Many people, at some time or another, say they want to learn another language. Few manage to get beyond a beginner level.
Most of these unsuccessful learners have language teachers explaining the language to them, drilling them and correcting them. Successful language learners don’t need anyone to explain the language to them, correct them, nor drill them in the language.
This, then, begs the question: Do we really need language teachers?
The Quiet Revolution
Montreal in 1961 was a society of two solitudes, of two separate societies, one French speaking and one English speaking. The Quiet Revolution, which would change the role of the French language in Quebec, and lead to a transformation of Quebec society, was just about to take place. Jean Lesage had just been elected Premier of Quebec.
I lived in Montreal at the time and was essentially unilingual, despite 12 years of French language classes at school. Just as happened with Quebec society, I experienced my own quiet revolution, and was transformed. As a result I now know 18 languages. Why did that happen?
The agent of my transformation was not a politician, but a teacher, a French professor at McGill University, whose name was Maurice Rabotin. He stimulated me. He provoked me. He encouraged me, and I developed a passionate interest in French culture and civilisation. I then proceeded to learn the language on my own. He didn’t teach me the language.
The Best Kind Of Teacher
I once corresponded with a Spanish class at St. Andrews School in Delaware, in the United States. The high school students in this school, after 2-4 years of Spanish, are able to express themselves surprisingly eloquently, on fairly complex subjects of their own choosing. Their achievements are impressive, and far above the ordinary. Why are they so exceptional, compared to the typical results of high school language instruction?
In my view, a major reason is their teacher, Donald Duffy. He stimulates them, provokes them, and encourages them. The results speak for themselves. When his students spoke to me in Spanish, he only helped them if they asked for it. He didn’t correct them. Yet they discussed history, art and other subjects quite fluently.
So it seems to me that a teacher is not needed to teach the language, but can be a decisive factor in the acquisition of the language. To see why that is so, it is important to review some interesting research results on language acquisition.
In my video “The 3 Main Myths About Learning Any Language” I referred to a most interesting paper titled: Self-Selected Pleasure Reading and Story Listening for Foreign Language Classrooms by Beniko Mason
Some of her most incisive comments, based on her research, are as follows:
“Reading books and listening to stories for acquiring a foreign language may sound like nothing new. We have been teaching reading and listening for the last 50 to 100 years in foreign language programs in schools all over the world. But the way we have been offering reading and listening classes to students has been ineffective, inefficient, and insufficient.”
“What has been ineffective, inefficient, and insufficient about the way we offer reading and listening classes is that we teach in skill-based explicit ways…. Teachers have been misled to believe that conscious learning of the rules of the language is necessary, and that output practice helps consciously learned knowledge become automatic competence. What is needed is a drastic change in teachersʼ understanding.”
“Teachers must understand that consciously learned knowledge is fragile and easily forgotten, but unconsciously acquired language competence is permanent. Most language rules do not have to be explicitly taught. They can be acquired without teachers’ spending hours on explanation, and without studentsʼ doing hours of drill-based homework. They can be acquired through reading many books and listening to many stories”（for more research evidence of the effects of reading on language acquisition, see Krashen, 2004). Besides, when students are forced to do drills, they do not learn much. People have said that conscious learning is a short cut, but this is not the case.”(Mason, 2005, 2007; Mason & Krashen, 2004)
“Some late-acquired rules of grammar may have to be pointed out and taught to more advanced second language acquirers, especially for editing purposes, but the majority of foreign language students in colleges and universities seem to be beginners and low intermediates, and our immediate goal is to help them become upper intermediate or low advanced learners. Another goal in school is to help students become autonomous, so that they can keep acquiring English on their own after they finish school“(Krashen, 1998). After we help them reach the high intermediate（for example, paper and pencil TOEFL 500) and low advanced levels (for example TOEFL 550), they can continue to improve their competency on their own.”
