Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The SHAPAL Method

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English
Japan

Language learners all over the world will no doubt be pleased to hear that I have finally discovered the definitive technique for learning a foreign or second language. I am so confident of its effectiveness that I am prepared to guarantee that anyone who follows it will be successful. I can also say with a high degree of certainty that anyone who chooses not to adopt this Method will be doomed to failure.

I first became aware of the importance of the SHAPAL Method when I was talking to a Canadian who had learned Japanese. Actually, I had been following the Method myself in my own studies, but I had not fully grasped at that point just how universal it was. The Canadian in question was called Chris, and he had mastered Japanese to a higher level than any Westerner I had ever met. My own Japanese was not bad at the time, but it paled next to his command of the language. Of course, I was curious to know more about his study techniques, so I asked him, “How did you learn Japanese? Did you just Study Hard And Practice A Lot?” He looked at me quizzically and enquired, “Do you know any other way?”

Good point.

Stupid question.

There is, of course, no alternative to the SHAPAL Method if you want to be successful in learning a foreign or second language.

If you have read this far, you may be feeling a sense of disappointment at the banality of my discovery. But is it really so obvious? If you began reading this article with even the slightest expectation that I might have actually discovered a magic method, that means you were at least entertaining the possibility that it might exist. At the time of my conversation with Chris, I had been teaching English as a foreign language for eight years and studying Japanese for about three. I also had an MA in applied linguistics. But even as a supposed “expert,” I still could not stop myself from wondering whether there might be some special technique for learning a language that I had yet to discover. If someone like me still harbored such an idea, I wonder how many other language learners and teachers might be laboring under a similar misapprehension.

Language learners around the world are bombarded with advertisements for “special” methods and techniques, the secrets to which can generally only be revealed upon payment of a large fee or purchase of a set of expensive materials. Furthermore, anyone entering a bookshop to browse language learning materials will leave with the impression that learning a foreign language is not only easy, but also fun. They could also be forgiven for thinking that five or ten minutes of study a day will be sufficient to achieve mastery of any language within a couple of months.

The situation for language teachers is even worse. From the first days of our training, we are indoctrinated with theories put forward by academics (who in many cases have never actually learned a second language themselves), and we get brainwashed with whatever theory happens to be “flavor-of-the-month” at that point in time. This is in spite of the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that people learn languages any better or any more efficiently today than they did 100 years ago. Think about it—if you were shown two English classes, one equipped only with a teacher and materials from the 1920s, and the other blessed with modern textbooks, access to the most up-to-date online materials, and a teacher with an MA from a top university, would you feel comfortable betting a large sum of money that learners in the second class would be any more likely to be successful than those in the first?

Even after our initial training is over, teachers continue to be bombarded at conferences and workshops with talk of “crucial” techniques and methodologies that promise to lead our students to the end of the language learning rainbow. Once again, we are often prepared to overlook the simple fact that whatever the method under discussion, it can always be pointed out that millions of people throughout history will have learned a foreign language successfully without doing it.

It is interesting how we are willing to sacrifice common sense and hard-won experience to the demon of wishful thinking. A prime example of this is the multi-billion dollar diet industry. Everyone knows that the only way to lose weight is to eat less and/or exercise more, yet that does not stop people being drawn to an endless stream of diets that promise incredible results with little or no effort or sacrifice. The people who embark on such a diet know that it is probably too good to be true, but that does not deter them from paying money in the desperate hope that it might not be.

But, you may ask, does it matter as long as we are motivating students to learn? Surely the important thing is to keep looking for better ways to learn and teach languages. This is true to a point, but the problem is that in many cases, we are not motivating students to learn at all—we are simply motivating them to start learning, and that is a very different thing. As soon as they realize just how much work is involved, and how monotonous and frustrating much of that work can be, many people just give up. Of course, this is unavoidable to some extent, but how many of those people might have been persuaded to persevere if they had been aware of the nature of the challenge they faced from the outset? Our job as language professionals is not to “lure” people in with silly promises and false hopes, it is to explain exactly what is required for success and then leave learners to decide for themselves whether they are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices or not.

