A Basic Technique for Foreign Language Teaching
By the very fact that you can read this article, you possess a valuable resource in great demand around the world. You speak English and you can detect obvious mistakes in the speech of people trying to speak English. If you happen to be traveling abroad, you could put this ability to work by teaching private conversation classes.
Even though you don’t have a certificate in teaching English, there is one basic technique you can learn quickly and immediately apply in a private tutoring session. You can learn how to provide students with the feedback they desperately need to make changes in their way of speaking.
By way of example, examine the case of Dr. P, an M.D. who left her native Korea to spend five years working in Australia. When she returned to her own country, she felt she had mastered English quite well. She could, after all, understand anything that was said to her, read Time magazine and enjoy a movie in English.
“Mistah Kim brings two paper today morning for you sign,” she would say to an American renting a room in her house. Her tenant, of course, would nod his understanding, just as the Australians had done, in deference to her social position. English speakers would catch her meaning and ignore the fluent, but pidgin-like language she had invented. In short, all the English speakers with whom Dr. P came into contact, methodically deprived her of feedback.
Pointing Out Mistakes is Taboo
The laws of politeness are responsible for the heavy accents and garbled grammar of many older immigrants to English-speaking countries. Telling an adult that he or she is making mistakes just isn’t done. Fortunately, babies and children are exempt from this taboo. Listeners say, “What?” when they don’t understand. Listeners laugh when mistakes strike them as humorous and they helpfully explain that “didn’t went” should be “didn’t go.”
By the very fact that you and a student of English agree to spend an hour together for class, the usual law of politeness is set aside. Whether you consider yourself an informant, a teacher or just a friend helping out, your duty during that session is to provide your student with what he or she is not getting anywhere else, and that is feedback.
The Teacher as A Living Mirror
If you are able to set up an hour of “conversation” with a student of English, be prepared to play a double role: you must learn to pay attention to your student’s meaning while at the same time carefully monitoring the words he or she is using to convey that meaning.
In other words, you are going to be a kind of living mirror for your student. One simple, practical way to do this is to jot down certain words as soon as the student says them. Let’s imagine the student is a French-speaking woman and you’ve asked her to describe her job. She begins by saying:
“I cannot to tell a lie… I ‘ate my job.”
In reply, you might sympathize with her, but if you really want to make a difference in this woman’s mastery of English, you will immediately jot down ‘hate’ and ‘cannot to tell’ in letters large enough for her to see.
Overcoming Bad Speech Patterns
You can now point to “hate” and ask her to say it. If she says “ate” you might point to the “h” and say “I don’t hear this.” Possibly, she will then pronounce “hate” correctly. Most middle or advanced level students have already become well acquainted with the tricky sounds of English from previous teachers. Rather than instructions on how to pronounce the sound, what they really need is feedback each and every time they forget to make the sound correctly. Almost certainly this is something they did not get from their former teachers, resulting in a bad speech pattern which has now become a habit.
“Cannot to tell” is a grammar mistake which your student may be able to correct without your help. As your student continues to talk to you about various things, she may use “can to” over and over. If this is the case, add “can” to your list of words and expressions especially troublesome for this particular student.
Afterwards, each and every time your student says “can to,” your job is to stop her and point to the word “can.” You are providing the feedback your student should have got years ago and the ultimate result of your constant reminders will be that your students will soon start to monitor their own speech, often correcting themselves the moment you lift a finger, even before you have a chance to point toward your list of tricky expressions.
If feedback is the most useful gift language teachers can give to students, self-monitoring is the most useful gift students can give to themselves.