Por Cecilia Paula Sassone
The problem (traducción en curso)
People learn languages. They have learnt second languages for thousands of years. They have learnt them in every way, in any way, in the best and worst ways. But they have learnt or rather, many have learnt. There have been a myriad of methods subscribed to by academia, each one aiming at teaching people better. The second half of the 20th century has seen an explosion of language teaching methods and approaches – the Communicative Approach, Suggestopedia, Task-based Language Learning and the Natural Approach to name a few – following the Grammar Translation Method used from the 17th to early 20th centuries – each seeking to improve on the previous ones by adding or resetting paradigms. There was a shift from teaching about the language to teaching in the target language. In most cases, these new ELT methods and approaches were grounded on the extraordinary ability of children to learn their mother tongue. However, these notions rippled far beyond children’s ponds into adults’ lakes; the belief that what is natural for a child ought to be so as well for an adult has pervaded English and probably other language lessons and curricula for centuries, thus denying the no less extraordinary potential and capacities of adults to learn a second language.
Adults were told to “think in English” and “not to translate” even though thinking in the target language is the ultimate goal of a language learning process and resorting to a communication code already in competent use is an unconscious act of a mind that is not a tabula rasa or “blank slate”. Thinking in a first or second language cannot be decided upon consciously – it just happens. The behavioristic notion that people are tabula rasas needing to be filled has received more than one slap and punch from the learned community. But in the midst of this naturalness and respect for each age group and individual, adults have been practically banned from naturally resorting to what I call their “tabula plenum” or “full slate” mind, preset with their first language. They have been deprived of the possibility of using what they know the way they can or please to learn a language, to compare and contrast, to reach conclusions and draw hypotheses and what is worse, they have been condemned for it. They have been told their natural ways are not natural.
Children’s language learning capabilities have been heightened, praised and worshipped to such an extent that if an adult learner has not learnt a second language as a child, they are likely to feel they are approaching a Quixotian task fighting windmills with a plastic spoon while kids can boast of their long sharp metal spears. If the adult learner has not learnt as a child, they face the challenge of learning as an adult.
As a result of this massive wave, uncountable people have actually succeeded in learning a second or third language, but those who have felt frustrated at their “incapacity to learn like a child” have helped balloon drop-out rates voting with their feet, i.e. walking out of a program before its completion.
There has to be a didactic alternative to address this issue. Adults need to learn languages in ways that are natural to them, and they need to do so fast. In typical EFL contexts, learners do not have enough possibilities of sustained exposure to L2 in order to frame and inductively validate hypotheses about the workings of the L2. And the solution for learning fast cannot just be turning a whole 100-hour yearly course into a 100-hour monthly course. It is not a cramming issue. Many teachers, at least in Argentina, have from two to three hours of class per week with learners whose work and life responsibilities allow them to do little homework, or none at all. The situation necessarily calls for thinking differently, for re-thinking some parameters deeply ingrained in the soul of language teaching and learning so as to come up with a more viable and effective alternative for this particular population. This entails starting anew, afresh and unrestrained.
It is said that asking the right question already renders half of the solution. The right question has to be then: what is the most natural, fastest and simplest way for an adult to learn a second language? And further, what is the simplest way of presenting the second language to adults? What are the salient characteristics of the new communication system? These have been the generative questions that spearheaded my research 22 years ago and today, the “Spiderweb Method®” is seeing the light in an attempt to provide an answer.
It has meant seeing the problem from the perspective of the chronic dropout adult learner and empathizing with them. It means above all, reflecting on our practice and keeping an open mind to less academically backed-up alternatives that can complement current language teaching methods and approaches. There is no single way of learning – only different degrees of acceptance to certain paradigms.
