Or, “Airing My Dirty Language-Learning Laundry.” I am not an exemplary language student myself. Through what I learned about good pedagogy during my MATESOL program, I concluded that most of my language teachers had not been trained in language pedagogy. However, I know lots of people who have become fluent in another language in far worse situations, so much of the blame should rest with me. I’m sure I’ve gotten some of the details wrong, but while my history of false starts has left me unable to speak anything except English fluently, it has also helped me understand some of the problems that my students have.
Very few American public elementary schools offer foreign language classes. I remember random Spanish lessons during elementary school, and my mom taught me a few words in Spanish. I was interested in languages and was childishly proud of my ability to tell which languages random foreign words came from, but we always lived in linguistically homogeneous environments. I don’t remember having any classmates who had non-English home languages until I got to junior high, when I met LoAn from Vietnam. (For some reason she asked me to help her with her English, so after I finished our tedious typing class assignments–yes, I know, typing class!–I’d type a note to her and drop it in her locker. Did I have “Embryonic ESL Teacher” tattooed on my forehead?)
My junior high in Fayetteville, Arkansas, didn’t offer any full language classes, which is also fairly typical. We could take a half-school-year “mini-course” consisting of a few weeks each in German, French, and Spanish, from the same teacher. We learned basic tourist phrases. I don’t remember anything about Señor Reyes’ methods or how easy or hard it was, but I wasn’t really taken with any of the languages. I didn’t study languages during high school because I decided to do home-schooling with my parents. Neither of them are fluent in another language, but they would have supported me if I’d wanted to get training software and a tutor. I’m not sure why I didn’t…other than that I was used to an English-only environment and had not yet contemplated international travel myself. (All too typical of an American.)
In college, I signed up for Mandarin Chinese. I was studying gongfu (“kung fu”) at the time, but it was a bit of a tossup for me between Chinese and Japanese. I was in an honors program and had scholarships to maintain, so my mother was concerned that I might damage my grades by studying a non-European, and presumably more difficult, language. I stuck to my guns, though. My Chinese teacher was a kind Chinese woman who was trying very hard, but she had no training in teaching languages. She worked from those ancient, terrible, green textbooks that are (I think) officially approved by the People’s Republic of China. Many of my classmates had parents who spoke Chinese, or were native speakers themselves of another Chinese dialect. The rest of us learned painfully, at a snail’s pace, somewhere in the realm of grammar translation. I stuck with it for four years, though the university didn’t support a full set of classes and I probably got the equivalent of two years of instruction. When a Chinese person asked me a question at a class outing, I was paralyzed and couldn’t answer.
Somehow, when I enrolled in my East Asian Studies master’s program, I passed the Chinese placement test with flying colors. This was a fluke; a Taiwanese co-worker of mine had been helping me prep and we had covered some of the exact grammar points that were on the test, which I promptly forgot how to use the next day. I tested out of my language requirement and was assigned to an advanced Chinese class. This class was taught in Chinese. I went to the first day of class and fled it afterward. I couldn’t understand anything the teacher said, nor read anything on the handouts. Language ego sorely bruised, I dropped the class in a panic and was far too embarrassed to sign up for a level below that class. It was a dumb decision, but the feelings I experienced during this incident have really helped me empathize with the panic my students sometimes feel.
Later I applied for a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowship to study in Taiwan at Tai Da’s International Chinese Language Program. I got the fellowship and went to Taipei for three months, studying with a mix of college and grad students from all over the world. I had to start over a bit with traditional Chinese characters, but I probably learned more there than I did in my entire previous history. However, that was mostly just from living there, going out, and doing things, I think. Unfortunately, ICLP (at the time) relied largely on the audiolingual method plus the direct method. Classes were taught in Chinese, and we spent long hours nodding off while listening to tapes in the language lab. Readings were terribly dull (focused on politics and economics, as I recall) and no lesson content was ever customized to the students’ interests. Attempts at immersion backfired: Only Mandarin could be spoken in the building, and this was such a psychological strain that all of us reverted to our native languages or English once we got outside. The student teachers were enthusiastic and kind, but they were hampered by outdated methods. I hope the program has modernized in the last few years. At any rate, my memories of studying overseas have been incredibly helpful in helping me empathize and connect with my students, so I’m glad I went.
After taking a leave from that MA program, I began to realize that Chinese was probably not the best language choice for me. I’m a highly visual and textual learner, so the steep learning curve for written Chinese is a major problem for me. I decided to take a Japanese course through UC Berkeley extension and really enjoyed it, although I didn’t retain much due to some health problems. When I later started my MA in TESOL, I took advantage of the unit cap (the point at which you can take extra classes without paying for them, if you’re not an international student–unfair!). I took three quarters of Japanese, which was, shockingly, all that CSUEB offered at the time. The head instructor was terrific. She had a master’s in TJSOL from SFSU, one of the few schools in the US that offers degrees in Japanese language pedagogy. She was full of teaching ideas, from creative mnemonics (which finally let me quickly memorize all the shapes of the two syllable-based writing systems) to the use of TPR. It was the first time in my life I saw TPR “in the wild!” This was the best language-learning experience I’ve ever had, and I was sorely disappointed that I couldn’t take more than one year.
Now I find myself faced with the same problem of self-study that many of my students face. I yearn to express my opinions in Japanese, order food, read books, watch movies, and travel freely in Japan. But … I can’t afford a tutor; I could exchange hours with a student, but I really want somebody who’s had language pedagogy training. I’ve amassed countless Japanese textbooks and guides and programs and audio files, but I rarely use them. I am terrible at forcing myself to sit down with a textbook, and I’m not sure how effective that is, anyway. I’ve been considering taking Japanese classes at a highly regarded community college in my area that offers a full slate of Japanese classes, but my plans for this fall are up in the air (and it’s a long commute). I’ve also toyed with the idea of trying to save up enough to study in Japan, but I don’t want to go to another language school that is unaware of the principles of communicative language teaching. (The Aichi-area institute that is frequently recommended to me looks good in many ways but will only say that they use “the direct method.” The direct method, focusing on instruction in the target language, is insufficient to form an entire pedagogical approach. Even that’s ahead of most of the schools that still dwell in Audiolingual and Grammar-Translation Land, but I keep hoping to find an actual CLT-aware school. If you have any suggestions, please leave me a comment or send me an e-mail!)
Anyway, while I agonize over these choices, I’ve finally found one set of tools that is helpful for a text-oriented person like me. I’ll write about that in a future post, because this one is already far too long.
What’s your language-learning history? Reflecting on mine was a part of my MA program, and I think it’s been very helpful to me in forming my teaching philosophy. It also helps me establish a connection with my students. How about you?