Success in learning a foreign language requires many hundreds of hours of dull, often confusing study, particularly when the language you are trying to learn is nothing like your own. It also demands many thousands of hours of embarrassing, frustrating, and often highly stressful practice of using the language to communicate, and no discovery short of wiring our brains directly to computers is going to change that. There is no way around this unfortunate fact, and there are no shortcuts. SHAPAL is the only way of learning a foreign or second language—pass it on.

Comments

Comment from Lisa
April 5, 2011 at 12:42 pm

love it!

Comment from mossaab
April 5, 2011 at 11:55 pm

Hello Mr David. I totally agree with you but if you please, what’s the meaning of the word shapal? Thank you. Cordially.

Comment from David
April 6, 2011 at 1:48 am

Hi Mossaab,

The meaning is explained at the end of the second paragraph, but it might be a bit difficult to understand. Sorry about that. “SHAPAL” stands for “study hard and practice a lot.”

Hope that helps.

Comment from mossaab
April 6, 2011 at 2:03 pm

Hi David,
Thank you so much, I didn’t notice.
It helps a lot.

Comment from oriel ortega
April 11, 2011 at 11:45 am

Hi professor Barker.
My name is Oriel Ortega and I am taking a master degree in TESOL in Panama. I think this is the first time you write here. Your paper was very interesting. I have to select an approach and a country. I have selected grammar base and the communicative approach and the United States. An important part of the paper is to present a video in which the approach is used. Have you filmed one of your classes or do you know a webpage where I can find this kind of videos? If so, could you help me?

Thanks a lot
Oriel

Comment from David
April 11, 2011 at 4:40 pm

Hi Oriel,

Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you like the article. As you say, it is the first one I have written here, so it’s nice to receive comments.

Unfortunately, my main point in the article is that success in language learning is not connected to a particular method or teaching technique, so I don’t think it would be suitable for your paper. Also, I am British, and I am not really a fan of the Communicative Approach, so my teaching would not fit the criteria you have selected anyway.

Sorry I cannot help, but thanks again for your comment, and best of luck with your paper.

Comment from Mark Pendered
April 13, 2011 at 8:45 pm

I enjoyed your article David, although I’m sure you’ll agree there are many different angles to understanding any one point of grammar, and thus as teachers we ourselves are students in learning these different approaches. Wouldn’t you agree?

Comment from David
April 14, 2011 at 1:45 am

Hi Mark,

Thanks for your comment. I think your point that there are many different angles to learning is a valid one, and that is exactly the problem with all these different approaches. Teachers are being told completely different things by competing “experts,” and it is often difficult for new teachers to know what to think. I was trained in International House in London in the 1990′s, and we were taught that Communicative Language Teaching in “English-only” classes was the most effective method of learning a language. When I started teaching in Singapore, I met a Chinese student who had excellent English skills. I asked him how he had learned, and he basically described “chalk and talk” grammar-translation lessons that he had gone through in school in mainland China. Everything I had learned about ELT told me that should not have been effective, but it seemed to have worked pretty well for him.

My point is that learning a language is not about using one method or another. This is proven by the fact that people throughout history have learned languages using a huge range of methods. At one time, translating the Bible was regarded as the most appropriate method. I doubt that many teachers would recommend that nowadays, but that does not change the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of people who succeeded in learning a foreign language that way.

I like your point about teachers being students, but students of what? I am constantly amazed by the number of English language teachers and “experts” who have never actually learned a foreign language. Of those who have, there is probably only a small percentage who have learned one that is totally different from their mother tongue. I think a newly qualified English teacher would actually gain much more from spending two years trying to learn Arabic or Korean than she would from doing an MA in applied linguistics.

Sorry, I’ve waffled on a bit there. Thanks again for the interesting question. I hope I have managed to answer it.

