Inside foreign language classrooms

 I. The monolingual approach: the view from the pupil’s desk

The mother tongue taboo – still the didactical correctness in many countries of the world –  is a patent absurdity.  There are practices bordering on the bizarre, which have been repeatedly reported in the literature. Personally, I have heaps of anecdotal evidence to support my claim. Here are just a few episodes taken from retrospective self-reports collected over many years from German university students of English who wrote about themselves as pupils and language learners.

 ♠  I really hated the fact that the teacher we had in grades 7-9 refused to explain English words we didn’t know in German. She just wrote the word up on the board, but only a few pupils understood her English explanations. Even when we asked her nicely if she could give us the German equivalent she became angry. But I’d better stop talking about her, as it makes me angry. Sonja

 ♠  He very often demanded silence with the word (as I grasped it): [pikwait]. To me this was one word and I was absolutely proud when some day I recognized the words “be” and „quiet”, although I had already sensed before what he meant. Only then could I correct the pronunciation in my mind because I had identified the isolated words. Vanessa

 ♠  Mrs. […] tried to explain the meaning of “tall” and “small” to us, by having a little girl standing next to a big boy. We all had no clue what she wanted from us. She repeated “Henrik is taller than Carina. And Carina is smaller than Henrik.” In addition to this she waved about with her hands. These actions confused us even more. Corinna

 ♠  When someone dared to ask for an equivalent, he/she was reprimanded for not paying attention. He strictly rejected the use of the mother tongue, we were forbidden to use it; if we did, we had to do some extra homework. There never was a relaxed atmosphere in his classroom. Nicole

 ♠  He tried to teach us by means of the direct method. I say he only “tried to” because it did not work. This became obvious whenever he tried to explain new words, especially adjectives which described emotions or someone’s character. As certain emotions are difficult to describe, we often had only a slight hint of what he could mean and still could not grasp the real meaning of the word. Bettina

 ♠He practised the direct method in an orthodox form. That meant from the very beginning our mother tongue was excluded […] we did not have the possibility of talking about real interests, but about those things we had learned before. We did not ask real questions to get real answers, we just imitated the phrases we learnt from the teacher or from the textbook. Dagmar

She stuck to the direct method, as did most teachers at that time. She insisted on explaining new vocabulary in English and we weren‘t allowed to look up the German meaning in our books or to open our books while listening to a new dialogue. I remember that I found this very irritating and often didn‘t get the correct meaning. Everyone looked up the new words in the dictionary after the lesson was over. Svenja

This is madness. And it’s scandalous.  Instances of ideological rigidity. Robert L. Allen once wrote: “I discovered that even though dragging an elephant into the classroom would undoubtedly make the lesson more lively, the students would still associate the word elephant with their own name for the animal.” So nothing is gained by withholding the mother tongue phrase.   Even “easy” phrases may be misunderstood when they are first introduced. The pupils concerned are mortified so that they remember these incidents many years after:

       “One day the new phrase to be learned was „How old are you?“. Mrs. B. asked the questions „How are you?“ and „How old are you?“ alternately to three pupils. Then it was my turn to answer the question „How old are you?“. I had not yet understood the question. Nevertheless I had to answer and I promptly said: „I‘m fine, thank you.“ I only noticed that I was wrong when all the other pupils and my teacher began to laugh. It was embarrassing for me. I blushed and felt deeply ashamed. But only after having asked my neighbour for the German translation could I understand what was wrong with my answer.” Petra

If pupils feel their learning problems are systematically ignored, this will seriously harm student-teacher rapport: „In my eyes, this is the greatest drawback of a strict direct method because it disregards the negative emotions (loss of self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, shame, anxiety) that will easily arise in pupils who feel unable to understand what is going on.“ Tanja

Note that the positive use of the mother tongue should not be restricted to meaning-conveyance. It should also be used to make foreign language constructions transparent. The technique of “mother tongue mirroring” (as I prefer to call it) is a great way of making grammar learning fast and simple: *’We must bread buy’. That’s how the Germans say it.

