How angry schools can make me

I wrote a post on our forum the other day about the remarkable generosity and love in the SaySomethinginWelsh community.

It should perhaps have been on the blog – it was certainly long enough! – I’m just a little hazy about what’s best suited to the forum, and what’s best suited to the blog.  I sort of think that stuff about the community is forum material, and stuff about language learning in general is for the blog, but of course there’s overlap.  Confusing overlap, for the easily confused, and I’m definitely one of those…:-)

If you’d like to read it, thanking all our volunteers and most recently the heroes and heroines who’ve taken over importing our sound files into the lesson software, and Karen and Crispin who drove up from Dolgellau to make sure our trampoline wouldn’t blow away in the expected storm, it’s here:

But life refuses to settle down to anything resembling normality.

Laminate flooring

I’m sitting here at the moment with a Welsh learner from Wrexham downstairs in the living room laying a new wood-style laminate floor.  Yes – he helped us source a phenomenal bargain that we’d never have been able to afford otherwise, arranged with Catrin to get it over here, and then pitched up today with his entire family and his beard in tow to set it up properly, out of the kindness of his heart.

For those of you who haven’t already figured it out from the beard reference, we are of course talking about Geraint (Gruntius on the forum) – and his wife and kids have been off with my wife and kids watching matinée films in Pwllheli while Geraint turns our living room into something straight out of an Ideal Homes exhibition.  With some help from Catrin’s nephew Dafydd, who has a three month old baby and a new job but wanted to say thank you for us having treated him like a skip by throwing dozens of black plastic bags full of baby clothes at him.

And I sit up here, feeling faintly guilty about not being able to help (and, if I’m strictly honest, slightly grateful that I’ve got a bad back (for the very first time) because I’m certainly not a natural when it comes to, well, work, really).

But I can’t find the words to express how grateful I am, and how remarkable I think Geraint and Tracey are to drive two hours, work all day, and then drive two hours home.

It feels amazing but sort of normal too, by now – and I’m increasingly convinced that the way in which people in the SaySomethinginWelsh community care for each other is a really important model for how we ought to be trying to get all our communities to work.

I would certainly cheerfully choose any 650 members of SaySomethinginWelsh in the comfy seats at Westminster, and they would do a damned sight better job of running Britain.

My year old cider

It’s not just home improvements, though, it’s entertainment and debauchery as well.

Yesterday afternoon, a Welsh learner from Shropshire (Andy, who’s a-jay on the forum) called past just before three o’clock to drive me down the hill to the Glyn-y-Weddw pub, buy two pints of cider for me (which quite frankly is probably the most I’ve drunk in the five years since Angharad Lliar was born) and introduce me to his genuinely delightful family: his wife Sharon, son William, younger daughter Maddie and elder daughter Hattie – and look, I remembered everyone’s names, despite promising not to!

They had a look of fear I’ve grown to recognise over the years when I arrived – ‘Oh dear, here we go, our insane father/mother’s obsession with Welsh has now reached the point where we are face to face with his/her Welsh teacher, who’s probably going to speak Welsh to us, and then mark our pronounciation.’

Once they’d realised that I could speak English, though, they looked a lot happier, and I was too – it was an absolute joy listening to William rabbiting away like a non-stop word machine, watching Maddie rolling her eyes, trying unsuccessfully to correct him occasionally and showing a worrying interest in my De Efteling-inspired stories about how real fairy tales involve children who either die or win by burning adults alive.  Meanwhile, Hattie was stuck halfway between wanting to join in with her mother, father and me talking about (no, no prizes for guessing!) language learning, and needing to help keep half an eye on the younger two, like a spare parent.

If it’s any consolation, Hattie, there probably isn’t a 16 year old in the world with a younger brother and sister who doesn’t end up spending some of her time wondering if she’s meant to be a parent or a child!  That particular confusion will be over for you in about ten years, but don’t worry about running out, because there’ll always be enough confusion about other stuff, for the whole of the rest of your life…:-)

It was Hattie, though, who made me start to feel quietly furious, and who turned this into a blog post instead of a forum post.hattie

For context: she’s an extremely gifted young lady.  Her dad showed me a water-colour she’d done of the view from Aberdaron, and it was absolutely striking – easily good enough to be in an exhibition.  If Andy’s kind enough to email me a copy, I’ll put it up here and you’ll see that I’m not exaggerating.  [Good work Andy! Here it is – not very high resolution, of course, but you can see what I mean about the talent, can’t you?]

hattie3But then I found out that Hattie had been having Spanish lessons at school since she was 11, and she thought she was no good at Spanish.

That’s not HER fault.  She’s got a neural structure that can turn a view into a work of art, and she can talk, she can have conversations with adults – so she’s got a neural structure that could let her talk Spanish as easily as she speaks English.

But she’s spent FIVE YEARS in boring, pointless, unsuccessful lessons that have completely wasted her time, and convinced her that she’s no good at Spanish.  That is the school’s fault – and whatever their constrictions are in terms of time and money, that failure is unacceptable.

Hattie and I have got a deal now.

Fiesta (The Pogues song)

I’ve promised her that she isn’t bad at Spanish, but that her school was useless at teaching her.

I’ve told her if she registers on our new site and gets her dad to let me know her username, I’ll give her access to all our Spanish lessons – and if she feels like playing around a bit with them at any time (and ONLY if she actually feels like doing it), I would love to hear what she thinks of them.

Andy tried to talk about paying us for this, of course – after buying me two pints of cider!  He’d have had more luck trying to get me to agree to dress up as a goose and run up Snowdon for charity.

I hope it’s not too late for Hattie to realise that she has a brilliant ability to speak two or more languages.

I really hope I hear from her, and I really hope she enjoys our lessons enough to end up having fun speaking Spanish with people.

Andy and Sharon will be back on holiday in Aberdaron in the spring, and we’ve agreed to have a beach and barbecue day – if Hattie feels like speaking any Spanish to me on that day, it will make my month.

Oh, and we’ve promised Maddie that we’ll try and get a move on with some German lessons, too!  And William seems to be doing terrifically (as is Maddie!) with the Welsh lessons that their dad clearly makes them listen to when he ties them up in the basement at night.