Comment from David
April 14, 2011 at 1:57 am

PS
I was actually in a beginner’s French class for three hours last night. It has been a long time since I was the student, and I highly recommend this experience for all teachers. (One of my trainers back in London said he always used to ask so-called experts “When was the last time you were a beginner in a language classroom?) Luckily, my French teacher spoke a bit of Japanese, so we were able to ask her questions, and she was able to tell us how to say what we wanted to say. If the lesson had been conducted only in French, it would have been far less useful (and a lot more frustrating!) My point is that if you want to know whether English-only is really a good idea, don’t read articles and books about it, go and experience it for yourself.

Comment from Alex
April 16, 2011 at 12:20 pm

I’m curious to know what you dislike about the communicative approach.

Comment from David
April 17, 2011 at 8:23 am

Hi Alex,

That is a question that deserves a full answer, so I’ll write another post about it in the next few days.

Thanks.

Comment from Andy Walujo
April 21, 2011 at 6:39 am

Hi. I like your post so much that I had to leave a comment. I’m upset to hear such a claim, for example, that if you study with us, you will master English in 3 months.
English is a highly complicated language to learn it might take forever to master. There are so many things EFL learners have to learn by heart whether they like it or not, and this takes a large amount of repetition, which means time. For example, the irregular verbs that are needed in passive sentences or simple past tense, the subject and verb agreement (a policeman is, but the police are), prepositional phrases (in the morning, but at night), etc. The worst of all could be countable and uncountable nouns; that, given this meaning the word is countable, but it is uncountable if the meaning is another. Pronunciation is also hard, for example, put does not have the same pronunciation as cut although their spelling is similar. SHAPAL is the only true way.

You’ve got yourself a strong supporter Mr. Barker. My name is Andy Walujo from Indonesia. Thanks for your article.

Comment from David
April 21, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Hi Andy,

Thanks for your comment. I’m glad that you like the article. The thing that annoys me more than “You can learn English in 3 months” is “Learning English is fun!” I hear that a lot in Japan. In my experience, the teachers who say it tend to be ones who have never learned a foreign language themselves. As you say, there is nothing “fun” about learning irregular verbs!

I think that Dorothy Zemach wrote an entry about that topic on this blog, and I once read a very interesting book called “The Good Language Learner” in which the authors interviewed a number of successful learners. If I remember correctly, the adjectives that most of them used to describe learning a language were things like “frustrating” and “confusing.” That sounds about right to me!

Comment from Betty Azar
April 21, 2011 at 4:47 pm

David Barker has hit the nail on the head. There are no shortcuts, no magic methods for acquiring a second language as an adult. His blog so delighted me that I LOLed (hmmm–do you suppose there should be two L’s in that?) The theme of my 2007 TESOL plenary talk (http://www.azargrammar.com/authorsCorner/2007Plenary.html)was that there is no one right way to teach a second language. I discussed how teachers make their pedagogical choices based on the needs and circumstances of their students. If I’d known of the SHAPAL acronym, I certainly would have included it in my talk!

Comment from David
April 21, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Thanks Betty,

I was actually at your 2007 TESOL plenary, so I was fairly sure you would like this topic :-)

Comment from Betty Azar
April 22, 2011 at 11:58 am

And my thanks to you, David!

