Sunday, September 14, 2008

Frustrations in the classroom

The intensive Spanish course which I'm currently taking for two hours a day is proving useful, frustrating and difficult in somewhat unequal measures. My classmates are mostly Brazilians and Italians who have been studying Spanish for several years, so already I'm out of my depth. However, the time that I spend after the class talking with them is great practice, and likely more useful than the class itself.

It's been some 12 years since I was last sat in a traditional language class room. I didn't much enjoy it back then and I feel ever more frustrated now. This is not to say that my teacher is not good. She's actually an excellent teacher who explains grammatical points well and keeps the momentum of the classroom going. By any normal measure of language teachers, she's truly first grade. However, I have some deep hangups about teaching languages in the 'traditional' manner.

Most of this stems from the audio courses I've been using for Chinese and Spanish for the last couple of years, and is what, I believe, I can put a lot of my 'success' down to (the playing down of success is not modesty but simple fact - there are many people who do a great deal better than I do in a shorter time).

With the audio courses I've been using it is almost like having a teacher one-on-one, and feels wonderfully effortless. You spend around half the time talking and the other half listening, and none of that time is spent trying to work out the logic of the grammatical constructions, but is somehow like being immersed. In a classroom of 20 pupils however I guess I say less than 50 words in two hours - that's seriously inefficient if you believe, as I do, that physically saying the words is the best way to memorise them - the mouth and ears, and not the eyes and hand are the gateway from the teacher's wealth of information to the brain. I have a bunch of ideas on how I believe we can 'revolutionise' language learning in the classroom, but of course having little experience of language teaching I have little authority on the subject. (Actually this isn't quite correct - we spend some time talking in pairs, but I probably spend a lot of that time talking bad Spanish and I can do that in my own time :-)

One thing which surprises and frustrates me on this course is that although we have a large number of exercises to work through, I find that having done them, I haven't actually used the parts of my brain which allow me to remember how to use the grammatical details in a real context. I'm too busy working out the answers, to let myself relax and simply become familiar with the natural use. As kids, clearly we don't spend time filling in the blanks, or changing the present subjunctive into the imperfect subjunctive. Somehow it all feels too artificial and I immediately put up a mental block with such methods. It may sound very old fashioned, but I'd rather just listen to and repeat phrases until they feel natural than work out the logic of grammatical constructions. I still believe that it's a loss that we are no longer taught grammar in schools, but I think that when learning a foreign language, there are better ways than most of the methods we use currently.

Anyway, I'm keeping on with the course because I am at least spending some time actively working on the Spanish, and that is certainly a good thing, however time spent in the classroom takes me right back to the years I spent in classrooms at school, not very efficiently learning French, Russian or Latin.

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