Learning a language has four areas that need to be addressed equally if it is to be successful:
- reading (visual input)
- writing (visual output)
- listening (auditory input)
- speaking (auditory output)
- a friend of mine spent his very early years in Japan before moving to the UK until after university. He could speak Japanese fluently but couldn't really read or write, except in hiragana.
- my son, now in the UK, watches Japanese TV and films, and listens to his mum in Japanese, but hasn't much cause to speak it, so he is receptive to Japanese only. This is common for kids in the UK where one parent comes from a country that doesn't have a strong in-country community (for example Chinese, SE Asian or Muslim).
- I'm far better at reading and writing Japanese than my dreadful spoken efforts would suggest.
Will argues that any approach to training needs to focus on:
“What do learners need to be able to do, and in what situations do they need to do those things?”But surely being able to read, write, listen to and speak a language is at the base of any language teaching?
Hmm, not really.
In schools the focus of language teaching is to pass exams. Vocabulary is taught in sets, small tests follow and on you go; group listening tests; paired communication exercises typically read out of a book. Rarely is there any ability to focus on those aspects that might encourage trying to embrace speaking it in a situation where the learner may find themselves.
In evening classes my experience has often been on blindly following a book. The pace will not match the abilities of the class and the learning benefit of in-class time is largely negligible.
My experience of the eikaiwa teaching environment is that the focus is very much on simply entertaining students and maintaining an illusion of progress, as long as the students return each week and pay their dues.
For the lone language learner there are patterns in the training material you are most likely to encounter that lead us away from the ideal:
- most traditional courses (Mina-no-Nihongo, JBP and so on) are built in precisely the same way, mostly around use of the book, with a variety of additional texts to boost takings (the CDs and practise books). While fans of each will argue the toss on the relative merits, they are mostly talking about the nature of the vocabulary taught, for in learning approach they are essentially equal.
- the JPod101 model, great though it is, is hit and miss. It offers far greater access to useful listening exercises, and even provides, as its subscriber service, access to written material. But in targeting lone students it excludes speaking practice almost entirely.
So, what's the alternative? Well, I'm going to save that until my next post. In the meantime, don't forget to ask yourself the following question as you learn.
"How will I benefit from studying this and how will I use it in practice?"
If you can't think of a reason for studying it, give yourself a break and try to find something useful to learn. Or else go out and engineer a situation where you can use it.