What a little Lao boy has to do with language learning

What a little
Lao boy has to do with language learning

Have you ever thought about what might be the best way to learn a language?  What makes you succeed best? When we teachers ask our students how they would like to learn, they generally don’t know. They hope it just happens, by some kind of magic. After all we already speak at least one language. We don’t remember how we learnt it, but we were quite successful, it seems. There must be something in our mind to switch on and it just happens, isn’t it? I can reassure you, teachers often hope the same. We all, students and teachers secretly hope to find the magic button to push and everything falls into place. Effortless. We just have to find the right method?

Well, I can tell you: There is no “the right” method (but there are definitely some wrong and boring methods!). Humans are learning languages as long as humans exist. If there was that one right thing, we would have already found it. Learning a foreign language in the end is what you make of it. Sounds tiring? Yes, it is and no it isn’t. Let’s have a closer look at it.

Let me ask you a question. Please pause for a while and think about it. The question is: What do we need for learning? Please give me three things.

So, what did you come up with? Most probably you will say: “I need a good book or a teaching method and I need a teacher”. You are right. Not bad. And what is the third thing you need? No, no, I am not talking about a notebook, a whiteboard or a pencil. So? Did you get it? You don’t know? No problem. Let’s come back to it later.

So you say the first two things we need is a book and a teacher.

Let me first tell you a story. I was once travelling in Laos, that small country in South-East Asia sandwiched between Thailand and Cambodia. One day I took a one-day boat trip on the Mekong River. There was a young Lao boy selling drinks, rice balls and potato chips. He spoke a simple, but fairly well English for such a young boy like this. I wondered where he had learnt it as in his old pants and dirty shirt he didn’t look like having the means to pay for lessons. After some time into the cruise I saw him sitting on the floor of the boat in a corner, with a big head set on his ears and an old tape player. In his hands he held a small book with a missing cover and as I noted later lots of missing pages and some of the pages were torn or damaged. It seemed to be an old edition of some kind of phrase book. When I asked him what he was doing he said he was learning English. The tape was not related to the phrase book. There were just recorded audio files on it from another text book he had never seen. He said he was alternatively listening to the tape to grasp the right English pronunciation although he didn’t understand all of it and when he got enough of listening he was learning words, some grammar rules and sentences from his little booklet. He said that’s all he ever got to learn English. But of course he had the chance to practice it. And he did so successfully. He was proud when I praised him for his good proficiency and said he hoped one day he would be able to attend college and work for a foreign company. He looked in a good mood, was proud and eager and especially he spoke a fairly decent English having just that old-fashioned tape and a booklet. Isn’t that amazing?

Earlier in the text I asked you to come up with two things we need to study: Do you remember what we said? We said: A book and a teacher. So did he have a teacher? No he didn’t. Unless, of course you consider all those people around him, the tourists on the boat he was practicing with were his teachers. Did he have a text book or a special method? No, he didn’t, he just had an old torn phrase book with some basic grammar rules, sentences and vocabulary! So then how could he be so successful? Well, you guess it. It’s because of the third missing thing. Please pause again a moment to think what it is. ————– Got it? Yes! It is – that one important thing: Motivation!

Now think about it honestly. How would you fare with only an old book and tape to learn a language? Not the best way to start with. But let’s face it: Motivation is not any more considered the first thing when we decide to learn a new language. We rather browse the Internet to find the best language school with the best method, the best website and the best teachers.  Motivation has come a bit out of fashion. In the old times there was only a God-like teacher, a grueling text book in black and white filled with never ending minuscule letters and boring stories, a blackboard and that’s it. Nothing fancy. Today we have pretty schools, enthusiastic, creative teacher, shiny text books with lots of pictures and even all kind of technology. So we kind of want to believe that the better these things, the better results we will achieve. Of course schools, books and teachers are very important, but not as important as you think.

Let’s start with the teacher. Chances are that you have had countless teachers in your life and probably also several language teachers, including some German teachers if you are not a beginner. Also chances are that you have had good and bad teachers. Some you really liked, like that one young beautiful woman with those sparkling blue eyes or that funny guy who told those stupid jokes and sometimes brought his guitar. But probably you have also blamed more than once your teacher for weak grades or difficulties of learning. The teacher was boring, the teacher couldn’t explain well, he was unfriendly or she was not well prepared. Or maybe he or she didn’t seem to like you even. So they gave you bad grades. Well, all this is possible. All this happens. But sometimes it’s maybe a bit too easy. Teachers are there to help you study. No doubt about it. And if the young Lao boy had had one he probably would have progressed even quicker. But teachers can’t do wonder, they are just human. they are not a machine that can spit out the perfect teaching. They have good and bad days, they might be tired, sad or ill, still most of them day by day do their best and most of them truly enjoy it.

