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Let’s Just Stop Teaching Languages!

By Suzanne Pilch, ICF Certified Coach, MPEC Partner

Wait,… Wasn’t MPEC a language school?

Okay, we get it if you’re feeling a bit confused. The reason why MPEC exists, works, and grows every year is precisely because many years ago WE STOPPED TEACHING ENGLISH. This article is our Manifesto and the path we have chosen to share our belief: The best way for someone to learn a language is for us NOT to teach them

You are all too familiar with the scenario of a person who wants to learn a second language.

You either experienced it yourself or accompanied somebody who went through the process. 

For some of us it’s less painful than for others because we enjoy the mental tickling that language learning produces in our brain, but regardless of our intellectual ability, determination or the time we’re willing to dedicate to it, it’s an arduous task, a bumpy road potentially mined with countless traps for our motivation, will power and self esteem.

And yet, here we are, all of us, trying to learn another language, willing to spend our money on yet another method, online course or intensive course in a remote location. Teachers, even more entangled in the ever-turning wheel of language education, keep exchanging methods, techniques, exercises and tools, determined to make their students learn the language, getting them to use it, practice it, understand it.

I am not trying to reinvent this wheel. And I happen to believe that there is a very simple solution to all the frustration behind having studied a language for YEARS and still feeling blocked, muted and incapable of using it when the opportunity presents itself. The hand holding the magic card is the one of the teacher and I shall soon explain why this is.

Before we focus on what the teacher should do – instead of teaching a language! – let’s give the language learning a look. Methods and approaches are piling up. Some recommend immersion, others online training, countless recipes for successful language acquisition. Behind all that – students, tired, sometimes bored, frequently lost.

Language schools – ours is not an exception! – want to be profitable, so teachers are running around teaching Business English in the morning, IELTS Preparation in the afternoon and Legal English in the evening. In some cases, the students learn, feel empowered and happy, leave the school and actually manage to USE the language they dedicated time to learn. Sometimes the whole mechanism fails and the new school year sees the person approaching a new method or a new teacher pronouncing the well known mantra: “I have been learning English for years but I cannot really speak it…” And it all starts again.

capisco inglese ma non lo parlo

How can we make sure we – teachers – don’t fail?

How can we make sure the students actually learn, reach their goals, meet their targets?

Hmmm… You might think this is the right moment for me to tell you what I mean by ‘LET’S ALL JUST STOP TEACHING LANGUAGES’. But not just yet.

First, let’s have a look at the elephants. The trunk is not a choice for an elephant, you see. It is a product of evolution, dictated by this animal need to survive. The trunk evolved because the elephant wouldn’t be able to survive without it.

One more example.

Do you really think we, humans, would learn to speak if others could understand what we need or want just by ten onomatopoeic sounds? A child keeps learning new words not out of the desire to expand its vocabulary and prove he or she is a clever little thing, children learn new words because they NEED them. Every new word makes their lives easier, makes their interactions with others less frustrating, more efficient.

If we observe the way species evolve or the way humans learn in general, sooner rather than later we all come to the conclusion that learning a second language is – in the vast majority of the cases – clearly against nature. Except, you’d say, when you move to a different country, when your partner is a foreigner, when your company’s HQ are located abroad. And you would be right. What connects these three cases of language acquisition, the elephant’s trunk and a babbling baby? Not evolving towards the new skill is not really an option. You need it. You really, really need it. So badly it hurts.

And here we’re finally arriving at the very core of what I want to share with you. People who really need to learn a second language never fail. They just learn a second language, as BBC film critics Kermode and Mayo would say. The problem is – we want EVERYBODY to learn, not only those who have no alternative – we want all our students to get the language they desire.

And we make the easiest mistake in the world. We start teaching them.

What must – must! – happen before is for the need to be born. Not just a mere motivation, mind. This fades away after a week or two, leaving a tired student facing yet another vocabulary exercise. We need to take our student to a place where not acquiring the language we want to share with them will no longer be an option.

