Learn English while you sleep!

Language learning must rank alongside dieting as one of the areas most susceptible to fads, gimmicks and gurus. A look at the current best-selling language learning titles on Amazon UK turns up at least three so-called language experts – Benny Lewis, Paul Noble and Michel Thomas – who all promise to teach you a foreign language in a new and revolutionary way. This is in addition to numerous books with titles such as Basic Spanish in 10 days (that would be very basic Spanish then), Korean made simple (is that even possible?), Speak, write and understand basic German in no time (define ‘no time’) and Arabic for Dummies (for those with low self-esteem). What these methods and books all have in common is that they promise to get you speaking from the very first lesson (not difficult, if you can memorize “Olá!” or “Hello!”) and they promise to keep grammar teaching to a minimum, or to do away with it altogether.

Let’s get one thing straight from the start. You cannot learn a language beyond a very basic level without studying its grammar unless you just learn to reproduce sentences parrot-fashion. Some language courses actually employ this method, but then you are only able to repeat the exact same sentences over and over, as you lack the knowledge to create new ones, much less to understand the unlimited range of potential sentences that may be said back to you. It won’t get you very far in a real-life situation and you’ll probably bore the pants off anyone unlucky enough to get into conversation with you.

I can never understand why grammar is such a no-no for most people. OK, we may have unhappy memories of studying the grammar of our own language at high school, but all we need to rectify that is to have someone explain it to us in a more engaging way. As a teacher and writer of language textbooks, it is a pet peeve that when it comes to talking about grammar, you are expected to dumb it down to the max: even the most basic grammatical terms, like preposition and adverb, are too much to handle for many people.

The world of ELT (English Language Teaching) abounds in gimmickry and fads as much as any other area of language teaching and learning. You only have to look at some of the methods on offer out there, and more significantly, the claims they make, to see how true that is. Unfortunately, language teaching is also one of the areas where it is easiest to fool the uninitiated (of which there is an endless supply), to play on the punter’s need or desire to learn a language, to promise a magic formula and to dazzle students with a pseudo-scientific methodology, which usually involves said students forking out for “exclusive” overpriced materials of dubious quality in addition to the tuition fees. At the same time, language courses have perfected a balancing act between giving the students the impression they are making progress on the one hand, and ensuring they continue to attend the course (and pay up) for as long as possible on the other. This is achieved by having as many books and/or levels as possible for students to complete.

ELT is a multi-billion-dollar global industry dominated by powerful vested interests (publishers, language school chains, international examining bodies) intent on giving their own particular methods an air of respectability and academic gravitas. The Direct Method of English teaching whereby instruction is entirely in English from the very start and no reference whatsoever is made to the student’s mother tongue, much less translation, has been a godsend to the industry; indeed, it is the cornerstone of the industry. It means the same course books, grammars, methods and additional materials can be sold worldwide with little or no differentiation.

The history of language learning starts with the so-called Grammar Translation Method, which actually dates back to the earliest times and still survives today, particularly in academic institutions. As its name suggests, it involves studying the grammar of the language in great detail, rather as an academic exercise in itself than as a means of communication. Indeed, it was a method developed for the study of Latin and Ancient Greek, both of which were already dead languages. Practice and testing involve formal written translation, both from and into the language, as well as other translation-based activities, such as reading comprehension. Traditionally, GT-based courses also include in-depth study of the literature of the foreign language. The GT method was developed at a time when there was little or no contact between different language communities, no such thing as mass tourism, globalization or the internet. As these things evolved, so did the need to be able to communicate with speakers of other languages, especially orally.

The Direct Method was one of a number of so-called ‘natural’ methods devised as far back as the late 1800s as a reaction to the GT Method and as a response to the growing need even then for communicative language learning. It claimed to be ‘natural’, and still does so today, because students supposedly learn the foreign language the same way they learnt their own language: the ‘natural’ way. This is clearly nonsense, as we learn our mother tongue unconsciously, and if we start to learn a foreign language after the age of about five years old, we process anything we learn through the filter of our mother tongue. In other words, we think consciously about the new information in the only medium available to us, which is our mother tongue. The claim made by some courses that you will be thinking in English from the very first class is logically impossible; if you were capable of thinking in English, you wouldn’t need to do a course in the first place.

