A different kind of language learning classroom

I’ve mentioned several times how bad language education (in primary and high schools, but often the faculties too) in Serbia is, how after 10 years of second language study the vast majority of students, after finishing high-school, gets no further than a set of several basic sentences and a mediocre vocabulary which they can’t put to any real use.

I think one of the biggest reasons for this failure is in the method of teaching, which treats language as, say, physics:

You all sit at your desk. You get an explanation how some part of reality works and a formula how to find the right information which is missing in a certain situation. Then you open your workbook and get problems which you must solve. After repeating this a few dozen times, you move on to a new area with a new formula, which might or might not incorporate the previously learned formula. Repeat year after year, and forget after graduating.

This also says a lot about how physics are being taught (in Serbian schools at least), but that’s a story for another time. What is important here to notice is the complete absence of, well, common sense, when it comes to devising the right environment for learning a language.

There are places where common sense is used, though: sports. What the vast majority of people will tell you is that the best way to learn sports is to do them. Practice, and lots of it, is indispensible. At no point is a typical school-like class mentioned – you might sit at a desk and discuss a particular attack strategy with your coach, but you still have to test them out in the real world, or it’s all just empty talk. (I am not a sports expert, so correct me if I’m wrong).

Yet, when the topic is language, the answer on how language is taught is bound to be: “You learn it in a classroom”. Language, a tool which enables you to become a fully functioning member of a different society in all of its aspects, is learned in the classroom. Yeah right. Tell me, what would you say if I told you: “Basketball is best learned in the classroom”?

The language teacher will now jump and say “Yes well, what else can you do, if you can’t take the student to the country itself?”. Well, I would say, bring the country to the student.

Imagine a classroom, but with the chairs and desks thrown out. The background is a picture of a busy marketplace, courtesy of the projector. There are sounds of people laughing, shouting and bargaining, recorded at an actual marketplace. Several boxes with apples, bananas and other fruit surround a desk which represents a stall. One teacher is the seller, the other a buyer. They chat for a minute or two, going through the usual: “Hey neighbour, how’re the kids?” routine. The buyer would like to try the apples before buying them, to see if they’re fresh, and the seller cuts him a slice. After tasting it and complementing on the sweetness, he takes two kilos, and a kilo of bananas and oranges, pays, and they say their goodbyes. The students who are all standing around the teachers watch this whole scene repeated one or two times, and then they act as the buyer and/or seller.

The things which you practice in your target language in this small simulation are:

How to have a short everyday conversation, with the various essential Hellos and Goodbyes and typical “How’s life?” questions

How to buy things

How to count and do basic mathematics (you have to calculate the price of the fruit)

How to cut fruit 😉

And this is just one situation. Off the top of my head, you could do a simulation of shopping at a mall, hanging out in a bar, ordering food at a restaurant, passing through the airport customs, having an argument with your parents about not letting you stay out late, competing in a game show, flirting with a guy/girl in a club… The number of possible situations is huge.

Here are some of the reasons why I believe this sort of language class would drastically improve the speed and quality of language learning:

It simulates true situations. You are practicing how to do things which are normal occurrences in the country whose language you’re learning and which you’ll need to do in order to be able to function in it. You go through these simulations so many times, you inevitably become very accustomed and comfortable with doing various things in another language.

It captivates all the senses, and both your creative and rational brain powers. You are moving around, acting, hearing sounds, smelling things, trying food – all of your senses are involved, and studies have repeatedly proven that when that is the case, we remember things a lot better.

It is done in a relaxed atmosphere. There will inevitably be smiles and, gasp, laughter when acting in these situations, and in general everyone will be a lot more relaxed than in a typical classroom. This doesn’t mean that learning is not happening – in fact it is even more efficient, as the nervousness, or as some call it the affective filter, is drastically reduced, if not outright removed.

You are acquiring new skills. Simulations of real-life situations are just one part of this classroom. There can be debates, where you learn how to state and defend your opinion, presentations where you learn how to communicate your idea effectively; cooking/origami/sewing/whatever classes, in which the primary objective is to acquire a skill – the language is a tool which you use to learn that skill, and in the process you also practice the language itself. Also, in every simulation, activity etc. you participate, you are also practising to perform in front of a group, and thus slowly breaking one of the most common fears out there.

People of different levels can all participate and improve. In every simulation the students will practice according to their own level. In the marketplace simulation, the beginners are practicing their Hellos and Goodbyes and how to buy a kilo of apples, and the advanced students are haggling over the prices of the fruit and complaining how everything is a lot more expensive these days. Also, when a teacher has decided that a student is advanced enough, he can give the student an opportunity to also be a teacher – to run another fruit stall, which instantly doubles the amount of practice for all the other students, and gives additional practice (and a sense of responsibility) to the student-teacher.

The costs are vastly outweighed by both the short and long-term benefits. I still haven’t planned out this workshop in details (did I mention I will do it from October at my faculty? I will do it from October at my faculty.), but this is my rationale: A lot of the things which you need for the simulations are one-time purchases and efforts – bar stools, fake money, backgrounds to be projected, sounds… Once you acquire them, you use them over and over again. Stuff like fruit and other things which have to be resupplied are cheap. In any case, I feel that the money will be well spent, as the progress of students will be much faster than in a typical classroom (and if not, hey, it was worth trying).

