I had one of those great days at school today. It was the kind of day when at one point, things click into place.
Yesterday, we practiced a controlled speaking activity, namely making a complaint at the hotel. Students had rehearsed the dialogue in pairs when I asked some people to perform it in front of the class. To add a little bit of challenge, I asked two random students – not the ones that had practiced the dialogue together. Although this group is normally exceptionally articulate, I had to conclude that in this case, they were not as fluent as they should be. After this feedback, one of the students asked if the reason why they were not so fluent might be that they didn’t get enough language drill in class. I reminded him that they had studied the functional language beforehand and had plenty of practice. Unfortunately, at this point, the lesson was almost over so I didn’t have time to further elaborate on this.
Today, I felt a strong urge to come back to his question. Despite my concerns that I might end up on thin ice, I explained that research into SLA suggests that people learn languages best when they learn them implicitly, i.e. unconsciously. I explained the difference between explicit and implicit and gave them a few examples. I told them that language drills would probably fall into the explicit instruction category. I added that I had nothing against drills and that that they can be useful. However, I expressed my belief that as for the speaking activity we had done, drilling would not be the ultimate solution. At the same time, I admitted to myself that I should probably include more opportunities for my students to practice this type of spoken interaction.
Coincidentally, we have an exchange student from Brazil who attends some of the English lessons with this group. We normally speak English in class but today, we had a short conversation in Czech. To my (and my students’) utter amazement, she understood everything I said and responded promptly and fluently. I didn’t even have to slow down or repeat myself. This is absolutely amazing because she has only been exposed to Czech for eight months!
I obviously asked her how she thought she had managed to learn the language so quickly. She told us that she had done so by lots of practice. She added that she felt that everything I had said about implicit learning is right. Then she explained what she meant; her host ‘mother’ doesn’t speak a word of English or Portuguese, so they can only communicate in Czech at home. The girl is by no means an average L2 learner; she is highly motivated and judging by how fluent she is in English, has a high aptitude for learning languages. By the way, I once tried to teach some Czech to a well-educated Australian and he could probably attest to the fact that Czech is a terribly difficult language to learn, particularly through deliberate study. The thing is that once you try to understand the grammar, you immediately lose patience. It’s simply too much to grasp.
To be completely honest, I was a little worried yesterday because I thought that maybe the rest of the class shared the student’s concerns about the lack of drill. So I obviously felt relieved today, especially when I saw many students nodding in agreement while I talked about SLA research and even more so when the exchange student chipped in and shared her experience. Also, for a fleeting moment, I felt eternally grateful to Geoff Jordan and his indomitable perseverance to keep us teachers informed. But I also felt deeply grateful to the student who said he lacked drill because he gave me a rare opportunity to justify my teaching principles in front of the whole class.