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Self-Study is better than Classroom Learning

Even though I want to be a French teacher, I do not want to teach in a traditional classroom. Why? Because students learn best when they are not in the classroom. I feel that the classroom has a very limited role in language learning, and that teachers are mostly responsible for designing quality lessons and materials, providing support and feedback, and motivating students to become independent, autonomous learners. All of that can be done online.  When it comes to foreign languages, there is only so much a teacher can do – each and every learner has to put enough effort into remembering the new vocabulary and grammar concepts. The teacher cannot magically make that happen.

In 2008, the NYTimes reported on a study that found “Online Education Beats the Classroom” and once again a new study confirms that self-study (either alone or in conjunction with some classroom time) is much better than classroom time alone. Most universities in the US have introductory language courses that meet 3-4 hours per week, and some require students to spend time in the language lab.  I want to teach French to North American university students, but I do not want to teach one of those classes.  I want to teach classes that are either entirely or mostly online.

The ideal language “classroom” would be online so that students can access the material from anywhere at anytime. Language labs are nearly obsolete thanks to computers and mp3 players. And for students who work during the day or who simply cannot make it to campus at certain times (and therefore cannot enroll in language classes or use the language lab), being able to access all the material online at home would be a huge help. Especially for insomniacs like me who prefer to study at midnight!

I do think hybrid classes work best though because not all students are extremely motivated and they need that extra push to get the work done. Perhaps meeting once a week for an hour as a class, or even just having weekly meetings with the teacher, would motivate certain students. To me, the classroom should be reserved for teaching students HOW to study languages and HOW memory works and HOW to manage time in order for the students to become autonomous learners. In the classroom, we should learn how to learn, but the bulk of learning actual content takes place outside of the classroom.

I’ve heard complaints that online learning is not social enough, especially for language learning. I don’t agree with that either because there are plenty of language learning social networking sites. Even simply using Facebook or Twitter is enough to keep in contact with speakers of other languages, and IM and Skype are useful for writing and speaking to each other synchronously. We have all of the tools already – we just need to exploit them better. Another problem I have with this line of thinking is that everyone who learns languages wants to be social and speak to people in that language. That’s not entirely true either. Plenty of graduate students have to learn 2 foreign languages – but they are only required to have a reading knowledge of the language. Some people only care about understanding music and films and not so much about having a conversation. We all learn languages for different reasons.

Another reason why I prefer online classes is so that students can spend most of their time listening to the language (authentic, native language!) because it is the most important part of learning a language. Usually classroom time is reserved for explaining grammar in the native language or repeating vocabulary words that aren’t used all that often or reading dialogs with other non-native speakers, none of which is useful for everyday language. We don’t always use proper grammar. We don’t speak one word at a time. And we certainly don’t learn to speak another language by interacting with other learners at the same level. In fact, attempting to speak a foreign language with someone who speaks your native language is sometimes detrimental to your acquisition because you repeat the accent and mistakes that they make.

Listening to native speakers in natural settings is best, and the easiest way to do that is through online classes.  Teachers can produce or select the materials and base exercises on the grammar and vocabulary used. Most textbooks used in the traditional classroom do it the other way – explain grammar and provide vocabulary lists and then write fake dialogs or scenes to go with them. But that is not authentic language. I don’t want to down-play the importance of non-native speakers or teachers either, because there are plenty who have gained near-native status. And non-native teachers can actually provide more support and understanding for students who speak the same native language. I feel like I can teach French well to English-speakers because I know what it’s like to learn French – I’ve already gone through the process and I know what mistakes are likely to be made and why.

French Dictionary for Non-Native Speakers of French

After skimming (ok, actually reading, because I am that much of a nerd) through my new French dictionary that is designed for non-native speakers, I definitely recommend it for learners of French. It is entirely in French, but it uses simple language to explain the definitions so I think it could be useful for beginners too.  It is a joint publication by Le Robert and CLE International, available on amazon.com (through third party sellers) and amazon.fr:

Dictionnaire du Francais

The pronunciation guide is standard IPA and what is great is that there are pronunciations for conjugated forms of verbs, and not just in the present tense.  The only other book I’ve ever found that provides this is All French Verbs from A to Z by Larousse. I know not everyone knows the IPA, but if you’re serious about learning foreign languages and acquiring proper pronunciation, then it’s extremely helpful.

The most frequent words used in French are marked with an arrow and there are also 350 proper nouns included (with pronunciation, of course.) Throughout the dictionary, relevant false cognates are listed and there is an annex of the full lists in 14 languages at the end. Plural forms of nouns, placement of adjectives, prepositions following verbs, as well as the register (vulgar, informal, standard, formal, etc.) of the word are also included.  Finally, other annexes are sigles, or acronyms and abbreviations, and their pronunciation if they are pronounced as a word instead of letter by letter; geographical names in their original language and the French translation; sections on countries and nationalities, numbers and official time; French governmental institutions; a chronology of French history; and conjugation tables.

The Beginning Translator’s Workbook (French to English)

I bought The Beginning Translator’s Workbook: Or the ABC of French to English Translation a long time ago when I thought I might want to try translating as a career and I finally got around to reading it this past week. It actually offers a lot of good tips for switching between the two languages that anyone learning French should find helpful.  The part I found the most interesting was on Modulation, or when the two languages “see” the same concept in different angles and so the semantical, grammatical or syntactical properties need to change when translating. With my students here in France, this seems to be a source of most of their errors – they try to translate literally, word for word, into English and it obviously doesn’t work the majority of the time.

For example, in English we have a goldfish and a polar bear whereas in French it’s literally a red fish (poisson rouge) and a white bear (ours blanc).  Sometimes one word in English is a group of words in French and vice versa: the verb to kick is donner un coup de pied, while the adverb dorénavant is from now on. French favors the active construction beginning with On m’a dit… instead of the passive construction I was told… and the prepositions following certain verbs are more often different than the same. To start with is commencer par, to look at is regarder, to attend is assister à, etc.  But it seems to me many of these structures are learned while you learn the vocabulary and grammar, so it’s more of a matter of just memorizing the equivalent expression in French, such as we do with proverbs and idioms because they cannot be translated literally either.

Textbooks explain the grammatical rules and always have lists of vocabulary, but one point they do not focus on much is the difference between analytic Romance languages and synthetic Germanic languages.  English uses many compound expressions that do not need connectors, usually in the form adjective (or compound adjective) + noun. French, on the other hand, prefers to use prepositions to link the ideas together. We say a brown-eyed girl in English, but in French we must say une fille aux yeux marron (literally, a girl with brown eyes).  A fast-growing company in English is literally a company in full development, une compagnie en plein essor.  Students learn business English, whereas in French it’s called l’anglais des affaires.

At least for me, I find the analytic vs. synthetic difference the hardest to remember when trying to translate English to French. Adaptation (translating the cultural aspects) also throws me off sometimes when I can’t figure out how to say allocations familiales in a few words in English without describing the whole system or remembering the conversions from Fahrenheit to Celcius or feet to meters. Since language and culture are impossible to separate, learners of any language must also learn the cultural references, but trying to translate those concepts into your native language can be a bit difficult.