Saturday, March 24, 2012

Imparting language skills


I teach primarily English as a second or other language. This is an unusual field in
many ways. For instance, in ESL or TESOL what we are literally trying to do is to help a
student to reprogram their own brain so they can think and respond automatically using a
new language that they did not know as well as they did before the class began. The ultimate
goal is that a student will some day be able to say anything they wish in English in a socially
appropriate way without having to give the matter any conscious thought. Therefore, unlike in
most fields where the goal is to increase retrievable, conscious knowledge, we are trying to
produce results that will be achieved ultimately through the use of unconscious mental
processes.

         Although I am a strong believer in the value of science and the scientific method, I
believe that in our field at the current time, the value of science is limited. In my opinion, we
simply do not know enough about how the brain acquires additional languages to create a
completely scientific method of teaching them. (For the record, I do believe that a time will
come when science will understand these things fully or close to fully, although I have no
idea if I will live to see it.) This is not to say that science and scientific research should be
ignored. If scientific research helps us understand one part of the big puzzle called human
language acquisition, then this understanding should be applied when appropriate. For
instance, I studied the role of language learning anxiety on classroom performance and feel
such research does lend itself to classroom and curriculum design. However, that is only one
small part of the puzzle of how people best learn additional languages.

        In the meantime, with so much not being understood by science, we as teachers must
utilize the techniques that seem to work the best to achieve the goals and results we strive
for.

        Fortunately we have a wealth of such resources if we know where to look for them.
There is an incredible variety of techniques, drills, and other classroom activities published in
books, magazines and on the internet. Of course, these are of varying quality and utility, but
the material is available for a teacher to evaluate.

         When evaluating these materials, or designing one's own materials, a teacher should
evaluate them for their utility and “fit” for the classroom.

         To evaluate the utility of materials or teaching or learning techniques, a teacher has
several sorts of resources to draw upon. These include his or her training in language
teaching and language acquisition. This should not be underestimated. Nor should one's
personal experience in utilizing classroom drills and techniques be underestimated. It must
be remembered that some techniques, such as the proven method of singing songs in class,
for instance, just work better with some individual teachers than others.

         Other sources include interviewing people who have proven themselves to be skilled
at acquiring languages in real life settings. I have found, for instance, that some of the best
language learners I have met have been refugees from Africa and Asia. These people often
are able to communicate in multiple languages with the languages coming from multiple
language families. They are often quite willing to share their tips once one has made it clear
to them that you really do wish to know and want to hear what they have to say. (I once had a
Karen refugee from Burma respond to this request with “Why are you asking me? You're the
teacher.” I explained that I was asking him because he spoke six different languages at a
conversational level. Which made him laugh and then he began sharing answers.)

         I have also carefully read materials on learning languages written by military personnel
who needed to learn exotic languages for their assignments, but who were not trained
language teachers.

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