Earlier today, a friend of mine sent me a link to this video (don’t click the link if you don’t speak Czech) and asked me what I think. In the interview, Milan Šácha, a Czech teacher of English, shares his personal beliefs about the best way to teach English. He also describes what he does in his private courses.
It’s undoubtedly a very interesting talk. For many reasons. While I agree with many of the things mentioned in the video, I very strongly disagree with some points. Also, I don’t really mind when people implicitly promote their products (courses, books, etc.) but it usually makes me sit up and take notice when people do so by publicly claiming that others do the same thing badly.
Anyway, since the video is all in Czech, I decided to give a free translation for those who haven’t had the opportunity to learn this amazing language. 🙂 Here are some of the highlights of the interview.
Czechs don’t speak English but a type of universal Esperanto.
They can’t learn English properly because they learn from global coursebooks. This is bad so the guy decided to write his own coursebook.
Situation is one of the six words which constitute the whole vocabulary of the Czech population (along with opinion, problem, advantage, and pity). The guest goes on to give a few funny examples of how people use the words in sentences, such as It’s a big pity.
It’s not just Czechs who speak bad English, it’s pretty much the same everywhere – with the exception of Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Scotland (a joke). These countries have a higher level of L2 proficiency due to the fact that their native languages are similar to English and that they use subtitles in movies. The long tradition of dubbing in the Czech Republic has been detrimental to our English proficiency.
These days, people who come to his courses are aware of the fact that they can’t speak good English. In the past, people were convinced that they could speak English well. However, these people were hopeless; when he wanted them to translate something, they did very badly. For example, sometimes he wants a Czech person to translate Jak to funguje? (How does it work?), but they come up with Function it how?
The presenter argues that when visiting Indonesia, she managed with the Sometimes sunny phrase. The guy replies that you can make do with this phrase all around the world. But he is a demanding teacher. When his customer’s goal is to merely communicate in English, he sends them away. He teaches real English, not simple English.
The presenter asks what the most common mistakes are. According to the guest, it would probably be wonder or wish as in I wish I didn’t have to go there.
Another question the presenter asks is what spoils our English and makes it so unelegant. The guest maintains that people go to school and learn English for 20 years through grammar explanations and then all of a sudden, they come across real English. These people are desperate and often blame themselves for their inability to speak this real English but it’s not their fault. There are no materials to learn from.
According to the guest, the trick is to find a good teacher. Globally produced coursebooks, such as Headway and Project English, are terrible. They are boring. School principals buy them because they don’t understand the problem. Moreover, there are many bad teachers. Not all teachers are bad though. There are good teachers too but their hands are tied. They get caught in a vicious circle; the coursebooks are supposed to help students to get ready for their exams and the exams are designed to be in alignment with the coursebooks. Many people make money out of this system, but he’s fine with that. What he doesn’t understand is that oftentimes the exams don’t test English but logic.
The presenter seems to acknowledge the fact that global coursebooks are bad by implying that a Czech learns English in a different way than an Austrian after all. The guest nods in agreement. He adds that Murphy’s grammar books and books by Michael Swan are good. However, they are global too and thus don’t meet the needs of Czech learners.
This guy doesn’t teach beginners. Having said that, he’s aware that it’s difficult to unteach and unlearn fossilized errors his more advanced learners have collected over the past twenty years of crappy teaching. It takes a lot of energy and determination on the learner’s part. But if they are unwilling to change, he sends them away. He wants to teach nice English. Then the presenter shows a video in which a leading politician speaks with a heavy Czech accent. The presenter asks the guest how he would help such a student. He responds that he would probably refuse to teach him because it would be difficult to fix his terrible accent. He adds that it doesn’t matter anyway because these people (read: politicians) probably have different priorities than have a decent accent.
They come back to the subject of bad coursebooks. Isn’t it an alibi for the teachers? Isn’t it the teacher, rather than the coursebook, who teaches the language? Or, is it really impossible, even for an excellent teacher, to teach with a crappy coursebook? > No! It’s not possible to teach well with a bad coursebook. You would have to make your own materials but this may be a problem because the curriculum may not allow it. If you try anyway, you might have a problem with the administrators or the parents. They will criticize you for not helping their kids to pass their exams (because they couldn’t tell the difference between despite and ?). The guy has friends at primary and secondary schools who do their best but again, their hands are tied. He sympathises with them because, honestly, if you put him in front of a bunch of teenagers, some of them would inevitably get into real trouble.
The presenter then poses a critical question: how does he do it then? Isn’t it a hopeless situation? Well, he is not part of the system so unfortunately, he can’t change a thing. But he is lucky because he only teaches highly motivated learners. He wouldn’t have the nerve to teach otherwise. He teaches groups of 10 students tops, which is a perfect number. He says that 15 would be too many.
He argues that there are two myths: 1) that native speakers are the best teachers and 2) that 1-2-1 teaching is the best. Re point 2, although it sounds logical, teaching 1-2-1 is not necessary because all Czechs make the same mistakes. So teaching a group of 100 Czechs is more efficient than explaining the same thing 100x to 100 individual students.
What does he actually do in his lessons? He speaks for 45 minutes – he tells stories, for example. Then the students work in pairs and do a speaking task for the next 45 minutes. He can assign any topic and the students confidently discuss it. Any newcomers always have to adjust to the routines of the existing group. This saves him a lot of time and energy. The class actually shapes the new member in a desirable way, i.e. if a student comes unprepared, the others will show they don’t like it. The teacher listens, monitors and takes notes. Then he sends them the recording of the lesson. They appreciate the fact that they can listen to the whole thing again because they are usually tired and sleepy while in the lesson so afterwards they barely remember they were present.
Re native speakers, the guest asks the presenter a tricky question: Would you be able to teach Czech to foreigners? She resolutely says no. The conclusion seems to be that since neither the presenter nor the guest know the rules of the Czech language, and thus wouldn’t be able to teach it to foreigners, native speakers can’t teach English either. The best teacher is someone who learned the L2.
The guest admits that in the first five years, he taught English badly. He used coursebooks and presented to his students the bits he found interesting. After he got some valuable advice from an outer source, he changed his teaching style completely – he started speaking English in the lessons. He got some very positive reactions. Then he kept refining his methods for the next 5-10 years. For example, he discovered the best lesson starter (a translation exercise).
When the presenter asked whether his method is teachable, he resolutely replies that it isn’t. Actually, some of his former students teach but he doesn’t have any reports on how they are doing. When asked if he knows what he’s doing, he says that it’s mostly intuitive but yes, he knows what he’s doing.
So, how different is his coursebook from other coursebooks? Well, the main difference is that there’s real English and real Czech in it. We Czechs allegedly like vocabulary lists. But a foreign language is best learned through context and collocations, he argues.
Are certificates useless? He admits he doesn’t know. But he insists that most exams don’t test real English. By the way, he isn’t familiar with the CEFR scale.
On a more positive note, he sounds pretty optimistic when speaking about the young generation. They have amazing opportunities. Still, he can sometimes hear terrible English from youngsters. Not in his courses, from other classrooms. Because he mainly teaches talented kids.
What about technology? He’s quite sceptical because you must primarily use the language and practice speaking.
In his courses, I suppose. 🙂