Gavin Nicholls

My teaching approach

The day I decided to move to Spain, I knew that I would have to learn Spanish. I couldn’t afford nor did I have the time to go classes or find myself a teacher. I bought some text books, a dictionary and a book of verb conjugations and put pen to paper. I managed to fill pages of my text book with the same words and conjugations by writing them over, and over again. After around two months of doing this, grammatical functions began to make sense in my head, and I could visualize words and rules, the information now etched into my brain by my pencil. I have to say that I loved it. My grammatical skills were being honed, and I was constantly in awe of the words, phrases and translations that I would find in the dictionary, all of which I would write down repeatedly as to not forget them. I quickly became bored with text books and started reading Spanish story books. It would take me quite a while to translate a page, but I got there in the end. An important factor to point out here is the fact that I would only understand the content of the translated passage once I had read back to myself in my native language. It would take me an hour of reading and writing to understand the opening scene of a story, which was usually pretty basic. Someone would have been able to explain the same opening paragraphs using only body language and a few simple sounds and names to explain to me the same passage, in a fraction of that time.

I wasn’t aware that I was studying using the grammatical translation method at that time, but now after studying the method itself and being made aware if its downfalls, can I see why this method is more and more being phased-out in the western classroom. Had I known at the time, I probably would have sought out a more communicative approach to my learning.

It is clear to see why the grammatical translation method is being used less and less, however that is not to say that it is an excellent if not essential method when a student is ready to master their target language.

The weaknesses of this method have been brought to light by many linguists and professors even as far back as the 18th Century. It was clear that students could become instantly communicative and confident in a target language using more dynamic approaches, and by focusing on the students speaking and listening skills.

The lack of effectiveness in G.T.M. was evident, which created a demand for new methods of teaching languages to be developed. After the development of the direct method, students would now find themselves in (simulated) real life situations. With this method, the target language dominates the whole class. Visual prompts and realia are employed, and any explanation required is delivered using pantomime on the teacher’s part or with examples, in order for students to think for themselves instead of being given answers. The need to think freely is created. An emphasis is posed upon pronunciation and intonation, with grammar being suggestively introduced, making learning it feel natural. All of these factors go in contrary to the grammatical translation methodology, where verbal communication amongst students is frowned upon, as it displays a lack of concentration or understanding, or as a distraction towards the other students. Students are not exposed to the target language’s phonology, and any meaning within the content is generally overlooked. De-coding and re-coding a series of what are essentially signs that follow a logical pattern, is not what one would call free-thinking. Nearly all verbal communication stems from the teacher, normally via given commands or when explaining a particular exercise. The teacher may also ask the class questions, to see if they understand their work. One major downfall teaching this method, is that the spoken language in class is the native language, therefore forcing the student to see a foreign language being written down, and then them making mentally audible associations with the word they see written, to how the word or phrase would sound in their head if they saw it in their own language. The brain is not being trained to make simultaneous audio-visual references, therefore elongating the student’s learning process, and the student will find it almost impossible to communicate himself in any realistic scenario.

One other method that I tried personally was the Michel Thomas method. Polish-born Thomas became widely renowned for his own method, which bears some of the traits of the direct method, yet his focused purely on speaking and listening. The aim is to create a core of basic skills based around simple verb conjugations and vocabulary. There is no writing or reading involved, and students are guided through the course using their native tongue. Doing this is thought to minimalise any un-necessary stress for the learner. Thomas proceeds to break down verbs into simple questions, answers and commands, allowing for the patterns of the language to become recognized without having to explain them. The method quickly gained widespread success, as its simplicity and independence of any visual aids made it a household language-learning phenomenon by the use of tapes.

When I found a box-set of his tapes at my local library, I withdrew them to help me with my Spanish studies. What surprised me when listening to his tapes was the speed at which the students start understanding and using the target language. Thomas uses two absolute beginner students when recording his method on tape, which gives a truly realistic feel to the learning. Michel’s voice is slow and clear, however pronunciation is somewhat compromised due to the interference from Thomas’ dominant L1 accent.

