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.

English as a second language — learning from mistakes

Richel Langit-Dursin ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 03/15/2008 11:56 AM  |  Opinion

More and more Indonesian schools are using English as the language of instruction. The problem, however, is that English is neither our first nor second language.

As learners of English as a foreign language, we are likely to make grammatical mistakes. Young learners, as I have observed in my two daughters and other students, tend to over-generalize grammar rules. My five-year-old daughter, for example, used to say “mouses” instead of “mice”, “tooths” instead of “teeth”, and “catched” instead of “caught”.

In the teaching of a foreign language, error correction is one of the most controversial and misunderstood issues. Teachers have opposing views of when and how to go about error correction. One view says that teachers should rectify their students’ mistakes right away for them to speak English correctly and achieve English proficiency. This is based on the perspective that if students’ mistakes are not corrected, they will make the same mistakes over and over again.

The other side advocates that errors should not be corrected immediately as mistakes are normal and inevitable during the learning process. Mistakes, according to this view, are part of an active and creative process. No one is exempted from making mistakes, which include slips of the tongue.

Learning a foreign language such as English may be frustrating and difficult for some children and there is always the danger of over-correcting them. When adults such as parents correct every single mistake made by their kids, their children are likely to lose motivation and their flow of thinking will be disrupted.

Based on my observations, error correction is sometimes futile and damaging as it hampers language acquisition and learning. In one incident, a four-year-old girl kept on saying “must to”. Since it is grammatically incorrect, her teachers kept on telling her that she should only say “must”. However, no matter how many times they corrected her, she still said “must to”.

Once, a child was talking to her father and it so happened she mentioned that her “foots are getting bigger”. Hearing foots, the father immediately told his daughter that she should not say “foots”, but “feet”.

When her father corrected her, the daughter just stopped talking and didn’t continue with what she was about to say. In this case, error correction was not only ineffective but also inhibited fluency and hindered the development of communication skills.

Students’ mistakes constitute normal language development. The mistakes show that children are attempting to figure out the patterns or rules that govern the language. What actually looks like a basic mistake in the child’s language can actually be a sign of progress and learning.

When their mistakes are corrected all the time, children lose their confidence. In some instances, they harbor hatred toward the people who always find fault and correct the mistakes in what they are saying.

It is understandable if students sometimes hate teachers who always correct them. As every learner of a foreign language knows, being corrected all the time can be embarrassing, insulting and de-motivating. To other learners of English as a foreign language, a teacher who constantly butts in and interrupts students to correct them can be annoying and disruptive, especially when lack of accuracy does not hamper communication.

As young learners of English as a foreign language, my classmates and I made mistakes. However, there was not an instance where our English teacher explicitly and immediately pointed out our errors. Our teacher never interrupted us in our conversation to say that we were grammatically wrong. What our teacher did, however, was to expand and rephrase what we said in more correct speech.

When one of my classmates said, “we goed to the library yesterday”, our English teacher didn’t tell her bluntly that “goed” was wrong. Instead, he said, “did you say you went to the library yesterday?”

So when and how should teachers correct their students’ mistakes? To answer this question, teachers need to seriously look at their objective. Are they focusing on accuracy or fluency? Teachers should have a clear end in mind and make students aware of what is expected of them.

If fluency is the goal, then error correction can be set aside. Fluency is appropriate during class discussions. In a class discussion, what is important is that students are freely expressing their ideas and making use of their critical thinking skills. Teachers should bear in mind not to stage a learning experience as a fluency task and then assess the students on every single mistake that they make.

On the other hand, if the objective is accuracy, error correction is necessary. Accuracy can be the goal when students are asked to perform a role-play or make a presentation and have been given enough time to prepare. However, in assessing students’ performance, it would be of help to the children if they have an idea of what they are being assessed on.

If teachers have to correct, it would be more effective if they do it in a positive way and explain why it is wrong, thus providing meaningful comments. Likewise, if there are frequent mistakes, teachers can just make a mental note to provide feedback after a certain activity.

Correcting mistakes doesn’t have to be done by teachers alone. Students can rectify their own mistakes. When correcting, the first port of call can be the students themselves. Sometimes, students’ mistakes are merely slips of the tongue and students are aware of the correct version.

Teachers can also involve students in correcting their peers or classmates. They can be asked to make different assessment tools such as rubrics or checklists to correct mistakes. Peer correction or assessment helps to create a positive learning environment as students are made aware that they can learn from one another. Teachers don’t have to be the only source of knowledge.

The writer is the early years and elementary curriculum coordinator of Binus School Simprug, and a postgraduate student of applied English linguistics at Atma Jaya University. She can be reached at mdursin*binus.edu