The importance of experience

I often talk about evidence on this blog (the name is a giveaway) but experience also has an important role. My various experiences as a language learner shape everything I do. Like most everyone, I generally get my opinions initially from my emotions, not from anything empirical. 

For example, I studied GCSE French in school because I used to love French in secondary school. I thought I was pretty good at it. Clearly my teachers disagreed. A few weeks into the course I found out I was in the bottom class and dropped out. I figured I’d never be any good at languages so I did music instead.

To this day, while the rational part of my brain tells me that levels are necessary and important my experiences makes me hate them. 

I studied a lot!


In summer 2000, I started my first teaching job in Japan with zero Japanese. In winter 2004 I passed the 1 kyu (now N1) Japanese test, the highest level of the test. This isn’t to brag…well, OK, it is , yeah me! But it’s also to say that everything about that experience colours my attitude toward teaching. I’ve done, what many of my students set out to do. I’m the “after” photo of slick advertising campaigns. and everything I do is filtered through the prism of being a language learner.

Firstly, I had no classes. I didn’t attend a school, have a textbook or get a tutor. This makes me suspicious about the value of these things. That’s right, I’m suspicious of the value of people like me. Research suggests that Instruction can aid language learning but It’s also possible that teachers can potentially also do a lot of harm to students. So another conclusion from my experience is that an ineffectual but ‘nice’ teacher is much better than a teacher who bores students or embarrasses them. 

I also never found out what my ‘learning style’ was, I didn’t know which was my dominant ‘intelligence’ nor did I meditate on the ‘here and now’. What I DID do was study a lot of Japanese words with flash cards, listen to a ton of people talking and singing in Japanese and tried to speak (and drunkenly sing karaoke) as often as I could; Lots of input, lots of studying, lots of practice and high levels of motivation and encouragement.  


Every week I see articles extolling the virtues of the flipped classroom, reflective practice, discovery learning, Dogme and technology. Many of these posts are passionate, articulate and convincing but my experience tells me they are also often peripheral and “A balance is needed between ancillary concerns and the central language teaching priorities that they are ancillary to” (Swan, 2013:170). In order to learn a language students have to learn the language

The problem with all this is though is that experience, isn’t always a great guide for what we should be doing. What worked form me may not work for someone else. I’ve seen some kids come out of 6 years of grammar translation classes with great English. Experience is powerful but it can also mislead us. We can see what we want to see, and also be unwilling to change our minds. And yet many teachers happily accept ‘experience’ as a good enough justification for just about anything. But this argument cuts both ways. 

I know many English teachers who, while claiming to know the best way to learn a language have failed to do so themselves, despite many years abroad. If ‘experience’ is going to be our benchmark then where does that leave teachers like this? Would anyone claim that these teachers are not as capable as those who have mastered a foreign language? And if it doesn’t matter, why doesn’t it matter? 

 

In defence of duolingo

Avid followers of EBEFL will remember I came down quite hard on the memrise app before. Looking back at that article it’s clear I was more critical of the 22 hours-to-learn-a-language claim than the app itself. I did try the app and it wasn’t much fun and quite buggy. In this article I’m going to look at another app which is quite fun, -the rather good Duolingo. I want to compare it to a French class I took recently because I think neither of these methods would lead to anyone becoming fluent in a language but I wonder, on the whole, which is a better supporter of language learning.


Cost

Duolingo
  My French Class
 nothing, nada, zip, zilch
£100 for 10 weeks, 2 hours per week plus a £30 text book

 Should probably add here that I quit my awful French class after about 4 classes. As did, I reckon,  around half of the class. I didn’t get any money back so each lesson was about £25.

 Winner: Duolingo



Method

Duolingo
My French Class
 Grammar translation
erm? ‘traditional’?

Here’s a lesson plan from one of the classes. First 40 minutes were taken up with a reading exercise. We read a text and tried to answer the questions “True” or “False”. The Teacher then went through the answers. To shake up the second half she opted for….wait for it…a 40 minute reading excercise! Don’t worry this time it wasn’t True/False. The last 20 minutes were spent on speaking practice. 10 minutes of which were spent explaining and then 5 minutes on practicing pron, -so all in all we got 5 minutes of speaking in 2 hours.

https://youtube.googleapis.com/v/1ReVwucwF-s&source=udsSome may argue that ‘Grammar translation’ is bad and it certainly isn’t perfect, but Phillip Kerr has made a good defence of using first language and translation in the classroom, though he is clear that old fashioned sentence translations of the kind you see in Japanese schools is not what he’s advocating. I think Duolingo falls down a bit here, but it’s hard to see how a computer program, could do anything else.

