A lunatic’s guide to building a language course

I had thought I’d finish this round up of my own haphazard journey along the language learning road a little sooner than this – but as those of you who read the forum know, last weekend and the beginning of this week were rather taken up by the extremely exciting news that we were taking on our first full-time developer – which will probably be the subject of a separate post in here before too long!

Back to languages.  

In the last post you read (and you should be warned that I shoot people who don’t read blog posts in the correct order), I had baffled myself by following up 32 years of failure by learning Welsh in a hard-working year, and then learning Spanish in a year of occasional trips to the pub.

It niggled me.

The work of a student of Arabic calligraphy, u...

The work of a student of Arabic calligraphy, using bamboo pens (qalams) and brown ink, tracing over the teacher’s work in black ink. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In fact, it made me quite angry.  A lazy person doesn’t like being tricked into working hard for poor results, and I worked my neat little socks off with Arabic, but got very, very quickly bored with short conversations about the humidity.  In case you’re wondering, the humidity in Dubai is pretty much always very high.  At least when you’re talking about the weather in Aberystwyth, you can often fit rain, wind, sunshine, snow, hail, clouds and blue sky into a single sentence in real time.

One thing I knew from the off was that part of the difference was speaking.

The Wlpan course had made me speak (as much as is possible in a classroom setting), I’d continued speaking while I lived in Porthmadog (although less so in Essex, you might be surprised to hear), and the Michel Thomas course had also made me speak, a process which was then accelerated by the pints that Dave kept buying me.

The Cwps

It also seemed to me that alcohol was a fairly important part of the process – most of my more inventive speaking on the Wlpan course was done in the Cwps at the bottom of Penglais Hill, or staggering back up the hill (you know you’ve had an enjoyable night if Penglais Hill seems like a pleasant stroll).  My Spanish blossomed in the Nanhoron Arms in Nefyn and Tu Hwnt i’r Afon in Rhydyclafdy (about 200 yards, as it happened, from where my great-grandparents lived – my great-grandfather held me in his arms when I was a few months old, at a time when he was apparently being kept alive by a daily bottle of whisky, but I digress).

English: Nanhoron Arms Hotel Nefyn

I haven’t managed to make alcohol a central part of our courses yet, although I’ve had a damned good (and unquestionably successful!) shot at it in y Llong in Tresaith as part of our Bootcamps.

View of the sea from Tresaith in Wales.

I have, however, implemented the nearest substitute I could find.  Alcohol’s impact on language learning, I believe, is about inhibitions and confidence – the scripts for our lessons, as I’ve talked about before on this blog, work very hard at finding ways to give honest praise to our learners, and to try and build their confidence.  And I must admit that I do frequently recommend glasses of red wine on the forum.

There were other things niggling at me, though.

I think Michel Thomas was a genius – but he was by all accounts quite horribly negative about sharing ‘his’ methods (despite the fact that he didn’t actually do anything that good classroom teachers, not to mention Pimsleur, hadn’t already been doing for years).  The net result was that he didn’t make (or at least share) any notes about how he taught, and the recordings that he made towards the end of his life (when it appears that his company had started to worry about just how little work they’d have when he died!) were patchy and flawed.

I suspect that he may not have fully realised the importance of interval learning – in all his courses, he introduces some words that never get revisited, and as a result are not learnt effectively – and in his Advanced French course, he gets so carried away trying to explain how to conjugate every possible tense that none of them gets revisited more than twice at the very most.

In the same way, the ‘Michel Thomas Method‘ courses, which claim to be based on his work but seem to have little more connection than starting with cognates (one of the least important aspects of what he did, in my belief) and then depending on the individual teacher to develop the rest of the structure, there is a consistent and damaging lack of well organised interval learning.

English: My handwriting sample.

English: My handwriting sample. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oh, and finally, Michel Thomas and his company’s ‘Method’ courses, and Rosetta Stone and Linguaphone and Pimsleur and any other course you can mention that I’ve come across all share one central tenet which I believe is thoroughly mistaken – that learners can only deal with simple sentences.

The more I thought about all this, the more I started to think that I might just be able to put something together that would work better – that would be planned, rather than done off the cuff, that would have carefully designed interval learning, and that would use our innate ability to acquire what traditional courses think of as ‘complex’ grammar comparatively easily.

Bad Driver's Handbook

And so began, in a way which won’t surprise you in the least now that you’ve read about the 32 years I wasted by failing to learn every language I met, a series of quite dramatic mistakes.

There were so many, in fact, that I suspect they need their own separate post.

Oh, and I don’t like admitting mistakes.  I’m much happier pretending to be perfect.  So don’t be surprised if it takes me a little while to gird my loins and prepare for an entire post of masochistic honesty…:-)


10 responses to “A lunatic’s guide to building a language course

  1. Are you seriously telling us you’re not perfect? That’s another one smashed, you’ll be telling us that you’re not a genius next…!
    I must show this blog to Caitlin, the bit about, not speaking due to lack of confidence, could almost be written for her. Of course it’ll probably turn her into a raving alcoholic…;-)

    • Is it too late for me to take it back? The bit about not being perfect, I mean – the more wine Caitlin knocks back, the more Welsh she’ll speak with you – you can field test it for yourself…;-)

      • Can’t take it back now my friend, it’s out there…!
        I’ll tell Caitlin what you said; she’ll be your biggest fan…:-)

      • Just you wait until she hugs you and says ‘Dad, na, sirisly Dad, chdi ydi ffrind gorau fi yn y byd, yn y BYD, ia, dw i o ddifrif, a dw i ddim ‘di middwo. Moddwu. Meddwi.’

  2. I’m all for being the guinea pig for that educational experiment…..and I look forward to seeing how the ssiw birthday party goes then Aran if that’s your philosophy! 😉

    • I expect your dad to implement the first test this weekend – and I expect you to let me know how it goes! Then there’ll be no stopping you by the time we get to the birthday party…;-)

  3. Aran, what are your thoughts on what it means to “have learnt a language”, i.e. is there some sort of objective standard that you would apply?
    Pimsleur et al (not sure about Michael Thomas), school-based education systems, seem to measure their success in teaching by having their students sit for tests; but passing tests is at best a weak indication of fluency/comfort/ease in using a language. I myself think that one never finishes learning a language, but there is a point at which using a language becomes more easy, and some sort of snowball effect comes into play where learning becomes faster and almost automatic.

  4. Fascinating and important question, Louis. In schools, I believe that languages suffer particularly badly from government-driven measurements – if you can’t measure it, it can’t be worthwhile – and measuring real language use is absurdly difficult.

    Language tests as found in schools are for the most part, I believe, a complete waste of time. Interestingly, as part of our work to offer qualifications with Agored, we have managed to reach an agreement that we’ll assess without any written/reading elements, based on a student’s interaction in spoken Welsh – I’m still not a fan of testing, but I think it will be better than other stuff out there.

    In the final analysis, I think it can only really be about enjoyment. Words like fluency are worse than useless – they encourage learners to undermine themselves – I’m not fluent in Spanish by all sorts of external measures, but ye gods I love spending time speaking Spanish! I think the point you make about comfort/ease is a large part of the journey towards enjoyment (although there’s also a lot of enjoyment to be had when you’re still sweating blood to get an understandable sentence out, which is part of the reason I think enjoyment is the most important measure of all…:-)).

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