Learning a second language, learning many other skills

The Jakarta Post, Sunday, 09/10/2006

Rafael Martn Garca, Contributor, Jakarta

When someone learns a second language — Spanish, Dutch, Indonesian or any other — this means that that person also acquires many other skills, like group interaction or language analysis, and may also improve self-confidence when talking in public.

But is that always so? Not always. My first class with Indonesian students was a total failure.

I perfectly remember, it was a beginners class of Spanish. I was ready and I had the class well prepared, with some collaborative exercises, little dialogues in pairs, gathering of results and, for the last bit of the lesson and if I had time, a simple game. All these exercises that could easily do for a 90-minute class did not cover more than 20 minutes.

I was standing in front of 12 students waiting to see what the teacher had for them, without any questions nor doubts from their side, and I did not know what to do.

This situation made me change the course program. I could not establish a new learning method from one day to another, and neither could I adapt myself to a system I considered inappropriate for my lessons. I had to establish a time period of mutual knowledge between teacher and student during which both parts could adjust to a new learning context, giving enough confidence to the pupils so they adopted a more participatory method and for me, as teacher, to better know the way to approach the student, pulling down barriers gradually.

In my experience in class, shared with other language teachers, I have mostly found a big majority of students using learning methods that we call traditional methods in opposition to those communicative methods that promote a real language practice.

In the traditional methods of second language teaching, the teacher speaks and the students listen, with most exercises typically based on automatic repetition, grammar, lists of words and memorization by rote. Oral exercises are reduced to those occasions on which the teacher asks the students one at a time.

The biggest problem we find with these traditional methods is that they are little effective when we apply the language to a real situation: when the time comes at which we have to express ourselves in that second language, we see how, after so many years of study, the words do not come out.

Teaching of second languages — as far as I know, at least the main European ones of English, French, Italian, German, Dutch and Spanish — has always been very much in the avant-garde when it comes to applying advanced teaching techniques in class.

In the 1980s new communicative methods started to be applied, new techniques that try to teach language by simulating the process of first language acquisition, like children do: through interaction and communication with others.

These teaching techniques involve the development of other personal skills. That is why, when we learn a language, we learn many other things too:

* Learning to relate to other classmates and to work in groups: The student learns a bit from the teacher, but they also learn from and with their classmates, both through the classmate’s mistakes and help. Students should practice, and for this they should collaborate, write dialogs, conduct interviews and presentations or reach a consensus within a group.

* Learning from mistakes: When we learn a language, as well as a child acquires it, the process is one of trial and error. Making errors is part of natural learning, and is necessary to identify what is correct.

When we learn a second language, we learn how not to fear making mistakes and being ashamed of them. We can even say that errors should be awarded, since it shows the students’ wish and determination to learn, and this is the only way to attain this objective.

* Learning to learn. Learning a language involves analysis of the language process on its own. As mentioned before, teachers should take into account time during which students can learn about new techniques that they might not be accustomed to using in class. There might be cases in which the student thinks that these methods are useless, but the teacher deserves a vote of confidence — that is why discussions with the teacher is so important, but also with other classmates and even oneself.

Teachers of a second language are professionals in charge of encouraging a group of people whose objective is to learn a language in addition to their mother tongue. Of course, teachers should have a wide knowledge of the language they teach; something one does not achieve by simply being a native speaker, but by undertaking specific studies on the subject, training, creating a course program, gaining knowledge on methodology and material — books, audio-visual aid, games, texts — and developing the ability to take into account the group’s cultural particularities.

Languages are a way to get to know cultures and customs in other parts of the world — but they are just a means, and it is up to us to look for a way to make use of this newly acquired knowledge.

This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of learning a foreign language, but it is also the most amusing.

The writer is coordinator of Instituto Cervantes in Jakarta and a teacher of Spanish as a second language.

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