10 nagging EFL questions

This is one of those posts that I hope will continue to evolve through comments, contributions and discussion. It’s of course a very subjective list of 10 nagging EFL questions, so feel free to suggest other that are currently nagging you. I hope this post sparks some discussion and gets us all thinking about teaching, learning and languages in general.

So let’s start questioning:

  1. Are some students practically unteachable and unimprovable (if I may coin a new word)?
  2. Is there a certain, individual language plateau, beyond which no trespassing is possible, or can all students achieve proficiency level (assuming they work very VERY hard)?
  3. Are certain teaching practices universally better (e.g. guided discovery), or does it all depend on the student/group/mother tongue and culture? Are there any scientific studies confirming it?
  4. Do the students actually notice and get bored with the fact that some course books use only one approach (e.g. F2F and text-based guided discovery) as much as we teachers do (or at least I do)? Wouldn’t it be nice then to have a course book which would blend different approaches?
  5. Isn’t “Teacher, you see, I’m not good at languages” all too often a lame excuse? Or is it?
  6. It’s commonly believed that the younger you start learning a language, the greater your chances of actually learning it. But is there any evidence for that? (I don’t mean bilingual education or upbringing, but rather sending your 5 year old once or twice a week to a language school)
  7. Why do some nationalities (I don’t want to name names or point the finger, but you all know who I mean) find it so excruciatingly hard to get rid of their L1 accent when speaking English, and what could we as teachers do to help them?
  8. Speaking of which, what is “correct” pronunciation or “correct” grammar, and who says so? After all, languages continuously evolve and change, whether you’re loving or hating it…
  9. Do we learn foreign languages through overt and explicit teaching and correction, or do we pick them up as we go? Or maybe both? Or neither? And what does it mean for us as teachers?
  10. If we know (or we think we do) that some methods (e.g. audiolingual or direct method) do not work, why are they still so popular, and why are language schools which use them still flourishing?

PS: I actually wish I’d long ago compiled a list of 10 EFL questions that were nagging me back then. Perhaps right after I did the CELTA. And then a year or two later. Then before and after the DELTA. It would be great if I could look at them now to see what my worries, qualms and preoccupations about teaching were back then. But, well, better late than never.

    9 thoughts on “10 nagging EFL questions

    1. 1. Absolutely, at least with adults. I've seen it all too often – they know they want to improve, but they simply don't put the time and effort in – if their head isn't even remotely 'there', then you're not going to get much out of them. At least in my experience, this applies most to corporate IT drones.

      2. Never met anyone who worked incredibly hard at a language and who didn't improve.

      3. All depends on the culture and the individuals, in my opinion. What works for one group might not work for another, even within the same culture. Trying to force a single approach is a thoroughly bad idea in my opinion – of course, you should start with your chosen way of doing things, but sometimes, you just have to change it. I remember teaching a CPE level course to a bunch of women who simply didn't want to do the grammar – they were quite happy to just read bloody difficult texts and to practice writing texts for homework.

      4. All coursebooks have their limitations and are therefore rubbish.

      5. It links back to point 2 – never met anyone who seriously put the work in and yet didn't progress.

      6. Sending a child to a language school once or twice a week before the age of 7 is utterly pointless in my opinion. My school has a feeder nursery that is bilingual – and I can't say that most kids are coming with any real ability in English despite 3 years of essentially bilingual education. It seems to me that language lessons are just a waste of time before the age of 6-7. The kids in my 3rd class are all comfortable with the language (at least in reading) regardless of where they went to nursery.

      7. Not quite the answer you want, but in my opinion, an L1 accent is preferable to a hideously fake English accent.

      8. As I understand it, it's quite stupid to attempt to define a standard accent and standard grammar as languages are constantly evolving. The sheer hilarity of the Callan Method shows how much English evolved within a relatively short space of time, after all.

      9. Depends on the person, I think. Some people can pick up languages by just using it constantly, others pick up the language by studying it to death.

