My blogging colleague Andreas Avester has written an interesting post on learning languages and what he found worked best for him. He raises several good and interesting points, others that I disagree with, and some that made me plain wonder about his university instructors. As you may remember, i am, in my heart of hearts, a language teacher. I currently rarely have the opportunity to teach foreign languages, and I am happy being a teacher no matter what, because I always teach kids first and subjects second, but this also means that I got the full training of a language teacher.
Language teaching has its history, just like all of teaching has and language teaching started out as Latin and Old Greek. For a long time these were the only languages a young man of renown would come in contact with, until the kids of the Bourgeoisie needed some modern languages to do trade. For a long time, Latin was the lingua franca ( a language used by two people of different native languages. Both Andreas and I use English as a lingua franca here), then French. German used to dominate the sciences but now the world speaks English.
Nevertheless, as modern language teaching rose in the wake of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, it simply took the Grammar Translation Approach from Latin and applied it to modern languages. And it’s damn amazing how long and how much of it is still present. When Andreas talks about having to memorize grammar tables and vocabulary lists, thank the fucking Romans.
Another approach was the Native Speaker Approach. This had its basis not in science or education but in the British Council’s need to find employment for tons of well educated Brits. The central paradigm is that nobody can teach a language like a native speaker. As a native speaker who taught her native language as a second language (and who still does) I call this bullshit. Native speakers often have very little abstract knowledge of their own languages and when I first did this I was very hard pressed by the most simple questions my students asked.
In Germany the Audiovisual Approach was in vogue following WWII when the West needed tons of translators for the American Forces and all the schools and universities got audio labs where you’d sit and listen to tapes and repeat the sentences. Mind you, those still have a part in phonetics training.
When I went to school the aim was to have “near native speaker competence” and the methods still echoed the old grammar translation approach. My English teacher (a full grown bully and bastard) used the following: whenever we had a unit text we had to copy the text into our workbooks and then translate the text. We also had to use file cards for our vocabulary. Front: English, back: German. I got into lots of trouble for refusing to do most of it, because at 12 I could already detect bullshit when I saw it and I developed some deep hatred for file cards. It took me 10 years to discover that they can be wonderful learning tools.
Grammar was taught deductively: The teacher explained the rule, then we applied the rule. Fun fact: the books were already geared towards inductive teaching, but most teachers are at least two generations behind in their teaching. They learn their teaching from some old geezer who teaches what was the current approach back when they were young and since many teachers think they know everything they never bothered to update their teaching.
Some time during my baby break the paradigm shifted again: Now the aim is to create an intercultural speaker: Somebody who cannot just speak another language, but who is also verse in the target culture or has at least a set of tools that allows them to notice cultural misunderstandings and navigate those pitfalls. The methods that are currently favoured are: task based, competence oriented, inductive. I’ll come to all of them in detail.
Andreas describes how he learned languages the best: not in school, but in contact with speakers of the target language:
By the time I was twelve years old, I got a Russian speaking friend. While we were playing hide-and-seek, whenever she found me, she would say the phrase “я тебя нашла” (“I found you”). Whenever I found her, I just repeated the same phrase. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that I used the verb “to find” in past tense. I wasn’t thinking about the various forms of pronouns. Instead I was repeating the words after her and using the language in order to communicate. In the process, I learned the language, I also learned the grammar rules.
What Andreas describes here is what we call “language acquisition”: it’s a natural process that we all undergo when we learn our native language. It’s also something that happens when we learn secondary or foreign languages and it is the reason why your truly will use perfect American idioms pronounced in the nicest British RP you can imagine. As Andreas says, we don’t consciously learn any rules when we do that, but we do learn the rules. That’s why all kids will form ungrammatical sentences in their native language where they’re applying the wrong rule. A typical example in English would be “sheeps” or “he catched me”.
In language teaching this approach is described as as providing a “language bath”: give the student as much input as possible and language acquisition is what follows. Now, while this obviously worked a treat for Andreas, this often has issues when applied to teaching. First of all, we get 4, maybe 5 hours of language classes a week. We are not in the target culture, we have one person competent in the target language in the classroom, so it’s hard to “recreate” that natural acquisition. And also, this doesn’t work for everybody. I have migrant kids in my classes who, despite having been immersed in German language and culture and classes for two, three years, have not learned more than a few chunks. One approach never works for all.
Andreas said he had to take a class on how to teach foreign languages and that he keeps disregarding everything he learned there, which makes me wonder: what do they teach those kids at school?
In order to get my master’s degree in German philology, I had to take university courses about how to teach languages and also how to create language courses. As you can see, when I actually worked as a language teacher, I threw out of the window some of said ideas that my professors had taught me.
Here’s how I learned to teach a language: Create a context where the kids will want/need to use the new words/structures. So we create a shopping situation (numbers, prices, stationary, polite forms). Maybe bring the articles to class. I even have some British play money for real fake shopping. Demonstrate the forms, let them discover the words (hold up a pen when you say “pen”) , let them practise the new words and forms in a variety of contexts. One exercise my students really liked was as a quick succession of very short dialogues with a new structure. We do shopping? The kids get a card with the item they need on the front and the price on the back. They walk through the classroom and practise with a classmate:
“How can I help you?”
“I need two pencils, please”
“Here you are”
Then they do the classmate’s dialogue, swap cards, go to the next classmate, rinse and repeat. This gives them a lot of practise and they can practise with their peers (rather than having to speak in front of the class).
And grammar? Well, you still need to learn it. Not all kids learn rules intuitively. there are kids you can make absolutely unhappy with the answer “you just have to learn it” when they’re asking why on earth it is “caught” and not “catched” and there is no rule which verbs are strong verbs and which ones are not. In my experience they are very happy in Latin classes (which I almost failed spectacularly). If possible grammar is inductive: I give examples of a new structure, the kids find the rule. After 10 sentences “I like dogs, I don’t like slugs, I like horses, I don’t like bugs” most kids can tell you that to negate a sentence you need “don’t”.
To summarize, current language teaching prioritises tasks, active usage, cultural competences and lots of language input. Some good old-fashioned drill exercises still have their place, but a small one.