We must be ready to fight a war on two fronts: against the teacher who conveniently lapses into the MT, which he shares with his pupils, simply because he is not fluent and flexible enough in the language he teaches; and against the native speaker with little or no command of his pupils’ MT.  Both groups of teachers are unlikely to know effective, well-crafted bilingual techniques.

 If we set things right here, millions of language learners will be positively affected.

II. The misuse of the mother tongue

„He only spoke English with his pupils when we worked with our books lying in front of us.“ Vlado

„Since the pupils‘ English was so poor, Mrs. X made almost no use of it, and the predominant language during the lesson was German: a vicious circle.“ Claudia

„The one unforgivable mistake our English teacher made, no matter how nice she was, was that she never spoke English in class…She used German to explain English grammar, she spoke German when we had a discussion about an English topic and she used German for organising the class. english was never a means of communication until we got a new English teacher.“ Sonja

„From small daily routines such as determining who should have cleaned the board, who did or did not do one’s homework , or who was ill, up to bigger events like planning a school party or oganising the next class trip – some teachers do it all in German. ..Even in the upper forms where it would be easily possible to do it in English, whole lessons are wasted on discussing organisational matters in German.“ Tanja

„One thing was quite unacceptable about our lessons. That was the little amount of contact with the foreign language most pupils had during a lesson. We hardly ever got the chance to say something in class, let alone the opportunity to express  our views or needs independently.“ Christina

„In my first four years at the Realschule, English was never taught as a means of communication, because the whole lesson was conducted in German. Most of the time there was a dull mood because we always proceeded in the same way. Only later, with a different teacher, English was no longer a language you were drilled in. “ Michael

There are cases where young trainee teachers try very hard to use English in class, but are boycotted by their pupils who are are not used to this and do not want to see things changed: „Again, most of the answers  were given in German. After a few attempts to convince the pupils to use the foreign language only, the teacher gave up.“ Ulrike

This, too, is madness. So I’ll say it again: If we set things right here, millions of language learners worldwide will be positively affected.

III. German as a foreign language in English schools

The following are quotes from former students of mine who worked as German teaching assistants in English schools.

 1. All a waste of time?

 Message-oriented communication was virtually excluded from the German classroom. Norbert

 Although the students were expected to speak German all the time, it was next to impossible to divert them from asking all their questions in English. Patricia

 I had to take the pupils to another room and ask questions such as: “Wie heißt Du?”, “Hast du irgendwelche Geschwister?” etc. Some of them were not able to answer these simple questions on which they had worked for weeks as the teacher told me. Sonja                                                     

 The first and second years were very eager to say something in German, but starting from the third year, they did not like anything about school. The reason why the students spoke German so poorly was because the teachers conducted their lessons in English and only spoke German when they read a German text. Questions on the text were asked in English, so that they only tested reading comprehension. Sandra

 I was not introduced to the class, instead the students were asked to prepare questions concerning my person beforehand, which  they would then have  to ask me in class. Not a bad idea, but from the first moment I had the impression that most of the students neither understood the questions they were asking me nor were they able to comprehend my replies.

Only a fractional part of the students take German as a major in the sixth form. So classes are quite small, and the students higly motivated:  

The A-level pupils were super right from the start. I needed to speak very little English and at the end of our nine months they were able to talk about everything they wanted to. It was an absolute pleasure to teach them as they were so motivated and curious. They all loved German.  Claudia

 2. Teaching to the test

„One reason for the pupils’ poor German is to be found in the teachers being made accountable for their progress. In England, more so than in Germany, the pupils’ poor performance reflects on the teacher. Low test scores can lead to drastic cuts in money for the schools or even to a teacher’s dismissal. The pupils are fully aware of this and actually expect the teacher to relieve them of their school work. I witnessed  how the pupils in advanced classes took advantage of the teachers’ plight. Only very few pupils had prepared their exam topics in detail, and the teacher did for all the others and handed everything out  – nicely formulated and printed out – for them to memorize it. When I asked what the point was of an exam in which the pupils merely recite what they have memorized – sometimes even without really understanding what they were saying – the teacher responded with resignation: “What am I supposed to do? They will all fail if I don’t do it for them.” Nora

Most pupils I helped with the preparation for the exam were not able to handle the required tasks. As a result the teachers rehearsed the GCSE questions and role-plays by simply giving out model sentences, which had to be learnt by heart. This type of lesson was actually once called ‘mind killing’ by one teacher, as the lessons lost all real significance and were very repetitive.“ Dagmar.