But what about all the other Hatties?

What about all the other children with neurons shooting away like fireworks who get stuck in classrooms that drain all their natural brilliance for languages right out of them – who get convinced that they’re ‘rubbish at languages’? – who get convinced that other languages are boring?

What about them?

We have GOT to find a way to help them.

We can’t just leave them like so many Hansels and Gretels stuck in the witch’s cottage of rubbish language education – we have GOT to help them get free and throw that witch in the oven.


P.S.  No witches were harmed in the writing of this post.

SOOC Maddie Gartenstein

Hattie, Maddie, William – witches aren’t real.  They’re just a way for people in charge (who are usually men) to blame women (particularly if they’re not ‘pretty enough’).

If somebody’s face doesn’t make you want to smile, look at their mind instead – because if they’re a kind person, every single mind is stunningly beautiful – yours and your parents amongst them – and a small part of that huge beauty is that those minds (your minds!) can enjoy playing around with a dozen different languages, if they feel like it.

So the only thing we actually throw in the oven is the idea of boring language lessons, and boring lists, and boring grammar rules, and all that stuff you don’t enjoy, okay?

And if you meet any old women who don’t look like airbrushed supermodels, talk to them – they’ll probably be kind, they’ll probably have beautiful minds, and they might even be able to help you play with another new language…:-)


46 responses to “How angry schools can make me

  1. I wish it were just languages. Not that that’s a good thing, but there are children in schools all over the place learning that they are no good at mathematics, or writing, or reading, or that history is dumb and boring, or that they can’t sing, or that sports are just about being humiliated and picked last every time. It’s incredibly sad, and a tremendous amount of damage done.

    • I agree so much and so sadly. I started to think about other things, like the biology teacher who told me at 11 that I’d never be good enough to be a delphinologist, so I packed in that dream – but then I realised that I wouldn’t finish the blog for about another fifteen years or so…;-)

  2. At the age of 11, I was told by a PE teacher that I would never be an athlete like my brother had been! At the age of 16+ I had a County trial playing hockey and aged 47 I ran the London Marathon and even appeared on TV!
    Positive thinking is a plus and encouragement is necessary to overcome negativity.

    • Teachers who say children can’t do things drive me to the verge of frothing insanity. As I said to Jan, I had a similar experience to yours – aged 11, a biology teacher told me I’d never be good enough to be a delphinologist – my great dream. So I never did another stroke of work in biology, and still got a B at ‘O’ Level, so I guess she was wrong. Still, as Catrin says, there’s a Marine Biology department in Bangor I could go and volunteer in…:-)

  3. Wait, sports aren’t about being picked last?? O.o

    Was pretty much having this exact conversation with a girl at work who waned to learn Spanish for an upcoming holiday but was convinced because she had failed languages at school that she wasn’t a good language learner… luckily I have my own slew of “failed languages” stories 🙂 She’s going to have a look at SSiS, hope I’ve convinced her all you really need is a positive attitude and opportunities to speak (which school language classes are so woefully lacking in…)

    Dibs on Ministry of Debauchery.

    • The Ministry of Debauchery was so fantastic. I have become such a remarkably cheap date.

      Sounds as though you’re doing great work encouraging your friend…:-) In the time before we go live with the social layer for Spanish, do let her know to email me if she has any hiccups, or to ask on the forum, where we’re as happy to take questions about Spanish as Welsh!

  4. Enjoyed your works, Hattie! As to the Spanish, I agree with, Aran, it wasn’t you but the rubbish way they taught you…Spanish is a beautiful language though.

  5. That’s an impressively professional picture! I’m so hopeless at art myself that I’m already blown away by any picture that actually looks like the thing it’s supposed to look like 😉 However, that really does look rather good!

    Regarding failure of language teaching: I was having a conversation with some colleagues down the pub a couple of days ago, in which one of them swore blind that he was “incapable” of learning languages, because of similar unsuccessful experiences with GCSE French and a one-hour-a-week Japanese evening class he once took. I tried my best to convince him it was possible!

  6. Good work for trying! We’re going to have to think about some ways to help people help their friends – mini-challenges, or some kind of ‘testing’ site – take this 5 minute test to see if your school was right to say you couldn’t learn a language, or something like that… or the ‘Is your brain too small to speak another language?’ test…;-)

  7. Hattie, that painting is lovely – I agree with Aran, it’s easily good enough for an exhibition. Indeed, I’ve seen some things in exhibitions which yours would knock the socks off!

    I was also ‘not good at languages’ in school, although I was good at swimming. Then again, what did they expect when I did language classes for 1 hour per week with hardly any proper conversation work but swam for an hour everyday in my own time! And I know of LOADs of people with similar experiences – you are not alone!

    Don’t give up on learning languages – the fun and experiences I’ve had through being a Welsh speaker (my second language learned way after I left school) are worth the world to me. And besides, other languages be very useful when you start getting commissions and offers of exhibitions for your art abroad!! 😉

  8. Hattie (or her dad) should enter her painting in the SSiW Eisteddfod (3 days left!) – I’d bet she’d get a lot of votes!

    And the continual encouragement we get with SSi lessons is one of the most remarkable and helpful parts of the course(s). I get really annoyed when I hear about teachers and others in similar positions who can only tear their students down, or at least not give any encouragement at all. Real encouragement for doing what they’re doing, is the most useful thing to anyone at any age. Thank you, Aran, for infusing the SSi lessons with just what we need to hear, when we need it!

  9. Lovely painting, Hattie! (Hard to get the full effect, being photo’d on an angle.) Wonderful color, and a delightful sense of whimsy. Keep painting! AND learning languages!

  10. Thank you all for liking my picture. I don’t think I can enter it into the SSiW Eisteddfod because it is part of my exam work, for which I had to borrow from the style of another artist. I therefore drew the outline of the coast near Aberdaron and then applied the artists style; it is therefore not strictly an original even though it is of a different place to the artists (and was drawn free-hand) if that makes sense!!

    It is nice to get so much encouragement and I am definitely going to continue with learning Spanish using the Say Something method.


