learning with Spartans and fruit salads

According to this description of CPE, at 16, when I took the test, I was ” approaching a standard of English similar to that of an educated native speaker”. A year before that, I represented Yugoslavia at English Speaking Union’s international public speaking competition. At the end of high-school I was second place on the national-level English competition. I was often lauded as being incredibly talented for languages.

I had also been learning French in school for 10 years. A decade.

My French sucks.

Like, big time. I can only express the most basic of thoughts (I’m hungry, where is the restaurant? That movie was good etc.) and a lot of the time I have no idea if what I’m saying is completely correct. After a decade of learning. English vocabulary helps me a bit, but only with the fancy words. Expressing any semblance of a complex idea or even having a normal conversation in French is for me impossible. After a decade of learning.

So much for my “incredible talent”.

Regarding both my English and French, I have to say it wasn’t really my fault. I didn’t consciously learn English and I didn’t try to suck at French. However, in retrospect, it’s shocking and sad that this huge discrepancy between my two foreign languages was something which didn’t bring about a reaction in any of the teachers in either my primary or secondary school. And what makes the whole thing more reaction-worthy is that I’m not the only example of such an unusual discrepancy.

Mateja and Luka, two friends I grew up with, have the same level of English as me – fluency since childhood. At the same time, their French, after also a decade of learning, is even worse than mine.

Velja, the friend with whom I’m doing a project I’ll talk about in a minute, has English which is, I think, better than mine. However, he has all but forgotten German, which he had been learning for 8 years in school.

All of us have fluent English. None of us have more than a very basic understanding of French/German. And none of us have any idea why this is so.

Until now.

*dum DUM duuuuum*

Sorry, I always wanted to do that.

Rewind to December 2007. I’m struggling with my Japanese. I really want to learn it, but I don’t know how. The classes at my faculty don’t seem to be any better than my language classes in primary and high school (and the results of a decade of learing French that way are a very strong exhibit A for not attending such classes). My attempts to learn it on my own aren’t bringing in any good results. I know that there’s a way of achieving fluency in Japanese, or any other language, because I was able to do that in English without even thinking about it, but I don’t know how to do it.

And then I stumble upon this website.

And it inspires me. Profoundly.

I read further. I learn about Krashen and his theory, about Michal Ryszard Wojcik’s experiment and about some other cool stuff. I rummaged through my childhood memories and I talk with my parents about my English learning. I talk with the friends I mentioned, who are also fluent in English, but suck in French/German.

After a lot of thought, we came to the conclusion that we share more or less the following characteristics when it comes to our English:

– we can hardly remember the time when we weren’t fluent

– we were already fluent before our first trip to an English-speaking country

– we never thought of English as something we’re consciously learning – it was just there.

– we were exposed daily to English – watched lots of cartoons, played lots of video games, all in English.

– we read lots of books in English.

– we talked with each other in English, even though we’re Serbian and nobody was making us do it. (I distinctly remember, when I was about 11 or 12, my mom telling me to stop talking so much in English with Mateja)

– we did impressions of our favorite cartoon and movie characters.

– We had the adults help us with English only in the beginning stages (the earliest memories I have are of reading Peanuts over and over again and asking my parents what some words meant, when I was something like 8 or 9).

– we were never frustrated when we couldn’t understand something. In fact, I don’t remember ever having a single negative emotion or thought about English (as opposed to French, where I could write volumes) .

Behind these things there is a method for achieving fluency in any foreign language. And, because these revelations inspired me to dedicate a big part of myself to languages, I want to understand and define this method and use it to teach myself and other people any foreign language we want to know – to fluency and proficiency, in a reasonable amount of time . But where do I begin?

Well, how about a workshop in which I could test these methods?

So we’re doing just that.

Yesterday we held our 3rd class of English. We simulated shopping for fruit and stuff you’re most likely to buy in a shop (tissues, chewing gum, water). We had a table with boxes with real fruit, chewing gum and bottles of water. We printed black & white dollars which the participants used for paying. In the background we had sounds recorded at an actual grocery store, courtesy of The Freesound Project. After that, the participants were divided into 3 teams and each team made a fruit salad, and later presented to the rest of the group how they made it. There were lots of raised voices and laughter. And it was all in English.

