Getting the most bang for your buck

This entry was originally posted to AzarGrammar.com.

 

“Bang for the buck” is an English idiom that means the return you get for spending a fixed amount of money, time, or effort on something. It is similar in meaning to “value for money.” Bang for the buck was originally used by politicians to talk about getting the maximum amount of firepower from military spending. Some people do not like this idiom because of its history, but I think it can work as a useful metaphor for language teachers and learners.

In my experience, a lot of people focus on the question of whether a particular teaching method or study technique is “useful” or “beneficial.” However, this question is setting the bar very low (another idiom that means not aiming for a high enough target or goal). Strictly speaking, any form of teaching or study can be described as being “useful” if its effects are more than zero.

For example, if an English speaker wanted to learn French, they might choose to do so by spending three hours a day comparing the French and English translations of the Bible. Would this kind of study be beneficial to them? Undoubtedly. In fact, throughout history, more people have probably learned languages from the Bible than from any other text.

Even if we accept that there is some benefit to this kind of study, however, most language teachers and learners would feel instinctively that it would be possible to achieve better results by spending those three hours doing other things as well as (or instead of) reading the Bible. The question we should ask of any study or teaching method, then, is not “Is it useful?” but rather “How much bang am I getting for my buck?” To put it more simply, we need to ask, “If I am going to spend $X and Y hours on this, what can I do that will give me the best possible results for that level of input?”

In the field of TESOL, there are so many techniques, methods, and special learning systems that it would be impossible to count them all. Each of these has its proponents, some of whom argue the merits of the object of their admiration with something akin to religious fervor. A point these people often overlook is that almost anything you do is going to be successful if you do it with religious fervor, but it’s usually the fervor that is bringing the success, not the activity. Learning a language through studying translations of the Bible is a very literal example of this!

Two examples of this that I come across often in Japan are extensive reading and “Speed Learning.” Both of these are popular study methods, largely because of successful marketing on the part of publishing companies and the people they hire to promote the methods. I am not suggesting for a moment that these types of study are ineffective, but I do think that people sometimes ask the wrong questions in order to determine exactly how effective they are.

For example, if someone told me that reading extensively can improve every aspect of a learner’s English, I would not dispute that claim. A great deal of research has shown that extensive reading is indeed a highly effective way to learn a language. I would, however, have two questions. The first is this:

How many hours of extensive reading would be required to see the kinds of improvement you are talking about?

Let us suppose that their answer is XXX hours. My next question would then be:

Can you be sure that extensive reading is the best possible use of those XXX hours?

Once again, I am not saying that extensive reading would not be the best way to spend those hours, simply that we need to make sure we are asking the right question when we assess the merits of any form of study.

In Japan, there is a very popular method for studying English called Speed Learning. It is promoted by the golfer Ryo Ishikawa, and a considerable amount of money has been spent on its marketing. I do not actually know very much about this system, except that almost every Japanese learner of English that I meet asks my opinion about it! However, their question is always the same: “Does it work?”

My answer usually goes like this:

If you mean “Will it provide you with any benefits?” then the answer is undoubtedly yes, but I think you are asking the wrong question. Given that this system will require a significant investment of both time and money, your question should be “If I am going to spend this much money and this many hours studying English, will this system lead to more gains than anything else I could do with that same input of time and money?”

Again, I want to be careful to stress that I am not saying anything negative about the Speed Learning system. What I want to focus on is the fact that learners, and all too often teachers, ask the wrong question when it comes to assessing the effectiveness of any method or type of materials used in the learning process. Pretty much anything you choose to do will have some value or benefit, but that is not a sufficient reason for you to choose it over the other options that are available to you. It is not just benefits we are looking for, but maximum benefits for any given input of time, money, and effort.

The question of whether a choice that you make is maximizing your learning (or teaching) potential is one that is impossible to answer, since the only way to know for sure would be to try every single possibility and compare the outcomes. Even if you were able to do that, however, the answer would probably be different for every learner and every teacher, and even for the same learners and teachers at different points in time. In other words, it is impossible to know for sure which choice will give us the most “bang for our buck,” but even if we cannot provide perfect answers, it is important to make sure that we are at least asking the right question.

Leave a Comment