Teachers Stories: The Secret Vault

Secret Vault

As I always tell my students and clients, stories are magic carpet rides. They fly us to any destination, allow us to explore endless possibilities, and naturally, are a great way to approach foreign languages. Out of the many types of stories I enjoy, I admit that I get a kick out of conspiracy thrillers. Not all of them, of course. But the notion of a group of misfits cracking the vault on hidden truth is very exciting.

Who knows? Perhaps in our own way, EFL professionals also reveal elusive knowledge to our learners. So while we may not be on the run from a shadow government like Mulder and Scully on the The_X-Files or roaming through a secret medieval library like the monk-turned-detective in Umberto Eco’s The Name of The Rose, we also have our moments of truth.

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Of course, that is just the thing about stories. They are a metaphorical template for our daily epic journeys where we aspire to be heroes. The good guys and gals. Those who have the judgement to do the right thing at the right time. Those who, given the chance, will seek and reveal the hidden truth.

The Dark Side of EFL

But what if without knowing it, things were not so brave and noble in the land of EFL? What if, for whatever reason, we were on the side of darkness? The side that was keeping the truth from coming to light. Then what?

A few years ago, I was assigned a business English student (we’ll call him “Carlos”) at a language training center where I was teaching. It was my first day with Carlos, an intermediate level software developer from Buenos Aires. I was supposed to go over the program with him and then start with chapter one of our book, which had all the originality of Hollywood’s latest catastrophe adventure, but sadly none of its excitement.

It didn’t really matter. Carlos was visibly uneasy and asked if we could just talk for that day. I was obviously okay with that. My student had just come back from vacation, so he had not taken lessons for a while. During his time away, Carlos had done some reading. More precisely, he told me he had read a book called The Way of the Linguist by Steve Kaufmann, a cool and unconventional language teacher and polyglot who regularly writes and posts material aimed at self-directed learners.

I knew the name sounded familiar. Then I remembered that I had read one of Steve’s articles, although not his book. And I admit. I really liked what he had to say about our ability to learn languages. Yet for some reason, it was seeing the impact Kaufmann’s writing had on my student Carlos that really brought his ideas home to me.

So we spent that whole first class talking about about the author’s writing, and what it meant in the bigger scheme of things. As far as Carlos was concerned, the truth about foreign language learning had finally been revealed. A truth he had intuitively felt throughout his more than 10 years as a language learner. And that truth had a name. Natural Language Learning.

In Carlos’s own words, “As I turned page after page, I felt a lot like Neo in The Matrix, going down the rabbit hole, discovering I too had the gift (of language learning), without the need for artificial frameworks (such as grammar and phonetics).” Obviously, Steve Kaufmann, was the Morpheus of his adventure.

As I listened to Carlos, I was completely absorbed by his story, and yet, reexamining my own beliefs and experiences. But most of all, I was concerned at the pattern I was seeing. I mean, if in this story, natural language learning was the red pill, the underground base in the desert or the lost manuscript, where would that leave us?

Was it possible that EFL as an industry was doing what it could to deny, ignore or discredit all of the above? Were we the dark side in this story?

The Oracle

Well, for starters, I thought —as I answered my own question— natural language learning is not really a secret or a declared enemy-of-the-state for foreign language teachers who follow standard EFL curricula. It is mostly a non-issue.

Or as Carlos pointed out,

it is not something that is generally taught to language learners.

Programs do not generally encourage learners to create their own language learning journeys beyond the classroom. Lessons and course material do not instill in learners the notion that they have the gift. The natural ability to acquire language through content they find appealing and meaningful. Nowhere is it written that students learn more from context than from rules.

So objectively speaking, Carlos was right. Natural language learning was not how we rolled on planet EFL. However, did that really make us the bad guys?

The short answer is no.

Trouble in Olympus

The long answer is that EFL is made up of programs, but it is also made up of people. And within our industry, there are different opinions on natural language learning. I have talked to colleagues who are familiar with the works of academics like Noam Chomskyand Stephen Krashen on natural language learning. I know that all of them do not agree on the ideas of a language acquisition device or of the Acquisition-Learning hypothesis.

So unfortunately, the jury is still out on natural language learning, and there is no telling when it will have a verdict. Meanwhile, EFL students on different corners of the planet have a test next Monday. And if they want to pass, they will need to know present perfect and simple past. But while the day-to-day of EFL is still mostly business-as-usual, it is equally true that the EFL classroom is becoming more dynamic.

For some time now, we have been incorporating games, songs, video, mobile tech, online instruction, and far more student-centered activities to our lessons than ever before. And that on its own, leads to situations of natural language learning. It leads learners to acquiring language in context, and not from rules. It leads to authentic communication, which has been the whole point of language since our ancestors decided it was a good idea to have such a thing.

Lessons Learned

At the end of the day, what disappointed Carlos was discovering that the knowledge of natural language learning existed, but that the system in place had not made him aware of it. He had to find it on Google, and by chance. Carlos would likely have prefered a revolutionary teacher getting up in front of the whole classroom and shouting, “Carpe Diem!”

But as I pointed out to him, that is sort of what happened. Steve Kaufmann was pretty much John Keating from Dead Poets Society, at least for Carlos. Metaphorically, he stood up on his desk in the middle of class and showed him the path. After all, in the playbook of natural language learning, the entire world is the classroom. Carlos just needed to upgrade his criteria to the new standard.

Finally, I told him that the EFL industry is not the bad guys. That if anything, our traditional academic models of education were in crisis. Globalization, technology, neuroscience and access to massive volumes of information demanded an upgrade on our end as well. We were and still are busy finding a way forward.

Epilogue

In the years since I had that class with Carlos, I too have read Kaufmann’s book and found it spoke volumes to me as well, especially since I am bilingual and have experienced much of what Kaufmann says hands on. I have also had many more conversations with other students and teachers and expanded on what natural language learning means to me.

So the question remaining is: what does it mean to you?

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