Clive first came to languages by learning their grammar. Years later he told his own students: “You have to have grammar. Without grammar, language is just a jelly that collapses without meaning.” Yet seven years on, in real life, he couldn’t even order a cheese sandwich.
His first students were subject to a sort of programing. It was a bit more than a drill but only just. It got them saying things. A few.
Then came Communicative Language Learning. “It doesn’t matter how elegant the language is, the communication is the main thing.” His students managed to get cheese sandwiches, fries and many other delights when they’d been learning for less than two years.
But it still wasn’t enough for the advisors and inspectors. “It lacks fluency. It lacks accuracy. We need more Target Language.”
Are we going back to the Direct Method? thought Clive. He remembered warning anecdotes form his tutor of the enthusiastic teacher of French who rushed into the classroom at the last minute every time crying “Bonjour, la classe.” The class thought he was apologising for being late. But Clive also remembered his frequent visits to schools where foreign children learnt English and there was a sort of expectation that whole lessons would be conducted entirely in the “Target Language”. Why wouldn’t they be?
The Powers that Be thought languages should include creativity, but they couldn’t work out what that really meant so they took it out of the curriculum again. Clive thought it was when one of his students sighed and said “Je déteste le professeur.” He had just explained, very carefully, in the target language, what the objectives were for today’s lesson. Or it might be when his students, just two weeks into their course, managed to write acrostic poems in German or before the end of the first year his students of Spanish managed to produce some fabulous haiku based on colour. And naturally, there was that young man who did brilliantly in his oral, event though he didn’t deserve to, the lazy sod, because the night before he’d been chatting up the French girls, on exchange with a neighbouring school.
Then there was Computer Assisted Language Learning. That’s started off crudely and got better when the language experts told the computer experts what they really, really wanted. And the Internet anyway, provided authentic experience and contact with native speakers, not to mention opportunities for tandem learning.
One day a very good German student of English said: “But we learnt the grammar very quickly. It’s the best way to learn a language. It gives you the power to build it up.” He thought she had a point and that what goes around comes around.
They were all right and they were all wrong, after all.
Motivation, he decided, was the key. Give them a reason to want to learn. They’ll find their own way. Help them to make friends. That’s what he did. He himself gained a lot of friends from different countries and helped others to do the same. He read and spoke fluently in three other languages, could manage a fourth and didn’t get anywhere with a fifth. Too old, he concluded. Palate’s set. New dogs and old tricks etc.What he read taught him empathy and by the time he retired he didn’t really know who he we anymore because he could understand so many points of view. Except, in the end, he decided, that after all, he quite liked a cosy afternoon in on a rainy day in the UK, with his books for company. Even if most of them weren’t in English.