“Students can reach the upper intermediate level largely from reading and listening” (Krashen, 2004) and can reach the most advanced “academic” language level only through reading. “More skill-building, more correction, and more output do not consistently result in more proficiency” (Krashen, 1994, page 48). Rather: “Reading is the only way we become good readers, develop a good writing style, an adequate vocabulary, advanced grammar, and the only way we become good spellers.”
“Abundant listening and reading experience is missing in our language programs. Story-listening and self-selected pleasure reading are the bridge to academic language.”
“We have been making students speak and write too early. We make our students repeat after the teacher or a tape, have them sing songs, and make them memorize texts and dialogs. We make them do free conversation when they are not yet ready to speak easily. We make students write with correct spelling, make them write a diary, and make them translate texts in writing. We do this because we believe that speaking and writing practice causes improvement in speaking and writing. Those who listen and read do better on writing and speaking than those who do not spend as much time in reading and listening.”
I can’t improve on what Ms. Mason has written here. I can only confirm that this has been my experience.
My Language Learning “Secret”
Why have I often learned faster than other learners? Because I read so much more than most other language learners. I also engage in massive pleasure listening to subjects of interest. Where I am unable to find interesting content in both audio and text format, my learning suffers.
Why do I not tend to forget the languages that I learn? Because I learned them through massive listening and reading using material of interest to me. If I were to learn them using grammar explanations, then my knowledge of these languages would be “fragile”, as Mason says.
I once had the pleasure of meeting Stephen Krashen, world renowned language acquisition expert, and my favourite explainer of how we learn languages, over lunch in Riverside, California. He gave me a remarkable paper which I hope will bring about a “Quiet Revolution” in language instruction.
Krashen’s 2014 study, in which he aimed to answer the question “Can second language acquirers reach high levels of proficiency through self-selected reading?” garnered some interesting results:
“An analysis done by Nation (2014) leads to the conclusion that readers in English as a foreign language can gain about one-half a point on the TOEIC test for every hour of independent English reading. A statistical analysis of progress made by seven adult acquirers of English living in Japan was performed to confirm this conclusion: All were intermediates, but there was considerable variation, with TOEIC scores ranging from 220 to 705. All engaged in self-selected reading, and took pre and post TOEIC tests. Hours spent reading was an excellent predictor of gains on the TOEIC and the rate of improvement was nearly exactly the same as that reported by Nation.”
“On the basis of a corpus analysis, Nation (2014) estimated that readers can move from elementary levels of vocabulary knowledge in a second language (knowledge of 2000 word families) to a very high level (knowledge of 9000 word families) after a total 1,223 hours of reading, about one hour a day over three years. Nation concluded that a “vocabulary size of 9,000 words or more is a sensible long-term goal for unassisted reading of simplified texts” as it will “provide coverage of over 98% of the running words in a wide range of texts.”
Some may argue that this sample is too small, and perhaps from a methodology perspective this is a valid criticism. However, the validation of these results is all around me.
Passing The Tests
I can confirm that a high level of vocabulary is needed to understand normal adult material in a language, whether listening or reading. This is essentially what TOEIC is all about. I can also confirm that reading is the most effective, and least expensive, way to acquire this vocabulary. Even for specific tasks, like working at the reception desk of a hotel, or going to the bank, we can’t just learn the “task based “ language. We need a broader grounding in the language which is best acquired through pleasurable listening and reading.
I enjoy listening as a convenient way to get used to the sounds and intonation of a language and to prepare for speaking. But to acquire a word, I usually want to see it. The image that I retain of a word is its written form, rather than a picture. I visualize the letters “R” “E” “D” and not the colour red when I hear the word “red”.
Why Do We Need Language Teachers?
So again, we have the question. If reading and listening are the most effective ways to learn a language, why do we need a teacher? The answer is simple. Most of us need to be stimulated, encouraged and provoked.
I have likened language learning to grazing, wandering over vast areas of content, reading a bit here, listening to a bit there. The role of the teacher is that of shepherd, prodding us to go in search of greener pastures, steering us in the right direction, rounding up the stragglers, but letting us munch away at our own pace and to our hearts’ content.