Some lessons from my own language learning experience

Posted: March 23, 2014 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my tortuous path in learning German. It seems to be a showcase of  non-mainstream techniques and absolutely none of it was ‘traditional communicative classroom’ learning. I owe a large proportion of non-standard techniques and little tweaks that I use in my teaching to that experience. However, I also probably owe it a bunch of teaching insecurities and a lot of my own bias against some (possibly, effective) techniques. I was going through some of my German notes recently, and what I noticed there prompted me to write this post.

Period 1. ‘Grammar-translation’. I studied German for 3 years in secondary school (grades 5, 6 and 7). I don’t remember much about the lessons but I do remember we did some grammar exercises, some coursebook reading and some dictations. I remember lexical notebooks with lists of words with translations (the reason I remember that particular notebook is that there was a ‘cartoon’: if your flipped through the pages fast enough you could see a figure ski down a slope). The only lesson I remember was our teacher inviting a native speaker to give us a dictation. The whole group was in a state of shock: we couldn’t understand a single word. He read the 3-sentence text once or twice (totally incomprehensibly), and then our teacher read it again and it was crystal-clear. The second thing I remember was a poetry reading contest. I spend several days memorizing a 3-stance poem (it went ‘Der Sommer ist die schönste Zeit.. and then something else).

The outcome? During summer vacation after the seventh grade I made friends with a boy who was Russian but looked distinctively foreign. He told me that he knew English and that, whenever someone was criticizing him on the bus, he’d reply in English and pretend not to understand. This aroused my curiosity about foreign languages and I started reviewing what I myself could say. With English (which I had been studying since 2nd grade), it turned out I knew something like 100 words, could use only present simple, and also I was unsure how vocabulary was to be spellt (e.g. ‘cup’ or ‘cap’?) With German, the only thing I could say was ‘Ich heiße Olga’ (My name is Olga). So much for 3 years of studying.

Lessons learnt. As a teacher, this experience made me painfully aware of just how inefficient some teaching methods can be. In particular, it made me very wary of teaching anything that’s not perceived as relevant by the students. It also made me very wary of doing anything that didn’t comply with my teaching beliefs, which came from my subsequent successful English-learning experience and went along ‘language should be used for communication and students should be encouraged to think in English’. As a result, in my first years of teaching very often I just couldn’t bring myself to doing a sequence from the coursebook, in part because some of that content was seemingly irrelevant to my students, and in part because in my opinion some of those exercises didn’t make methodological sense. It wasn’t arrogance of any sort – more like I mistrusted the materials so much that I felt my students would sense that and I just wouldn’t be able to pull it off.

Period 2. Grammar-translation + motivation + a bit of audio input. The second time I attempted to learn German was when I made a German friend at a student school. I knew I’d meet him again in 6 months so I decided to learn some German while we chatted online in English (ironically, I suspect that it was these 6 months of chats that really boosted my English from B2 to around C1-C2). What I did was read a bit (this proved very effective for learning the initial stock of around 300 words in no time), take around 10 hours of lessons with a private tutor (grammar-translation type of lessons again – and despite the 3 years at school we had to start from scratch), attempt to work with some grammar books and memorize vocabulary. I also listened to an audiocourse for German learners based around funny sketches (called Wie so nicht?) and ‘spoke’ to myself in German quite a lot.

The outcome. When I went to the second student school to Germany after six months of studies, I didn’t feel that I’d progressed enough to communicate. I did try to speak once (not with the friend who inspired the learning, though) and apparently I could say something but my grammar was atrocious.

Period 3. Input flood + some grammar awareness. I gave German up for a few years and when I took it up again, I listened to a few ‘stage 1’ graded readers, loved them and then just found a Harry Potter audiobook that I knew almost by heart in English and tried to listen to it over and over again. Initially, when I played a random file I could only roughly guess which scene it was. I kept listening to it on my way to and from work, 2 or 3 hours a day and bit by bit I understood more and more. It was a like one big puzzle: I suddenly understood what this or that expression must mean and then understood it later on, which would give me enough context to guess what something else meant. By the end I was more or less able to understand every sentence, and I started listening to other unabridged audiobooks created for German children. The only productive practice I had during that period was predicting the next sentence in the audiobook and doing an acclaimed audio course by Michelle Thomas (I absolutely loved that course. It’s mainly based on oral translation exercises). I also tried to learn some vocabulary, in particular word genders, using Super Memo (spaced repetition) software, but it wasn’t that successful.