    • Hattie, every artist in every field develops their own voice by learning from other voices – which almost always means echoing styles, but making something different out of them. That’s exactly what you’ve done with this. And (speaking as an ex-English teacher!) if you think that echoing an artistic style in itself isn’t an enormous achievement, come back to me when you can write a poem in the style of Dylan Thomas…;-) We’d be delighted to have THIS piece in the Eisteddfod, and I’ll look forward to adding the new piece you sent to the blog when I’m back at my desk tomorrow!

  11. I think Hattie’s picture is beautiful – actually it would look rather nice in my new living room down here in the Wild West – the colours in it are stunning.

    • I was kind of tempted to put a bid in myself, must admit! Catrin’s the artist in our family – I can’t even draw a cat – but I do seriously love bold use of colours (very much a Van Gogh man for that reason).

      • I second that! Loved the colours/mood in the water colour and the pencil drawing with that perspective, that’s not easy!

  12. I’ve been to a few galleries and can honestly say that these pieces would definitely not look out of place in any of them, fair play, really impressive. As far as copying styles goes, I agree with Aran. I play drums to a (if I do say so myself) pretty good level and as far as I know every drummer, and for that matter musician, learns to play by copying their heroes until a unique style starts to emerge. The more “influences” you have and the more different artists you “copy” the more the style that you have becomes your own. I’d like to think that if another drummer tried to play one of my band’s original songs they wouldn’t come close to making it sound the same, that’s because of all the different drummers I have “copied” over the years (and years), borrowing a little from here and a little from there, it has given me a unique style that I’m proud of. You will be proud of your style too.

  13. First, Hattie’s painting it amazing.. I was really drawn into the sense of depth in the water and the whimsy of the foreground.
    Second, I hadn’t put much thought into it (shame on me), but my son says that he “hates” Spanish (6th grade), and even though I know that part of it is that his sister (11th grade) loves Spanish, so he’s obliged to react that way to a certain degree, but it’s also the way they’ve taught it. Hmm.. maybe I need to make a deal with my son…

    • Got to be a deal like mine with Hattie’s, though – entirely up to him. But I’ll make the same offer to him (and to his sister!) as I did to Hattie – if they want to try any of our stuff, all they need to do is sign up for free and then get you to let me know what their usernames are, and we’ll give them open access.

      In the long term, we’ve got to find a way to make all our stuff free for kids (without going bankrupt!). In the short term, we can do it on trust via people we know…:-)

  14. Just seen Hattie’s painting and I agree she is a talented painter! I love pictures that feature the sea. The use of blues, greens and whites to depict the depth and the waves crashing are just awesome!

    When I was at school, we had Spanish lessons for 2 1/2 hours a week. 2 hours of those were with an amazing teacher who focused more on speaking and listening than on the reading and written stuff. I learned a lot from her in the first 2 1/2 years…. then she moved on to a university and our replacement just couldn’t gauge our attention, let alone teach a class!

    Perhaps this has become a trend over the years where schools recruit anyone they can find as opposed to finding quality teachers with a good reputation. I know everyone needs to gain experience one way or another and a good rep can only be gained with experience, but to throw someone in the deep end and ultimately affect an entire class (or many classes) learning experience can only be damaging to all involved – including the school who may even see their Ofsted rating affected over time!

    I realise this goes slightly off the subject of teachers telling children they’re not good enough to do something, which in itself is totally wrong! The child should always be encouraged to try regardless of their individual ability – that’s what they’re in school for, to learn and to be inspired. But when a group of children are used to a method of learning which clearly worked and then faced with a different teacher who only contributes to leaving their pupils uninspired and unable to learn, it’s no wonder people feel they aren’t good enough at certain things, without the confident-stealers adding to the problem too!

    • There are certainly plenty of other problems/flaws/structural issues in education – and it’s a crying shame that so much depends on whether or not you get one of the few teachers who really understands what a difference giving children confidence in speaking makes…

  15. Pingback: Magical Efteling in The Netherlands | Journey Around The Globe·

  16. I have enjoyed reading your blog, Aran. However, I must take issue this post. When you compare Hattie’s – and other children’s – public school language-learning experience with SSi, you are comparing apples and giraffes.

    You talk about 16-year-old Hattie who “thought she was no good at Spanish.” You added “That’s not HER fault,” but rather is due to “boring, pointless, unsuccessful lessons that have completely wasted her time.” How do you know this? Have you been to Hattie’s school and met any of her teachers? Have you personally observed any of those “boring, pointless” classes? You lament that children are “stuck in the witch’s cottage of rubbish language education” and you want to “throw that witch in the oven.” Ironically enough, you continue by assuring the children that “witches… are just a way for people in charge (who are usually men) [your words, not mine] to blame women.” Hm…

    Your self-described “anger” is particularly puzzling given that you say you are a former English teacher. I’m not sure what level you taught, but was it high school? Why did you give up teaching? Perhaps because you were impossibly overworked, underpaid, and unappreciated? I cannot speak for U.K. schools from personal experience, but I suspect that K-12 schools there are not very different from public schools here in the U.S.

    I ask you to consider the typical scenario for a high school or middle school teacher, at least over here in the U.S.:

    You have 30 teenagers in front of you with raging hormones, kids who are likely more interested in the boy or girl sitting beside them than in learning Spanish. Even if they are serious students, they may be more interested in getting high grades to get into a good university than they are in learning per se. And your class is not the only class these kids have. They have 5 or 6 other academic classes demanding their time. These 30 ants-in-their-pants adolescents range from below-average intelligence to highly gifted, and some may have learning disabilities or other special needs that you are supposed to accommodate. You have 30 young people with 30 distinct personalities, learning styles, motivational levels, and family backgrounds. Oh wait… that’s just ONE of the 5 or 6 classes you face every day.

    Some of these children come to school without breakfast and/or don’t have lunch money. Some walk to school in cold weather without a warm coat to wear. Some come from tumultuous homes with parents who are unable or unwilling to give their children the love and support they need. Some have single parents who are working long hours to make ends meet and have little time or energy left over for their children. But YOU, their teacher, are supposed to have the time and energy for ALL of them.

