This is a short break from the regular programming, just to tell you one thing: I’m writing something I’ve always wanted to write. The first book (go buy it here!) helped me realise what comes next. This is a quick preview – hope you enjoy it, please share your thoughts however you wish!
McLanguage: Here’s what I did with folks like you in language schools.
Your ideas for learning a new language would probably, at some point at least, involve signing up for a course in a language school. This is how it’s done, right? Those people know what to do and they’ve been helping others learn a language. It’s bound to work for you as well.
This is true in many cases and false – disappointingly, jaw-droppingly false – in others. I’ve been through several language schools, in several roles: as a learner, a teacher, a manager of other teachers, and an education consultant. Let me take you on a quick tour of some of those – a bit like “the ghost of language schools past,” I’ll show you a bit of a cautionary tale here.
Let’s say you were one of my students and I was one of your language teachers. I may still be able to recognize your face, but probably not your name. There were a lot of other people in your class, and a lot of other classes I had to teach. The course may have been an intensive, short-term affair, or a year-long evening experience. This, in the end, mattered less than we both would think.
Do you think I had a lot of influence over what was taught? Not really. The syllabus was given out in advance: by the end of your course, you should be able to do this-and-that, using those grammar structures and those words. I, in turn, should deliver a given amount of tests, check homework so many times, and cover all the material from the book which you paid for.
If you didn’t do your learning, you failed and had to do this over again. If I didn’t do my teaching, you failed and had to do this over again. If other students in your class learned faster and got ahead, you stayed behind – you failed and had to do this over again.
Oh, of course the temptation was there to just forget about the book, the tests and all that – sit down and have a chat with you! The other people were the problem here, you see: my boss would be asking why material isn’t covered and whether we should give you more homework – other teachers moaned about having to “catch up” on the book just because I’d spent the previous lesson chatting – and other students were insisting on using the book they’d paid for, getting tested and having their homework corrected.
And – hey, by the end of the course all was well. You got better – it said so right there on your final test paper. You won. You succeeded. You could join the next level and do this all over again.
I knew this all along. Then I started managing teachers. So if you’d known me as a teacher, you would expect me to change this. To turn things around and fix them, right?
I had 40 hours each week to make sure everyone was happy. On a busy week, 25 of those hours were spent teaching. In a medium-sized school, there was always a teacher with an emergency, a holiday or such – and there was rarely an assistant to cover their classes. So – tag, I was it. I walked into your class with deadlines to meet, places to be, lots of other things on my plate. My teaching was worse, even worse than when I was “just” teaching – with little planning, no knowledge of what you were up to, what you were struggling with. It was more of the same.
Bu even if I had all those 40 hours to myself – even if I could spend the whole week fixing and creating and changing things – I did only a fraction of it. The school was a business, you see, and had to pay for itself. You were a paying customer, a source of income. We had to get as many “yous” as possible in class, week by week, to stay afloat. And we had to keep as many of “yous” here as possible. To do this, we had to be efficient, be respectable, and play by the rules.
This meant more classes of 12 (twelve is a magic number: you can work in pairs, threes, fours, two teams of six, and so on…not much individual attention, twelve’s not good for that, but hey). This meant inspections and ticking boxes. This meant more syllabuses and more tests to make sure you move on. This meant it was perfectly OK to “fire” one over-ambitious learner just to keep the 11 seats occupied by people who did homework, sat tests and got on with it. It meant we could phone your employer, or your agent, or your parents at the end of the course and say: “good news! She did it. She is now a level higher and can come back to us and do this all over again.”
When I met other teachers and teacher bosses, we shared stories and they were all the same. There was an idea, once, a brave plan. There was a way out, a clean slate. Two inspections and three coursebook changes ago, we may have even remembered what it was…
Before that – much, much earlier – you may have been one of my classmates. I learned three languages in language classes: English, German and French.
My English classes were fun: I was always top of the class. This meant I felt it was fair to crack jokes, poke fun at you and volunteer the answer when you didn’t know what it was. I even wrote tests for you – in high school – for a fair price of a pack of cigarettes per test (B+ guaranteed, I even began to get a feel for the mistakes you might make and I made sure to slip them in). You probably didn’t learn much, it was no use trying to outshine the smart dude so you could just sit back and let me have all the teacher’s attention.
If you were my German classmate, I don’t know you very well. I was always tired after university and probably worn out after a week’s work: if you were asked to discuss something with me, I either gave you nothing (tired) or too much (caffeine-induced babble). I was also probably a bit older than you, so we didn’t really get along – and the fact that my head was still fuming from the post-structuralism, gender theory and tobacco I’d had at the uni meant that there was little we could do to work together.
But hey, it could be worse. You could have been my French classmate: this was state school, I had to be there, but I hated French. If you cared for it, tough: I hope you sat in one of the front rows so you could at least hear the teacher and the tapes over the noise we were making in the back. Oh, and I probably demotivated your French teacher. Or at least didn’t help motivate him. Did I care? Not until two years ago, when I discovered countries where nobody spoke English.
And let’s not forget that you could have been my language teacher. If you were good, I enjoyed our work. And some of you were very, very good. But if you were bad, I just left. I didn’t give you a chance to fix things, I didn’t discuss stuff with you to try to find a better way of learning. I knew what had gone wrong – but I assumed this can’t be amended, and that it’s too much hassle anyway. So I just packed it in and disappeared.
Did you feel OK with this? Seeing someone quit your class, or cancel the one-to-one meetings, or come up with new excuses for truancy? Maybe you knew what I’d needed but your boss insisted on following the program. Maybe you were just too tired to do anything but the bare minimum. Or maybe you had no idea that anything was wrong – until I’d gone and we couldn’t talk it over.
To all of you – my students, my clients, my classmates, my teachers: I’m sorry.
I wish I could say this will never happen again. It will. It is happening.
There are good language schools, brilliant language courses and inspired/inspiring teachers. It’s been my honour to work with some of them over the years.
But this book begins with another sensation. It begins with the numb, out-of-breath feeling that whether you win or lose at language learning, you’re still in a box. A closed-off place where not much happens, where time and effort can be wasted. A place where – whether you win or lose – you get to do this all over again.
You are here to read and learn. I'm here to write!
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