Five mixed messages that have severely damaged modern language education

Introduction

Over the decades, since the 70’s pedagogic revolution which saw the total rejection of Grammar-Translation methodology and Audiolingualism, teachers have been the recipients of scores of mixed messages about how languages are acquired and should be taught which have greatly damaged the teaching profession and Modern Language provision at large.  I referred to them in the title as ‘mixed messages’ because they have often been the result of the overgeneralization , misinterpretation, vulgarization or distortion  of research findings, hypotheses or even theories of some validity, which have given rise to ‘myths’ about language teaching and learning that have been haunting the teaching profession for decades and still shape in many cases the way many of us teach.

1.Languages are acquired by children subconsciously, hence no need to teach them grammar – This belief is at the root of the ban on grammar teaching that affected MFL provision in England for decades. The main culprit was a man by the name of Stephen Krashen who maintained that languages are acquired through being passively exposed to masses of comprehensible input (i.e. input mostly consisting of known language), just like children do in their first language. Well, we now know that Krashen’s theory might apply to immersive environments in which one is bombarded by masses of L2 language input, but not to input-poor settings like a secondary school with one or two hours’ contact time a week. And in fact, many studies have shown that even in immersive environments this is not entirely true.

This ‘mixed message’ has damaged language learning in a number of ways. Firstly, by basically saying: no need to really teach grammar, as it simply doesn’t work. Secondly, by overemphasizing target language talk in the classroom, so that at one point it was anathema to use the first language even  to give basic instructions; all based on the preposterous belief that by talking in the target language lesson in lesson out the students would miraculously acquire the language. A likely scenario if one sees their students every day; an unlikely one if you only see them once or twice a week.

It is not simply enough to speak to students in the target language for them to assimilate the vocabulary, grammar structure and pronunciation they hear. For learners to acquire a given L2 item they must notice it, understand what it means in their own language, whether through body language, imagery or by using objects or the first language as references.

By the same token, it is not enough for students to read extensively in the target language to massively speed up acquisition, unless, that is, they are exceptionally proactive and inquisitive students who asks themselves lots of questions, who consistently try to answer those questions with dictionaries or by asking language experts; who effectively store and recycle the vocabulary they come across, etc. Reading independently helps, for sure, but at a lower level of proficiency especially, it is what one reads that is very important, how patterned, how repetitive, how novice-learner-friendly the input is.

2. Do not use the first language in the classroom – Another preposterous myth. Why not? When we know that every language learner uses their first language as a starting point for their inferences and hypotheses on how the target language works; when it is a fact that code-switching does not interfere at all with language activation in the brain and acquisition; when it is obvious that it is very common for learners to learn the target language grammar by comparing what they hear or read in that language with their first language version; when it is clear that the L1 translation scaffolds Target language learning. Why not?

Well, the first part of the answers was provided above: the idea that learners would acquire the second language by simply being exposed to comprehensible input. The second part of the answers is the ugly truth of business, of the multimillion business called TEFL , i.e. Teaching English as  Foreign Language. A business that thrives on three flawed principles: (1) you do not need to speak your students’ foreign language to teach effectively – which means that any reasonably educated English native speaker can teach it; (2) you do not need to teach grammar that well – which means you do not need to have a linguistics degree to teach English; (3) because language teaching works best when it is student-centred, the role of the teacher is less important – which means that less training is required.

These three ‘beautiful lies’ suited the EFL business in the 70’s and 80’s when it was booming and expanding overseas and the demand for cheap manpower (EFL teachers) exceeded the supply. Hence, the new methodology, CLT -in its extreme form – offered a convenient justification for allowing any Tom, Dick and Harry with native speaker competence to teach English in China, Korea or Japan after a six-week diploma. I often wondered, had they not invented the Communicative Approach would the EFL industry have boomed as it did; without the Target-Language-only dogma, would such industry even be able to exist?

