Saturday, 12 March 2011

Language learning

Clo is home! Hurrah for Clo and her cross Channel sister!

Clo, if you don't know, just completed six months living in France. Her new French sister now lives for six months in lovely England, learning English. You can follow how she does it, over here.

This is the proper way to learn a language. Immersion. I bet Clo has the Gallic accent, the disgusted lip curl, the shoulders-round-the-ears, all the outraged honking noises, the expression of sneering superiority, everything.

R can learn all the proper expressions I associate with the English roastbeef too! Repression, seething resentments, gritted-teeth politeness, debilitating social anxieties, angry shouting, and general fawning in the face of anyone considered vaguely upper class.

Well, Clo&R are going about language learning the right way. By living.

Prising language and culture apart; sticking a foreign language into an English classroom with 32 kids; teaching students pointless expressions like Where is the post office? instead of You want how much for a beer? they're all defeated ways to learn languages. Try and feed bush meat to a vegan. You may as well give up before you start.

Real life language learning is a much better way to acquire a language than any sterile experience dreamed up by school. I merely provide, by way of example, three observations:

I spent five years in conventional school French lessons, one in Spanish and two in Italian. I was rendered completely dumb, failed, and lip-paralysed. However, two days with eight Michel Thomas CDs in preparation for an Italian holiday and no-one could shut me up. Blinded by my own enthusiasm, I began random conversations with anyone and everyone, including suspicious taxi drivers, unwilling hotel staff, reluctant restaurant chefs, and several old men unfortunate enough to stand inside beat up city kiosks selling the Corriere della Sera. Eventually my toddler children had to drag me off an elderly woman I found in the street. Proof, that when you want to do something, you can do it. It simply didn't need years of slow pain, misery and torture.

At the first school I taught, a little kid wanted to take his French GCSE a year early because he said, 'he had taught himself at home'. This was poo-pooed by the language staff until his dad came in and 'had a quiet word' (whatever that looked like). The kid took his French exam early, got an A grade, and proceeded to teach himself A level while everyone else slogged on against the odds with comment allez-vous (like you're going to need that for navigating the Paris Nord ticket office).

At the second school I was crazy enough to join, the French language teacher had a breakdown. I briefly covered her lessons (and was advised to take in pepper spray). Her first cover lesson for the prisoners was to draw a map and a picture of a boulangerie (the type of which I distinctly recalled from a 1950s text book). The kids then had to ask each other the way to it (as if they wouldn't have the wit to see the boulangerie even when it stared them in the face). Anyway, the task was clearly impossible for anyone to do without stabbing each other. All else seemed preferable. Including Emergency Plan 1: In desperation and need to survive, put on a very silly French accent and claim I az lived in zee France then draw chalk lines all over floor, desks, and walls for the entire class to follow while yelling a droit a gauche munch munch munch le croissant donnez moi le cake. When the bell sounded (and I patted myself down to check for wounds, blood and bullet holes) one kid sped past me and shouted that was the best fucking French lesson he'd ever had. This anecdote is not told to suggest my general teaching condition (OFSTED unapproved) but to show how crap and pointless most ordinary classroom language teaching really must be.

Conclusion. School language teaching brings you only to a state of failure. Real-life language learning celebrates your success. Bravo Clo&R!


Penny said...

I would love to speak another language. I studied French at school for five years and managed to pass Higher French, but couldn't speak it. A pupil of mine is Polish and has been in Scotland for about a year and a half. He comes to me to improve his grammar and idiomatic English which he's already speaking fluently (and his grammar's not much worse than that of his friends). He's immersed in the language, even though his family speaks Polish at home.
I particularly dislike it when I have dyslexic pupils who are struggling to read and write English and they're having to sit through French lessons and exams.
We did a bit of Latin and less of French when we were home edding, but if the kids had wanted to learn to speak another language we'd have done it. But we're not really travellers...
Just my point of view... (or rant, if you prefer... :o) )

Kelly said...

Languages have always come very easily to me, so I have studied 8, but am fluent in none, because to get really good you have to live there and speak it regularly. But whenever I travel, I try to learn, re-learn, brush up, and I too, love the Michel Thomas.

School language worked for me, somewhat, because I had a lovely, effective Spanish teacher, who took us all to Spain (from Missouri!) when I was 15. Then, I was lucky enough to go to Japan for a summer when I was 17, and I just love learning languages. I used to think that it really was just a matter of application, but having observed that two of my sons are like me, and two, like my husband, try but have less success, I have decided that once you get past that early "brain wired to absorb language" period, things really do vary from human to human. And school language lessons seem to work for very few humans, really. Yet, it is also true that, even if it doesn't come easily, it will, eventually, come. Michel Thomas is great, and so are the French in Action and Destinos programs for French and Spanish, respectively (not so easy to get, and old, but extremely effective video-based programs--dvd's are available from DVD Hunter, and most of the books on Amazon). For French I also really love the Smart French program, very inexpensive and effective. There are so many great, easy-to-use programs, but some are boring and ineffective, so reading reviews of various ones is useful. My I do run on, don't I.

julie ridley said...

Too true. While at school and uni in America, I studied French, German, and Italian. Of course, when I finally did go to another country, it was England.

ladybirdcook said...

totally agree. And, if we have to teach language in the old fashioned way, can girls be taught the words for buying tampons and painkillers? Because, even though I knew how to book a room in a hotel with a shower and a view, it was standing in a shop in real ife not knowing how to ask "where are the sanitary towels?" that had me in tears.