On fluidity of language teaching

Although it happened almost twenty years ago, I remember this language situation as if it happened yesterday. I asked a native speaker of English, a young guy from South Africa teaching EFL at the local grammar school, if he could help me write up my curriculum vitae. I wasn’t exactly a proficient writer at that time and I needed it to sound perfect and professional since the CV was part of an official grant proposal. Long story short, he actually wrote up the whole thing for me. And it was perfect and professional. While reviewing it contentedly, I came across a structure which struck me: I am attending an artistic school in my village and I have been since 1983.

At first I thought he must have made an error. I mean, I knew the present perfect continuous structure like the back of my hand: I have been + verb-ing + since/for/etc. So I asked him tentatively about the missing verb-ing form. He retorted that everything was perfectly all right with the sentence; nothing was missing. I wasn’t 100% convinced so asked why he had used such an odd structure and not the one everyone (= coursebooks) used. I remember he shrugged his shoulders and said something along these lines: Well, I don’t know. We simply do so. We normally use this in formal correspondence, for example. It’s absolutely correct.

I gave in. I surrendered. I doubtfully acknowledged the correctness of the sentence and went on living my life. Until it sank in many years later. I don’t remember when and under what circumstances but it suddenly dawned on me. I accepted it and made it part of my active L2 inventory. The thing is that within the slot between not understanding and sinking in I never used the structure because I felt it wasn’t safe. Nobody had explained it to me sufficiently; hence I couldn’t use it properly.

I remember I had the same feeling of helplessness when I was introduced to may/might/could well. You can try the shop but it may well be closed now. I really struggled to get it right. Sometimes I feel I still use it incorrectly, or rather excessively, and I think I know why… because when I first came across this bit I was enrolled in an English course based on pure communicative language teaching. This meant NO translation. NEVER. Even nowadays I can visualize the room, the coursebooks, and the fantastic NNS teacher/trainer who did her best to teach us some English grammar along with a few basic communicative language teaching principles. Rule number one was, obviously, NO Czech in the lessons. She simply left us to our own devices and I don’t doubt she thought she was doing the right thing; she wanted to make us search and explore whenever we struggled with a difficult language point. But for some reason, back then, it was hard for me to find the meaning of a whole chunk in a dictionary (mind you, I didn’t know what internet was at that time!). Yes, I could find individual words and their direct translations but longer phrases were tricky.

The story has some implications for my professional life, i.e. professional life of a language teacher. When I think about it now, a little bit of linguistic knowledge on the part of the NS would have been beneficial. Back then, I needed a simple, rational explanation, which, unfortunately, the teacher wasn’t able to provide. In the second situation, all I needed was the direct translation and, unlike a NS, the NNS was capable of providing it on the spot. I often think of these two situations when teaching my own English classes. The point is that it’s not necessary to stick to the rules of the mainstream/fashionable language teaching at all costs. The priority is our students’ needs. It’s also good if teachers are willing to go into metalinguistic discussions now and then, especially if they feel it is the only and ultimate option which will help the students to fully grasp a language point.

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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4 Responses to On fluidity of language teaching

  1. mc says:

    Hi Hana,
    I enjoyed reading your post and I agree that teachers should use all the tools they have available to help their students understand and progress. I use translation into L1 at times in my classroom because it's quick, it's concrete and it gives us more time for students to practice the target language.
    Related to your post, an issue comes to mind concerning the terms NS and NNS, which seem to be what everybody's talking about lately. I am an NS but I speak my students' L1 at a high level. I think I bring to the table the advantages associated with being both an NS and an NNS but there's no label that really fits. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I think these terms should be considered as part of a broad spectrum instead of as two separate and distinct labels. I wondered what were your thoughts on the topic. Micaela Carey

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  2. Sn says:

    Nodding in agreement all the way through your post, Hana. And wonderful to read Micaela's thoughts on the polarising effect of using NS / NNS categories unfairly, which is something I often did, too, especially when so many people still think non-native ENglish teachers are bz definition inferior to the native speakers.
    To your post, I agree completely that an outright ban on L1 is an extreme measure, especially with adult learners who are often in a very fragile position in the L2 classroom. Whenever there is an interesting point to be made on the particular usage of L2, comparing it with L1 opens up wonderful opportunities. Apart from other things, it also encourages appreciation of the great variety and richness of both languages, which is always fascinating. That's learning, after all, using something we already know to learn something new. And there are unlimited possibilities either online or elsewhere for the learners to be completely immersed in L2, and so the short time we occasionally decide to use L1 in the classroom surely won't lead to a total collapse of the learning process. On the contrary, using it in the right time creates invaluable moments.

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  3. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks for your comment, Micaela.

    It's really interesting what you say about the need to take the terms 'NS' and 'NNS' as part of a broad spectrum, not as two separate distinct labels. You are absolutely right. I'd add that it would be great if we didn't use any labels at all but I'm dreaming now. In those times I'm describing in my post, native speakers were something truly exceptional. There was no other way for learners to come into contact with the target language, so you can imagine how admiringly we looked at native speakers. Nowadays, with the advance of technology and all the travel opportunities we have, the distinction makes no sense any more. We can be taught be a highly qualified and proficient NNS and then, in a matter of seconds, go and chat with NSs on the internet. Ironically, now that the dividing line should be blurred and gradually disappear, it’s become even more distinct – maybe because we make it distinct by incessant discussions about the necessity to erase it.

    Hana

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  4. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks for visiting and commenting, Marián.

    I love what you say about the value of variety and richness we can find when comparing L1and L2. Yes, I agree that young learners are fragile but even now, when I consider myself a proficient speaker of English and an autonomous learner, I use translation more than ever before. I simply enjoy looking at all the nuances and curiosities of the languages.
    As you put it eloquently, learning is using something we already know to learn something new. Yes, very well-said. This gets me thinking … with all the unlimited possibilities, there’s so much which is new. This may become overwhelming so why not let our students feel safe for a while and hold on to something familiar. Why should we deprive them of possibilities we can offer if we believe they will foster learning.

    Hana

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