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What makes the teaching of foreign languages unique?

May 2017

Undoubtedly teachers of any subject will argue that their subject is unique and needs to be taught in a specialised way, and I would not be so bold as to dispute their claims, but teaching a language must surely be considered a special case. One particular feature of foreign language teaching is that the language forms both the goal and the means by which this goal is reached. In other words, it is impossible to stand outside of the subject matter, as is the case in any other subject and define it in terms other than its own.   Language, particularly when the class is being conducted in the same language, has to use itself to define itself.  

Contrasts and Contradictions 

Language is a highly academic subject on the one hand, but practical in nature on the other, in that students have to demonstrate by speaking, often in role plays, that they have digested the information. It is logical in terms of grammar rules and syntax structure and yet inconsistent, because we are dealing with something highly subjective and variable. A living language will have various different ways of saying the same thing, with slightly different nuances each time, that vary from region to region and from person to person. Psychological understanding and basic human awareness also come into play, as we are dealing with human beings and we have to judge what effect our words are producing in order to be able to tailor what we are saying. We have to be great mimics and yet clever creators.

Subjectivity and Sensibilities 

Vocabulary is context-sensitive. Many words mean different things depending on where and how they are said and if they are in idiomatic expressions or on their own. Judgements have to be made all the time not just on “correctness” but on style too.

Vocabulary is far from being an exact science. There are many apparent synonyms but native speakers will choose to use them differently depending on context. There are also multiple meanings of the same word, for instance, if we are presented with two statements, “The woman shouted that the house was on fire” and “The captain ordered his men to fire” and we then hear “Fire!” we do not know whether it relates to the fire at the house or the captain’s orders.

Language is entirely caught up with the workings of the brain. We think with the words we are brought up with, which affects and modifies and moulds our thoughts. If words don’t exist, how can we have certain thoughts? Language is certainly an insight into a cultural way of viewing things, making it all the harder for the student to learn the language if some words / thoughts cannot be translated.

Need for Interpersonal Skills  

Learning a language entails a high degree of interaction not only between the students and the teacher but, almost more importantly, amongst the students themselves. This often means opening yourself up to the class in a way you would not have to in any other subject, talking about yourself, your family, your ambitions etc., and such discourse can be difficult for shyer, less confident individuals. The amount of interpersonal skills required can also be a barrier to language learning, unless students are paired off correctly and the teacher is sensitive to their individual personalities and needs.

Not Much Room for Opinions

Another factor, which makes language learning harder in any classroom but particularly in the adult community, is that there is not a lot of room for personal opinions, certainly not in the early stages. Most information simply has to be learnt, before the student can be at all “creative”. For adults this is harder anyway, but on top of that, they generally have less time than children to devote to memorizing vocabulary. 

Cumulative not Modular

Language learning is cumulative as opposed to modular, by which I mean the content of a class will of necessity build on top of previously-learnt material as opposed to covering a completely new topic, as may be the case with say History, Geography or Maths. Even if the syllabus is topic-based, it would be impossible to introduce a completely new topic without referring to and using material already taught. This can cause problems in that if students miss lessons, particularly more than one in a row, it is very hard if not impossible for them to catch up. The information missed has to be mastered before they can progress, and, because much of the language learning is done by practising it within the classroom environment, it can be hard for those students to learn the material on their own. Using a dictionary, even an online one, requires a feel for the language and a knowledge of different grammatical terms, which is not always apparent. An example might be a student wishing to translate “She addressed the crowd”, might look up “address” in the dictionary but then need to know the difference between the verb and the noun, and additionally will need the skills to conjugate the verb correctly.

“Faux Amis”  

An additional problem with foreign languages, particularly fellow European ones such as French, is the existence of “faux amis” (false friends), words which look very similar if not identical, but which in fact have a very different meaning. The result can be confusing if not embarrassing. An example of this might be “actuellement” in French, meaning “currently” not “actually” or “éventuellement” meaning “possibly” not “eventually”. I wonder how many French sales people have inadvertently used the latter in a business meeting and found themselves committed to something in a way they didn’t intend.

No Language is Static  

Languages have always developed with time, borrowing words from other languages and inventing words for new technology as they comes along. Currently, of course, it is predominantly English which is being amalgamated into other languages, but native English speakers need to be aware, that once our words have been adopted by other languages, their meaning changes, for instance “people” in French does not have the same generic meaning as in English, but rather it refers to “celebrities”.

Native versus Non-Native Speakers  

Native-speaker pupils certainly alter the mix and the dynamics of lessons in a unique way. Often, they have a native level in some but not all of the four skills (reading and writing generally lag behind their speaking and listening abilities). Even their native speaking level doesn’t guarantee them full marks, as they don’t always fully satisfy the exam criteria, and on top of that, native speakers do not always speak in the most eloquent, or appropriate “register”. My own daughter lost half a point in an English oral in France, because she inserted the word “like” as a filler, as has become common amongst young native English speakers.

Of course, the language teacher too may well be a native speaker. This is generally perceived to be a positive thing, since they speak with a perfect accent. However, in secondary schools, native speakers can be at a disadvantage as regards discipline, as, unless their English is impeccable, students will relish any possible misunderstandings. I remember once hearing a French teacher say “Stop to talk”, meaning of course “Stop talking”, upon which the pupils delighted in stopping whatever they were doing, in order to talk. I would also argue that a non-native teacher, who has had to learn the language in the same way as the pupils are expected to, not only gains respect, but can possibly encourage and motivate them that bit more. In the South of England in particular, there are currently many native MFL teachers, so much so, that when in response to pupils’ questioning I tell them I come from Scotland, they are often most surprised. They have grown so used to native-speaker teachers that they cannot conceive of a fellow English speaker being able to master foreign tongues!

 Much as I value the wonderful contributions made by native speakers, both in our classrooms and in our economies, and I hope they will feel just as at home here as Brexit approaches, my fervent wish is that we can motivate and educate our own young Brits, such that they can be just as fluent in foreign languages, whether they wish to use them in the classroom or in business, at home or abroad. 

So, is language teaching unique? Almost certainly, yes! Challenging? Definitely! Rewarding? Indubitably!

Do you agree? Please email me your comments. It’d be great to get opinions from teachers and students alike.


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