Thursday, February 9, 2012

Language Learning as Language Teacher Training

I forgot how much I forgot about what it is like to be a language learner. It's been 10 years since I was a beginninger language learner, and it takes a good dose of new language learning to develop student empathy once again.

Me, learning language and learning teaching at the same time

If I was developing a teacher training course for beginning language levels, I would add a co-requisite beginning-level language course for a language that has not been previously studied, and I would have the trainees keep learner journals. In class, we would develop a methodology for effective beginning language learning. Here are some of the things I have learned (and re-learned) about language teaching from the first two weeks of my intensive German course (3 hours a day, 5 days a week):
  • Life outside of class. Students have lives outside of class. If I'm not paying attention or am having an "off" day, it doesn't necessarily mean that you are boring or that you are a bad teacher. It means that my work schedule is hectic this week, or that my husband is sick, or that I'm worried about having to go to the grocery store after class and make it through without messing up the language.
  • Course books have a time and place. I like the activities in the textbook. They help me make sure that I've really understood the point of what is happening. However, I don't like working only in the textbook. It gets boring and predictable, and then I can miss class and do everything on my own at home. If a class is set up so that it is individual work all together, it is not an effective use of time.
  • Pronunciation is important. It is hard for me to perceive the difference between some sounds in German, and I imagine it is the same for English learners. Sounds that don't exist in my language are not only practically impossible to produce, but I can't even tell what they are supposed to sound like. Moreover, many of my classmates bring their foreign sounds into the classroom, and I can't understand them either. Perhaps a nice dose of basic phonology would be helpful.
  • Speaking Slowly. What you say slowly and clearly sounds COMPLETELY garbled and incomprehensible to me. Remember, what sounds to you like a basic answer to my question sounds to me like a long steam of sound with no distinguishable word separations. Repeat everything, multiple times. It doesn't make me feel stupid, but even the opposite: being able to understand makes me feel successful.
  • Grammar. Clear grammar explanations help...if you know grammar in your own language to begin with. For me this is no problem, but I see the grammar explanations that my teacher gives failing miserably among my classmates, many of whom are older Russian and Turkish women with little formal education. Perhaps a basic grammar review would be helpful.
  • Smile and be encouraging. This is my favorite thing about my teacher. I never feel bad to make an error in class and I never feel like there is absolutely no hope for me.

Are there any other language learner language teachers out there who have pulled some insights about teaching from their learning??


  1. I would say to read your students' mood and current confidence level. There is a time for immediate correction, and a time to allow them to speak for a bit even if they are making errors. If you get corrected so often and quickly that you forgot what you were trying to say in the first place, frustration usually ensues.

    1. So true. Whenever I'm speaking and someone constantly corrects my articles and declinations I just feel like stopping altogether! Where do you think the line is between making sure that they/we don't fossilize mistakes and just letting them/us communicate?

    2. I am learning a case language, and so I constantly correct myself during speech. I have one teacher who sometimes jumps in so fast with a correction that I don't have the time to correct my own speech even if I were just about to. I don't think the line on this is the same for all students. It probably depends on their level of confidence in speaking already and their tolerance for interruption without discouraging.

    3. Yeah, that's true. I have a hard time sometimes negotiating the personal and cultural aspects of the correction tolerance. For example, when I correct my German students the way/amount I would like to be corrected, they get upset that I didn't correct them enough! When I apply the German correction principles to other students who are Italian or Turkish, I can see them getting very very discouraged. On top of that, I'm sure the personalities vary significantly within those groups.

  2. I would add "Be very clear in your physical explanations of vocabulary". I have a group of elementary students and I know that whilst sometimes my mimes and bounds around the classroom explain the word quite satisfactorily, other times I really fail. And I've noticed the same when I'm in my German class - often a simple stickman puts the point across much more quickly and effectively.
    Actually, thinking about it, I might change the idea to "Know when to draw and when to mime"...

    1. Good one! I would have to alter that to be "Know when to mime, when to draw, and when to stop drawing and look in the dictionary!" because my charades and drawings are very obscure sometimes!

  3. Great thoughts and how helpful it would be if teachers were always learning alongside their students. It would change the profession quite a bit, but I think it is worth considering. I think teachers moving to more of a coaching role could be an affective way to engage students. I wrote about some ideas for this here:
    Would love to hear what you and your readers think.



What do you think?