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The Rational Learning of Foreign Languages
In two previous editorial articles I have criticized the powerful vested interests of the global English-teaching industry (The Fraud of the Global English-Teaching Industry) and the false assumption that the various organizations and institutions associated with that industry ensure high standards of teaching (The Illusion of Global English-Teaching Standards). In this editorial I want to question in more detail some of the accepted beliefs about methods of teaching English (and other foreign languages).
1 Research into foreign-language learning must always be defective
Research into how people learn foreign languages and into what methods are most successful is beset with basic difficulties which prevent it ever being truly valid.
It is impossible to measure the degree of a student’s motivation. Yet this will certainly be one of the most important factors that decide how successful students are in their language studies – in many cases probably the most important of all. Students passionately devoted to the study of a foreign language may often succeed even if their learning methods are utterly misguided. Others whose method appears sound may fail, not because there is anything wrong with the method, but because they are basically uninterested. Any pronouncement, then, about the merits or otherwise of a particular method, however careful and scientific the collection of the data on which it is based, is inevitably suspect. Another group of students using the same method in different conditions and in a different place may show quite different results.
Nor can one trust what students themselves say about their motivation. There may be reasons for them to exaggerate it, and even if they don’t, different individuals may have quite different ideas of what constitutes high motivation.
Even if we assume that everyone in a group of people studying a language is equally motivated, what we cannot know is how each student uses that motivation. How much does the student rely on the teacher? What does the student expect from the teacher? How much does the student rely on the method rather than on herself? To what extent do the students realize how crucial it is to do all the work themselves, and even if they do realize this, how much are they able to put the principle into practice? Even if they say they understand that translating the foreign language into their own language in their heads is fatal for good language-learning, how much do they really believe that? And even if they genuinely believe it, are they in practice able to avoid such translation? Are they translating without being aware of it? Until our understanding of the brain and our ability to measure its activity are greatly increased, all such things will be quite impossible to measure scientifically.
There is no objective way of measuring a person’s linguistic competence. It is obvious when somebody is very good at a foreign language. It is equally obvious when somebody is totally incompetent. But it is not easy to judge the level of the millions of people who lie between these two extremes. Different sorts of test produce different results for the same people. Multiple choice questions, for example, produce different results from other types of test, even if conscientious efforts are made to cover the same ground. And what is most important for what might be termed ‘mastery’ of a language? Is a person who can converse fluently in colloquial language, but understands very little of a novel, more or less competent than a person whose skills are the reverse? How should we judge a student who can write almost flawless sophisticated prose but talks with an accent so atrocious as to be practically incomprehensible? Or a person who has written an excellent translation of Henry James, but is incapable of carrying on even a simple everyday conversation in English.
Finally, even if investigators felt sure that they had established the mental processes of foreign-language learning, what would those tell us? It is surely clear that in many areas of life the ways people think are very bad ways. There is no reason to suppose it is any different where learning foreign languages is concerned. As I pointed out in a previous editorial, what students actually do and what they ought to do are in many cases quite different things. The last thing we should do is slavishly adapt learning techniques to bad psychological habits.
In view of all these flaws in trying to base language-teaching methods on research, it is not surprising that these are so much dominated by fashions. Not so long ago a Japanese friend explained to me how puzzled she was by the English course she had recently attended. Their teacher, she said, was an actual English professor, no less. But she could not understand why almost the whole time he made them talk to each other, or gave them tasks to perform with certain words, or got them to play games of various kinds. Why could he not demonstrate some English to them? She was even more perplexed when I told her that her professor was following the current high orthodoxy, the promotion of what is termed ‘communicative competence’. Erik Gunnemark, who translated from forty-five languages and had an active command of a large number of them, preferred to call it “the dogma of salvation-and-bliss through chatter.”
The only sensible and the only practical thing to do is to try to learn languages in a way that is rational; in a way that accords with the nature of language and how it works.
Let us consider realistically what a teacher can do, as a teacher of a class. She, or he, can explain rules of grammar. But she is unlikely to do this better than a reasonably well-thought-out grammar book. note 1 The author is likely to have worked out the explanations just as carefully as most teachers, if not more so. It is much better for the student to study the grammar by herself at home, where she can go at her own individual pace and think about problems at leisure. It is a terrible waste of time for the teacher to do this work in class, and any notes students make will probably mostly be inadequate at best. The only grammar that it is really worth a teacher talking about to a whole class is either points the teacher thinks are neglected or badly explained in the books the students are using, or questions on grammar raised by individual students.
An even greater waste of time, an even more misguided activity, is for the teacher to give the students detailed explanations of the meanings of words. (See Learning Vocabulary.) Once a teacher starts explaining vocabulary, he may find he is spending hours on just very few words. Even if he does not do actual harm by encouraging a faulty approach to vocabulary, he will achieve nothing of value; there are far better ways in which he can spend his own and his students’ time. (There is just one sort of word of which this is not true. There are some words that are often confused with other, often similar words. If the distinctions in meaning are clear cut, it is useful for students to have them pointed out to them. Examples of such pairs in English are the adjectives economic and economical, and the verbs come and go, or bring and take.
