The future of language teaching

In my last post a talk by Professor Richard Johnstone got me all worked up about the whole identity issue. What do we know about current modern language teaching around the world? How does that knowledge help us plan for the future?

Professor Johnstone started with a clarification of his title, ‘Modern Languages in Education: Moving forward with purpose in an era of uncertainty”. His idea of ‘moving forward’ does not imply a definite or even any particular single direction. In his words, he likened it to when one was lost in the wood, the best chance one could have was to go forward in one direction. That way, things kept moving. I like that idea, the way I interpret it is that it allows progress to be continuously measured, evaluated and reflected against what we currently know so things could improve, much like what happens in science.

We began our journey with the Professor’s own experience as a language learner of Latin and French. With the prominence of grammar translation in Scotland at that time, they were thought rules, including those of pronunciation. The twelve year-old found it pretty amusing that he was able to make all those funny sounds and to read relatively complicated poems just after one year. But the reality check came when he was asked to go and chat to a sports player on the field at an international match a couple of years later, he was lost for words, function was completely ignored. I am sure many of us has experienced that, in fact, I am having this problem every day with my Japanese. How could we break away from this?

Professor Johnstone went on to take us through a series of studies he and others had carried out on the evaluation of the language teaching projects around the world. There were all kind of models, local contexts and varied outcomes.

Some of you might say teaching key grammatical concepts and metalanguage is a waste of time for very young children. In Croatia, they found that the knowledge of key grammatical concepts in L1 introduced as early as aged 6 (Year 1), could be progressively transferred to the learning of the additional language (AL). By Year 3, the students on this project were confident, accurate and creative users of their AL while the teachers felt satisfied and motivated. So it appears that children can certainly deal with metalanguage and do benefit from knowing about it especially when it was introduced through L1 allowing transfer and contrast.

The other thing that really stands out is the ‘power’ of CLIL. In Finland, the CLIL students showed much quicker language development than non-CLIL students. In a matter of two years of 1-word phrase, the CLIL students were suddenly able to produce full-blown sentences by Grade 3 while their mainstream classmates were still stuck at the prefabricated expressions stage unable to produce full-blown sentences by the end of Grade 5. It seems to suggest that CLIL provides that extra opportunity for the fiddling with the AL and after three years of that, fine tuning activities could follow. The implication is that CLIL can trigger L2 acquisition.

For lower graders, the sound and sight of the AL alone might just keep the students’ motivated or curious enough to study the AL. For teenagers, without an immediate relevance to their lives or some kind of cool factors, there are few reasons to study a language or more importantly, to play with it, not including those who are born linguists. He showed us a project in Scotland and how one could try to sustain the motivation for continuous learning for a group particularly prone to drop-out. This involved creating real as well as virtual communities of 29 schools, with film making weekends, annual gala dinners, blogs, podcasting, a language surgery…. The success of this project was reflected in the higher levels of performance in national examinations, of uptake of the ALs in sixth forms and of motivations for further study. Language can indeed be cool, fun and relevant. How often do we forget about this while going through the system?

Another remarkable project was the early partial immersion model in Spain, commissioned by the Ministry of Education there over 16 years ago and carried out in collaboration with the British Council. It started with students as young as three in state schools. The proficiency of the children are remarkable in terms of their range and complexity of language use. The key to success seems to lie in the consistency of the project implementation despite regime changes and the involvement and support from parents and school administrators. It is also instrumental that the project runs through from the age of 3 to high school. The criteria were strictly no secondary school participation, no entry into the project for the primary school. Everyone is onboard! The other seems to be the high level of training the teachers received, especially during the early phases of the school participation. The learners’ proficiency, not only evaluated by classroom observations, is also validated by an international examination (the IGCSEs). What’s more is the high attainment of the students’ mother tongue, Spanish. At an annual dinner where participants of the projects gathered, including the learners, the Professor was approached by a young man. He was a learner from the project. When asked if he felt more or less Spanish, he laughed at the suggestion, “More Spanish of course! I could go anywhere in the world and tell someone about my country in English!” The proof is in the pudding.

Before closing, we briefly touched on the idea of identity. The success of the Scottish and Spanish projects has something to do with the exploration and the establishment of sometimes new or additional identities in the learners. I found it assuring that evidence is mounting for the benefit of bilingual education and the importance of CLIL as a way to enhance language development with clearly demonstrable and tangible results.

To look ahead, he calls for evaluation framework based on what the learners can do rather than what the teacher does. Take notes on the learners and then try to find the associated teacher behaviour. Also don’t just go in once. Make multiple visits.

When I asked the Professor what ultimately determined the success or the failure of a project given all the varied contexts he has observed, he replied, “The quality of the teachers.” It is still down to us.

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About Connieay

I have taught English in Japan, Qatar and Egypt. At present, I'm taking a short break to raise my little munchkin and finishing a Masters on TESOL/Applied Linguistics. My teaching life started in Tokyo back in 2009. And yes, I was there during the massive earthquake in 2011. That day, I was in school waiting for my students to arrive. My very young learners did come after the quake and we all hid under the table during the numerous aftershocks we shared. That night I continued to teach my classes and was stuck in school as all the trains were stopped. I was taken in by the lovely Miss Satou and shared that eerie night with her shaken dog Oscar which kept licking my face throughout the night. Before teaching, I lived and worked in London as a science editor and researcher. I enjoy dancing salsa and love travelling. Having a Chinese root means food is crucial to ensure my happy existence. Teaching is an experiment that I hope to carry on for a long time. I am interested in multilingualism, CLIL and how the brain is involved in learning. If I were a bird, I would be an albatross, a bird with stamina, persistence and the ability to go far and high. I value long-term relationships but am perfectly happy being independent and can endure solitude if necessary.
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