Bane or Boon: Social Work in Teaching Foreign Languages

How do benign teaching methods contribute to learning a foreign language?
Reliance on the elusive spoken word, time-consuming games and teaching techniques peculiar to animators, group discussions unchecked for appropriateness, precision, and clarity, unbridled disregard of error-swapping in peer-editing and group discussions: To come up with a scheme to remedy the current sorry state, a rigorous analysis of what is going on at the receiving end in the teaching process, for instance, recording and analysing classroom activities, may be useful in reassessing the unhappy status quo.

How a failure in communication changed my life

With tongue in cheek, I relish telling this little anecdote about the origin of CTM or Communicative Teaching Method, which has been dogmatically and uncritically applied in teaching foreign languages ever since. I was a contemporary witness when a paradigm change took place and social work was implemented in pedagogy way back in the seventies. To illustrate my point, this is when I became aware of it.
Scottish Peter, as he was nicknamed, was standing before me, bent over with his hands supporting his massive body on his knees. He was swaying from side to side, alternatingly directing first his left ear and then his right ear into the direction of my mouth. All the time, he had a look of utter despair on his face, his eyes fixed onto my lips as if this were to facilitate his comprehension of what I was trying to say. Alas, it was to no avail.

I was trying to pronounce the word “vegetable”, but I must have gotten the IP alphabet symbols wrong when I taught myself some of the rudimentary things about the English language. Not unexpectedly, there were bound to be errors and in this case my pronunciation of the second syllable sounded like “table”, vege-table. No wonder Scottish Peter, who worked as a breakfast and vegetable cook in our small hotel in Guernsey for the summer season, had a hard time understanding me. And being a social worker by profession, he felt it his duty to blame himself for what he thought was his inability to understand my gibberish sort of language, rather than blaming my ignorance and inability to speak understandable, accurate and clear English. But can you actually blame him? He was probably the victim of the theory of CTM, which has, up to now, not been scientifically tested. He was probably thinking all the time when our little communicative comical act was going on that I was an underprivileged victim of society. It never crossed his mind that I might have been just too lazy to learn proper Standard English! Needless to say that this break-down in communication was no isolated incident and I resolved to do something about it to ensure I would always be understood with ease, if that should ever be possible.

At the time, I had little theoretical grounding on phonetics and grammar worth mentioning. My active vocabulary was about 700 words barely enough to engage in simple-speak-small-talk. English people are always polite and tried to make me believe that my English was good, which I knew was not. After my first stay in the UK, I began to work in earnest with authentic material to improve my English in all areas. In short, I began to “study” proper English largely on my own. It was common practice at the time that the native teachers did most of the talking, which suited me well since I was very much interested in “authentic English” and in most cases, I absorbed this as first rate model English like a sponge.

It was the time, when the responsibility for results to be achieved in language- teaching rested solely with the teacher. He was supposed to impart his or her knowledge of his or her language, his or her expertise on synonyms, near synonyms and varied structures, giving many contextual examples. And all of this was done skilfully, professionally and competently with a high degree of enthusiasm, fervour and zeal. I have it on good authority straight from the horse’s mouth that these days, teaching contextual English is considered “time-consuming”. They always handed out copies of the texts so that one was able to work with them at home in one’s own time and do the all-important revisions whenever one wanted to. Some of them had used their teaching material for more than twenty years without detriment to the motivation of their students. With this way of presenting material, I found that the retention rate was high, probably because of the affective element inherent in this teaching technique. Out of about fifteen teachers of English I have had, about four actually possessed those rare qualities. This high-calibre and talented kind of person was appreciated unanimously by all students, even the slow and lazy ones. What was mostly valued by most of us was his or her ability to give explanations eloquently and fit for printing, in short, he and she was a master of his or her language.

Then, there was a major change in teaching of foreign languages. I vividly remember the evening when I had my first encounter with the “Communicative Teaching Method” or CTM, as it was called. It was in one of those language classes for immigrants in South Africa. I had attended the language course for immigrants before and was surprised that we were about 80 people in the class on that evening as opposed to some 20 in previous classes. The new teacher divided the class into groups of four with the air of an expert as if he had had long years of practice in what was to follow. He then went around the class talking briefly to each group. Our group was the last he stopped by and after exchanging a few sentences with each of us he established that our group happened to be the most advanced group in the room. Since I was not interested in statistics and swapping errors with other non-native speakers of English, I stopped going to that class.

Only years later did I find out that the CTM had been introduced worldwide without any shred of scientific evidence as to its efficacy. And I have not seen any comparative long-term scientific studies of any given method combination!

But this was not my last contact with my pedagogic pet peeve. A university lecturer at Hannover University, who had read German at some American university, had been in the country for a number of years, cohabiting with a German woman for some time. Yet, he was unable to speak German; it was rather the gibberish sort – despite all the advantages of living with an educated native speaker, which is particularly conducive to acquiring a foreign tongue.

And he did insist on going by the CTM “Book” in his classes. One day he called to tell me that he had been most astonished to have found more than ninety students in his class at his university course on Shakespeare, and was eager and proud to explain that he had gone by “The Book” by having the students form groups of four and speak to one another in English. All he did was go round, ensuring that only English was spoken, while making sure he did not miss a single table of four.

I suppose that in the not too distant future this sort of hopping from group to group and “listening in” can be taken over by some language-surveillance computer or robot. This device would hover above the participants, the symbolic meaning of hovering being the authority or superior knowledge so badly craved for, ignore the quality of English spoken, emit some encouraging sounds at irregular intervals, tilt its metal head as a sign of attention, extend a pair of metal ears, duly pricked-up – and it could even be programmed to make some nodding movement, indicating approval – and it would not have to be in the right places because nobody would notice or care.