    You have these 30 kids for maybe 45-55 minutes at a time, and some of that time is taken up by taking attendance and maybe listening to announcements over the loudspeaker or dealing with classroom discipline. You do what you can under those circumstances, in that short class period, with your wonderful lesson plans that you worked hard on till midnight the night before. Then the bell rings, and 30 more bundles of energy and raging hormones pour into your classroom and you start all over again. You do this all day, 5 or 6 times a day, back to back, 5 days a week, with hardly even a break to go to the toilet.

    Then you head home, but you are not leaving your job behind you like a banker or store clerk. You take books and stacks of papers home with you. Maybe you have your own family to cook dinner for and tend to when you get home. After chauffeuring your own kids, feeding them, supervising their homework, giving each one your undivided attention and tucking them into bed, your workday continues as you sit up grading papers and preparing lessons for the next day. Then you get up early the next morning and start all over again.

    And yes, you have to assign (and grade) homework, and you most likely have to give traditional pen-and-paper tests, because the school requires them. And because bureaucrats who know nothing about education are the ones making decisions that affect how you teach and how your students learn.

    SSi may have people speaking within a short period of time, and it seems to do quite well at that. For most adults who want to learn Welsh, I suspect that speaking and carrying on everyday conversations is what is of paramount importance. And that is precisely what SSiW accomplishes very well with motivated learners.

    Speaking is not all there is to learning a language. Schools and teachers are charged with teaching language literacy, which entails all four language skills – listening, speaking, reading, and writing, including correct spelling – plus learning about the countries and cultures of the people who speak the language. Schools teach far more than just speaking and listening. And of course, acquiring literacy in a language takes more time than just learning to order in a restaurant or chat in the pub.

    But perhaps I digress. Back to your work day as a high school or middle school teacher. After working hard all day, maybe you have to stay after school because little Johnny or Hattie misbehaved and got sent to the principal”s office and had after-school detention. Or maybe his/her parents stormed into your room after school, ranting and raving at you because their child got chastised for misbehavior or because he/she didn’t get an A on the last test. It’s all your fault, you see. You, the teacher, bear all the blame.

    In the past, when a kid misbehaved or failed to do his schoolwork, he got in trouble at home as well as at school. If he didn’t compete his assignments or got low grades, he had to answer to his parents and suffer the consequences. Nowadays, if a child gets in trouble, or doesn’t do well in his classes, or just whines about being “bored,” his parents – more often than not – march down to the school and berate the teacher, rather than holding the child accountable and working with her to see how she can improve. Or Uncle Aran angrily berates the child’s teachers in the presence of the child and tells the child her teachers are incompetent and her classes are “rubbish” and a worthless waste of time. Consequently, the child learns not only to blame someone else for her failure, but she also learns to disrespect teachers, and the cycle continues.

    Of course there are bad teachers, just as there are bad doctors, bad businessmen, and bad parents. It is indeed sad and inexcusable when a teacher or a parent belittles a child and erodes his/her self-confidence. But I seriously doubt that Hattie has had 5 years of horrendous teachers. Instead of belittling Hattie’s teachers and teaching her to blame them for her failure to learn and her lack of self-confidence, how about telling Hattie what Eleanor Roosevelt said: No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

    At SSi, your customers/learners are adults who come to you because they are already highly motivated to learn a language. Otherwise, they would never even find your website in the first place. Your work is already at least half done for you. Motivation is far more important than the teaching/learning method. Of course it’s wonderful if a classroom teacher manages to motivate her students, but ultimately, that motivation has to come from within the individual learner. With children, that motivation – or the lack thereof – largely comes from home. A teacher can lead a horse to water, but she can’t make him swim on his back – or speak Chinese. The horse has to want to speak Chinese. Not even the best, most innovative teacher can force an unmotivated or emotionally troubled child to learn. Likewise, no amount of bad teaching can keep a genuinely bright, motivated child from learning. If and when Hattie is genuinely motivated to learn Spanish, she will learn, no matter how or where she learns.

    So please, Aran, stop comparing apples and giraffes. You deserve to celebrate your own remarkable success, but how about doing so without arrogantly berating teachers and “traditional” classroom learning, based on your own and others’ erroneous perceptions and assumptions? How about just concentrating on continuing to develop and refine the good work you have already accomplished? And maybe, just maybe, take some time to visit Hattie’s school and meet her teachers. They’re real people, not witches.

    • Thank you for your comment, Karen.

      Please let me know if the following summary misses out any key points.

      1) You suggest I have no grounds for believing that Hattie experienced ‘boring, pointless, unsuccessful lessons that have completely wasted her time’.

      2) You make the point that teachers are often over-worked and under-appreciated, and operating in difficult circumstances.

      3) You imply that because schools have to teach literacy, which is more difficult than ‘just speaking and listening’, it’s understandable that they don’t do very well.

      4) You state that all our learners at SSi are adults.

      5) You suggest that motivation ‘has to come from within the individual learner’ and that is mostly about their home circumstances.

      My responses are as follows:

      1) My grounds for believing that Hattie had the experiences I described are my conversation with Hattie, coupled with my own experiences (at what was considered a good school), coupled with what I witnessed in 8 years as a secondary school teacher, coupled with what 7 family members who are teachers have seen and experienced, coupled with a general awareness of the remarkably unsuccessful overall profile of language teaching in the UK. I believe those are reasonable grounds. The most important is my conversation with Hattie, which you can only dismiss if you dismiss Hattie herself, and since you’ve never met her I don’t believe you have the right to do that.

      2) I completely agree. The extent to which you labour this point makes me wonder if you just entirely misunderstood what I was saying. I make two statements of blame in the piece above – and both of them say that it is the school’s fault. Not the teacher’s fault – the SCHOOL’s fault. I recognise in the first of those statements that schools often operate under difficult restrictions – but that is not a good enough excuse for letting so many children believe they are just ‘bad’ at learning languages.

      3) Frankly, this sounds like an excuse. Schools (I said schools, again, not teachers) will do far, far better at achieving literacy targets if they start by giving children the excitement and motivation that comes from successful experiences of speaking.

