Some Thoughts on Language Teaching

I read this post on Rebecca Schuman’s blog, in which she writes about teaching foreign languages. (She’s a former German professor who left academia because of the dreadful job market. More on that another time.)

She talks about four different methods of teaching foreign languages. I think she says it better than I can, so here’s an excerpt from the post:

SLA (Second Language Acquisition) pedagogy has come a long way since the 50s, when the grammar-translation method was all the rage. Instruction was done entirely in the L1 (the native language of all or most of the class), with the focus being on sentence diagramming, grammar, vocab lists, noun inflections, and translating the L2 (or the “target language”) back into English. It’s still the method used to teach dead languages–but you can see why using it to teach a living language is lächerlich and muy estúpido, oui?

Since then, SLA has gone through many different vogues, each less objectionable than the last. These include…

the natural approach (where you treat SLL like first-language learning–sort of weird when you have adult learners, though)

the audiolingual approach (SO MANY DRILLS–also, the approach I learned German with, and possibly why I was so bad at transitioning between “skills” and “content,” although that also could have been laziness)

the communicative approach, in which the communication of material, however it manages to be done (including “incorrect” speech with errors and code-switching) is prioritized, and SLL (second language learners) are treated from the beginning as “uneven bilinguals” and simply gain more fluency and accuracy through the use of positive reinforcement. This is a great method, because communicative language teachers try their god-damndest not to correct students directly while they’re talking (I don’t know if you’ve ever had someone Sprachpolizei you, but it’s enough to scare you out of ever talking again). Rather, communicative language teachers repeat the SLL’s utterance back to them in the correct way, one that both models how it’s “supposed” to be and helps discourage anxiety. The best part of the communicative approach, though, is that it connects language with meaningful content all the time. Students almost never do exercises for the sake of exercises, but rather their grammar or vocab-building is incorporated into the content units of the class.

She goes on to say that she used the communicative approach with a slight modification: no English was allowed in the classroom, ever. I’m assuming this means even in introductory-level courses, she still allowed no English. Now, I know everyone learns differently and has different preferences, but I have always been unsold on the idea of banning English from first and second year foreign language classes.

My first-year Russian class was intense. Our textbook used the communicative method (though I didn’t realize it at the time because I knew nothing of foreign language pedagogy back then) but my Russian professor, who was from the Old Country (aka Soviet-era Ukraine) didn’t fully believe in the communicative method. He was a big believer in correcting mistakes right as they happened (so we wouldn’t learn something incorrectly and have to re-learn it later) and we did a ton of grammar drills because Russian grammar is just that complicated. Overall, based on Rebecca’s descriptions, I’d say we were taught fifty percent with the communicative approach, fifty percent something else that seems like a mix of grammar-translation and audiolingual methods.

Because here’s the thing: once you’ve had your mistakes corrected, right in front of everyone, you stop worrying about getting embarrassed and will basically say anything to anyone. I speak from personal experience: at the beginning of first year, I was slightly mortified when I messed up, but I got over it. It wasn’t the end of the world and realizing this helped me get better at asking questions in all of my classes, not just Russian.

As for learning grammar rules, I have never understood why so many language learners fear learning grammar and say that it isn’t necessary. Yes, it’s difficult and yes, it is necessary. My English improved immensely when I was twelve because I spent a year in school learning English grammar. Grammar may be difficult, but it is possible to learn it. Someone—I think it was Vicki Boykis—said that often, there’s no substitute to sitting down in a chair and doing some hardcore studying, whether it’s working through economics problem sets or learning grammar rules so you can speak properly.

Knowing a foreign language is fun. The actual learning process is not always fun. (In fact, in the beginning it is downright frustrating at times.)

But trust me, it’s always worth it in the end.


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