Why Your Language Teacher Failed You

I have WordPress set to automatically post to Facebook, which means many of you reading this aren’t even language teachers. Allow me, then, to explain why you don’t know the language you studied in school (unless, of course, you were lucky enough to have spent time abroad, or to have found yourself exposed to the language in some meaningful way, thus, correcting decades of misinformed pedagogy still pervasive today)…

As the field of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) was emerging in the late 60’s and early 70’s, some amazing research was being done on how humans acquire langauges, but the typical language teacher, Teacher X, got her degree in 1969, so none of that made its way into her teacher training.

Teacher X began teaching Spanish in 1970, and had a successful and respectable career spanning over 3 decades, retiring in 2005. As a model teacher in the school, she had been mentoring graduate student teachers from a nearby university each year since 1975 (a common requirement in teacher training). Thus, the 30 years of student teachers were influenced by the practices of Teacher X, which was in no way influenced by such a new field at the time, SLA (blind leading the blind?).

You would think that Teacher X learned about how humans acquire languages (i.e. SLA) throughout the years, but not really. Aside from years of “in-service” professional development training sessions at her school, in which pretty much the same old pedagogy wrapped up in new packaging was presented along with new activities not fundamentally different, Teacher X couldn’t possibly keep up with the mind-blowing ideas coming from SLA that would’ve altered her practice significantly. In fact, it would’ve likely doubled, or tripled the amount of prep work, which simply wasn’t available for a typical teacher like Teacher X already doing most planning at home during her free time. It should be noted that under these typical conditions, Teacher X is in no way accountable for not staying current, yet nonetheless contributed to life long learner-like behaviour instead actual improvement as a language teacher over the years.

But Teacher X retired in 2005, so you would think that the research from the 70’s would have caught up to the language teaching world at large by then, right? No. Not only was Teacher X espousing her misinformed practices right up until 2005 (to the then student teacher who’s teaching right now…set to retire in 2040!), but so were the professors in the teacher training programs graduating a new crop of misinformed teachers as well! In fact, a decade hasn’t changed much—most language teacher trainers are still at it today, in the dark, and out of their element (Q: who trains the trainers?).

Sadly, education is among the slowest moving industries, which certainly explains why languages are still being taught exclusively, if outright ineffectively. Some of us are taking a stand, and others are just leaving the teaching profession out of frustration (or maybe just a decent full time job with far less stress). So, Facebook readers, et al., you are not “bad at languages”—a false idea planted in your mind by misinformed teachers, for which the world owes you a mighty apology—because all humans can acquire a second language! All you need to do is listen to and read messages you understand in another language. Trained teachers can and should facilitate that, but in their absence you have resources (seriously, all you need to do is have someone, a computer, or subtitles tell you what a word/phrase in another language means in English, and then once you listen to and read that word/phrase in new contexts you will begin to acquire the language over time, ESPECIALLY if you’re interested in the content. There’s no NEED to study grammar. Those benefits come much, much later, if at all).

So, there’s hope for you, reader, but for current students not so much. Why? Current teachers won’t change their practices unless they feel pressured by an administration “in the know,” or one that’s receptive and influenced by incoming new teachers with informed training, of which there are still quite few. For now we’ll have to wait until all teacher trainers recognize undisputed facts about SLA, and then graduate new teachers who know those facts, and who then successfully challenge the status quo once they begin teaching, and who then mentor the new graduate student teachers, etc.. Not a very easy thing to do.

17 thoughts on “Why Your Language Teacher Failed You

  1. Good point, however I think you are overlooking the fact that Teacher X didn’t have Twitter, podcasts, or Youtube and we´re only about 5 years in to the period where teachers actually started to use the internet for PD. It’s true that the university and teacher training system still ignores SLA when training language teachers, however, CI is spreading like wildfire. BVP is president of AATSP and will have a book published by ACTFL. That´s is HUGE. Señor Jordan, the internet Spanish grammar guru became a CI teacher. Señor Wooly is also CI.

    I have your Highlights of BVP on my IPOD and I am listening to all of the episodes on my commute to work. ITunes says that it is 14 hours of material!

    Perhaps we all need to figure out how to reach STUDENT TEACHERS. I do know that Blaine Ray let´s student teachers go to his workshop for free. Perhaps more CI organizations should do the same and not only that, actively PROMOTE to student teachers. Give student teachers free novel samples or something.

  2. You bring up some interesting points. Bill Van Patten had an article in Hispania about a study he did regarding who teaches the language methods courses for new teachers. The vast majority have degrees in literature, not SLA. “Where are the Experts?”

