Why are languages being taught like math?

Within the past century there have been many great developments in language teaching, especially from American educators. And yet, the majority of foreign language courses taught in America and around the world are very much your standard grammar/translation course mixed in with “communicative” learning. While this is a very valuable method the major drawback is that it needs to be intensive in order to achieve good results. Your 50 minute high school Spanish class 3 times a week doesn’t count as intensive. Even with all of the worksheets assigned for homework.

So now I must ask the question; Why are languages being taught like math? And more importantly why are they being tested and graded like math?

Let’s do a little thought experiment.

Imagine you are in math class. Nothing too crazy, it’s just your typical fourth grade elementary school arithmetic.

Now like any good student you’ve been studying hard and doing a ton of practice problems on worksheets and from your textbook. Every problem is beautifully solved step by step. And like the perfect student you show each step of your work written out in your best penmanship.

You are well prepared for what’s about to come next. The math test. What’s on the test? Long division and multiplication. The test is an hour long with 100 questions.

But, unfortunately the copier in the teacher’s room is broken. So the teacher decides to give the exam orally. And you can’t write anything down. In fact, you have to do all of the math in your head and have to speak your answers aloud. You still have an hour and 100 questions.

Can you do it?

I imagine you won’t do very well unless you’ve been working with a private tutor or teaching yourself on how to do long division in your head.

That’s how many language classes work to prepare the learner for conversation. Most grammar focused courses are very good, but they rarely give the students the skills to do any real work in the language. Communicative classes try to address this issue but usually put the cart before the horse and miss the fine parts of understanding the language. Students say things without understanding.

Why are grammar classes good? Well, if you take a look at Chomsky’s recent works about languages, you’ll understand something very important. Language developed first as a method for thinking not communication. That came afterwards as a result.

However, it’s very hard to think in another language without acquiring the grammar. Grammar courses are focus on making you aware how the language works and how the forms change. Thinking only happens naturally when the brain acquires the grammar patterns and meaning with sounds.

Are they good at helping you acquire that internally? Depends on the class. If the class is heavy in comprehension, it’ll have stronger results. If it’s taught like a series of math puzzles, once the puzzle is solved there is less reason for the brain to retain the pieces of the puzzle.

Now let’s move back to our thought experiment. Acquiring a language is like acquiring another way to do mental math. You can’t simply understand the rules and apply them when in mid conversation. You must have it already internalized. Your brain must be trained to hold the capacity. The brain must process meaning and take mental notes in the language.

Many language courses are taught focused on reading and writing. And it’s done through the scope of  the mother tongue. Very little attention is given to understanding. Dialogue and conversation is stressed. Thinking is glanced over.  It is presented as a set of grammar rules to decode messages. And remembering all of these rules before the brain has fully acquired them causes too much strain on the mental capacities. Especially during an unrehearsed conversation.

Should we teach grammar? Absolutely.

Should languages be taught and tested like math?

What is the end goal?

Programmed Learning and Beginning French

I had forgotten how hard it is to learn a language and just how much Korean and Japanese I actually know.

You see when I’m writing to you here in English, I’m not thinking in Japanese, and no Korean words are popping up in my head either. It’s only the reflexes of English that have been trained into my head since I was born that spew out onto this blog post.

If you were to acquire a new language how would you do it? Let me reiterate this again. It can’t be stated enough. You have to get this concept in your head:

Is Translation Bad?

I will say this. Understanding through translation counts. If you were to review a bunch of vocabulary through flashcards with translation or pictures, you would understand the message. That will work. And sometimes that’s a necessity. Especially for higher concept words. It’s also the quickest way to understanding. You can reinforce the responses through experience later, right?

For example, you might need a strong foundation of Japanese before you could understand the word “悪循環” (vicious circle). Although with Japanese if you understand the meaning of those Kanji, you could probably figure it out. However, if you heard it “あくじゅんかん” you might have a harder time understanding without a dictionary. You’d need a lot of good context.

The point is, sometimes translation is the quickest way to understanding messages for most adult learners.

Building a strong base of working vocabulary first however, it much better than trying to reach out to those fancy newspaper words all the time. Why? Because if you know the word “あくじゅんかん” try using it in conversation. I’m not talking about “それは悪循環です” (That is a vicious circle). I’m talking about all of the context the precedes it. All of the stuff you should understand before you get to use that expression.

You can build a base through programmed learning.

