Thursday, 17 November 2016

Theory and practice in language learning

As a student and, for many years throughout my career, as a teacher, I have conscientiously delved into the theory of practically anything related to the acquisition and teaching of English as a foreign language.

My theoretical grounding has stood me in good stead all those years though not without the support of solid hands-on experience. After all one has to make a start and therefore needs a framework within which to act. At least this was my default setting.

Theoretical books as well as methodological ones are fine as far as they go. There are different proponents of different theories about how learning a foreign language takes place and if you are a novice and haven’t got the foggiest idea where to start you have no other choice but to take one on trust, which is what we also do in real life.

I have moved on from grammar and translation through  audiolingual, communicative, functional methods to multiple intelligences to what is now my own re-adaptable approach, a crystallization of all the input fortified with my own discoveries and ideas of learning. Far from suggesting that I have learnt everything, I propose here that we learn as long as we teach if only because the means available are different and our experience is being enriched all the time even if adding up the minutiae and being led to generalizations is painfully slow. I like to think that teachers’ generalisations are fed back into new theories of how we learn as everything is in a fluid state of being defined and redefined.

In order to learn from your learners you have to hold your feelers out all the time. You have to observe how students approach and process new input, what mistakes they make, how much mother tongue interference accounts for their mistakes, how much their imagination and eagerness gets the better of accuracy, or, by the same token, to what extent their lack of motivation or lack of ability or dearth of pragmatic knowledge limits their efficiency in foreign language learning.

Watching learners, both young ones and adults, taking in and processing information is an absolutely amazing experience and can only be effective if the teacher is genuinely interested in their students as people as so much depends on that. Personally I am fortunate enough to teach people from a very young age and see them through to completing a full course up to levels B2, C1 and C2. This allows me some continuity both in terms of biological growth and mental development.
Personality and ability have an intriguing way of interacting when learning – not just a language, I suppose – since personality determines whether a learner will persevere or give up or whether the learner will turn an impediment  to good advantage by becoming more resourceful and more determined to overcome obstacles.

By way of illustration, I will provide an example of a young dyslexic learner in one of my classes. The child is eight years old and apparently aware of her difficulty in reading. A couple of weeks into her first year, she has already developed some strategies to get round the problem. She listens intently to me and the audio aids used in class without looking in the book so that she can learn the new lesson by heart. (I normally make a point of exposing learners to the sounds of new words first and then to their written form.) She whispers sentences while someone else is reading and when the class focuses on some written exercises and she gets stuck at a word that she can’t decipher, she will always ask me to tell her what the word is so that she can continue with the exercise. In other words, the child is making every effort to learn and she shows a will and inventiveness that one might be surprised to find in a child of her age, which is admirable. Class dynamics is also very important. In the case of the girl, what further motivates her is an underlying competition with a friend of hers.

All in all, every learner has a story to tell which perhaps is part of their life story.

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