It seems that teachers, and the pundits at applied linguistics departments at universities, came to realize more and more that simply talking about grammar and words is not a good way of spending a lesson. So instead they have tried to ‘involve’ their students more.
The result has been that a lot of teachers now go in a great deal for activities they call group work, pair work, or role play. Students are given various tasks that they have to carry out on their own, or they enact little scenes, such as buying railway tickets or asking for directions, or even have short debates among themselves. In other words, the teachers try to train their students in the ‘communicative competence’ I have mentioned above.
One wonders whether one of the main reasons so many teachers are keen on such methods is that they are rather desperately trying to solve practical problems in the classroom. There are several such practical problems. There is the problem of discipline (especially where classes of children are concerned); the problem of finding something everybody in the class can be active in, because the teacher cannot give individual attention to each student; the problem of boredom, keeping learners amused.
It is difficult to believe that things like group and pair work and role play are really recommended because teachers truly think and have actually found that they are better and more effective ways of teaching languages. Reason, too, suggests that they are not sound methods.
First, language-learning is a task that has to be carried out by individuals on their own. It is a process of ‘noticing’ that has to be done singly. The more the process is shared and so spread out among others, the less effective it will be.
Even more important, it is too often forgotten that by simply using the language one can learn nothing. One cannot speak until one has some language to speak with, and one can only learn that language by observing – listening and reading, and noting what one hears and reads. There is no other way. So it is obviously very important that students should hear correct language. Yet in classes where they do most of the talking themselves they will hear each other’s often incorrect speech far more than they hear the teacher’s. Students clearly cannot learn from language that is wrong. But they are also not learning anything new by saying things that are correct, since the fact that it is correct shows that they have already learned it (by observation).
Nor can students learn from the things their companions say that are correct, because they cannot be sure whether those things are in fact correct or not. Over the years I have known several students of English as a foreign language who did an exceptionally large amount of talking in English, especially with their fellow students of different nationalities. They were usually warm personalities and delightful companions. But in several cases their English was less accurate at the end of their language course than it was at the beginning; and their vocabulary was no larger because they had been so busy talking that they had not had time to listen and read. What was even sadder was that sometimes their companions’ language became less correct too. They plainly could not believe that people who talked and ‘practised’ their English so much were not excellent models to imitate.
Any general conversation in class (whether or not the teacher takes part in it) is going to be artificial until everybody present becomes thoroughly personally interested in it. At that point all or nearly all present will stop observing the language that is being used – their own as well as the teacher’s.
The other great disadvantage of ‘talking’ activities in class is that it reduces even further the extent to which the teacher can control and observe her students’ learning, and reduces the amount of work that can be done in a given time.
It is another matter that trying to talk may well – and should – draw one’s attention to things one does not know how to express, and so strongly encourage one to find out. But that sort of cause and effect cannot operate in the classroom. It needs unhurried thought by each student on his own.
If it is objected that practising talking in the classroom is the only way students can become confident in using the language, one must argue that it is simply not true. The safe artificial world of the classroom cannot prepare people for the real world outside. There, confidence depends largely on the individual personality.
For people who by nature don’t have the right sort of temperament, the necessary boldness and lack of shyness, the only thing that will give them true confidence is the confidence that they have mastered enough of the language. They should then try to talk as much as possible in the foreign language outside the classroom to native speakers. This will confirm their confidence and get them into what is obviously a good habit. But they must always recognize that the talking they do themselves is only practice, not learning.
The first principle for anybody who teaches a language in classes should be to do in class only things that cannot be done as effectively somewhere else. In recent decades many different devices and techniques have been thought up for the teaching of languages. There is no evidence that they have led to any improvement. If languages are going to continue being taught in classes, the old-fashioned method of the teacher talking to the students (‘chalk and talk’) is still the best. But there should be nothing old-fashioned about the manner in which the teacher talks. The talk has to be completely informal and flexible.
One of the worst mistakes made in language-teaching circles in recent years is the demand for the so-called ‘structured lesson’. The teacher is supposed to plan in advance exactly what she is going to teach, and keep to a timetable during the lesson in order to be sure she covers what she thinks she needs to cover. It is hard to think of a more misguided approach. It cuts the teacher off from her students and the lesson becomes something fossilized. Above all, it completely ignores the particular needs of the particular individuals in a particular class on a particular day.
Apart from what is the foremost task of a language teacher – showing students how to learn a foreign language – the only really useful thing a teacher can do in a class is to answer questions, and also to ask them. If the students do not know what questions to ask and how to ask them, it is the task of the teacher to show them. This way of teaching means that the teacher does not have to do any day to day preparation. It makes all lessons completely flexible. They can always be adapted to the students’ needs of the moment, but that does not prevent the teacher taking up and emphasizing themes she thinks are being neglected.