Comment from Melissa
May 25, 2011 at 11:12 am

I fully agree with most of what David says (except that I believe that learning a foreign language IS fun!), but I wanted to comment on a few points. First, the Communicative approach is good to the extent that it encourages students to speak from the beginning, but we have to be careful with this. I’m a native speaker who is teaching English in a country where native or “native-like” speakers as teachers are rare. Encouraging students to talk, talk, talk, especially where they have no opportunities to interact with native speakers, can result in a wide variety of errors in pronunciation, grammar, usage, etc. becoming fossilized in individuals and passed down from one generation to the next. I also agree that having students always generate conversations based only on their personal likes and experiences is severely limiting. If you want to teach English to people who will potentially be working in tourism, it’s helpful for them to learn how to talk about airports and hotels, even if they’ve never been in one. (Of course, it is highly desirable to take them to these places, if possible.) My third point: as a college student I studied French in the 70s and Spanish in the 80s and developed a high degree of proficiency in both. In the 70s my intro-level language classes required three hours a week in the language lab, listening and repeating and recording on reel-to-reel tape. In the 80s the only thing that had changed was that the recordings were on cassette. I know that for students who don’t follow the SHAPAL method, these labs can be a waste of time, but for people like me, they are very important, even though most of my classes were taught by native- or native-like speakers. This is something that I feel is sorely lacking in English language classes, at least where I am living and teaching– especially in light of the scarcity of native- or near-native teachers!! Non-native-speaking teachers, in addition to being susceptible to teaching mispronunciation by example (pronunciation of “think” as “sink”, for example), even in cases where their pronunciation is good and they try to teach the correct pronunciation, they tend not to hear these errors when their students make them. To me, listen-and-repeat lab exercises (recorded by native speakers) are the best answer to this problem.
Thanks for some excellent articles!

Comment from David Barker
May 25, 2011 at 4:20 pm

Hi Melissa,

Thanks for the comment. I completely agree with 99% of that. I have a friend who is learning Spanish, and he swears that the most useful thing he does is listen to model sentences on his iPod and repeat them while he jogs. The greatest crime of CLT was dismissing everything that had gone before it. In terms of actual results, I would guess that the Audio-Lingual Method was actually far more successful than CLT could ever be. If I were given the choice of using one method or the other to learn a new foreign language now, I would pick AL every time.

But seriously, you would describe listening, repeating, and recording sentences on a reel-to-reel tape as “fun”?! Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that learning a language is not challenging, motivating, engaging, rewarding, and a hundred other positive adjectives; I just think that “fun” is the wrong word for an activity that requires so much hard work. Obviously, it is quite possible to have fun while you are learning a language, but that fun comes from the social interaction with your teacher and classmates rather than the nature of the activity itself. I think there is a danger that if we try to sell learning English as a “fun” activity, students will drop out when they realize how much hard work is involved.

Comment from Zoë Morosini
May 26, 2011 at 5:22 am

Studying is hard work, and a lot of students I teach (ESL at an urban USA public school) simply don’t know how. I like your point that language learning requires the application of the nuts and bolts of concentration, repetition, practice with others at higher levels or native speakers, etc. That’s what I did to learn Spanish and French. SHAPAL worked fine for me, but I have a strong educational background. What do you think is the best way to help students without study skills to apply to “SHAPAL”? Is there an order of study skills developmental steps you recommend? Thanks in advance for your response!

Comment from David Barker
May 26, 2011 at 7:12 am

Hi Zoe,

Thanks for asking such an in interesting question. That really got me thinking! The thing about SHAPAL is that it applies to pretty much everything in life that is worth doing. With students like the ones you describe, it might be interesting to find out what they are good at (playing musical instruments, skateboarding, playing computer games, etc.) and then talk to them about how they got good at it. The basic ideas of SHAPAL will come out in that discussion, I suspect. (Was it all fun? Did you ever make mistakes or get things wrong? How many hours of practice did you have to do? etc.) What I’m getting at is that your students probably know all about hard work and effort, just not in the field of study. Getting them to see that learning a language is similar to something they have already achieved might help to motivate them.

With regard to study skills, I think I would probably start with memorization, because it is one of the most basic and important skills for language learners. If they are not all that academically inclined, you could start by getting them to memorize things they are interested in, like players in a football team, hit songs by artists they like, words of songs, etc. Actually, I have had some interesting lessons where I got students to try to remember the birthdays of all their classmates. It’s easier than you might think! You could have fun experimenting with different memorization techniques. With your language learning background, I’m sure you know plenty about memorization. When they get good at memorizing the things they are interested in, you could get them to try those same techniques out on language learning.

As I have said before, I think it is important to stress that learning a language is not necessarily “fun.” It’s not supposed to be. I think that if you prepare students for the confusion, boredom, and frustration that they will inevitably have to face, they will be less likely to quit or rebel when it happens.

