Outdated Methods and Low-Expectations in Language Learning and Teaching

In Uncategorized on December 6, 2010 at 4:38 pm

By Antonio Graceffo


My entire Vietnamese course consists of a single textbook, THE textbook for Saigon, two teachers, and a whiteboard. There is nothing else. There are no videos, no significant listening exercises, no workbook, no supplemental reading, no newspaper articles, and no novels or stories.


I asked my teacher if there were other materials I could by to supplement our learning. She said, “No, this book is enough.”


My reply was, “Oh, this book is enough? I feel like an idiot. Here I was, thinking this book wasn’t enough, and now I find out that it is enough.”


Obviously the book is not nearly enough. I wound up having to order a course from the United States. According to one of my boxer friends who is a linguistic savant, the American Foreign Service Institute has the single most advanced Vietnamese program in the world.


I asked my teacher “Why is it that studying in Vietnam, I had to order learning materials from the United States?”


My teacher’s answer was, “We have only been teaching Vietnamese to foreigners for about ten years, so there aren’t any materials yet.”


I told her, “You may have only been teaching Vietnamese for ten years, but Vietnamese people have been sitting on this language for thousands of years. You would think, somewhere in that time, someone would have thought to write a supplementary exercise book or make a video.”


In the end, I had to admit that I could learn Vietnamese faster back home. Ok, here, I get about twenty minutes of real language practice on the streets, in normal everyday life, but you could compensate for that with an extra hour in the language lab every day, back in Vermont or New York or Alabama. Yes, you could learn Vietnamese better in Alabama.


One of my classmates, call him Koji Sazuki, studied Japanese in Japan. He said that he had studied Japanese in Japan. The program had a very structured approach: So many hours of listening, hours of reading newspaper articles, watching the news, speaking, and other skill. Obviously, they had materials and technology which aided the language acquisition process.


But it cost a fortune to study in Japan. Studying in Vietnam only costs two hundred dollars a month for a twenty-hour per week course.


One of our other classmates, call him Jung Ji-Hoon, talked about studying in an intensive program in Korea. He said that they used a similar, scientific approach to language acquisition, like in Japan, but without the real-life news and newspaper classes.


“After a year of studying Korean, we couldn’t read a newspaper because all we learned was conversation.”


This made sense. This is the same weakness in our Vietnamese program and in most of the ESL programs I have taught in. The main focus is always speaking. And by speaking, they mean conversation. In this way, you produce graduates who can’t listen to a native speaker, so their communication is bad. Next, they can’t read at native speaker level, so they can’t actually read a newspaper, let alone a novel. And of course, they couldn’t write a term-paper.


The final chapter in our Vietnamese book is “Where do you study Vietnamese?” Chapter three was entitled, “Where do you work?” It’s pretty much the same vocabulary. And neither chapter would help you read a novel.


In the book store at my university they have Lance Armstrong’s book, “It’s Not About the Bike”, written in Vietnamese. It is a bit ironic that my inspiration for studying Vietnamese is so that I can read an inspirational book, but that is my goal, to read Lance Armstrong’s book in Vietnamese.


And looking at our course, I can predict that on an unlimited time line, I will never get there.


After living and studying in Japan for ten years, Koji Sazuki spent a year studying in China. From what he describes, the program in China was little better than our program in Vietnam. He said that he asked the teachers why they didn’t create materials such as videos. The teachers told him there was no profit in producing Chinese language videos because they would immediately be pirated. So, they just didn’t do it. I assume Vietnam is the same way. The US can keep producing materials, because we enforce copyright laws, and because no school in the US would intentionally use pirated materials.


I really don’t care what materials my program does or doesn’t use. What I care about is how fluent we can get. So far, none of us are even functional.


The main thing that is preventing my classmates and me from being able to communicate in spoken Vietnamese is a lack of listening. My vocabulary now is quite large, but since no one can understand what I say, I am still pretty helpless. In our textbook, there are two listening exercises in each chapter, totaling less than three minutes of listening per chapter. With twelve chapters in the book, we will get less than a half hour of listening by the end of our course.


