Frictionless Language Teaching

March 25, 2016 (updated March 17, 2017)

Formal language instruction doesn't have to be as bad as I make it out to be in my book.

Can language teachers actually enable frictionless learning for their students? I believe so. Here are my rough notes on the subject which I would like to eventually turn into a guidebook for teachers as I am doing for language learners.

In an ideal world, formal language instruction would combine several formats:

1. classroom interactions guided by two highly proficient or native teachers
2. one-on-one conversations and training with a language coach (e.g. one of the teachers)
3. "field trips" providing unstructured language practice and short-term immersion experiences
4. speech therapy for accent reduction and removal

The reason two teachers are better than one for classroom instruction is that the teachers can talk to each other in front of the class about matters of relevance to their students. This models correct speech far better than the teacher giving monologues or turning on a video or audio recording. It is also much more immediate and gets students interested in what their teachers are talking about. This is exactly the environment in which children pick up language. Naturally, teachers would also interact with students in addition to talking to each other in front of the class.

The two stages of language instruction

Stage 1. Unable to hold a simple unscripted conversation (approximately the first 20 hours if instruction is effective)
Stage 2. Able to hold a simple conversation (20 hours to infinity)

The teacher's goal in Stage 1 is to prepare their student(s) for their first real conversation in 20 hours or less so that they can progress to Stage 2 where the instruction method changes.

My book tells self-directed learners to how get from Stage 1 to Stage 2 in 20 hours, but an enlightened language teacher can potentially get a student further than the student would be able to on their own. Such teachers, however, are rare.

My language teaching experience

I have about a thousand hours of experience teaching English and a bit of Russian, mostly in 2005-2008. I stopped teaching in 2011. I always applied a conversation-based method and tried to get my students to speak as much as possible.

However, I was working for a language school and dealt with a lot of students who weren't highly motivated. My main job was thus to entertain people and make them feel like they were learning something without straining them too much.

I knew that what we were doing was far from ideal, but I could not really do much else given the circumstances. I had to cater to their expectations. A teacher is limited by his students' aspirations and motivation. If you want to apply an innovative method, you have to warn people in advance and only work with those who are genuinely interested.

Then I moved to Georgia and got to be a student again. I received 100 hours of private language tutoring and about 40 hours of classroom instruction in Georgian. These experience made me think a lot about effective language instruction. Some things my teachers did were very good, but other things contributed to mental backlog.

The universal mistake

The universal mistake that virtually all language students and teachers make is to try to work too far outside of the Circle of Command (what the student is actually able to say correctly in spontaneous conversation).

"Good" teachers work closer to the Circle of Command, but still too far away. "Poor" teachers work hopelessly far away and have little appreciation for their students' Circle of Command. "Enlightened" teachers continually focus students' attention right on the edge of their Circle of Command where learning is most rapid and frictionless.

I have not yet seen a language teacher who was "enlightened" all of the time. All teachers lose their focus and self-discipline from time to time and start giving students material that their minds are not yet ready for, causing frustration and a perceived need for additional study. Teachers do this partly out of impatience and partly due to a lack of a mental framework such as what I propose in Chapter 4 ("Frictionless Vocabulary Development") of my book.

Assigning traditional types of homework, telling students to "learn this at home," and giving them unfamiliar vocabulary to study are all signs that a language teacher is working too far away from students' Circle of Command. (One of the challengies of classroom instruction is that students' Circles of Command can differ widely.)

As a result, students end up thinking too much with the wrong part of the brain and return home with a backlog of unlearned material that weighs on their mind and causes them (if they even do their homework) to spend too much time studying relative to speaking.

Backlog creates an unhealthy feeling that you have unfinished business to get done before you can go have a carefree conversation in a foreign language.

But there isn't anything that needs to get done first. Carefree conversation is the point, not getting homework done or achieving the mental understanding that so many teaching methods focus on.

So, how can teachers promote the kind of carefree, frictionless learning I am talking about? How can they stay focused on their students' Circle of Command?

Let's imagine your very first lesson with a private tutor who is teaching you English one-on-one. You don't know any English at all.

