Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Basic Flaws of Language Education

My terrible experience at the Casa Xelaju school does have one benefit-- its an opportunity to analyze the failures of traditional language education.

As you know, language programs have a failure rate of over 95%-- which is terrible. Why do they fail so much? What is wrong with language education all over the world?

Of course, I know many of the reasons because I know the research on this topic.

But its interesting to experience this failure again as a student. Its interesting to analyze what the schools do and how they think. In fact, I believe the fundamental problems are mental. The reason language schools fail is that they hold certain incorrect beliefs. These beliefs effect their teaching methods, their attitudes, and their behaviour.

So, what are the basic wrong beliefs that most language schools and teachers hold?

1. "Teachers can (and should) force students to speak"

This is also called the "output" belief. Most teachers think that output (speaking and writing) is most important in language education. Therefore, they try to force their students to speak and write frequently. They do this even with beginning students-- forcing them to speak the language before they are ready.

The problem is, this belief is totally wrong. We don't learn language by speaking or writing. We learn from "input"-- listening and reading. Research shows that understandable input (listening and reading) is the fastest, most efficient, and indeed.. the only way to learn a language.

Does this mean speaking and writing are not important? Of course not. It means that in a classroom, listening and reading must be the primary activities. It means that forcing students to speak is a waste of time.

This belief is really a sign of teachers' impatience. They don't have patience, so they try to push the student to speak, speak, speak before they are ready.

Its also a sign of teachers' laziness. When the students speak, the teacher can do nothing (just nod their head and pretend to listen). But if the students are going to listen, the teacher has to talk and must try hard to help the students understand.

Effortless English is a Listen First method. Our lessons use listening primarily (with some reading). We do this because the research is clear-- listening is the key to learning a language and listening is the key to speaking well.

2. "Teachers can force students to be perfect"

This is another sign of teachers' impatience. They believe that the students must be perfect. Teachers believe that errors are bad, and must therefore be corrected constantly.

They force their students to think ABOUT the language-- about "the rules". And what happens? Their students become nervous and slow. They can't communicate because they are so worried about perfection. They constantly translate and analyze grammar "rules". Their speaking is terrible-- absolutely terrible.

This belief is wrong. Perfection is a lie, and it is not possible. Language learning is a process-- a long process. During most of that process, errors are NECESSARY and NORMAL. Children do not speak their native language perfectly. Even highly educated adults make occasional mistakes.

To learn quickly... to speak well, students absolutely must make mistakes. The research is clear about this-- students who focus on communication, not perfection, learn faster, speak better, and eventually MAKE FEWER ERRORS than students who focus on grammar "rules".

For this reason, we never focus on perfection with Effortless English lessons. We encourage students to communicate. We never analyze grammar rules and we never teach grammar rules. You learn grammar naturally, like a child.

You also enjoy the language. You relax. You smile. You laugh. You think. You learn English by focusing on ideas, stories, and communication.

3. "Error correction helps students speak better"

This is a very common lie. Most teachers think that error correction helps students speak better. Unfortunately, many students also think this helps-- they actually ask the teacher (or a friend) to correct their errors while they speak.

This seems logical,.. but its totally wrong. There is a lot of research about this. In the research, they have two groups. One group receives a lot of error correction. The other group receives none (the teacher never corrects their spoken errors).

After some time (3 months, 6 months, 1 year, 5 years), they test each group. There is NO difference. Both groups still make the exact same number of errors when speaking.

So, obviously error correction is a waste of time. But its worse than that-- because when the teacher corrects your speech, you become nervous. You start thinking ABOUT English. Your speech becomes slower.

So, both groups make the same number of mistakes still-- but the error-correction group speaks slower, understands slower, and enjoys the language less! A terrible result.

This belief comes from the idea of "no pain, no gain". Many teachers think that students must suffer to succeed. They think the pain of correcting errors will make the students better and stronger. They are totally wrong. In language learning its "pain= no gain".

With Effortless English lessons, you are never corrected. Also, we encourage students NEVER to have their speech corrected. Instead, focus on LISTENING TO correct English from native speakers. Your errors will improve when you listen a lot to correct English.

Even better, your speech will improve automatically! You don't need to think about it. You don't need to be nervous. You relax, you listen a lot to the lessons, and your grammar & pronunciation improve automatically-- and effortlessly. That's why we call it "Effortless English".

Listen To This Article at:
The Effortless English Podcast.


Hayat-Qatar said...

Thank you so much for this useful site..I'm really enjoying my time listening to you and reading your posts..

What amazed me is the first tip you gave me...It's the first time I heard about this information that we shouldn't memorize words alone, and we have to focus on phrases..

If you can give me an example on making phrases, because I got the idea but not as clear as it should be :)

I won't ask you to correct my writing ( I learned the lesson very well)

God bless you.

Best Regards,

Hayat from Qatar :)

andrease said...

Hi AJ!

Thank you very much for your podcast and your effortless English lessons. I really enjoy to listen to it.

Here are some comments and ideas to what you wrote about corrections. I don't believe, that corrections are bad at all. Of course I understand, that corrections are bad, while I am speaking. When I speak, I don't like it, that anybody interrupts me. But after the conversation I would like to get some hints. Probably the best would be to get a special mini story focusing on some of my mistakes. So I get a correction and I even wouldn't realize, that it is a correction.

