How can students learn a language best ?
Martin Williams interviews academics, teachers and multilingual speakers to find out more about the science behind learning a language.
Alex Rawlings was every language teacher’s dream . He fell in love with languages at the age of eight and soon learned Greek, German and Dutch.
He is now a university student at the University of Oxford and is the UK student who speaks multiple languages , eleven. So what’s its secret?
“I remember when I was a kid and I was on a beach in Greece with other people but I wasn’t able to talk to them,” Alex tells us. “I remember thinking it would be nice to chat with someone in their own language. This thought has never left me. “
An enthusiasm of this caliber is rare: a British Academy survey conducted this year shows a sharp drop in the quality of language skills. Furthermore, more and more young people are choosing not to continue their language studies beyond the compulsory period – and only 9% of the students who start the French GCSE reach the highest level.
“We are failing to stimulate people,” says Alex. “I have had both good and bad teachers – the most inspiring ones focused their efforts on trying to give you the confidence you need to converse. Later it was up to me to continue the work outside the classroom: watching movies, discovering new words and reading.
Linguistic pedagogy has come a long way since the days when repetitive grammar and translation exercises were considered the only valid method for learning a language. Today, task-based approaches are widespread in British schools, such approaches emphasize communication and practical use of the language .
According to Christelle Bernard, a French and Spanish teacher at St. Gemma’s High School in Belfast, these new teaching methods allow her to discard the textbook whenever she can. “We need some grammar, but my approach is much more focused on a specific topic and with as little grammar as possible,” he explains.
Its homework based teaching system embraces a range of ideas ranging from computer use to audiovisual systems to kinesthetic learning. He explains that: “If, for example, I am teaching animal names, I will bring plush animals to class for use during the lesson.”
“I hardly use a textbook – I use much more Twitter,” he tells us, describing his lessons in which students discuss about tweets written in French.
“Information and communication technologies (ICT) allow students to collaborate with others. Thanks to ICT pupils work together, in addition these technologies give them the opportunity to choose the means to work with. Furthermore, since the children are perfectly able to use a computer, a comfort zone is created within which students can concentrate on the language .
Task-based learning necessarily involves a vacuum of information: students must share information to communicate effectively, or they must research the grammar rules independently before reapplying them. It is one of the preferred approaches by Huw Jarvis, professor of humanities, languages and social sciences at the University of Salford. He tells us: “We know that people learn best when they struggle to communicate – so this must be the central purpose of delivery and methodology.”
“The main purpose of a language is to communicate – grammar is important, but there is a bigger picture to consider. Learning a language is no longer seen as learning through mechanical and repetitive exercises , but is developed through the interaction and involvement of students “.
However, according to Richard Hudson, an emeritus professor of linguistics at University College London, focusing too much on the task-based learning method may hide some risks. He explains: “We have seen a strong reaction directed against the grammar and translation system . Instead, the idea spread that a language could be made more accessible to school children by focusing only on communication. “
“However. what happened is that these kids got rid of grammar and translation. It is a classic case of throwing the baby away with dirty water. It is not correct for children to let them exercise outside the grammar rules. “
What we are aiming for now is a type of teaching that aims to train fluent speakers of a certain language , which pays attention to realistic situations and which places even more emphasis on making children aware of linguistic mechanisms “.
So, could a conjunction of different ideas about language pedagogy be the secret of teaching and learning? Michael Erard, in his book Babel No More studied the Hyperpliglotti and claims that they use a great variety of methods; reports that: “they employ a set of learning systems, with particular attention to the tasks to be completed, whether it be communication or translation activities”.
“What unites them is the fact that they have learned to learn and each of them has learned the best way to learn for him or her. There is no uniform method for everyone or a single secret that any of us can duplicate. “
Luca Lampariello, hyper-multilingual and linguistic consultant, who speaks twelve languages fluently , says: “The best method is the method you like”.
“Languages cannot be taught, only learned. The best way is to tell students that they are directly responsible for their learning process and that the teacher is a guide who has the task of motivating them. “
Another hyper-multilingual, Richard Simcott , 36, is one of the people who speak most languages in the UK: he has studied thirty languages and is able to converse using about twenty of them. ” My interest in languages was born at a young age, ” he tells us, “I was looking for a grammar book of a language that I liked, then I was looking for other materials that might interest me, TV programs, DVDs, music and websites.”
“Many students don’t see the importance of all this, so it’s certainly up to us to highlight it during the lessons. I would love to see more video links between the language classes of the various countries to bring the reality of the language spoken to children directly to their countries “.
However, the British have long had a reputation for being lazy when it comes to learning foreign languages , the problem may lie in part in the number of hours children spend studying languages. “We spend half the time teaching languages compared to the rest of continental European countries,” says Professor Hudson.