My Personal Experience of First and Second Language Acquisition
As a native English speaker I began to acquire the English language as a toddler. I imitated the sounds of words spoken by adults. Through continuous repetition, positive reinforcement of correct usage of words, and modification of errors I continuously improved, and my English speaking and listening skills evolved. The Behaviourist Approach states that all behaviour is learned as a reaction to the external environment via stimulus-response and positive and negative reinforcement therefore prompting continuous development of a behaviour (in this case a language). This very much relates to how I myself learned English.
In my late 20s I decided to start Spanish lessons. I already had a basic understanding of Spanish, having studied it briefly at high school and from spending time on holidays in Spain. I therefore was placed in a small group of upper-beginners.
Whilst students in my class had been grouped roughly at the same level each individual had different knowledge of the Spanish language that was unique to them. This had been gained from different types of exposure to Spanish, including varying degrees of study across different timescales and time spent in Spanish speaking countries. Additionally, people in the class all had different strengths in terms of the areas of their Spanish language ability (i.e. speaking / listening / reading /writing).
I remember classes being very varied and every class included a mix of grammar, comprehension, and interactive speaking and listening exercises. The teacher made links between new vocabulary or grammatical structures and the students’ existing varied levels of understanding. This consequently created a layering process whereby our previous awareness of Spanish was added to. The teacher regularly asked our personal opinions to draw on our previous experiences and test understanding on key concepts. This helped me to retain new knowledge as I was able to make connections with the basic Spanish that I already knew as I developed a deeper understanding of more complex ideas.
This concept of building on existing learning is in line with the Constructive Approach, which affirms that learning is a contextualised process based on personal experiences of the environment. It states that any new information is linked by the learner to their own knowledge and highlights that each person has a different interpretation of the learning process. This acknowledges that when studying a second language everyone has a different level of understanding as a starting point, and learning develops and accelerates differently between individuals.
As time went on and with a commitment to improving my Spanish ability I progressed from upper-beginner to upper-intermediate. I started to listen to Spanish radio and watch Spanish TV and I made Spanish friends in Manchester, where I was living. This continued exposure to the Spanish language meant that I was building on and improving my understanding of the language through a progressive layering process, linking firmly back to the Constructive Approach.
Within my Spanish classes no English was spoken and no translation took place. I found this significantly expediated learning compared with my previous experience of studying languages at high school, where the lessons where taught in English and everything was translated. This style of teaching reflects the Direct Method, which is commonly used in teaching second languages, whereby the focus is on the language being learned (the target language), as opposed to translation from the learner’s native language. Students are encouraged to develop their language skills by making links between visual stimulus and actions of the teacher and to verbally produce the language themselves through interactions on created situations. Grammatical rules are learned indirectly by the learner figuring out correct grammatical sequences.
Without any English being spoken I had to think for myself and work out the meanings of things and if I didn’t know the word or a phrase I had to think of another way to say it. This forced me to think about the language and produce it myself, rather than being given the equivalent word in English. I found this to be a very effective way to learn and retain the new language as I had produced it myself based on what I wanted to express. This way of learning replicates, to some extent, the way that first language is acquired, whereby the learner has to determine the meaning of things and phrases from inferences within the environment.
For me and my experience of studying Spanish I have observed that a mix of the Constructive Approach (layering on top of existing understanding) and the Direct Method (via immersion in a class where only Spanish is spoken and lots of verbal communication during the classes) were both important and effective. Learning a second language is a continuous evolution. I believe the processes of both linking new to existing knowledge and direct exposure to the target language are equally important in developing second language skills.
My Teaching Style
As an English teacher my main aim is to get my students speaking in English and to improve their confidence and fluidity in doing so. There are a variety of reasons that people chose to learn English, for example career advancement, academic reasons, travel or personal development.
Many students I come across are driven to learn English by the improved employment opportunities that become available with a proficiency in spoken English, particularly today in Madrid. Additionally, and owing to the number of American and other non-Spanish businesses based in Madrid, increasingly more roles have an expectation that employees must speak English in addition to Spanish.
It is important for me to gauge from the offset a student’s motivation for learning English. So that I can deliver engaging and interesting lessons that are appropriate for them and deliver business specific materials where appropriate for the student.
I come from a human resources (HR) background, having worked for a number of years in large corporate organisations within the UK and most recently for four years as HR manager within a national UK law firm. Therefore, I am able to help students with the practical application and context of business English terminology.
Whether or not a student wants to study business-specific English I take time to build a rapport with each student, to understand a little about them, their personality and interests and existing knowledge of English. For me, this is important when I meet a student for the first time, as understanding about the student sets the tone for how classes will be delivered and ensures that the student is pitched at the correct level of English.
I personalise class material, so it is relevant, engaging and memorable. I believe that doing this maximises learning during the class and allows the consolidation and continuation of language acquisition post-class. I give students opportunities to connect new vocabulary and structures to situations specific to them and to build on top of what they already know. This style of teaching is aligned to the Constructive Approach, which takes account of the different personal experiences and perceptions of the learner and describes learning as a layering process of continuously adding to existing experiences.
I also apply the Direct Approach to my teaching through the PPP model (present, practice, produce), which I find very effective in teaching new language concepts across all levels. Whether I am teaching a new basic tense structure in a beginner class or an advanced range of business-specific phrasal verbs for example, the PPP model can be deployed to achieve the successful acquisition of new target language.
Using the PPP model, I present the student with new target language (for example new vocabulary, or a new verb tense) by showing them pictures or physical items in the room to help explain the meaning. I then give the student the chance to absorb the target language. Next, the new language is practiced through facilitated activities. At this point I actively reinforce accurate language production and correct any errors with structure and pronunciation. Finally, I encourage the student to produce their own sentences using the target language and having digested the significance of the new concepts.
I find that the PPP model brings the language to life and means that the focus is on the meaning of the target language as opposed to working on written grammatical structure exercises, which some students can find difficult, monotonous and lacking in context. As the student is supported to construct their own sentences this makes the target language appropriate to them personally and this increases the likelihood of its retention as it has been absorbed in a way that is relevant for the student. I receive feedback from students that they much prefer this method of teaching compared with traditional methods of written grammatical exercises.
In conjunction with the PPP model I incorporate Total Physical Response (TPR) throughout the class by using hand gestures, facial expressions and other forms of physical expression to help convey the meaning of words and ideas and to support any descriptions of these concepts. I will use any method I can think of to help the student make a link between the language in a way that will resonate with them.
I am motivated by seeing a student understand a new concept. This gives a fantastic feeling of job satisfaction to the role of English teacher to know that I am activley helping someone to progress with their ability in English.