Say What You Like: Learning by Speaking

Many people can be turned off the idea of learning a foreign language by the prospect of memorizing ad nauseam endless lists of vocabulary, verb conjugations, different tenses, inflexions, and other intimidating grammar rules.  However, in the realm of language teaching, and especially ESL, experts currently favor the so-called ‘Communicative Method’, which stresses the importance of communication and interaction.  Utilizing class-driven conversations, debates, and speaking games to immerse students in the language as organically as possible, the Communicative Method is the most effective—and least painful—theory of language teaching we have to date.

In the 1960s and 1970s language learning in Europe underwent a progressive push to get students learning actively as opposed to cramming grammar to recite and translate texts, which was the accepted teaching method up until then.  The linguist Dell Hynes suggested that you can know the structure of a language down to its tiniest grammar points, but that knowledge isn’t worth much unless you can use it in real-life situations.  He suggested a method of teaching that focuses on speaking and listening, allowing the students to take risks and make mistakes in the classroom.  In the spirit of the 60s, such a radical and free-thinking approach caught on, and it’s still the dominant language teaching method in many countries, such as Europe, Japan, and Taiwan.

When I taught English, we adhered to the Communicative Method as much as possible, which made for a much more enjoyable and creative environment for learning.  Of course there were aspects of traditional education in our classrooms—quizzes, tests, homework, and the like—but primary emphasis was placed on conversations, debates, group work, role-play games, interviews, and anything else that would get the students expressing themselves in English.  When they made errors in speaking, rather than jump in and correct them (which would hurt their confidence and possibly make them think twice before speaking out again—shyness, according to the Communicative Method, is not conducive to learning!) we would let them finish speaking.  Then, as a class, we would go back and talk about possible errors, trying to guide the students into self and peer-correction.

There are many criticisms of the Communicative Method, the most enduring one being that while it gauges success through a student’s ability to communicate, a student who can communicate with a teacher they’ve spent months developing a rapport with might not be able to communicate with others—particularly non-native speakers.  Moreover, a teacher seeking to boost her student’s free expression may let certain errors in pronunciation or grammar slide, resulting in engrained bad habits that are never addressed.

However, this can also go for any method of teaching, and studies have shown that while the Communicative Method yields test results that are similar to traditional teaching methods when it comes to grammar and reading comprehension, students score much higher when it comes to speaking and listening tests.  And, in my experience, students are more motivated to come to a class that focuses on conversing and engaging rather than bookwork.  My students’ English was not perfect, but they were eager and inventive speakers given the tools they needed to travel and increase their language skills by leaps and bounds.

What’s your preferred method of learning a language?