Vietnamese is a Category 3 language. The Foreign Service Institute and Defense Language Institute both rate Vietnamese as needing 800 hours of study to reach fluency.


David Long, the leading expert on Automatic Language Growth (ALG), a listening-based language acquisition method, said that one of the reasons listening isn’t taught in foreign language classrooms is that it can’t be measured. Education has become business. And if you can’t quantify something, you can’t sell it. Also, there is a perception, that if the teacher is playing CDs and listening exercises for the students, then the teacher isn’t working. And no one wants to pay the teacher for doing nothing.


So, listening gets reduced to less than ten minutes per chapter. This isn’t an opinion, this is a fact. Open any standard language textbook and count the number of minutes of listening per chapter. You would be shocked at just how little listening there in an entire book.


I support David and believe that listening is extremely important. However, my background is in translation which has a slightly different goal than ALG. In ALG the goal is to produce adults with native-like pronunciation and usage. The ultimate test would be, if a non-native speaker were on the phone, would a Thai person believe he was speaking to another Thai? In translation, on the other hand, at the level taught in Germersheim, Germany, students are expected to reach full, complete, 100% academic fluency in their main foreign language, at a level appropriate for an adult college graduate.


To this end, I attended university lectures and courses, taught only in German. For my Spanish, I went to a German translation school in Salamanca. Afterwards, I attended business school in Costa Rica, studying economics, finance, and accounting, obviously all of my courses were taught in Spanish and I was the only foreigner in the course.


My pronunciation is not native-like. So, an ALG student would rate better than me on that parameter. But, when I went to work in the financial industry in New York, I gave two to three financial planning seminars in Spanish or Italian (very occasionally also in German) each week, followed by question and answer sessions, with investors, which could go on for hours. From each of these seminars I would generally be asked by ten percent of the participants to attend their company or come to their home to give a personalized presentation, do a financial planning analysis and recommend an investment portfolio for them, all in the target language.


This required a native-like education in very specific areas of finance and investing, which a normal native speaker wouldn’t know.


Imagine explaining actuarial tables and mortality rates to someone in a foreign language.


Obviously, the Vietnamese program taught in the university in Vietnam will not get us to this level of fluency. And neither will ANY of the ESL programs I have seen in Asia because none of them ever have a shift from ESL textbooks to real books, designed for native speakers.


To achieve the specialized fluency demanded by my old job, in addition to working as a translator, I also read constantly.


How many books did you read cover to cover during four years of college? How many books have you read in your lifetime in your native tongue? That is the number you need to read in your target language to reach true academic fluency.


In most ESL programs, and nearly all foreign language programs in Asia, a student, completing the program will read between zero and three native-speaker books. In university programs in Asia, students majoring in English will generally read less than a handful of full-length English books. People I work with, who have a BA in English, tell me they can’t understand more than 10% of a CNN news-report.


If you open the average ESL book or the average foreign language textbook you will find very limited reading exercises. My current Vietnamese textbook has no reading exercises at all. There are dialogues and grammar substitution drills, but we don’t do actual reading of articles. In my Vietnamese textbook from when I studied in Hanoi, there was a total of six reading texts, each only half a page in length, for entire semester.


Popular ESL books, such as Headway, New English File, and Word Pass, usually have three reading texts of not more than half a page per chapter.


One of the reasons, I suspect, why intensive reading was cut from foreign language programs is, once again, because if the students sit at their desks, reading silently, there is a perception that the teacher isn’t working. So, the first step was probably to assign the readings as homework. This way, in class, the teacher would just go over the texts with the students. But, as most students don’t do their homework, teachers were faced with the choice of; having the students read the text in class, which is a no-no because that means the teacher isn’t working, or cut the reading from the curriculum entirely.


Whatever the reason, reading was mostly cut from programs and listening was all but eliminated.


My classmates and I can’t understand a Vietnamese news report., and neither can my best ESL students who have been studying English for years. Using the methodologies taught here, I don’t think we will never be able to.


Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.


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