Bridging the Gap - Learning Languages Has Taken a Quantum Leap as It Enters the Twenty-First Century
johannsen, kristin l., The World and I
The waiter is from Mauritania, the diner from Korea. The service is awfully slow. Rady Mohammed has taken orders from everyone else in the room, and Park Yoo Kyoung is becoming irritated. "I want to speak to the manager!" she demands. Babacar Sambe, from Senegal, rushes in from the kitchen to listen to her complaints and berate his employee--much to the delight of the other diners (from Mexico, Thailand, and Ecuador). There's even a round of applause.
The scene is not some hot new restaurant but a classroom. At the University of Louisville, Marc Cummings is teaching his English as a Second Language (ESL) students to make complaints in their new language. Later in the course, they'll practice describing health problems in the doctor's office and applying for a job. Says Cummings, "Students understand that using English in real situations is the best way to learn the language."
Whatever happened to grammar drills and repeat-after-me? A lot has changed since you passed your last Spanish exam. A new emphasis on communication in language teaching has led to sweeping innovations in the way we learn to talk to each other, incorporating new experiences, new technology, and even new forms of language.
People have always learned other languages. In a worldwide context, speaking multiple languages is the norm, not the exception. Prof. David Crystal of the University of Wales estimates that two-thirds of the children alive today are growing up bilingual, in communities where more than one language is used. Linguists refer to this as learning a second language, one in everyday use in the learner's environment.
What's unprecedented is the number of people learning languages for international communication. A Japanese housewife taking English lessons in Tokyo, students in Africa following a German language course via shortwave radio--these typify the vast number of people studying a foreign language, one not in everyday use. The figures are staggering. Roughly 375 million of the world's people speak English as their mother tongue, but up to a billion have studied it as a second or foreign language.
Traditionally, students learned languages by dissecting and translating sentences. The audiolingual method, the bane of generations of language students from the 1940s through the 1970s, stressed learning through imitation and long sessions spent reciting disconnected sentences. That began to change in 1957, when a slender book by Noam Chomsky started a quiet revolution in the linguistic world. Syntactic Structures argued that many aspects of language are "hardwired" into the human brain. Linguists and teachers began investigating a new question: What does knowing a language involve? In the new paradigm, a language was not just a collection of sentences to analyze but a shared set of structures for expressing ideas. As a result, the goal of language learning shifted from parroting perfect sentences to gaining communicative competence, the ability to do things in a new language.
And that's why Cummings' students are putting on skits. He explains, "Asking students to role-play in a restaurant uses the English necessary for asking questions (What's the special tonight?), asking for clarification (Did you say the special comes with a salad?), and making complaints (This salad doesn't seem fresh.)." Furthermore, activities like this encourage learners to expand their use of the language. "When students see the value, the fun, and the result of studying in this communicative setting, they volunteer their own ideas," says Cummings.
Learning through communication
Loreta Hidalgo, an English instructor at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan, brings a unique perspective to language teaching. She was born and raised in Lithuania, then part of the Soviet Union, and though she spoke Lithuanian at home and school, she grew up essentially bilingual. "We had tons of opportunities to use Russian--animated cartoons, music, books, movies, Russian communities in town--so we heard someone speaking Russian all the time. …