„Students are allowed to prepare their presentation before the exam. I was extremely surprised, however,  to learn what it meant in practice. Students start to write little essays months before the exam. Very often, they even combine several old texts they have written in Years 9 or 10 to a new whole instead of presenting any new work. Those texts are collected in by the teachers, corrected and handed back. Then students devote very much time to learning their texts by heart and reciting them. Even more surprisingly, the teachers‘ questions as well as the students‘ answers, are prepared in advance. As a consequence both the presentation and the question and answer session sound everything but spontaneous and there is a great danger involved, too. When candidates are nervous and forget just one line of their text, the probability of ruining the whole exam is high. „Eva

„Personally the most frustrating moment was the final GCSE exams. Under pressure to bring as many pupils as possible through the exams, the teacher provided them with a question sheet of twenty questions covering the most important curriculum topics. These questions were answered in class with the aid of the teacher and myself and they were also written on the board so that every possible spelling mistake was ruled out. Apart from that I tested each individual pupil before the exams. Moreover, the teacher and I even recorded the model answers on a cassette which every student was allowed to copy. Basically all they had to do was be able to recognize the questions and learn the answers by heart. It was ridiculous how many students still failed or did not gain enough points. They did not even understand what the questions really meant, as they only concentrated on the order of questions. Changing the order of the questions caused confusion and put them off.“ Katja

Language lessons do not aim at teaching the students how to actually use the target language, but their only purpose is to teach them enough to pass the final exams.“ Kirsten

„My pupils were horrified at the thought of going to Germany. Those who had been in Germany already felt very much frustrated as they realised how limited their German was.“ Katja

3. ‚No grammar‘ policy

It can well be that in the not so distant past there was an overdose of grammar teaching. Nevertheless I find it odd that a country that produced excellent language teaching experts with balanced views such as Harold Palmer or Eric Hawkins (I had the pleasure of getting to know Eric personally)  should have issued counterproductive ‚grammar-free‘ guidelines for teachers and should have adopted a kind of didactical Rousseauism, a back-to-nature stance, as it were. Centuries of experience and discussion were ignored. Three hours per week learners need grammatical instruction from their teachers.

„A boy had written about his best friend and one of the sentences was “Er blätter haus acht uhr.” It took me a while until I found out that he had intended to say: “Er verläßt das Haus um acht Uhr”. I tried to explain to him that there are different word classes. He did not understand that verbs and nouns are not the same and kept declaring that he had typed “leaves” and the computer had given him the translation “Blätter.”, i.e. the noun instead of the verb he meant.“  Nicole

„The pupils had no notion whatsoever of grammar, neither of German nor of English grammar, that is. I first got suspicious when I reminded a class to spell their nouns with capitals and no one had a sufficient idea of what a noun is. Needless to say that it is extremely difficult to explain and teach pieces of German grammar when the students do not even have a basic grammatical knowledge of their own language. As a result, a kind of vicious circle evolved: already in the early stages of language acquisition pupils learn items by heart rather than first questioning and then understanding them, which makes it later impossible to explain more complex items.“ Eva

„German did not become a real means of communication but only a “provider” of specific phrases. The German lessons were far too concentrated on language as a medium than as a conveyer of messages. Their conversations always seemed to be very artificial as no one was able to respond or react to an individually made statement. To give you an example: the “greeting ceremony”: The pupils were taught to say: “Wie heißt du? – Ich heiße x!” These phrases were repeated in a very automatical way. One had the impression that the speaking persons were machines and not human beings. When I changed these phrases into: “Wie ist dein Name? – Mein Name ist xy!, which is closer to English, complete confusion arose. I personally found this sad as no language is spoken in such a standardized and limited way. It was no surprise to me that many of the pupils were horrified at the thought of going to Germany.“ Katja