Best regards,


hiroshi said...

Hi AJ,

I agree on the point that the error correction, especially before the student is not ready, is very harmful in many ways.

I one day noticed, however that what counts is how the teacher corrects studetns errors, while helping my friends learn Japanese.
Most people including me, get slightly annoyed if someone corrects their mistakes while talking. Yet, the learners seem to be happy if the teacher rephrases their speech in natural, easy to uderstand ways after the conversation. for example, Mr A, the learner, says something wrong in a foreign language and then Mr B, the teacher, rephrases or summarize it, using a natural sentence.
if the learner listens attentively, he gets a good input.

this is a better technique than pointing out learners errors by interrupting his speech.

AJ Hoge said...


I do like the re-phrasing technique for "correction", ie. the teacher just says the sentence correctly. This provides correct input instead of interrupting and causing the student to analyze.

In general, my problem with error correction is not that it is "bad" for some reason... nor that it is negative. I don't like it simply because it doesn't work. This is a highly researched topic. There are a lot of studies about this and they all show the same thing-- oral error correction has NO LONGTERM EFFECT. Whether I think its "good" or "bad" is not important-- the important thing for me, as a teacher, is that oral correction simply doesn't work. It does not help students speak more accurately.

So this is not a dogma for me. If a new error correction technique is tested, and proves to work.. I'll be happy to change and try it. But the research is super-strong on this point right now.

On the other hand, the idea of listening to mini-stories that focus on your unique errors and provide you with a lot of correct input is a FANTASTIC idea. In fact, this would be a great use of a private tutor! In the future, I may try this with my own Spanish learning.

Writing, of course, is a different matter because the process is very different (no time pressure, for example... so careful analysis is possible).

AJ Hoge said...


Good question about phrases. Here are a couple of ideas:

1. When you meet a new word, always write down the sentence it is in. For example, you find the sentence "His clothes were gaudy". Many students would only write down "gaudy" and then its definition (ie. "vulgar, garish,...).

When they reviewed, they would only review the individual word and its meaning. By doing this, they lose the context-- the kind of situation we use the word in.

By writing down and review the whole sentence, you would unconsciously learn that "gaudy" is usually used to describe clothes. If you meet the word again, you might discover its also sometimes used to describe decorations. You'd never make the mistake of using it to describe someones speech, for example, because you'd never learn or review it in such a phrase.

2. Idioms, Phrasal Verbs, Etc.

Imagine you hear the sentence "He freaked way out". You can find each individual word in the dictionary, but you'll probably still be confused by the total meaning of the sentence/phrase.

Instead, you focus on the whole thing. You ask the person for the meaning of the WHOLE sentence, not just the word "freaked". You learn the sentence means "He acted very upset" or "He was super upset and emotional". When you review, you review the whole sentence, not just the word "freaked". You then learn how the word is actually used... not just its definition.

Hope that helps.

andrease said...

Hi AJ!

I am very glad, that you like my idea regarding the mini-stories that focus on individual mistakes.

So here I have a new business idea for you:

You could make a couple of conversions with students (e.g. with skype). Then you tape and analyse them. Finally you could offer/sell some typical error correction mini-stories on your website.

Depending on the nationality and the level of the students, I am sure, that most of the correction mini stories would be usefull for other students.

AJ Hoge said...

Good Idea

Andrease, that's a great idea! Lately Ive been thinking about my next set of lessons (my next "album" of lessons). I've been trying to think of ideas for what to do.

I really like your idea. Im thinking Ill start work on the new "album" in January... and will think more about your suggestion.

Other ideas I have include:

* Write a mini-novel (a novella), then create lessons to teach the phrases and structures used in the story. For example, the novella might have 24 short chapters, and I'd do a set of lessons (vocab, mini-story, etc.) for each one. The whole album would form a complete story. It would be set in San Francisco, so you'd learn about the city and its unique culture by listening to the story.

* Record conversations with native speakers (friends, family, businesses, interviews, etc.), transcribe them, then create lesson sets for each segment of the conversations. I might do this or Kristin Dodds might. Kristin is an Effortless English partner who is currently working to finish the movie lessons.

* Do an album of lessons on various themes. For example, I might do a Travel Album.. where I talk & write about my various travels (and maybe record interviews too) and then do lesson sets based on these.

Someday I want to do a Human Rights Album, where I talk & write about human rights issues around the world... and again, possibly interviewing people and visiting places... then doing lesson sets based on these articles & interviews.

From now until January I am training and helping our two new Effortless English partners: Kristin Dodds and Chris Moses. I am teaching them the "Listen and Answer" method and am helping them create new lessons.

Kristin is working to finish my movie lessons, which are great for learning idioms and Real-life English.

Chris is working on "core fluency" lessons, which focus on the most common and frequent words, idioms, and structures to help you become fluent.

As I mentioned, I hope to start work on a new album of my own in January. I plan to go somewhere and work every day--- and try to finish the whole thing in 4-6 weeks.

So, by February, we hope to have 3 new lesson albums to offer you!

Thanks for all of your suggestions!