Inside foreign language classrooms

June 4, 2013

 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)



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