My school  primarily used a book called “Deutsch Jetzt” by Rosy McNab (Heinemann Educational, 1987) which didn’t contain any grammatical explanations but provided only pattern sentences which the pupils had to learn by heart. It  turned out during the exercises that the pupils hadn’t understood the structure of a sentence. It wasn’t possible to use grammatical terms to help explain the concepts because the pupils didn’t recognize them. A teacher told me the school believed the teaching of grammar to be superfluous and that in any case it was not a grammar school. In my opinion, it would have been beneficial to have at least made use of basic grammatical explanations as an additional help in learning to use the foreign language.“ Helga

„Being only taught a specific set of phrases with a very limited vocabulary the students  naturally  stuck to these phrases. I was alarmed and shocked at how incapable many students were to think of alternative words, let alone sentences to express their thoughts. The FL did not become a real means of communication but was just a closed set of  phrases. A fifth form had to work out answers for different questions, such as ‘Wie sieht dein Schlafzimmer aus?’ or ‘Was hast du in den letzten Ferien gemacht?’. It was my task to discuss those questions in groups of three pupils who had been taken out of the classroom. The pupils, however, were not able to respond to my questions without reading the answer from a sheet. Going more into detail, e.g. asking why somebody’s favourite subject was maths, the students got stuck because they had not learned this part of the conversation. Changing the order of the questions caused confusion and put them off. This obviously showed that the pupils had not even understood the questions. After five years of learning a foreign language I can only regard this as a complete failure and I can understand that pupils tended to forget  their German within a sadly short time.“ Iris

„I was never taught grammar…You learn how to say a sentence: I am going to the cinema. And you would never learn the verb. It would just be parrot fashion…You could never change the phrases round because you never actually learned the verbs“ (A-level pupil, quoted by Fisher 2001).

 „It was probably our middle class arrogance – believing that comprehensive kids can’t cope with abstract concepts – that led us to make the third fatal mistake when we killed the teaching of grammar. (The Modern Languages Adviser who tells you with a condescending smile: ”But you learnt your own language as a child without knowing grammar, didn’t you?” should be answered with a straight right to the chin.)“ (Leman 2000, 24).

No comment.

See also: „Schwache Englischleistungen – woran liegt’s? Glanz und Elend der Schule oder die Wirklichkeit des Fremdsprachenschülers“ ZiF (2007)



Something of myself

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Rising from dogmatic slumbers
How I changed my mind and started using the mother tongue in the foreign language classroom

To the memory of C.J. Dodson, the pioneer

The compromise method: the mother tongue as a last resort.

As a foreign language teacher, I had been trained to use a modified version of the direct method, which was sometimes referred to as the “compromise method”. Each textbook chapter began with a text containing the new grammatical structures and the new words to be practised in that unit. The text was to be presented orally with books closed and explained, as far as possible, in the target language alone. However, at the back of the textbook, there was a bilingual vocab section. In class, the use of the mother tongue was to be kept to an absolute minimum – apart from grammatical explanations where it was generally accepted. That was fine by me. Monolingual explanations, some of which were suggested in the teacher’s manual, seemed to work. A compromise is usually a practical solution one can live with.
I taught as I had been instructed in my trainee period. I considered myself to be reasonably successful and enjoyed teaching. I particularly remember a lesson where, in the course of my presentation of a new text with books closed, I covered the whole blackboard with a drawing of a soap-box race, from the starting line on a hillside to the finishing post with the winning soap box being cheered by a group of spectators (stick figures, of course). All the new objects and persons were carefully labelled during the presentation (but only after the words had first been heard and imitated). Standard presentation techniques, thus, included individual and choral repetition of words and constructions before they appeared on the blackboard, and I made sure that the class repeated each new word several times before I added it to my drawing. I usually finished off by getting individual pupils to read bits from the text out loud. Everybody was eager to get a chance to read, but there was never enough time for everybody to have a go because my presentation (story-telling and explanations) took the lion’s share of the lesson time. I occasionally used the mother tongue to get to the point quicker, but I always considered this to be merely a last resort. I never thought of the mother tongue as an important positive resource because I was still in the thrall of the direct method (or compromise method) orthodoxy.

