What does language learning hell look like?

Recently I have been thinking about what learning a new language should look like. As a secondary PGCE student I haven’t really got any time to do waste on things like this because I should be writing essays and planning lessons…  but I’m feeling self-indulgent so I’m going to run with it.

To start with I got thinking about what  happens when a student turns up at an average comprehensive to learn languages. What would I think of learning a language in the way many of us teach it to our students? This is what language learning hell would look like for me.

1. The teacher determines where the learning starts for me irrespective of my prior learning / ability. There is little meaningful discussion between myself and the  teacher about my current level, my motivation or my interests before teaching commences.

2. I have very little autonomy. The teacher chooses the subject and all materials. I am taught in chunks (my family, my bedroom) etc. I can say that my cupboard is opposite my chest of drawers but I have no idea when I would ever want to utter these words. (I suspect that the reason the teacher chooses these subjects is mainly habit (s/he has taught them before, or follows the textbook etc.)

3. I move through the syllabus at the same time and at the same pace as all the other pupils. Although weaker students in my class are given some support and more able pupils are given extension activities the materials, subjects and pace are  largely the same for most of us and are solely dictated by the teacher.

4. I am not encouraged to become independent of the teacher. Materials and exercises are simply provided for me by the teacher and I am told when to start and when to stop working on them. The reason for many of these exercises is unclear.  I am not expected to bring to class my own ideas for the topics or mediums (film, stories, news, music?) that I would like to explore to learn about the language and culture I am studying.

5. I am not given explicit information on how to learn a language. I am not made aware of strategies for learning vocabulary or useful multimedia resources. The link between words and sounds is not explored in my classes.

6. There is little space built into the schemes of work for reflection, self / peer assessment and teacher assessment of my work. Following assessment I am given little information about the mistakes I have made.The teacher does not point me towrds information or exercise to correct these mistakes.  Instead my progress is described to me by national curriculum level which I have little interest in or understanding of.

Sounnds pretty bad right?…and pretty familiar?

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5 Responses to What does language learning hell look like?

  1. missgmfl says:

    Very familiar indeed. I still think that the textbooks can be the biggest problem, and I think there needs to be more grammar, not less! I’m tired of being asked what the word for “and” is by students who have had many years of French. The problem is that the words and phrases are memorised and the patterns not explored. They need to know what a verb is, how it works and how to make it work for them!

  2. Yeah the textbooks are defnately a big part of the problem…I think we’re at the stage where textbook based lessons have been taught for so long that lots of teachers don’t know where to start teaching without them. Unfortunately as someone who has learned from these teachers. I’m not sure quite what I should be doing either. I just know I can’t keep teaching like this without weeping.

    I couldn’t agree more the grammar is the subject. How we manage to ignore it and treat language as a series of stand alone phrase to be memorised is beyond me. In our lessons everyone can say or write some phrases by the end of the lesson…yipee! But do they understand it? Can they remember it in a month’s time?…err…no because we haven’t analysed the structures and so many students haven’t got the basics. Plus we’ve completely ignored the way that the mind retains isolated pieces of knowledge if not reviewed.

    I actually think that objectives are part of the problem too. They make demonstrable and even progress the aim of the lesson. I can demonstrate that students can use a set of phrases fairly simply by the end of the lesson. (Tick box!) But demonstrating real learning like when a pupil makes a breakthrough in understanding the way that language is put together is not easy or entirely predictable. It certainly desn’t take place at the same rate for all students. (No tick for you my friend).

  3. missgmfl says:

    I tend to agree about objectives. I don’t think that they’re useful, for the same reason as you. Yes, they can all write a sentence with “je voudrais” but who cares? They still couldn’t tell me they’d like a drink of water the next lesson.

  4. Love this post, Tom, great work. It hit home for me on many different levels.

  5. Sean says:

    Thanks for comments … Really interesting post and great to hear you find my blog useful. I agree with all of these: especially number 4. It sounds like you’re going to be a definite asset to the profession if you’re aim is to avoid all 6. Are you on Twitter? There’s a link to a group of similar-minded MFL teachers on the 1st post on my blog – have a look when you get a chance.
    Good luck with all the future

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