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Ben Slavic

How I Feel About Language Teaching

How I feel about language teaching is very simple, and has been expressed perfectly by the pianist Alice Sara Ott, when speaking about music:

“Music is art, and art lives from creativity, and there cannot be any creativity if there is no motivation. And the motivation can only come from the child. So, I don’t believe in any degree of forcing the child to learn. I know that teachers and parents want the best for the children, but in the end they are rather doing the opposite when they force the child to learn something.”

Failure to at least consider what Ott says above, when applied to languages, has in my opinion led to the current train wreck that is language education – which in my view and experience should be looked upon as an art form – in our schools today. We have never considered language instruction as an art form, rather as a mere mechanical process, and the results have been abysmal. We must embrace the truth of what we have done to language students before we can change.

If we don’t make that change away from seeing our work in terms of numbers and how many words a kid can “acquire” from a list, from test scores and all that, our once flourishing profession will, after the coronavirus, slowly recede to be a mere fraction of what its previous funding “justified”. That is because after the coronavirus there will be much less of a system to support us. That’s the nice way to say it. To put it more bluntly, we’ve blown it with our language students.

Thus, jobs in our profession will all but disappear as a result of the decades-long faulty position that children need to be herded physically into a room and then told to memorize rules and verb forms and words from lists in order to succeed at a language.

Although our country was formed around democratic and egalitarian  ideals, from which comes its greatness, the profession of foreign language teaching has always been designed around a for-profit, dominance-by-the-few model. First, it was the textbook industry in charge, which still holds sway in at least 75% of language classrooms currently (probably more like 95%). After that, for a few of us, it was TPRS and CI that unfortunately immediately, in the late 1990s, became a for-profit, non-democratic venture, and “experts” (not really) popped up to sell products that were in fundamental opposition to the research, mainly those class-splitting little novels.

There was no central governing body in the old (1990-2020) Wild West model of promoting the research about comprehensible input, and individuals sold their products, a few making millions, but those experts never sat down at a table to talk with the rest of us about what is best for students. They simply made it their goal to sell as many products and seminars and trainings as they could. They thought about what was best for them as narcissists and businessmen, and not what was best for the students. I know this from personal experience.

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