Learning like a parrot
As a child, I was taught to learn English like a parrot. My father, who is an English teacher himself, would always say to me: you don’t need to be intelligent to learn a language. You only need to repeat what others have said. Repeat it in the exact same words. After a while the language will come to you automatically. Learning should and can feel effortless.
Finding: mere exposure and repetition won’t get me very far
But this is not a Rich-Dad,-Poor-Dad-kind of story and I am not citing him as an authority to testify to the effectiveness of my teaching. I didn’t become good at learning and teaching English because I followed my father’s advice. At some point, I realised that learning by mere exposure and repetition wouldn’t get me very far.
If only brainless repetition had to be practised for one to master a language, English teachers would only have to make students repeat what they said in class and assignments would only consist of copying down words from English books, but things cannot be so simple, because of a truth which many of us are aware of but to which rarely ever we accordingly ways our teaching and learning to
- Produce frustration and erode the intellectual confidence in a learner because he/she fails to understand the grammatical principles that govern a language;
- Encourage complacency in a learner because he/ she will believe that learning doesn’t require high order thinking;
- Discourage a learner from asking why, analysing and feeling a language as an art and think logically of it as a science.
When English learners learn by exposure, they receive information about a language by means of different sensory perceptions — how a word is pronounced, what kind of tone is used, what words have been used, the length of a sentence, etc. etc.
But most learners are no linguists. They do not have a good knowledge of how their first language is different from English. How on Earth do they have an idea what aspects of the language they have to pay special attention to? This is one of the key reasons why English teachers should not be merely users of English, but also ideally, one who has a good knowledge of the first language of the learner. A good English teacher must highlight the key difference between a student’s first language and English, because a student’s knowledge of his first language will be crucially shaping his understanding of a language works. Such an understanding could lead him or her to be mistaken that English works in the same way or have difficulties understanding the different ways in which English works. A language teacher must, therefore, make use of a comparative understanding of the two languages, and provide a student with guidance accordingly.
Most teachers I know fail to do this.
This, unfortunately, means that many learners will waste a lot of time being exposed to a language without really paying attention to the how a language is different from his first language (and thus the fact that he has to spend more time understanding the aspects of the language which are different).
Most teachers also fail to highlight to students how a language is manoeuvred to achieve certain purposes intended by the user.
Learning, as a result, become inefficient and frustrating. This is why I believe in guiding my students into learning English through deliberate practice.
Learning through deliberate and conscious practice
What is deliberate and conscious practice then?
Conscious and deliberate practice will enable a student will be able to: –
- Use English proficiently;
- Be highly aware of how it is different from his first language;
- You’re also highly aware of the purpose for which it is used;
- When you acquire certain bits of knowledge about the language, know where these bits of knowledge fits in in the bigger picture and what uses such knowledge can be put to;
- When you use this language yourself, you will use it while being keenly aware of the purpose your language is serving;
- If the way you use it does not match your intended purpose, you will revise the ways you use a language. If it still doesn’t work, you revise it again.
This way of learning is powerful because it will mean that students will be absorbing new knowledge much more effectively because you know why you’re learning it. And you will be able to use the language to achieve whatever end you intend — whether it is your goal to “just” communicate, persuade, explain, express emotions or whatever other ends. This way of learning will mean that you will be able to not just use English, but also master it.
It all boils down to asking “why”
If I were to summarise what conscious and deliberate practice means, I would say this: it all boils down to asking why. As a learner, I’ve found out that it is absolutely essential that I must ask myself why I am learning something in English, why people use English this way and why I am using the language this way. If the way I learn doesn’t match why I am learning, the way I learn does not work and thus I have to find a new way to learn. If the way people use English doesn’t match their intended purpose, it means that they’re not effective users of the language. If I don’t know why I am learning something in a language (say a tense, or a grammar rule), it means that I cannot apply it. I’ve learnt how important it is to ask why in my experience of learning and teaching English and hardwired myself into ruthlessly finding out the answers to all these why questions all the time.
How Finnie’s is positioned to help you with your English learning
I’ve explained in the above how I’ve learnt English and the merits of such an approach. The same principle applies when it comes to my teaching. I believe that it to be of absolute importance that I know why a learner is learning English, why he’s facing the problems he’s facing, why the way he uses English fails to achieve his intended purpose. Once I have acquired a good understanding of why, I will know how to teach him or her most effectively.
From my experience, I have had students
- who have problems learning English because of “psychological” reasons such as a lack of motivation, fear or short concentration span;
- who have committed too much time on mechanically drilling themselves to get the grammar correct without paying attention to other equally important aspects of English learning;
- who have a foggy understanding on a conceptual level how English works but are in need of more drilling so as to turn their understanding into actual habits;
- who lack the logical and critical thinking and emotional sensitivity to analyse what they read and write and so fail to make further progress in their learning;
- who mistakenly think that language learning and cultural exposure are separable and fail to expand his general knowledge along with his or her knowledge of the language;
- who fail to pronounce English words well because they fail to move their tongues and control the muscles of their mouths and lips correctly;
- who have difficulties understanding the nuances between and the subtle associations of different words because they don’t have the patience or the ability to generalise in order to tease them out while reading;
- … (this is, of course, not an exhaustive list of problems)
If you have troubles learning English well, you could be suffering from the above problems with or without knowing, your teacher will first need to acquire a personal understanding of your problems before he guides you to finding the solutions to them (Interestingly, guiding you to find the solution could mean guiding you to ask the right questions). And that would precisely be what I will set out to do, if I were to teach you.