When it comes to the whole expense thing, some will probably say that having two teachers instead of just one is a double expense both in fees and human resources, but it is only so in the first year. As soon as the first year passes, several students who are now second year and can participate in the first year classes as teachers, thus giving even more opportunities for practice to the new first year students and they themselves are practicing the language and how to teach it. Everyone wins.

This aspect is oversimplified and improvised, as it is not my primary goal now to sketch out in detail how this system could be applied on a larger scale, as I haven’t tested it out yet. However, as mentioned previously, I will have the opportunity to test it on my faculty, from October. Until then, I have to plan this out. This is where you guys come in.

This whole idea was in the beginning just a vague picture in my head of what a language class would look like. Talking with a friend over a drink, I mentioned it, and his excitement over it and the ensuing discussion is what actually persuaded me to try to make it a reality ASAP. I talked with a few more friends that evening and got some more ideas and suggestions from them, bunched it up with my own thoughts, and the next day I excitedly presented it to the Dean’s advisor. She loved it and I got the room and the support to make it happen.

In the space of 18 hours my idea went from a vague wish to hard reality, and it wouldn’t have happened without my friends – certainly not so soon. The ideas and suggestions which they gave me are great, and it is clear to me that the more people speak their mind about this workshop, the better it will eventually be.

So, here are my brainstormed thoughts so far on how this workshop should look like. Feel free to contribute to any and all parts of it – every idea will be thoroughly examined.

The Simulated Reality English Workshop (working title)

Working language: English

Duration of workshop: one year, two 90 min classes per week.

Participants: around 30-40 first year students of any language except English (the reason for this, and for the two 90 min classes, is that I would like to compare their progress to that of students who are attending a normal class of English as a secondary language)

Number of teachers: two. Less than two, and you can’t do the simulations. More than two is at the moment a bit overkill.

Level of participants: mixed. The workshop work method is such that students participate mostly within their comfort zone, with small excursions out of it (see Stephen Krashen’s theory, especially the part on Input and i+1).

Simulations: Numerous. Anything from a post office, bar or marketplace to police station, customs, game-show and funeral. Anything which can be reasonably simulated in a medium-sized room and is in some way relevant to learning English.

Materials used: Numerous, depending on the current simulation. For example, for the marketplace, the essential equipment is fresh fruit, a couple of boxes, price tags and paper money, a picture and a sound recording of a marketplace. Everything additional is optional, but much appreciated if it adds to the overall effect. While brainstorming there is no money limit – dream big, and later on we’ll adjust it to reality.

Additional activities: A lot of them will probably be advanced, i.e. they will happen after, say, 3 or 4 months of simulations, and will require at least basic previous preparation from students. Things such as debates (from simple “fruit is better than chocolate because…” for beginners to “immigration in Britain should/shouldn’t be more regulated because…” for advanced students), acting out scenes from movies etc.

Also, activities where you learn to do something new, like origami (yes, I have a need to always mention it. No, I don’t know why.), drawing, knitting, making basic (British or other) meals… The language of instruction is always English, of course, so you’re practising it along the way.

Random notes:

FUN – Everything should be fun. There are enough complicated things in life, let’s at least try to make learning a pleasurable activity. Again, this doesn’t mean results aren’t being achieved. The motto of this whole endeavour should be along the lines of: “We don’t take ourselves seriously, but we take what we do very seriously”.

Writing – I’m still thinking of how, if at all, it should be included. Writing is a skill, you have to learn it in your own language, not to mention in another one. Apart from making the students take notes and write out presentation plans in English for certain simulations, at the moment I’m not sure how much we can and if at all we should incorporate it. As for spelling, well, one part would be integrated in the simulations (e.g. names of fruit written out on tags in the marketplace sim), another could be additional reading… In any case, this requires a lot of thought, and I think a significant part of the solution is integrating as many written words as possible into the simulations, while making it still interesting (e.g. imagine a scene in court, with lots of tags on everything/everybody, Judge, Attorney, Jury member, Defendant… and they have small cards with Objection and Sustained which they show when they are acting it out)

Reading – Students should read outside of class as much as possible, but that is simply common sense when learning a new language. As part of the classroom, apart from what was mentioned in the Writing part, I’m still thinking about what should be done.

Testing – I’m not still sure about this one. I think there shouldn’t at any point be a pressure on the students to learn language for a test, at least the traditional grammatical sort of test. Of course, feel free to disagree with me.

I do think an essential part of this whole thing is a test on the beginning of the workshop and a year later, at the very end. It will be a special test, its form will not be announced, and it will be done by both the students of this workshop and a number of students who are attending a regular English-as-second-language class in our faculty. This will be an excellent marker of progress of both groups of students after a year of learning English.

I’m also thinking of maybe making small forms for students to evaluate every step of the classroom, their own feelings on their progress etc. The more data we get, the better.

That’s it for now. Feel free to discuss every aspect of what I’ve mentioned so far, either in the comment section, or by email ( sagefromrage at gee-male dot com). Also, if you know of something similar already (being) done somewhere else, please tell me. If a lot of suggestions come in, I’ll make a mailing list or something, depending on what seems like the best solution to make the discussion as productive as possible. Please write as little or as much as you wish. As I said, the more ideas and suggestions you give, the better this whole thing will turn out in the end.


21 Responses to “A different kind of language learning classroom”

  1. Let me begin by saying your willingness to think out of the box is very commendable and I think you should go ahead and try the experiment as it will likely to be a very enlightening experience. So please take my opinion as merely constructive criticism that may or may not apply to you.

