Less Is More

I think that when it comes to learning a language and typical schools, classes, coursebooks, exercises, instruction, tests et al. – we’ve got it all wrong. Let me explain.

Research points to two different “ways” to learn a language.

The more traditional and direct approach is what is supported in the realm of most schooling and especially subject teaching. “Class today we are going to learn …. (add you topic/grammar point/vocabulary theme, skill etc ..). What we might call, “explicit” learning and teaching – deductivism at its best. Teachers teach a “language objective”, use academic terminology and have students practice drills and examples. In this way, students slowly in memory build up a vocabulary and learn the language.

The less often used and more indirect approach is focused on just communicating and interacting with messages that we want to hear and understand. What we might call “implicit” learning and teaching – inductivism at its best. Teachers don’t “give away the ghost” before getting started. The students just use the language to communicate, do tasks, experience the world of language and in this interaction with language they acquire language.

Which is best? If you go by the numbers – explicit teaching wins hands down. But I go for the latter. Let me tell you why.

  1. We are primed to learn language implicitly through basic communication. For 1,000s of years, we’ve learned languages in this way. School is a very recent construct for learning language. It’s as if we took the skill of running and said that only students who spend 5 years in class learning how to run – may be able to run. I’m exaggerating but it is that bad in a way. Further, there is a misleading myth out of there of a monolingual history and pre-history. That’s not true at all. And in the past, people met, encountered each other, inter-married and learned many languages. It’s a fundamental and unchallenged tenant of anthropology.

2. It works. Geoffrey Jordan has a nice synthesis of the research supporting students learning a language through implicit instruction. I also highly recommend this accessible and must read article about best practices for language teaching and how they relate to current research. There is even evidence that students that begin learning language through explicit instruction may be inhibiting their own natural ability to learn language.

Imagine a classroom where students were busy discussing, speaking, wondering, investigating, interacting socially and not learning a language but USING the language. We lose so much of that in our curriculums – that language is a means to an end – not the end itself.

I think of this wonderful quote.

We have too much struggle, too much trying in our classrooms. Getting a grade, mastering X, remembering Y. We need less of this to) get more language learning happening. We truly do.

I wish I could propose task based learning and teaching (TBLT) or communicative language teaching (CLT). For years I flew their flag over my beliefs and still do to som degree. However, they’ve been hijacked by big business and global publishers. Even by the new burgeoning Ed Tech platforms with their online tutors and self-study quizzes. Nope.

I propose only three simple things teachers should do in their lessons (and which are really one – allowing students to use the language).

  1. Teach Slow. Don’t line up so many ducks that you have to cover and master. Go slow. Allow your students time to savor communicating in a second language.
  2. Teach Simple. Throw out all the complicated lesson plans and objects. Just have one objective – contact with the target language in a meaning-filled fashion.
  3. Teach Silently. Step back and get out of the way. Let your students take charge. Be the guide on the side.

Also published on Medium.

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