I had a chat about teaching foreign languages with a potential employer recently. Regretfully, it was not very productive.
Her idea of teaching foreign languages consists of subjecting students to two classes of activity:
Input and output.
At the risk of being rude, this sort of approach treats the student as a machine.
I guess the theory is that you shove a lot of input in, and the human machine (in self defense, maybe?) naturally begins trying to make sense of it. The sense it makes of the information you input would be the first step.
Then you give the human machine a chance to output what it has learned, and you give the machine feedback. The machine supposedly uses the feedback to correct what it has learned.
I'll admit that this is a partially valid view of part of the process. But it's fatally flawed because it is incomplete.
Many humans do not naturally try to make sense of all information they are given. Information that is not deemed important tends to get filtered out. You cannot overcome this filter by sheer charismatic force, and, when you try to do so, you end up creating learning blocks instead of learning.
Teaching is a communication process. It is not one-way, it is two-way.
There are four essential elements of learning a foreign language.
1: Courage, determination, perseverence, and desire;
2: Willingness to make mistakes;
3: Developing learning strategies;
4: And acquisition of the target language itself.
The first element is obvious not something you can force on a student. If the student sees the teacher mindlessly repeating (for example) a set of flash cards, she might believe there is a reason, or she might believe the teacher is crazy.
Babies have to assume the people around them are doing something meaningful, but they usually don't see people mindlessly rifling through a set of flash cards. They usually see see older children and adults communicating, and the communication they observe is rich with clues.
Students learning a second language are no longer in the do-or-die mode (hopefully). But they still need to see people doing things that make sense in the target language. Mindless repetition is, by definition, not going to be an activity rich in meaning.
There is a theory that assumes immersing the student in a target-language environment. In the extreme implementation, there is no mother tongue help at all. Such help is considered a hindrance to the object of forcing the student to acquire acquisition skills.
It does produce results. Children learn patterned responses, but they don't, except for a few who start out with language acquisition skills, acquire real meaning with the patterns. Without the meaning, the language lessons quickly become little more than a pattern game, like those Simon Says electronic toys: beep-beep-beep gets beep-beep-beep.
But that's in the best case. In the worst case, the students just get discouraged, frustrated, angry, and finally lose whatever motivation they might have had.
What determines whether the students start learning the pattern game or just lose motivation? Nothing more or less than personal chemistry with the teacher.
However, in the language immersion environment, even a little bit of the mother tongue can help untangle this web of de-motivation. And it can also help break through the pattern game.
(Really, any extreme idealism in education can't be good.)
More important than the clues, appropriate use of the mother tongue can be used to encourage the students.
The second element is a purely personal thing, but without it no student is going anywhere very fast.
No one starts with perfect understanding, so everyone makes mistakes. The learning environment has to be somewhat forgiving of mistakes. Not too forgiving, because students need feedback, but somewhat forgiving. Otherwise, mistakes pile up and get in the way of learning. (And when they pile up too much, students get stressed out and maybe even commit suicide.)
Learning strategies, the third element are far more important than teaching strategies. If you ask why, I'll remind you. Learning takes place within the student, not the teacher.
How does a teacher teach learning strategies?
Every teaching strategy you use demonstrates a learning strategy to the student. So you want to use lots of different teaching strategies.
But, even better, letting the students see the teacher in the process of learning something demonstrates learning strategy directly.
What is teaching?
It's one half of a process where information is passed from one person to another. Together with learning, education is simply one form of communication.
Or, rather, communication and education are basically the same thing, with a slightly different emphasis.
The most important teaching strategy and the most important learning strategy are both communication.
When you communicate with the student, you are teaching. When you do not communicate, you are not teaching.
Finally, we get to acquisition.
And if you are paying attention, you will see that I have said something Terrible. Awful. Horrible.
A teacher who does not know the target language, but is willing to learn with the students, can, in fact, lead a clsss in learning the target language.
That pile of 500 flash cards is just another tool, a potentially useful secondary tool.
That list of three thousand key vocabulary words is just another tool, a potentially useful secondary tool.
That book of eighty grammar principles is just another tool, a potentially useful secondary tool.
Tests are just another tool, a potentially useful secondary tool.
One of the primary tools are books in the target language, and a teacher willing to read with the students. Note that I say, "with" more than "to".
Another primary tool is a teacher willing to communicate, even if he or she has to give in and use the student's mother tongue sometimes to do so.
Other useful secondary tools?
Hangman or draw-the-flower, and other spelling games;
Word Bingo and other games that allow students to speak and listen to vocabulary;
Role-playing, pair practice, and skits (including English Rakugo) can also help, especially if they are made fun.
Why fun? Because things that are fun have meaning, and things that have no meaning are not fun. It helps bring meaning to lessons, and it is the meaning in the lesson that helps students learn.
Along with the flash cards, writing practice, vocabulary matching, pair practice, etc., use games. They aren't just sugar to help the medicine go down.