Saturday, January 24, 2009

When Language Classes Can Work

(and why they often don't)

Tim Ferris has a post up on Why Language Classes Don't Work. Street-Smart Language Learning flagged it the other day and now the Aspiring Polyglot offers her thoughts. Kelly hits the nail on the head here:
I think the success of a language class depends on the teacher and the attitude the teacher has towards language learning. Some teachers are able to inspire their students and while they may not necessarily teach them everything there is to know about the language, they can motivate their students to go out and learn for themselves. Sometimes it helps to have someone to guide you along the path to fluency, though a supportive language partner can also fit this role.
The attitude of the language teacher toward language learning is crucial. Tim notes, "[C]onversation can be learned but not taught." A teacher who presumes to teach language - to directly transfer language knowledge for a student's use - is not going to get too far. But a teacher who focuses on providing comprehensible input to absorb and a good environment in which to try it out can do great things for the sort of students who need a regular schedule and regular feedback to keep moving forward.

Whether you're talking about a class or about teaching yourself, the critical thing is that the learning environment you're in provides engaging, comprehensible input that you'll eventually be able to turn into relatively fluid output. This is certainly what Steve the Linguist has tried to do with Lingq. You can hear it being done on the Pimsleur and Michel Thomas tapes. ChinesePod may be too chatty for some learners, but for a nervous "newbie" it's the very picture of engaging, comprehensible input when friendly hosts break down the language of everyday life into understandable bits. It's also what a lot of younger teachers armed with the latest in pedagogical research are trying to do. The nice bit with Lingq, Pimsleur, Michel Thomas and ChinesePod is that you can have little demo lessons at the links I've provided. But it may be that what makes the language engaging for you is having a fluent speaker there who can really and truly bring the language alive for you.

I want to address one point separately, and that is the question of teaching only in the target language. This is one place where good materials are absolutely crucial. With the right materials and a student who is open to them, a class in the target language only will provide comprehensible input in such a way that the student can learn without mixing the language unnecessarily with his or her native language. With the wrong materials, the student is no better off than if he or she had gone to another country's capital and tried to get a supermarket clerk to teach between customers. If you've got the right mindset, translation and grammar analysis are useful tools for making more language comprehensible faster. If you've got the wrong mindset, you'll mistake the skeleton of the language for the whole thing or think of it as a perverse rendering of your own language. It's not a question of which approach is best, it's a question of which approach works for you. One hint: If you're terrified about working without translations and concrete explanations, you should use them enough to keep your footing but be wary of becoming dependent on them; still, if the choice is between quitting in frustration or getting your answers, by all means get your answers!

Tim Ferriss makes a lot of great points about what's wrong with a lot of language classes. But just as the classroom clearly isn't for him, some of his methods may not be for you. What matters in the end is not what has worked for someone else. What matters is finding something that keeps you engaged in your learning until things start to click naturally. Given that some people, at least, make it through language classes and emerge with the ability to talk, language classes aren't uniformly useless. If you think of taking a class and your heart fills with dread, look into self-study options. But if "going back to school" seems like a reassuring way to get into learning a language, go for it. Just be sure to investigate to make sure you're finding the sort of class that will keep you engaged so you can move forward in your language learning.


Anonymous said...

I think classroom can work, but it depends a lot on the teacher. The teacher should, in my opinion, provide lots of input inside and outside the classrooms, teach the language and also how to learn the language, and, most important, inspire the students! The goal must be turn the students into independent learners capable of learn any new language on their own.

4:53 AM  
Blogger GGBDBD said...

That's a good point! Add some brain-based learning and stand back as the light bulbs turn on. However, some language learners get so caught up in the excitement of the exposure to fun new things, they forget to pay attention and learn. :(

5:04 PM  

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