    Role playing with simulated situations is by no means a new teaching method and I’ve participated in different contexts as both a student and teaching assistant. While it can be a fun and educational as a supplement activity, I think there are several issues with doing it as your main method of teaching.

    The biggest problem is that the situation is not real and therefore becomes a type of acting. Given that most people have no acting experience and the problems of stage fright, you’ll see shyness become an issue. In addition, you’re asking them to ad-lib which is an even greater acting skill and in a foreign language that they haven’t mastered on top of that! Students without near native level are simply not ready for that kind of advanced language activity.

    What usually ends up happening is the teacher usually has to prep the students on what to say and the dialogue becomes a script. Otherwise, the students won’t know what to say and will just stand there looking awkward. Therefore, you negate the whole point of the exercise which is to have students act as if they were actually in that situation.

    I suggest exposing your students to REAL situations as most as possible in a way they can handle. Preferably in the following order as your situation allows:

    1. Face to face conversation with native speaker
    2. Penpal (email) with native speaker
    3. Online conversation with native speaker (for advanced students)

    The whole thing of props and situational language to me is not very important. The HARD part is teaching the students how to think and express themselves in the target language. Once you’ve acquired that skill, situational language is merely a matter of learning some specialized vocabulary and expressions.

  2. Gassalasca Says:

    This is not strictly related to this post, but I was afraid that it might get overlooked if I post it as a comment tho some of the previous posts.
    It’s a Language Log post from about a month ago ( http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=189) which deals with learning Chinese, but I suppose the same would apply to any language that doesn’t use the Latin script (i.e. Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Hebrew etc.).
    The article argues that by swamping the beginning and intermediate students with dozens of characters every month teachers are crushing their enthusiasm and the confidence.
    The author proposes instead “learning like a baby” strategy – “Namely, let students naturally become familiar and comfortable with the basic expressions, structures, and intonations of the language. After acquiring this solid foundation, then gradually introduce characters in a systematic fashion, one that is directly linked to words and expressions, not as isolated morphosyllables.”

    Now, this makes a hell of a lot of sense to me. However, I’ve never even tried to learn any of those languages so I don’t really know would it actually work.

    Anyway, I think a parallel could be drawn between this and swamping the students with dull grammar rules. University students are one thing, but drilling dry grammar into minds of primary an highschool kids… seems counterproductive to say the least.

  3. Milosh Petrik Says:

    While I applaud your goodwill, I’m more than certain this isn’t going to work. The simple reason being that one does need grammar, and quite a lot of it, and the better grammar is understood, the better is it learned. Personally, I’ve studied many languages, and grammar is what I hate most about them (unfortunately, I’m rubbish at it, but I do try). Even so, or perhaps precisely because of my hating it, I feel that it’s needed.

    Why do you think students in Serbia are only taught some basic phrases over years of work? It’s certainly not because they have to learn a lot of grammar. Learning grammar, in my experience, makes one more versatile, and more confident, rather than otherwise. Simplification and faults in grading criteria are major problems. Teachers are under pressure from parents to pass as many as they possibly can, and this has led to very few ever failing a course through not working hard enough. So, as long as they are not particularly interested, they won’t learn anything. I know I can only speak for my school, but I’ve talked to people who graduated from other schools, and they basically say the same thing I’m saying now. We need discipline more than we need games (against which I do not object per se; you know as much about me, I’m sure – I’ve even designed some). I know that, were I a teacher in Serbia (never mind the subject, as long as it’s one of the languages or humanities), I would have adhered to the schedules and course programs strictly. And I would have been nicknamed ”Nazi” within three days, reprimanded by the principal for ”being too demanding” within a week, and sacked within ten days. This is what invariably happened to all language teachers that I liked, unless they buckled and conceded to raising yet another generation of muttering illiterate idiots.

    Reflecting on Tae Kim’s comment, with which I generally agree (what with people not wanting to say anything being a major problem with role-playing), I have to remark that learning from a native speaker through conversation, letters (or emails), and online conversation is hardly the best way to learn any language. If I had learned, for instance, English that way, I probably couldn’t distinguish between ”there” and ”their”, ”its” and ”it’s”, ”you’re” and ”your” (and don’t get me started on French leetspeak). I know some people think these things are unimportant, and there’s only one thing I can say about them: tell me who they are, so I can slay them. Returning there (sic!) emails with all the errors marked in red only goes so far.

    Finally, I have to say I’m intrigued by the idea, and would like to help any way I can. I don’t think it will work, though, but if you make it work, I’ll be more than glad.

  4. uchideshi Says:

    Wow, a tough audience 🙂

    @ Tae Kim

    Thanks for pointing out some important er, points. 🙂

    I am aware that role playing is not a new method, as being a trainer, I have often used it in seminars when certain situations have to be practiced (negotiating etc.). The advantages of role playing over the standard teacher-just-talks method for explaining things are numerous, and yet I feel it is vastly underused in language teaching.

    A big part of what I’ve learned as a trainer (perhaps I should have talked about that more in the post itself) is group dynamics, how to relax people, make them participate more etc. Another thing, I mentioned is that every simulation will be suited for different levels of English (also, you have to know at least some English if you want to enroll here, so there most likely won’t be people who know no English at all – there’s an English test, and while IMO it’s not representative of the true level of knowledge of students who pass it, it is not that simple at all). For instance, an exchange for beginners will be something like “Hello, how are you?” “Hello, fine, and you?” “I’d like 4 pounds of apples please” “That will be 2,40”. “Thank you, good bye!”.