Although it’s only the 3rd class, already we are seeing some very interesting results. However, I’ll talk more about those at the end of December, when we finish the first phase of the workshop. Until then, here’s the overview of our current method:

The two main segments of the classroom are simulations and acting.

Simulations constitute of using English in real-life situations – shopping, airport customs, ordering food etc. They are as realistic as possible (background sounds, props etc.) so that the people immerse themselves easily.

Acting is acting out scenes from movies, cartoons, stand-up comedians… basically anything interesting, fun and cool in English. Here props are also used, again to make the participants as immersed as possible (e.g. we did the “This is Sparta!” scene from 300, with a towel and an aikido stick representing the cape and the spear for Leonidas, jewellry for the messenger and music from the soundtrack in the background.).

There are of course some variations and activities which can’t be so easily categorized, but this is the basic break down. The whole workshop follows this set of rules (which I’ll explain in detail in one of the following posts):

1. Language is a means of communication – language is a part of context!

2. Language is a skill, not a scientific discipline!

3. You are competing with yourself, not with others!

4. Everyone has their own current level and speed of improvement!

5. There isn’t only 100% right and 100% wrong – improvement is gradual!

6. Language mastery is not only reachable, it is the standard we are striving towards!

7. Boredom and laborious work are not necessary, but quantity is! Thus, surround yourself with as much English as possible!

8. We learn like kids – we enjoy learning!

9. We have faith in our minds!

At the end of December we’ll finish the first phase of the workshop, which is testing these methods with about a dozen participants. From February, with all the data and experience from December, we’ll devise and launch a 3-month long course for about 30 participants. Then we’ll gather the data and experience from that course, and devise an even better course. And so on. You get the picture.

One of the main things we’re looking for here is a way of making language learning in big groups not only very efficient, but also very fun. I’m drawing some other very interesting conclusions from the whole experience so far, but as I said, I’ll share my impressions when we finish this phase.

Until then, feel free to comment, ask questions etc. This will be especially needed for the next post concerning this workshop, because I need to make this whole method as easy to understand as possible (the Curse of Knowledge‘s a bitch).

Advertisements

7 Responses to “learning with Spartans and fruit salads”

  1. French is easy, really. It’s your fault if you didn’t try hard enough while at school.
    I stand by what I’ve said once before: trying to make learning fun is wrong! Immersion might be a good way to learn a language, but why bother dumbing things down? What could anyone possibly stand to gain from such an approach? Instead of trying to make things ”fun” for people, why not be as ruthless as possible, so only motivated people would (and could) remain?

  2. “It’s your fault if you didn’t try hard enough while at school.”

    My teacher never motivated us to expose ourselves to French outside of class (or even told us that we should do this), and I don’t think it’s “my fault” when I’m 10 years old – I think we’re pretty much under the influence and responsibilty of our teachers and parents to be told what we should do, no?

    Even if I was exposed, the grammar-focused system of language study does not give adequate results, even if you try hard. It turns a language into a boring physics class (I’m not saying physics is boring, but my classes were) – you get a formula, you apply it to a problem, and then you don’t know what to do with it in the real world. The return you get from the ammount of time and effort you put into that kind of class is, in my oppinion, extremely inadequate.

    “trying to make learning fun is wrong!”

    Er, and I say it’s not. I think that fun adds to motivation, which improves learning. Give me an argument here 🙂

    “why bother dumbing things down?”

    Who said that we are dumbing things down? We are creating realistic situations where real English is used.

    I could argue that the standard workbooks are dumbing English down with their unrealistic, boring dialogues.

    “What could anyone possibly stand to gain from such an approach? Instead of trying to make things ”fun” for people, why not be as ruthless as possible, so only motivated people would (and could) remain?”

    Well, for one thing, they gain a pleasurable experience of language learning (and thus increased motivation), something which they were denied in their formal schooling.
    As I said, I’ll go into the benefits in a later post.

    And why should we be ruthless? Dude, this is not a special agent training course, it’s a language learning workshop!

