Do I follow a specific concept of language teaching?

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A reflection on my own principles

It was our end of the summer tennis season get together at an Italian restaurant. I arrived later as I had a late evening class and one of my team mates asked me where exactly I had been or came from so late and we got into talking a little about my job. One of the questions she asked me after a while was if I had a concept – for a lay person maybe not comprehensible, but I was totally overwhelmed by this question at that moment, and not only because I was tired. I didn’t want to be rude by answering too briefly and I didn’t want to appear as if I had no clue of what I was doing and why.

So how could I have best answered the question if I had had more time to think about how to best summarize my approach to teaching. A first answer of course could have been a short ‘yes’, sure I have a concept. But my inner voice said ‘no’, I don’t, because there is no one concept.

However, everybody who teaches something has some kind of ideas or, maybe – more appropriately – principles they follow; they might not always be consciously aware of why they are doing what they are doing, or what informs the way(s) they proceed. But everybody has a concept of language: what they believe language to be and what they think is important to know about it.

Language teachers or trainers in adult education have different professional backgrounds, some teach because they are native speakers of the language and mainly rely on their own experience of having learned a language in school. They might have no academic background of linguistics or language learning theories and/or didactics and have come to teaching their language because they happen to be in a foreign country where those who hire them only ask of them to be native speakers. They can also be successful or good language trainers; specially if they had the chance to work with one of the many course books written for adults, they will have – indirectly – learned about methods and approaches by using these generally very good books, developed and written by professionals of the field, published by leading companies like Pearson, Macmillan, Oxford or Cambridge University Press, Klett, Thomson, Hueber, Langenscheidt etc.

Others, who e.g. studied ELT/EFL etc. have a whole pool of concepts and theories, knowledge of methods, various material collections, theoretical knowledge of (at least the standard form) of the language and so on. (I have written about my own professional background in the introduction to this blog as one of my main intentions for writing this blog in the first place is to share my principles, procedures and approaches to teaching or training the use of the English language).

The main reason I was overwhelmed by the question was that it cannot be answered in a few sentences. It depends on many factors, one of which are the language learners themselves. Someone who asks such a question might believe there to be a specific (proven and successful) concept or method of language teaching. I don’t believe there is. But there are many approaches and theories and studies to find out what procedures might work best.

I will try to be a little more concrete, as I am sure others might also ask themselves this question. A large number of my students actually don’t, but I always make it a point at some time during a course to discuss aspects of language learning; to ask them what they believe to be the best for them, how they believe to have learned the language, what they think is necessary for further improvement and so on.

But first and foremost I try to find out what their needs are, why they want to practice or improve their knowledge and skills of English, and – most importantly – what they as individuals are interested in, not only concerning concrete aspects of the language itself like grammar, vocabulary (how the language ‘works’), but everything else beyond these aspects.

One of my favorite books I used when studying and later teaching courses in Bilingualism was Colin Baker’s Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism (second edition 1997, publ. at Multilingual Matters Ltd). It is an excellent introduction to aspects of bilingualism, second language acquisition, language teaching and bilingual education.

In chapter 14 (‘Second Language Learning’) the author gives a list of ‘Ten dimensions of Classroom Language Learning’. Under number 2 he says:

Teachers are also likely, implicitly rather than explicitly, to hold a theory of how children and adults best learn a language. Is a second language best learnt through memorizing vocabulary, constantly practising correct grammar and sentence structure, and forming correct habits? Is language best taught by constant drillls and practice, constant correcting of mistakes to achieve as perfect secondary language fluency as possible? Or is language best taught as a means rather than as an end? Should the focus be on meaning and not on language forms? Should language practise be on meaningful tasks involving real communication to acquire the skills of effective communication? Many teachers believe that language has to be learnt, particularly vocabulary and grammar. (p 279)

And he continues with a quote from Gaarder (1977) who says:

Never try to teach language per se; rather teach life (joy, sorrow, work, play, relationships, concepts, differentiation, self-awareness of others etc.) by involving the children in situations and activities that are highly significant to them (p. 78)

For some reason this quote has stuck with me, it lingers in the back of my mind and though I don’t teach children, but adults, I believe in its significance, and would carefully claim that it is one of my leading principles. Of course, I am not so arrogant as to believe I can or should teach adults ‘life’, but the quintessence holds true for me as a guideline to try to involve my groups in communication and topics that are meaningful and relevant to them. To be able to do this, I have to get to know them as well as possible, and help create situations in which they feel comfortable to share whatever they want to. This can also extend to more classic or traditional language practice as well – nothing is excluded.

My ideal is to turn my course participants into bilinguals (and many already are, even if they might not feel like ones as they don’t feel as comfortable and fluent in English as in their native language, but they already have very developed communication skills); I hope to get them to include as much English into their everyday lives as possible. This might sound as a lofty or even unrealistic goal (sometimes), but – as I said in the beginning – I don’t believe in the one concept, a magic wand, shortcuts, or any super method or easy way. It’s in-put, immersion: listening, reading, communicating – and in the more beginning or intermediate stages maybe also drills and guided practice and learning (e.g. vocabulary) by heart. We remember what is relevant to us and one unavoidable path to improved language skills is quantity, quantity, quantity.


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