English today is an essential communication tool in our global village. With this in mind, I want to help people of all ages and levels communicate in English. As a teacher, I take a holistic approach to language learning because language involves the whole person—abstract thinking, senses, social and emotional faculties, reasoning, memory, and physical capabilities—best captured by the cognitive and constructivist approaches to learning. Together, these theories recognize learning as a function of using our inner mental faculties to process what we experience. This coincides very well with what we know from over a century of language learning. On the one hand, students need both exposure to the language and to have the opportunity to struggle through producing and understanding the new language. On the other hand, they also need to have the language broken down into small pieces that they can understand one at a time to reconstruct for themselves in the learning process. This is where the teacher’s role becomes important. It is the teacher who gives the student the pieces one at a time and provides the support needed to understand how they fit together so that the student can then produce the language.
Several teaching methods flow from these learning theories to in order to allow the student to use different parts of the mind and create relevant, communicative meaning of English in a supportive environment. These are known as the communicative and direct methods, which are very similar as both are based on language as communication and the importance of learning language within a meaningful context. Using these methods, I do not teach my students about a language by giving lists of vocabulary and explanations of grammar but rather help them to put their already acquired understanding of the world into the new language. If they are very young children who are still developing their understanding of the world and acquiring language, then I can simply help them to acquire that understanding in English. For learners who already have a language cemented in the mind, I need to provide a means for the student to create relevant, communicative meaning of the new language. Thus, all instruction is given in the target language by creating realistic situations, building on the student’s previous knowledge (whether that’s already acquired L2 language, cognates, and understanding of context), and providing realia in which to grasp the meaning of vocabulary and structures and practice them. Repetition is used to deepen understanding and get the target language into the long term memory.
Besides the body of research proving the effectiveness of this method, my own experience learning foreign languages has taught me that that communicative, direct methods are the best. Learning a rule gives a student an initial sense of mastery and understanding. The mind working in the mother tongue or another already learned language feel calm and pacified that it can place the new information neatly within its already existing matrix. “Okay,” my mind said to itself when I was first learning Spanish, “I get it. Bed means cama. The present subjunctive is used to express wishes and desires and is formed by taking the yo form of the present and changing the o to an a in the case of verbs ending in ir and er and, in the case of verbs ending in ar, changing the o to an e. It’s simple” Then I had a real conversation. My mind simply did not have time or capacity to run through all of those rules and keep up with the flow of conversation. What I needed to was have cama in mind connected with the image and experience of a bed, just as it functions in English and to have become accustomed to the form of the subjunctive as expressive of desires, as if I could feel the subjunctive. This is only achieved by putting language into meaningful contexts.
Thus, in my classes new material (vocabulary and structures) is introduced using pictures, articles, stories, examples, and games appropriate to the age and level of the learner. The grammatical structures are learned and understood within context from the point of view of the meaning they hold—the context of asking or commanding that is also understood from within a concrete situation. Realia, use of pop culture, current events, visual aids, mnemonic devices, Total Physical Response, and stories are also particularly good for helping students to grasp and remember the target language because they can put the new language into situations and themes that impact the student intellectually, emotionally, or through the senses and so trigger a connection that reinforces memory.
Once the new material is initially understood, the student gets to grapple with it, continuing to receive input as well as practice producing the language. Role plays help the student further apprehend the meaning of the structures and words within their broader, nuanced social in context. Interesting readings provide further context that the student can relate to previous knowledge and his own interests. By having to spontaneously produce the language to express their opinion or thoughts in a discussion the student uses his mental faculties, which according to the cognitive theory of learning is how we learn. With the teacher as guide, by role plays, readings and discussions, songs, question and answer exercises, word inversions, substitutions and other communication-based activities, the student constructs more and more meaning from the vocabulary and structures and practices the pronunciation and forms. Though they provide less meaningful context than a role play or discussion, targeted question and answer, word inversions, and substitutions exercises, reinforce a specific structure while still keeping it within a context that gives it a communicative meaning. This kind of concentrated practice, helps these structures quickly reach the memory where it can be accessed quickly in new contexts (i.e. other conversations with different vocabulary). In another form of these reinforcement exercises, “quick questions” at the start of every session gives students a review previous material, practice with difficult words and structures still within a communicative framework, the experience of having English thrown at you without much previous content, practice thinking in English, and an assessment of how well a previous lesson has been learnt.
While it all sounds technical and boring, the communicative method can actually be really fun, and that is part of its success. The main role of the teacher is to make the session interesting and playful because when you are having fun the difficulty the stress of grasping new words and patterns dissolves into the joy of communication as an interpersonal exchange of ideas, realities, meaning making and emotions. The teacher’s thorough preparation in creating an environment where the meaning of the new language can be grasped with relative ease because the target language is presented with materials and in a manner that allows the student to understand it in a more natural or direct way, makes the lesson relaxing and interesting. Incorporating a strategy of Engage, Study, and Activate makes the modal and techniques work on an individual level. Engaging the student at the beginning of the lesson by choosing material and a format that will interest him or her—for a football fan, a materials related to football, and for a young boy, perhaps a game involving cars—is essential. This emotional engagement can help the student through the study of the new material (the most difficult part) so as to facilitate learning. This emotional engagement can then be augmented in the Activate portion of the activity as the emotional connection increases through the student engaging in kind of free play with the new material that has a emotional connection. Again, it’s the positive emotional connection that both makes the class fun and removes affective barriers to learning.
As language learning moves forward, teachers will need to stay abreast of what will interest their students. This means keeping up with pop culture and current events, so class materials actually engage students and carry meaning for them. This is particularly important where there may be a generation gap between student and teacher. I also think that virtual reality could play a part in future language learning. Classrooms are already more and more virtual thanks to the Internet, but the possibility of a three dimensional virtual classroom would open up huge possibilities for incorporating authenticity into communicative language learning. At the same time, it is not inconceivable that technology could be developed that would negate the need to learn a new language. Transhumanism is already envisioning a world of technology-enhanced human beings. What if you could simply install Google translator into your glasses and have it speak for you in whatever language you want? I, however, hope we do not cede our human capacities to technology. As a language lover and teacher, I would not wear translator glasses, even if they were available. For both humanists who love to talk and pragmatists who don’t want to risk a technology failure, I would still be available with my pictures and hand gestures to help them learn for themselves how to communicate in English.