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Within this article I will discuss a foreign language learning experience, the learning situation and personal feelings toward the methodologies used during the 1980s, and compare these to the methods used during that period and those that are used today. I will also discuss how the earlier methods were effective but only to a certain extent. This in turn will reveal that the skills taught were not used in a realistic way and that there is always room for improvement in teaching a foreign language.

Having attended schooling in the Netherlands it was common to be taught several foreign languages. During the early 1980s I was taught three foreign languages, besides my native tongue Dutch, I was taught English, German and French. Each of these foreign languages was taught in the same manner and utilised identical methodology, which was grammar first and followed by translating word-for-word and phrases (lexical items) from native tongue into the foreign language. This was in effect accomplished through the memorisation of extensive lists of words and phrases or what may now be called the Grammar-Translation Method.

During the process of learning my foreign language, several written tests were administered in order to gauge progress. By having a good memory I was able to achieve satisfactory results and quite capable of passing these tests with flying colours. However, using that language effectively in a ‘real-world’ setting was near impossible as I soon discovered while on holidays in France. For example, a simple visit to the bakery proved that being able to say ‘boulangerie’ didn’t help me much in ordering fancy pastries. Nor being able to say the German word Wurst was going to get me a decent meal in Germany while on holiday there. All the memorising of extensive word-lists in the world did not make me a good speaker of the target language nor did it provide confidence or the ability to communicate with the locals, leaving me floundering with my acquired foreign language skills.

The above experiences proved to me that the main focus of years of learning a foreign language was based on mental discipline and intellectual development rather than being able to communicate the target language effectively. This in turn was very frustrating, as all I remember are the numbers 1 to 20 and a collection of individual words. Because my native language was always there as a reference point I believe it did not teach me effectively and my learning experience was minimal, boring and rather purposeless because it did not encourage me to apply myself in using the target language.

Although I was exposed to hearing the target language, either through my teacher or from tapes, I was discouraged to actually engage in conversation. The main emphasis was on being able to read and write and certainly not on the ability to communicate through speech. I found that my language training was mainly based on the accurate reproduction of the target language and if translation errors were present it was looked upon as a crime of the foreign language rather than a learning curb. This is in stark contrast to today’s learning where students are encouraged verbal fluency through understanding and producing spoken and written language used within a well-defined context.

Another classic example of one lesson was when my English teacher was going through the process of rote-learning once again. When the teacher translated the Dutch word ‘ruggegraat’ as being your ‘bottom’ and not your ‘spine’, no amount of arguing would convince him that he was incorrect. It came to the point where I was expelled from class and sent to the headmaster as being a troublesome student. However, being headstrong and adamant that the teacher was incorrect, the offending word was soon recognized as being indeed the equivalent of the spine and certainly not your bottom. This learning experience left me with little enthusiasm to want to learn another language. I was humiliated, expelled and of course very upset. Even though I was vindicated shortly afterward it did not instill a continuing passion for wanting to learn this foreign language using what I considered a ridiculous and perhaps even abusive method.

I believe that rote-learning is not stimulating because it relies on memorising all the rules of a language and it can not realistically be used in everyday language as I found out when I went to Australia armed with my ‘school-English’. Because no student verbal communication had ever happened in the classroom simple words like ‘onions’ were pronounced as ‘unions’ and the abbreviated form of refrigerator being ‘fridge’ in Australia was an alien word until pointed into the direction of the refrigerator. When my facial expression said, "Yes, I know what a refrigerator is but not what a fridge is" I was the centre of laughter. Not that I cared being laughed at because the locals I was with thought that it was rather odd that I did not know the word fridge but used the full word refrigerator. This experience proved to me that language barriers in a real-world situation don’t actually exist because most people today are tolerant of those who speak a foreign language and are quite often very much interested in learning from them as well. I am of the opinion, through personal experience, that the word-for-word translation method is a difficult art and requires years of study. It is an unsatisfactory teaching method and I believe that most foreign language teachers actively discourage it these days.

The best method of learning a foreign language, I have found, is to actually live amongst the locals, which is what I did for 3 months initially. I learned more in those 3 months than I had done in four years of classroom based learning. I had mastered entire conversations and was encouraged to communicate, as my Dutch accent was well pleasing to their ears. If I could not express myself in one way I would work out another way of telling what I wanted to say. For example, I was very itchy from a bee sting but I did not know the word itchy at the time. When I was asked if I was itchy I simply shrugged my shoulders and said, "No, I just want to scratch all the time." Of course this was very humorous to the locals but I learned a new word and they learned that the word itchy is not all that common among foreign language learners.

Having read about the different methodologies such as the Grammar-Translation Method, the Direct Method, the Audio-lingual Method, the Functional Approach, the Communicative Approach, and Task-based learning, and looking back 30 odd years when I was learning a foreign language, I now realise the problem. All my learning was passive; there was no student interaction. Textbooks and tapes was the staple diet of learning a foreign language, no real meaningful practices or encounters formed part of my learning. There was no play or games involved in learning just a rigid set of rules of grammar and spelling with no room for errors. The main emphasis was on the ability to read and write fluently rather than speaking the language. Direct translation from native tongue into foreign language word-for-word or whole sentences was always present with my native language to draw upon. It is only through actually living and speaking with the native language in Australia that I have mastered my foreign language reasonably successful within such a short period of time.

In conclusion, what was learned was certainly not used in a realistic way, which made learning a foreign language monotonous. Under no circumstance was I ever encouraged to fill in realistic forms e.g. a job application as an activity or communicate a task such as the ability to connect a TV and select the correct channels. There were no goals, inputs or activities to learn from. The teacher was always the centre of attention and I was there to listen, read and write and somehow master the foreign language. I guess I was there to gain the knowledge of my teacher but somehow my automated response to all this was unpleasant, not meaningful and uninspiring in my learning adventure. I believe for success to take place in learning a foreign language, the learning must be purposeful, motivational and above all, engage the learner.

Copyright © 2006, Ingrid Griggs.
Published by: Teaching Treasures Publications


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