An interview with Michael Swan – Part 2

Heidi Burrows

As part of our series celebrating the 40th anniversary of Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers, we spoke to original series editor, Michael Swan. Read on to learn about his highlights from his time as series editor and the background to his bestselling handbook Learner English (co-edited with Bernard Smith).


You launched the Handbooks in 1979 and remained as series editor until 1995, what were your highlights from this time?  


In a sense, the whole experience was a highlight. I was continually finding out more about my professional field from the authors I was privileged to edit. At the same time I was learning a great deal about what makes a writer easy to work with from these authors’ constructive responses to my suggestions – lessons that I tried to feed back into my own relationships with publishers. Most of all – and it was a steep learning curve – I was growing to understand something of the editorial skills required for this new and very demanding task. Among the principles that I came to see as important were the following (and my belated apologies to all concerned for the ones I didn’t get right):

  • Acknowledge material quickly, even if you don’t immediately have time to work on it. Authors don’t like to feel ignored – and why should they?
  • Start with praise. Whatever criticisms and suggestions for revision you may have, begin by focusing on what the writer is doing well. Authors often put on a bold front, but many have fragile egos, and can benefit greatly from reassurance that they are generally working on the right lines and producing good material.
  • Be reasonably demanding, but not perfectionist, and try not to micro-manage (a besetting sin of my own).
  • It’s your job as an editor to help the author write the book he or she has in mind, not the book you would have written yourself. You may have to be firm about your recommendations in some areas – that’s part of your job – but this doesn’t extend to imposing your personal views on matters of content, however strong and well-informed these may be. Don Schlitz’s famous advice on poker hands applies equally well to editorial convictions: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run”.


One early episode that deserves a special mention was my good fortune in taking on Penny Ur’s Discussions that Work. This was her first book, and my first editorial undertaking, so we learnt our trade together. Penny’s innovative approach transformed the notoriously difficult business of ‘teaching conversation’ by introducing a task element, and her well-thought-out analysis of relevant task types predated the whole ‘task-based learning’ enterprise by more than a decade. When the book was published it served as a role model for many later handbooks, and, as with many Series titles, I am proud to have been associated with it.

Other specific highlights came regularly over the years as good books to whose development I contributed in a small way came together, were published and gained critical acclaim. And not all the highlights were confined to the period of my editorship. Others followed long after, as books I was involved with not only remained successful but went into new editions, and first-time authors I had worked with moved on to increasing success and eminence.

Inevitably there were one or two lowlights as well. One was the need to juggle the demands of the Series with my other writing projects, and it was sometimes hard to stop this affecting the timing and quality of my editorial work. Another was the fact that, like many marriages, not all author-editor relationships are made in heaven.

Occasionally I came up against an author whose ego-investment in his or her work, or commitment to a particular theoretical stance, was such that he/she was unwilling to accept suggestions for revision. And one or two academic writers found it hard to enter into discussion about the content or pedagogic approach of their books, when this was initiated by a non-academic editor whom they saw as effectively a jumped-up classroom teacher.

But these problems were rare, and did little to affect my enjoyment of a positive episode in my career which still gives me great pleasure in retrospect.


As well as your role as series editor, you also co-edited one of our bestselling Handbooks, Learner English (with Bernard Smith), which is now in its second edition. What was your inspiration for the book?


When I started teaching, the learner’s first language was seen as an important element in his or her engagement with English. Depending very much on the nature of the language, the mother tongue might be helpful, or it might be a hindrance, or it might simply have little influence either way.

As a foreign-language specialist by training, I was interested in this area and in the relevant research. And as a teacher of multilingual classes, I was often able to see for myself how my students’ mother tongues impacted on their learning, and I began to build up my own personal database of the typical problems of learners from various language backgrounds.

Later the theoretical wind changed, contrastive L1-L2 studies fell out of favour, and the mother tongue faded away from views of second language acquisition as it had long since disappeared from the classroom. None the less, as the biologist Jean Rostand reminded us, ‘theories pass, but the frog remains’. (It’s good to see that the mother-tongue frog is now getting renewed attention.)

It has always been clear to experienced teachers that time can be wasted by laboriously teaching students structures that their language already prepares them for. And conversely, that teaching efficiency can be badly reduced by not dealing with important things for which a particular mother tongue does not have useful equivalents.

With all of this in mind, when I embarked on the Series editorship I was keen to edit or co-edit a book that would address the issue, and I was delighted when the opportunity arose to collaborate with Bernard Smith. Bernard was not only interested and well informed in this area; he was a highly experienced course-writer with a wealth of innovative ideas.

Between us, we planned a thoroughly practical book, with chapters written by appropriate specialists, that would provide some useful professional support for two potential audiences: teachers working overseas who did not yet know much about the local language(s), and teachers working in Britain and elsewhere with multilingual classes.

For both groups, we aimed to offer information that might give them some insight into the typical problems which confronted their learners, and which teachers often find baffling. ‘Why do some students keep dropping articles (Thank you for lesson)?’ ‘Why do some learners prefer single words to phrasal verbs (I have decided to relinquish smoking)?’ ‘Why does this student pronounce stop, stops and stopped all the same, while the others don’t?’ ‘Why are students from this particular country unwilling to talk in class?’ And so on.

We were necessarily severely limited in scope; a reasonably-sized book could only accommodate 20 or so chapters, so we simply chose to cover those language backgrounds which were likely to concern the majority of the teachers we were targeting. Finding authors with the right combination of relevant linguistic knowledge and practical experience, even given our own and Adrian’s wide range of contacts, was predictably no easy task.

Bernard and I did two of the chapters (on the problems of Arabic- and German-speakers), which reduced the field slightly, and after a good deal of searching we ended up with a very satisfactory group of specialists. Our moderately flexible briefing asked them to deal, as far as they felt appropriate, with the typical grammatical, lexical, phonological and cultural issues which were relevant for the learners they were familiar with.

As they did so, generally with impressive skill, we learnt a gratifying amount about their specific areas of expertise. We also learnt the basic law of editing a collection of papers: 90% of the contributors take up 10% of the editors’ time; the other 10% …

It was a fascinating and highly educational experience. When Learner English finally appeared, we were delighted with the result, and are pleased (and somewhat surprised) at the book’s continuing success. We must have been doing something right.

Read the first part of Michael’s interview A History of Cambridge Handbooks for language teachers.

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