When I was registering for another ILC IH Brno conference earlier in October, I noticed that they were offering two workshops for teachers of German. This tweak immediately caught my attention, mainly because this was the first time the organizers had included another foreign language in the conference programme (at least as far as I know).
Despite my rather limited knowledge of German, I worked out that both presentations were aimed at helping teachers find ways of motivating students to learn the rather unpopular language. Although I’ve never taught German and I’m not planning to, I eventually decided to go and listen to two talks done in a language I understand but can’t speak. I knew that it was a big step out of my comfort zone, but for some reason, I simply couldn’t resist. Needless to say, I gained some really valuable experience during this ‘experiment’ and made a couple of interesting observations, as a learner as well as an EFL teacher.
The first presenter was a non-native speaker of German. She spoke fast but quite clearly, so I could understand most of what she was saying. My success was partly influenced by the fact that she spoke about something I was familiar with. i.e. language teaching. I estimate my receptive knowledge of German to be somewhere around the B2 level (my bold guess), which means that I can understand discussions about some topics (and some German dialects) without major difficulties. My productive knowledge, though, is less satisfactory – currently around A1-A2 level. This means that I can only produce simple sentences, but I believe that if I was given plenty of speaking opportunities and time to practise, my speaking skills would probably improve quickly.
Anyway, due to the above discrepancy, I felt rather frustrated during both presentations. I’d describe the way I felt as a sort of paralysis, and I imagine this is how innocent victims of devious villains respond when administered a dose of curare – they can sense everything, but they can’t move a single muscle. My frustration wouldn’t have been a big deal really, but when we were asked to work in groups or pairs, I was sad that I couldn’t contribute to the discussion sufficiently. I’m afraid this often happens to our students too and we teachers often misjudge this as a lack of enthusiasm. Luckily, the teacher and the other participants were endlessly patient with me (plus they could speak Czech or English), which made me feel relatively safe. So my first observation is that the gap between the passive and active knowledge of a foreign language can be enormous and that the Silent Period is a theory that should be respected.
The other speaker was a native speaker of German and although I had already tuned in a bit during the first presentation, I had real trouble to follow this one. Thus, I infer that non-native speaking language teacher can sometimes be advantageous, especially for less confident or less proficient students. Fortunately, the native speaking teacher was very expressive, using plenty of facial expressions and pantomime, which often helped me to finally get the meaning of what she was saying. Again, the topic was familiar to me, which definitely eased the burden of the enormous language load constantly thrown at me. By the way, when I got home, I noticed that my neck was somewhat stiff, probably from all the nodding which, on a very subconscious level, was to make up for the lack of productive skills on my part. What now comes to mind is the indisputable merit of Total Physical Response.
Some other things that helped me a lot were the visuals, board work, lots of repetition and occasional translation – from German to Czech or English. The fact that I wasn’t forbidden to use my mother tongue (or a language I speak fluently) made a huge difference to my experience. What springs to mind now is the ongoing debate regarding the use of L1 in an L2 classroom.
While listening to both presenters, I suddenly got a very clear idea of how foreign languages should be taught. Not that I hadn’t had a firm opinion before. I mean, I myself have been a language teacher for more than two decades, which has definitely made me an experienced professional in my own field of expertise. However, the fact that I’m familiar with all sorts of teaching methods doesn’t necessarily make me aware of all the problems a foreign language learner faces on a daily basis. It is experience that is often the best teacher.