Once I was working for a language institute. They had set up the following guide-line for teachers: A good teacher is a teacher that can make lazy students eager and less clever students smart. I admit. There is something about it. Interesting classes can make students more attentive and clear explanation and useful applications can help everybody to progress. Those two things are really essential to me as a teacher. The class should be clear and interesting. I have to make sure that everybody understands the content of my teaching and will get lots of opportunities to practice it. A lesson should vary in intensity and complexity. There should be tasks to focus on silently and a big variety of applications like games, dialogues, role plays, poster or small projects. So students will stay interested and enjoy what they are doing. Yes, enjoyment and well-being are also factors that can help with the learning process. After all we like to do most what we enjoy doing. And probably it is easier to learn new things if we enjoy it.

The second important thing is the book or the method. Nowadays there are countless books and teaching methods. Most of them have a communicative approach and this is appropriate as in the first run we would like to learn how to speak. However some students and especially teachers believe that you just have to choose the right method and everything falls into place. You have maybe heard of immersion learning or learning by discovering, flipped classroom or direct teaching, project-based classes or game-based learning, student-centered learning or learning through modern media and the list can go on. If you haven’t heard about it don’t worry or come back a bit later to learn more about it in our new blog article. For the moment, be assured: All those methods are useful, entertaining, funny. You might enjoy one more than the other, because we are just human beings with different tastes and preferences. A good teacher will try to combine them to reach out to different types of learners. Those are the prerequisites of a good language school like ours: Good methods and good teachers.

But all those games, materials and wonderful teachers won’t do nothing if you lack the essential thing we have talked beforehand: Motivation! The most entertaining or best structured classes cannot achieve anything if you are not really willing to invest yourself in it. I have seen students having a lot of fun in class, but in the end knew nothing, others however had good results. I have also seen quite uninspiring classes. Yet, some students got something out of it; others were bored and forgot everything. If you don’t have the genuine motivation to really learn something you will learn few or next to nothing. So then, what is that famous motivation? According to the definition motivation is the inner drive that makes you want to achieve something. It can be triggered from the outside such as by an entertaining lesson or by a funny teacher, but in the end it is your inner determination that decides what you make of it. Remember the Lao Boy? He could have said: “I want to learn English, but I don’t have money to take classes, so what shall I do? I don’t even have a good book or an mp3-player, so where do I get started with?” But he didn’t think like this, he started with his little book he might have found somewhere in the rubbish. He started learning a few words and sentences and tried to use it with the tourists. He learnt some grammar to be able to construct his own sentences. And so step by step he improved to the point to have real conversations.

Now some students will argue that yes, they really want to improve their German, but they really don’t know how to proceed. It’s so boring to learn words and so difficult to learn grammar. Well, then I fear, you are not really truly motivated. Because if you are really motivated, you will start being creative to find your own way of learning, because you absolutely want it. And you will enjoy the learning process because you will get some satisfaction out of it, the satisfaction to express yourself in a foreign language. You will not mind the effort because you see that at the end of the day you will get something you can be proud of. But I admit it is more difficult for some students than for others to find the best way for them to study. It would go too far to talk extensively about self-study techniques here, but to end this article, let me give you a few concrete tips:

– Always be attentive in classes, try to really understand what you are learning and if you don’t ask your teacher. Don’t be afraid. Teachers are there to help.

– Do your homework fully and regularly and in a quiet setting if possible, so that you can really concentrate on it. Don’t do it mindlessly just before the beginning of the class. Real motivation means to do the homework for yourself, not for your teacher.

– Apply the learning techniques you hear about in class. Teachers always give a lot of hints and ideas how to study. Try it out and if it works for you, go on with it.

– Use what you have learnt in class outside of the classroom. You are in Austria. Most of people speak German. There are a lot of possibilities to practice. Try also to talk to yourself. Make easy sentences about what you see, hear and think. Or write it down in a little diary.

But the most important: do it with pleasure. Understand that you are in the process of doing something fantastic: Learning how to speak in a foreign language. And the harder you try, the better you will be and the more you will enjoy it. And there is where true motivation sets in, learning because you really, genuinely want to achieve something, from the bottom of your heart. This can be tiring, yes, but also it is a wonderful feeling when you get it.

So in the beginning I asked you what might be the best way to learn a new language. There is not one way, but what you personally make of it. And the base of it is learning from your heart, from your inner self to achieve that new superpower. It is called: M-O-T-I-V-A-T-I-O-N. At INNES Institute Vienna we know that.

Dagmar Franzen

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