- In Spain the system of teaching foreign languages is completely pointless.
- In Italy, we learn the rules and structure, but communication? Not at all!
- In Poland, after the many language classes at school, most people are not able to put a few sentences together.
- In Japan it's even worse! People learn grammar and vocabulary out of context, they have no idea how to use them in practice.
Is it possible to effectively teach foreign languages?
We reasoned over this topic during a meeting with our first couchsurfer - Pablo. We arrived at our meeting point one and a half hours late - traffic jams in Bangkok proved to be insurmountable. Luckily Pablo, a Spanish guy living in the capital of Thailand, completely understood the situation. He greeted us with perfect English, without any Spanish accent. He came to Thailand to learn Thai using a naturalistic approach, that is learning based initially only on listening. From Monday to Saturday Pablo attends the course of Thai language, which has no regular hours. Everyone comes when he/she wants, listens to what and how the teacher is saying. That goes on for the first 800 hours.
Only listening, without reading, writing or even trying to speak. The idea is that the language should take root in the brain hard enough not to mix with your own native language, accent, and structure. And when the time comes – you start talking, having already intuition of the language.
Pablo: In this method we are taught as little children. At first we only listen, with each class understanding more and more. There are no tests or exams, the teacher tells a story, and we try to keep up with it. The story is supported by a number of gestures and drawing. The point is to understand the message, not necessarily to catch and learn specific words.
It really is the very same process a baby goes through. At the beginning we start with understanding nouns. Elephant. Table. Man. Then, it comes the verbs, description of actions. Only at the end the adjectives. Even if the teacher repeats the same story more than once, everyone benefits, catching new vocabulary, understanding a little bit more. And when we understand enough we may try a higher level.
Pablo: During the course there are plenty of stories and games. But the tasks don’t concern the language itself, the teacher may, for example, give riddles, and in groups we try and answer them in our own language.
Andrea: But living in Thailand, don’t you try to use the language on the street?
Pablo: If there is no clear need, no. Starting to use the language before it is grounded in your mind by listening, you begin to confuse accents, mix your own language with the new one, trying to translate literally. Yet the literal translation is impossible.
You can translate single words, such as "beautiful" in Thai, but in practice its meaning and usage differs always. When we learn a new word, without any context, we don’t gain much. We know how "beautiful" is in Thai, but will we be able to use the word in a sentence? Or even recognize it when someone says it quickly in the middle of a complex speech?
Most likely not. Communication is the most neglected element in teaching foreign languages. Focused on grammar, exercises for which we can easily give marks and evaluation, we lose meaning and purpose of learning.
Andrea: True. But it starts very slow. Isn’t the lack of visible progress, discouraging students?
Pablo: This is one of the challenges of the method. During the first weeks when they only listen, progress can be unnoticed, but it’s there. Slowly in our brain we formed the structures that allow us to recognize words, and after some time to use them properly. But you have to have enough faith and perseverance not to give up after the first few lessons. The most helpful for that can be the examples of other students that have already gone through this stage and can show what they achieved in this way.
Talking about languages continued on throughout the evening, both at Pablo’s home, and on the street, where we ate some Thai food. Pablo finally used 2-3 words in Thai to explain to the seller that I don’t want shrimp in my salad. Neither too much chili. It was the first time I managed to enjoy my meal without worrying about finding meat inside (I'm vegetarian) and burning my mouth (which happened a few times).
During the dinner it started to rain, all in all it’s still the rainy season. Within a minute or two it became a huge downpour. Safe under a tin lid we listened to the drops which loudly bumped into the roof. People shelter into our canteen, open on the two sides. After a while we went back to the conversation, screaming above the rain.
Anna: Your way of thinking about the language is very close to our. In the last few months we have tried to break down communication barriers by organizing the sayBabel workshops, conducted entirely in English, in which participants could not only practice their language, but also talk about social sensitive issues like responsible consumption or human rights. The workshop showed a huge demand for this type of initiative. Thanks to them we managed to overcome the language barrier, but also build awareness on different kinds of social problems. What's more, the idea of sayBabel workshop begins to spread. This year sayBabel workshop will be organized in two cities: in Warsaw and Łódź thanks to a few people who decided to get involved even after our departure. In the future, if the idea proves to work properly, we want to try in other countries.
