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Authentic Language Learning Means Letting Learners Lead!

Almost every one of us had to learn at least one language other than their mother tongue in school. Most of us studied those languages for many years but still feel unable to communicate well. I am sure, you know a few people who have said “I studied English for so many years, but I am still not good at it.” or, like myself, “I learned Russian for 12 years and I still remember some of the grammar, but I can barely put together a sentence now.”

If I may give another example from my experience: Whoever knows me, knows I can speak Chinese very well. I must admit, however, that my Chinese language skills were very basic when I arrived first in China. I could not use it much in my daily life. I had no confidence, and the most frustrating part was that I could not understand what Chinese people were saying to me. They did not understand me either, no matter how much I tried to “hit” the right tones. Now think about that: I was one of the best students in my “Business Chinese” class. I could read and write more than 2000 Characters and I successfully passed all my exams, wrote essays in Chinese, and spoke fluently in our dialogue practices. How can it be that I was so good in school and so bad in real life?

The answer is in the way I learned the language. Lessons were mainly vocabulary and grammar based. It was a mix of learning something new, memorizing it and then “practice, practice, practice”. We never really communicated in class. We only “produced language” whilst we learnt from the textbook.

Luckily (and somewhat surprisingly), I learned my Chinese despite that! I have no problems communicating with Chinese people about almost any topic. But how did I learn it if my classes didn’t prepare me for this? I learned it through real life communication with my husband, who, when I first met him, did not speak much English either. I started communicating with him in Chinese, bit by bit… and yes, it was very messy in the beginning; but now, speaking Chinese feels more natural to me than speaking English or German.

 

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So, how does this relate to the teaching of languages in schools today – and to my German classes?

I am trying to make every lesson as communicative as possible. I am trying to give my students the real life language learning experience that I had and that every person in the world has when learning their own mother language as a little child.

We play games (and even older students still love playing games). We talk a lot and discussions are common - even in Year 6, who have just started learning German. Every lesson starts with a “picture of the day” - something that students can relate to emotionally. We describe the picture together and slowly increase our vocabulary every day, even if it is not strictly related to our current topic. We also have a “this or that” discussion in most lessons. Students suggests ideas in advance, which I than use to create the theme of the daily discussions. “What do you like better: Football or Basketball?” or “What do you prefer eating: Hamburger or Pizza?” The idea is to give students the confidence to talk about any random topic, through providing some vocabulary that might be useful to express their opinions or reasons.

In general, our lessons are mainly based on listening and speaking skills. As their German improves, students increasingly gain confidence and the necessary language to lead more and more of the talking themselves. A lot of interaction in our class is also based on talking about what is important in that moment, in the same way conversation between native speakers moves naturally: A bee came into the classroom? Let’s talk about it! How are you feeling? Are you scared? Should we try to catch it and put it outside? Why are bees important?

If we start teaching what is of importance to the students, what interests them, what connects with them, students will learn a language more naturally, without memorisation of word lists or grammar rules and most importantly, without forgetting everything they learned after that final exam.

Hopefully, when asked in the future, our students will be answering that question with: “I studied German for so many years… und ich liebe es heute noch deutsch zu sprechen!.

 

Mrs. Jane Tulke

Head of Modern Foreign Languages