The Spiderweb Method (SWM) was born out of questioning some of these paradigms and as a result of an apparent vacuum in the methodologies for teaching languages to adults. It has been developed for teachers by a teacher focusing on what the adult learner needs rather than on how they should learn. It has taken over two decades of research, a considerable amount of observation, trial and error, reflection and of course, countless adjustments. It necessarily complements other methods and… fills the vacuum.
It conceives the language as a comprehensible simple system and helps teachers transmit it this way. It accelerates learning envisaging what is most natural to the adult and young adult learner.
How does it work? The SWM breaks down the grammatical sequence into components and subcomponents and binds the endless line of grammatical structures organized according to alleged degrees of complexity into a spiderweb, to then define what is core and what is periphery for communication. It presents key sets of formulas corresponding to seven communication categories deductively in the students’ L1 at the beginning of the process, crossing levels, resorting to specific explanations and procedures and bending rules if necessary in order to simplify what can be simplified.
As said, the SWM resorts to L1 to a high degree in the early stages of the process, mostly to explain the system and provide students with appropriate communication tools. The concept that our mother tongue mostly interferes with language learning has led to the ingrained belief, ever since the early 20th century, that L2 should be taught in L2. Different methods and approaches have posited varying shades of this belief, allowing perhaps sparingly for translation, but never actually rooting the learning of the core language system (called “language matrix” in the SWM) on the leaners’ L1, already used so effectively for communication both to inform and persuade. Denying the use of L1 inevitably frustrates adult learners, since their use of this communication code is unconscious and cannot consciously be shut off.
Further and most importantly, the SWM encourages throwing learners in at the deep end of the pool right away, getting them involved in communication tasks involving the use of new tools.
This spiderweb approach allows adult learners to get an overview of the language at the offset, an idea of where they are standing at each step of the way and a notion of the dimensions of the task at hand, reducing their levels of anxiety and frustration and boosting their motivation and self-concept as language learners.
Textbooks still provide valuable hands-on material for the ESL class; however, after language teaching is undertaken as a spiderweb, grammar explanations in textbooks – mostly approached by means of explanation in L2 because of the multiple L1 populations they are targeted at – end up being redundant and unnecessary, allowing the teacher to skip many of them. Textbook activities and practice exercises keep on serving as useful ways of drilling the language piecemeal and engaging students in meaningful interaction. Task-based activities and transfers to the learners’ lives are relevant high pay-off endeavors teachers need to embrace. In the short run, with the SWM, simplified teacher talk is practically non-existent and students can be exposed to authentic material more readily.
Some may argue there have been many successes in the history of ELT, or otherwise learning would not have taken place. True. But while we indulge in our victories, we know there are covert cases of failure left stranded along the way, spoiling our track record – if only there were valid statistics depicting this success-failure ratio! So in analyzing these cases of defeat, we ask ourselves: is it the failure of the method or approach? Of the eclectic choices made by the teacher? Of the students themselves? All these queries empower us, make us challenge paradigms and search for new tools and new ways. Regardless of the route we take, it is worth noting nothing much could be accomplished if the student were all to blame.
An open-minded analysis of the current situation will surely take us to a growth stage where we accept breaking with the old, with the status quo, thanking it for its contributions but moving forward to create the new. The proposal of novel ways of teaching and learning will necessarily keep on taking ELT practice along its path of evolution. Ultimately, and even if the new ways are accepted and used far and wide bringing light to dark or shadowy spots, it will be necessary, once we have delighted in our successes, to poke the new paradigm once again to see how long it survives.
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Pibrue «Pechan Alfonz eszperató nyelvet tanít 1973 körül» de Pechan Cecília szkennelte – Pechan Cecília tulajdona. Available under licence CC BY-SA 3.0 vía Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pechan_Alfonz_eszperat%C3%B3_nyelvet_tan%C3%ADt_1973_k%C3%B6r%C3%BCl.jpg#/media/File:Pechan_Alfonz_eszperat%C3%B3_nyelvet_tan%C3%ADt_1973_k%C3%B6r%C3%BCl.jpg