Needless to say that it is S.O.P. (Standard Operating Procedure) with CTM not to interfere, not to correct even bad mistakes and above all, to leave the talking to the group: “active speaking” right from the start. In other words: output without input.

Incidentally, the expression “active speaking” is part of a slogan used by a coaching company in Germany. Ever since I read their ad, I have been wondering what “passive speaking” may be like. “Silence” would be my best guess, also because it is what would be best these days in many cases.

There is no trick to being a satirist if you have so many people working for you.

About this posting

This posting is part of a series dedicated to topics dealing with various aspects of the English language which usually get short shrift on the internet and in other publications. It is, in a wider sense, concerned with the English language crumbling into incomprehensibility at alarming speed and how society is influenced by it. How do schools and universities react and in what way is literature affected by all this? Furthermore, how do people working in education and linguistics cope with this avalanche of “Local English neologisms”?

What often sounds like modern Pidgin English can generally be put down to neo-pidginicity. It is an artificially accelerated and manipulated process – or rather linguistic genetic engineering – of attempting to oversimplify Standard English, the result of which is in all cases some sort of Neo Pidgin English or Simplified-Simple-Speak. Four major fields of contact contribute to the gradual encroachment on Standard English: Basic Global English, as advocated by Dr. Joachim Grzega, machine translations of any kind, unedited documents and publications – frequently of international validity – being passed off as standard English but in fact written by non-native speakers of English, the acceptance of “Local English” and non-native speakers of English teaching their version of “Local English”. The result of the English “produced” in all these areas of contact is often, at best, a barely elevated Pidgin English.

And to compound matters, Globish appears to become a composite haphazard mixture of all about 180 Local Englishes and may for that very reason not be as easy as some people think once it has evolved into a sub-language of Standard English.

Finally, it would be interesting to see the first book written in Basic Global English, Dr. Joachim Grzega`s novel and daring invention and see in which section bookshops will display such a work of art


4 responses to “Bane or Boon: Social Work in Teaching Foreign Languages

  1. alexcase November 8, 2009 at 1:59 am

    Very funny, but I’m not sure it actually supports your views very well. What is “Standard English”? What evidence is there that a teacher centred approach can help students learn it when most students in the world are still taught that way and leave school unable to pronounce “vegetable”? Surely, your own story only proves that self study and motivation are more important than teaching methodology

    TEFLtastic blog-

  2. Nick Jaworski November 9, 2009 at 5:01 pm

    While I have certain similar misgivings about this move towards the inclusion of local Englishes as acceptable English, I’m with Alex.

    While there is no “scientific” research for CMT, there is equally none for any other. I would still call the method tried and true. I can personally say I have seen the efficacy of this approach again and again and again. I have also been unfortunate enough to see it pitted against grammar-translation, teacher-centered classes and the abhorrant Callan method. In each case the students come out far far below those taught with a more CMT-oriented approach.

    Alex is right, as a self-taught speaker of Turkish, I can say self-study and motivation are the keys.

  3. Nick Jaworski November 9, 2009 at 8:22 pm

    Adding to my previous comment, I have met tons of students like the one you describe above. Students that do not see the value in CMT. However, unlike your student, they paid a lot of money to come to our course and so they stayed. These students were perfectly happy to have the teacher teach at them and to work out of their books. Many of them would get very angry or frustrated with me for not catering to their desires and they would march down to the office and complain about me.

    I can proudly say that, within two weeks, every single one of these students had changed their minds and there were a ton of such cases. These same students were the ones that thanked me the most at the end of the course because their English improved so much during our time together. They are also the ones that demanded me most adamantly for their next teacher.

    In addition to this, when I had to share classes with teachers, which was most often the case, they always preferred me much more than their other teacher who taught not using CMT methods (always after the first 2 weeks though).

    More than likely, if your student had stayed on course, he would have ended up feeling the same way.

  4. sanchopansa November 9, 2009 at 10:17 pm

    @alex and nick
    Bear with me for a couple of weeks; I have a few more postings in the pipeline which should probably shed more light on my views. Incidentally, I am not a teacher but used to work as a translator as a side-line job for a short time before fees went down due to the bidding on the internet. All my postings are based on my experience and therefore reflect my observations, spanning a period of some 40 years. It is my intention to point to some hitherto ignored aspects. For instance, why is it, that people live in a foreign country for up to two decades and don’t speak the language or have not improved their – gibberish sort of German in this case – by one single word over the last ten years? (This is the subject of my next posting).

    I am aware that other factors may play a part in CTM, such as group size and freedom of action on the part of the teacher versus imposed constraints. There are very good teachers working with CTM who do not go by “the book” and my implicit argument in this posting is that the average CTM teacher may not be the ideal role model to learn a language from and to motivate learners to study on their own. Any other methods or combinations thereof are not given a chance because everyone wants it the easy way and no language school would risk offering any other method than CTM. Of course, you are both right, self-study and motivation are the keys to reaching the standard that is actually achievable. But few teachers here in Germany would give this sort of advice in class.

    Knowing the theoretical discussions about what Standard English might be, I can only say that to many non-native speakers of English, there are basically two distinctions: the easy-to-understand language evolved naturally over a long period of time versus all other variants which are all too often a strain on the interlocutor and “guessing” becomes the major skill in communication.

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