But if this method of giving lessons takes away much of the daily drudgery of a conscientious teacher’s life, it also means that the teacher has to ‘know her stuff’. If the language she is teaching is not her own, she must obviously know it really well. That, though, is only the beginning. Her own or not, she must have a confident practical knowledge of how the language she is teaching works. By this I mean a conscious knowledge that the teacher can explain in a way that most native speakers cannot. Students sense a good teacher’s enthusiasm and genuine interest in the language, and that she has thought about it and found out about it for herself, not just learned by rote from text books.
Unfortunately even a cursory reading of the messages posted on internet mailing lists used by working teachers of English reveal an alarming state of affairs. First, they provide constant evidence that large numbers of even native English-speaking teachers are uncertain about many of the most basic principles of English grammar. This I believe is the inevitable result of an emphasis in their training on pedagogy rather than the workings of the language itself. Secondly, non-native teachers reveal all too often that their English is just not good enough for them to practise their profession effectively. There should of course never be any form of discrimination against non-native would-be teachers of English. But before they start teaching they should surely achieve a minimum standard both in the language itself and in knowledge of how it works. Do we have here another example of how the required qualifications demand pedagogical more than linguistic knowledge?
In my own lessons at least half my ‘talk’ has usually consisted of questions. Most students find this stimulating. I have never singled out individuals in turn but instead always questioned the whole class and waited for spontaneous replies from anybody who wanted to give one. In that way a teacher can involve everybody the whole time without embarrassing those who do not want to answer. A teacher has no right to impose interrogation in front of others on people to who it may be unwelcome. Moreover, competition between students has no proper place in language learning, or any other sort of learning for that matter. note
Finally, a teacher can put ‘questions’ to his students in the form of exercises and tests to be done during his lessons. However, exercises and tests are a complete waste of time if they are done in writing, since obviously they can in that case be done by the students at home. Furthermore, written answers place a big extra burden on the teacher. He is faced with a dilemma. Is he to correct all the exercises really conscientiously and thoroughly, and find that this takes so much time that he either has no life he can call his own or has to skimp other important jobs? Or is he to skimp the correcting work itself, with the result that it was not really worth the students’ while to do the exercises in the first place?
Exercises that are done orally in class are a different matter. The teacher can ‘correct’ the students as they go along, and the discussion the teacher and the students have abut the problems can be very valuable. But the principle that teachers should not force individuals to give answers publicly still holds. This probably reduces the value of the exercises. Yet more important is the fact that exercises done in class do not attend to the particular needs of individual students.
There are other ways in which teachers can take time away from learning. If for instance, the teacher is supposed to be training students to understand the spoken word, and plays them a cassette and gives them questions to answer on it, either in class or as homework, all he is doing is giving them a test (which may very well discourage many of them). They are not learning anything. The time and effort students spend on this task should instead be spent on actually learning how to understand better by learning more vocabulary, and, above all, by constantly listening to the spoken language. In short, you won’t master ‘listening comprehension’ by answering questions; you have to practise listening.
Projects that the teacher gives to be carried out by the class, or by parts of it, are not likely to be much better. Class projects for discovering aspects of vocabulary, say, usually involve the spending of a lot of time that is quite disproportionate to the amount of genuinely useful vocabulary that each individual student actually learns in the process.
One cannot help feeling that a great deal, perhaps the greater part, of the activity suggested or recommended to teachers and their classes is thought up mainly to make sure the students have something to do. Or perhaps, to put it even more unkindly, to ensure that teachers have things to ask the students to do. It may seem very modern and enlightened to promote lively, often entertaining activity on the part of the students. But the only activity that matters is the activity of learning as much as possible of the foreign language as fast and effectively as possible.
Unfortunately, though, the most prestigious authority where English is concerned is Quirk et al.’s semi-incomprehensible A comprehensive grammar of the English language (1985, Longman), with its disastrous treatment of the articles, pathetic effort on –ing (the English form par excellence), and nonsense about some and any, just to take three examples. See Some and Any at this site for a detailed commentary on Quirk’s treatment of this subject, The -ing Form for some aspects of that form, and Gethin, A., Antilinguistics (1990, Intellect) for an examination of Quirk’s account of the articles.
Not only competition between students, whether as individuals or as teams, but also any sort of system of immediate ‘rewards’ for correct answers or successful accomplishment of tasks, whatever precise form it takes, is manipulative and morally repugnant. And the morally repugnant aspect of systematized immediate praise, or emphasis on success, or of any method of exercising some sort of oblique control over somebody else’s learning activity is inseparable from the practical defects of such techniques.
First, they make students concentrate on the wrong things, on the immediate, the ephemeral. One defect of these ‘reinforcement’ techniques is the same as applies when they are used in connection with exercises. The student thinks, “I must get the answer right now, so that I get my reward now.” So he tends not to think in broader terms and about problems. His effort is no guarantee of performance in the future.
But there is something even more seriously wrong about any sort of rewards system. It is basically a way of getting people to do things that they do not naturally want to do – or at least that they do not want to do for the thing’s own sake. Language-learners need to have a greediness for the language itself. For this reason alone any system of ‘reinforcement’ or reward does the learner a disservice, because it leads her aspirations in the wrong direction, deceives her as to what her true requirements are. Morality and the practical coincide. They both point to allowing a person to do what she is inclined to do.
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