Once you have covered memorization, I would look at something like substitution – i.e., getting them to produce their own sentences from patterns that you have taught them. Again, this is a key skill for language learners, and it is challenging enough to be interesting without being so difficult as to put people off.

I hope that answers your question, but please feel free to post another comment if it doesn’t.

Best wishes,

David

Comment from Maria Angela Fabrini Gaspar
November 5, 2011 at 10:20 am

David, sito-me a vontade ao escrever este comentário à você depois de ler tudo o que está escrito nesta pagina.
Sou uma professora das que comentaram acima, novata, e com sonhos!
Aqui no Brasil, muitos casos são parecidos com o meu.Nós estamos sempre sonhando!
Sempre acreditamos que venceremos nossas barreiras com dureza e sacrifício, mas veja, também já cheguei a pensar na abordagem comunicativa como a solução dos problemas!
triste frustração!
Hoje quero agradecer pessoas como você, que são maleáveis e racionais a ponto de ajudar outros a serem também.Muito obrigada, eu estava me sentindo tão só nos meus sonhos! Agora não, vou a luta com outro olhar! Você me ajudou muito!

Comment from Jes
May 19, 2012 at 11:48 am

“There is, of course, no alternative to the SHAPAL Method if you want to be successful in learning a foreign or second language.”

Isn’t it MORE general?

There is no alternative to the SHAPAL method FOR LEARNING ANYTHING! Programming, Mathematics, Piano …

Very good article!

Comment from David
May 21, 2012 at 12:43 am

Thanks Jes. Good point! I will stop being so conservative with my claims :-)

Comment from Maria Zalejski
July 13, 2012 at 5:25 am

David,
Thank you !
Finally someone has said it.
Your article is like a breath of fresh air in the day of, as you wittily put it, “flavor of the month” language learning approach.
There is no substitute to first studying, and then applying
a language rules, not the vice-versa.
Fixing the outcome of CLT in my students is the story of my life. They are most often confused; grammar material has been presented to them in a fun way, but hardly explained.
They often show up in a high level classroom not understanding “the strings” of the very basics.
They are so grateful for what I call “torment days”, when
we review grammar structures from the beginning.
This often happens as they are not able to work efficiently on higher level books assigned for advanced classes.
Keep up the good work.
And – hats of to Ms. Azar for her amazing books I use for “torment”, and “Fun with Grammar” I then follow up with to apply the good learning routine.

Comment from David
July 14, 2012 at 3:02 am

Thanks Maria,

Keep fighting the good fight!

Comment from Cheri
December 11, 2012 at 9:38 am

In one of your comments you mention:

“I am constantly amazed by the number of English language teachers and “experts” who have never actually learned a foreign language. Of those who have, there is probably only a small percentage who have learned one that is totally different from their mother tongue. I think a newly qualified English teacher would actually gain much more from spending two years trying to learn Arabic or Korean than she would from doing an MA in applied linguistics.”

I completely agree! Have you come across any research or formal sources to support this?

Comment from David
December 11, 2012 at 9:33 pm

Hi Cheri,

I’m afraid I have never seen any research on this topic. It would be an interesting project, but I’m not sure how you would quantify the “gains.”

People often say to me, “I do not speak any foreign languages, but that does not mean I am a bad teacher.” This is true, but my point is that they would be better teachers than they are at the moment if they could add the experience of learning a language to their existing body of experience, talent, and knowledge. I suppose it might be possible to do a survey of teachers and analyse their answers to questions about things like the importance of grammar, learning vocabulary from lists, and the use of the L1 in the classroom depending on whether they have learned a language successfully themselves. That would be interesting.