    The point is, you can make it as simple or as complicated as you want. In case the group is more “closed” i.e. less willing to participate, the whole first month could be used for that marketplace simulation alone, to make the people comfortable with each other and to slowly adapt to the working methods and the general atmosphere. Improvisation is not mandatory and there isn’t going to be typical testing – since there will be people with different levels of English, they will all (have to) realize pretty soon that there is no competition in the traditional sense here, that no one is smarter or more stupid if he/she knows or doesn’t know something. I plan to lay out these and other rules and methods of the workshop at the first class, to make it clear to everyone as soon as possible how we’ll do this thing.
    On the issue of shyness and acting, as I said, there are numerous ways of relaxing the students and of creating a good atmosphere, but in my opinion this is more sort of pretending than acting. What I mean to say is, I may put on a tone of a fat jolly salesman, but the students don’t have to act happy/sad/enthusiastic or anything. They are being themselves, but pretending to be in a marketplace/bar/airport etc. Shakespeare-level acting is not a requirement 🙂 Later on, when they get more comfortable, they can take on roles such as “lawyer” or “jolly fat salesman”.
    I think that acting or pretending, like drawing, is one of those things which people think are impossible to learn unless you are talented, and based on their first try, which is most likely bad, they decide they can’t do it. As a person who’s not talented in drawing, but nevertheless achieved a decent level through practice, I think that this notion is simply not true. Again, we are not striving to create thespians here 🙂 The point is to simply bring the students to a level of being relaxed enough to pretend to be in situations. Once that happens, all the moving around, shaking hands, laughing, counting money and trying food will, I’m certain, make the learning process much faster and efficient.

    The three things you mentioned (conversations and penpals) are useful, but they are methods which are difficult to apply effectively on a large group, and even in small groups of, say, 5-10 people, the teacher has to have excellent methods in order to make everyone participate and learn. The very point of this experiment is to explore new and different approaches to learning a language in a big group (again, I know role playing isn’t new, but I haven’t found anyone who based their whole language class on it).


    Thanks for the link!

    I haven’t gone through the article, but I certainly will, as it tackles an important issue in learning Chinese and/or Japanese – kanji.
    I wouldn’t put Hebrew and Japanese in the same basket, however, as although Hebrew has an alphabet very different from the Latin script, it still consists of letters, and quite a small number of them while we’re at it (22, plus a few variations depending on the position of some letters in a word). I guess it would be like learning hiragana in Japanese – it’s a bit weird at first, but very soon, because you’re using it so much, you become very familiar with it.

    @ Milos

    Discipline is not much help if the methods themselves are bad. We had some scary professors in my high school (the chilly silence in our French classes comes to mind) who enforced strict discipline, and yet none of us were any better at French after the whole experience. It is not that they are taught just basic sentences – it is that after years of grammar learning and testing they are left with only basic sentences. As I said before, I know of not one language teacher in either primary or high school after whose class students could speak decent French/German/Russian, and we learn them for 10 years. 10 years! A decade of learning something, and we can’t even be decent in it!

    I’m not blaming the teachers – the course programs which they are forced to teach are awful. It is precisely because of that situation that I want to try a different method. This will be the first in what I hope will be many experimental classrooms in which I will test different methods of teaching in a large group, and all the data I get from it will go towards making the best language learning curriculum possible.

    I’m not saying that grammar is not important (though I should say that for instance I’ve learned English without consciously knowing almost any grammar rules, and I know of at least 2 more people who’ve done the same), but I think that it is way overemphasized. Basing the language class on it (which is what most classes do) is, in my opinion, very wrong – from my experience of learning Japanese for the first 2-3 years through grammar, I could barely make a simple “I am Relja. I want to eat” sentence and be certain that it’s correct. You said yourself that you hated learning grammar, and while I know that there are things which one has to do even if they are not pleasant, at least those things should then bring good results. These standard methods of grammar overdosing are NOT bringing good results. As I said, a decade of French learning later I could barely make a basic sentence.

    In any case, thanks a lot for your thoughts, and for the support! I’m looking forward to more comments from you once we get some more input from other people and get underway with planning out the workshop 🙂

  5. Milosh Petrik Says:

    Just some obiter dicta:
    I believe I can manage decent French, and I’ve only ever learned it in school. I’m sorry to say though, that I am one of the very few that still remember anything. Also, learning something in school is not enough. As with English, I played computer games, read books and magazines, watched films in French… Otherwise, having learned about tenses few French people knew existed would have been, I agree, utterly pointless.

    We share some of the views on teaching. Still, I would prefer teaching language on two levels: firstly, overdose students on the rules of usage of this for or that, and then, and only then, put everything in a cultural context, from reading newspaper articles over popular literature to poetry, and from simulating buying fruit at the open market to simulating lectures in high energy physics. Workshops lack seriousness, and language is far too serious for improvisation.

    Lastly, I have to say that your ”unconscious learning of English” isn’t perfect either: ”…none of us were any better…” is wrong. ”None” is a contraction of ”not one”. So, if you say ”one was (rather than one were)”, you also ought to say ”not one was”, and consequently, ”none was”. Take it from an overdosed grammarian.

