Monday, January 3, 2011

How to make language teaching in the U.S. dramatically more effective

by Philip Yaffe

I graduated with a bad taste in my mouth for German or any other language. The proof that the time spent in the class was largely wasted occurred about a year later when I was confronted with a German. I could still say “Guten Morgan” (good morning), but that was about all. To communicate, we resorted to grunts, groans, and sign language.

I have since become fluent in two languages and have a working knowledge of three others. So what changed? Two things;

1. I got over my ingrained distaste for language learning.

2. I discovered a much more efficient way of going about it than what I had been subjected to as an adolescent.

I would therefore like to make a modest proposal: Language teaching in the United States should be completely overhauled. In particular, in the early stages the virtually unattainable objective of learning to speak a language should be scrapped.

Clearly, if students never have any opportunity to speak the language outside the classroom, then the chances of their learning to do so become infinitely slim. On the other hand, the same time and effort could be profitably turned to learning to reading and understand it.


Philip Yaffe is a former writer with The Wall Street Journal and international marketing communication consultant. Now semi-retired, he teaches courses in persuasive communication in Brussels, Belgium. Because his clients use English as a second or third language, his approach to writing and public speaking is somewhat different from other communication coaches. He is the author of In the “I” of the Storm: the Simple Secrets of Writing & Speaking (Almost) like a Professional.

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