Get it right at the beginning

June 4, 2013

My foreign language teaching philosophy

“The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping  from the old ones.” (John Maynard Keynes)

I make four basic assumptions. First, languages are best learned when we act out situations and communicate face to face. There is eye contact, movement , body language. From very early on we can feel and think ourselves into other persons.  This is our social talent and our lifelong occupation. Pretend play is a way for young children to cope with situations, to gain experiences and better understandings of the world around them. Language is part and parcel of these situations, whether banal and every day, or critical, dodgy and delicate, serious or hilarious. Emotions are omnipresent. That’s why dialogues / sketches are our basic teaching texts, and they must be acted out face to face. Our learners, if rightly taught, perform them with verve and gusto no matter whether they are children or adults, slow or fast learners.  With our social brains we are naturally born performers and masters in make-believe.

School-We love it (Soundtrack)

English is cool (Soundtrack)

Sleeping in class (Soundtrack)

My second assumption is that our mother tongue – or another naturally grown and acquired language – provides  the foundational skills for foreign language learning. Years of mother tongue input and interactions have altered our brains and shaped our minds in ways that are overwhelmingly helpful for the acquisition of new languages. Here is an enormous capital that must be unlocked, freed up, and worked with cleverly rather than left aside.  Without mother tongue support, beginners couldn’t cope with the kind of linguistically demanding and eminently actable sketches needed to engage their interest. Future- or past-tense forms, if-clauses, passives, i.e. constructions usually offered later in the course, can be used right from the beginning. (They can be systematised and summarised at later stages). From the very first lessons, we can tap the communicative creativity and sophistication which we all possess in our mother tongue. Authentic songs are equally available from early on. My primary school kids learned to sing Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World and even the word famous Yesterday (which indeed proved a bit difficult). Weak learners need not fail.

The third basic assumption concerns compositionality as an essential feature of language: 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 means that the words and constructions of the basic texts must not remain encapsulated in those texts, but must be extracted, recombined and varied in order to fit new situations.  (What shall we do with the drunken sailor? => What shall I do with my hair? => What shall I do with my life?). Unfortunately, bilingual techniques as well as the generative principle  have been largely ignored by recent methodologies.

The fourth assumption concerns the fact that the printed text can be an aid to listening rather than an interference factor.  Again, if  rightly taught,  the mutual support of script and sound outweighs possible interference effects.

These assumptions lead to four techniques that teachers should master:

  • The sandwich technique (see Wikipedia)
  • Mother tongue mirroring
  • Oral, bilingual semi-communicative pattern drills
  • The simultaneous reading technique  (Mitlesverfahren)

Complete mastery is never easy and must be attained through intensive practice. But learners are highly rewarded. The dialogue sentences will flow easily from their mouths.  It’s even more satsfying if they can vary the sentences to suit their own personal communicative needs. And giving the sketch a personal voice and a personal presence by acting it out is highly enjoyable.

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