Sure, it’s frustrating when you get “une” and “un” wrong and lose a point. Perhaps the developers could introduce an accuracy scale so you could decide how picky you want the program to be.
 

Winner: draw



First language use

Duolingo
My French Class
 about 50% of the time
most of the time


Duolingo asks you to translate about, I would guess 50% of the time and all the instructions are in your language not the target language. In contrast, my French teacher hardly ever spoke French.  

Winner: Duolingo


Authenticity

Duolingo
My French Class
 ‘the apples are red’
‘I like hiking’


Duolingo is horribly inauthentic. You’ll quickly find yourself getting sick of ‘red apples’. The French class was slightly better as it used a textbook aimed at university students. I got to do sentences like “I like hiking” (I don’t) and “have you ever been Canoeing?” (I haven’t). As mike Boyle notes, sentences like “the horse eats bread” may “have no real meaning or relevance to learners” but so what? My feeling is that ‘the noun verbs the noun’ is probably the aim of this lesson. If you can say “the horse eats bread” you could probably say “the man eats bread” or even “I eat vegetables” etc. I think the app could be improved by adding more (interesting) phrases, which have a higher frequency count  They could even teach the task instructions in the target language and then start using those, instead of using “write this in French”.
 
 Winner: My French class
 

TTT

Duolingo
My French Class
 Minimal
blah blah blah


Teacher talking time on Duolingo is almost 0. There are occasinal grammar points in bubbles. My French teacher on the other hand, although being a nice enough person, like so many teachers she couldn’t help regaling her captive audience with jokes and funny stories. In the lesson I talked about earlier, students spoke for about 5 minutes of the class, this wasn’t unusual.
 

 Winner: Duolingo



Awareness of Level

Duolingo
My French Class
Minimal
blah blah blah

 

Duolingo comes out on top again. It knows exactly what I can and can’t do because it constantly asks me. Sure it might be a bit too picky about la and le for my liking but it remembers perfectly my mistakes and gives me the option of working on weaknesses. My French teacher on the other hand found it hard to remember my name. 
 

Winner: Duolingo
Time with teacher
 

Duolingo
My French Class
 whenever, wherever for however long
Monday 6-8

In a class of 15 you may have a few dedicated minutes with each student. Certainly you can’t spend hours tutoring only one member of the class. Duolingo can not only do this, it also works whenever I want to work. My French class was 6-8 on Mondays which meant making sure I had nothing planned at that time and gong after work with no time to eat. Of course, you can’t ask Duolingo specific questions if you get stuck and that’s a problem.
 

Winner: Draw

Learner styles
 
 

Duolingo
My French Class
 nothing
what style are you?

My French teacher made a point of asking all of us what learning style we preferred. Presumably this was to cater to visual (and so on) students. She then went ahead and did what she was planning to do anyway. Luckily, Duolingo isn’t bothered what kind of learner I think I am. It also sensible gives me visual, auditory and kinesthetic input.This is not a good thing because the theory of learning styles is correct, but rather because it makes the material far more interesting.

Winner: Duolingual



Enjoyment and motivation 

Duolingo
My French Class
 ‘you got to the next level!’
I quit after 4 weeks

This is where Duolingo really gets it right. It has a friendly bright interface and manages to gamify language learning in the right way.  My French class was dull, I didn’t feel I was learning or that the teacher knew much about me or my level. Duolingual is constantly making little beeps and showing graphs, all of which is nonsense but it makes me feel I’m progressing, which is vital. Motivation is one of the most important things in language learning and if the student stops coming to your class, all your qualifications, methods and authentic materials mean nothing.
 
Winner: Duolingo
 
This app will not lead anyone to be fluent in a foreign language but it might help. And in terms of helping I would say it is far superior to the language class I took and other language classes I have taken in the past. In the UK, where 40% of language deptartments face closure and where only 15% of the population claim to be able to hold a conversation in any foreign language, anything that encourages or makes language learning easier is a good thing. More power to Duolingo’s elbow I say!