Programmed Learning

Some people might call this “Deep Learning” as opposed to “Wide Learning.” Though that’s not necessarily true.

Programmed learning is training yourself for responses.

The way it works is, you start from very basic words and phrases and build yourself up through repetition and training. You get positive or negative feedback depending on your response. Just like as you were a kid, you got positive or negative responses from your parents if you said something good or bad. You train your responses with questions and practice. As long as you understand the phrases and what’s being said, you are on your way to fluency.

You can do this with computers too. There are some software programs that do this fairly well.

Pimsleur is good too. Notice how if you train your mind with Pimsleur Audio the native speakers will think you know a lot more (vocabulary) than you actually do. There are limitations. Eventually you’ll need to acquire vocabulary through narrow listening and extensive reading.

But I think the personal attention you might get with a Tutor on Skype is better.

There are many ways of learning that I’ve mentioned in previous posts that all do this “Deep learning.”

Here are some of my favorites:

Extensive Reading
Narrow listening
Watching Kid’s shows

Learning French

I started learning French on Thursday when I discovered a video from Christophe Clugston about the best way to learn French. He recommends getting the whole package and attending a class to get the full benefit, but I am just watching the videos that were shown on PBS.

It’s a really cool immersion program put on by a professor of French at Yale University filmed in the late 1980’s. So far so good. There are 52 episodes. I plan on watching one or two of them a day. They are 30 minute long episodes. You can find them here: French in Action


Korean TPRS Story: The bus ran at light speed! 버스는 빛의 속도로 달렸기때문에요!

Korean TPRS Black Board - Light speed bus.
It’s been a while since I’ve met up with my Korean tutor. She is so wonderful! She’s probably the best Korean teacher in Korea because she knows how to teach with TPRS.

She doesn’t have a certificate or a Masters in teaching Korean. If she had one, maybe she would be too stubborn to learn the real secrets of language acquisition. Input based teaching is the most powerful way to get the student fluent and speaking spontaneously. So many people just don’t understand this.

To prove my point, if you have an hour to kill and you don’t know any Russian, watch this video:

Okay, so how much Russian did you learn?

Compare that to an hour of TTMIK podcast. Which do you think is better?

I’d pick story telling any day of the week over boring explanations of grammar from people who have no clue about language acquisition.

The one and only one way we learn language is when we understand messages. I understood 100% of the story we made together today. We only spent 30 minutes making the story today. Just look at how much we were able to create!

Last week in my city hall class, we learned phrases and vocabulary for riding the bus, the train, airplane and boat. I actually forgot a lot of those phrases now. Mostly because it was boring and painful. “Practice with the person next to you!” (and then she proceeds to speak in Korean assuming we understand what she’s saying.) She often goes out of bounds with words (Says things we don’t know or won’t know.)

Don’t get me wrong, I love the class and get lots of input from the teacher. She is really smart and explains the grammar well. But as for language acquisition the way the class is taught is slow and a bit painful.

Okay, enough of my rant. Just to show you how much we can accomplish in 30 minutes with my TPRS tutor, here is the story from today’s Korean class:

지난 일요일에, 한 승객이 버스정류장 앞에 서있었어요. 그 승객은 10시간 동안 서서 버스를 기다렸어요.
잠시 후에 빠른 버스가 왔어요. 하지만 불행하게도 그 승객은 버스를 타지 못했어요.
왜냐하면 그 버스는 빛의 속도로 달렸기때문에요.
그 승객은 버스를 타기위해서 같이 빛의 속도로 달리기 시작했어요.
갑자기 누군가가 소리쳤어요. “할머니!! 뛰지마세요”
할머니는 멈췄어요. 한 경찰관이 할머니 앞으로 다가왔어요.

Here is my translation:

Last Sunday, a passenger was standing at the bus stop. This passenger waited for the bus for 10 hours. After that, a fast bus came. But unfortunately, this passenger could not ride the bus. This is because that bus ran by at the speed of light. That passenger started to run along with the bus at light speed in order to ride it(the bus). Suddenly someone cried out “Granny! Don’t run!” The grandmother stopped. A police officer came up close in front of the grandmother.

Teaching your Language Tutor to use TPRS

How did I teach my Korean tutor to TPRS?

