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Another important additional factor for success is the relationship to the language. Many claim in Hungary that pupils didn’t learn Russian because everybody hated the people as occupiers. That may be so for most. I didn’t have such thoughts, but started to suffer for lack of the usefulness factor: it was highly unlikely that anyone might use Russian in the streets because the occupiers locked themselves in their barracks. Another likely factor was that we didn’t learn any useful language. We knew about Comrade Lenin‘s early life and later importance, but we didn’t learn to talk about things people, let alone young people, talk about. It follows that, one way or another, the student must be aware why it could be useful for him/her to speak that particular language. It may be a good idea to reinforce this awareness at the beginning of a school year when a teacher takes a group over from last year’s teacher. Even in California, where acquisition of Spanish may happen, it takes a brave student, or a conscientious one, to study Spanish at school. Or to study Italian in New York.

Photos are less likely to work with those who like and need listening to learning. In this respect, if the popular song repertoire is not so enticing, the teacher can use the modern media of international television. Over the internet it is possible to receive broadcasts of far-away lands, which then can be played (and shown on the whiteboard or with the OHP from the computer) over and over again if need be. I find it a matter of course that the teacher make a script of a useful recording, or try to collaborate with the students ad hoc if necessary to script it, for the benefit of those needing the written word.

Languages with internationally published media are at an advantage anyway, but we can here mention the use of newspapers form the country of the target language as well. Grammatical structures, certain vocabulary areas as well as, naturally, cultural areas and news of interest can be covered by articles from foreign press, and then used for tests of all kinds according to what the teacher considers important. Here, what I consider most important is that the topic should be the carrier of real meaning, which will carry, often undetected by the learners, all the learning that can be. For the sake of the tactile, articles can even initially be cut to pieces for un-jumbling, or matching with photos, by enthusiastic groups of detectives. The meaning will carry the coverable language along.

There’s a lot of talk going on, not without good reasons, about the need to enjoy your learning. This translates itself for teachers as a need to make students enjoy their learning at class. To my mind, that’s all very well in kindergarten or lower primary school, where students behave themselves like quicksilver and are allowed to switch moods and activities like the wind, and, besides, there’s less stress on academic progress.

my Chinese students at test

Whether for better or for worse, with students advancement of age, another trend seems to also be general, and that is that students have to sit down to tests at earlier ages and have to be boxed for future studies, school-types and career as soon as possible. Comprehensive schools and lyceums (in the Netherlands) seem to counteract this trend, but it is still in practice getting more ground at the same time as there is still a lot of talk about enjoyment.

English: The Sega Master System video game con...

English: The Sega Master System video game console shown with original “joystick” controller. This is the PNG version. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t really assess how much joy can or has to be generated at a physics, or history class, for example, around the world, but if a teacher of languages must generate fun, then he/she is against a host of other sources of fun out there, against electronic gadgets, game consoles, internet games, partying, vandalizing the neighbourhood or simply listening to the mesmerizing rhythm of rap, just to name a few. What can the teacher realistically expect from him/herself and what can society realistically expect of him/her?

Teacher with students in Benin classroom

Teacher with students in Benin classroom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let me remind ourselves here, before we forget, of the role that education has to fulfill in society, and that is to prepare its young members en masse for later taking part in the workings of its everyday strive for development for the sake of the later new generations. Preparing to work for the future for the sake of more work for the future, I could say, but that’s how it works. Where does it say anything about enjoyment? Has anyone promised joy in this life when we emerged into it?

But of course, this is far too grim a picture of reality. The reality should be somewhere between the grim and the joy of it. The difficulty lies with finding the ever-shifting balance between them.

Before trying to break down the implications of this, I’d like to point to one more factor. I’ve already talked about the importance of our relationship to the learning material as a source of learning, which is mostly expressed through our emotional attitude to it. I’d like to add something a bit, or radically, different. Let me tell you about my most shocking experience ever.

When I went to teach to China, I had already learned a bit of the language from a book with a cassette. Yet, on arrival, I was made to feel like a toddler who can’t understand anything, can’t read, hear, talk, but stands forlorn in the middle of the largest population in the world. No wonder that I tried my best during my tenure to learn as much as possible at the school. Without going into details about my ways and methods, enough to say that though I wrote down (in pinyin, the Latinized transcription) almost everything that came in my way into my copy-book, but nothing stayed in my brain for many months.

Then came the winter holidays. I had invited my 16-year-old son to stay with me for two weeks when I was still confident in my progress with the language. But there I was on the morning of his arrival and I still didn’t remember the ways to ask for a bus ticket, or to understand the possible answers. I had to take a bus to the airport to welcome him, so I packed all my study material and embarked on my trip to the airport.

On the three-hour ride to Shanghai, I learned everything important that had escaped my abilities to retain for more than half a year. I got a taxi to the airport all by myself and later we enjoyed ourselves immensely everywhere on our criss-crossing of half the frozen country in safety.

My point is that there’s hardly any greater boost to learning than real need. Not the need to sit down sometimes and relax, not the need for a new iPhone, or a better car, but the kind on which not only our own safety and life, but also the safety and life of our loved ones depend. Then, as second best, as my American colleague in China put it, is to live with someone whose mother tongue is our target language. So go ahead, bring your children to the end of the world, or marry a Dutch if you want to learn Dutch, or relocate to England or Hungary if you are intent on learning excellent English or Hungarian.

For most people, let alone students, it is very difficult to create such circumstances and, to be honest, it is also not necessary, of course. But teachers and students should be aware that then no such great and swift results can be expected either.

Some more down-to-earth ideas are to follow.

It’s going to take a while to write my next posts. Until then, I give you a link I’ve found with an interesting collection of sources for those wishing to study Dutch on-line. I hope somebody will find some of the links among these useful: http://polyglotmae.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/update-dutch-learning-resources/

by P.S. and Z.J.S.