How to get someone speaking a new language in 30 minutes

All the student needs to know in advance is that they will have to repeat things and try to figure out what is being said. The tutor speaks slowly and clearly. Here is how the conversation could go:

- Hello (tutor extends hand)
- Hello (student repeats)
- I am Mary (tutor points to herself, then points to student)
- I am Jane
- Hello, Jane
- Hello, Mary
- I am Mary (points to herself, then to student). You are Jane.
- I am Jane. You are Mary.
- Yes (nods). I am Mary, and (with emphasis) you are Jane.
- Yes. I am Jane, and you are Mary.
- Yes, Jane. You are a student (everyone will recognize this cognate).
- Yes, I am a student.
- And I am a teacher (with emphasis).
- You are a teacher.
- I am Mary, and I am a teacher. And you?
- I am Jane, and I am a student.
- I speak English (everyone will recognize this word), and you speak Spanish.
- I speak Spanish, and you speak English.
- I don't (shakes head) speak Spanish. You don't speak English.
- You don't speak Spanish. I don't speak English.
- No, you don't speak English.
- No, I don't speak English.
- I speak English, but (with emphasis) I don't speak Spanish.
- I speak Spanish, but I don't speak English.
- No, you don't speak English, but you speak Spanish.
- I don't speak English, but I speak Spanish.
- Today (points to watch or calendar) you don't speak English.
- Today I don't speak English.
- Hm... No, today you speak a little (makes gesture) English.
- I speak a little English.
- Good! (smiles and makes a thumbs-up sign)
- Good!
- You are a good student.
- I am a good student.
- Yes, you are. And I am a good teacher!
- Yes, you are. You are a good teacher.
- Good! We (points to both people at once) are good!
- Yes, we are good.
- We are Mary and Jane.
- We are Jane and Mary.
- We speak English.
- We speak English.
- Today we don't (shakes head) speak Spanish.
- Today we don't speak Spanish.
- Here (points downward) we speak English.
- Here we speak English.
- We speak English here, not (with emphasis) Spanish.
- We speak English here, not Spanish.
- I am Mary, not Jane.
- You are Mary, not Jane.
- I am a teacher, not a student.
- I am a student, not a teacher.
- Yes, but you are a good student.
- Yes, I am a good student, and you are a good teacher.
- You speak Spanish, but not today.
- Yes, I speak Spanish, but not today.
... etc. (this can go on indefinitely)

This conversation would probably last 30-40 minutes. Phrases would often need to be repeated multiple times for the student to make the necessary mental connections and remember everything.

Stage 1 differs from Stage 2 in that the student has no Circle of Familiarity to speak of, so you will have to give them unfamiliar vocabulary if you want them to speak (which you do!). You lessen the mental load of all this new vocabulary in Stage 1 by:

- having them simply repeat what you say or switch between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person as shown in the conversation above rather than come up with their own statements or translate things
- avoiding grammatical and phonetic difficulties
- speaking slowly and not rushing them
- making use of cognates and easily recognizable words ("hello," "student," "English," etc.)
- slowly building upon what they already know
- providing words and phrases in real-life context first rather than on a sheet of paper or in an audio file
- introducing only the most commonly used vocabulary and making it relevant to the student

This conversation contains a mere 24 unique words! The number of new words per lesson will tend to decrease because of the need for review and because you will introduce new ways of putting old words together.

After 20 hours of instruction the student will have learned as much as 300 words, putting them close to an A1 level under the European system. At this point, especially with 15 hours or more of speaking practice behind them, their minds will be ripe to begin having simple unstructured conversations. Now you can progress to Stage 2 with its emphasis on natural conversation.

Stage 1 lesson structure

We'll assume a lesson lasts one hour. Of that, 40-45 minutes should be the type of carefully structured conversation given above. This requires discipline and attentiveness from the teacher. They'll have to keep notes of what exactly they've covered with their student so far. In Stage 2 this will change as the teacher relinquishes much of their control.

Here is what I propose doing in the remaining 15-20 minutes (during Stage 1):

We'll assume there is no new alphabet to learn (that would complicate things a bit). The teacher has the student turn on a voice recorder and slowly writes down the words and phrases they covered during their conversation while saying them out loud and, when necessary, giving translations in the student's language. The student copies the teacher's writing (that means being to the left of a right-handed teacher) and repeats everything out loud. When this is done, turn off the recorder and ask the student to listen to the recording back home and find any necessary translations for this vocabulary before their next lesson. In any remaining lesson time you respond to questions the student has had or to systematic mistakes they are making which you feel they will be able to correct.

