Archive for August 26th, 2008

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Beauty within Boredom – Learning English

The more I’m teaching, the more I’m thinking about the old people who were teaching me when I was growing up. Teaching languages comes with as little grammar as possible these days. That is a directive that is even compulsory for teachers in certain educational institutions. Grammatical errors made by the students have to be tolerated and mostly ignored, as long as the intented meaning of the clause still comes across.

Of course, to heed the directive doesn’t mean that I don’t have my own opinion about it. I believe that there are natural learners of English – those who watch CNN or BBC World at home or – even better – listen to radio stations like the BBC World Service, for example. When there is that much interest, language skills are likely to come naturally anyway. And even without that intensive exposure to a foreign language like English, there are still learners who don’t need rules and whose intuition guides them pretty well, especially after a few years of learning.

But there are different types of learners. Not only natural born learners need to learn foreign languages. And talking from my own experience, let me tell you this:

An old woman taught us English when we were some thirteen or fourteen years old. She was nice, old-fashioned, and sometimes incredibly boring. We had to learn grammar from huge tables, and she definitely took it too far once in a while, even for people like me who loved rules. She was sort of a barefoot teacher, with only a basic training to teach, but certainly with a good command of English herself.

After two years, a studied teacher who knew everything about modern training methodology took over from her. Hardly any grammar any more (but we had had our fill of that anyway, basically all of us), and lots of fascinating stories from American and British history, culture and folk instead. Songs, too. Every now and then, he brought his guitar along. I guess we all enjoyed his lessons better than the ones of the old lady who had preceded him.

But personally, I believe I can say that the mix of sometimes lackluster training during the preceding two years, and the fun of the two following them was exactly what I needed. With a secure feeling about word order and tenses, I enjoyed the new, fascinating and complex topics all the more, and some cool phrasal verbs led to real sense of achievement.

That said, I know that not every learner is a learner of my type. Ignoring that would make me a rather bad teacher. And I also understand that these days, even most of those students who could really use a good set of rules do need a sense of achievement from day one all the same. But I believe at the same time that this kind of impatience and unwillingness to live with some frustrations and uncertainties for a while is one of our biggest collective weaknesses.

And the directive that basically condemns every bit of good old-style grammar only seems to reflect that.

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