What would you do?

In my collection of noteworthy students and encounters with them, Jano occupies a special spot. I was teaching him briefly while freelancing in Plzen in around 2008. I was teaching a beginners in a electronics assembly factory with workers from Vietnam, Czech Republic and Slovakia. The management were Taiwanese and the idea was that people at all levels will communicate in English. A free course was organized for the line operators and I was teaching it. Jano tried to learn some of the words and rules but was shaking his head constantly. All of a sudden, he stood up and said: “I can’t do it, these words are all strange and I do not know them. So I do not know what they mean.’ I tried to encourage him to try to listen to my explanations and translation but it was a lost battle. To prove his point Jano went on: ‘You know what, if I talk to you in my dialect, you understand nothing either!’ After that he left, never came back.

This case of failing is, we can feel, a more fundamental kind. I failed to teach Jano any language but I also failed to sell the whole idea of foreign language learning to him. After years, there are some interesting questions this incident generated: Do you have to accept the idea of ‘foreign’ language? Indeed the word cues for unknown, the other etc. while a lot teachers today say ‘second’ or L2, which somehow implies that English is naturally here for you to take ownership of it. It belongs to you no less than math, history or a free mobile game. This approach is probably more helpful and ELF-based approaches are a good example of it. Second question: Did Jano think that I am deliberately making communication hard for him? If I want to say something, why don’t I just find the easiest way to convey my message? Why speak in gibberish? Indeed, quite a few learners, mostly older but exclusively so, do not get their head around the idea of ‘let’s pretend we need to use only L2’. They are too down-to-earth, too practical to accept the rules of the game. Many attempts to learn a foreign language were thwarted and dumped because we, ‘modern teachers’ with our modern communicative methods were not able to switch the gear and use L1 for the most part so as to keep the student. Sometimes so-called student-centered teaching goes against all the rules just to stay on the side of the students.

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