      10. It's all about marketing. But I'd argue that at least in Poland, such schools are no longer flourishing. But then, the adult ESL market seems to be dying here anyway…

    2. Thanks for your comment Michael 🙂 I must say I didn't expect anybody to give an answer to all 10 questions in one go.
      Re point 2 – I agree with you. I haven't seen anybody who worked hard and would not improve. However, the question here is: how far can they improve? In other words, is anyone capable of getting to a C2 level, or do different people have different innate language capabilities which allow them to or prevent them from going beyond a certain level? My metaphor here is that I could never run faster than Usain Bolt, no matter how hard I trained. Just don't have enough talent for it. But I'm not sure whether it's true for languages too. What do you think?

    3. It's a tough question, to be honest. I think it does depend on age – I'm not convinced that most retired people are capable of learning a language from scratch, for instance.

      But if we consider that Usain Bolt is “fluent” – and that C2 is not exactly the same as being fluent in the language, but rather like someone who is a decent club runner – then it should be possible for you (with the right amount of training) to crush the competition at amateur levels – just like it should be possible to reach C2.

      The other thing to consider is L1 ability – I'm not convinced that someone rubbish in L1 will ever be able to reach C2 in L2.

      And then we have to consider language similarity – reaching C2 in Slovak for a Polish speaker would be much easier than reaching C2 in German, for instance.

    4. Thanks for the comment Michael.
      It definitely does depend on age. However, I think that unless children are exposed to a bilingual environment, they don't really learn any quicker than motivated adults (at least in my experience from language schools). I've seen teenagers who have been studying English in a language school twice a week for 9 years and they were still barely on B2 level. Same thing happened to me. I started learning English when I was 7, but I only passed FCE when I was 15. However, it only took me 2 more years to pass CPE with an A. In Spanish I went from beginner to passing C2 in just 2 years. My conclusion here is that adults can learn quicker than kids if they put their minds to it. What do you reckon?
      When it comes to older people, it depends whether they have learned a language before, and how active intellectually they have been and still are. I'd say that even somebody in their 70 could learn a new language from scratch quickly, as long as they have kept their mind active and exercised during their lives.
      Yes, perhaps my example with Usain Bolt was not a good one. But I do agree with you: anyone studying very hard can pass CPE. Some will reach that level quicker and with less effort; some will take much longer and will have to really sweat over it.
      L1 ability is a very good point. If you can't write a composition in your L1, you will really struggle to do so in L2.
      I think language similarity can be both an asset and a curse. I've met many Spanish speakers who have tried to learn Portugese, and complained that the false freinds and the proximity of the two languages made it difficult to get rid of the L1 influence and become proficient. Somehow their Spanish was always coming out when they spoke Portugese. But L1 proximity can definitely help too, especially at lower levels, making you learn much faster. It might all depend on the learner type: I personally really like comparing languages, looking for similarities. It really helps me learn quicker.

