Education and Language Learning

Language learning, especially for working and middle-class Asians in learning English, would not be half as hard if we were to remove the seeds that causes affective barriers to learning. I stand to be accused of oversimplifying the ideas I am about to present here but I believe the beauty of blogging is to not have to write such complicated and careful things that it goes over the heads of a majority of people we hope to reach.

Things that kill 90% of learning even before it starts :

Seed 1 : Learning is going to be dull and hard, it is a lot of sweat and hard work.

Seed 2 : We need to learn English to secure a better future (education, job).

Seed 3 : Making mistakes is humiliating.

Seed 4 : We learn language by memorizing atoms.

Seed 5 : School English represents English as a language.

I’ll start with the last point working up. If the goal of learning English is to achieve near-native fluency, the first thing students need to throw out is the entire premise the learning of English has been set out for them. The effectiveness of language learning is not in the testing but in how they can apply what they’ve acquired in ways that enhances the learner’s ability to experience life interacting in that language. If a learner gets an A for an exam but feels the whole process and effort of learning English stressful and is ashamed to use it, then the learner has failed. If a learner never gets his answers right but gets excited at the prospect of immersing and engaging himself with content in the target language, then that’s more like it.

I don’t know how we can go on trying to teach English as a Second Language without separating the idea of schooling from the idea of learning.  Unless a learner is enrolled in a school where higher order thinking and communication forms the environment there, he will associate the piecemeal exercises done at school with the actual learning of a target language.

By starting with my last point, I’ve covered all the other points which, independently, is a major impediment to language learning while put together, a guarantee that the only person who enrolled in an Asian school who mastered English did so in spite of his schooling.

Things that help language learning :

1. A reading habit and a cognitive bank of knowledge transferable to the target language.

2. Self-directed learner. Burning desire, clarity of purpose, emotional stability, healthy self-esteem, self-awareness, driven, confident.

3. Opportunities to enjoy cultural immersion, interaction, exchange / collaboration with the target culture.

4.  A focus on Higher needs versus lower needs. (Maslow’s Hierarchy).

5. A genuine and highly personal desire to take-on a sub-identity of the target culture.

All that other stuff about speed reading, academic English, public speaking(or pronunciation), spelling, …even grammar, is chicken-feed once you have the right 5 things. But learners come with all the 5 they shouldn’t and without the 5 they ought to.

Can the ESL industry continue to create levels of certifications, write textbooks, hold conferences, set up centers and together spin a multibillion-dollar industry worldwide if we know deep down that direct instruction will almost always account for only less than 5% of results?

My hope is that by 2012. those involved in the business of helping people learn and manage their learning will come together and say, look – learning isn’t piecemeal, it’s whole, it has to be cohesive, it has to be integrative and meaningful. And when we do that, we will unanimously vote that there will no longer be school reforms but rather an instantaneous reform of Learning in the 21st Century.


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