Archive: On language learning


A cynical mood front has been gathering in my teacher brain of late. Perhaps it’s because, when I ask my friends who speak good English what their strategies were for learning, they shrug their shoulders. “Study? I guess,” they say. “I just kind of stuck at it.”

Or perhaps it’s because my dentist speaks better English from listening to BBC Radio 4 than many do after years spent in classrooms, or even living in English-speaking countries. In any case, I’m starting to lose faith in theory.

A woman learns English using everyday examples

There are many perspectives on how best to learn a language (National Geographic 1918, via Wikimedia Commons)

There’s no shortage of theoretical moths batting about the EFL flame, that’s for sure…

* It’s all about exposure to the target language without the pressure to respond: “Put the banana in the box Taro. Well done. Now put the melon on the floor, behind Shohei. Excellent! That’ll be 30 quid please.”

* It’s all about using the target language in a relaxed environment: “Take a seat in the big brown massage chair. Let’s read dialogue number 4. Oh Mavis, what lovely shoes. Are they new? … There now, wasn’t that easy? You’re very clever. That’ll be 30 quid please.”

* Negotiation of meaning should take place in pursuit of the completion of a mutually interesting task: “OK, so there are poster paper and pens at the front of the classroom, so let’s all wast-, er spend ninety minutes drawing a map of your hometown. When you’re finished, present in pairs. Make a list of the similarities and differences. I’ll be in my office. Don’t forget to pay on your way out!”

* Linguistic responses can be automaticised through a series of questions and responses that were written in 1900: “Name six things besides cigars which should be kept in a dry place… Describe all that you could procure from an ideal penny-slot machine… OK great, you can pay at the reception desk.”

* The teacher should say as little as possible, so the students are in control of the target language: “. . . . . . Teacher, what we should do now? Ah… Monkey? No… Pray? Ahhhh…?”

What’s the one unifying feature of these methods? Why, their democracy of course! Their promise to all that if they only show up each week and… What’s that? Money, you say…?

Ah yes. Money.

English language teaching is an industry, and a rather successful one. In fact EFL teachers are the UK’s sole remaining export industry. As a result, rival theories spring up all the time, selling to bright-eyed future globetrotters and world-changers and sunken-eyed hunchback EFLers alike. Siren-like, they shimmy, beckon and seduce, yet all offer hope that, at the end of that road, however long and winding it may be, all will be able to master English, to talk with poise and confidence at embassy receptions and bring up bilingual babies who will spell the end to war and discrimination forever more, ushering mankind into a new post-Babel golden age in which no Taro will be unable to effectively box a banana on receiving said instruction from his teacher.

This, in my experience, is a lie.

Successful language learners are those who care, and those who can. Motivation and aptitude. I wanted to learn, I kind of stuck at it, it sort of made sense, and now here I am.

It’s either that or Radio 4. Which gives me an idea…

From here on 21st April 2013.


Archive: CELTA at IH Budapest – acquiring a TEFL safety net

Szechenyi Baths, Budapest

An intense four-week course, with some compensations.

I taught English for two years in Japan, what seems like a very long time ago. I’ve also taught one-to-one, on and off, for four years. So it’s true what they say – you can teach without a qualification. But there came a time when I no longer wanted to. Was I doing the right thing? Could I be better? Was I charging my students money just to hear me talk? Could I take myself in any way seriously if I was?

Some years later (the exact number a closely guarded secret), I took the plunge and headed off to Budapest to take a Cambridge CELTA teaching course. These courses are heavily focused on the practical, with the meat of the day being observed teaching practice, but also provide a way in to pedagogical theory and language analysis through afternoon input sessions. The aim is to show, in our later lessons, that we have taken these sessions on board.

The course was certainly intense, but I can’t fault the content or delivery. Expecting a month-long course to create super-teachers is a sure recipe for disappointment, but it does give trainees all the basic tools, practice and confidence needed to start out as a reasonably competent teacher of English. It also, crucially, encourages them to see their abilities objectively, as the basis for continued professional development rather than as an excuse to never stand in front of a class of students ever again.

So. Budapest, January 2009. The course begins gently, all ‘getting to know you’ and giggles. They seem like a good group from the off, and it’s nice to be among people who don’t look askance at a desire to travel and learn obscure languages. But we’re swiftly into the meat of it, planning our first 20 minute lesson for the next day. Hands are held tightly at this stage, but it’s still daunting. Will I remember the students’ names? All of which are harder for being unfamiliar. What if I run out of material (honestly, unlikely in 20 minutes)? 

The first lesson goes off without too many hitches, the students are super co-operative and seem to relish the cheap and sometimes shambolic option of studying with trainees. My previous experience comes in some kind of handy as I have no trouble grading my language for our pre-intermediate group.

That out the way, we’re on to 40-minute lessons. Hands still clasped tightly, we’re sticking mostly to skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening) lessons, or revision of already-known grammar and vocabulary. The afternoons are spent being told how we’re supposed to do it, minus hand-holding, in the weeks to come.

Week 2, and our teaching group of 5 has formed a mutually supportive group of, er, 4. With feedback to teaching practice coming from other trainees as well as trainers, it’s a shame not everyone’s taking things seriously. Comparing people’s lessons to the sinking of the Titanic is about as far not on as it’s possible to be, but we rise above and overcome. Still, with essays, planning, and the growing feeling that I want to stay on and not lose my momentum, I rather shut myself away in the 2nd and 3rd weeks, choosing CVs and flat-hunting over beer and bonding.

In the 4th week, once teaching is over, I make a concerted effort to compensate for this, turning myself into a zombie-like creature whose head seeks out any flat surface – be it horizontal or vertical – for a bit of shut-eye. Still, I succeed in jumping across the wall into the teachers’ room for the subsequent week, allowing me to make the decision to stay on without too much food-on-the-table angst. And here I still am, still enjoying it immensely.

From here on April 10th 2009.