I’ve been asked to write about language learning, so I’m honoring that request.
Back in Ukraine, one of my professors of English shared with us the story of his recent trip to the UK. (This was in 1995, and people were starting to travel.) Professor Sergueyev had 18 years of experience teaching English at the university level. He was a published scholar who was considered one of the best professors of English linguistics at our prestigious university.
“I was alone at the hotel,” Professor Sergueyev told us, “and I decided to go out for a pack of cigarettes. But I didn’t manage to make the purchase. At the store, I had no idea what to say, and I didn’t understand a word of what was being said to me. There has to be something wrong with the way we teach languages around here.” He looked very sad and almost broken as he was saying that.
The method that was used exclusively to teach foreign languages in the USSR is known as “the grammar-translation method.” The way it works is as follows:
the teacher lectures students about the grammar of the target language, the students memorize grammar rules, and then translate separate sentences into the target language. We spent a lot of time talking about the language, but never speaking the language itself. As a result, our vocabulary was completely passive, and our knowledge of the idiomatic expressions was non-existent. The difference between “go out”, “go by”, “go without”, “go against”, “go after”, for instance, was unknown to us.
When I started my methodology of foreign language teaching workshop in Canada, I discovered that languages were taught in a completely different way in North America. The instruction was conducted on the basis of the communicative method. Its central tenets are the following:
– only the target language is spoken in the classroom from Day 1.
– the teacher doesn’t lecture but, rather, let’s the students speak.
– the time dedicated to explaining the grammar is reduced as much as possible. You learn the grammar AFTER you learn to speak, not before.
– the teacher needs to spend as little time as possible pontificating behind the lectern. Instead, s/he approaches the students who work in small groups and speaks to them individually (in the target language.)
– a language doesn’t exist outside of a culture. This means that the instruction materials should be as culture-specific as possible.
– at least 80% of class time should consist of students communicating in the target language.
The methodology seminar was a little like a sex workshop. “You’ve got to learn to relinquish control,” the instructor kept saying. “Stop trying to control everything, just let it go. Don’t keep correcting the students all the time, relax, have fun, it will only start working when you stop worrying whether it will work.”
All of this sounded completely unbelievable to me.
“No,” I said to my methodology professor. “No, no, no, no, no. I will feel like a total idiot, marching into the classroom and speaking nothing but Spanish to the students who don’t know a word of the language.”
“Just give it a try,” the prof said with a kind smile.
I tried the method even though I was convinced it would be a disaster. The results shocked me: by the end of the semester, my students spoke the language. Of course, their speaking skills were quite basic but even the worst students would have no trouble making purchases in a Spanish-speaking country. After just 4 months, they were more comfortable with the language than my professors of English back in Ukraine.
If you want to learn a foreign language, I have the perfect recipe for you: speak and read. Use every opportunity you have to communicate with people in the language. And try to read something in it every day. Put on music in the language as much as possible. If you have a TV channel that broadcasts in the language, leave it on in the background.
And remember: speaking a language is like achieving an orgasm. You have to lose the fear and relinquish control. Forget how it will make you look, forget about making a mistake, just enjoy the process.