Put ten people in a classroom and try to teach them English
Put ten people in a classroom and try to teach them English. Some will learn like experts and some will come away with nothing but frustration. What gives?
After years of puzzling over it, I decided to go the source itself: the students.
“You don’t know anything about kids,” says an eleven-year-old, with that head shaking way kids have when they have to lower themselves to the level of an adult.
It turns out that kids don’t actually listen to their teachers when they “teach”. The kids sit in the classroom and whisper to each other. They doodle. They look out the window at the traffic or gaze at the picture of Piłsudski hanging on the wall and wonder why men don’t have moustaches like that anymore.
“So what’s your favourite subject?” I ask the same girl.
“Music,” she says. “The teacher is good. She shows us films, you know, learning films about how the instruments work. So then we know something. Then she talks to us about it. Every week there’s a test.”
“And what don’t you like?” I ask.
“When the teacher screams at us. It’s kind of rude. Or if you don’t know something they make you stand up and go to the board when you don’t want to. And when you don’t know something they say wrong. Do it again. Then wrong. Do it again.”
“So what’s the best kind of English lesson?” I ask.
“You could make like a party at Halloween. So something happens. You could make lots of cool things like that, but not too often or you wouldn’t learn anything. There should be lots of contests in groups with a cool prize like a bag of sweets. Sometimes teachers will show you something on the computer so it’s sort of interesting, like a picture of a pig and you’re supposed to say pig, It’s kind of fun, but it’s too easy.”
Now, let’s talk to a young adult, a biology student.
“I just sort of know English,” he says. “I don’t know how. Like I was born with it. But I speak English like I did from the fourth class. I haven’t learned nothing since then. That’s why it’s impossible.”
“What happened?” I asked. “How did you suddenly stop learning?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “But when I was a kid my mum drove me to pre-school and she used to talk to me in the car in English. And my dad bought me a PSP and I listened to all his Queen music. I was home alone and I was just listening over and over again to We Are The Champions. And suddenly I started to understand it.”
“But how do you study and remember things from biology?” I ask.
“I read the text and try to understand it. I make notes. I read those notes every day, or try to. Then I imagine I’m talking to someone about the things I am learning. And if it’s interesting I’m actually talking with my friends about that.”
It turns out, that although he can manage texts from English school books, when it comes to real English texts he has a problem finding the meaning. The leap from the classroom to the street can be daunting.
What I learned was that every student has his own techniques to learn. And he knows all about it, if you give him a chance to explain it. As for actual learning, we have a proverb in English: “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.”
In other words, find your own way to learn English and you’ll be laughing. Language isn’t knowledge that needs to be learned any more than riding a bike is. It’s more like a technique to get you where you want to go.