      4) You are incorrect. We have a lot of children learning with us – many with their parents, many mostly on their own. The youngest SSi learner I remember hearing about was 5.

      5) There’s good research evidence that suggests strongly that this apparently obvious statement is in fact wrong. There are research examples showing measurable changes caused in individuals when other people believe in them. This is, of course, emphasised by all the many examples of single teachers changing lives mostly by believing in their students. So trying to offload the failure of schools (that’s schools, not teachers) to give children confidence with other languages just won’t wash. Oh, and from what I’ve seen of Andy and his lovely family, any suggestion that Hattie’s lack of confidence and enjoyment in Spanish is about her own lack of motivation or an insufficiently supportive family background would be nothing more than offensive.


      Perhaps you would have realised that you were aiming your anger and sarcasm in the wrong direction if I’d gone on to talk about solutions, but I felt that the blog was already long enough. Any discussion of solutions would have made it clear that the most important changes (that are so urgently needed) are at policy and governance level – in good systems, even the occasional bad teacher shouldn’t be able to make students believe that they’re just ‘bad at languages’.


      Incidentally, I used the ‘witch’ metaphor several times because we’ve just been to De Efteling, a theme park based on the stories collected by the Grimm Brothers, and because I’d been talking about real, un-Disneyfied fairy tales with Maddie and William, so it was both fresh in my mind and relevant. I added the disclaimer because I knew it was likely that Hattie, Maddie and perhaps William too would read the blog, and I realised that without the disclaimer, the metaphor would add its own little negative layer onto their perceptions of other people – with the disclaimer, I don’t believe it does that. In fact, I think it questions the nature of ‘witch-blaming’ much more by using the metaphor and then adding the disclaimer than it would have by simply avoiding any mention of the witches that we’d been talking about.

      I’m not quite sure what would make that ironic. Would that be about you thinking that I blame teachers and teachers are mostly women? If so, not only are there lots of male teachers, but (as I’ve mentioned once or twice already) I blame schools, not teachers.

      In conclusion, I stand by my post, and I think you are mistaken to believe that I blame teachers for the problems with language teaching in the educational system.

    • HI, guys!

      I’m wondering about the changes in language education that have happened over the years… um, make that decades. It’s been a while since I’ve been in school. I think the changes came about sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, and were not necessarily changes for the good. Neither the teachers, nor the schools, can fight against fundamental changes that affect the learning process in language learning. What is considered to be cutting-edge is tried out, and only time will tell if it works or not.

      When I took Spanish in school, in the mid- to late-1960s, we spoke a lot in class, and we were spoken to in Spanish from the first day onward. Not for the entire class time, but certain instructions and prompts were given. We came to know them in a fairly short period of time. When I changed schools and had the opportunity to take German, in the early 1970s, the lesson structure was very different – little actual speaking, just rote repetition – teacher would point at the window, or the wall, or whatever it was, and we’d recite what it was in German. We recited the lesson sentences, we watched films of places in Germany, we listened to those headphones that hung from the ceiling. I didn’t do very well in German. 😦

      Fast-forward, and I hear, recently-ish, that the method of teaching language had changed somewhere in the window of when I was learning in school. I had thought it was just the more complicated grammar in German, and the fact that I had more Spanish-speaking friends and relatives, given where I lived, that made me better at Spanish than at German. Now, I’m not so sure. I wish there were some way to quantify the differences between the methods – well, someone probably already has, but I don’t have it to reference.

      And, I always wanted to learn Welsh. I’d heard about the ‘dreaded mutations,’ about the ‘lack of vowels,’ about how ‘hard’ it is to learn, and I still wanted to try. You can’t blame yourself for failing if you at least try, right? I did try – hand-outs from the Welsh church we attended (thee? Ooooo-kay… *confuzzled* {trying out html here – not sure if it’ll take}) and I got a book from our local library that tried to teach Welsh without the poor learner actually hearing what it sounds like. Did not do too well. Did much better with the hymn-singing at the church. The SSiW approach has been just great for me, inspiring confidence that, even though I can’t quite read it to an intuitive level yet, I can speak and (sometimes! 😉 ) understand.

      Schools need to teach reading and writing, grammar, all the things SSi doesn’t teach. Many of the students will go on to college (or are already in college or university) and will need to write and read to an academic standard. Some languages are the language of a person’s field, so this makes reading and writing doubly important for that person. What I wonder, no blame to the schools or the teachers, is about current, or recently current, styles of language instruction. Could that be one possible problem?

    • “Speaking is not all there is to learning a language.”

      Aran is arguing that it is the best place to start, since it is by speaking the language that every one of us learned our native tongue(s). So although its not all there is to a language, it is fundamental to progress in other areas, and deserves to be the primary focus at school.

      “Schools and teachers are charged with teaching language literacy, which entails all four language skills – listening, speaking, reading, and writing, including correct spelling – plus learning about the countries and cultures of the people who speak the language. Schools teach far more than just speaking and listening.”

      Which is pretty much Aran’s point isn’t it? The method and aims of school language courses have their priorities set wrong. Learn to speak first. This in itself is highly motivating – being able to actually communicate in another language! After years of French at school, I never once felt that I could do that.I will never forget the tremendous buzz I got from attending my first SSiW meetup and actually speaking to someone else in Welsh, however haltingly. We had a conversation with each other, we communicated. So why not change the way language is taught if it is not working? Why not concentrate on the fundamental skill of speaking, and leave the grammar and the spelling and the literacy for later, when kids are confident that they can communicate in the language?

      I understand that you are (very) frustrated, but all the personal stuff in your comment just weakens what you say, and you fail to address Aran’s basic point anyway.

  17. Thank you very much for that interesting and thoughtful comment, Ceridwen…:-)

    I can’t comment on the situation in the US, but in the UK education has suffered dreadfully by being on the list of ‘obvious’ things that politicians think they’ve got to ‘do something about’.

    This has resulted in decades of political interference, often by politicians who have no qualifications whatsoever for their policy ideas, and are driven by ideology far more than intelligent assessment.