The cardinal rule of the Direct Method is that the foreign language (in our case, English) must be used at all times. The teacher must not use the students’ mother tongue or make any reference to it under any circumstances. Of course, that precludes any recourse to translation in the teaching and learning process, be it formal written or oral translation of sentences or texts, or even simply telling students what a new word or expression means in their own language. Way back in the 1980s, I did an intensive one-week course on extreme Direct Method ELT: not only did we have to use English only, we were not allowed to actually explain points of grammar to the students; we had to devise examples and exercises which would enable the students to deduce the rules of grammar for themselves. This is supposed to mimic how babies learn the rules of grammar of their own language. But, of course, a baby’s brain is a blank canvas, whereas most students’ brains are already programmed to think in terms of the grammar of their mother tongue. Major drawbacks of the DM methodology are that some students deduce the rules incorrectly, others never deduce them at all, and the ban on using the mother tongue means that they can never articulate their doubts and queries, unless they can manage to do so in their imperfect English. Even then the teacher is not allowed to respond with an explanation, just more exemplification and practice. Introducing new vocabulary involves using visual aids, or in the case of more abstract words, miming and exemplification. Often the students will remain mystified or get totally the wrong idea. Conveying the meaning and usage of expressions can be a nightmare for the teacher and take up half a class.  Meanwhile, more interested students will have found a translation on their mobile phones while others will have lost interest – and the thread of the class – entirely. The emphasis is also very much on spoken language, with reading and writing taking a very secondary role, which is all very well, but in a country like Brazil, most people who need English for their studies or work need to be able to read and write it more than speak it.

The next new-fangled invention was the Audio-Lingual Method, developed in the 1940s, which consists of learning to parrot phrases and grammatical sentence patterns without stopping to think, as well as memorizing dialogues. This method is also still in use in some courses, believe it or not. As with the Direct Method, there is no translation or reference to the mother tongue and students are expected to deduce grammar rules from examples. On the plus side, the A-L Method does attach importance to good pronunciation.

The 1970s brought some really weird and wonderful options: the Silent Way, so called because the teacher says nothing (!) but prompts students non-verbally; Suggestopedia, which although it allows some translation and grammatical explanation, has students singing songs, playing instruments and wearing different hats to get them in the mood for language learning; and Total Physical Response (TPR), in which the emphasis is on listening comprehension in the belief that students will eventually start to speak of their own accord.

The 1980s saw the birth of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). As the name suggests, the emphasis is on real communication activities rather than learning about the language. This means that grammar is only introduced inasmuch as it is needed to carry out different linguistic functions (introducing yourself, asking for things, reporting on the past etc.); there is no explanation of the wider grammatical structure of the language. The student talk time (STT), both to the teacher and among themselves, is maximized, which is a good thing, but good pronunciation isn’t a priority, which is not so good. Most CLT courses also adhere to the principle of doing everything in English only.

For the average non-linguist who wants to learn English, the fact that classes are in English only from the very start seems quite desirable and is usually one of the points that language courses emphasize in their marketing pitch. After all, if the idea is to learn English, surely being obliged to hear and speak English only is a good thing? Indeed it is, provided you don’t want to ask any questions about English grammar or get a detailed explanation that you can understand, which, of course, you are unable to do as it has to be in English, which you can’t really speak yet. And there will be words, expressions and verb tenses which you are never quite sure you have understood correctly because you’ve never been told the equivalent in Portuguese.

A Brazilian friend of mine was following an online audiovisual English course which the Brazilian Ministry of Education (MEC) provides free for university students. A laudable initiative, but obviously, the course has been bought off the peg from an international ELT publisher (that must have been a very lucrative deal!) with no special adaptation for the Brazilian market and is all in English. I listened in on some of the lessons my friend did online. The grammar explanations, even at beginners’ level, were in English only, some of them even spoken not written. I asked my friend if he understood them. Not surprisingly, he answered “not really.” Just think about it for a moment: explaining English grammar in English to people who don’t know English. Not exactly a recipe for success.

I’m not saying that none of the above-mentioned methods work. Of course, they can work. Eventually. But they are all too dogmatic and radical in their approach. Instead of employing every and any means of helping the student to acquire the language, including translation and explanation in the mother tongue and comparison with it, they insist on the purity of their dogmas, often to preserve their market dominance. Instead of teaching a combination of healthy eating and regular exercise, they force us to eat cabbage soup at every meal.

2 thoughts on “Learn English while you sleep!”

  1. Excellent!! As a teacher I found myself struggling with communicative approach. I always feel that something is wrong, that we should have another way, but until someone comes up with something better, that’s what we have. By any chance do you know some authors who have a different view, let’s say who oppose/criticize the communicative approach? I’d like to read something new about it.

    1. I have read a few articles by people advocating the use of the mother tongue and translation in English teaching, but they are lone voices, usually ignored by the ELT ‘establishment’, which depends on the English-only policy for its existence, or at least its dominance. It should also be said that, of course, an English-only approach has to be adopted when you have a multilingual class, as happens in EFL schools in English-speaking countries. But when all the students have the same mother tongue, and the teacher too, as is normally the case in Brazil, it is positively perverse to ban the use of Portuguese in the classroom. It demonstrates a very flawed and simplistic understanding of how we think and learn languages.

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