By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Email: zemach at comcast dot net
The first time I studied a foreign language was in 5th grade, when my family lived in Geneva, Switzerland. My brother and I attended a private school where we essentially learned French all day, except when we were pulled out for sewing and needlework (girls) or shop (boys) or sports (everyone).
Fresh off the plane, my brother and I began at the beginning: the alphabet, simple greetings, numbers, colors, then verb conjugations.
We completed one lesson in the textbook each day, and the next day were called individually to the blackboard to take a quiz, either oral or written on the board. We were graded instantly, in front of the class.
Classwork consisted mainly of copying out verb conjugations a number of times, completing written exercises, memorizing vocabulary lists, and answering surprise drill questions fired out by the teacher when we least expected it.
Life in the ‘Language Lab’
Every now and then we went off to a dark little room—I guess some precursor to the “language lab”—where we’d watch filmstrips that advanced one frame at a time. A slide would come up, we’d listen to the French, repeat it in chorus, and *beep*! The next slide would come.
Years later, when I was in graduate school, it seemed fashionable to mock the audio-lingual method, rote memorization, drills, choral repetitions, and the teacher-centered classroom. Certainly a lot of what people were saying about a student-centered, communicative classroom did sound more appealing. A gentler, more human approach. Empowering. And yet… and yet… I did learn French, fluently. You could argue that some of that could have been due to my being 11 and living in a French-speaking environment for five months. But to this day I remember those film strips down to the word—and that was 34 years ago (oh, go ahead, do the math, I don’t mind).
- Où est-ce que vous habitez, Jacques? (*beep*!)
- J’habite rue de la Poste (*beep*!)
- En face du cinéma. (*beep*!)
And yes, I have the accent and intonation down too. A frequent criticism of the audio-lingual method is that students can’t substitute freely and correctly with the patterns to make original sentences; yet that certainly wasn’t true for me or my brother.
More Fun, Less Learning
Japanese was my second foreign language. I studied for one semester at a college in Oregon. Our teacher had us memorize a dialogue every day, practice repeatedly with a partner, and recite it in class the next day for a grade. Later, in Japan, I took classes that were much more communicative. And while they were more fun, I never seemed to make any actual progress with learning the language. Even after living there for five years, the vocabulary and patterns I know best are those I learned in the US from constant drilling and memorization.
I later watched my husband struggle with his Japanese class. “What do you want to learn?” asked the teacher. My husband asked for a lesson on food because he was in charge of the grocery shopping. The teacher obligingly handed out a list of what must have been every vegetable ever eaten in Japan, as well as many that have never crossed its shores, and then asked the class (in Japanese), “What are your favorite dishes?” Of course no one could answer, since no one knew the words “favorite” or “dishes, ” let alone how to describe them using only a list of ingredients. The class continued with more “discussion questions” about food, and my husband came home very frustrated.
The Payoff Is Worth the Price
I asked him what he would have preferred. He said (yes, my husband Mr. Visual Learner and General Touchy-Feely Guy) that he would have liked a few short dialogues to memorize and then to have recited them for the entire lesson, doing just simple substitutions, until he had the material memorized cold. He conceded that it would have been dull—but said the payoff of learning the material would have been more than worth it.
Now, I’m not advocating a boring classroom, or saying there’s no place for open-ended discussion or even “free conversation.” But I do think that when communicative language teaching came into fashion, the baby might have been thrown out with the bathwater. If our students want to learn English, then really, what is going to please them most is actually learning English—even if that means some drills, repetitions, and memorization, or even the teacher leading the class sometimes (imagine!). I don’t underestimate the part a relaxed and enjoyable classroom atmosphere can play in a student’s mood and motivation. However, it’s OK to trade some momentary fun in class today for students really knowing some language at the end of the course.