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.

20 thoughts on “Five mixed messages that have severely damaged modern language education

  1. Excellent post! Unfortunately, many of these myths are still a reality. Any ideas on where and how the debunking should begin?

  2. Careful, Gianfranco, forty years later the U.S. world language teaching community is positively prostrate in worship of Krashen’s theories-turned-principles.😉 . Krashen and Bill VanPatten are doing a joint presentation next week in Boston at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages convention. Should be interesting.

    Thanks for challenging me on some things I have not been doing and have been doing, and THANK YOU for being an informed voice in a very important conversation! Most importantly, thank you for reminding us that accepting everything we read or hear makes us much less effective than when we’re actively listening to a spectrum of voices and then making informed choices that fit us and our students.

  3. I feel that as a FL teacher my real job is to help students build a cognitive bridge between their first language and the target language. We do that by providing tools and input that are easily understood. If reading and listening to familiar stories and fables helps build that bridge, we should do that. If explanation of a grammar rule is the clearest way to establish new meaning for a student in order to help them build this bridge of meaning, we should feel free to do that as well. I don’t think we should teach grammar for grammars sake as if language existed for the purpose of discovering grammar. Grammar should just be another tool for helping students create meaning.

    I appreciate your work and your blog please continue providing useful insights!

  4. I always feel guilty for being one of the Tom/Dick/Harry characters you mention. As always you’ve made some great points. My attitudes towards use of L1 in the classroom have really changed over the past year or so, sometimes in response to reading (including your blog posts) but also due to my own language studies. I’m still only an Elementary Thai learner but I love listening to Thai learners discuss and try to translate English grammar points in their L1. I feel I overuse Thai in class a bit, but it does build rapport with my learners.
    I don’t disagree with your comments about error correction, but sit somewhere in between. This is an area where I feel knowledge of the learners’ L1 is really important. I try to mainly correct learners on either a) errors related to the target language or b) errors that I think are below their level. However, I try my best to correct Thai learners when they make errors related to L1 interference which I know can often become fossilised. Most of my explicit error correction is pron related.
    Cheers for the great read as always!

  5. Thank you, Gianfranco Conti, for another well-considered, thought-provoking article, much of which I agree with.
    Unlike Peter Pun, however, I do not feel guilty about being one of the Tom, Dick or Carrie teachers who taught EFL in the 1980s-90s. I deepened my knowledge of English grammar so much through my teaching, mainly thanks to a large tome of a book by Michael Swan, recommended, incidentally, as essential reading for my RSA TEFL course.
    While my university experience of language learning had been mainly based on translation/literature, EFL materials and resources in the late 80s and before were brimming over with stimulating activities for teaching. I often used Headway, for example, and – in my opinion – it is in fact EFL ideas and resources which have inspired much of the more engaging methodology I am now using myself in the secondary language classroom.
    I do agree with you that EFL got itself a bad name through the massive demand for English teachers and hence falling quality of teachers in a difficult-to-regulate industry, but a balanced argument needs to mention the work of the British Council, International House and the standards required to reach exam boards’ standards in order to pass assessments such as Cambridge First Certificate.