I noticed that some of the older teachers who used the mother tongue more freely simply did not seem to have the necessary fluency and flexibility to give a vivid presentation supported by mime, gestures, actions, objects and drawings while keeping up a steady flow of language. I did not see the need to change my methods. Didn’t I immerse the students in the language bath they needed? Well, if you don’t know what you are missing, you don’t miss it. My conversion was yet to come.

The audiovisual method: the mother tongue outlawed

After several years, I changed schools and helped set up a comprehensive school – one of the first of a number of pilot comprehensives in my country. It was not, however, truly comprehensive, in the sense of having an intake of students across the whole ability range, because there was a grammar school in the neighbourhood which continued to skim off the cream.
The newly established comprehensive school started out with 14 fifth grades, and I had four English beginners‘ classes with 5-6 periods a week. We tried out conventional textbooks as well as some of the first audio-visual textbooks on the market such as Look, Listen and Learn (by L. G. Alexander) and Passport to English (Paris: Marcel Didier). The audio-visual method was the latest thing at the time. Its advocates claimed that they would perfect the reforms initiated at the turn of the century. The methodological compromises of the past were considered outdated. At long last, the necessary media had been made available to do justice to the direct principle, namely to teach strictly without recourse to the mother tongue, and, initially, without recourse to the printed text, either. In a foreign language teaching context the mother tongue was just something that set traps for pupils. The audio-visual method and the new teaching materials would lead to the ultimate realisation of the Great Reform envisaged at the turn of the century when the profession began to rebel against the grammar-translation approach.

Dialogues became the favourite type of language teaching text, and the teacher was expected to present them from the tape. The first few texts were omitted in the pupils‘ book to prevent teachers from misusing the method and introducing the printed word too early. In addition, picture strips available in the books as well as on slides were provided with the primary function of helping to clarify the meaning of new words. Again, the teachers‘ books contained hints of how to convey these meanings without having to resort to the mother tongue. The textbook did not contain a single word in the pupils’ mother tongue.

Testing textbooks and materials in parallel classes

The more radically a thesis is articulated, the more clearly a counter-thesis can be put forward. It was easier to take a critical stance towards the clear, uncompromising mother tongue taboo of the audio-visualists than towards the wishy-washy compromise of their predecessors. It so happened that, at that time, I came across C. J. Dodson’s Language Teaching and the Bilingual Method (London: Pitman 1967) – one of those happy coincidences that gave my professional life a new turn.
Dodson taught two major heresies: the usefulness, from the very beginning, of L1; and the usefulness of the printed word. I immediately started putting his ideas to the test. Having four parallel classes, what I tried with one class, I could try again in another, and do it differently in a third or a fourth class.
I didn’t take long to find out that Dodson’s techniques worked better than those propounded by the audio-visualists. It became evident to me that if I used the printed text from the very beginning, albeit in a special way where the spoken sentence was still the primary stimulus for the learners, it was easier for the children to imitate the sentences. When the printed word was available, there were fewer omissions of words, and I needed to model the sentences less frequently. At the same time, there was little distortion of speech that could be traced to the influence of the printed word, apart from a few instances of typical interference errors which could be dealt with immediately.

I observed similar positive effects when I used mother-tongue equivalents at sentence level to convey the meanings of unknown words and phrases – a technique suggested by Dodson which I was later to call “sandwich technique”. In this way, I reached the ”fun phase” much more quickly, i.e. the stage where I could safely ask the children to act out the dialogue in groups.
I was surprised. Wasn’t it paradoxical that the printed word should support the oral acquisition of the dialogue sentences instead of interfering with it, as had so often been claimed? Dodson’s ideas afforded an entirely new view of the printed word as a help rather than a hindrance. And I started using the mother tongue as a regular short-cut in well-defined ways.
Notably the sandwich technique and, lo and behold, bilingual pattern drills, which Dodson handed to me on a silver platter, constituted an amazing stride forward. Students were not distracted by their search for meaning but could concentrate on speaking and using the language. With bilingual drills they quickly learned how to permutate dialogue sentences and adapt them to new situations.

