One of my goals for my exchange studies was (and still is) to do my best and try to master the native language, which is Swedish. Because of that I was really excited that I got in the EILC (Erasmus Intensive Language Course). This course took place a month and a half before the university term started. There was no placement test beforehand, so we basically just got split up into two groups, regardless of previous Swedish knowledge. The course lasted four weeks and our exam at the end was worth A1 level.
But at the end, not only I (as a language-teacher-to-be), but also everybody else who attended felt unsatisfied. When you take a four week long course, and you have lessons every day, you get homework and you generally hear a lot of Swedish, it felt like it would be impossible to not have some kind of understanding of the language. Then again, mostly the basic success depends on the teacher and their methods. I have to say that even though I expected to be in a better shape regarding my Swedish, I gained a lot of experience when it comes to teaching.
One thing I learned during my first years at the university as a student-teacher was that you should never stop reflecting. Whether it may be your own lesson-sequence or your own lesson, a presentation in a seminar or one of the courses you sit it, there always be opportunities to think about your professionalization and personal development.
So I would like to outline a few things I noticed. It has to be noted that I’m pretty sure that a few logistical problems could be an issue for the organizational staff of these courses, but nonetheless, as a teacher you have to make the best of what you have.
I believe the first issue at hand at many language courses is the level of the participants. Every language teacher knows that it is simply impossible to find any group (of random) students that have the same language proficiency. In our particular case it would have been way more effective for everybody if we would have split up our groups after the second week, or even the first week since you quickly get an impression how each individual deals with the language.
Obviously individualisation is always the issue when it comes to teaching. In this case it could have helped the better students to reach the level they wanted to reach. It was also clear that not everybody intended to really know about the language at the end, which is no big deal since the whole course structure offered many more benefits than just the language. But because of this, more advanced and motivated students could have progressed better. All in all, splitting up a group like this benefits both the good and not-so-good students. It offers more challenge for one group if the overall level can be higher but is also offers easier access for the weaker students, who may only want to learn really basic stuff.
The second issue is something that is thoroughly stressed throughout the teacher training program, namely the importance of lesson planning. This is the one thing that student-teachers cannot forget. A lesson plan has to be handed in an thought through before every lesson, even if you are only teaching the last ten minutes of a lesson. So with this in the back of my mind, it wasn’t pleasant to be part of lessons where the complete opposite was the case. The worst part about this was, that this problem was so obvious that even non-student-teachers immediately noticed and could point the finger at it. Especially when it comes to language teaching, it seems like a waste of time to teach a class without having a plan. It just won’t work if you are going to talk about whatever comes to your mind that morning.
Lastly, there is one thing that can really tip the scale for beginner students. When it’s the first time you hear a language, no matter how close it is to your native language, it can be confusing. Based on this thought, starting to talk in the new language in a lesson might not always be the best idea for beginners. Listening and speaking skills are usually the first ones to be taught to language learners, but that does not mean that it is good to confront beginners with a new language non-stop. The key thing is to find a balance where everybody is comfortable, but this is hard to achieve when students get more and more frustrated because everything is done so fast and without proper explanation in a language they actually understand. If the teacher goes to fast, the students become more and more frustrated and will soon close up and no progress can be made. It is tough to find the right balance between speaking and listening-to the new language and generally being understood, but to come back to a point I made earlier, it can help to split up students into groups according to their level.
All in all, it is tough to learn a new language, no matter how talented one might be or how common it is to one’s native language. The most important aspect is to be confronted with the language in everyday life, so learning a language in it’s native country is simply the best choice. And even though talking should be the focal point, there is so much vocabulary missing, that there is just nothing more that one could talk about. Students of a new language have to motivated to work on their own, picking up phrases and focusing on new vocabulary will help with everything else. As time goes by, the practical use becomes more and more natural.