My Personal Philosophy of Language Teaching       July 25, 2009

    Learning English can be fun. Apart from being a means of communication, English can even be used as a tool to “show off” and a mark of self-status. Also, it is often used as an identification of nationality. For me, however, English is mainly used as a tool of making a living. Whatever motivations it may be in learning English, English teaching should serve these purposes in an effort to meet the learners’ need.
    Having taught English for over thirty years in high school in Taiwan, I can see clearly that the methods for teaching English are gradually changing. But the pace of change is quite slow in that it takes time and courage for an English teacher (a veteran teacher in particular) to adapt to a new method. Some English teachers find that the old method can be as good as the new one. Therefore, they might dismiss the new method for later time and re-use the old one in no time. There is no denying that I am one of them. Still, I would like to share my personal philosophy of English teaching.
    Needless to say, English teaching should contain four basic skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. To attain this goal, I spare no effort to carry them out in the classes I teach. In addition to teaching senior high school students, I teach junior high school students (i.e. from grade 7 to grade 9) almost every year. At the very beginning of my teaching career, the students didn’t learn any English at all before entering junior high school. That is, the English subject was entirely new to them. They had to learn the subject starting with alphabetical letters, both printed and cursive writing. I taught them the way I had been taught before, which means they learned the new language through “imitation” (OTHERS-regulation). At first, I was pleased that the children were interested in learning a new language and learned it fairly quickly. Some simple expressions like greetings and WH-questions were quickly learned. The happy time, however, did not last long when more difficult forms and sentence patterns were involved in the second year. They did have a tough time learning forms and patterns. Over the years, I found that all they learned served only one purpose--- to pass the high school entrance examinations. Using English as a tool of communication outside of their classrooms seemed an impossible dream. To this point, BF Skinner’s Behaviorism seemed to function well. Most of my students got higher grades in English on the entrance examinations. As for the communicative element, there seemed to be a lot to be desired.
    It is not proper that the students learn only forms and patterns from teachers. I believe in both the cognitivist and the constructivist theories in learning--- after they take in information, they have the inner ability to process it and act upon it. They know, for example, when to put ‘s’ behind a simple present verb when the subject is the third personal noun or pronoun singular form. They also know the differentiation between the regular verbs and irregular verbs. Since we cannot teach them all the words and expressions, they have to ‘construct’ their understanding to make sense of things by themselves through assimilationand accommodation. In other words, their inner ability to learn something new should not be ignored. Also, in response to Naom Chomsky’s theory that there does exist a Language Acquisition Device(LAD), or Universal Grammar (UG), it makes sense. According to him, it works to stop a child from going on the wrong track in the process of learning the rules of his first language. Then comes a disputed point: Can the same theory be applied to SLA?
    The students whom I taught before did not “immerse” themselves long enough in the English environment. Thus, the critical period hypothesis (CHP) did not exist in them. In other words, Stephen Krashen’s belief that ‘the L2 learner possesses the same internal resources (i.e. the LAD or UG) as a child learning his mother tongue’ does not seem to be exactly correct. Here I would prefer the thought on the CPH by Michael Long, who accepts a weak form of the CPH, saying that ‘LAD or UG operates less strongly as a person gets older.’ Take my wife for example. She stayed in the United States of America in 2004 learning how to promote the ability of the four language skills at the same time I was doing my assignment Language Acquisition in the Philippines. She has been learning English in Taiwan for a long time. Theoretically speaking, she should have possessed the LAD or UG and can have operated it fairly well. However, her English ability of the four skills, sad to say, has not improved a lot as yet, speaking and writing in particular. In fact, this situation can be improved in both ways: motivation and environment, which, I strongly believe, are the most influential factors in learning a foreign language. It is a pity that she did not stay in the States long enough to receive the two factors.
    According to Krashen, a learner’s motivation (i.e. the affective factors) plays a very important role in deciding how much ‘acquisition’ occurs. If the learner lacks confidence, or is anxious or unmotivated, there will then be a barrier or high affective filter that prevents or limits the learner’s use of input from the environment. When it comes to the ‘environment’, he explicated that a L2 learner ‘acquires’ as well as a L1 learner does when the learner is relaxed and motivated. Vygotsky also stresses the importance of motivation and environment. He stated that language learning can and does occur at any age, when driven by the need to learn (to do) something and that the learning of the new language starts with ‘help’ from external sources. ‘Only when language is used can learning be made possible.’ That is, language about language should and must be used.
    Then, who is responsible for the creation of a stronger motivation and a friendly and relaxed environment for the English learners? The answer is, without a doubt, teachers. As an English teacher, I realize that anxiety and pressure are the hindrance to a L2 learner. Therefore, a friendly and relaxed classroom atmosphere is necessary while I am teaching. First of all, I should look friendly, usually wearing a smile on the face while teaching. Then, what I teach can never be too difficult for my students to learn, because I always bear Krashen’s ‘i+1 theory in mind. Apart from this, I think I work on the ‘scaffolding’ and ‘spiral progression’ notions pretty well, knowing that a L2 learner has his/her initial point of the language they are learning. For example, when teaching the use of subjunctive mood, I will spend two hours or so teaching them the use of two kinds of subjunctive mood contrary to the present and past fact. At this time, the mother tongue does help to make the grammatical rules easier to understand. When teaching this part of grammar, meaning is prior to forms, because I know that teaching forms and patterns are kind of boring. After they get the picture of the meanings of subjunctive mood, then I teach them forms. Individual and classroom practice is indispensable to achieve it. Games like “relay race” are a good way of learning subjunctive mood. So, every time I teach this part, I will use the relay race game to arouse their interest and meanwhile motivate them to move on. Grammar learning can be fun if accompanied by a dose of light-hearted and creative activities.
    Despite the fact that I have been teaching English for many years, I often feel ‘haunted’ by how to ‘acquire’ those grammatical forms. I know that comprehensible input is the key factor that forms ‘acquisition’. I also know that ‘learning’ through classroom instruction only does not help people to use a language well. The truth is that the students just leave what they have learned in class. They learn English only for the purpose of getting higher grades on the entrance examinations and nothing else. I feel puzzled too about how long the ‘silent period’ will take whereas Kalliday’s view that ‘the grammatical structures of a language are not just a set of rules or patterns to be obeyed or followed, but a set of resources users of that language can choose from to convey the meanings they want, in the situation they are in’ is still “echoing” in my mind. Is the whole educational system of Taiwan to blame or the teachers standing on the first line?