What do we know about language teaching and learning
The dictionary definition of know is “to be aware of the truth or factuality of: to be convinced or certain of.” These are not the same things, so saying that I know that the earth orbits the sun and saying that I know that teaching method A is more effective than teaching method B are different types of statement.
The first represents my awareness of a universally accepted and demonstrably true fact, whereas the second is simply an expression of my own conviction or belief. I have often thought that our profession would be a lot healthier if more people were clearer on the difference.
For the purposes of this discussion, I will distinguish between what “we know” as a profession and what “I know” as an individual practitioner. What “we know” is based on evidence from research, and what “I know” is based on my own experiences and observations.
So what do we know about language teaching and learning? What have the past fifty years of research into second language acquisition taught us? The answer, it seems, is “not much.” According to Jeremy Harmer, the reality is that:
“Despite various claims for various methods, we do not know how or why people learn languages, nor can we say with any absolute certainty which techniques are more or less successful.”
In the December 2000 issue of Applied Linguistics, Lightbown published a state-of-the-art article entitled “Classroom SLA research and second language teaching.” Based on her review of the field, she concluded that fifty years of SLA research has brought us such revelations as:
- Adults and adolescents can acquire a second language.
- Most adults are unable to achieve native-like mastery.
- The learner’s task is enormous because language is incredibly complex.
- Learners create a systematic interlanguage.
- There are predictable acquisition sequences in L2.
- Isolated error correction is not effective in changing short-term behavior.
As I’m sure most readers will notice, there is little here that is basically not just common sense, and there is nothing at all that would come as news to any experienced teacher.
So how important a contribution have researchers into SLA actually made to the ELT profession? While pointing out that SLA research can still be a useful source of ideas and information for teachers, Lightbown concludes suggests that:
“Teachers need to continue to draw on many other kinds of knowledge and experience in determining the teaching practices that are appropriate for their classroom.”
In a recent article called “‘More Research Is Needed’ – A Mantra Too Far?”, Maley points out that in order to be useful for teachers, research would need to be relevant, reliable, generalisable, accessible, and applicable. He goes on to explain why he feels that most SLA studies fail to meet any of these criteria, and he calls for a shift in focus to what he terms “inquiry” as an alternative to the more traditional model of research.
A further problem with SLA research is an over reliance on the results of single studies. In a 2015 review of research in psychology, Gilbert & Strohminger found that statistically significant results could be replicated in only around a third of cases. Their study was in a different field, but the problems they identified, including the pressure to produce “new” findings and the lack of glamor associated with replication studies, are just as applicable to the field of SLA.
In line with both Maley and Lightbown (I like to keep good company!), my argument is that teachers’ experiences and observations should be given a far greater weighting in the classroom than findings and evidence from research. I believe that teachers should be guided more by common sense, ideas, and insight than by edicts from the lofty world of academia. I suppose another way to put it would be that I am encouraging teachers to worry less about what “we know” and have the confidence to focus more on what “I know.”
In that spirit, here are five things that “I know” about teaching, and five more that “I know” about learning. In choosing to make a list of what “I know,” I am accepting that others may disagree, so please feel free to comment on any of the points raised below.
What I know about teaching
1. How to teach languages
The first thing I know is how to teach languages. This may sound like a grandiose claim, but I do not think that it is. If you gave me a class of five highly motivated learners of a similar ages and backgrounds and ability in the target language, six months of intensive classes, and unlimited financial resources, I would have no problem coming up with an effective program for them. If you visit a professionally run language school, you will hear teachers discussing various problems they are having with their classes, but “I do not know how to teach” will not normally be one of them. The problem is not that we do not know how to teach languages, but rather that we struggle to engage and hold the interest of diverse groups of people for the required length of time in a classroom environment. This may sound obvious, but I believe that it is an important distinction.
2. Motivation, motivation, motivation
The second thing I know is that motivation is the key to success in language learning. I can also list the conditions that need to be met for a person to feel motivated enough to commit to taking on a difficult challenge. These are basically that he or she must:
- view the goal as being sufficiently desirable or beneficial to outweigh the cost of achieving it.
- believe that the goal is achievable.
- be able to see a clear set of steps that need to be taken in order to reach the goal.
The biggest problem we have with English teaching here in Japan (and, I suspect, in other countries too) is the failure to meet the first of these conditions. Notwithstanding the endless rhetoric from the government and the media, the reality is that most Japanese people do not need to learn English. Most of them will work in Japanese companies, rarely venturing abroad, and almost never coming into contact with speakers of other languages. The futility of teaching English to Japanese people was recently brought home to me by a quote in an article that suggested Japanese people do not speak English because:
“They don’t need it. Everything is translated and most don’t interact with outsiders. So, mastering a complex foreign language wouldn’t be more useful to them than Japanese is to a Kansas farmer.”
I’m not sure why, but the image of a Kansas farmer struggling to learn Japanese really struck me. What a pointless waste of time that would be! Of course, there are many Japanese people who choose to learn English, but telling everyone that they need to learn it when the evidence shows quite clearly that they do not is never going to be a successful motivational strategy. And whilst I acknowledge that the situation may change in the future, if I were a Japanese student who did not want to learn, I would say, “Okay. I’ll learn it if and when that happens.”
3. Failure is the norm.
The third thing I know about language teaching is that when languages are taught to large numbers of adolescents in an academic setting, failure is the norm. This is true of almost every country I know, even when the language being taught shares an alphabet and a great deal of vocabulary with the students’ L1. The only countries that manage to teach languages successfully do so through both the education system and exposure to / need for that language in the wider society. In Japan, classes of 35-40 children who will probably never need English are taught complicated and technical grammar rules by teachers who often cannot speak the language. The only surprise here is not that most of them fail, but rather that a few of them succeed!