  6. A wise woman* once said; only 3 things matter in language learning, attitude, time with the language and the ability to notice. Thus, from my experience as a learner of 15 languages, and from watching others learn, do things in the language that you find enjoyable, do them often, and your ability to notice will improve and so will your language skills. To your points.
    1) At 2 hours a week, few will learn a new language. Grammar can be taught, but will remain difficult to understand or remember until much later. Grammar can only be a reference, not the focal point of language learning. Where it is the focus, as in most school learning, students lose interest and don’t learn to speak or understand. Example French instruction in English language school systemic Canada.
    2) Agreed. Use native language in class, and in dictionaries. Speeds up learning.
    3) We learn through exposure. The language gradually becomes clearer. Better to move on to new material even if text improperly understood, if the content is no longer interesting. Interest trumps trying to nail things down. The words and phrases will reappear.
    4) Most mistakes remain immune to correction for a long time, notorious examples are 3rd person signal present tense in English or Chinese speakers saying my husband “she”. Vocabulary trumps grammar accuracy. Our ability to speak correctly will improve after a lot of exposure, when grammar rules have a context in the learners’ own language experience.
    5) It is hard to pronounce what you can’t hear. I find it much easier to focus on pronunciation after many many hours of listening when I have started to notice the pronunciation better.
    So I focus on choosing content of interest, hours and hours of listening to content for which I have transcripts, and reviewing the grammar from time to time. Using various modern learning systems, we can save words and phrases embodying the natural word usage of the language, and review them through activities, or simply see them highlighted on our screens on our tablet or computer. What happens outside the classroom is more important than the classroom. If the teacher can induce learners to spend the time with the language, on content of interest, listening and reading, using modern technology, learning will be accelerated.
    *Dr. Mary Ann Lyman-Hager, Head of the Language Acquisition Resource Center at San Diego State University

    • The major issue with your reply is that it is very apparent you are not a practising teacher working with teenagers in a state school setting where one sees their students once or twice a week. Pronunciation cannot be learnt through lots of listening as you suggest in such settings because of time constraints, but there are clever ways in which the curriculum designer and the language teacher can indeed obtain good results applying effective and time efficient methods based on neuroscience rather than obsolete Krashenian methodology.
      What the ‘old woman’ said is as vague as it is reductive, non-scientific and not very helpful for a practising teacher – the kind of recommendations that have ruined language education as they say all and nothing.
      I am sure you understand that the piece you are commenting upon is meant for language teaching professionals and not amateur language learning enthusiasts looking for fancy tips on how to learn language independently.
      A final note: I have studied 14 languages in the last twenty years or so, but I only claim I speak seven as I would not dare claim I speak a language I have reached very high levels of routinization across most of the core grammar structures and vocabulary. Many people on the web claim to master many languages but when you actually converse with them…; to what level do you master those 15 languages, Steve? I would be curious to know, as if you are fluent in all of them you are close to being a prodigy of nature.

      • If we assume that learning will only take place in classes that take place only once or twice a week, then we can just as easily assume that little language learning will take place. The weird woman in question is an academic in the field of language acquisition, head of department in fact, so her comments are not. She makes it unclear to me that the main objective of the teacher should be to steer the interest of the learner so that learners the language independently with enough time and enthusiasm to succeed.

        As to the level of fluency in the languages that I speak, I would call myself fluent in English, French, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish, Swedish, German, and quite comfortable in Portuguese, Italian, Russian, but would need a day or so to bring my level up. In the other languages I need more work but my level of comprehension is quite good in some of them, and less good in others. In all languages it is vocabulary and practice that holds me back, not grammar.

      • Dear Steve, I have never called you an amateur-I hinted at the fact that you write or rather speak for amateur enthusiasts . Secondly of course one should not assume that language learning ought to only occur in schools. I have learnt all of my languages outside school. My argument was that because we as school Teachers have an obligation to impart languages on children under time constraints that are harsh in pursuit of standards required by Examination boards which are challenging , cannot apply Krashen’s obsolete and dogma -like theories not only because they do not chime with neuroscience but also because they do not suit the logistics of our learning settings. Our teenage students do not have the motivation and concentration and memory span of the motivated adults you speak to. TPRS would not work with most English teenagers – it may at primary level maybe. You and those you speak to in your YouTube videos choose to learn languages; most of our students don’t. As your wise woman said attitude is crucial, more so the ability of the teacher to bring about that attitude. A video of yours detailing how to manage teenage classes in run down inner city areas schools whilst using your tips (with a video of a lesson of yours in such environments) would be more enlightening than your daily evangelical talks about how to best learn languages. A final note: Krashen has had many great ideas and I respect some of his work but his theory and methodology have massive flaws which neuroscience is unveiling one by one.

        P.S. Head of Department means all and nothing. What she said is true, but very reductive and generic. I am sure that if given the chance to say more about language acquisition she would not stop there.

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