C.J. Dodson – a natural bilingual

“Drastic re-thinking for language-teaching methods is called for” (Dodson 1967, 16). How can someone come along and dare radically to question the accepted beliefs of a profession? I think the fact that Dodson was a natural bilingual is a clue. I quote from an interview I had with him, which was published in Die Neueren Sprachen (1975, 265-275):
“I was born in Germany. My father had married a German girl and settled in Germany and consequently my home-language was German. I went to school in Germany, went to the Gymnasium in Germany, and just as I started to learn English in grade 9 we were thrown out of Germany at the end of August 1939…Several things stand out clearly in my memory. Shortly after our arrival in Britain I was having an English lesson on Shakespeare. I was desperately trying to follow the teacher’s words, but with little success. The teacher had drawn on the board a semicircle with a square just above it. He then labelled the square STAGE, and I couldn’t make head or tail of this, until he wrote AUDITORIUM under the circle. I had been taught Latin in Germany and suddenly the drawing fell into place and I realized that STAGE must mean “Bühne”. To the observer it would be a perfect example of a monolingual approach, but I remember saying to myself at the point of recognition “das ist ‘ne Bühne”. I also asked my parents on many occasions the German meaning of English words and phrases I had heard, and this speeded up my learning of the English language considerably…German is my first language in order of acquisition but English has long superseded it in dominance…”
– Do you think that these experiences have had some effect on your development of the bilingual method? (W.B.)
“Without doubt. When during the war I was called up into the RAF, I taught German for some time, where in fact the first glimmerings of the bilingual method came into my mind. I was training other people who already had their language degrees to make them more fluent, through re-translation procedures. We found that their proficiency could be increased vastly in this way rather than by any other techniques. This made me wonder why this was so utterly and completely excluded from direct-method teaching when we found that this worked so well with these people…”
Well, yes, every theory of learning is autobiographical to some extent.

My eureka experience

The discrepancy between what was approved practice on the one hand and Dodson’s experimental findings and original teaching practice on the other hand disturbed my peace of mind. I looked into the theoretical foundations of the issues involved and discovered how insubstantial they were. Too much had been claimed for the monolingual approach; too little had been systematically investigated, let alone proved. Dodson, however, and some of his followers, did provide hard data – all in favour of bilingual techniques. I also explored the history of foreign language teaching (what a wealth!) and found interesting bilingual techniques and ideas that had been forgotten, although they had nothing to do with an old-fashioned grammar translation method. I was fascinated. This was my ”eureka” experience, a wonderful thing. The mists clear, the sun comes out, and everything begins to make sense.
My reading then grew into systematic research, and my interest in research opened the door for me to a second career as a university teacher.
The reformers of the late nineteenth century had rebelled against grammar-translation, rightly so. But they had thrown the baby out with the bathwater. For some, the mother tongue was nothing but a source of interference and was to be avoided. This is absurd, and the fact that this opinion continues to be widely held in no way detracts from that fundamental absurdity.
No one can ignore his or her mother tongue. That would be like cutting oneself off from one’s own thought processes. If learners don’t make the connection between, let’s say, the new word ”anniversaire” and the familiar word ”birthday”, they will simply not understand. But once the connection to ”birthday” and its associated meanings has been made and consolidated, the mother-tongue word itself doesn’t need to be re-activated whenever one uses ”anniversaire”. It can gradually drop away from the mental process, when the French word has acquired the power to refer to all those past experiences originally linked only to ”birthday”. It can even be associated with new, typical experiences that are not covered by ”birthday”. Under the influence of a new language, we add new concepts and revise old ones, in much the same way as we constantly do in our own native language. We certainly do not have to re-conceptualise our view of basic event types (food, clothes, cars, giving & taking, past & present…) and the many things that make us human (love, jealousy, guilt, joking, rules…see Donald Brown, Human universals, 1991).