The outcome? A few months of listening to audiobooks boosted my passive vocabulary (although it was incredibly difficult to recall words when I wanted to say something and I was never sure how to conjugate verbs or gender the nouns where). This also brought my Listening (and Reading) skills to around B1 (I coped easily with graded audiobooks at that level). Moreover, in contrast with my previous attempts to learn the language, the skills seemed to stay with me and I still could understand German speech after another long break in studies.

Lessons learnt: One of the biggest challenges of teaching in a monolingual environment is that very often students don’t come in contact with any English between classes. Moreover, when they come to private language schools they expect the class itself to be mainly based around speaking activities, so they do not encounter long texts or listening passages in class either.  I spent months reading ELT literature trying to find proof that extensive input was a pre-requisite for successful language learning. Most researchers just write something along these lines: ‘It’s widely accepted that learners need a rich and meaningful exposure to language in use’ but ‘widely accepted’ isn’t convincing enough to persuade my super-busy Business English learners to find time for reading and watching videos in English. The consideration that does work for them is that that the parts of the brain involved in grammatical processing are not the same parts of the brain where ‘grammar rules’ are stored and, as it turns out, acquisition of grammar requires extensive input, as grammar processing is in part developed by a ‘pattern recognition’ mechanism which feeds on input and requires noticing language in input. This is an argument they buy – and once they do, I suggest a few specific strategies for them, which are outlined in this post.

With my secondary school students, I just established an ‘extensive reading programme’: I bought some 30 graded readers and around 15 unabridged books and I ask them to pick a book at least three times a year, read it and give it a rating and/or write a short review.

Lessons not learnt: I absolutely loved Michel Tomas’s course, and it showed me that oral translation exercises of incremental difficulty are both useful and enjoyable. I felt that three aspects of the course were extremely significant: first, I was formulating full sentences, not just conjugated the verb to fill a gap. Second, I translated orally. Third, I got immediate feedback. Fourth, I was able to control the pace and replay/redo some lessons if I felt I hadn’t mastered the topic. However, for some reason (mainly because I’m not sure how to implement that working in a group) I haven’t incorporated translation or the other principles into my teaching. Initially I was very enthusiastic about creating an adaptive learning environment for my students, but I never figured out how to approach this.

Period 4. Community language learning + the keyword technique In the summer of 2012 I attended a fascinating workshop on the Keyword technique, which is a vocabulary learning technique based on visual associations. The trainer , who’d developed his own variation of the technique, made a claim that was quite difficult to believe, saying that using the technique it was possible to memorize around 100 words an hour and, with the right approach to revision, retain most of that vocabulary for a long time. By that time I’d started teaching English so I decided to revive my German  in order to experiment with the technique and maybe teach it to my students.

To do that I found a native speaker to talk with over skype. Because my primary goal was to test the vocabulary learning technique, what I was trying to achieve was have a (longish) list of vocabulary to learn after each lesson. What we decided to do was to talk and, as soon as I needed an expression, I’d ask for it and Sevi would write up a German equivalent in a Google document. If I wasn’t sure how to use the expression, I’d try it out in my own examples/ask Sevi to give me some more examples. Then I’d learn that vocabulary.

Here’s what this typically looked like:

+Ich mache alles auf den letzten Drücker.= at the last minute
+Ich brauche diesen Zeitdruck
+der Zeitdruck= pressure of time
+Das ist kein Thema. that’s ok
+etwas verschieben put off
+auf einen späteren Zeitpunkt verlegen
+Wegen des Regens, …
+es is Sehr lange her way back
+die Handlung plot
+Es ist lange her, dass der Film gedreht wurde.
+Der Film wurde in XXX gedreht.
+das dauert 5 bis 10 Minuten je nachdem, ob ich …
+befassen sich mit (deal with)
+Fachbereich – факультет
+ich studiere in Fachbereich A
+im Allgemeinen in general
Here’s the rest of the file: Deutsch with Sevi

The outcome. The outcome was exhilarating. Before the first lesson I was terrified because that was the second time ever I’d try to speak to a person and I didn’t really think I’d be able to say anything. Within five or six 60-minute lesson I started to feel quite confident talking. It was pretty easy to memorize the expressions using the technique (I never sped up to 100 words/hour, more like 65 expressions/90 minutes, but then those were full expressions and not separate words). There were three interesting things I noticed. First, in the second and third lessons almost every single sentence I was trying to say contained a bit learnt in the first lesson. Secondly, sometimes there were expressions that I couldn’t remember but as soon as Sevi told me I realized that I knew them. Initially I told her not to add those to the file. Soon though it became apparent that I’d need for such an expression to come up five or more time to stop forgetting it, whereas the ones that I’d memorized and revised I was able to retrieve. So deciding not to learn & revise a word because you ‘kind of know’ it is really counterproductive. The same went for correction: she would correct the same mistake over and over again, and the way for me to progress was to write an expression down and learn it.