I started out with WAYK

Before we did TPRS I introduced my tutor to WAYK (Where Are Your Keys?) which is a game that incorporates sign language and TPR. It’s made to be super adaptable. Basically the game evolves as you learn more and more. Any techniques that speed up the learning process get thrown into the game.

I love WAYK. I learned Kosraean from a good friend of mine by playing WAYK. He previously taught in Kosrae before coming to Korea to teach English.

WAYK is a great tool to have if you are traveling to different countries. The same friend went off to Thailand and then India doing volunteer work. He learned lots of Thai just by playing WAYK.

I also taught my Japanese tutor how to play WAYK. I learned a lot of different things that I hadn’t before. It gave me a completely different perspective on how the language is used.

If you haven’t heard about WAYK, I encourage you to check it out. It’s doing great work in reviving dying languages. The mission was to find out how you can produce lots of teachers of the language quickly. It’s really fascinating and a great way to teach your cousins languages at family gatherings.

WAYK is easy to teach, how about TPRS?

Okay, so WAYK was made to be taught to tutors and Native Speakers (They call them the fluent fools.) How do we teach our tutor TPRS?

We can do a few things here. Hopefully your tutor is proficient in your native language to some degree. Maybe you know another langauge?

In WAYK my two friends and I would go meet with a few native Korean speakers for coffee. We would teach the game by starting out with a language they probably haven’t learned before. My other friend had spent time in Germany and has been learning German through the years. So, we played German to start out!

You can try to learn how to teach TPRS and teach them a language they don’t know, or you can teach them your language by asking a story with TPRS. I had experience teaching TPRS lessons to Korean students, so I taught my tutor with some materials that I had prepared previously.

I didn’t explain too much to my tutor, and she knew a lot of the rules that are important for CI from learning WAYK. In WAYK we go slow and then eventually we speed up. You can gesture vocabulary to make it stick. Most importantly it has to be obvious.

WAYK is strict about being obvious. If we want to learn the word “cat”, we can’t have a picture of a cat. We can’t have a toy cat. We have to have a real breathing cat. We have to be this obvious because translation in WAYK is thought of as killing the magic of learning a langauge.

I understand this completely. Many native speakers you meat won’t be able to translate for you in the game. You are always testing out meanings by using the langauge. This really opened my senses and acquisition abilities.

That being said, in TPRS translations are a great tool. It’s quick and easy. Just use it and get it out of the way so you can go on making your story. It’s also a wonderful comprehension check! Quick and easy and it doesn’t waste time.

Demonstrating TPRS

You have your tutor. You have a piece of paper or a chalk board. Maybe your tutor is over Skype only, so you have a chat window.

Start out simple. Make sure you translate everything. Write a few words on the board or in the chat window:

Nouns 名詞
Cat 猫
Carrot 人参

Verbs 動詞
There is/exists (person or animals) 居る
To eat 食べる

Now ask your tutor to make some gestures for each word.

Then list the question words:

What 何?
Where 何処?
Why 何故/如何して?
Who 誰?
When 何時?
How  如何?

You can also make gestures for these.

And then start to ask the story. Start off simple and build. Build the list of words if the story needs more. Don’t start off with too much vocab. Let the story unfold naturally.

In this case we can start with “There was a cat” 「猫がいました」Make sure you circle with question words.

Then you might notice you’ll need more words. Write them down with the translation. ”Want to eat” 「食べたい」

And keep on slowly building the story that way. You should do some reading on how to ask a story and watch many videos on TPRS just so you can get a feel for what’s supposed to happen.

After your tutor gets a general idea, have them use those same words to build a story with you.

Emphasize the Rules

1. Circling – When you go over it with your tutor, just remind them to first say a statement, and then ask about each part of that statement with questions.

2. Go Slow – You and your tutor will try to race to the end of the story. Remember, it’s about the input and repetition of the questions that make TPRS so powerful. Not just finishing the story.

3. Comprehension – The questions are meant for comprehension as well as acquisition. But also, translate some things that the tutor says. This will tell your tutor if you understand or not. In WAYK we ask the fluent fool to correct all of our mistakes. If the translation is close, it’s no good. You want to be as correct as possible. Example: “She feels like eating.” and “She wants to eat.” Both sentences are very similar but the meaning is slightly different. Accuracy counts.

4. Gestures – Again, you can leave out the gestures or keep them. I like them. Even over Skype they are fun to use. But if I don’t make a gesture for every word, I’m not bent out of shape about it.

You can find me here Google+