The words that I had been writing suddenly became three-dimensional in my mind as I heard their voices for the first time. His method works by breaking down core verbs, and slowly building situations where their simplest forms can be understood and used. The students naturally make mistakes, but Thomas leads by example and shows the student the pattern again, which is followed with encouragement and praise, which leads to success. The teacher takes full responsibility for the students’ acquisition of the target language. Confidence is achieved when faced with a real-life situation; however there is little emphasis on vocabulary, and a complete neglect for any written language. Does this make the Michel Thomas method, a good one? I believe that this all boils down to the necessity of the student. If the student is looking to take a year out abroad, or is a businessman on a short business trip, or even to survive a week away on holiday, this is an excellent method. The material is learned quickly, and the student is confident and proficient enough to engage in communication and does not feel alienated. I did find learning alone a bit boring at times, and learning with cassette tapes is quite cumbersome. I did however like the fact that I could rewind tapes to review instructions, or even listen to whole lessons over again.

Nevertheless, I found the lessons rather slow, as at no point did the pace ever seem to pick up. Thomas’ voice became repetitive and lacked dynamic, and the students although interested, simply took too long in working out the answers. The grammatical advantage I had gained through my translations and writings left me waiting impatiently for the next task on the tape, which in the end drove me to find methods more suitable for my pace. I completed two tapes both sides out of the four, and returned the box-set to the library.

One other methodology worth mentioning here is the Vaughn methodology. Similar to the Michel Thomas method, it focuses on the students’ speaking agility. Initially created to cater to the demand of Spanish professionals and students in need of effective methods of learning English, the same method is now used to teach other subjects such as Spanish for English learners, and even non-linguistic related subjects such as chemistry. Unlike Thomas’ method, the Vaughn method creates a lot more stress for the student. As well as attending intensive five hour classes with a teacher, the students are also given five hours of extra curricular activities to complete every day, which do include reading and writing. Perhaps this method can be considered a hybrid of an audio-lingual method such as that of Thomas, combined with exercises based upon grammatical translation. Students are immediately stopped and corrected when they make a mistake, eliminating the possibility of them forming fossilized mistakes in their target language, something that cannot be achieved with the use of tapes alone. One other element of the direct method seen in the Vaughn approach is that the dominant language in class is the target language. Also the teachers use visual stimuli and realia found in the classroom. Pantomime also plays a part in the class. The content and structure of the course would have been perhaps ideal for someone like me, however I think that the intensity of the course could become quite a burden and stressful, as ten hours a day for ten months is a heavy work load for someone also working, or studying another course, full-time.

I had been learning Spanish for months now, and I still hadn’t exchanged thoughts or opinions with anyone in my target language, even after using two of the methodologies previously mentioned (G.T.M. and the Michel Thomas method).

Had I gone to a contemporary foreign language class, perhaps I would have prepared myself better by experiencing what its like to communicate within a group in a different language. Exposing myself to a dynamic, interactive, directional method would have been the perfect compliment to my own grammatical studies.

I am still learning Spanish today, nearly five years on. New words and phrases challenge me nearly everyday. Even in English as a native speaker, I consider it nearly impossible to ever fully understand the many intricacies woven amongst the fabrics of the language.

Is there one linguistic acquisition methodology that we can say works the best? Due to the many ways that different people acquire a language, and the different reasons that people want to learn a new language, this is difficult to say. From a students’ point if view, we can learn something from all of these methodologies. As a teacher, we should recognize a students’ manner of acquiring a language, and cater our teaching styles to suit the learner. However perhaps from my personal experience, both past and present, it is clear to see that the direct method will achieve quicker communication skills and confidence. However effective it may be, the grammar translation method can wait until there is a real need for this knowledge, and the learner already has a solid foundation from which to work.


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