Foreign Language Learning without the Foreign Language

posted by Engelbert Thaler, Freiburg University of Education, Germany

There used to be a time when English was actually spoken in the EFL classroom. The rationale behind this out-dated practice was to learn the language by using it. English language teachers did their best to make students use English as they regarded the development of students’ target language competence as the main goal of their profession. Things were bound to change, however. Scholars, teachers and administrators were no longer content with such a reduced raison d’ệtre.

In a first step they decided to enlarge the list of objectives students were supposed to attain. The four basic skills as well as the language domains of vocabulary, grammar and pragmatics simply were not sufficient. Much needed aid turned up in the form of the competence concept. Students should not focus on oral and written language use, but develop intercultural competence, method competence, inter-personal competence, intra-personal competence, media literacy and further indispensable assets.

In a second step the teacher’s role had to be redefined. The sage on the stage was replaced by the guide on the side, i.e. an EFL teacher was no longer a knower, language model, transmitter, corrector, linguist, expert, or giver (of information), but a counselor, facilitator, tutor, helper, learning manager, learner trainer, learner, and motivator.

The third step consisted of inventing alternative learning methods and approaches which allowed for ample use of the students’ native language. Innovative concepts like Freiarbeit (free work), Stationenlernen (learning at stations, carousel approach), project work, Wochenplan (weekly plan), drama approach, kinesthetic techniques, learning in motion, Community Language Learning, to name but a few, cater for manifold needs, among which the need to speak the target language may not rank highest. In particular, group work proved to be of utmost value, as it guarantees the immediate retreat into the mother tongue, with group members joyously chatting in German on private experiences they had the day before.

The triumph of pedagogy over language still needed support in academic discourse and school administration. That is why TEFL conferences abound with avant-garde scholars presenting high-flown projects which do not work in actual classroom situations; ambitious authors contribute to TEFL journals praising new methods and procedures which they have not tried out in class; young teachers are rewarded by their headmasters for projects which aim at everything but language development; teacher trainers and scholars are jumping on the language-free bandwagon leaving behind all those antiquated Sprachmeister associations.

In the post-language era the ultimate aim of foreign language teaching is the creation of an all-competent personality … who speaks German. May they live happily hereafter.


3 responses to “Foreign Language Learning without the Foreign Language

  1. Dear Juergen Kurtz,
    I am urgently looking for a method to learn English without using any material in a foreign language. The reason for that is that some of our locally based project staff only speaks and reads local dialects, like Boro in Assam, Tharu in Nepal or Massai in Tansania. Can you recommend any book, CD oder DVD based learning method? Thank you very much for your response,
    Eva Gross

    • Dear Ms Gross,

      Thank you for your comment. Please specify what exactly you are looking for (what do you mean by “a method to learn English without using any material in a foreign language”).

  2. Wolfgang Butzkamm

    I enjoyed reading Engelbert Thaler’s text. It’s a biting satire on some of the fashionable ideas bandied about by a lot of wise guys in our profession. There is, of course, nothing wrong with group work, action orientation, tasks & projects as such, but they are often offered as panaceas. Group work, so we are told, is good, traditional grammar (whatever that means), dictation, memorizing vocabulary is bad etc. etc. . Usually, no evidence from real classrooms is produced. I have evidence that group work can be really counterproductive and monolingual – i.e. monolingual in the mother tongue. A propos Thaler’s “language-free bandwagon”: I came across a literary satire (in German) where the author describes a class making an English breakfast without using a word of English….see
    The multiplication of “competencies” (or competences?) is indeed laughable when one thinks of the kind of English a lot of German Hauptschüler produce after 5 years or more of English.

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