I'm Glad I'm Not A Language Teacher

Here in our organization in China I get a lot of emails and reports with very poor English and the oral English skills also leave a lot to be desired. Knowing a thing or two about language learning I offered my advice. I put together a ppt-presentation basically summarizing the mainstream consensus view on learning held by the likes of Luca, Richard and many other language learning experts. I have tried to establish an English learning regime and three weeks or so into the program I have to say it is really a sobering experience.

These are engineers, grown adults, they won’t fight in class, they won’t insult me, they all understand the importance of English for their careers, but I found it really disappointing how little I seem to be able to motivate them to put in the hours of their own time. I showed them all the great modern tools like dictionary software, sites with conent, my wordlists, even Lingq. But genuine interest in language learning really seems something we need to be born with. Take Luca, he was interested from a very early age on, so was I. I never was into collecting stamps and probably never will be. I guess I was just born that way.

Yesterday we had a farewell party in our company for two expats who will leave the Chinese organization. I took a look around the room. None of these American, German, French expats has come even remotely close to speaking Chinese, and that after many years with an expensive private teacher. Listening to all these polyglot interviews lately, with Luca and Richard I had something of an epiphany moment. There is no secret behind learning a language, it is a very clear process. But it also dawned on me how little the teacher can really do, all the heavy lifting has to be done by the student, and I find there is only very little one can do to turn on their switches.

When I meet these Chinese teachers for western expats, I sometimes ask them how they cope with the lack of real success, you know like a student that goes from no knowledge to a decent level in Chinese that he can use in his work. To me that is the positive feedback that everyone needs in order to feel good about one’s work. I don’t know how they do it.

And I’m glad to be a language teacher!
It encourages not only my student, but also me when my student starts to speak a new language making gradually less and less mistakes.
However, I can understand your doubts because we -teachers- will be able to do very little if our students aren’t ready to learn. The most important condition of all activity and especially language studying is a high desire of learners to study and to be taught.

“There is no secret behind learning a language, it is a very clear process. But it also dawned on me how little the teacher can really do, all the heavy lifting has to be done by the student, and I find there is only very little one can do to turn on their switches.”

I completely agree with this. I think it applies to learning just about anything, not just languages.

Evgueny says: “The most important condition of all activity and especially language studying is a high desire of learners to study and to be taught.”

Everyone at LingQ is sooo easy to teach, because everyone at LIngQ has chosen to learn.

I used to be a lecturer at a British university at the bottom of the league tables. Over 50 % of our students were there because no other universities would take them and they weren’t ready to work for a living. I felt I taught them almost nothing, it seemed that the harder I worked to make it interesting, the more determined they were to learn nothing. It was as if they had psyched themselves up to failing, and passing a module or two would only confuse their senses of identity.

Possibly expat engineers have a subconscious fear that if they put real effort into learning a foreign language it will seduce them from their real task of being a good engineer. There’s little a teacher can do against that kind of mental block.

@Friedemann: “…But genuine interest in language learning really seems something we need to be born with. Take Luca, he was interested from a very early age on, so was I. I never was into collecting stamps and probably never will be. I guess I was just born that way.”

This is very interesting. In my own case, I would say it was a kind if intellectual curiosity which first seriously drew me to foreign languages when I was in my late teens. Basically I wanted to feel and experience what it was like to speak and think outside of English.

The further I have come over the years, the more I have moved towards the view that languages are very much like women(!) In other words: some of them you want to be with and some you don’t. And there is often no rational basis for the attraction or lack thereof - it is simply either there or not there.

In the past I have played around with language X or language Y on the basis of how many native speakers it has, etc. But I can now see that an approach like that is pretty hollow. One really has to be driven by pure passion, I think.

There may well be such a thing as a ‘business marriage’ to a particular language - but in that case there would surely have to be a very real and pressing utilitarian need. (Friedemann’s engineers, for example, obviously didn’t really and truly need to learn Chinese for their work - so they didn’t find the motivation to do so.)

In my case, it wasn’t until my early 20’s that I became interested in languages. I’d heard them all of my life (and enjoyed the sounds of them) but I’d never been interested in learning them.

Definitely 20 when i got into language learning(2 years ago) here. I guess a teacher’s job can be to spark an interest, but sometimes its like trying to light wet paper.

Language teaching can certainly be frustrating. I’ve worked as a language teacher for 10 years. The students who pay a lot of money to study abroad full-time at a language school are generally motivated and do well. But they’re paying to spend 20 or 30 hours a week in a constructed immersion environment, so it’s hard to not get better. This is also, I’ve found, the most interesting and rewarding environment in which to work.

In most other situations, the results are not great. One other factor to consider is how much work is required to get to decent level in the language. Here in Japan, there are expats who consider it, and just decide that the amount of effort required to learn Japanese is more than they’re willing to put in. They may not use Japanese at work, and their spouses may not be Japanese. On top of that, they are probably not going to live in Japan forever, and they may have no special interest in Japanese, not having chosen to come here in the first place. I’m sure it’s the same for China. If these expats were in a Spanish-speaking country, they might be more likely to have a go at it as it would be easier for them. I can’t really blame these expats. They’re busy, and there are only so many hours in a day. People have to allocate their time according to their own priorities.

For the Chinese people, it’s probably a case of them being busy. I know that most Japanese workers simply don’t have the free time that would be required to seriously try to learn English. I don’t know if Chinese people put in the very long hours that Japanese people do, but I imagine that they work a lot. I’m actually impressed with how much free-time study (of various topics) Japanese workers manage to do despite spending so much time in the office. I’ve had students who work 7 days a week, sleep 4 hours a night, and still take time out for English study. It’s pretty incredible.

