I don't think there are any 'easy' languages - learn it as a baby and it's fine, otherwise every language is a steep uphill challenge. In my previous blog, I argued that a language teacher greatly benefits from learning a language, in that it keeps you 'tuned in' to the problems and frustrations students have as they tackle learning English. This time, I thought I'd share an example from my experience as a teacher.
Before story-time, some pertinent pedagogical background. When teaching vocabulary, we traditionally group words that can be taught together into 'lexical sets'. These lexical sets are groups of words that are meaningfully related to each other, and therefore belong together in the same lesson. So, for example, if we are teaching a lesson on cooking, our lexical set may include verbs like 'steam', 'roast' and 'fry'.
Lexical sets are the backbone of most coursebooks, which sometimes box them up neatly at the head of each unit. As a teacher, I also used lexical sets in my vocabulary lessons: if I taught adjectives, I'd teach them in opposite groups: old/young, hot/cold, and if I taught nouns, I wouldn't dream of teaching 'orange' without also having 'banana'. How else could it be done?!
An experience with Chinese
Once, when I was living in Singapore, I decided to try my hand at Mandarin. I registered, paid, and bought the book. Committed and ready to go. I consider myself to be fairly intelligent, and have managed to master a number of subjects over my school and university career. Chinese, I told myself, would be fun, and useful too! Millions speak it, some of them small children. How hard could it be?
There were 8 in the class, of which 2 were 'ang mo' (the Chinese racial epithet for white people): all the rest where Chinese.
This was interesting - why were Chinese people studying Chinese? The class hadn't even started and I was bewildered. Our teacher was a petite Taiwanese woman. She was really sweet, very kind, and she knew almost no English.
Right from the outset things didn't go well. She walked into the room and started speaking (kindly and gently, of course) in rapid Chinese, which everyone except me seemed to follow. They were smiling and nodding, even answering her with what seemed to be remarkable eloquence. Was this a beginner's class?
I gravitated over to sit next to the American, and he did a valiant job of helping me, but it quickly became clear I was just getting in his way. In fact, I was holding everyone back - I was 'that' student. I could imagine the teacher sighing (gently and kindly) with exasperation when she thought about how completely thick I am.
In the third lesson, things became dire. The topic of the day was household appliances, and the teacher had taken it upon herself to teach every possible household appliance ever. We had a page packed with beautifully drawn television sets, radios and dishwashers, each accompanied by its associated string of Chinese idiograms. The first on the page was a camera. I never even learned that one. It was a disaster. Every atom of my being revolted against the sound of these words that were so lacking in sense.
Needless to say, I dropped out of the course, I don't speak Chinese, and I won't try to study it again. But, it certainly was a highly instructive experience. I can now identify with that desperate plea for respite from the weaker students in my classroom. I know what it's like to have your ego knocked about by alien languages.
A deeper questioning
At a theoretical level, my experience has also led me to question the value of lexical sets. Word lists, in general, are stressful for students: my Chinese list of household appliances remains a painful psychological scar. Being on the learner's side of that lexical set forced me rethink my approach - but how else can it be done?
Reading around this, there is, in fact, a growing body of academic literature that argues that presenting words that are closely related in the same lesson leads to meaning interference and hampers memorization.
If you are curious about the alternatives, you may find this article by Paul Nation interesting. In it, he looks at the weaknesses of structuring lessons according to lexical sets, and proposes some ways of reducing word interference.
Until my Chinese language learning experience, I had taken lexical sets as a given - but perhaps in language teaching, there are no givens: it's a constant search for ways of doing things better.
Steve Louw is the lead trainer of the popular Chichester College TESOL programme in Bangkok.