Also, in my search for vocabulary to learn, I tried to look for some interesting vocabulary in films / the first Harry Potter book. I brought those to lessons and we would discuss how to use those expressions. In general, I’d say that that was much less efficient and that language was definitely much less memorable and more confusing than language that came out of our conversations.

Lessons learnt. Around that time I was teaching a Business course in-company and attendance hit a record low, with only one student attending for 3 or 4 classes. That particular students had severe problems with accuracy (which was below the level of the group and I hadn’t been able to address that previously very well when there were other people attending). So I seized the opportunity to do a lot of mistake correction with  him and capture his output in a Microsoft Word document, along with ideas how to upgrade his language, in a similar way to how Sevi was capturing mine. This resulted in a mini-miracle: the student started to speak much more confidently and more accurately in a matter of several classes and he was extremely happy and enthusiastic about getting this kind of feedback. So when another three course participants finally started attending I had no other choice but to keep doing the same thing with the group.

Since then I’ve started capturing learner output with all my adult groups, and I’d say this is one most important tweak I’ve done to my teaching as a result of my own language learning experience. I was a bit wary of doing that because typing something on a laptop while students are talking would look a bit odd, but as soon as it’s clear for them what I’m doing they start to expect me to type the feedback an not slack off :). Here’s what typical output looks like:
It’s used at the end of the lesson as a bit of review and at the start of the next lesson as a mini test – a routine that the students respond very well to. What impressed me the most was that, while my adult students consistently refuse to do any homework from coursebooks, most of them do find the time to revise this personalized feedback and do cope with the mini tests/reuse this language in speech.

Lessons learnt only partially. Learning that much vocabulary relevant for me in a matter of weeks was only made possible because I constantly code-switched (switched to English to explain what expression I was looking for). I do allow my students to code-switch occasionally, making sure that that language makes it to the file with feedback, but for my students lessons have never turned into what my German lessons were for me: actively using communication to identify as many gaps in my knowledge as possible and immediately getting feedback on how to fill those gaps.

Lessons not learnt. Recently I was looking through the notes of my first ever lesson with Sevi and this was the first time I analyzed what language came up in her feedback. There are several clear groups of expressions.

Apart from ‘topic-specific’ lexis (we were talking about my job teaching teens) there was

  • language to talk about feelings/evaluating experiences (it was ok/worst of all was that../it was terrible/ it was challenging )
  • along the same lines, some sentence adverbs: (unfortunately/ luckily/mostly / also / at least)
  • a lot of meta-language to clarify the use of some expressions and manage the lesson (informal/this isn’t used like that/irregular comparative forms/I’ll delete that/cross that out)
  • a lot of expressions to compensate for lack of vocabulary (this is something like…/the opposite of…/I can’t think of a good English equivalent-word/there’s no equivalent in English)

In my own courses, out of these four groups only meta-language (‘classroom language’) features early on in the syllabus. Compensatory strategies feature too (students play ‘taboo’ and other guessing games), but the range of expressions usually taught is somewhat more restricted.

Summary. My experience learning German was so long and non-uniform that it’s really difficult to draw any conclusions. Regarding methodology, I can see that a lot of what I do in class is still at odds with my learning experience – the fact that pushes me to dig further into methodology books looking for some definitive answers. Where I find that I was proved right by research I immediately let my students know (in particular, I spend the entire first 90-minute lesson nowadays discussing the mechanics of how languages are acquired and the value of revision and input – TED talks made by successful language learners are of immense help here; I also spend 90 minutes practicing the keyword technique in class). In general I’d say that quite a lot of my own intuitions are borne out by research – e.g. a while ago I found this fascinating presentation by Magnus Coney called ‘How we learn’ in which he surveys some 20+ articles and quite a lot of what he found resonated with me: Still, after writing so much on ‘lessons not learnt’ here I’ll probably soon be experimenting again..


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