And of course, some of them do. I have two or three first-year students who are quite capable of holding a basic conversation in English. This is despite the fact that they had never studied abroad, never interacted with native speakers other than ALTs, or been to a conversation school. Even in the most unfavourable of environments, then, we will still find students who are able to succeed.
4. New is not always better.
The fourth thing I know about language teaching is that new is not necessarily better. Unfortunately, our profession has lurched from one fad to the next over the past fifty years, and even though the situation is better now, there is still a tendency to jump on “new” and “exciting” bandwagons. In spite of all the new materials and methods available to us now, and in spite of the fact that most of our students carry in their pocket free 24-hour access to an almost infinite range of language learning materials and resources, it does not seem to me that language teaching is any more successful now that it was in the 1970s, in the 1940s, or even, for that matter, in the days of Marco Polo. The key factors in language learning are motivation and need. When you have those, people will learn; when you don’t, they won’t. The role of teaching methods in the equation is far less important than we would like to admit.
5. Teachers matter more than methods.
The final thing I know about teaching is that “it ain’t what we do, it’s the way that we do it.” (For any younger readers, that is a reference to a song from the 1980s.) Enthusiasm, passion, and a genuine interest in our students as people has a far greater influence on the final outcome of any class than the materials or techniques used. I am often surprised at how many teachers worry about whether they are “doing the right things” and “using the right materials” in their classrooms. Of course, it is always helpful to have good materials and effective teaching methods, but what you do in the classroom will always be of secondary importance to the way you do it.
What I know about learning
1. How to learn a foreign language
So what do I know about learning? Well, in keeping with my first claim for what I know about teaching, I can say with a great deal of confidence that I know how to learn a foreign language. I know how to do this partly because I have watched other people do it, but mainly because I have done it myself. If someone told me that I was going to be required to learn a language I had never studied before in six months, I would have many misgivings about the project, but not knowing what to do would not be one of them. It’s a bit like dieting: if someone told me that I had to lose 10kg, the problem would lie with my ability to carry out the required actions, not with not knowing what needed to be done.
I have learned one foreign language successfully as an adult, but there are literally millions of others who have learned multiple languages, and some of them have been kind enough to write books very carefully explaining how they did it! For some reason, these types of publications are given less credence in our field because they are not “academic.” How silly would it be for a group of researchers who had never climbed a mountain to spend thousands of hours and dollars researching the best way to climb Everest while a book written by someone who had summitted that particular mountain five times lay unread on the library bookshelf? If you genuinely do not know how to learn a foreign language, please read Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner. Following the program outlined there will certainly and invariably lead to success. As with dieting, the problem lies not with not knowing what needs to be done, but with finding the motivation and ongoing commitment to do it.
2. Learn pronunciation first
The second thing I know about learning languages (and I am backed up here by Mr. Wyner) is that learning pronunciation first is the key to success in language learning. Making and recognising the sounds of another language or accent can be difficult, but it is not impossible. After all, as Mr. Wyner points out in his book, singers and actors do it all the time. Having good pronunciation makes it much easier to learn vocabulary and develop both speaking and listening skills, and it also has a huge effect on other people’s perception of your proficiency. This in turn will have an impact on your self-image as a speaker of that language, and it will motivate you to study and develop your skills further and further. If I were to take on the challenge of learning a new language now, my first step would be to get recordings of sentences and dialogs, and listen to them until I could mimic them more or less perfectly. I would do this before learning the meaning of a single word or grammar rule.
3. Time & effort
The third thing I know about learning languages is that for most people (me included), it requires a massive investment of time and effort. In addition, it is one of the most emotionally challenging things you can do. Language is a key component of our identity, and being forced as an adult to speak like a child and make stupid and often comical mistakes (for there is no other way!) can be confusing, embarrassing, and extremely frustrating. Of course, language learners will experience many positive emotions too, but if you are in it for the long haul, you had better prepare yourself for an emotional roller-coaster!
4. A role for decontextualised study
The fourth thing I know about learning is the way in which decontextualised study and extensive exposure to and use of the language in communicative settings work together to form a cycle of learning. Some people question the value of learning vocabulary from lists, or learning grammatical structures in a non-communicative way. In my own Japanese classes, I found the opportunity to practice manipulating structures extensively without any kind of communicative pressure to be invaluable. I also found that learning words from lists primed my brain to notice them when I met them in context or needed them for communication out in the “real” world. To my mind, there is no question that old-school methods such as drilling, substitution, and learning from lists still have a crucial role to play in the learning process.
5. The influence of my L1
The final thing I know about language learning is that whatever language I choose to learn, my L1 is going to have a big effect on my progress. Generally speaking, it will help me where it is similar to the target language, and it will hinder me where it is different. Because of this, many of the areas that are going to cause me difficulty are predictable, and I will be able to speed up my learning by focussing on them. The idea of “L1 interference” is a field that was treated as the Holy Grail of language learning for a short time back in the 1960s and 70s and then abandoned when it failed to provide all the answers. Fortunately, it has made something of a comeback as “cross-linguistic influence,” but I still do not think it is given the attention it deserves.
So, there are my ten points. It was very difficult to narrow this list down to just ten, and I’m sure that many of you will “know” things about teaching and learning that I have not mentioned, so please feel free to add them in the comments.