Pablo: I also wish my idea to spread widely. I'm not interested in the teacher's work as such. In fact, I am a computer scientist and I would be able to make money on that. Languages are my passion and I don’t mind earning a living on them; but my goal is to change the language education system in general, and not just to lead a few classes per week.
Andrea: Where do you want to change the education system? In Spain, Thailand?
Pablo: Everywhere. If the method works, why be limited to one country? I'll start probably from something small to show people that it works before I can spread it broader. I believe that it makes sense. That is why I came to Thailand, the only place where I found a course using a naturalistic approach, based on listening. Other people are becoming more and more interested: the first schools of this kind just opened now in Cambodia and Vietnam.
Anna: Do you practice the language also outside the class?
Pablo: Yes, watching movies and thanks to cross-teaching. I meet with a Thai friend, she speaks to me in Thai and I speak to her in English, so we both listen to an unknown language.
Anna: Is it possible to talk without knowing the words in another language?
Pablo: Of course! Do you want to try? I’ll speak Japanese, you’ll speak Polish and we try to create something together?
Anna: Japanese?! It's a completely different language, I don’t have any chance to understand a word!
Pablo: And I have no idea about Polish. Come on, let’s try.
Pablo took a few sheets of paper, markers, boards on which he had printed maps, a clock, seasons, colors. He started explaining to me some basic rules: we speak only in Japanese (Pablo) and Polish (Anna), no English. Communications can be supported with gestures and drawings. The point is trying to understand, I don’t have to memorize any word or repeat, nothing like that.
With my experience in teaching languages, including Polish, it was quite easy for me to communicate only in that language (Pablo says that most people have a problem with that at the beginning, they automatically switch to English while trying to explain something). The first few questions and answers seemed to be simple, using gestures and drawings we told each other our names and where exactly we live, which country, city, how many inhabitants. As time passes, we enter into more complex topics, like where did we travel in the past, with whom, for how long. I don’t know a word in Japanese, although it seemed not to bother me too much. There were some tricky parts, but eventually with the help of gestures, mimics and drawings I was able to catch the idea. After more than half an hour, we ended with a discussion about camels in Mongolia and jokes about transporting them to Africa.
When Pablo finished the session, I was surprised how quickly time had passed and how easy it was for us to discuss, and even make jokes while communicating in a completely unknown language, way far from what we use to communicate on a daily basis. I’m still not able to use any Japanese words, but I feel that I understand a little bit more. What’s more, I had a great time, I learned more about Pablo and I developed a bit of my creativity. What’s also important, such a cross teaching can be organized with any person who knows the language, without the need of special preparation. Knowledge about the basics of the method and believing that it can be done are completely enough.
Andrea: Looking from the outside, I was also able to keep up with the course of the conversation. With Anna we tried to do similar experiments, I spoke to her in Italian, she did to me in Polish, but both of us already had some basics of the language. And it turns out that you can chat even without knowing a single word!
Pablo: The most important is to break the communication barriers. People start to feel that they can do it, they are no longer afraid. At the same time the teacher speaks as much as he/she can, describing each action, so the student has many opportunities to listen to the language. It is also worth watching movies in a particular language, listening to music, people on the street. Speaking in Thai comes after about 800 hours of classes, but with other languages it’s much faster. According to what they say in school, after about 1,200 hours I should be able to communicate in Thai. What’s more, all the knowledge that I gain is much better memorized than during traditional lessons. This is not a mere memorization, but a process based on fun and authentic commitment.
I don’t know how it happened but when we had a look at the clock it was already 2 AM. At 9 Pablo goes to the next class, even though it’s Saturday. Slowly we are going to sleep, Pablo just sent me the address of his blog. Who knows, maybe we'll meet again, in Bangkok, or in any other country. Maybe for a language course? Pablo speaks in Spanish, Catalan, English, French, and Japanese. In a bit, the list will be extended with Thai. Everything he learned mainly by listening. When I think about it, I remember a lot of other people I met in Albania, Georgia or Portugal, which claimed that they learned English only by watching television. I was always surprised, but maybe it has more sense than I’ve ever thought. Well, the next movie we watch, surely will not be in English.