    The reading and writing thing is a bit of a red herring. The really tough work with reading and writing is learning to do it with your first language (although acquiring a new script is also a pretty interesting challenge!). When you’re dealing with Latin script, the step from strong conversational ability to reading and then writing well is comparatively small (and I suspect mostly about input). I’ve been promising to do a ‘reading/writing’ module for SSiW for ages, and I will eventually – the jump in Welsh is a bit more than in many other languages, because of the level of diversion between spoken and written registers. But it’s still not going to be as much work as becoming a confident speaker in the first place…:-)

    The key to it all in schools is how to deal with group learning, I believe. I think a heavy emphasis on speaking and listening until real confidence is gained is vitally important – but I never envisaged SSiW, for example, as something for use in group situations. I’ve been surprised and intrigued to hear that people have used it in group situations, and I’d like to do more work on that. Excitingly, if the process of input could be mapped successfully to a group situation, the group situation itself then offers massively greater opportunities for production…

    I find it hard to imagine schools in the UK changing significantly, in significant numbers, in the foreseeable future – they spend so much of their intellectual energy dealing with the latest piece of political interference, there’s precious little left over to deal with constructing and testing entirely new ways of educating.

    The only way it might be possible, in my opinion, would be for someone to find a model that was so successful that just sharing the details would generate change in individual schools. I’ve not seen anything like that yet, but testing models for use in schools is one of the things I’m most eager for SSi to be able to invest time and money in…:-)

  18. Ah, Aran, come to 1956 with me. This book (link) was published that year. My mother bought it about nine years later, for a friend of mine who couldn’t read worth squat. I recall it as being, ‘paragraphs, paragraphs, paragraphs, word lists.’ It’s more famous companion was this book (link,) a cry against the ‘look-and-say’ method and a plea for phonics. I had learned how to read by the time I started school, but my parents sacrificed a lot to get me into a private (that is, not a government-run) school for my first two and a half years of school, and I was further taught by the phonics method. Schools today still cling to the ‘whole-word,’ or whatever name it goes under now, method. I don’t know why. Look-and-say, SWRL, whole-word, none of them use phonics. Very sad.

    But, this is for native speakers, or speakers who have some background in the language under their belt. Like kids starting school, they already have an inner grasp of the living language. Those kids who couldn’t read, or who read below grade level, could still speak just fine. Like my friend, who had a passion for Astro Boy, an early anime cartoon. We were both nine, and I tried to show him how to sound words out. But, it’s hard to do that when he didn’t have a complete understanding of how the letters sounded. Very sad.

    Fast-forward to 1972. I had the same problem when I was in the Future Teachers of America program in high school and tasked to help kindergarteners in the school next door to ours with their reading. They were teaching the sounds of the consonants, but not the vowels, at the time (SWRL), so the kids I worked with couldn’t tell the difference between ‘sit’ and ‘sat,’ ‘mitt’ and ‘Matt,’ and so on. The teacher, my mentor, told me explicitly that I was not to teach them how to pronounce the vowels, as it went against the lesson plan that came with the program. Very sad.

    But, again, these kids knew the language. They spoke it just fine. It was the system of teaching reading that messed them up. They knew the difference between the present-tense ‘sit’ and the past-tense ‘sat.’ They weren’t special needs, they weren’t limited in any academic way, or I would have been informed, as I was there to tutor them. I had to nearly sit on my tongue in order to follow my instructions. And, it angered me. I couldn’t show any enthusiasm, because I hated the system being applied. All I could do was sit and listen to the poor kids guessing – and they did guess – which word they were trying to ‘read.’ I did not do a second semester of FTA. I had no desire to go into an occupation that so obviously hamstrings teachers who really want to teach and get results. I sometimes wonder how many other potential teachers were turned off by this sort of thing, and how different things might have been for so many children, if only…

    And, language. Yeah, I do believe that a person learning a language must have an internal feel for the language if they’re going to progress in it. They need to know, not just academically, the patterns of speech, the feel of the words, the internal grammar that makes a language the language that it is. You can tell a class the rules, as my teachers all did, but unless the student feels it in his or her understanding, it’s a conscious exercise every time they open their mouth or put pencil to paper. Who wants to work every time they want to ask for a nice, big bowl of cherries, or whatever? We switch to the easiest form of communication, because communicating is vital. I’m with Stu – the programs in the schools have their priorities set wrong. Speak. Speak. Speak. And speak some more. Communicate. Learn the feel of it, the flow and rhythm. Just the way you did as an infant with your mother tongue. Then, when the words excite you and you ache for more ways to communicate, teach reading and writing.

    I thoroughly believe that, even in the school setting, where reading and writing is important academically, that the first quarter of the first year should be spent on speaking and listening. To get a feel for the language. To internalize it. To gain confidence and excitement for it. Schools have their mandate to teach more academically, sure. They have people to answer to, who are not always going to understand, but who control the purse strings: politicians. So, they have to produce. IMO, this is where a lot of failed and failing systems come into play – not enough tangible results early enough on, in the ways that are expected (reading and writing in the case of language) so, out with the old, in with the new. It’s like a movie trying to hook the audience in the first few minutes, only with learning, the results are not always so up-front as they are when people either stay to watch the movie or walk out in disgust. I totally see Karen’s point about what is necessary in the school setting, and as you say, it’s because of politics, of the ‘what have you done lately’ and ‘produce your results on paper’ mentality that goes with it.

    But, speak, speak, speak! Set their homework, have them read and write it, but in class, have them speak! What’s going on right now just isn’t working, and we’re losing potential polyglots right and left. No confidence, the need to quickly and automatically communicate – why bother with a language other than your own when you can’t communicate meaningfully? It’s a tragedy.

    • Oh, Cer – that sounds so heart-breakingly frustrating.

      ‘Then, when the words excite you and you ache for more ways to communicate, teach reading and writing.’

      I intend to steal that beautiful sentence at every possible opportunity…:-)

  19. Well, Aran, it looks like we’re doing a lousy job of communicating. I apologize if I came across as criticizing Hattie or her parents. I was referring to what teachers are up against in general and was certainly not referring to Hattie in particular. As for her intrinsic motivation, you also recognized that she has to *want* to learn Spanish. You advised her to try SSi when – but only when – she is ready to.

