Monday, October 02, 2006

The Best Place to Learn

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

Where is the best place to learn language? For young children, the best place to learn language is “at play,” if they have young friends or family members who will use the language with them. Elsewhere we discuss in some detail the ability of 2-6 year olds to pick up languages with little effort – almost as though they inhale it from the air.

For older learners, though, the answer is more ambiguous. Many of us have memories of awful language classes and awful language teachers. Especially if you live in a foreign country, many people find that the best way to learn the native language is from a partner or from people in the market and restaurants. Many people at least begin their learning through the self-study of grammar books or by listening to the excellent language lessons available on Pimsleur- or Rosetta-system CDs and tapes. Other terrific programs have been developed for the computer – for example, the excellent Thai Interactive programs developed by the Australian military.

There is a smorgasbord to choose from, in other words. So where is the best place to learn? In this course, we maintain that the best way for most people to learn is to take language classes, and that the best place to learn is in the classroom. This bald statement comes with a number of provisos, however. The most important is that the class should be focused on teaching the learner how to communicate in the new language. As we shall discuss in a later lesson, this simple consideration is relatively new to the language teaching profession.

The second proviso is this: the teacher must be good. By this we mean that all of his efforts are aimed at providing the learners with language they can understand. According to Stephen Krashen, one of the best-known theorists of language learning, “the best activities (for language learning) are those that are natural, interesting and understood.” Good teachers provide those activities through the lesson plan, which we will discuss in much detail in this course. Good teachers also treat each student as a valuable person worthy of respect, regardless of their aptitude or motivation.

As important is the language that teachers and learners use in class. That language takes three forms, which we know as “teacher talk”, “foreigner talk” and “interlanguage talk”. Each one is an attempt to communicate. But the granddaddy of them all is “caretaker talk”, which was an important source of language for most of us.

Talk, Talk, Talk, Talk: Teacher talk is what the teacher says as a teacher. Foreigner talk is the language she may use at the break. If she is good at her profession, these uses of language will both be like the caretaker talk of those who look after young children.

Here are the characteristics of caretaker talk.
• First, it focuses on giving support to a child’s ability to comprehend what is said to him.
• Second, it is syntactically simple, becoming more complex as the child gains in linguistic maturity.
• Thirdly, and most importantly, caretaker speech is communication. Its purpose is to convey messages, get the child to behave in a certain way, and communicate.

Caretakers are more likely to use imperatives like “Be careful, Johnny.” Teachers are more likely to use declaratives – for example, “We say this when we want to ask for food at a restaurant.” In every other way, though, these language “codes” (ways of speaking) are quite similar. They are simple, clear and loud enough.

Assuming that the teacher is a native speaker, at class break her speech will become the code known as foreigner talk. This is essentially the kind of simplified speech a native speaker uses to communicate with people who are weak in a foreign language. We do it quite automatically when we recognize the other person’s weakness in the language.

Some foreigner talk uses forms that are almost pidgin – we call this “Tarzan talk,” and strongly discourage its use in class or anywhere else. The form of foreigner talk more appropriate for the teacher is speech simplified just enough to enable the learner to understand you. This becomes easier with experience.

In these comments we have also mentioned interlanguage talk. This simply refers to the speech of a foreign-language learner – often that of the student’s peer group. It is generally inaccurate speech, with many grammatical errors. However, when the students use it together, they can understand each other. It therefore plays an important role in their language learning.

These kinds of talk – language codes, as linguists like to call them – are the reason the classroom is the best place for older learners, especially, to learn a second or foreign language. Besides the productive activities of the lesson plan, there is valuable teacher talk to listen to. There are other students to meet for interlanguage talk. Through the teacher and perhaps the other students, it is possible to enjoy foreigner-talk.

These simplified, meaningful codes of language can help almost any learner. That is why, despite the explosion of self-teaching approaches to language learning, classroom teaching remains the staple of language acquisition for older learners.
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