Comment from Jose Lopez
July 27, 2013 at 10:08 am

Finally someone has clearly put it straightforward in a nutshell. THERE IS NO OTHER WAY!! I have a B Sc. in EFL/ESL, A M. Sc. in English Education, and a Ph D. in Philosophy, and I have been teching ESL/EFL since I got my first degree in 1985– 28 years ago, including Teacher Training Programs . I would like to add a few comments to David’s enlightening article:
1. Non-native ESL teachers have an advantage because they have been involved in the process themselves, so they can approach teaching from a more personal perspective–they know the intricacies as insiders. They have mastered patterns of both languages, what makes is easier to explain rules of grammar (and rules of use) from a more objective perspective, and at the same time favor L1-L2 enforcement or prevent L1-L2 interference (Remember Comparative Typology?)
2. Theory and practice MUST go together. “…good teaching practice is based on good theoretical understanding. There is indeed nothing so practical as a good theory” (Wardhaugh 1969),in Stern 1983. Now, the point is to know how to put good theory to use in classroom practice. Anyone who has read enough on language teaching theory will come to the conclusion that up to now there is no such thing as a “more effective language teaching method”. To me, then, anything is possible in the language classroom (pedagogically speaking) as long as we –teachers– are able to acount for what we are doing. If your teaching procedures have a sound theoretical foundation, then it means that you know what you are doing and why you are doing it… your students are most likely to be successful.
3. The concept of “fun” depends to a large extent, on the teacher’s ability to make it enjoyable (examples, situations, and scenarios), especially if we consider that any trial-and-error process –like learning a language– tends to be a long one, therefore, it will usually be painstaking and time-consuming. That is for granted. Our role is to prepare our students for it and make it as much fun as we can, or help them find ways to make it fun!
4. The fact that we have been successful in a particular way of learning does not mean that our students will, too! That is when theory comes to play a role. We will probably have 25 different personalities and learning styles in one single classroom. There is a lot of work ahead!! Just to give an example: You may have to find different teaching strategies to explain the same grammar point to different students, based on what I stated above.
5. Language is not math. Perhaps the most difficult area of language to explain, and make students understand, is the one related to exceptions of grammar, spelling, and pronunciation rules. Almost everything is determined by context, which means that if one fully understands the context of the speech act, odds are one will use the appropriate language. What is the most effective teaching strategy then? Teach your students to think and they are more likely to learn faster. Other than that, always make them aware that they will have to SHAPAL!

Comment from David
July 28, 2013 at 10:05 pm

Hi Jose,

Thanks for writing such a long and interesting comment. I agree with everything you said!

Comment from Nuri Durani
August 28, 2013 at 2:12 pm

Dear Sir,
I must admit that it is an interesting article, I was in some conference that took place in Libya when I first heard about SHAPAL technique by Dr. Zemach. Although I felt that it is trend to some radical method but I found it more effective since our brains are more familiar to deal with language we inherent that need some way like SHAPAL method to enforce them to be gain much knowledge in shorter time. I join my view to yours and hope to adopt this technique with our students. Thank you very much

Comment from David
August 29, 2013 at 4:11 am

Dear Nuri,

Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. It’s great to know that teachers as far away as Libya have read it!

Pingback from Teacher Talk » Why I am not a fan of the Communicative Approach
November 1, 2013 at 11:51 am

[...] am writing this in response to Alex’s question about why I am not a fan of the Communicative Approach. Let me say before I begin that the case I [...]

Comment from Tipa Thep-Ackrapong
April 25, 2014 at 5:23 am

I’m not a fan if the communicative approach. That’s why I like Azar’s grammar series. What I like best is the sequencing of grammar lessons and then use the grammar learned to communicate with others. I have problems with children’s English lessons, though. They sequence lessons after topics such as going shopping, going to a party etc. Then they put in too many types of exercises such as idioms, vocabulary puzzles and others. I need books that teach young children to subjugate verbs and learn different forms of pronouns. Young learners need a lot of practice of all these forms so that they can use them accurately. However, I cannot find commercial texts based on the approach I want. I like Azar’s red grammar book, but it’s for adults. Can you recommend any commercial text of this sort?

Comment from David
April 26, 2014 at 7:13 am

Hi Tipa,
Thanks for your comment. Sorry, but I don’t really know much about books for children. Can anyone else help?

Comment from paintball shops
September 14, 2014 at 10:53 am

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Comment from db9f to rj45
September 22, 2014 at 6:02 am

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