On top of that, they’re probably used to a very different language learning paradigm. They’ve spent years in school memorizing word lists and grammar rules and whatnot. The idea that you can just expose yourself to a language and gradually get used to it probably seems pretty weird. It takes more than 3 weeks for these concepts to sink in. It really is a paradigm shift, and it takes time for that to happen.

In Japan, I find that most of my work involves convincing people of the importance of actually spending time with the language, and that they are capable of understanding the language directly if they choose appropriate content. This is not easy to do. However, I’ve found that people do eventually respond and give it a try. I’ve found a lot of intermediate-level learners are willing to try re-watching their favourite movies with English subtitles instead of Japanese ones. This can be a good place to begin. If people are interested, they can trade graded reading material with each other.

Maybe I am wrong but I think lots of successful language learners do a lot of pleasure reading even if it is in their mother tongue. At least friends of mine (I mean bilingual ones) read a lot in general.

I’ve always thought that a foreign language cannot be taught, it has to be learned instead. If the person who is learning the language is not interested or doesn’t do his/her part, then there is not much hope. In fact, regarding to foreign languages in my opinion the words “guide” or “tutor” would be more suitable instead of “teacher”.

Merla, I think that’s absolute garbage. Some students are a waste of a teacher’s time. They don’t care to learn or even respect those who do. There are many bad students.

Makacenko, I certainly love reading in my own language - when I have the chance. Pleasure reading and reading for information/understanding. Alas, it’s a lot of work learning 3 languages so I’ve shifted particularly my pleasure reading to the Dutch language, which I understand well enough now to do such a thing.

(Here I am making a distinction between reading for entertainment and for knowledge.)

I also have to disagree with the idea that there are no bad students. On the other hand, I would say that there are lots of people who fail to learn foreign languages through no fault of their own. They do what they are told to do by their schools/teachers, but they still don’t learn because they are told to do things that are not effective. These people are not bad students. Nevertheless, there are plenty of people who are in languages classes (sometimes voluntarily, often not) who simply don’t put any effort into it.

I haven’t seen a study correlating people’s reading habits and their success in foreign languages learning. That would be interesting. Certainly most people using LingQ would be people who enjoy reading. However, I’ve had students who’ve been successful in language learning who don’t like to read, even in their native language.

In my view everything depends on the student. I also agree that good readers become good language learners.

If the student’s not interested - they won’t do any of those things Merla. Why do them in another language if one doesn’t see the point and can already do them without putting in effort?

Just to clarify my views;

A teacher is important for children. An adult learner who depends on the teacher is unlikely to achieve very much in language learning, in my view.

As to reading, it is not a condition of successful language learning. However, it makes it a lot easier. In all of my discussions with polyglots and in all of my reading about them, I have found that they are all keen readers. I believe there is research showing that reading is a very effective way to learn languages, from Krashen, Mason and others. It stands to reason that the better people read, the more likely they are to excel in languages.

I understand what you’re saying Friedemann. I began to teach Italian last year, but I don’t know what to do. I explained that today we have modern tools, etc etc. However, nobody tried to use this kind of material. I tried with grammar exercises and more and less 50% of my students made the exercises at home, but I don’t think that this sort of method will help then to develop a good Italian level.

I don’t want to be a skeptical and say that only “special” people will learn languages but it seems to be the case.

@evgueny40, what do you do in your classes? Grammar approach? Do you try to read some text with your students?

There is certainly a lot of research showing that reading in your target language is a very effective way to learn languages. I just meant that I haven’t seen research comparing people’s normal reading habits in the first language and their success in learning foreign languages.

I knew a guy who didn’t read his 3 native languages (Moroccon Arabic, French and Berber) but read English, German and Spanish flawlessly, which he’d all learned after moving to Australia in his early 20s.

It is amazing how much money is spent in the corporate world on language teaching and how meager the results are. The personal teachers that our company hires are really expensive and certainly expensive compared to paid online services like Chinesepod.com or Lingq.com. In the past Steve had little good to say about language teachers in our traditional school system. But if I look back to my language classes in school, be it Latin, English or French, I loved them all, regardless of the teacher. On the other hand one of my engineers here in China told me frankly that he does not like learning English at all but he knows it is important for his career, so he does it.

Unfortunately the genuine motivation on the part of the learner or the lack thereof seems to be the key determining factor. Having said that, I am amazed how few teachers seem to embrace new technologies such as dictionary software, the internet and digital content. On the other hand I have experienced first hand that learners do not necessarily jump on it once you lay out all the “juicy stuff” for them. If they are not really into learning the language it may not make a difference if the tools you are offering are old-school or cutting edge.

Another thought is this: We normally do not enjoy all the things we have to do in order to achieve something we really want to achieve. Losing weight, preparing for an exam, washing the dishes are things we do to achieve an end result we like, but not because we enjoy these things. I still find reading Chinese very challenging and I do most of it on the computer using dictionary software. Reading Chinese articles still feels hard and difficult, like a mental workout. For a good reader I think reading should feel effortless, like walking. I do enjoy these mental workouts, like I enjoy physical workouts but there is only so much of it I can do before I get fatigued and have to take a pause. If I would not have the firm determination to get better at it I think it would be hard to keep up this reading regime.

I really can see that it is difficult for a learner to put in all this work if he/she does not want it bad enough to become fluent. Again, my colleagues here in China are well educated people, they are ambitious and focused and generally good problem solvers but progress in their language learning process, both for the expats learning Chinese as for the Chinese learning English is almost completely absent.

Reading should indeed be effortless in the elementary level - figuring out which words and which and the grammar of the language. Of course, beyond that level, things should be a challenge if one ever wishes to develop more understanding. If a book were too easy for us, then we would not be developing understanding from it. That’s what a good book is for. So, in that sense reading should not effortless. (Many never cope at this level and most of those remaining barely surpass it).