Sunday, January 20, 2008

English from Zero Take 2

A year or two ago I started a blog called: "English from zero" in which I planned to track how I taught English to a young Russian university student in Germany. It was hilarious, really. I discussed and logged the forthcoming venture on this list and elsewhere. Together we generated hundreds and thousands of words. And in the event, after experiencing my 'You are going to talk English for 60 minutes, young man and there is no text book and there won't be any homework" approach", just once, he returned the second week to explain that he was going to put off learning English until he had finished his thesis.

This week I started a new attempt: "English from zero take 2". This time the potential learners are Nina, a friend and colleague of my wife's, and her German partner, Anton. Nina comes from Kazakhstan, trained as an Astrophysicist, she is now a teacher of and teacher trainer in German as a second language. Anton is a retired business man and has a few words of English. Nina claims she does not know a single word. They are both between 50 and 60ish.

In the first week I got them counting, days of the week, months of the year etc. and saying after me and then delivering the lines of a simple monologue and a short dialogue for them to repeat as they drove home:

Anton: What do you think of Dennis's study, Nina?

Nina: What do you think, Anton?
Anton: No comment.

And now for the pedagogy....

I think of myself as liberal, but late in the day it strikes me that when it comes to teaching I'm so convinced of certain things that I am positively dictatorial.

In a one-to-two situation where the learners want to learn enough English to cope on a forthcoming visit to the Seychelles, I've set my sights on giving them practice in speaking English - and understanding it - in likely situations - asking the way, taking taxis, ordering meals, talking to Reception at the hotel, and so on.

Half an hour in to Hour 1, I was still holding on to a simple script I'd written for them when Nina said: "Actually. I'm a visual learner. I need to have the text so that I can see whether it is one word or five."

Well, I believe so strongly that, ultimately,she will make better progress if she suffers at first without the text, that I note I'm a bit unwilling to budge.

What would you do?

Watch this space - or visit the new blog, when I have set it up.


PS I'm in a situation where it would be perverse not to use German, our common language, though the amount of German will decrease as their English increases. I don't translate, but I give a quick gloss in German to ensure they understand what they are saying, and then switch off the German channel. I make a point of not giving the German for contextually obvious instructions - Now you, Nina. No, not you, Anton. Repeat after me. Again etc. etc.


SVine said...

Dennis I take my hat off I could not do this because of my poor German. BUt I need to see words too so I sympathise with her.
Why not compromise let her write the word as she thinks it goes and you check and change the spelling.
If necessary, also I would use picture prompts to explain the scene where possible. eg Reception of hotel Restaurant table food on a plate etc. Loads of pictures on the web.


Dennis said...


Do put your hat back on. I've lived here nearly 30 years and I've got a German wife and German relatives, including a 3/4-year-old granddaughter.

I deliberately teach in my study because there I have access to everything imaginable. Thanks for commenting.

Dennis said...

Copied into this blog from an email with John's permission.

Hi Dennis,

I thought it was more appropriate to carry on this conversation off list.....

Yes lots of feedback is helpful as informs your teaching and direction
especially in a 122 situation - tailoring it to their needs and

I have a great deal of difficulty with oral fluency in any language LOL - but as you can see [reference to a flow-chart John posted on another list]can absorb a diagram in seconds if not minutes.

I also process languages by brute force not using my language centre. As I can process at a very high speed it is not obvious initially but as I get further in language learning - the worse at listening and especially speaking I become.

Tip no. 1 - hide the script better LOL.

By the way I think there can never not be a power dynamic in teaching.
The problem arises from ignoring it, over analysing it to detriment of the teaching. I work in stories so the story that comes to mind is that of the two Buddhist monks in China who meet a woman by a river and one of the monks gives the woman a lift across the river. The monks continue and when they arrive at their destination the monk who did not help the woman says: "are you going to tell the abbot as you carried the woman across the river and that is not allowed?" and the other says "I put the woman down at the bank of the river, you are still carrying her even now."

< snip >

In friendship,


Dennis said...

Re-posted with John's permission:

As a visual learner myself - I know the temptation in language learning
to want to see the script.

In the eighties as part of my work as a community worker I learnt Urdu
and the course was called spoken Urdu / Hindi and it was a very good
course but it was completely oral based and it was so hard. I did the
brave thing and just did the methodology and it worked - I do remember thinking that the people who clutched / constantly wrote things down etc were the people who dropped out quickly.

This is a bit like the people who ask "why?" when presented with a bit of grammar in any language except their own. I always suspect that they
are going to drop out as "it doesn't make sense" to them.

Much better questions are "How?" and "Can I say ...?"

In friendship,

John Warner

Dennis said...

Copy of an email from Gladys of teachingwithcomputers and copied here with her permission.

Hi Dennis!
I hope I can afford to follow your blog, it sounds like an exciting
adventure for me (a Methods teacher!)

You've asked "what would you do?", and here goes MHO:

1. Be flexible; start from your student's needs and learning styles
and gradually encourage them to try other ways. In the meantime, take
advantage of the opportunity to observe them learning and check
whether your assumptions about what works or not apply to their case!

2. whenever possible, apply to all learning channels at the same time.
I mean, if you can present something visually, auditorily and adding some movement or appealing to feelings, go for it! It'll mean more chances of reaching your audience...

Between you and me, if you had me repeating a dialogue I cannot see or modify, I'd be so tense I'd be quite unlikely to remember a single
line! Now, if I was shown a movie with it, or was given some lines of
the dialogue to order, then I'd be likely to remember! (I'm mostly
kinaesthetic, then a very good visual learner, but a very poor
auditory one, you see?) I think you'll understand me if I tell you I was only able to pick up English sounds after reading how they were
articulated and studying English phonetics! Only then I started
hearing them!

Again, just MHO. And good luck to Nina and Anton, lucky students to
have such a commited teacher!


Dennis said...

Thank you, Gladys. As I wrote in my email - lucky me to have such devoted friends and colleagues who find the time to comment on this blog. They don't realise it, but Nina and her partner are being team taught.

I think this is a gem of an insight:

"I was only able to pick up English sounds after reading how they were
articulated and studying English phonetics! Only then I started
hearing them!"

I particularly like, too, the reminder to appeal to all channels.

Nina won't be able to modify much at first, unless she practices her interlangage creativity, she literally only knows whatever English words she picked up last week.