.
My doctorate work focused on Second Language Acquisition specifically working classroom-based language instruction for adult learners. That got me into the field of Teaching English as a Second Language since this was primarily work here in the US. My enjoyment with this work led to pursuing this further, by teaching language and English for Specific Purposes (ESP) at the university level, and working with pre- and in-service teachers.
Through my education and experience in the US, together with an ongoing interest in cultures, travel, and international aspects of the world, I explored other possibilities to expand my experience. I was fortunate to spend a year in Tajikistan on a U.S. Dept. of State fellowship to provide language training and teacher training for English language teachers who worked within the different law enforcement academies there.
I worked with English language teachers to help them improve their language and their pedagogy. This allowed the teachers to help their students further improve their English language skills to be able to participate in internationally funded programs that provided professional training in their field of law enforcement (community policing, state security, border patrol, anti-narcotics, or anti-human trafficking). These training programs, funded by the US, the UN (UNDP), the EU, OSCE, are mainly delivered in English, with participants from a variety of countries and language backgrounds. My work involved training the English language teachers for these skills to filter down to their own classrooms and programs to better prepare these young police cadets to participate in these programs.
That was truly an incredible opportunity on so many levels, but more specifically, it was a program that really hadn’t existed before. My role was not just to go in and implement it, but to develop it as well. That’s how I began to connect my enjoyment of teaching and training with creating programs which focused on getting to know the students’ needs: what are the goals, the challenges, the realities, to create a practical program that met these needs as best as possible.
I had been living in the DC area for years during my graduate work and when the fellowship ended, I came back to the area looking for opportunities in the field. Luckily there was an open position at Georgetown. It felt like I was coming around full circle because Georgetown was where I did my graduate work. It has been a really interesting experience to be ‘on the other side of the desk’, and to be back at Georgetown as academic administrator, rather than a graduate student.
RC: What’s the most challenging aspect of overseeing multiple language programs at the same time?
SM: It can be challenging. All of the different programs are quite unique in their own way; it’s important to be able to juggle the details of the different programs: their needs and priorities. They all have their own challenges (and also opportunities) in terms of keeping them going forward and to providing each program with the attention that it deserves. These programs are also on different schedules; there are different lengths of time per program, and also different start and end times. While you might be doing curricular work for one program, another program might be in final wrap-up graduation activities, and a third program might be just starting with orientation; facilitating the progress of multiple programs at their different stages is challenging, but it’s fun, it’s a fun challenge.
RC: Do your graduate studies inform the work that you do on a daily basis?
SM: Yes, they certainly did inform my daily work, in terms of best practices in language teaching, but also in an understanding and appreciation of second language acquisition for adults (including the different stages that one goes through, the different challenges to overcome), and to be able to utilize field-specific best practices, such as student-centered, content-based and task based instruction to create the best possible experience for the students. I rely on all of that in my daily work.
My dissertation focused on a quasi-experimental classroom study in which I incorporated aspects of cognitive linguistics (and cognitive grammar)into classroom materials and instruction. This entailed going from theory to practice to provide practical, hands-on instruction. It provided me an opportunity to really focus on the practical application of theory and in a manner that would be relevant to language learners. This is how I continue to work in developing our special programs: having a solid grounding in theory and practice, and taking into account the needs of the learners. This includes asking questions like: What do the students need? What is the goal? What is realistic? how can the material (instruction) be scaffolded to help learners get to the goal (using backward design)? What are some of the different practice activities and tasks to help students get from where they are to where they want to go? How will student progress be assessed, and how will program outcomes be measured? The answers to these questions frames the program structure and content.
RC: I’ve heard a lot about Communicative Language Instruction. How do you use that in designing language programs?
SM: Sure. The important word here is communicative in terms of language being used to communicate. In all of our programs we’re teaching English to be used, rather than to be studied (as, for example, one might learn Latin). We are teaching students how to use English to communicate, and provide practice and activities that require students to use the language in authentic contexts. This raises several questions: Who are you communicating with? What is your purpose? what types of language are you going to need to be able to use? what do you need to be able to do with that language? Are you studying English to be successful academically in an English medium environment? Are you studying it to be able to go into business or to participate on an international stage, giving conference presentations?
These are all different aspects of language use and functions. It’s important to provide a curriculum that is geared towards specific purposes/goals, and also to actually create and incorporate practice activities that require active student participation to practice using the language in that context. It’s not translating or completing grammar activities in isolation; instead it’s very task-based and very purposeful. There’s a lot of interaction: with the teacher and with other students; students are working together to use the language to achieve something and communicate a message that they would not be able to do without having that language skill.
RC: What’s the most rewarding aspect of your work in language education?
SM: To see student progress, whether it’s students learning English or it’s helping new or in-service teachers develop their skills and become more reflective teachers and learners. One of the most rewarding aspects is to see students realize that so much learning is not just happening in the classroom, and it’s not just coming from the teacher. Learning is an ongoing adventure where the focus is really on lifelong learning and applying what has been learned outside of the classroom and in the real world.
RC: What do you like to do for fun when you’re not focusing on language instruction?
SM: I love getting out into nature. Anything involving getting outside of the city, whether it’s going to a body of water, or getting up into the mountains; hiking, water sports, it’s fun for me. That’s how I recharge.
I also love to read and recently, as you know, Regan, I have gotten back into music by playing oboe again in a community orchestra.
I really enjoy genealogy; doing a lot of research and fieldwork to uncover my family history going back many, many generations. I have used some of the research I’ve done, not just to connect with distant relatives, but also to be able to travel to places that have a connection with my family. Seeing these places and the surrounding environment has been really exciting. And it allows me to enjoy genealogy and nature at the same time!
RC: Dr. Matula, I appreciate that you’ve shared your time. It’s been great to learn about your work.