    Click to access hispania_98.1_vanpatten.pdf

    I also know some members of COACH Foreign Language Project who are CI teachers who train and oversee our next generation of teachers. One of the issues they face is finding Master Teachers who are CI teachers. Although many Teacher Xs have indeed retired, I know that in the area where I used to teach, those retired Teacher Xs are employed by local colleges and universities to supervise student teachers. So it is often difficult to match up a new CI trained teacher with a Master Teacher in CI to be supervised by someone versed in CI.

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  6. You ask who’s training the trainers. As far as I know, the Trainer Prep offered by TPRS Academy (in collaboration with our team at Altamira Language Learning) is the only program that focused on preparing experienced CI teachers to train other teachers in the strategies and principles of TPRS and TCI. We’d love to see more talented CI practitioners involved in this next level of teacher development. Read a description of our course here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1OrAbd2DWxBDoeQmoKE9_u7pEN75VsU-cfETGw-1_KeY/edit?usp=drivesdk

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  8. Beautifully written and well put. I would like to add, that while we have seen new scientific studies and new methods arise, we are falling into the same trap that ensnared many of our peers in other disciplines, namely, there is not ONE RIGHT WAY. Many of us have changed, adapted, and grown in our profession only to be told, “you’re doing it wrong.” All good pedagogy meets the learners where he or she is currently, blend in new ideas and strategies, and strive to take them beyond. TL;DR…we teach kids, not subjects. What can we do to recognize what we are doing well and add, not tear down?

  9. Wow, no mention of the learner’s responsibility? Interesting. Also, for the commenters, CI is NOT a word you get to claim as a new euphemism for TPR/S (since that term is of course copyrighted). It just means “comprehensible input”…and for me, i will use authentic sources and language for that over made-up nonsense that no native would use.

    • “Wow, no mention of the learner’s responsibility? Interesting.”

      – Nope, it’s gotta start with solid, inclusive pedagogy.

      “Also, for the commenters, CI is NOT a word you get to claim as a new euphemism for TPR/S…”

      – Yep, totally spot on with this one, although there is only one mention of TPRS in previous comments, and that person even made a distinction between TPRS, and CI, and TCI. You were very quick to jump on that, which suggests you harbor some negative thoughts towards TPRS. I will allow criticism on my blog, but not that kind of negativity.

      Otherwise, I’m with you on how the terms are often combined. TPRS is so popular that it’s not uncommon to see CI/TPRS used synonymously despite the distinction. CI, however, is not any particular approach, method, strategy, or technique. CI is not a curriculum. CI is independent from content because it can be provided given any content. Latin teachers can provide CI regardless of what textbook they use, and how old their students are. CI is spoken and written messages that students understand.

      “…and for me, i will use authentic sources and language for that over made-up nonsense that no native would use.”

      – I see what you did there, which confirms the negativity towards TPRS, but you’re mistaken about the method. Perhaps you’ve seen a few examples of ridiculous (= compelling) class stories, and use those as archetypes when imagining every co-created story in the classroom, but that’s just not the case. Also, to say that TPRS stories aren’t language, or that native speakers don’t use words like “is, likes, has, wants, goes, problem, happy, sad” would be just as silly a statement as…what is it that people think TPRS is…”purple elephants?”

      ACTFL promotes “authentic texts,” but not all experts agree that they are appropriate for the learner.

      You and I have different views, but more importantly, different experiences. I choose pedagogy that works for all students. In my experience, what you’re advocating for favors only some.

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  11. Salve, magister.

    O tempora o mores.

    We’ve become proficient in… training future generations of teachers.

    The greatest failing of SLA / LOTE / FL / WL in America is a failure to look in the mirror. Only a minority of students graduate fluent or even interested in the target languages and culture, many jumping ship at the first opportunity.

    The “we have a higher standard” / “grammar nazi” / “red ink spiller” / “perfectionist” mindsets have performed not only incredible disservices to our children, but to the profession itself as many K-16 language programs are in freefall, budgets shifting funds to STEM which seem compelling and trendy.

    The saddest irony is that the majority of the “we-must-enforce-grammar” crowd are often the most linguistically tongue-tied! They’ll hold the students to the most stringent standards (“that’s what the rule reads in the book!”) and are often native speakers, but speak in HEAVILY accented English, and are fluent no other languages, but somehow they feel justified to bludgeon the kids to the point of dropping out. Mission accomplished?

    Language teaching in America needs a new mindset and a break from failed tradition. The same holds true in other countries (e.g. Italy, Japan); while in others (Scandanavia, Austria) students walk away fluent.

    I won’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. All students learn differently. Grammar isn’t totally bad, certain students thrive with it. It can be the backbone of a program, but we don’t spend all day staring at a backbone. On the contrary, we hardly even notice the spine, but the other features of the person like face and hands and shape.

    Creating lifelong linguists… it can be done. Great article.
    Keep on keeping on, teacher!

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