Dictionaries and Defeatism.
It was a weird day in school today. My alarm went off at 6.30. It was painful. It feels like there has been no weekend at all, even though I had 3 days of it. The Easter holidays are next week and I can’t say I’m not looking forward to not having school for 2 weeks. I got to school at 8.10. At 8.25 (a little late) I went upstairs to my first lesson. The door was locked though and having struggled to open the door (why ALWAYS that one?!) I found noone to be inside. I headed to the cancellations board, waited for it to roll around to Tuesday again and found nothing. Where the hell was my class?! Ramona was not in her office and I figured she would text me if she really needed me so I headed back to my office to do some marking.
I sat down to some incredibly frustrating essays. Learning a language is hard. I know that as well as anyone. However, I would like to think that I don’t make blatent, inexcusable mistakes all the time. These kids are allowed dictionaries in the exams! Not just English ones, but English-Deutsch! Personally, having not been allowed a dictionary in any language exam in my life, I find it completely ridiculous. I can’t take their dictionaries away from them, but I can expect that stupid mistakes would be omitted, given the presence of such a tool on their desk. Littered throughout the papers were mistakes like “activitys”, “peoples” and even “jung” meaning young, for heaven’s sake. I mean, that is just downright laziness. Over and over again, I mention these same sorts of errors. It made me angry actually. I was sitting there, in my spare time, wasting my time correcting utterly stupid mistakes. We all make them. I know I do. But it was the ubiquity of errors that astounded me. Every paper was the same. I could excuse the guy who kept talking about ‘fishes’, mainly because he made fish relevant to an essay on juvenile delinquency but even so, he could have looked it up.
I think that this reliance on dictionaries in language learning is very negative. I know that if I sit and read something in German with a dictionary next to me, there is a temptation to look up every word I don’t know. Quickly, all you see are the words you don’t understand. You loose the context of the piece and are suddenly unable to detect inferred meaning and cannot understand anything at all. If I was just given the text and asked to read it and then give a summary in English, I would probably be able to do it without thinking about it.
I realise that I am in a Berufschule and things may be different in other schools. However, I think that the idea that we are terrible at languages is utterly unfair. When I asked one of my classes to write me an essay, I wasn’t sure what the word limit should be. When I asked Ramona, I was dismayed at her answer.
“120 words?! Really?!” This is just what they were used to writing. Asking them to do more would have caused uproar and frankly, would have been unproductive. They had over an hour and they had dictionaries. 120 words. Really?
GCSEs are not hard by any stretch. At age 16, you are left with no level of fluency and it is a qualification which can be achieved in a few years, starting from scratch (I did my Japanese one in only 3 years and was very satisfied with my mark). However, it does require you to write a lot more than 120 words in the written paper. That was never something that scared us, we knew we had to do it. What we wrote wasn’t complicated though.
Maybe that is just the problem here. In an effort to teach language too quickly, some of the details get lost in between. We were writing a lot at 16 and feeling confident about it, even though we didn’t really know that much. That’s because we learnt in topics and within those topics, we knew what we were doing. That was not going to make us fluent, but you have to start somewhere.
Topic learning, as I understand it, is also how they do it here but having started younger and learnt more intensively, by the time they reach the age of my students, they are taught in such a way which demands fluency across all areas, not from particular topics. I am sure my experiences would have been different in a Gymnasium (grammar school) but working towards a qualification which demands this level of understanding can be really difficult with pupils in a Berufschule. Lots of my students have taken a break from learning and haven’t used English in a long time. Some have always struggled and just really want to get some more tuition. Others (and this is most of some classes) are there to learn something practical and have no interest in or motivation to learn English. Why should they care whether they should use ‘there’, ‘their’ or ‘they’re’?
The British are not the best in the world at learning languages. Admittedly, when you can go to a country and speak English, it is often hard to think about speaking the local language. With less language graduates going through university in the generation before me, I realise that it is not always easy to find good language teachers for schools. Many schools, when the law changed and they were no longer obliged to offer them, decided against languages and got rid of the option altogether. Language learning in the UK is not without it’s faults.
We are not without our good points though and whilst I wish that more students in the UK decided to persue languages (the benefits, even just cognitively, are endless), I am proud of the fact that those who do decide to do languages, do it very well. I have studied 4 languages in my life and am keen to add a Scandanavian one to that list. I attend university with many talented people who after applying to study a language, changed their mind and decided to study two instead. There are so many opportunities out there. Evening classes, do-it-yourself books, blogs, online tutoring, tandem partnerships. Language learning really is open to everyone and the satisfaction and security you get from getting about in a language other than your own is indescribable. It really is never too late so get learning now!