How to improve foreign language teaching significantly

After visiting hundreds of classrooms I often feel that, on average, modern languages today are not taught better than in the 1950s when I went to school. There are exceptions, of course,  real improvements mostly in connection with the digital revolution and in online courses. There is a spirit of experimentation and innovation, and I venture to say that with the internet, the golden age of language learning has only just begun. But, in my view, foreign language teaching in public schools is stagnating, especially when it comes to teaching beginners and laying the foundations.  One of the reasons for this stagnation are fundamental flaws or omissions in the language teaching theories of the mainstream. The three areas in which significant improvements can be achieved concern the communicative principle, the bilingual principle, and the generative principle.

1. We are born and bred to communicate. It is our social talent that makes us smarter than all other living beings. Preschool children already have the expressive means for a magnificent array of speech intentions, using their voice, mimes and gestures, i.e. linguistic and paralinguistic means. And they bring all these communicative competencies to the task of foreign language learning. It follows that utterances, not words, are the primary reality of language, and dialogues, for which we need a partner, are the ideal basic texts for foreign language teaching. They define a specific situation and constitute a total communicative event. So let us teach learners to enact these situations in face to face communication as naturally as possible. If rightly taught, they perform them with verve and gusto no matter whether they are children, adolescent or adults, slow or fast learners. With our social brains we are naturally born performers and masters in make-believe. Most modern coursebooks are peppered with colourful pictures, but don’t contain enough short, actable and sophisticated dialogues with which learners can enjoy team work and create moments of excellence for themselves and their audiences.

2. Sophisticated dialogues are possible from the very beginning because we teach them with systematic mother tongue support, via the bilingual sandwich-technique. In a laudable effort to make teachers conduct classrooms in the foreign language, mainstream philosophy has thrown out the baby with the bathwater. However, a naturally acquired language is the greatest pedagogical resource that learners bring to foreign language classes, as it lays the foundations for all other languages we might want to learn. Two thousand years of documented language teaching, as well as modern brain research, have shown that foreign language learning is fundamentally a bilingual endeavour. Because, in a deep sense, we only learn language once. In a common effort to make sense of  the world, all languages dance the same dance. All humans can talk about persons and things, time and space, past and future, basic event types like give & take, possession, number, instrument, agent, obligation, condition etc. etc.  In our first five years we have accumulated a huge cognitive capital for the rest of our lives, usually via the mother tongue. It would be sheer madness to cut learners off from what is the very foundation of language. It follows that it is not just a more flexible and less rigid attitude towards own-language use which is needed, but the well-targeted, systematic exploitation of the explanatory potential of learners’ own language(s), however with the foreign language still being the working language of the classroom.

3. In language, we make “infinite use of finite means” (Humboldt). A finite stock of words or word groups can be recombined again and again to produce innumerable novel sentences – and thus, new ideas. This is the core capacity of all human languages. It means that the words and constructions of the basic dialogues, stories or songs must not remain encapsulated in those texts, but must be extracted, recombined and varied in order to fit new situations and personal communicative needs.  (What shall we do with the drunken sailor? => What shall I do with my hair? => What shall I do with my life?). Children are excellent pattern detectives, which is visible from the two word stage on. But 3- hours-per-week learners must be helped to shorten the process of pattern recognition – by mother tongue mirroring, for instance -  and by repetition cum variation of basic constructions, which is also evidenced in child language. The practical solution proposed are semi-communicative bilingual pattern drills as stepping stones towards communication – so mother tongue support again. Constructions are fully understood, they can take root  and learners feel encouraged to risk something new on the analogy of what is familiar. Bilingual pattern practice ought to be a cornerstone in our teaching methodology. It is conspicuously absent in our coursebooks.

After forty years of working with foreign language learners and observing them in a great variety of classrooms I have come to the conclusion that we must free ourselves from two dogmas which have harmed, and not helped, the teaching profession: The monolingual dogma tried to banish the learners’ native language from the classroom. The communicative dogma led to the wholesale rejection of pattern drills. Let us re-orient ourselves and make a significant step forward.

 

One thought on “How to improve foreign language teaching significantly

  1. Helen Doron

    I really liked that article! I totally agree with you. Can’t find a proper reason why teaching languages didn’t improve over the years, why it didn’t develop and be a lot more entertaining than before. Because it should be – there are so many new methods that can really change the way of learning and make it a lot easier especially for the kids.

    Reply

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