I must be the slowest blogger in the world. Is there somewhere I can get a badge for it?
Anyway, after several months I’ve just finished this post about what is maybe no longer a hot topic.
A lot has been written recently on ELT / EFL blogs mainly attacking, but also defending, general English coursebooks. However, both attackers and defenders seem to share the same underlying conception of how languages are learnt: input in the form of texts, written or aural, leads to spoken output. This transmissive view of learning is not the only one and is not the one I adhere to.
I’d like to make clear that the learning situation I’m considering is where the objective for the students is to speak the language fluently in the way five-year-olds speak their native languages. That is, they can spontaneously express their feelings and thoughts in a way that other speakers of the given language find unexceptional as regards phonology and structure. Of course, five-year-olds do not master all the lexis of the language and all the structures of the different registers and styles but they’ve done the bit that adults and teens find so hard in a foreign language: they can produce all the phonemes of the language with rhythm and intonation required by the language and they can can also express themselves through utterances that adhere to the basic structures of the language. Once this core is learnt, the rest comes easily. Not only that, but the core is learnt for life and can never be forgotten because it was never memorised.
It doesn’t actually take teens and adults very long to master this core – if the teacher presents them with adequate challenges. I’d say between 100 and 200 hours depending how different their first language is from their second language and a number of other factors which determine how efficiently students spend their time.
Courses also exist where the objective is for students to be able to read and understand specialized texts and others where they are prepared to pass standardised tests. Though texts and coursebooks can be useful in such classes, it does not follow that that texts and coursebooks are efficient ways of achieving oral competence. This however is what frequently happens in beginner and low level language classes. The texts proposed are short and simple but the learning paradigm is the same: language input results in language output.
I’m not saying that learning to use specialised styles and registers are not useful skills, just that they’re not what I mean by “learning to speak” a language. Cramming for tests such as the TOEIC or the TOEFL isn’t either. Nor is using English to play games and/or discuss current affairs and the “big” questions of our times however enjoyable and valuable students and teachers may find such activities. I’m not saying that all these are not worth while activities – just that they don’t have much to do with learning to speak a language.
They do however imply that language learning in itself is boring and needs to to be spiced up with extra-linguistic attractions. For me, that’s like trying to attract people to play football by painting them bright colours and putting bells inside. Such balls may attract one-year-olds but they don’t teach them to play football. As soon as they’re old enough understand the real fun of the game, they’ll be happy to have a dull, black-and-white ball like all other footballers (I mean, soccer players, of course).
Language learning can just as much fun as playing football… and just as exciting. I mean working out how to produce all those funny, foreign sounds, how to arrange the words, where, for example, to put (and not put) the final -s in English. (I just had to solve an English problem: I know how to say the plural of -s but I don’t know how to write it. I found a solution and I feel clever that I did it on my own. It’s no big deal – but because it’s mine, it makes me feel good.)
What does this mean practically in the classroom? The teacher doesn’t go into the room to teach the language – however it may be defined: grammar, functions, texts, tasks… – but to help the other people in the room to say what they want to say in the language. Sometimes, especially with teens, they may need a “trigger” to get started but the trigger is more usefully a picture, an object or an open-ended question than any kind of text. My objective as a teacher is not to teach any particular aspect of the language, but to give students opportunities to feel “smart” in the way they do on the football field by discovering for themselves how the language functions.
Negatives don’t need to, and often can’t, be proved. I taught people to speak English with no coursebooks, no texts and no “activities” and no “tasks” for nearly 40 years. I know other teachers who still do so. If it can be done, why spend money and time on what’s not necessary? What’s the bang for the buck?