    I did not say that other people – teachers included – cannot have any impact on children’s motivation or self-confidence. Of course they can! I said that *ultimately* the motivation has to come from within the individual learner. I have seen many cases where motivation – or the lack thereof – is an overriding factor in a student’s success, regardless of how good or bad the teacher or teaching method is. It goes without saying that good teachers try to motivate their students and encourage them, and it’s tragic when teachers’ or parents’ words or actions erode their kids’ self esteem.

    However, a common criticism of contemporary education in the U.S. is that everybody is concerned about kids’ self esteem at the expense of standards and academic excellence. As matter of fact, a friend of mine – who incidentally happens to be from Cardiff – recently told me about a study that compared academic achievement among students around the world. Not surprisingly, both the U.S. and the U.K. lagged way behind a number of other countries in most academic areas. The thing that gave both of us a chuckle (but was not really funny) is that the only thing U.S. students overwhelmingly ranked #1 on was self-confidence. And then my friend went on to say that from what she sees, *lack* of self confidence, on the other hand, is one of the biggest problems among Welsh students. That had not occurred to me when I read your blog post and wrote my response, but I think that may illustrate that you and I are coming from different places.

    Also, I honestly did not know U.K. schools were as bad as you portray them to be. I think most Americans have the impression that British schools are wonderful, at least compared to ours. I really do think American schools have lots of problems, most of which – as I said before – are due to non-educators making important decisions about education. (By “non-educators,” I would include parents to some degree, because public consensus frequently drives politicians to make bad decisions.)

    However, at the university where I teach (Tennessee Technological University), the majority of our students come into advanced introductory FL classes well prepared from just 2 years of high school foreign language, in spite of the fact that TN public K-12 schools are considered below average in many ways. We (and most U.S. universities nowadays) teach our FL classes completely in the target language right from the beginning. At TTU, the majority of our students have little trouble understanding, even when they’re right out of high school. They also speak in the TL from the very beginning. I’m not saying this to brag, but rather to say that it is beginning to look like American schools – nowadays, anyway – seem to be doing a considerably better job of teaching foreign languages than your schools are over there. I’m not clear whether that’s just Wales, or the U.K. as a whole.

    I didn’t say that *all* SSIW learners are adults. It is great that there are children using it as well. But it *is* true that SSi learners come to you already motivated, or they wouldn’t find your website in the first place (unless parents are *making* their kids do it). And it is clearly true that motivation is a huge factor in learning a language, or anything else, for that matter.

    My point about schools teaching all 4 language skills was certainly not a defense of bad teaching. It was simply to point out that teaching language literacy and culture takes more time than just teaching speaking and listening. Focus on literacy and all language skills is required in secondary ed. Our FL education in elementary schools (which is sorely lacking, unfortunately) does focus much more on speaking. The focus at the elementary level in the U.S., however, may actually be more on promoting cultural awareness and tolerance than on the language per se, because intolerance, prejudice, and ethnocentrism are, unfortunately, a common problem here.

    Re your witch metaphor, of course I am aware that there are a lot of male teachers. But female teaches are by far the majority (and traditionally even more so), with women comprising 75% of public school teachers, both in the U.S. and the U.K., so the witch metaphor was in poor taste at best.

    It is very wrong for parents to blame teachers – explicitly or implicitly – for their children’s failure, and even more wrong for parents to teach children to disrespect teachers, whether by words or by example.

    Surely you can see, Aran, that your original post above at least *appears* to be very critical of – and offensive to – teachers, whether you meant it to be or not. You say you are criticizing *schools*, not teachers, but to the individual child, teachers ARE the school. Teachers are the ones your kids are with every day, not some abstract, inanimate entity, nor are children typically in contact with legislators or upper-level administrators. So when you tell children their classes are “rubbish” and a waste of time, that IS offensive to teachers, whether you mean it to be or not. Teachers are the ones who execute those classes day to day. Moreover, you are clearly are referring to teachers when you talk about kids being taught they are no good at learning languages. Who’s telling them that – in your view – if not teachers? It’s the “schools,” certainly not parents, you adamantly maintain. But who or what is this abstract notion of “school” in the everyday sense in a child’s world, if not the teacher?

    • Surely you can see, Aran, that your original post above at least *appears* to be very critical of – and offensive to – teachers, whether you meant it to be or not.

      No, I’m afraid I can’t.

      Whatever children may think, I’d expect teachers to be very clearly aware of the difference between ‘school’ and ‘teacher’. And I’d expect any professional person who was uncertain, for whatever reason, to start by asking something like ‘When you say school, do you mean teacher?’

      I’d expect teachers in successful systems to feel that this post was irrelevant to them.

      I’d expect teachers in unsuccessful systems to feel the same kind of frustration and anger I feel about the subject – and I know many who do.

      As for the witch thing being in poor taste – nolo contendere, stick me in the dock – I only hope there’s room in the dock for several thousand examples of popular culture, plus the whole of De Efteling, none of which come with disclaimers. I’d also better warn any readers of this blog who are offended by the way I refer to witches in this post that there will almost certainly be similar attempts at humour in future posts, so they should either brace themselves or look away.

  20. Hi, as Harriet’s father, I would like to respond to this discussion. In context, my daughter is a good student. She is one of those who is motivated, and fortunate enough to be sent to school on a daily basis clothed, clean and warm. I hope we are parents who encourage her but who do not blame her ‘failures’ on others. In fact, there have been times when we have told her to ‘toughen up’ and get over herself..

    Her ‘High School’ was at one time classed as a ‘Language College’ and all students had to take two languages for their first three years. Harriet opted for Spanish for her public examinations. However, because she wanted to take Art she had to opt to do the ‘third session’. This means that her language learning was ‘relegated’ to an after school lessons which her teacher diligently taught ‘out of hours’.

    I have to stress that I met her teacher on several occasions and she was a lovely and motivated lady who had a passion for her students and the language she was teaching.

