Posted on January 27th, 2009 13 comments
Some language learner bloggers have been discussing Tim Ferriss “Why language classes don’t work” article. Street-Smart Language Learning, Aspiring Polyglot and Confessions of a Language Addict gave their opinions on the matter, so I think now it’s my turn.
I recently started teaching English here in Brazil. The school I work for has an 18 months program which aims atin the method, to be responsible for our students and to give shows instead of simple classes. Excessive grammar and translations are not allowed at all. The students should like you, like the class, like the language, and have fun! If you can do it, you’re in, if you can’t, you’re out. The school and its method (fluency in 18 months) are relatively new here. English courses usually take four or more years and aim at “language proficiency”, which I assume is much more than fluency. Without going too deep into my school‘s methodology and its effectiveness, let me throw out this question: Is it possible to achieve basic fluency inside a classroom? fluency. You’re not allowed to use Portuguese inside the classroom, everything should be taught and explained in English. Sometimes it’s really difficult to explain certain words or expressions, but you just have to find a way to do it. At the initial meeting with other teachers and the school manager, we were told to believe
I would say, yes, you can achieve basic fluency inside a classroom. By basic fluency, I mean being able to understand native English and communicate at least at a daily conversational level. When students come to my school, they are amazed by the idea that in a year and a half they are going to be understanding and speaking English. “Hey dude, in June 2010 I’ll know English! Awesome!” is what mainly motivates them. I partly disagree with Tim Ferris. Classes tend not to work, because students are lazy and teachers neither know how to teach nor how to learn a language. But it does not mean classes can’t work at all. There are many people that have learned languages inside classrooms, so in some way classes must work.
In order to work, I think some requirements have to be met inside and outside the classroom…
A good and motivated teacher
Perhaps that’s why most classes don’t work. A good teacher isn’t easy to find. Universities don’t prepare students to be good teachers. University teachers themselves usually aren’t good teachers. They are good researchers and thinkers. But teaching is a practical, not a theoretical skill. You don’t learn how to teach by reading books or simulating classes. You learn how to teach by teaching real classes over and over again. If classrooms can work, it absolutely requires very very good teachers, who know their subject and know how to teach it properly. Remember AJATT and Outliersto teaching. 10000 hours thing? The same applies
Good material really can help. However, I think good materials are those materials that the students can use outside the classroom. Inside the classrooms, the focus should be on the teacher. Even though I just started teaching, I often find myself asking the students to close their books and pay attention to me. I want them to look at me, listen to me. I want them to understand what I am trying to say verbally and non-verbally. The good materials are going to be used at home, for self study. Perhaps a combination of motivating/fun classes with a set of very good materials for self-study could work very well!
This depends on students and teachers. Every teacher wants motivated students of course. But what to do with the unmotivated ones? Stimulate them! You can’t motivate someone else, since motivation comes from within yourself, but you can stimulate them so that they get motivated. It is easy to blame students for being unmotivated, but teachers should remember that their role is much more than simply throwing their course material at the students and expecting them to learn it. As I said before, teaching is practical and entails many different abilities.
In conclusion, I believe classrooms can work in the same way that self-study methods can work. At the same time, classrooms will fail for the same reasons that self-study methods will fail. Every one has his own manner of learning, although certain principles are universal. The hard task is to find and apply these principles, be it inside or outside the classroom.