  6. Gassalasca Says:

    Also, I don’t think it’s just the fact that grammar is overemphasized – it’s how those students have been taught are being practised. Students’ grades are mostly based on written tests in which they are asked to take their time and slowly and carefully put the sentence in the present tense into the past tense, or to look at three sentences and underline the one with the correct use of articles. Problem is, that meticulous clinical dissection of language in front of the student has nothing to do with [i]using[/i] the language. The student who scores perfectly on all those tests will tomorrow still be unable to express the simplest thoughts and feeling in the language in question.
    Therefore, I think that the active use of language should be the first step rather thna the last. Soon the student will [i]want[/i] t learn grammar, simply because he/she will want to express slightly more advanced thoughts. As in “Ok, I know how to say ‘I see a car’ but I wonder what’t the right way of saying ‘I saw the car hit that man'” etc.
    Being a student of English I regularly see people who do well in written tests regulary make the most basic mistakes when trying to express themselves fluently. Reason for that is the fact that they’ve had years of grammar test practise (at least ten years) but almost no experience using the language in live eye-to-eye communication.
    And of course who better to provide that experience than native speakers.
    That’s why I think what Tae Kim said can’t be stressed enough.

    @Milosh – an overdosed grammarian shouldn’t be making basic mistakes when using conditionals. 😉

  7. Gassalasca Says:

    Drat, I can’t edit my post – the first sentnce should reas ‘it’s how the rules those students’ etc.

  8. Gassalasca Says:

    One more thing – it’s prefectly fine to use none with plural.

    Here’s what the American Heritage Dictionary says about it:

    Also 12 grammar mistakes that aren’t:

    I’m sure the Language Log guys have written about it too, but I can’t seem to find that post. <_<

  9. Observer Says:

    I must say that I like this subject…I couldn’t read every comment,but I’ll say…something,whatever… 🙂 Just a lil part of my,so called,expirience,ok!
    First,when you mentioned physics,I was always wondering ”Why the hell am I learning all of these formulas,when I don’t know how to use it in praxis?!”…I asked myself the same when I started to choke in a grammar of a language I’m learning at the moment…
    And not just me.Every single person wants to know when the moment of ”using” will come! But none…Still that bloody grammar,and for few months we’re out of the school with highest diplomas…Something defenitely must get changed…
    (Well,this much English I know didn’t came from grammar only for sure! Even if I still suck as you can see! :p)

    I must say that I personally miss(ed) some motivation,and imagination afterall…
    I’ll quote:If we can’t go to that country,let’s bring it here!
    Perfect! If that’s the one of the ways,and I believe it is,why not?! Let’s work through the game also!
    For example,in my learning-group,people don’t know even a one singer,actor or writer from that/some country,and I’m not mentioning basic culture,customs,some lil history and stuff…All we can count on curently is a PC…On our bad luck…
    And I wouldn’t say that the ones who are learning some language are lazy to do stuff like that.No…They wanted to learn it,right?! But I guess our bigger problem is how to motivate ”the bosses”,who are teaching us,to motivate us for some real work…Any cure for that?! 🙂
    I don’t say it’s all their fault,but who can do something if they can’t?!
    I mean…Can they??? Cuz I know that we can’t…I tried many things…

  10. Atomski mrav Says:

    Great idea!

    First of all, it is really refreshing to see someone so brave to try new approaches of English language acquisition in Serbia. The idea in general is great, but I am currently under the impression that you’ve missed the target area while describing the matter in hand. Role-play for students? I don’t think so. Merely because you can’t get them (IMHO) interested enough for role-play.

    Your reply is most probably: Ok, I’ll use a different simulation, more challenging for the student level. Let’s elaborate more on the, BIMUN role-play. This is a very good opportunity for role-play, but it has every chance to fail rather to be successful. Unfortunately, in Serbia students are not adequately informed about various common topics. This model requires, apart from the will for participation of the students, their knowledge of English, vast database concerning issues that our world is facing… How many of your friends are actually reading anything more than “Press”, “Kurir”, comic books? Even if they have the willingness to participate, there is the lack-of-info wall that separates this program from success…

    As for writing part, here’s an idea: give them a single sentence, and ask them to write another 3 sentences that are related to the topic (this can be used for paragraphs as well). Each day, you have to select the best paragraph/sentences that will be saved, and then redistributed… In this way, the students will most likely try to be creative, inventive and they have to be encouraged to continue to write while using new words. In the end, they have to find the title of the story… You can start with, for example: “She stood there, silently, in front of the medical examiner’s table, looking at the small yellow piece of paper, hanging from the dead soldier’s toe…” Ok, maybe it is a bit corny, but it will most certainly get them into a mood for writing…

    Anyhow, you have my vote to test this further…

  11. @Milosh
    Hmm… I never said don’t teach grammar. Obviously students are going to need some kind of foundation and guidance before they can practice conversation. The whole topic of learning by practicing with native speakers is a huge topic I just glossed over for the sake of space so obviously there’s more to it than my simple list. Also since we were on the topic of conversational skills, I completely skipped over the topic of teaching reading and writing.

    I think if your students are of sufficiently advanced level, this activity could work. But if they are at that level, the students will learn more with the standard reading/writing/discussion type of advanced class.

    If the goal is to teach students who can’t speak yet, my sense is it will be difficult. The bottom line is, you can’t learn how to speak without practicing it for real (and lots of it). Everything else only helps to prepare but is useless until you apply it for real.

