Stephen Reilly, France
Stephen Reilly is employed at the British Council Paris. An adept at collecting diplomas, he was belatedly tossed a CELTA after his fellow trainees dropped out and then was charitably handed an MA in Translation of Literature after presenting a subject so obscure the jury had no idea what he was talking about. He's now wondering how to get a Ph.D. E-mail: email@example.com
In this article he asks whether foreign-language teachers make exemplary foreign-language learners and, after a crash course in Mandarin, concludes that there is at least one of them who isn't.
After yet another lesson spent droning at my multilingual students on the importance of efficient strategies in language learning, it occurred to me that they already possessed more than I did. So I decided to heed my own pedagogical council and, after reading a laudatory review of the Michel Thomas© language-learning methods, opted for Chinese Mandarin, which promised 'painless learning' and 'conversational Mandarin in a matter of hours'.
This audio method, accompanied by a vocabulary pamphlet, focuses uniquely on speaking and consists of a recorded lesson in which a teacher teaches two students with no prior knowledge of Chinese. The learner is introduced to and asked to repeat simple vocabulary, then to translate into Mandarin increasingly complex English sentences. Memorising, recalling and pronouncing the phonemes, which bear no resemblance to those of any European language, are undoubtedly the biggest challenge for any beginner. Words are therefore presented with a mnemonic (usually an auditive link word) to facilitate vocabulary retention. Thus, the Mandarin word for friend (péngyou), sounds like penguin, thus giving us the image of two penguin friends, whilst teacher (lǎoshī) sounds like lousy, which gives us the image of a lousy teacher.
'Painless' as these tasks might be on the average student. However, the feeling of a vocabulary-satiated brain on this learner was not without discomfort. Indeed, I spent more time taking breaks than being ‘in class’ as intense mental effort is required to memorise these strange sounds and then retrieve and pronounce them before your interlocutor dies of boredom. As for speaking conversational Chinese 'in a matter of hours', pride prevents me from revealing how long the construction of some sentences took, but suffice to say that all units of time can be expressed in hours, including months and years.
Particularly challenging was learning numbers, and then using them in an information-exchanging situation. The word order, particularly of complements and particles differs from that of English and making a sentence as simple as, say, telling the time, often took so long that once all the words and numbers were in place, it was time to start again.
Of course, the only means of claiming I spoke any Chinese at all was to try it out in situ. My Mandarin-speaking students were surprisingly reluctant to engage with me at all. On witnessing the efforts made and time taken to construct a simple sentence, they made excuses in English and then left, presumably because either their meta-Zen patience was quickly stretched to breaking point, or they just didn't understand me. Then I suggested to my Mandarin-speaking boss that we go to a Chinese restaurant together to practice. To my surprise she gave a blank distant stare before I realised I had mixed up cānguǎn (restaurant) and fàndiàn (hotel). Once we did get to the restaurant, I succeeded in ordering and being served food by a forbearing waitress, although you might ask what else she was supposed to serve me.
Has this learning experience had any affect on my teaching? One result is a new awareness of the importance of revision, of teaching useful material and of encouraging students to integrate newly learned words into their active vocabulary that they become more readily accessible. Another is a rethinking of the sempiternal question of the teacher's role in language acquisition. 'There are no bad students,' says Michel Thomas, somewhat polemically, 'only bad teachers', thus taking entire responsibility for his students' learning. This does upset my own long-standing teaching philosophy of double-bind whereby I attribute any student successes to my fabulous teaching and all failures to their laziness. If nothing else, I've at least stopped shouting at those students who still can't tell the time.
Jonathan Solity, The Learning Revolution, Hodder Education, 2008
Michel Thomas, Mandarin Chinese, Hodder Arnold, 2007