Monday, January 12, 2009

Does Method Matter?

By Lida Baker
Los Angeles, California, USA

http://lidarbaker.googlepages.com/

A wise colleague of mine once said, "It doesn't matter what method you use to teach a language. The only thing that matters is whether your students like you or not." I don't think he was advocating the total absence of any method, but my own experience partly supports the importance of having a teacher you trust and respect.

I learned Hebrew as a child in Israel. My family lived on a kibbutz and there was not another English speaker in sight. I was 8 years old and within two months I was speaking Hebrew fluently. Back in the U.S., I started learning Spanish in 7th grade. I had good--and a few great--teachers all the way through college. In middle school the teaching method was pure audio-lingual. By high school and college it verged into the direct method. In the advanced college classes we read literature and talked about it (in Spanish). I learned successfully using all these methods.

In college, besides Spanish, I studied French, Italian, and Arabic using the direct method. I was successful with French (great teachers at UCLA, small classes, well trained teachers), unsuccessful with Italian (evening course, 40 students, unskilled teacher who spent the whole class talking “at” us, no pair- or group work), successful with Arabic (fabulous, enthusiastic, skilled teacher who had us talking within weeks). Then after grad school, wanting to continue Arabic, I enrolled in a night class. A disaster! The teacher blatantly favored students who could speak a little and left the rest of us in the dust. It was so insulting I dropped the class and that was the end of my Arabic.

Then I took Dutch. It's my parents' native language and I was super-motivated to learn so I could speak to my cousins in Holland. But the teacher was dreadful. His method was a mix of Grammar Translation and telling us about his personal problems--in English. He made every female in the class squirm. I dropped that class as well and never studied Dutch again.

So, what does this rambling account prove? Method does matter, but so do other factors. Of the seven languages I've studied, I dropped three of them because the teachers were unskilled, inappropriate, or failed to motivate me. I think I can learn using any method, but the teacher had better be good!

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