Friday, 30 January 2009

More Language Learning for Dummies

‘I have this private student and I can’t do anything with him. Τίποτα, μα τίποτα, σας λέω. Nothing, nothing, but nothing. He won’t learn anything, ΤΙ-ΠΟ-ΤΑ, E-NEE-THING’

Have you tried X?

‘Βεβαίως! Of course! NOTHING!’

How about Y?

‘Sure I have! Δεν κάθεται να μάθει! He won’t learn, he just won’t learn, he won’t…’

Why don’t you give Z a go?

‘I HAVE! Of course I have, he’s just…’

This is the sort of spiralling conversation you can get into at coffee after conducting a ELT seminar in Greece, unless you beat a retreat as soon as it ends. Someone comes to pick your brain about the problems she is having with her A/B/C/D class or recalcitrant private student, and whatever you suggest she try, you can bet she’s done it and then some. You cannot say anything of any moment, because you know nothing about the teacher or her students. If you probe a bit, you often find it is the teacher and not the student that is the root of the problem. Of course this is an insight you must not impart, especially if the seminar is organised by OUP and they are paying for the coffee and sticky cakes, your fee, your transport, your hotel room and your wine-sodden dinner tonight. ‘YOU are the fucking problem, sweetheart, I wouldn’t let you into a school to hoover the reception, let alone TEACH!’ No. They wouldn’t ask you back after that.

I recall just such an exchange as the one above with a boundlessly confident young lady of twenty or so. A boy of thirteen had been entrusted to her for private remedial lessons, and she was failing to get through to him, or as she saw it, he was failing to read her. It turned out she was using a book called ‘You and Me’, written for ten year-olds and featuring stories of clowns and birthday parties, and songs such as ‘A Red Balloon, a Blue Balloon’ and ‘Wiggly Wiggly Worm’. Lack of commitment on the part of a lad on the verge of a testosterone explosion should therefore not come as a surprise. This was not the young lady’s fault. She was barely more than a kid herself, and had no background in methodology. The school owner who passed the boy and the book on to her should have been sentenced to a year learning Inuktitut, using similar materials.

The idea that in language learning, ‘beginner’ equals ‘child’ is silly but widespread. A colleague who taught at the Bank of Greece discovered in her classroom materials left behind by a Greek teacher of Italian:

Io sono un ragazzo
Vado alla scuola
Questo è il mio libro

I am a boy
I go to school
This is my book

This had been presented to a group of middle-aged, middle-management bank employees. Did they feel patronized by it, as they had every right to? Or did they merely accept that as beginners, theirs was but to grin and bear it? I suspect the latter. If you suggested to the teacher that she might consider slotting new vocabulary items into the structures so that they read:

I am a bank manager.
I work in Athens.
This is my card.

I would lay odds you would provoke a squall of defensiveness. If French, as Henry Miller says in The Colossus of Marousi, is the language par excellence for garlands, Greek is second to none for self-righteous indignation.

Does it not seem obvious that language learning materials should be what they call ‘age-appropriate’, and reflect the concerns and topics that the student is going to need to think and talk about? Most modern EFL material from international publishers is well adapted to the requirements of specific groups of learners, but so much material for other languages is still stuck somewhere in the fifties. I have a book called Colloquial Albanian, from Routledge, dating from the last decade of the 20th century. It could have been written at the same time as the mouldering, fraying Latin text books we had at school, that went on about girls killing snakes in the woods, and wolves killing boys or boys killing wolves, just to demonstrate Latin case endings. Every development in language teaching since 1970 seems to have passed the author by. If you study it diligently from start to finish, you will have a thorough knowledge of the placing of Albanian adjectival clitics, which are four heavily-overworked particles that come between a noun and an adjective and reflect the noun’s gender, case, number and definiteness or indefiniteness – this is riveting stuff I’m talking about here. You will have a good line in tame, school-masterly jokes, which the author uses for reading comprehension. What you won’t be able to do when you get to Tirana is order a coffee, ask for directions if you get lost, book a hotel room, complain if it is not clean, order a meal, explain your symptoms to a doctor, book a ferry ticket, cash a traveller’s cheque or indeed anything at all necessary or useful to the visitor to a foreign country.

I mean, for God’s sake, what goes through publishers’ minds when they commission this stuff? ‘Minority language – fuck it, get some old bugger who’s been trotting out the same-old same-old for the last 35 years to cobble his materials together, and see who notices.’

Well, I did, and I am not impressed. So if Routledge want me as a consultant, they can e-mail me and we’ll see what we can arrange.


Bo said...

From an Irish course:

Translate into Irish; 'All the old people here are dead, and all the young people have moved to Dublin.'

vilges suola said...

Oh, brilliant!

I had a Teach yourself German book when I was twelve or so and the first three chapters went on and on about baker's boys sending apples to the farmer's sons. I never did like German much. Perhaps that's why.

JFS said...

There is more to life than just sex:

Vilges Suola said...

Well, who'd disagree with that, JFS? And who suggested otherwise?

Marin said...

albanian is hard , not many albanians speak proper albanian to begin with!
check out that forum should be useful.



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