3.It is not important for students to understand all they read or hear. It is understanding the main points that matters

This is another mixed message which has damaged much modern language education. Yes, it is the main message that counts if you are teaching L2-learners to cope; however, if you are using reading and listening to enhance their linguistic competence, it is not enough for them to simply understand the main points in an utterance or text they process. Research shows clearly that a learner needs to understand 90 to 95 % of what they process to be able to learn from it, e.g. to notice new language structures or vocabulary embedded in a text.

This mixed message has shaped the approach to reading and listening adopted by many a language teacher and has led to generations of disaffected language learners fed up with guessing their answers to True-or- False or ‘who-has-done-this-or-that questions.It is obvious that this approach will be acceptable when you are teaching survival language skills, but not if you are preparing L2-students for the kind of autonomous linguistic competence that the 21st century language learner will need for a business conference on Skype, a customer service phone-call, a professional e-mail, to study in a foreign university or to be an effective interpreter or translator.

4.Teachers must be tolerant of mistakes

This is one of the fundamental tenets of Communicative Language Teaching and came about as a reaction against Behaviourism which preached the total opposite. i.e. that errors had to  be avoided at all costs. The fact is that the truth is somewhere in the middle: errors should not be avoided or penalised; in fact they should be encouraged as they are the natural by-product of learning. Hence, teachers must be tolerant of errors as by being intolerant they would discourage their students from experimenting with the language.

The problem, however, is that in many quarters this has led to an overly tolerant acceptance of error and, more importantly, to overly encouraging fluency at the expense of accuracy. This has led to cohort after cohort of language learners who have fossilised (automatized) mistakes because they have often been encouraged to talk beyond their level of competence through unstructured tasks they were not ready for. I still see this happen in many TBL (task based learning) and PBL (project based learning) classes in which students are asked to tackle tasks way beyond their level of competence.

I see the effects of this attitude on many primary students who come to secondary with many fossilised mistakes (especially pronunciation errors) they have automatized because ‘it is okay to make mistakes’ at that age and correcting them or focusing them on accuracy would put them off languages. ‘Children learn subconscioulsy anyway…’

Truth is, if  a learner keeps making the same mistakes over and over again because they are made to talk or write beyond their level of competence and are not sufficiently focused on accuracy those mistakes will become engrained in their production system and, once fossilised, will never be amenable to correction or re-learning (Mukkatesh, 88; Ellis, 1994). Whilst teachers must be tolerant and encouraging of error to a certain degree, they must be able to stamp them out as early as possible, before they become fossilised – unless, once again, our aim is simply to forge language survival skills not highly competent speakers.

5.Pronunciation is not important – it is to be able to be understood by a sympathetic L2 native speaker that matters

Pronunciation has been another victim of Stephen Krashen’s methodology and of Communicative Language Teaching. Hence, it comes very low in teachers’ priority these days, despite the fact that vocabulary recall is activated by sound; that reading comprehension is impeded by poor decoding skills (the ability to effectively pronounce L2 letters/words into the target language). Do not get me wrong, I am not advocating here that every learner must become a near-native pronouncer; tons of research shows clearly, though, that an effective decoder of the target language is more likely to be successful at language learning than an ineffective one. Obvious corollary: L2 learners should be taught masses of pronunciation and decoding skills as early as possible, in primary, and pronunciation mistakes – based on what we said in the previous paragraph – should be stamped out as early as possible.

Conclusion

The five misconceptions discussed above are only a few of the myths about language teaching and learning that have crept into our profession’s core of shared beliefs and have in some cases assumed the status of dogma, to the point that if one does not conform to them is deemed as less competent or ‘rogue’. Two obvious instances of this are the over emphasis on the fact that the target language should be used most of the time by the teacher when interacting with the class and the semi-total ban on detailed grammar teaching in the classroom. As I often reiterate on this blog, teachers need to equip themselves with the know-how about language acquisition and pedagogy which will ultimately allow them to dispell such strait-jacketing dogmata and any other theory and methodology imposed on them by unscrupulous ‘fad’-mongers or self-proclaimed language-education gurus.

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