How to Improve Foreign Language Teaching Significantly

posted by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany

In my view, the theory and practice of teaching beginners is stagnating. One of the reasons for this stagnation are fundamental flaws or omissions in the language teaching theories of the mainstream. The four areas in which significant improvements can be achieved concern the communicative principle, the imitative principle,  the bilingual principle, and the generative principle. They are all based on our knowledge of how humans learn languages naturally, irrespective of educational arrangements.

(1) We are born and bred to communicate. It is our social talent that makes us smarter than all other living beings. Preschool children already have the expressive means for a magnificent array of speech intentions, using their voice, mimes and gestures. And they bring these communicative competencies to the task of foreign language learning. It follows that utterances, not words, are the primary reality of language, and dialogues, for which we need a partner, are the ideal basic texts for foreign language teaching. They define a specific situation and constitute a total communicative event. So let us teach learners to enact these situations in face-to-face communication as naturally as possible. If rightly taught, they perform them with verve and gusto no matter whether they are children, adolescent or adults, slow or fast learners. With our social brains we are naturally born performers and masters in make-believe. Most modern coursebooks are peppered with colourful pictures, but don’t contain enough short, actable and sophisticated dialogues with which learners can enjoy team work and create moments of excellence for themselves and their audiences.

(2) Imitation is our “motor for culture” (Gopnik); it forges the neuronal link between hearing and speaking. Language learning and teaching is at the very beginning strikingly physical: ear-training, articulatory training and body language combined. Listening plus imitating is therefore our most basic form of practice. It must first and foremost begin with short utterances in the context of the mimicry-memorization of dialogues. To achieve this, precision techniques have been developed. However, repeated intensive and noisefree imitation is often neglected. But without ears and articulatory organs attuned to the foreign language we cannot take much pleasure in it.

(3) Sophisticated dialogues are possible from the very beginning because we teach them with systematic mother tongue support, via the bilingual sandwich-technique. In a laudable effort to make teachers conduct classrooms in the foreign language, mainstream philosophy has thrown out the baby with the bathwater. However, a naturally acquired language is the greatest pedagogical resource that learners bring to foreign language classes, as it lays the foundations for all other languages we might want to learn. Two thousand years of documented language teaching, as well as modern brain research, have shown that foreign language learning is fundamentally a bilingual endeavour. Because, in a deep sense, we only learn language once. All languages help us to make sense of the world, so they all dance the same dance. All humans can talk about persons and things, time and space, past and future, basic event types like give & take, possession, number, instrument, agent, obligation, condition etc. etc. In our first five years we have accumulated a huge cognitive capital for the rest of our lives, usually via the mother tongue. It would be sheer madness to cut learners off from what is the very foundation of language. It follows that it is not just a more flexible and less rigid attitude towards own-language use which is needed, but the well-targeted, systematic exploitation of the explanatory potential of learners’ own language(s), however with the foreign language still being the working language of the classroom.

(4) In language, we make “infinite use of finite means” (Humboldt). A finite stock of words or word groups can be recombined again and again to produce innumerable novel sentences – and thus, new ideas. This combinatorial infinity is according to Chomsky the core capacity of all human languages. It means that the words and constructions of the basic dialogues, stories or songs must not remain encapsulated in those texts, but must be extracted, recombined and varied in order to fit new situations and personal communicative needs.  (What shall we do with the drunken sailor? => What shall I do with my hair? => What shall I do with my life?). Children are excellent pattern detectives, which is visible from the two word stage on. But 3- hours-per-week learners must be helped to shorten the process of pattern recognition – by mother tongue mirroring, for instance – and by repetition cum variation of basic constructions, which is also evidenced in child language. The practical solution proposed are semi-communicative bilingual pattern drills as stepping stones towards communication – so mother tongue support again. If constructions are fully understood, they can take root and learners feel encouraged to risk something new on the analogy of what is familiar. Bilingual pattern practice ought to be a cornerstone in our teaching methodology. It is conspicuously absent in our coursebooks.

After forty years of working with foreign and second language learners and observing them in and outside classrooms I have come to the conclusion that we must free ourselves from two dogmas which have harmed, and not helped, the teaching profession: The monolingual dogma tried to banish the learners’ native language from the classroom. The communicative dogma led to the wholesale rejection of pattern drills. Let us re-orient ourselves and make a significant step forward.

3 responses to “How to Improve Foreign Language Teaching Significantly

  1. The last paragraph is very rightly put forth. Creating a synthesis with the mother or native language is a must if one wants to get a good grasp of a foreign language.

  2. I wanted to say that your point about “Sophisticated dialogue” is what is lacking in traditional American schools. Your opinion:

    ” It would be sheer madness to cut learners off from what is the very
    foundation of language. It follows that it is not just a more flexible and
    less rigid attitude towards own-language use which is needed, but the
    well-targeted, systematic exploitation of the explanatory potential of
    learners’ own language(s), however with the foreign language still
    being the working language of the classroom”.

    is spot on. I am an ESL teacher, and many of my colleagues believe in the sink-or-swim method. Only a handful of provide home language support. What’s More, most of the English Language Learners (ELLs) can not read or speak properly in their own language. I have argued many times over for support for these children, but alas, the “funding” isn’t there. If American schools would give first language support, the skills would transfer to the second language.

  3. Thank you, Hollie. Yes, “transfer” is what it’s all about. The standard orthodoxy or the preferred philosophy of most of my colleagues (= let’s keep the mother tongue out) is overly concerned about negative transfer, l.e. foreign language accent, false friends etc., which nobody denies. The enormous possibilties of positive transfer have been overlooked.

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