    Harriet was also fortunate to visit Spain on a language learning trip. Her overwhelming experience was that she did not have the vocabulary to speak with normal people. She is sitting opposite me now, and she says that she would have been more than capable of booking an Hotel Room or able to discuss her ‘Healthy Lifestyle’ but in terms of everyday conversation she was totally unequipped.

    The point is that most people just want/need to communicate and that language learning (in the UK at least) is not centred around this. My experience of French lessons if of chanting verb variations which meant nothing to me now or then. I could tell you in French that Jean Paul was riding his bicycle or that Marie France was in the bath but if a French person asked me how I was I would respond, “Sorry, I don’t speak French.

    I think this is what Aran is getting at when he says that Hattie has been let down. The curriculum was neither relevant, inspiring or useful.

    In terms of UK schools being ‘bad’ I would like to add that Hattie’s school teaches 1100 students from a very rural area. It is the sole Secondary School ‘recruiting’ from an 10-15 mile radius. It is very much a ‘hub’ of our community of approximately 10,000 people. To add a little colour, we are outnumber by cows 2-1. All it’s teachers are passionate, and we as a community are very proud of the students and its achievements. But, Government judged it as “requiring improvement” at its last inspection in September. I add this because politics is adversely effecting education in the UK and the sooner it is de-politicised the better.

    I think what Aran was getting at, and I agree 100% with him, is that we are missing a golden opportunity here to explore something different. Vested interests and ‘the like’ are getting in the way of what really matters, and that is ensuring that learning a language is seen as a joy to our children, and not as something that must be done until it can be given up at the earliest opportunity; and lets face it that is the ultimate luxury we have as English speakers.

    Hattie passed the written portion of her exam with two B’s. This was worth 50% of the examination mark. She failed her examination overall because she was ‘Upgradeable’ at speaking and Grade D at listening, which kind of proves that there is a lot to be said for the SSIW method. After all, what is the point of language if you cannot actually say anything useful!

  21. Diolch yn fawr iawn for that clear and interesting response, Andy – it’s great to have it in writing on here that you thought highly of Hattie’s teacher, and presumably would have commented at the time if it had sounded as though I was blaming her teacher…;-)

    Welwn ni chi gyd yn y gwanwyn!

  22. Andy: This will probably be my last post on Aran’s blog, because I seem to have offended people unintentionally and do not wish to inadvertently do so again. I sincerely apologize if I have offended you and/or your daughter. I would like to say that I am pleased to “meet” the father of such a talented young woman. Her painting is absolutely lovely. Please be assured that I did not in any way intend to offend you or your lovely daughter.

    If I may, I will also briefly say that I totally hear what you are saying about the irrelevancy of some FL lessons. A lot of what is in our textbooks, even at the university level (which is where I teach), is pretty silly stuff. (Unlike “The old dog ate three young cats yesterday,” which I had occasion to say nearly every day when I was in Wales. 😉 One of the chapters we get a good laugh at in our current text is one on sports, where “el surfing” is included in the vocab list. We try to work around that, and in the U.S. for the most part we DO emphasize everyday conversation. In my classes, written work and grammar study are largely relegated to out-of-class study, and class time is spent in actual face-to-face conversation. A lot of everyday vocab can only be learned in real-world contexts, however, especially if you consider regional variation, so I’m sure your daughter would adapt easily after an initial adjustment period in a real-world Spanish-speaking environment. As a fluent long-time speaker of Latin American Spanish, I had a bit of an adjustment the first time I went to Spain in 2007. The pronunciation was no problem, but there is huge lexical variation in the Spanish-speaking world. My students are amused when I tell them I sometimes have trouble communicating with the Guatemalan lady who cleans my house. Schools and textbooks don’t teach words like *baseboard, window sill, scrubby pad, oven rack, plunger*, or even *flush the toilet*. In fact, I even learn a whole new English vocabulary every time I go to the U.K. Last summer I learned “cutch” (or is it cooch?) and “swot,” for instance.) 🙂

    Thank you for your comments and for the pleasure of (sort of) meeting you. And again, please accept my apologies for anything I said that offended you or your daughter.

    • Hi Karen, in no way were either me or Hattie offended. We are made of sterner stuff than that! Debate is what keeps the world ticking over and it would be wrong not to engage at whatever level.

      The difficulty with the www is that nuance and meaning is lost, and not easily conveyed by the written word. The world would be a very sad place if we could not discuss things in an open and honest way.

      For your peace of mind, I am up late catching up on my welsh etc, and the rest of the family are happy and asleep, content in the knowledge that Hattie has gone ‘viral’!

      Sleep well and take care.

      Andy and Hattie!


    • Karen, it would be a shame to lose someone who can find occasion to use, ‘The old dog ate three young cats yesterday,’ in daily conversation!

      • Shumae, hola, bonjour, top o’ the morning, Cerdwi,
        Thank you for your kind words. I’d stay for a chat, but I have an old dog and lots of beer to sell today, and I can’t find anywhere to park my giraffe. 😉 I would like to sit down and chat with you sometime about all your interesting language learning experiences, though. Hasta luego… – Karen

  23. Meh, stick around. Aran talks about more than schools. Next post is about potential solutions. Just, circle the block, there’s usually something on the side street for giraffes. But, you got to lock it up good, or there’ll be a gecko around trying to sell it insurance. 😉

    • Speaking of taking offense (and I remind you, on the off chance that it may have slipped your mind, that geckos are the only lizards with vocal cords, so “speaking” is not a metaphor), your comment about insurance perpetrates an offensive stereotype. The creature to which you allude might justly be either reviled or pitied, but he is utterly singular, diolch i Dduw.

      • well, technically, I was referring to a particular gecko, who does, indeed, sell insurance. Whether other geckos sell insurance, I have no idea. I can only say that an honest job is a good job, and he does it well. (Has competition with a duck, but the duck’s been sidelined by a speech problem recently.)

  24. Thanks for the tip, Cerdwi. I did find a spot on a side street, and I locked him up good, but I got a ticket because the meter ran out. It took too long to sell that old dog and all that beer, and I had to give the young cat some milk. Oh, and what REALLY made me late was winning and losing all those rugby games. 😉

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