But why should a naturally acquired language be indispensable for teaching another language at school? To understand this I focussed my research on natural language acquisition. How could my three-year-old daughter produce grammatically complex sentences and yet not be able to count up to five? Mind-boggling. With my brother, a psychologist, we published Wie Kinder sprechen lernen: Kindliche Entwicklung und die Sprachlichkeit des Menschen. [How children learn to talk: Child development and the linguistic nature of man] (3. revised edition 2008).
For me it soon became evident that native language skills (articulation, to begin with) are the very foundation for foreign languages – which was completely overlooked by the teaching profession. These fundamental skills are the base camp from which we all set out to conquer new language territories. In the early stages of learning we must scaffold the new by relating it to the familiar. Even if teachers deliberately ignore the mother tongue, their students won’t. It’s much wiser to exploit the mother tongue through well-devised and sophisticated techniques than to avoid it. This is neither a return to the grammar-translation approach, nor a compromise method where use of the mother tongue is only a stop-gap strategy. A little bit more mother tongue support to prevent misunderstandings and facilitate comprehension is not the solution. Well crafted bilingual techniques must be combined with monolingual ones.

Desired side effects: More meaningful input; greater coverage of language materials

Thanks to Dodson’s revolutionary ideas, my teaching became so much more meaningful and message-oriented. (Together, when discussing on the banks of the Ystwyth, we coined the terms medium-oriented and message-oriented communication) I could now build on the natural intuitions of the learners instead of thwarting them, and progress was so much more rapid. My pupils were highly motivated, not only because I had rendered learning easier for them, but also because the texts I now used for beginners were much more meaningful. In an all-English approach, textbook authors have to grade their texts carefully to ensure that new words and structures can be explained without recourse to the mother tongue. I was free of such constraints. I could use ”difficult” words or, let’s say, past tense forms before the past tense had been systematically introduced. I could use authentic texts almost right from the beginning, connecting language to life outside the classroom, building a bridge between Germany and anglophone countries. With such quality and diversity of texts to choose from, I did not have to continue serving up second-rate reality, i.e. contrived texts written solely for language teaching purposes. I could use texts which were cognitively more demanding and which thus captured the students‘ interests.
At the same time I could cover much more material than was normal. When I was appointed to the Chair of English as a Foreign Language in Aachen in 1973, I took over a beginners’ class (unpaid) at a local grammar school just a stone’s throw away from my new home. I was given the first lesson in the morning, five days a week, so the rest of the day was reserved for my university job.

I taught this class for two years, and invited my college students to observe lessons. The headmaster had given me all the freedom I needed, with two exceptions. I was to use the textbook chosen by the school, and by the end of the year, I should have covered a fixed amount of material in that book. No problem. I had time enough to introduce a lot of additional material, dialogues, cartoons (Peanuts) and songs (mostly the Beatles). The teaching stint also gave me ample opportunities to experiment with the method and refine it through trial and error. Much of the understanding comes with the doing! Many lessons were videotaped with the help of my college students; however, with technical standards now outdated. Two books came out, reporting on this experience: Klassengespräche. Kommunikativer Englischunterricht [Classroom talk. A guide to the communicative teaching of English] (1977) and Praxis und Theorie der bilingualen Methode [Practice and theory of the bilingual method](1980). No arguments from the armchair, but a debate of fundamental principles supported and followed by concrete case studies.

Live demonstration and documentation

At the Aachen conference in 1983, I organised a workshop on the bilingual method, which some 80 teacher trainers attended. I invited Stefan Eschbach, a former student of mine and teacher in a secondary modern school, to give a demonstration lesson of the bilingual method with his grade 7. The discussion after the lesson was conducted by C.J. Dodson and H.E. Piepho, then a well-known proponent of the monolingual orthodoxy. The excellent results Eschbach achieved with his secondary modern pupils silenced the critics. It also became clear that bilingual techniques only serve to get pupils more quickly to the point where they can communicate without mother tongue support. Bilingual techniques were stepping stones to message-oriented communication in the target language. Anthony Peck from York University, one of the participant teacher trainers, included a description and analysis of the lesson in his prize winning Language teachers at work (1989). By that time, I had a lot of experience with the bilingual method.

