Language is like a jumbled Rubik’s Cube. We know, from having seen solved examples, that it is possible to align like colors with like faces, and through a combination of experimentation and guided mentoring, to eventually arrive at a solution for ourselves. In first language learning, we revel in our own success when the babble around us becomes gradually intelligible and meaningful as the pieces of the cube begin to fit into place. When we become more proficient in language, we strive to express how we feel through our communications and then, perhaps, delve into the feelings and thoughts of others through verse, prose, drama and lyric. Language becomes the basic tool in all of our interactions and acts to bind us together in linguistically cohesive groups. We speak the same language, we share the same culture; we belong. The world makes sense.
We are given a black cube.
We recognize the cube in our hands as “another language cube.” We know that when we solve it, that it too, will open up different worlds and cultures to us. We know how language works from our first successes, but the black blank faces of this cube stare mutely back at us. The rules have changed.
In Japan, efforts to grasp the “new rules” as quickly as possible, has seen the English language parceled into the separate skill areas of listening, speaking, reading and writing. In addition, English Oral (listening and speaking), is often taught by native speakers of English in the hope that the plethora of students in each class will magically acquire both fluency and perfect pronunciation by proximity. All seems well and good with efforts to make the new language as accessible as possible, until we realize that the various teachers in charge at each level tend to focus almost entirely on their own language skill sections without any real consultation regarding curriculum and content. The effect of this is to add to the confusion that language learners experience in trying to make sense of the new language. “Good” students do learn and acquire skills in the target language over time, but this is mainly due to their own efforts, motivation and continued determination to succeed, rather than as a consequence of cohesive language curriculum planning.
The key to successful language learning is a cohesive approach in which the various skills are brought together and complement each other. At the planning level, teachers working together using a theme based approach allows students to make connections more readily. The skills may still be taught in isolation and by different teachers, however because studies are thematically linked, vocabulary items, grammatical structures, and content knowledge is recycled and reinforced. For example, at the beginning level at university, a theme based around “Work Culture,” may see students compiling interview questions and interviewing peers about their daily routines, part-time jobs and professional ambitions. This information could then be used to conduct research into work routines and habits of other student cultures. A culminating presentation could require students to present their findings and make predictions about the changing work environment and the possible skills that will be required in future professions. The uniting theme of “Work Culture,” functions to introduce and recycle vocabulary, sets reading/research targets and requires performance in writing and speaking that help to gauge learning as well as providing opportunities for language production.
In the real world constraints exist that work to counteract and limit the best intentions. The best possible situation would see a core of full-time teachers planning and implementing a language program together. What happens in reality is that teaching hours are shared among full and part-time staff, all being driven by different schedules and personal aims. It is difficult, if not impossible, to set regular planning/curriculum meetings with the resulting “curriculum” almost being driven by default by publishers selling ” one-size-fits-all language courses” that are easy to deliver, but not linked to students needs or extant abilities.
At the very least, though, if we want our students to succeed and become proficient in English in an environment where the constraints of time and scheduling apply, then we must consider suitable alternatives. Two that come to mind are controlling class sizes, and content driven language teaching. Both taken in tandem allow teaching staff to plan and implement comprehensive full-skill language programs, develop meaningful interactions with students in class and allows for opportunities for relevant language use. To make this fully viable, trained and skillful teachers, who are able to accurately gauge student needs and develop curriculum content independently offer the best prospect for success.