Posted on April 13, 2016
Advice for Teaching Foreign Languages
I’ve been teaching Portuguese as a foreign language for nearly 10 years now, and I must say that my techniques and lesson plans have changed a lot comparing to the days when I didn’t have much experience. Teaching experience makes a huge difference! I have realised that many language teachers do this as a hobby or as a second job, and won’t bother providing a good learning environment to their students. In my case, I made it a business and from part-time it became a full-time job, so I had to dedicate much of my time developing an approach to teach language and strategies to train the mind for language purposes. In this post I will be sharing some of my personal thoughts on teaching foreign languages.
5 Fundamental Concepts for Teaching Foreign Languages
1. Greeting Habits: Every time you see your students you need to repeat basic things in a natural way, such as saying greetings (hello, good morning, how are you?, etc.) in the target language, of course. It’s necessary to do this every single lesson using the same content, until they are ready to learn new greetings.
2. Conversational Habits: When students are not completely beginners and can manage to use the past, present and future tenses, I introduced questions about their lives. That’s how I always start my lessons, asking between 4 to 10 questions such as: “what did you do today/yesterday/at the weekend?”,”what will you do after the class/tomorrow/this weekend?”, “anything new?”, “any questions?”, “are you hungry/thirsty/tired?”, “what day is today?” etc.
3. Make them active learners: There are many different types of students, while some are more passive others are more active. Active students will ask questions and show interest. Those are the ones who will succeed faster. Some people are more reserved. They answer the questions but they don’t come up with their own. If the students are passive, encourage them to ask questions about you. Help them to develop this habit. In addition, asking the students what they want to learn is also helpful. Encourage them to be independent learners.
4. Interest and Attention: Reading and conversation topics must be interesting to the student, as well as to the teacher. If only one person is showing interest, there will be a lack of joint attention. Joint attention (read on Wikipedia) is critical for learning development. For example, if the teacher and the student are working together together on a text and something funny comes up, the teacher may laugh. Consequently the student will make an association with that word or particular scenario which will help him memorising things.
5. Provide Associations: Experienced teachers will know the vocabulary that students struggle to memorise. There are verbs that my students forget, such as the verb esquecer, which, funny enough, means “to forget”. Then I always say: você esqueceu o verbo “esquecer”! (you forgot the verb “to forget!”). Then I suggest they think the verb has “escaped” from their minds, because the initial sound is the same (ESCA(PE)…ESQUE(CER)…). So the information “escapes” when you forget. This is one of many other examples of associations that a teacher must know and use in class.
Questions that Teachers have about Teaching Languages
1. Do you let your students recall vocabulary by themselves?
For example, the student is telling you a story and then suddenly he gets stuck, he doesn’t remember the verb “to bring”. He says: “I’m trying to remember the verb ‘to bring’…” Do you wait for him?
There are a few options for this situation:
b) Tell him to look on a dictionary.
c) Give him the answer straight away.
d) Help him to remember with some clues.
Some teachers would always choose the same option. I think this is a bad habit because it will depend on the circumstances. However, the teacher shouldn’t waste time and evaluate this fast. First, it’s necessary to know your student well. If he has said this same word in the past and is just suffering a short lapse of memory (like the tip of the tongue phenomenon > see on Wikipedia), then you can help him to remember it, with associations or giving him the first letters. You can also give him the answer straight away, saving time and letting him to continue with his story. Second, you need to know the importance of the word and the relevance of this word for his vocabulary. In this case, tell him to look on a dictionary because this creates a good habit and helps with memorisation. If he shows signs of desire to recall the word, just wait. But don’t wait too long, if he is taking more than 15 seconds, it’s likely he will not remember and may become frustrated. Before this happens, give him some clues.
2. Do you correct your student every single time?
Imagine your student says something comprehensible, but using the wrong conjugation. Do you let it pass? In some cases I don’t, correcting the student. The teacher must be careful so the student doesn’t create a bad habit. But in other cases, it’s better not to break the flow. When students say a whole sentence and are understood without interruptions, they gain confidence.
3. Should you speak the target language all the time? Are you allowed to speak English during the lessons?
In some language schools that I have worked they demand that teachers speak only the target language for the whole duration of the lesson. I understand why, but in some cases this is not feasible. If you are teaching completely beginners, they may feel lost for the whole lesson and not learn a single thing. The way adults learn a foreign language is not the same as children learn their mother tongue. Also, students may not know anything about you and no bond will be created between the teacher and the student, which is something very important. But certainly, English (or any other fluent language between teacher/student) must be avoided as much as possible and students must be motivated all the time to try to use the target language.
4. If something is hard to explain, do you allow your students to speak English?
Sometimes I do. I don’t like when students book a lesson with me on the wrong date because of a language misunderstanding (Quinta-feira is Thursday, not Tuesday!). And there are cases where students are tired, their brains will not work non-stop in a foreign language, so they need a break. When I give a 2 hours lesson, I already expect a few breaks to talk about other things in English. But if the student is in an advanced level and the lesson is not that long, I motivate them to speak Portuguese and I help them with the challenge.
As you could see here, teaching a foreign language is not a very easy task. Some people may think any native of the target language can teach, but this is not true. A native speaker doesn’t replace the teacher. To teach a language is necessary to have patience, to be willing to support the student’s learning as well as to understand grammar and learning strategies.