Which Method?

MyProfe   Monday, August 23, 2004, 15:22 GMT
Everything I know about teaching English as a second language in Spain I’ve learned from experience - trial and error. I used to feel insecure about not having any formal training or not following a specific method but not anymore. I’ve learned what works and doesn’t work from my students. Teaching is listening and coaching. It doesn’t matter how you do it.

It’s interesting to discuss the latest language acquisition theories and methodologies but when you’re limited to two visits a week to teach busy adults at their place of work the English they need to function in their jobs you have to come up with solutions to their immediate needs.
Gordon http://www.myprofe.com/tandem
Mxsmanic   Monday, August 23, 2004, 18:22 GMT
I fully agree. When you are teaching strongly motivated adults who are paying €80-€100 an hour to learn English and must become fluent or be fired from their jobs, you concentrate on whatever works, without much attention to theory. ESL teaching forces a teacher to learn to be pragmatic above all, which perhaps is a good thing. It does tend to pull one away from theoretical study that might nevertheless be useful over the long term. The more arcane discussions in linguistics I think aren't really useful to anyone except academics who have nothing else to do; ultimately they don't contribute to accumulated knowledge about language and they aren't useful at all for teaching it.

There are nevertheless a few cases in which I pull theory into the classroom. I have a keen interest in phonetics and phonetic transcription as tools for improving pronunciation and listening comprehension, but most teachers don't use these. I found out through my own experience that these methods work, so I use them.
CalifJim   Tuesday, August 24, 2004, 00:55 GMT
<<The more arcane discussions in linguistics I think aren't really useful to anyone except academics who have nothing else to do>>

I agree completely, except for the "have nothing else to do"!

Surely they have other things to do!

I'm on the fence with phonetics. I'd love to think it works, but my practical experience tells me it doesn't always. There are a certain number of individuals who seem simply unable to hear words phonetically. To them, words are meaning units only, and the idea of breaking words into tiny sound pieces strikes them as an impossible task. You can say [s] (pause)[i] (pause) [t] --- [sit] all day long and they're still going to look at you like you've got two heads! I believe the latest research gives evidence that it's actually a different brain wiring of some kind.

Vendler's event types theory sometimes comes in handy with the more advanced students. Not sure how useful it is with beginners - probably not at all.

The one thing that does drive me mad is the emphasis on knowing the lingo. What's a verb? What's a phrasal verb? What's a noun? Identify this tense: They will have been being smitten. --and such craziness, designed to help students pass written tests, as if passing such tests meant anything.
Mxsmanic   Tuesday, August 24, 2004, 04:15 GMT
Everyone breaks words down into sound segments, whether he realizes it or not. Some people do have trouble doing this consciously, though I haven't encountered any students personally who have this as a blocking issue.

It's not related to brain wiring, though, since everyone _has_ to do this unconsciously in order to understand and produce speech.

Vendler's theories--or indeed anything that is _theory_ alone--would be useless to my students, as they are to me. I tend to look at things in extremely pragmatic ways. That's why I'm an English teacher instead of a linguist.

The jargon is a problem for me as well, especially since monolingual grammarians and linguists tend to reinvent the wheel regularly and develop new terminology for old concepts. English grammar is especially replete with all sorts of English-specific terms even though English as a language is hardly unique and doesn't require its own grammar vocabulary. Lots of English grammarians spend their lives pouring over English and analyzing it and reanalyzing it ad nauseam, but none of this is useful to me in teaching. I normally speak of grammar only in the most practical terms, and I use only the most general terminology with students, as they are no more interested in determining how many angels can dance on the head of a pin than I am.

I don't say "identify this tense," for example, or at least not very often. Instead I say "what does it mean when you use this tense," which is much more important.

I suppose all this is important for written tests on grammar, but my students pay to learn to communicate in English, not to pass tests (except for certain tests like the TOEIC), so we generally skip all the rules and terminology, thank goodness.
MyProfe   Tuesday, August 24, 2004, 09:52 GMT
What a relief to find people who understand where I’m coming from. As a self-taught, bilingual, freelance, ESL teacher working on my own in Madrid I don’t have any time or opportunities to “talk shop” with other teachers. So I recently signed up in a few of these forums to see what I could learn. To my disappointment, aside from picking up the latest terminology used to describe what I’ve already learned on my own, the experience has been rather unpleasant. I don’t understand where these “monolingual grammarians and linguists” get their sense of superiority. They treat me like an ignorant, intruder in their temple of knowledge. What they don’t realize is that they wouldn’t last a day in my shoes.
Gordon http://www.myprofe.com/tandem
Tom   Tuesday, August 24, 2004, 17:08 GMT
Please, no gratuitous posting of URLs.
Mxsmanic   Tuesday, August 24, 2004, 18:19 GMT
When someone is keenly interested in something, if there are no obvious outlets for that interest, sometimes he can become so specialized and preoccupied with the interest that he loses all touch with reality. This happens to all sorts of "experts" in all sorts of fields, and linguistics is no exception. There's a huge difference between the linguists who live in ivory towers and think up ever more complicated ways to describe things that have long been known already, and people who must actually work with language in one way or another for a living.

I think ESL is one of the most down-to-earth domains of teaching and linguistics, at least for teachers who take it serious. Students pay a lot of money to learn English (I've known some who emptied their savings to pay for it), and they want results, not theory. I try to give them what they pay for. If they can walk out of a class spouting the latest fashionable jargon for self-evident linguistic truths, I guess that's okay; but the real objective is for them to walk out of a class with the ability to read, write, speak, and understand English.

I don't entirely disdain theory; I explain it when I think it will help a student
to understand some concept that will speed his acquisition of proficiency in English. But I don't discuss theories that do not help him towards this goal, nor am I interested in such theories myself. I've never been a big fan of pure sciences; I prefer applied sciences.

Here in France, students leave public school with the ability to diagram an English sentence and separate it into pluperfect passive emotive verbal phrasal affricate subglottal suprasegments, but they cannot write or utter an intelligible sentence of their own. For that, they need ESL classes. They leave ESL classes without any notions of sentence diagramming or specialized linguistic vocabulary, but they can communicate in English. And let's face it, for 99.99999% of the population, language is a tool--a means to an end--and not an isolated object of interest in itself.
CalifJim   Wednesday, August 25, 2004, 07:01 GMT
I love linguistics. At the same time, I realize it's a specialized sort of hobby for me, and most people find it incomprehensible, if not just plain boring!

I like to keep up with what's going on in linguistics because I find that it stimulates me to think in certain directions I may not have thought of before. It may actually lead to an easier way to teach certain ESL topics at times.

But don't get me wrong. I would not and do not teach linguistics nor any of its terminology to ESL students. I believe that I should be the intermediary who can take some good theoretical ideas and develop ways to apply them to my teaching in a practical way. If all works according to plan, the students learn more easily and have no idea that you are using ideas from linguistics to make it easy for them.