With my limited experience so far, the idea of having the student copy what the teacher is writing out by hand seems to be a great trick. It 1) teaches proper handwriting, 2) familiarizes students with a new alphabet (the teacher should also transcribe the words in Latin letters if they're dealing with a new alphabet), and 3) makes the experience more visceral or "kinesthetic." It's a great timesaver as well since everyone is speaking out loud while this is happening, and a recording of the new vocabulary is simultaneously being made.

Thus, in Stage 1 you are leading the student by the hand through a frictionless learning practice where the most emphasis is on speaking and listening and less emphasis is placed on reading and writing (but still sufficient). After 20 lesson hours this will solidify into a set of productive language learning habits that will put them on a very good long-term trajectory for that particular language.

Stage 2

In formal language instruction, Stage 2 has arrived when the teacher notices that the student is more inclined to go off and improvise in response to the teacher's questions and statements than to simply repeat or invert them as in the conversation given above. However, for some students this might be a sign of laziness, so you'd need to reign them back in and ask them to keep repeating things and not get ahead of themselves.

When the student is ready for unscripted conversation and has begun to improvise more rather than simply repeat and adapt your statements, you will ask more and more open-ended questions such as "What did you do today?" and otherwise encourage them to just speak. During Stage 1 conversations the teacher speaks 50% of the time, but in Stage 2 this should drop to 30-40% so that the teacher is in more of a supporting role, yet is speaking enough that the student becomes accustomed to native speech. Speaking just 30-40% of the time takes discipline and attentiveness on the teacher's part.

Here is the protocol I propose:

The first 75% of the lesson is unscripted conversation. During this time your job is to get the student's brain working as well as possible in the foreign language. If you or the student interrupt the flow of conversation to write things down or explain grammar in their native language, it can compromise this goal. So keep it to a minimum. If the student takes very brief notes, that's okay. You can and should correct the student's mistakes in passing, but only if the corrections don't go way over their head.

The teacher should take note of things to discuss in the remaining 25% of lesson time. They might write down 20 things to themselves and then pick the 5-7 most immediately accessible and relevant that they can fit in the remaining time. Forget about the rest!

During Stage 2, the teacher can begin to use more unfamiliar vocabulary and grammar, but within reason. You have to watch your students' tolerance level carefully. And your job is just to introduce this vocabulary, not have them write it down and try to learn it (yet). This moment comes only when the student recognizes something well and is almost able to say it correctly themself.

Some of the notes the teacher makes during a lesson should relate to pronunciation. Of the 15 remaining minutes (of a 60 minute lesson), I propose spending 5 on pronunciation. Here you turn on the voice recorder and work on only the most obvious pronunciation errors together. Since most language teachers have little experience in speech therapy, the goal of this is to improve pronunciation just a little bit without overloading the student. Then they listen to the recording once or twice before the next lesson. As they do this, they will naturally try to repeat the sounds they are hearing.

Early on in Stage 2 the teacher can introduce the student to the 8-step Frictionless Mastery algorithm from my book and train them in this practice. Then the student will begin taking their own notes independent of what the teacher writes down. After a one-hour lesson it should take the student about 15 minutes on average to process their notes using the Frictionless Mastery method.

Meanwhile, during lessons the teacher will be taking her own notes. The last 15 minutes of the lesson are for the teacher to work with the student a bit on the student's most obvious and easily correctible mistakes.

If the teacher finds she is unable to help the student with certain pronunciation challenges, she could have a speech therapist on hand whom she sends the student to from time to time. If begun early this can help to avoid the development of poor pronunciation habits. However, pronunciation also doesn't need to be (and should not be) perfect at first. A student's pronunciation should improve in sync with their vocabulary development.

This type of language instruction would provide the fastest skill development that I can imagine.

I am training my friend in the use of this method for teaching Georgian. Hopefully I'll have some results to share in several months (yes, see update below!).

UPDATE: 3/17/2017

Here's a video demonstrating the success of one of my friend's students in learning Georgian over a two-month period. You can see how the teacher is careful to speak slowly and clearly, not use vocabulary over the student's level, and always give the student the chance to take initiative in speaking as much as he is able to. This is a fantastic demonstration.

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(c) 2016-2017 Richard DeLong.