Hi, everyone! Sebastián here. I’ve been busy in this New Year 2016 that has started decently. Now I have a lifetime goal, and guess what? Languages are involved. And precisely I want to talk a little bit about language learning materials, but with a different approach.
Another blog talking about which method is the best? How boring…
Wait, my intention is not to compare if Rosetta Stone is an upset, or Duolinguo has got an important set for any language you want. No, my focus will be slightly different: it’s about the country they were printed in. This comparison will be according to my experience and if anyone wants to add more things to the toss, be my guest.
Brief story of evolution
In his book Babel No More, Michael Erard mentions something authenticly inherent to language learning history: before XIX century, this kind of methods only used techniques to develop the letter areas, i.e. reading and writing. And it was because the very first languages that were the goal on the Illustration period were Latin and Ancient Greek, leaving no space for the oral ones (listening and speaking), because of lack of speakers. Then, the aim of any guy who claimed to be “citizen of the world” swifted to learning French; however, this methodology didn’t change whatsoever, and it was only a passive way of learning, and when they arrived to any French-speaking country, they struggled a lot to grasp at least the gist in an everyday conversation. And the acid attitude from Frenchmen (particularly those from Paris) didn’t help foreigners as much as they wanted.
Towards the end of the XIX century, a German-North American pedagog Maximilian Berlitz had a serendipy, when by being ill, he asked a friend to replace him at teaching French, while he recovered. The twist of the story is the following: Nicholas Joly, the replacer, spoke no English and had the quest of teaching French. Six weeks later, Berlitz came to the class just to find that students were making a fast progress and they were little by little mastering the pronunciation, a weak point to the average American guy. What had happened? Joly used no English: he used gestures, pointed to objects and used tone of voice and facial expressions to convey meaning. Et voilà: the Berlitz method started to skyrocket as the head language school on Earth.
That meaned a revolution in all the ways of language learning, but in the main part of XX century, it seemed that competence was just stuck to the read-and-translate-grammar-rules methodology, obviously leading to a deception of the incipient learner. By the approach of massive media, things also started to change and now many methods are close to the “functional language” rather than “just memorise the rules and exceptions and if you make mistakes, you’ll go to the hell of not communicating anymore”.
Now let’s go to the point
In my language learning path, I’ve bumped into several methods, and with the visit of one of the most prolific polyglots on Earth, the great Ioannis Ikonomou, I started to see several differences not between methods (something that even the most rookie of the learners can visualise) but between countries. I can identify at least four country-schools:
I will start with Soviet school. As the Cold War went by, any warm try to approach to “capitalist America” was censured. But Soviet people were known for their success while learning foreign languages. They surely tried to stick to severe discipline and to do endless translations. The result: hardcore books with special focus on grammar rules and memorisation of new vocabulary for its future application.
The advantage is the huge offer of languages, and that it’s an extraordinary key to learn languages from former USSR. The weak points: of course these books are not for beginner learners, as they might feel discouraged to carry on, and the lack of audio files due to the factthat Russian is not exactly a phonetic language, and the explanations are somewhat confusing. Soviet books of languages were not printed by a company, but rather by institutions and universities.
Then, I would move on to English school. (Attention: I’m not saying that only UK had a prominent role. What about US books?) As I told you before, at the start of XX century English-speaking learners had a passive way of language learning, but rules were not so hardcore. But imperialism from both England and US required more learners in order to set the power with a deeper blueprint. By the last decades of that century, methodology switched to a fairly usefulness. What do I mean? That instead of learning complicated rules, they started with a dialogue with a cultural topic, a rough translation of the words used, digested grammar and light exercises. At least they started to focus on communication. If you still don’t believe me, just grab a Teach Yourself book from 1940-5o’s and one from 1990 from beyond. Difference is indeed huge.
Advantages are simple: a more direct communication from zero moment, avoiding by all means learning useless vocabulary, huge massification is biggest language list and add of audio files. Disadvantages: they learn grammar but only by bunches, and not as the context may say, something that may lead to “broken” conversations, and the eternal struggle to fully convey the right pronunciation for English speakers who have the bad luck of not having audio files (we all know tricky phonetics of English). Brands: Teach Yourself, Living Language, Colloquial, … for Dummies, Routledge, and list goes by, because this school
German school is like a continuum between English and Soviet-Russian schools, so they are not so hardcore, but communication is not the main goal, but to correctly speak.
Advantages and disadvantages are fair to be seen at a naked eye: fair communication but “illness” of grammar is detected. By antonomasy, the brand of this school is Lagenscheidt, a well-known printer of the best dictionaries on Earth.
I wanted to finish with French school, because it clearly differs from the first three. The key word for this school is: assimilation. They start to learn apparently sentences with no context, but using at one side native language and at the other one, the target language, and at the same time, grammar is essentially explained along. It comes along with recordings from native speakers while the pronunciation is at the first steps clearified with an approximant. After a passive learning, from the middle starts to be more active: there’s a progress but it’s still a review of all the concepts learned so far. And to top it all, humour is there.
The advantages: a quick progress, learning of the right intonation, light memorisation and the feel of having a great communication. Disadvantage: it may seem ridiculous, something that for serious learners may be “childlish”. The sign brand: Assimil.
Start with French school, but use English for a complement and German for doubts with vocabulary. If you still don’t have clear on your mind the grammar, use Soviet.
This is all for today. Tell me what do you think of this article below. I hope not to abbandon this blog anymore.