Sisyphean task
Why you cannot learn foreign language efficiently?

If you believe that your learning problems stem from a lack of ability, old age or lack of time, telling you that you are wrong probably won't make you change your mind.

In this article, we do not encourage you to use any particular method of learning. You wonder why? Well, we do not talk about any methods beacause we believe that except the natural process of learning a language, so far, no other effective method exists.

What does that mean? We are not going to discuss it here, but if you want to know more please have a look at the article " How to learn a foreign language ". In this article we will show you why, when using commonly available materials and methods, the results of learning are so mediocre.

What is the current situation?

Language teaching companies make a lot of money using commonly available means of multimedia, and schools make a lot of money organising hundreds of language teaching courses. Unfortunately most of these have very little effect.

We will have a look at their teaching methods later in this article but now let us ask a fundamental question: What is our language used for? - Let's forget the wide range of answers to this question and concentrate on the simple fact of when we use it and what our spoken message is for.

Well, however we look at this question, our spoken message is our reaction to the circumstances that we experience at that moment, regardless of whether it is a question, answer, statement, comment or report.

Our spoken reaction is usually immediate and based on our feelings, experience and knowledge.

The situations in which we respond with spoken language usually has an emotional meaning and content which can be memorised visually , aurally , kinetically , and so on. If a situation provokes us to react with a spoken statement, that statement is an automatic reflex. We do not analyse or think about it. We just react.

rys. 1
verbal reaction
Of course, such simple reactions can be acquired even after the worst method of teaching. Unfortunately, most situations requiring spoken reaction are more complicated. If we have to ask or answer a question, tell a story or report an event, we would be in trouble if we first analyzed and constructed our response in the mother language then translated to the new one.

If we do not learn to think in a new language we are doomed to continous translating with little chance of being correct. Why? Because some languages cannot be literally translated one to another. Differences in the word order, their correct usage, the way they relate, and finally some cultural differences, make that job impossible.

Let's analyze the situation in figure 2

What to say ?

How to start?

How to make a good impression?

The common opinion is that after some time in a foreign language environment you might become proficient thinking in the language. That is true, but after how many years? Why should it be this way? This kind of learning is a simple nonsense .

It is like trying to acquire all mathematic rules first and then to try to understand them. Our brain can do both jobs but at the expense of huge, unnecessary and unjustified effort. So why bother?

Do you know any situation when learning a language began with learning to think? You are probably not sure about that. But think for a moment. Your ability to think was created when you were given explanations and answers to questions like: What? How? Where? Why? What for? and so on. At those times you saw, heard, and were given descriptions and explanations of the environment around you.

If you did not get the meaning of something, it was explained, presented and shown to you from different perspectives, relationships and time. This allowed you to build a lasting relationship between language and reality.

Of course you understand what I am talking about. It was your first learning experience - the learning of your mother tongue. Did you learn a foreign language this way? If your answer is yes, you probably acquired a good proficiency in this language. If not, we are sorry about that and we are willing to help.

Let us have a look at some popular methods which were probably used to teach you.

1 Callan Method
Probably fast and good for what it was created, that is, to teach soldiers. Their principles were to memorize some sets of questions and answers. You learned them by heart . The result? Judge it for yourself , but if you unfamiliar with that method read blogs written by students , for examplethis one.

2 The method of continuous translations.
Consisted of sentences in your native language and their equivalents in the taught language, or vice versa. Some versions of that method were supported by printed text written in both languages. Comparing the two, you would be unlikely to find any corresponding words. This could lead to misunderstanding the meaning of the words and associations.

3 The method of teaching vocabulary.

Similar to the previous one. The main focus was to learn vocabulary . It was probably the most time-consuming and tedious . If it was not supported by teaching grammar it often led, to speaking the vocabulary of the new language with the sentence structure of the old one. Pathetic ! Knowledge of grammar helps get better results, but the time it takes to build a proper sentence using learned rules is too long.

4. Multimedia methods

Books for this type of course were information overload. Color photographs , newspaper clippings, lyrics, snippets of dialogue and a lot of other things likely to distract. You might be shown some film clips, listen to songs and stuff like that.

Perhaps you were exposed to text , video, audio , details of the foreign culture without relating it to the language and many other possible things, that you did not need to know. Did you take part in discussion? No? Thus, you were left to do it for your self. Tired of trying to understand and frustrated at not remembering much. Need I say more?

All these methods havev one thing in common, they do not teach you to think. If they had good results, it was not because the rules were followed not because teachers deviated from them and used their common sense, instinct and experience.

Was it always that bad? Not really! If you have a chance to look at materials ​​from the fifties or sixties you will find them better organized, and if you go back even further, you can find gramophone records and books with detailed pictures and descriptive text. .

Where the learning was based on dialogues and narrative supported by demonstrations and explanations, the results were pretty good . You can see this in Linguaphone's popular linguistic materials as well as those produced by the BBC . They were perfect for the time.

So what happened? Our educational system changed. We abandoned teaching people to think ! Good content has lost out to multimedia overload, with teaching reduced to mindless memorization.

Computerized material is still ok if the content is prepared professionally. Unfortunately in many cases the content is poor and the format overglossy.

But let's get back to the language which should be taught like other subjects by presenting, explaining, encouraging students to think and understand. This is a natural way to teach and learn.

To teach any subject, including language, one needs to be an expert in the related field. The student needs help from a person able to demonstrate, explain and speak perfectly.

Many literate, intelligent people, not necessarily professional teachers can help you. Language teachers can do it perfectly provided they do not follow pseudo-scientific theories and other fashionable methods.

Now, let us return for a moment to the situation in the picture on the right.

Let us analyze possible problems that may occur in the conversation if one of the people is a Pole who was taught English using one of the methods mentioned above.

Consider this lengthy thought process outlined in stages a, b​​, c and d

In the case of The continous translation method and Vocabulary method there are too many possibilities for making nonsensical expressions , misusing tenses and using improper phrases and words.

  1. Analysis made in Polish
  2. Answer prepared in Polish
  3. Polish to English translation
  4. Restructurisation and answer in English
The phases of a, b and c may contain errors . Symptoms of misunderstanding may cause serious disruptions in the conversation.

In the same situation the Callan method can produce moments of fluent conversation and moments of silence caused by an inability to find the right answers. Trying to guess the meaning may lead to serious problems.

  1. Situation assessment made in Polish
  2. Searching for standard questions /answers in English
  3. if found: fluent English, if not: silence

The multimedia method is generally the most chaotic of all and causes all types of problems.

Elimination of mother language during lessons and shifting teaching habits from memorisation to teaching students to think in a new language can eliminate all problems and delays.

Any problems caused by missing vocabulary, lack of knowledge, etc, can be overcome by the student's questions and the helper's explanations, descriptions, indication and so on. Thus such a conversation becomes a complementary teaching/learning process of the new language and contributes to its development.

  1. Situation assessment made in new language
  2. Fluent spoken expression in this language

  3. Thinking skills in a foreign language gives student the opportunity to make further progress automatically through conversations , reading and listening.

    The best tools to be used in teaching/learning are dialogues and discussions, because they are not only expanding vocabulary but further developing the ability to think . Vocabulary is needed, but it is not the most important thing. This can be acquired automatically. Thinking must be induced, provoked, and this is the most important element. It should be taught from the very beginning.

    Witold Wojcik