Now that I’ve done so much description, I’m going to expand on the critical side with some positive touch for the benefit of those who may find any kind of advice useful.
I must hasten to add at the very beginning that I’m not a good language learner. I studied, well, yeah, I know, but even then: Russian at school for 8 years followed by 2 more at university, and in the end I didn’t understand when they asked me for my name at the oral exam. However, I made a perfect written translation, so that’s something about what kind of learner I am. I have also studied some (between a few months and a year of) French, Italian, Bulgarian, Rumanian and Slovak, but I never really spoke more than a few sentences in these and they are, for lack of practice, long gone by now. Then I tried Chinese and now Dutch. Not a very fruitful linguistic career, but then again, I can say I belong to the majority, who can only learn maximum one second language. That’s what I could use as encouragement for my Chinese students: if I was able to learn good English, so can you, because I also didn’t have much else to help me but the teacher and the classes at school, we also did not have listening material, didn’t meet native speakers and didn’t, for the most of us, listen to English songs (at the time of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, few people had access to western radio channels).
But as an average learner, I can say that most people then are average learners. Most people in the world find it difficult to learn a second language at school. On the other hand, most articles, blogs and their comments come from people with outstanding linguistic abilities, the kind that already speaks 4-5 languages because they have talent, time and money to do so. I wouldn’t like to explain myself on those terms and levels, I’d like to speak to those who have none of the above advantages, perhaps. I’d also like to benefit the masses of teachers addressing crowds of average students.
I must also point out the difference between language acquisition and language learning. The acquisition of a language is the natural process of learning to understand and then speak and read and write our own mother tongue. Multilingual acquisition also happens in some parts of the world, where people acquire a second language, or more, in a natural way, mingling with neighbours who speak a different one from their own mother tongue, like many people in rural Africa, or South-East or South-Asia, where the former colonial languages are also often naturally acquired along with perhaps several tribal-local languages. This could be ideal, but it depends on where we were born, so can’t really be affected. What remains for others is studying at school.
And there come the problems. The student depends on the national culture of schooling or education as well as his/her own work and talent. If he’s a lazy one, he can still get by alright in the Netherlands, where the general idea is to let the kids develop at their own pace and in general, there’s little interference or pressure on a learner. In China, the lazy one may become suicidal in areas where studying is considered the only possible way to get out of poverty. Such suicides have lately been widely publicized, although the case may be that statistically it happens just as rarely as in Europe, where the population is only about 60% of that of China, or in the US, with half the population of Europe, so it doesn’t happen every decade. Perhaps Japan is famous for some earlier cases, which might mean a higher occurrence statistically.
However it happens, studying a language at school is just one among a lot of other subjects, so the majority handle it that way. But I’ve often met the idea, usually promoted by failing students, that their failure is the teacher’s fault. They shouldn’t be failed, because everybody is capable of learning a language just like history, chemistry or maths and they’ve managed to pass those – well, often only just, I must add. And while probably few students have ever got suicidal over languages, they quite often fail in maths or other subjects, so, we can be sure that they can sometimes fail in a language as well. That just happens at school, as it almost happened to me with Russian.
The reasons are numerous even if discounting the basic cultural surroundings and requirements. I would group them into three areas: the complexity of learning languages, the so-called learning types and individual psychological/intellectual differences.
First of all, learning languages is perhaps the most complex kind of learning, only comparable to learning to play a musical instrument. Both involve a lot of muscular activity (of course of different parts of the musculature), flexibility of body organs as well as the brain, intellectual power, the retaining power of the memory, the power to repeat and persevere with practice in the face of possible boredom, but with languages, we need more interactive ability, problem-solving ability, power to analyse and synthesize smaller and larger structures, like grammar and sentence types, creativity to restructure the elements of language in new ways, so possibly even faster reaction to stimuli, and above the level of everyday chatting, speaking a language well also presupposes a lot of knowledge outside the language itself.
This also means that some extent of failure to speak a language doesn’t mean that the person is not intelligent. On the other hand, he or she may lack patience to practice, withstand the boredom inherent in revising and practicing vocabulary items or grammatical patterns, may be impatient with any kind of grammatization, or is simply a reticent person who doesn’t like to speak a lot.
By the same token, somebody very successful with languages in general may not be a very intelligent person but may simply have the knack and liking for the aforementioned, may perhaps be only a very sociable, perhaps even foolishly sociable person who feels absolutely no shame when uttering stupid mistakes – it may be enjoyable practice for him/her even when others may consider him/her aggressive. That may be a kind of positive selfishness as well.
The second set of conditions for un/successful language learning is the variety of learning types, which are not often discussed in blogs lately, so let me give you some basics.
Pedagogy usually mentions three basic learning types. Visual learners have a preference for seeing (think in pictures; visual aids such as overhead slides, diagrams, handouts, etc.). Auditory learners best learn through listening (lectures, discussions, tapes, etc.). Tactile/kinesthetic learners prefer to learn via experience—moving, touching, and doing (active exploration of the world; science projects; experiments, etc.). Its use in pedagogy allows teachers to prepare classes that address each of these areas. Well, idealistically. But if a teacher of a class of 30-40 pupils, or more than 50 as in some countries like China, tries to work according to the so-called mashing-method that takes these types in consideration, he/she is likely doomed to failure simply by the impossibility to get to know most of his/her students having 5-6 or more such groups every week. Sometimes methods also contradict the culture and traditions, so I can find it difficult to imagine that a lot of teachers would dare and be able to use methods catering for kinesthetic students in a country used to students sitting rigidly at their places slavishly repeating phrases or words by the teacher. I also met the idea in Hungary of giving differentiated materials and handling students according to their abilities in language classes, where the usual class sizes are very often halved for languages. The idea is usually promoted by headmasters and other colleagues not related to language teaching, but I never really met a colleague who managed to implement this ideal well in practice. We have to accept that we do our best and the students do theirs if, but it’s next to impossible to prepare for each and every individual in 5-6 teaching hours every day 5, or in China 6, days a week.
