Sunday, October 26, 2014
Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 3
You Are Being ‘Taught’, or the Sky Is the Limit!
To discuss the study of foreign languages, the topic of language classes cannot be overlooked. These courses are characterised by small groups under the direction of an instructor. In essence, the basic methodology (forgive me for using this word; I’ve never liked it, either) in these courses differs little from those used in the school system, with the exception that attendance is voluntary and paid for. In addition, the students are generally adults and there by choice, which gives the course its own particular flavour. It seems to me that the flavour is peculiar enough to demand a deeper look.
You have likely seen ads posted around city centres and universities or on the Internet and in newspapers. These ads likely made a significant impression on you, and the cost didn’t seem to be very burdensome. The number of times the class meets each week didn’t seem too burdensome, either—once or twice a week. You made the decision and started going to the classes.
You felt pretty good telling your relatives and friends about your decision. As expected, your decision was met with approving glances, exclamations, and other pleasant emanations. Your status in society was significantly strengthened.
In the proper column of the mental report card, the important section on social interaction—under the title of ‘Good Intentions and Effort’ under your name—appears the mandatory checkmark. Your self-esteem is fortified. Within your chest rose that coveted warm feeling of practically having already fulfilled your task. After all, the difficult decision to learn a foreign language is in itself worthy of the highest respect. This universal truth is unquestionably accepted by all players in the game; isn’t that true, my respectable friend, filled with the highest intentions?
Armed with these very intentions, you show up once or twice a week to a somewhat cosy classroom filled with rows of desks and chairs. Hanging on the walls are grammar charts, fire-escape instructions, and some other visual propaganda designed to pour incessantly all kinds of knowledge of noun cases and conjugations into your brain. You sit at one of the desks—I usually chose one toward the back of the class—and attentively gaze at the blackboard and the instructor.
Immediately, you are filled with respect for this instructor since he knows various words that are unknown to you and he’s dressed in a suit and tie (about the instructors decked out in mini-skirts and half-transparent blouses, we will prudently be silent). Occasionally, your instructor will have a beard or wear glasses, which adds another level of sophistication to your lessons.
The instructor struts in front of the board speaking out words of wisdom and writes them out on the board for your optimal learning. You listen with the utmost attention, watch and try to understand, and remember it all. The especially diligent students even make detailed notes. (I swear, in the beginning, I also sinned in this manner, but only in the beginning!)
From time to time, the all-knowing instructor turns to the group and asks if everything is clear and understood. The answer is usually just silence, but sometimes, out of the 20–30 fairly tense students sitting at their desks, someone (like me, sitting in the back row—always the back row!) ventures to say that some portion of the lesson isn’t that clear. The wise instructor firmly but tenderly (ever so tenderly!), gazes at the inquirer, who is now, oddly enough, experiencing a feeling of guilt, and condescendingly repeats the unclear part of the lesson. He asks again if everything is clear and understood. The answer at this point is usually dead silence. The instructor adjusts his glasses in a distinguished manner and continues his lesson, so rudely interrupted by our not-so-bright student.
When a similar situation arises and the slow student again starts in with his questions, showing his inability to master the material at the same pace of his classmates, the instructor fixes his eyes on the transgressor with a bit less tenderness. All the same, he repeats the material, displaying his deep knowledge of the subject and simultaneously revealing his unsurpassed angelic patience.
The slow student (and not he alone) is not feeling quite so cosy anymore and even begins to cringe under the wise gaze of the all-knowing instructor. In addition, he now feels the silent condemnation of the rest of the group who, of course, perfectly grasps the material and can’t wait to get going again with the instructor at the pace of a supersonic steam locomotive. These irrelevant questions are just a hindrance to our instructor-engineer guiding his speeding, red-hot engine into that crimson language sunset beyond the clouds.
On another day, during a lesson on a new theme (practically every day is a new ‘theme’), the question once again is put forth, ‘Is everything clear?’ This time, it is asked directly to the slow and obviously mentally challenged student. This time, everything is clear. Having gained this small but vitally important victory for the successful forward movement of the smoke-belching locomotive... pardon, lesson... the instructor continues on, picking up the pace, heading ever deeper into the labyrinth of declensions, suffixes, cases, and weak predicates. So little time, so many suffixes and prefixes!
You diligently keep attending the lessons and even complete the homework—all those exercises, answering questions, cramming irregular verbs and participles and gerunds that inevitably sprout from these verbs. The instructor checks your homework and occasionally praises you, which is quite pleasant. Your self-esteem rises. You compare your success with the success of your classmates. Your success is no worse than theirs and, in some areas, even better.
Weeks turn into months, and the course is progressing well. However, you’re starting to notice though that your group is gradually thinning out. One student has a business trip that can’t be postponed, another becomes ill, another buys a boat that takes up all his time, another experiences family issues, and another gets a promotion at work. It turns out that people have many important things going on in life, and learning a foreign language is not at the top of the list.
Strangely enough, our slow student sitting in the back row didn’t join the ranks of the quitters (which you undoubtedly expected!) but continues to show up for class. Of course, he’s not asking any more questions and is completely lost on his homework. The instructor has even given up on checking his homework, figuring it to be a hopeless endeavour. Whatever self-esteem our dunce once had is now completely gone. What is he thinking of!?
Then your turn comes—you get the flu. It’s winter, and there is nothing you can do about it. It could happen to anyone. You are seriously ill, and you aren’t able to go to class. Your relatives, friends and associates totally understand; one’s health is much more important than any language course, especially as it’s only a month or so until the end of your course, and in addition, you can always take the course again next year.
You come out of the game with no loss to your status in society or self-esteem. If not strengthened, then at least there was no significant damage to it since the conditions were clearly stronger than you, and it would have been completely unreasonable to get upset about it. You displayed strength of character and at the same time showed your flexibility, so necessary in these complex times. And what could be more important than such satisfaction?
But what about the foreign language? What foreign language? Oh, yeah! The language! As far as the foreign language goes, without a doubt, you learned many new and interesting things; you met and spent time with new and interesting friends. You became acquainted with a wise and outstanding instructor who knows so many complicated concepts about gerunds, predicate phrases, and indirect speech, so important for a correct understanding of the processes that take place every day in a foreign language.
Overall, your course turned out successful. Hmmm… maybe not.
[Via Language Tai-chi, or You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language, by Nikolay Zamyatkin]