Language Teachers Spotlight Series: Pip McDonald

“Never predict the future with language”

Our Spotlight series went on a bit of a hiatus there, but we’re back today with a chat with Pip McDonald from the University of Sunderland. Read on to find out about why she thinks technology will become ever more important in language learning – and why she is definitely not a rat!


1.     Tell us a little about your role, and what part languages play in that.

My current role involves working in the University of Sunderland Language Centre and language laboratories. Sanako Study 1200 is a fundamental part of the language learning process. We offer a wide range of languages including, Spanish, French, German, Mandarin, Japanese and Arabic. The University of Sunderland offers students the opportunity to study a language through the Combined Subjects Programme and as accredited module as part of the University Language Scheme. Additionally, we offer Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, English for Academic Purposes and English for Business Studies programmes.

2.     Have you always been interested in languages?

I have always been interested in words, language and etymology. I also became interested in languages when I studied French, German and Latin at secondary school. I enjoyed participating in the Exchange programme and in a work abroad programme in Bourges. I enjoyed the immersive aspect of language learning.

3.     How did you become involved in language education?

I started teaching English for Academic Purposes in a higher education environment. During this time, I was introduced to using Sanako in a language laboratory environment and developed a professional interest in exploring the role of technology in the language learning process particularly using online tools and mobile applications. I was keen to draw on a range of creative approaches to teaching and learning and experiment in a languages context. For example, in the film, Freedom Writers, the teacher uses a range of creative strategies which I thought had a meaningful impact, such as reflective diaries. I thought this method was powerful so I used it in a languages classroom. I completed teacher training and a specialist teaching qualification in Literacy and became interested in using digital storytelling as an approach to teaching Literacy. This led to a journal article publication in the Research & Practice in Adult Literacy.

4.     Who’s been your biggest inspiration?

I have really enjoyed carrying out research about technology in the language learning process. This has involved engaging both staff and students in the research process to capture their voice. I carried out research to ask staff and students to describe what their ideal Language Centre and presented the findings at the North East Three Rivers Conference in 2016 exploring innovation in learning and teaching in Higher Education.

5.     How different do you think language teaching will be in, say, 10 years’ time?

It is reported that David Crystal said “Never predict the future with language” (Crystal in Zimmer, 2015). However, technology enhanced language learning will still continue to be both a dominant idea and practice in virtue of MOOCs. There will be more opportunities for asynchronous learning, mobile learning, gamification, emoji language, programming and code, and wearable technology with machine translation. There will be an increase in the number of distance learners and virtual classrooms. I became a member of the Association of Leaning Technologists and am really interested in discussing the role that technology can play in the language learning process and have been exploring multimodal language learning. Additionally, I think we might also see an attempt by technology to replicate the powerful and meaningful process of immersive learning experience you can get by being in a foreign country. Technology will also continue to transform language with new words for example and “phone” and “tablet” create “phablet” (Zimmer, 2015).

6.     What’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you in your working life?

Most recently, the opportunity arose to contribute to the Association of Leaning Technologists (ALT) online blog. I wrote a blog entry exploring the way the University of Sunderland use Sanako Study 1200 in the language learning context.

7.     What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you in your working life?

I was teaching a class with some students from China and attempted to speak Chinese at the start of a class. I wanted to say “I am a teacher” in Chinese which should be “Wǒ shì lǎoshī”. However, I said “Wǒ shì lǎoshǔ” which translates as “I am a rat”. The tonal difference in the pronunciation of the same word had caused a semantic error. This mistake caused a great deal of amusement amongst my students in the class at the time.

8.     What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

A quotation from Sharma & Barrett (2007) helped me to reflect on how to decide whether to tea-roomsuse of technology in the classroom or not: “In a worst case scenario, learners may suffer the „worst of both worlds‟ – those enjoying the online component being forced to participate in web-based communication, and those happier communicating online having to attend classes” (Sharma & Barrett, 2007: p8). Technology does not guarantee learning has taken place – “Carefully chosen online materials can enhance the classroom component of the course” (Sharma & Barrett, 2007: p8).

9.     What’s been your most memorable trip to another country?

At the University of Sunderland, staff can apply for the Erasmus Plus scheme which promotes mobility. With the support of a senior colleague in TESOL, I successfully applied and visited the University of Koblenz in Germany. As part of this, I delivered a lecture exploring how to use technology in the language learning process for example using an online and interactive visual thesaurus to identify synonyms and antonyms. I planned and delivered a seminar and took part in observations of language lessons.

10.     What’s your favourite tea and cake to have on your tea break?

I am a tea enthusiast and have I visited various tea rooms around the world from Willow Tea Rooms in Glasgow to Oolong Flower Power and Clement & Pekoe in Dublin to trying the tea experience at the Le Palais Oriental on Lake Geneva in Montreux, Switzerland. I enjoy traditional English breakfast tea and when I visited Koblenz in Germany, I enjoyed the cheesecake or käsekuchen.



Pip McDonald works at the University of Sunderland Language Centre. She can be contacted at

About the Author Marie O'Sullivan

Author imageI am passionate about supporting language teachers from around the world and sharing ideas for our hugely demanding, yet rewarding profession! From classroom teacher and Director of Language College to creator of The LanguagePoint and Communications Office of NALA, I have many years’ experience in tackling the challenges we face daily in teaching.

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