Students can themselves use the model to identify their preferred learning style and maximize their educational experience by focusing on what benefits them the most. Could, but for the fact that teachers don’t draw their attention to such possibilities and have precious little time to suggest a few activities for the students to start with at home. Besides, pedagogy is in itself in contention if the whole idea of the three learner types is neurologically valid. If it were, I should have learned Russian along with English at secondary school, especially after good result in primary. But I didn’t. Or there were and are other factors at play too.
It is true, however, that some students who love listening to English pop songs and do so often, learn, or should I say acquire, the language naturally. It is sometimes suggested that learners listen to music and get to love the language through it. Well, to my mind it’s a good ideas and I have often seen it work, but what if the target language is not English? Have large numbers of pupils ever listened to Chinese, Slovakian, or Dutch pop-songs? I can’t imagine that situation. For learners of some languages other than English, some other methods may work better. It’s about the emotional relationship now. If one doesn’t care about the use of the language but enjoys listening to it, it makes a world of difference. So as teachers, we could try to entice the students
A painting from the Rembrandt-museum, Amsterdam
with something aesthetically pleasing – not with paintings of Picasso, Rembrandt, Riepin or Munkácsy, though those can also be used, but we can show (especially for the benefit of the visual type) photos of interesting cities, buildings, people or activities to our students. Easy again with English, but not significantly more difficult with German, French, Spanish or Italian either. Lots of European language teachers are of the open-minded and well-travelled type, they can even raise their students interests in learning more exotic languages, like Arabic, Chinese or Russian, or even Swahili, by showing them their own photos taken during holidays. However, the important point here should be not simply to flip through the pictures, but to stop with many, evoking personal stories and inviting discussion. Such experiences have a chance of becoming an experience for the pupils themselves too, and through the emotions going with this, will become memorable fix, familiar points to learning.
From the point of view of learning types, language learning may give some advantage to some and disadvantage to others in comparison with learning other subjects. Whereas learning most other subjects may give advantage to the intellectual visual types or, if the teacher lectures better than the book to follow, the audio types, language learning involves a lot more doing than, say, learning biology or history, if there’s any discussion in the pedagogic repertoire of the language teacher. Most kinds of group work, discussion of problems, problem solving tasks and the so-called task-based learning above all, involve a lot of speaking, and that itself is doing for many. Problem-solving stimulates the intellectual types. Games and other group activities like line dictation, arranging sentence part or themselves in patterns and the like add real bodily movement and such a language lesson far exceeds the effectiveness of language classes for the kinesthetic type that any other subject can attain.
The third major group of factors involve the learner’s psychological and intellectual leanings. Like with all people, some students may be sociable types and like talking overlooking their own mistakes easily, as I’ve already mentioned. They can survive any language course with flying colours and being among the most popular members anywhere in the world, though the quality of their achievement may vary greatly. Others are almost afraid to speak out in public, be it a small group or a larger community. This type can just survive an oral test every semester in Hungary and can completely avoid attention in China, whereas could have very hard times in good
Classroom scene, student as teacher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
British schools where lots of community tasks, discussion and interaction is in order. Intellectual, quality-oriented people could take a lot more time to achieve good results, especially as speaking is concerned, but if they have resistance to the boredom of repetition, they may emerge as by far the best after a few years of study, and could become very good writers and debaters inside and outside class. They only need to survive the years before that without giving up their seemingly futile and embarrassing effort. On the other hand, they may stay slower speakers for the rest of their lives, but being more keen on reading, their vocabulary and general knowledge could sky-rocket.
Then there are the analytical and synthetic types. Without other major strengths, they may become great at solving grammar tests or writing tasks, could especially well analyze pieces of literature, but could never become good teachers or orators on the pulpit of a university. With a good balance and strong intellect, such people will become the best writers. I once had such a reticent type of student who started to write poetry at a young age, also in English. Another one concentrated solely on writing fantasy-literature, also instead of doing his homework tasks, but was so good at it that he got away with it. Unfortunately, those with such limited interest can’t bloom to be all-round excellent speakers of a language.
Others again may lack the sheer memory that is necessary for learning languages. Such people may need logic to support their retaining power, such that may easily come to their help in their own language with any subject but language. Without memory, they may acquire grammar skills, but could hardly use them for lack of means to fill in the spaces.
Another major requirement is to be able to hear well. If effort, intellect, memory, interactive interests are all present but the person still can’t make good differences among the sounds he/she hears and makes, they may become utterly embarrassing talking partners, sooner or later avoided by most. A language inherently has its musical qualities and without getting that right, correct intonation, articulation, sound formation will suffer greatly to the detriment of being understood. Of course, such people can still become very good writers, fast, voluptuous readers, or successful in any other field of life requiring language competences if they don’t need to and insist on talking too much.
Well, it sounds obvious that a language teacher should understand most of these sleeping abilities and difficulties at the cocoon-stage in most of their students and try to draw the attention of as many as possible to their own strengths and weaknesses within the time-constraints that may be. Besides, the teacher should have the utmost quality of the good teacher: persuasiveness. On the other hand, the student who has the advantage of being informed of his/her qualities should need the added ability and brevity to follow advice. With that, they may become successful language learners even against the odds. A tall order against the pull of modern hedonism.
Dutch Flag (Photo credit: Guido.)
Still more to come in part two
by P.S. and Z.J.S