Over the years, I’ve given numerous demonstration lessons with unknown classes in their classrooms and, occasionally, lecture theatres. It makes me happy when after hard work the children can perform a new sketch with verve and gusto. And what better reward for a teacher than children asking after a lesson ”Mr B., when can you come again?” In 2002, a DVD was produced. Bilingual semi-communicative drills as well as Dodson’s sandwich technique were illustrated with different teachers and different classes in different schools. The DVD is now available in a book edited by J. Siebold (Let’s talk: Lehrtechniken, 2004). I still teach regularly (one lesson per week) in a local primary school.

A rebel with a cause.

Ever since those comprehensive school days when C. J. Dodson’s book first fell into my hands, I have been a rebel in the field of foreign language teaching, but a rebel with a cause. That cause is meaningful communication.
Dodson’s ideas are quite different from what is generally understood by “judicious” use of the mother tongue, or by sensible compromise. The mother tongue is used systematically as a part of well-designed techniques, and can only be properly evaluated in the context of these techniques. Unfortunately, but typically, objections have come from some of the best teachers in my country. Their monolingual approach is greatly facilitated by modern textbooks. They simply cannot imagine they might be making a mistake somewhere along the line. Why fix something that ain’t broke? However, they would be even more successful if they expanded their repertoires and included bilingual techniques.
After thirty years of keeping a watchful eye on all the literature and the research pertaining to the role of L1 in the context of foreign language teaching, I am still struck by the truth revealed to me by C. J. Dodson, who later became a true friend. I am as convinced as ever about the major findings in his book and other follow-up studies such as the one by Meijer (Meijer, T.: De globaal-bilinguale en de visualiserende procedure voor de betekenisoverdracht. Een vergelijkend methodologisch onderzoek op het gebiet van het aanvangsonderwijs frans. Amsterdam 1974). John A.W. Caldwell, coauthor of The bilingual reform. A paradigm shift in foreign language teaching (2009), wrote an article, 20 pages long, on Dodson in the Journal of multilingual and multicultural development (1990).

That’s why I am still amazed at the weak impact Dodson and those inspired by him have had so far on the overall practice of foreign language teaching in schools throughout the world.
Despite all their efforts, despite the fact that Dodson and others such as Meijer backed up bilingual techniques with their own experimental data, the bilingual method was rarely mentioned in methodologies and comprehensive handbooks, let alone evaluated. I was particularly disappointed when English was introduced in German primary schools and the new official state guidelines all embraced the traditional monolingual philosophy. The new textbooks for primary English to appear on the German market were oriented accordingly. Had all those efforts been for nothing?
I even met with some ostracism, albeit in a very mild form, on the part of some of my German colleagues. Over many years German foreign language experts (all of them university teachers) had been meeting once a year in the University of Giessen guesthouse and books were published regularly on the proceedings there. I had not been invited and was wondering what was happening. Only the other day an old friend of mine (now in his eighties) who had attended the workshops told me he had actually suggested inviting me several times. The organizers had replied I would only disturb the harmony they had achieved at those meetings. Obviously a dissenter – well, dissenters don’t have a sense of harmony, do they? – was not welcome.

Why are teachers & teacher trainers so reluctant to change?

Ignorance is curable, but “the great difficulty in education is to get experience out of ideas” (George Santayana). The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Teachers must try out bilingual techniques to discover how they work for them and their students.
But many have stopped progressing and have given up trying to improve. Improvement can only begin when we question what we already believe and practise; it means challenging the validity of what we were previously taught and what we still hold dear. We are creatures of habit. There is a natural inclination to keep things the way they are; to stick to the beaten track. Perhaps I was only able to give Dodson’s ideas a try because, at the time, I had only had five years of full-time teaching experience and was still quite young. I had not yet become too old a dog to learn new tricks. If I had not read Dodson precisely at that particular time when I could experiment with four parallel classes, I might not have changed my methods at all.

Changing means putting your own self aside, giving up, albeit temporarily, the conviction of knowing best in order to make room for the assimilation of new ideas. It is the only way towards self-development and real growth. It means welcoming strangeness and novelty. This implies effort and discipline, but the rewards will come. Foreign language teaching theory needs to make a complete turnabout and accept that the mother tongue is the greatest asset a talking child brings to the classroom. It is also the single most important teaching aid. This is my core message and there is no doubt about it that it is the truth.