    Because something has worth doesn’t mean that it should only be attained through lots of boring, hard work. A big part of civilization is not only transfering knowledge from one generation to the next, it is also transfering that knowledge in a more efficient way than before.

    There are, and always will be, things that are difficult and/or require lots of effort to learn and do. However, we should (and are) always be pushing the boundries of difficulty, stealing ground away from it, so to speak – we make things easier to do, and then we reach a new level of difficulty, a new problem we didn’t see before. That’s progress.

    There will also always be opportunities for people with extremely high motivation to go beyond the norm and prove their worth, or whatever it is they want to prove/do. However, in a more advanced system, they will also reach a much higher level than they would have in a normal system, where everything was difficult.

  3. Why should it be the teacher’s job to motivate anyone? As my distinguished colleague Quintilian once said, study ultimately depends on the goodwill of the student. And goodwill cannot be forced or coaxed out of people.
    I am certainly not against learning being fun, I’m opposed to efforts to make it so. It reminds me of those ”proactive”, irritatingly jolly people, always too happy to commend a student on remembering a phrase that had been repeated eighty-seven times before.
    And don’t get me started on the textbooks I had been forced to study from! If there ever was a book that deserved burning… But still, I think even those were better than what children use today! Have you seen those? All pictures, no text! I’ve no idea why they insist on calling them textbooks.

  4. “Why should it be the teacher’s job to motivate anyone?”

    We could argue about this at lenght when it comes to motivating adults, but there’s little chance of you convincing me that it’s not the responsibilty of the teacher to motivate 10 year olds (the time I started learning French). It’s not like an average (or even above average) kid at that age (or above) has the mental capacity to rationally think about long term benefits of studying something etc.

    “As my distinguished colleague Quintilian once said, study ultimately depends on the goodwill of the student. And goodwill cannot be forced or coaxed out of people.”

    He also said:

    “We should not write so that it is possible for [the reader] to understand us, but so that it is impossible for him to misunderstand us.”

    Which to me seems like an effort on the part of the teacher to make his materials more approachable and easy to understand, no? And I don’t think he wrote for kids 🙂

    Yes, in the end it all ultimately depends on the goodwill of the individual, but that “end” will be a LOT different depending on where it started from.

    “I am certainly not against learning being fun, I’m opposed to efforts to make it so.”

    Er, so you’re not against something, but you’re against trying to get to that something? Being fit is cool, but trying to become fit is not?

    “It reminds me of those ”proactive”, irritatingly jolly people, always too happy to commend a student on remembering a phrase that had been repeated eighty-seven times before.”

    Now this is a different story altogether. I know the image you’re against, and I’m guessing I know why you’re against it – the consequence of such an approach is a weak-willed person who can’t force him/herself to do anything if it’s not extremely easy and fun.

    Well, that’s not exactly what we’re doing here. I never said that this “fun” way of ours is all sunshine and rainbows with non-stop hippy smiling action 🙂 It involves effort and thinking and improvisation, but the whole process is a LOT more pleasurable, and thus people will be a lot more motivated to participate, learn English in their free time etc.

    There are things which can only be experienced and grasped through effort, but there are things which are a tool for acquiring/experienceing something else (such as language, which is a tool for communication), and thus should not be made unnecessarily complex and boring.

    “And don’t get me started on the textbooks I had been forced to study from! If there ever was a book that deserved burning… But still, I think even those were better than what children use today! Have you seen those? All pictures, no text! I’ve no idea why they insist on calling them textbooks.”

    Well, they might be better, or they might not. Depends on the results (e.g. what happens to a class of kids that used them for a year, as opposed to a class that used regular textbooks).

    In my oppinion, overall they will have no significant impact on the knowledge of the students, because they’re still sitting and talking about boring things out of context (and thus their brains are labeling it as “not important”, even if they are trying to convince themselves that it is), and no ammount of pretty pictures will make up for that.

    Of course, I could be wrong, but it will take a class of foreign-language-fluent kids who used those picture textbooks to prove me wrong, and I haven’t seen that one coming yet 🙂

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: