My teaching approach
Teaching English as a Foreign Language
What is the most effective way to teach a second language? And which method will get us to fluency the quickest?
The acquisition of a second language has long been studied with numerous theories and methods developed; each targeting different aspects of language learning. Through visuals, reading, writing, repetition, hypnosis, the list is extensive. However many learners have struggled, been frustrated and deflated, myself included. Some have given up and consequently associated learning a second language with negative feelings of embarrassment, failure and frustration, making it almost impossible to progress.
Deciding which method or learning process is most effective has been a widely disputed issue for many years. In our shrinking world the ability to be multi -lingual has become widely attainable and has increasingly become an important asset in our employability. It has become less of a specialist skill and nearly an expected qualification. In recent years there has been a fast progression away from traditional methods of language learning. Hypnosis? and traditional lecture style teaching are now seen as outdated, ineffective and in most cases, redundant. Theorists have moved away from these traditional methods that we commonly see in other fields of study; literature, psychology, science. Instead, they have looked at situations of effective language learning in everyday life, and applied these learning principles to new communicative approaches, in other words - modeling. It is through analysis of established methods and through practice that I have come to determine my own teaching method. One that tackles obstacles that I view to be detrimental to the language learning process: such as environment, content and cultural context.
When teaching a language it is important to understand the student’s motivations so we can determine their mindset and therefore which approach to take. A student that is learning for superficial reasons and desires to learn English as an L2 to impress others will often find difficulty, feel frustrated and impatient. This is because their motives are one-dimensional and not for ‘survival’ reasons, or perhaps because they do not truly enjoy the learning process. In contrast, someone who has plans of moving to a country where L2 is the primary language, or for business reasons, will approach the learning process with determination and through necessity. Hard work will not deter them because their desire to acquire L2 is out of necessity. Of course, teaching a student with these motivations is ideal however this is not always the case. It is through teaching approaches and theories that we as teachers must evoke this language learning ‘necessity’ in our students. We are their facilitators, their mentors, and are responsible for engaging them.
Psychological state matters, the atmosphere and mental state of the student have a very prominent effect on the learning process. If a student is stressed, frustrated, tense or unhappy, it will be almost be impossible for them to comprehend L2 and advance. Whilst as teachers we cannot control or influence the personal lives of students, what we can do is create a positive, relaxed and safe environment, where criticism and corrections are minimal and students feel secure enough to TRY to engage conceptually and verbally.
I myself have found great difficulty in learning a second language. Not through lack of trying or time and energy put in but I believe purely through lack of confidence. From the outset I have not been taught my L2 in a positive and safe environment. I have been corrected too often and shown little patience from teachers. This leads to feelings of embarrassment as when trying to communicate using L2, it is consistently a negative experience fraught with humiliation and self-doubt. As linguist Dr. Conor Quinn calls it ‘linguistic stage-fright’, I as a student and learner become debilitated and shut off from the learning process.
Reflecting on my own experience it becomes clear that the learning environment is everything. When we are relaxed, comfortable and do not feel challenged or defensive our ability to comprehend is significantly increased. That is not to say that all corrections and criticism should be forbidden during the acquisition of L2 but the focus should not be on perfecting our knowledge but expanding on it. Experimenting and making mistakes, overcoming obstacles ourselves, learning from them and gradually gaining enough linguistic tools to communicate effectively. The age old myth that children are better language learners already creates an obstacle for adult learners as we automatically feel disadvantaged and language learning appears to be an impossible task that we will never be able to complete. I believe there is some truth in this belief but not because of age, ability, talent or otherwise but because of attitude and mindset. A child rarely fears imperfection as all knowledge gained is an enjoyable and exciting process. They are not afraid to get something wrong, as long as they are learning. It is this state that we as students must reach, and as teachers facilitate.
An obvious way to engage students who perhaps have little need or interest in acquiring L2 is to focus on content that is relevant to them. News stories, cultural topics, political debates and social ideas are all engaging topics that inspire the mind and require students to comprehend and respond in L2. We learn faster when the content is relevant to us, when it has direct meaning to us and we can relate to it. By relating to the content, students already bridge a gap between the two languages as L2 becomes less foreign and less obsolete in their daily lives. This comes down to comprehensive input – when we understand the meaning/concept we subconsciously acquire the language. Relevancy is a key factor when acquiring L2 by placing the learning objectives within interesting and emotive context for the students, the language taught will undoubtedly resonate.
It is only in the Oxbridge method that I have seen this need for relevancy and up to date topics. The Oxbridge method focuses on the communicative approach. Similar to the Direct Method, where no translation is allowed, verbal communication and language input is primary, the Oxbridge method focuses on verbal comprehension. Furthermore pronunciation is emphasized and corrected from the outset.
I believe this is important as it allows for the flow of language learning to be consistent, once vocabulary is obtained, it is in the correct context and pronunciation from the outset. So all knowledge acquired is correct from day 1. If we were to go back and correct this at a later date it would undoubtedly affect the confidence in the learners understanding of the language as well as the student’s confidence in the teacher and teaching methods.
The Oxbridge method is similar to the Direct Method in the sense that it detaches rules from our L1 database. This will only give false signals as most languages are composed of contradictions and irregularities. It is important when learning L2 to completely separate this from L1, by not using the mother language in the classroom or offering translations, as this only convolutes the learner’s ability to reach L2 fluency. To become familiar with the melody of a L2, training our mouths, training ourselves to disconnect from the rules and principles of L1 from L2, so we can fully adopt its patterns and structures.-change wording, I don’t understand!
The Grammar Translation Method is a perfect example of an outdated teaching method, where the primary objective is to read and write in L2 and the ability to communicate through conversation takes a back seat. This method is rigid and because of the need to ‘translate’ through written words and not through language and semantic concepts, the learner often is unable to communicate effectively in L2. This method is very similar to the one I experienced at school, the learning process was very rigid, unforgiving, test orientated and quite frankly seemed irrelevant when attempting to communicate using L2.
In my opinion, the primary role of a language teacher is not to dictate, correct or talk endlessly about the grammatical rules and to lecture on vocabulary. Instead to be someone who is receptive and can quickly understand the students needs. To know when to be a stickler and correct mistakes, whilst also enabling an environment where mistakes can be made in the first place. To be accommodating towards students needs and learning preferences. To coach, encourage and engage students with interesting topics and discussions, teach relevant grammar and vocabulary as the building blocks, so that students feel able to not only communicate in L2 through language, but on a cultural level.