Language Learners or Language Speakers?

As a teacher it has always been natural for me to see my students as learners. They are, after all, learning the language, and while post-methodological teaching has dethroned the all-knowing teacher and given power to the student, I am still a very necessary provider of knowledge and guidance.

But is this enough? An article I read in the Guardian today by Daisy Buchanan reminded me of an idea that’s been playing on my mind recently: Why do we treat our students as language learners, and what would happen if we relabeled them as language speakers?

The article is about redefining the age of entry into adulthood in the UK, and Buchanan expresses her dismay at how modern science is positioning itself to class under-25s as pre-adult. Alongside this she describes how rising student debt, unemployment and graduates living with their parents is leading society to view young adults in the same way. We no longer become adults at 18, Buchanan explains, but at 25!

We see this in the way parents tend to treat their children when they return from university without a graduate job. We forget that these young adults have survived as just that – adults – for at least three years. They have solidified their beliefs and character, and have mostly shaken off the emotional turbulence of teenagehood. But we treat them the same as before they left, despite the many ways they have matured and grown into adults. And why? Because they haven’t been able to get into the “real world” of work yet.

These parents were supported by a strong economy, free university tuition and lots of government help finding jobs. They had relatively easy access to the real “adult” world, but now that these are harder to come by it’s no wonder that young adults don’t have work – but this doesn’t make them any less adult. Buchanan insists that this redefinition is unfair, and we shouldn’t treat young adults as children. Doing so will only hamper their attempts to enter into the new definition of adulthood.

Now let’s see how this relates to language learners by looking at the example of the much-bashed Korean public school textbooks (only because I am most familiar with them).

We begin English classes in grade 3 with very basic vocab and grammar, but no reading. By grade 6 students are allowed to read basic sentences, but the vocab is basically the same as previous years with some minor grammar extensions. Upon entering middle school students are magically expected to read and write, and the grammar and vocab are unnervingly similar to before. The content is more complicated, but the cognitive difficulty is just about the same: use the target language in a set way.

Isn’t this strikingly similar to how Buchanan describes young adults in the UK? Instead of treating students the way their age (and cognitive ability) requires, the public school textbooks in Korea get them to jump through ever higher grammatical loops using the same basic vocabulary. Why do we assume that grade 3 students can’t read and write when they are already so proficient at it in Korean? Why do we give middle school students question and answer dialogues when they are learning about complicated History and Science in their Korean language classes? Why don’t we treat young adults as such just because they haven’t been able to find work (albeit due to circumstances beyond their control)?

I’m not just trying to bash the already much-derided public school English system. Rather, this is a symptom of a lot of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). CLT is great in that it tries to get language learners actually using the language in realistic situations, but it often falls in that it requires competence before performance. Students are expected to practice in a classroom using realistic situations and language before going out into the big, bad, unruly world. Class is a rehearsal before the play begins.

“They just aren’t ready for more” teachers say. “Language learners need to learn the language first, then they will be able to perform in the real world.” But how many students perform well in the real world after these classes? The vast majority of students who go through the Korean school system have very little English proficiency. Those who succeed do so despite the system, and have taught themselves, or have been lucky enough to attend private classes. In fact, the real success stories, I would suggest, have had access to English language communities in which they have had to use the language. We can see this in so many students who have been to stay in an English speaking country for even 6 months. School can provide this kind of language community, but, as described above, it doesn’t often happen.

File:You Can't Do Business with Hitler rehearsal.jpg

Rehearsals are only useful if there is going to be a performance.

The play never begins for too many students, just as “adult life” isn’t beginning for young adults in the UK. Too many don’t have a job, and they aren’t treated as adults because their parents don’t see them as ready for it yet. English teachers don’t see their students as ready for more complicated language; they keep making errors in basic grammar, how could they possibly deal with something more complicated?

Unfortunately we can’t magically provide young adults in the UK with jobs and responsibility. They are forced into the situation they are in because of economic, social and political reasons. That doesn’t mean we can’t treat them as adults, but we can’t do much more to help in the meantime. If I had the answers to the socioeconomic problems in Europe I would be a very busy (and soon to be very well off) man, indeed.

Thankfully, we can do more for our students. Why can’t we teach our students what they are learning in their Korean language classes, but in English? If they are learning about modern poverty in the Social Sciences class, why not do the same in English class? Why can’t we teach World History in English?

And this isn’t simply support for a content-based teaching method. That would still imply target structures and controlled language. We need messy, organic and real real language use. It means, for example, accepting that students will need to use their native language, at least initially, to support their language learning. They are very capable of dealing with cognitively demanding tasks in Korean, and this will help them do the same thing in English. We can’t afford to practice and practice basic English with little cognitive demand until our students are competent, and then expect them to perform. The performance never comes. Students are never deemed competent enough.

Instead, to suggest a crude metaphor, if we throw them onto the stage, they will have to perform. They won’t do it competently at first, but the competence follows. They’re going to need a lot of help to get there, certainly, but this doesn’t come from target structures or remedial lessons, but from on-the-spot targeted teacher help (often referred to as scaffolding).

It can sound like a cop-out, but if we throw students in the deep end they will have to learn how to swim.

We just need start treating them as English speakers, not English learners.

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