Friday, August 26, 2011

Teaching Learning

Language, of all the things we can spend our time learning, is a peculiarity. Almost any thing you can learn about is easier to learn as you get older peaking in your twenties and then declining marginally ever on. We don't even try to teach finance to teenagers, maths to a toddler or philosophy to a tween. A language, however, is best learnt when we are young. There are many reasons for this: like walking, producing sound is a physiological process, a body skill; the brain is primed to learn language when we are young; and producing sentences is requires procedural memory, something more easily formed when young. Language is hardly a body of knowledge after all, but a body of skill. It is more akin to swimming than other subjects.
As we age the disabilities toward learning language accumulate: a tongue that doesn't naturally want to go between the teeth for the "th" sound; an inability to grasp the concept of tense; a reliance on translation from the mother tongue, and others. Experienced teachers often approach the realm of being a therapist to their students. Just like rehabilitating people who've lost the ability to walk, we have to nurture the desire to take those baby steps again, slowly and carefully, and provide the framework of poles so their muscles can again form to do the task. And that's why at our centre we have Dr English.
It was an idea adopted from another centre, but we quickly dressed it up better with signs, appointment times, and 10 minute slots. Being one of the doctors has been interesting as students who go to it have often struggled immensely with one aspect and have time to explain. I listen to their language, check their notebook, ask a few questions, diagnose and prescribe.
It is only now that I really have tapped into an area when I can contribute something groundbreaking. I didn't realise that I had such an advantage over almost all the other teachers in the school: I've been continually learning languages since I was 13. Most teachers in my school have never learnt a language successfully. Now, shall I preface this by saying that you can be a brilliant presenter and effective classroom language teacher without the experience of learning. But learning is a skill in itself, and language as mentioned is an almost unique field of knowledge to learn. To know how to advise people on how to learn, it is best that you've tried, failed and occasionally succeeded to distil great advice. You also need to have the realisations that your way of learning is suited to you, and what works for you may not work for others. And then you will have to build on this knowledge and use analogy to form advice for the others. That's where the over eighteen years of bumpy language learning come in.
I started with Japanese, which I approached wrongly, at high school. I used my academic brain to master its structures and memorise characters; the only thing I did right was to write down characters compulsively until the point that my hand had coordination to write characters smoothly. By the time I got to Japan, I was still mostly functionally unable to speak and listen although I had enough vocabulary to survive. My listening was terrible and I could only pick out some words and guess the meaning of the sentence. I then went onto Chinese at University which I started off on the same foot as Japanese but set myself better: I used language exchange at University; I had a long time in Taiwan to make me realise the heart of my mistake: I may be a very strong visual learner, but no matter how much I read and wrote, it would make no difference to how I spoke. This seems incredibly obvious but every student that I tell it to just like me has had the face of a recently enlightened Buddha when they hear it. In Taiwan, I wrote a 20 minute speech on a topic that burned deep within me (the treatment of trainees). Motivation and channelling interests into a language are of course crucial; yet most students are directed to BBC to topics that suit only the few interested in world affairs.
It was only when I returned from Taiwan that I started to read in Chinese for periods of time, and only then I discovered radio. It might seem strange that someone who is a visual learner might find the radio a learning tool. But that is one of the discoveries of my learning trajectory. You learn through your prime learning method and then review with the skills you are weaker at, without much assistance from your strongest suits. I tried it with Maori when I was learning it. I'm using it with Cantonese. It works. One method to learn; another method to generalise and consolidate the knowledge. In this world of subtitled movies, most students will use these together which obliterates the chances of nurturing your weakness; it only feeds your strength.
The difference in time and experience shows with my experience with Japanese. After coming back from Japan, and having had 5 years of high school Japanese under my belt and some misguided  self-study at University, I failed level 2 of the Japanese Proficiency test. 5 years later, a period in which I only went to Japan for a few days, had predominantly studied only Chinese, and went to one Japanese class a week for three months, I passed level 2 easily. The five years represented me finally realising what kind of learner I really was. It had taken twelve years of my language learning career: two thirds of the time! 12 years of inefficient unsuccessful, disheartening learning that had been eroding out of me every day. Other teachers at my school try to emphasise this to students: if you don't review, you are frittering away your money. But that's when it comes down to the key point: What is good review (for this particular person)? There is a concept for choosing learning strategies. It is called meta-cognition.
I went to the school lounge yesterday while I was heating my dinner and was beset by Betty, a great student who found she couldn't understand authentic English outside of the school. She could only understand with subtitles (English subtitles for English films). I asked her for her notebook, then gave it Jimmy who was looking on. I asked Jimmy to read from the most recent page: "Diseases are caused by germs." Betty's eyes lit up and said: "What's that? What's that?" I told her that if you want to review properly you will need someone else to read your notes to you and test you on the words that you have recently learnt. You learn listening by listening. And went back to get my dinner. I was starving. I hope she gets the idea and keeps it going. I'll ask her in a couple of days.
But if a small number of people have the quality advice and can only dispense it one person at a time it is incredibly slow. Dr English itself is a form of reincarnation of an old add-on service that "they killed off". When I started teaching here were what were called PAA, an acronym which I'm finding it more and more difficult to remember the meaning of. But in essence a student could book a whole hour with a teacher to ask for study advice. They could do it once every three months. As one of those who did them, I loved it. Students who knew about them loved it. (As with Dr English, the take-up rate was fairly low.) But there was a company idea to slowly move teachers to the chalkface where the money is made: classes which the money is linked to, and not the nice extras. Study advice was moved onto another department, the progress managers. (Chinese staff who are very proficient in English, who follow the progress of the students and check that they are studying at the right speed. They have lots of duties.) Over a year on, I've heard countless pleas from progress managers to give them help in giving study advice. My next step is to make an effective training for them to give quality specific study advice. But also give them a tool where advice can easily be shown on a powerpoint. Up to know, their advice is often challenged by intransigent students. It's time to give them the knowledge and authority to tell students how to improve.

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