Increasingly, the importance of English by speakers of other languages is well understood and supported in school curriculums. In many countries, children begin to study English at about age eight in the traditional education system. Mandatory testing at various stages towards the end of high school (sixth form) includes tests in English comprehension and composition. Securing a place to study anything, let alone science, technology or medicine, at the university level is quite difficult without adequate English proficiency. This system underscores the importance placed on English. Ironically, teaching ESL language (or any second language) in this kind of classroom situation is doomed to failure.
Here’s why there are problems with traditional teaching methods:
Students are expected to master all aspects of a language simultaneously. Rather than first absorb the sounds of a language, the way a baby soaks up its mother tongue, a ten-year-old child was expected to hear sounds, look at symbols (letters) that may be from an entirely different alphabet, learn abstract rules of grammar that are counterintuitive and confusing, and somehow juggle these distinct brain activities all at once. Listening, comprehension, reading, writing and oral reproduction of these new and alien sounds are all different skills.
It is important for children to first tune their ear to the language (by hearing it), then speak, and only then read and write. This is the natural progression of things in the mother tongue. This should be the order of learning in the second, third or fourth language.
ESL students do not get enough individual speaking time. Learning to speak a language involves a sophisticated and subtle interplay of vocalising and hearing. We hear ourselves and adjust our efforts dynamically. In most classroom situations, students are asked to repeat or recite in groups — making it difficult for the ESL teacher to hear an individual student’s voice, but even more damaging, making it very difficult for the student to hear his or her own voice. One-on-one speaking time is extremely limited. It is quite common that a small handful of ‘star’ students end up dominating whatever individual speaking time is available. The shy and unsure students fade into the background and may go through years of classes without having the opportunity of hearing themselves speak English, not receiving the proper background for speaking English fluently.
Students do not receive enough direct feedback. In a typical ESL classroom with 30 to 40 students, teachers don’t have time to work one-on-one; students are expected to repeat things in groups, allowing the more verbally timid to feign participation. Even in wealthier school systems with advanced language labs and multimedia training, students may work without an ESL teacher directly monitoring their progress.
Pronunciation suffers. The shortage of native speakers in the traditional education system often means that the teacher’s example upon which students must model their efforts is flawed to begin with. In many countries, English may be taught by teachers who are not themselves mother-tongue English speakers. Their heavily accented English does nothing to help students master correct pronunciation.
Inhibition leads to failure. More than any other subject, older students are more likely to be shy, or even fearful, of trying to speak in a language classroom. As written tests emphasize reading comprehension and writing ability, school systems throughout the world churn out graduates who can read English at a high school level (or better), but are not able to ask for directions or order in a restaurant.
Performance anxiety is not unique to language classes, but it is more visibly apparent there than in any other single subject. Repeated failure to wrap one’s tongue around a tricky, foreign sound, or to dredge up the vocabulary with the correct syntax, causes many students to develop an aversion to language classes.
Traditional education models focus on correction. Western education places a heavy emphasis on rote memorisation. A student’s success is often dependent on the ability to regurgitate facts. Feedback is generally limited to correction; that is, pointing out what is wrong in homework or on a test. With the emphasis on finding mistakes, language students (already suffering from performance anxiety) are conditioned to fear correction every time they open their mouths.
These six reasons all combine to work against the acquisition of successful, fluent language skills. The proof is in the pudding. Mediocre English test scores in many countries underscore the fundamental failure of this traditional education method for teaching second languages.