    It appears you don’t have enough resources to have conversation practice for all your students. If some of your students are advanced enough, you can certainly use them as conversation partners for your newer students (though I feel this might not be fair for the advanced students). If for example, you were teaching English speakers Japanese, you can pair a class of Japanese speakers learning English online but I understand you are in a difficult situation.

  12. Argh!!!! I just lost my long comment so here’s an abbreviated version.


    Hmm… I never said don’t teach grammar. Since the current topic was teaching conversational skills, I purposely skipped all the other aspects such as reading and writing. Obviously, there’s a lot more to teaching a foreign language than just practice with native speakers. And even that is a huge topic I didn’t want to go into.


    It sounds like you have some expertise in this area and as I said before, I think you should go ahead and give it a shot. I would suggest having a couple trial runs before turning it into a full class though. Also what is the age group you’re teaching? I think this kind of fun activity would work better for younger children. Adults not so much.

    In the end, there’s really no way to learn how to speak in a foreign language until you actually practice it for real. The way most classes work is they give you some of the knowledge necessary and leave it to you to apply it yourself (usually by studying abroad). If you really want to teach your students how to speak within the class, you’ll need to figure out how to incorporate a lot of real conversation practice. If you have some very advanced students, you can pair them with the newer students though I’m not sure if that’s fair for your advanced students. Personally, I wouldn’t want to waste time practicing with somebody who was just as bad as myself. That’s just my opinion as a fellow language learner. Is there maybe an English class learning Siberian nearby or online you can team up with?

  13. Milosh Petrik Says:


    I never did get the hang of conditionals. Curse them.

    Tae Kim:

    You are probably right in claiming that languages should be practiced to be learned. When I first spoke with a French person, they mistook my accent for Belgian, and asked me why had I been talking like a schoolteacher. Obviously, my French was far too sanitized, out of touch with everyday speech. That sort of problem is probably most easily overcome by contact with native speakers. Even so, I can’t help but think of my niece, She’s practically English, having been living there since she was two, and my written language is much better than hers. I can’t but feel that, had I learned my English solely from her, I would have been much worse off.

  14. uchideshi Says:

    The size of the comments… In the words of Neo, “Whoa” 🙂
    Concerning your French, well, let’s say that it in a way also proves my point. You say that learning in school is not enough, you have to do other stuff in that language on the side. I completely agree, but look at what happens when you exclude the out-of-class input, which is what the vast majority of students go through – 10 years of studying a language only in school and majorly sucking at the end. I wasn’t told to look at things in French outside of class, and I never got the idea to do it on my own, even though I was doing it in English all the time. After 10 years, I sucked at French.
    I can’t stress this enough. After 2-3 years of on average 3 classes per week, you can become very good at a lot of things. After 6 years you can get really, really good. After a DECADE? You’re, at the very least, extremely competent.
    But after 10 years of second language education? You can’t do even basic stuff.
    Concerning the seriousness issue: As I said, the philosophy here is, we do not take ourselves seriously, but we take our work very seriously. If after having fun we achieve better results than an average, “serious” class, then you can call us silly, but you can’t deny the results.
    And language being too serious for improvisation? I have to strongly disagree. Improvisation means that the student is not simply regurgitating sentences from a workbook – they are thinking on their feet and reacting to a situation in a way they feel is adequate, which is what we do every day, in communication with the world around us. You improvised when you for some reason chose to use obiter dicta instead of something more common.
    Besides, this is not abstract improvisation of the “Look, a fire truck! Vicious bears bring me joy!” variety. Improvisation is something as “small” as asking someone “How are your parents?” instead of the scripted “How is your mom?”.
    I never said that my grammar is perfect, but I don’t see much point in your looking for errors in it. I know what my level is and I know that the amount of mistakes I make is at the minimum – at a level of a native speaker, practically. Native speakers of any language make mistakes, or aren’t sure about a certain grammar rule. This doesn’t mean they don’t know their own language (of course, we can argue about that, but that’s another issue altogether)
    Alas, I must react to your correction 🙂 According to Oxford dictionary: “Some traditionalists maintain that none can only take a singular verb (as in none of them is coming tonight rather than none of them are coming tonight). However, none is descended from Old English nan meaning ‘not one’, and has been used for around a thousand years with either a singular or a plural verb, depending on the context and the emphasis needed.” Source: http://www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/none?view=uk
    I didn’t think about grammar when I typed none, as I’m not thinking about grammar when I’m typing or talking or thinking in Serbian. I simply typed what seemed natural to me. In any case, I wouldn’t be on the side of traditionalists, against a thousand years of tradition 🙂

    I agree with pretty much everything you said. The current classes give almost no room for curiosity, creativity and good ol’ fun, which I think can significantly improve the learning process. Well, that’s what I’m trying to prove here, among other things.

    In the past few months I’ve been thinking about the issue of knowing the culture of the language you’re learning, and I think it’s incredibly important, essential even, to truly knowing a language (I have a long post about that one, but it’ll have to wait a few days).
    How to motivate the “bosses”? 🙂 Not an easy question, as it depends on the situation, but I think a good step would be to approach them and show them that you are enthusiastic about learning and would like to try harder, if they are willing to push you in the right direction. If enough of you approach a professor, I think most of them, even the jaded ones, will try to motivate you and generally improve your learning experience in some way (though here in Serbia I’m not sure how much even that would help).
    However, I think motivation can only take you so far. If the teaching methods are not good (I’m not saying it’s the professors’ fault – the system is making them constantly use a method which brings terrible results), your progress will be very limited.

