Friday, 2 July 2010

Classroom Pipedreams

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to learn not one but two languages (French and German) through to A-Level at school. The emphasis was on teaching then, which was fine by me, and the textbook took centre stage. Substitution-based exercises geared towards understanding and application of correct grammar made for less exciting lessons, usually without singing or dancing, yet - in my opinion - better long-term learning. We also had vocabulary books into which we - contemporary educational anathema – copied new words from the board. Vocabulary learning was for homework and tested regularly in class. It all felt like a long-term project.

Rather worryingly for me, this was 20-25 years ago. But the experience and approach was largely similar to that of the last six months in a class of fourteen in Okazaki: Yamasa, you see, is unashamedly old school in its approach.

Here, too, grammar and vocabulary lead the way. There are no interactive whiteboards - relatively uncommon in this electronic superpower of a nation - and the course textbooks were first published well over ten years ago but no-one seems to mind. Vocabulary is introduced and repeated chorally but, beyond that, it’s for the student to get on with in his own time. What matters is that the basics are put in place. Particles, tenses, forms. And words. It’s not perfect, neither is it always enjoyable, but – for most students - it works, so there's nothing to fix.

Contrast that with the average government-micro-managed Modern Languages department back home. Its obsession with having the latest ICT and gameshow plenaries. Its teachers jostling to teach the most ‘fun’ lessons - always welcome but not the sine qua non of effective learning. Its cyclical yearning for new glossy textbooks with images of the latest stars, which suddenly render years of often invaluable teacher-made resources obsolete, and which are designed to reflect the latest government ‘Programme of Study’ as well as inculcate that old chestnut, ‘cultural awareness’.

(The single best way for the government to promote the latter would be tackle the risk assessment culture that makes the organisation of school exchanges, from which I learnt so much as a student, such a poisoned chalice for most teachers. Though better than nothing, experiencing a foreign country in the company of classmates on an off-the-peg sanitised coach trip can hardly be considered a modern languages trip at all).

Yes, despite my qualified praise for certain educational initiatives (see earlier posts), I fear that the British approach to teaching languages went off the rails and possibly disappeared somewhere unholy a while back.

In 2005, training to become a languages teacher, the challenge for me was to learn not to teach languages like I was taught them. So I had to ‘unlearn’ my own (teenage) classroom experience. Again, I should stress that this brought with it positives too. However, as far as teaching languages specifically was concerned, we learnt - in the name of the most recent best practice called ‘communicative language teaching’ - a very new approach to doing things.

In this new world, communication was king, whilst accuracy was merely a plus. Indeed, error was often excusable. It was suggested that we reward students whenever possible: we were told there were even optimal ratios for ticks to crosses; for words of praise to words of correction. And there was very little of the negative marking which I learnt so much from at school and Yamasa. Maybe this worked in certain other subjects but .. languages? As in life, as in school: isn’t it what we do wrong that we learnt most from? (Granted, if handled with tact and encouragement. Students need to have the courage to make mistakes too.) Thinking back, it seems to me that there was a culture of sending out the wrong message. Grammar always felt neglected and - in all but the top sets of a comprehensive school - rather optional.

The reader (if his name's not Ben) might feel that these criticisms have the ring of elitism. To which I respond: since learning correct grammar takes less time than correcting mislearned grammar, I fear the communicative method is condemning those able linguists who in ever decreasing numbers are continuing their studies into higher education and beyond, to wasted time. Wasted time revisiting the foundations of their language studies which now, as the gold stars earned at school begin to peel, are unmasked as a linguistic botch job. And snobbish and heretical as this attitude may sound coming from a Languages teacher, it’s legitimate to query what those pupils who cannot foresee any future interest in using a foreign language stand to gain from acquiring a ropey, basic grasp of one at all. Languages for Many, but not All, is surely the more realistic ideal.

So, thank you, Yamasa. If I were studying in an English school today (a generalisation - I fear I may mean 'comprehensive'), would I learn as much as I did in the 1980s? I doubt it. (Most likely, I would end up doing the thing I always did best at school: teach myself at home, at my own pace, following my nose.)

Just thinking of the lessons I have taught, the emphasis on games would strike me as gimmicky; I’d get anxious being tested on language introduced only minutes ago (I’m equipped with a woeful short-term memory), and the starter-main course-plenary format would seem like a straitjacket, a tired commute to a Learning Objective, devoid of spontaneity, leaving me with the feeling that I've been rammed down someone else’s communicative pipeline. (Teacher, why are you asking me to order snails?)

The journey down the communicative superhighway would seem a bit dull, and I’d want to take the occasional sliproad, head off on a tangent, just as – in real life – you never know when you might want to quit the beaten track, slip into the undergrowth, or even just stop at the nearest Little Chef. (No snails there.) Linguistically speaking.

In the real world, after all, we don’t know what communicative challenge lies around the corner, so let’s not overstate how communicative an environment the classroom can be. We learn best from using language to say the things we genuinely want to say, and at the time we genuinely need to say them - whether this be to order a beer, chat up the barmaid or apologise for one’s drunkenness. The classroom is not life (we get a worksheet after the role play) but it is the place to put the foundations in place. Restoring grammar and vocabulary to the heart of language teaching is not a manifesto for dull, old school lessons, but a sensible acknowledgement of the fact that, at school, we no longer have the luxury of learning like babies.

(Simple format for effective lesson: 1 Learn new words. 2 Introduce, rehearse and apply new grammar. 3 Combine words and grammar. 4 Use it, ideally to produce something new. Oh, and starters and plenaries - which are fine by me - either side.)

A few final words on Yamasa. If I broadly approve its methods (but not its thinking on exams), why do I still speak Japanese so hesitantly and often incorrectly, as well as consistently feel linguistically inadequate in my (rare) exchanges with Japanese? Well, I didn’t come to Yamasa to learn how to speak Japanese. I came to apply a base coat: accelerate through the grammar, give myself a foundation to go out and make progress, and then relate real spoken Japanese back to what I have studied. I've often read that the best way to learn a language is to go out into the world and speak it ... but disagree. I need that foundation, first. The walkabout will come later.

And yet (never satisfied) I didn’t always enjoy lessons, just as I often didn't enjoy school as a child. They could be frustrating. Whether an adult foreign student, or a Japanese junior high pupil discussing whales, language learning can feel like one constant, unnatural performance. There are off-days and on-days but it’s always like a flight simulator, never quite the real thing, however great the pretensions to 'immersion'. So we steer clear of words we struggle to pronounce. Or, preparing to speak, with our answer clear in our head, we fluff our lines or have a mental blank. Or, just when we are warming up, we feel ourselves go cold again and the question passes to someone else. Conversely, the more we forget we are performing, the better we actually perform.

So, to twist a quote (of a Bard, but not a Cornish one), the world’s not just a stage, but also a classroom.

Unless you’re at school, perhaps.

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