The easiest way would be to ship said student to a country where the language they want to learn is spoken and just collecting them once they’ve learnt the hard way, not having an alternative. Why this is not really a feasible option requires no argumentation. Can, however, a similar feeling of urge, of need be created in the classroom, during a standard, 60 minute long lesson on a Thursday afternoon? I am convinced it can.

For this need to appear the teacher needs to stop teaching. We need to stop focusing on how to cover the verbal tenses, how to show the modal verbs, how to elicit this or that term. We need to concentrate on building a bond, or better- a set of bonds, that will make learning the language the only option. The evolutionary consequence. The organic next step for our students.

Instead of spending time thinking how to introduce the language of contrast – speak with your student about their two favourite people and together try to understand what makes them so special. Do not teach modal verbs – explore what your students dream about and how they interpret these dreams.

Why don’t we limit the topics of our lessons to those our student simply cannot be ambivalent about?

If you and the language you speak become important to your students – communicating with you shall be a need. For this to happen we cannot be scared of building an emotional bond with our students. We need to accept the fact that it will require us to share some things as well, it will require us to be honest, to be – there. For the students. Not for the language.

The part in which we correct the use of verbal tense here or show the difference between a preposition there is a consequence, it’s not the end in itself. This is why I call for the ‘no-teaching’ teaching.

To build a relationship with the language you need to stop looking at the language itself and start focusing on the people who use it, the books that were written in it, the songs that make you cry and which lyrics happen to have been written in that particular language.

If we extend this premise to the evolutionary truth that we only truly acquire a skill to its fullest when we really need it, we see how pointless our efforts are – getting students to talk about imaginary people with no relation to their own lives, writing endless exercises where John should have told Mary to go to Paris with him just to check if our students see how to use modal verbs in the past, oh come on!

Language training as a concept is an idea I would love to separate from. I want to go towards what I believe is best described as Language Engagement – – where the goal for the teacher is not the language itself but the bond that should be built between the student and the language they want to learn. A true bond, based on a true emotion. I am not pontificating here, there is no pedestal from which this article is thrown at you. I am petrified by the concept of not being able to hide behind an anonymous lesson, which I print from an online lesson plan bank and photocopy ad libitum. It scares me, too. But there is no alternative if I really, truly want to empower my students. I need to get involved, I need to open up. Because the real engagement can only happen if both parts feel the bond, both parts are willing to get connected, get to know one another. The teacher in Language Engagement is not a facilitator, faceless and bound by a superior structure. He or she is a vital element of the equation, an active co-creator of the bond the students are supposed to build with the culture and the language they are getting to know.

Do you really think I don’t know how scary this sounds? I do. But you tell me what alternatives are there? Can you ship all your students abroad tomorrow? I thought so. Can you ask them to change their families or life partners and pick the substitutes from among the native speakers of the language they want to learn? Well, there you go. If your aspiration is to teach a language – stop teaching that language. Help the student conquer it whilst he or she explores areas and concepts they feel passionate about. And – if you dare – go exploring with them. Be a part of the journey and I guarantee you will reach the destination. The alternative is madly shouting grammar rules at students who walk in circles on a fake, drawn path in a garden, trying to build in them the spirit and motivation of an alpinist. You must admit it sounds like a Don Quichotte-ian task.

Engage, not teach.

And you will find yourself accompanying humans in one of the most beautiful journeys of their lives.

Credits: I wish to thank Ed Tyrrell, the founder of My Personal English Coach and my business partner, for his relentless pursuit of quality and engagement in every educational project in which he participates. Without Ed, this article would never be conceived, as it was thanks to him that I realised a Manifesto of our joined beliefs and teaching values was needed.

I want to express my profound gratitude to Elisabetta Iamundo for her invaluable help, mentoring and guidance which gave me the courage to translate this text to Italian and to share it with all those who are at the beginning of their language acquisition and are already feeling that this may be a challenge for them.

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