    @Atomski mrav
    The issue of (lack of) information is I think easily solved – give prior information, or make the students look for the information themselves (Simple English Wikipedia springs to mind). I wouldn’t throw them in a debate ring and tell them to quickly find the pros and cons of stem cell research 🙂
    Thanks for the idea for writing! I still haven’t given the whole writing issue much thought, so I’m not sure how to react to your idea. Give me a bit more time 🙂

    @Tae Kim
    Personally, I wouldn’t mind practicing with a beginner, as that’s a chance for me to practice my own language (and a good opportunity to find “pockets of ignorance”, which always exist in language learning). If I’m advanced enough to not need such practice, then I won’t be in a language class.
    “I think if your students are of sufficiently advanced level, this activity could work. But if they are at that level, the students will learn more with the standard reading/writing/discussion type of advanced class. “
    Even if this was true, and I don’t agree with it, the vast majority of people here don’t reach a sufficiently advanced level in a second language class, even a level of being comfortable with asking the directions to the restaurant etc. Though we haven’t defined what a sufficiently advanced level is, my first reaction was (and I see the same thing in your latter comment) that in that case they don’t need classes at all – they can surf the web, listen to music, watch movies, talk to native speakers and do other stuff on their own which they can now mostly understand and through which they can improve.
    You could say that this is what I’m trying to achieve – to create a class which equips the student with enough knowledge and skills to reach mastery of a language on his/her own.
    I should step back a bit and explain the situation here (in Serbia, not Siberia 😉
    – The language classes in primary and secondary schools (and often also in university) suck. As I’ve said in several places, after 10 years of learning a second language, without being exposed to it elsewhere (French/Russian/German, it’s a bit better with English, but only because of the inevitable exposure to it outside of class), people do not go past the I-know-several-basic-sentences tourist phrase.

    – I think that a class of 30 (an average number of students in primary and secondary schools here, and it can get even bigger at university) can, after 10 years of language education, achieve mastery or near-mastery in at least one foreign language.

    – Again, even if we had the resources to pair students with several native speakers, that still doesn’t solve the problem of the methods used in language classes across the country. I’ve seen English teachers in my high school who have complete fluency in English and a flawless grasp of grammar, vocab etc. but their students still didn’t progress anything better than with bad teachers.

    – The age group is first year students at the Philological Faculty, 18-19 year old. I think that after the said 10 years of language education, they will gladly accept to have fun and learn along the way.

    – The class will most likely be two 90 minute classes per week, as it is, in a way, being tested against the usual English-as-second-language class, which is also 180 min/week. This is an important part: I know that I can’t make a perfect class which will do miracles and I’m not trying to do that. This is not a full 4 year study curriculum of 20 hours of language study per week. I’m not touching that one with a 10 foot stick 🙂 At least not yet…
    What I basically want to prove with this class is that through a different, creative and fun method you can achieve a lot more than through the usual, grammar-oriented one (and I should say here, this doesn’t mean I will exclude grammar. I haven’t decided yet :). I wouldn’t say that it doesn’t matter how old you are, the methods will adapt depending on the age of the participants, but I’m certain that students here will not find these methods lame, childish etc.

    Currently I KNOW that the biggest part of language learning during primary and secondary schooling in Serbia is happening outside of the classes. The classes are not contributing in almost any way, if at all. I want to believe that you can have classes with a method which, paired with your out-of-class study (which you also learn how to do in the classes), will bring you to fluency in a language in a decent amount of time.

    Phew, I think that’s it. Oh yes, I’ve long ago stopped writing comments in the browser, as it will inevitably freeze/crash/mock me on purpose just when I’m about to post it, as it so often did, so trust me, I share your pain 🙂

  15. Looks the the browser submitted my first comment without me knowing about it somehow.

    One note about your comment about lack of progress despite a native English teacher. Yes, having a native teacher in no way guarantees a good teacher. (Just the opposite in many cases, in fact).

    The difference between a native conversation partner and teacher is like night and day because the former is 1:1 while the latter is 1:many. With the former, you are directly interacting with the person and have to work with the language to express your own thoughts. In the other, you can just sit there and just do what the teacher tells you to do. The former is 10x harder than the latter.

    Serbia right. Boy do I feel stupid. 🙂

  16. Also is English your native language? If not, how did you learn English?

  17. uchideshi Says:

    “Serbia right. Boy do I feel stupid. :)”

    Don’t worry ’bout it. You should see what happens when foreigners try to pronounce my name though 🙂 )

    “The difference between a native conversation partner and teacher is like night and day because the former is 1:1 while the latter is 1:many.”

    Exactly. I find it very difficult to imagine a 1:many class being as good as a 1:1 class (though I don’t want to say it’s impossible 😛 ). However, I think 1:many classes here can and NEED to be improved ASAP, and this workshop will test a new way of learning in a group (as I’ve said like every two sentences. 🙂 )

    As for my English, well, long story short, I was exposed to lots of it since my early childhood and I grew up with two (Serbian) friends with whom I watched Cartoon Network, played computer games etc. all in English. At one point we were talking in English more than in Serbian. We simply enjoyed doing it.

    The weird thing is, at the point we started formal English learning in school, we were already pretty much fluent, from all the TV and our own conversations.