    5. Firstly Marek, hi and what an excellent post, goods points you've raised. Here are my thoughts:
      1. I think teachability and improvability come in all shades: motivation, environment, the skill of the teacher. Even low level students can make gains if they can be motivated.
      2. Scott Thornbury talks about 'fossilisation' . Having said that, we can always learn and improve, it depends on: Personality type, Motivation, Environment, Reflection, and Context (EFL/ESL).
      That's not say to that every student can't achieve proficiency level, (especially EFL), but not only do they have to work hard, they have to work smart, that's where a good teacher comes in.
      3. I don't think there are any methodologies which are universally better, it's all about horses for courses. Know what's available to you as a teacher, know the student, the context, the needs, the abilities, the motivation…build and adjust accordingly.
      4. Absolutely, Students notice the crap they get served, that's why they get so bored. We don't give them nearly enough credit for their ability to discern. It's always good to use a blended approach, student/teacher self-developed coursebook for example.
      5. It is an excuse, but one which the student genuinely believes. Maybe they just haven't met a teacher yet, who has enough time/motivation/dedication/love/skill/experience to help them change their point of view.
      6.I don't believe Youth has an advantage over Experience (except Pronunciation). The advantages of youth are Brain plasticity, Curiosity, lack of preconception, time. The advantages of Age are Worldly Experience, knowledge of how to learn, self-discipline. None is more advantageous than the other. The factors in question 2 are more significant.
      7. Which nationality are you referring to?. In my experience, most speakers (especially EFL) find it difficult to eliminate their L1 accent. Age is a factor here, as is a teacher skilled and experienced in the art of pronunciation instruction. Unlike other skills, it's a physical thing – tongue, lips, throat, jaw, inner mouth, etc. Plus lots of listening.
      Also, I think it's important to stress the fact that there is no perfect English accent (no offense Queeny), and that the main goal is intelligibility.
      8. I don’t think there is one 'correct' grammar or pronunciation (English as a Lingua Franca), intelligilibity is the key.
      I speak the Queens English as good as the next next bloke, but when I go to the U.S. (due to their severe cultural limitations) they barely understand a word I say. Equally, there are different types of grammar (formal/written, Spoken) – I have a shower you take a shower (where?). If I were you, or if he was her?. Languages are constantly evolving. Ask Buzzfeed.
      9. I reckon we can learn languages both ways. It depends on the individual learner, their preferences, experience, abilities etc. Probably the older the learner, the more propensity for a formal explicit method, and vice versa the younger, though not certain. Self-awareness is important, as is reflection. As teachers – we need to know our students, know our topic, tools (e.g. tech), methodologies, our own strengths and weaknesses, keep improving, keep learning, maintain our passion, and inspire our students by example.
      10. I think some outdated methods are still popular because someone’s still making money. Some language schools are probably 'misleading' their clients by deception or ignorance, and thus are able to flourish (my personal experience here in Colombia). We may well know what does and doesn't work, but in reality, how is the general public in often under-developed nations supposed to know? the government doesn't tell them, the Language Institutes, Colleges and Universities don't tell them, so they don't know, they trust. That's a big part of a teachers job here, to educate and change the minds of the people, and that's harder than teaching languages.

    6. Hi Ricky,
      Thanks for this extensive answer! I really appreciate the time you've taken to comment here.
      1. Yes, I do agree that the teacher plays an important roles, and many factors such as motivation have to be considered. I'm still wandering, though, whether there are people who will just never improve and are impervious to teaching (I guess it's also linked with number 2).
      2. A very insightful comment: a good teacher shows the learner how to learn more effectively. But then, would you say that there's a certain level (different for each student) beyond which they won't be able to progress no matter how hard they try? I tend to think that perhaps anyone can reach a very advanced (C1ish) level, but not sure about getting to C2 and beyond (if there is a beyond).
      3. Interesting comment. I do think certain approaches are better than others. Perhaps not in terms of methodology, but certain techniques which are more effective than others when learning a language (I blogged about the 5 steps to fluency here: http://teflreflections.blogspot.com/2014/01/what-ive-learned-from-4-polyglots-5.html).
      4. Very convincing 🙂
      5. Yes. Definitely an excuse. You might find this ost interesting as a follow up (http://teflreflections.blogspot.com/2014/01/what-ive-learned-from-3-polyglots.html)
      6. Yes. I've also come to believe that it's a bit of a myth that th older you are the less able you are to learn a language. I commented on it in the post I linked above.
      7. I was thinking: the Italians, the Spanish, the French Of course, every nationality has their own pron problems, but I've always found that these three really struggled to diminish their L1 influence and I've wondered what the reason might be.
      8. Couldn't agree more. But why do we tend to teach some rules which are then broken once you get to a very high level?
      9. Very insightful comment. I know people who've learned a foreign language to C2 level without almost ever picking up a grammar book or going to a language school. But as you say, in general both exposure and explicit teaching are vital.
      10. I really like your comment here. Couldn't agree more – we need to educate our clients. It's sad, though, that some schools still thrive on misleading their students.

    7. I guess we could, but who's going to answer it?! 😉 Any thoughts?
      My personal view would be that technology has a great potential as a learning tool. However, as everything, it can be a double-edged sword, so needs to be used judiciously.

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