    I’ll send you a post later today I’m preparing, with a bit more info about our spontaneous way of learning English (and complete failure to learn French). I think I’ll try to incorporate some of the things we did into this class and in my own current language learning, as I think the effects of my playful English learning are quite evident.

  18. Gassalasca Says:

    Another major reason why students in Serbia know hardly any German or French after 10 years of studying is lack of motivation. It’s hard to belive, but every single highschool student in Serbia is FORCED to study one foreign language apart from English. The Majority of them have absolutely no desire to know French, German or Russian. Why would they?
    On the other hand no one would refuse studying English even if they could. Why would they? English is cool. It’s the language of John Rambo/John McLane/Edmund Blackadder/Homer Simpson/Carrie Bradshaw/[insert the favourite hero of your misspent youth]. And that’s why culture is not a tool, it’s THE tool when speaking of foreign language acquistion. That’s why your average Joe Serbian has at least some knowledge of English, which can’t be said of any other foerign language.
    But I guess Relja already wrote about culture immersion and it looks like the nex post will be about that as well, so I’ll just shut my yaphole and stay tuned. 😀

  19. […] Sage from rage a blog on languages, education, life and Saber Rider « A different kind of language learning classroom […]

  20. I will avoid replying to ALL the posts as I am short on time, but I would like to point out several FACTS that relate to this topic, and that support Relja’s (Uchideshi’s) methods

    1) It’s a fact that most people, after 10 years of study (!!!), have not learned the language – they are not only “not fluent” with it, but they can barely piece together a couple of sentences. In my case, I can read French due to my talent to mimic sounds well – but I have NO IDEA what I am reading.
    Milos does not count as an exception because he put outside effort into learning the language – and he belongs to a almost non-existent group of people who did learn a language after their 10 year grade school programme.

    2) The single, MOST effective method of learining a language, to the best of my knowledge, is immersion. If the student surrounds himself with the language – with media in the chosen langage, people, etc – he is going to be forced to learn it after a while. If he is actively avoiding study, the progress will be slow and cumbersome.

    This was the case with me – I’ve lived in Holland for 2 years. After this period, I was able to read the language, and was also able to understand limited, very basic conversation and words (For example,read most newspaper headlines) – but not speak it, or write proper sentences.

    While it is true that Holland is not the most ideal country when it comes to learning by immersion – the fact most Dutch people actively speak English, and that they don’t overdub their media, being the cause – this is by no means an excuse.

    As soon as I put actual effort into expanding my vocabulary and learning basic grammar, my knowledge increased rapidly – like unlocking some sort of knowledge box.

    Therefore, grammar can be a catalyst to knowledge gained, a trigger – but not the single source. It is much better to have knowledge in speaking and understanding the language but almost no knowledge in grammar – than vice versa. Matter of fact, the next point speaks of this more directly

    3) I learned English exclusively through immersion. I am a native level English speaker, able to comprehend almost all written and spoken English language on a high level. I am also ignorant of the most basic of English grammar. What does this mean? I could live in London or some other English speaking country, a lingual equal to people who live there, but I could not pass a grade school grammar exam (one that asks direct grammatical questions, not the “fill in the word here” ones)

    So I can quote Shakespeare, but have no idea what the Present Perfect is.

    What does this confirm? Grammatical knowledge is not critical to knowing a language. It is extremely useful, and very important if one is to deal with teaching the language – but it is not essential to learning a language.

    One could argue that I am a special case, unique and rare. This, however, is not the case.

    My younger brother has learned his English, witch is almost equal to mine, exclusively through immersion. After I’ve learned my english through watching TV and reading english books, I’ve noticed my brother’s english sklills improove as well (through the magic of Cartoon Netwoork 🙂 )

    I decided to try introducing him to his first english book, and found one that had a relatively easy style – something he could read without eye bleeding effort.

    It did take him a while, and he did stop every 20 pages or so to ask me what a word means – but he finished it, and went on to read much, much more. With the newfound power of internet translation, some future reader, like he was, wont even need an older brother to ask for words. He can use the net.

    Its also perhaps important to point out that my brother also knows hardly anything when it comes to grammar.

    To conclude: I believe immersion is the best way to learn a language. In a worst case scenario, you are certain to (after a year or so) at least learn to pronounce and read properly – this is if you put almost no effort into your learning process. If you do, in more than half the time our petty grade schools try to learn us a language, you should be able to speak it, read and write it fluently.

    PS: If any, or all of this, has been written before in this exact form or simmilar – I apologise. I did not have the time to read ALL the posts

  21. Hi there!

    Role playing, as teaching tool, has been part of my english learning life since I started attending english lessons (age 9 if my memory is still working ;)) I found it always entertaining and very educational if done properly. This lessons should be in classrooms with 10 students or less.

    The points brought in by Relja in this post are really interesting, keeping in mind that it is theory. From my point of view, it is too idealistic to be applied that way.

    Back to the real world of shy and unmotivated students, I see some issues to be considered in the introduction of such routines into a classroom:

    -I would suggest a ladder approach, in order to climb step by step, before getting to the top too fast.

    1)providing vocabulary(introducing also some different words for each pair to avoid boredom) and the common grammar basis
    2)working in pairs writing the scripts
    3)role play in pairs (without scripts)
    4)suggestions,critics and comments from teacher and other students, also a voting system, where students decide who of them did the better work could be fine.

    I believe that this approach provides the students with confidence. They should play the role without the script, so they can work out their improvisational techniques and their vocabulary memory, etc.



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