Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Saturday, February 04, 2006


by AJ

"The meaning of words, texts, etc. are situated in embodied experience. Meanings are not general or decontextualized. Whatever generality meanings come to have is discovered bottom up via embodied experiences..... to a particular person, the meaning of a sentence is what that person can do with the sentence ".

--James Paul Gee

Once again, we do exactly the wrong thing in language class. We teach "general meanings" of words... typically in the form of a dictionary definition (or synonym). In typical textbooks, these words have very little context... and none that really matters to the student.

This is one reason I hate the damn things, and insist on using authentic materials. But even that is not enough. Reading a random article may encourage some acquisition, but its not a very powerful method. There is no "embodied" experience for the student... no direct, emotional, visceral association for the words/grammar.

Contrast this with a baby's language learning experience. The language they learn has very powerful associations... and often strong bodily effects. Babies dont start by learning decontextualized abstractions. They learn language that is immediately useful. Abstractions are later learned through associations with this core of concrete language...

In language class, we further compound the problem by teaching linguistics. Now, not only is the student learning language out of context,... they are also trying to grapple with a set of complex abstract analytical linguistic terms (ie. "the present progressive", "phrasal verbs"). This linguistic terminology is of little to no use to them in authentic real-world communications (and is often a hindrance).

And so its no surprise that the number one complaint/suggestion at my school is: "We want to learn English that will enable us to better function in the real-world." They want to master social interactions in English. They want to more successfully negotiate encounters at banks, stores, parties, bars, jobs. They want to better understand popular music and movies. Mastering "phrasal verbs" in a textbook context is of no help.

And so they are frustrated and bored. They spend hours in class disconnected from the environments in which they will actually use the language. Vocabulary is hard to remember, because there are few visual or physical associations with the words... and no engaging context. Grammar rules are memorized at an analytic level, but cannot be put into practice.

Our buildings are devoid of interesting sensory stimuli. Words are learned merely as definitions composed of yet more words... with no visual anchors. Students bodies rot as they sit for hours-- barely moving. There are no smells in school, and nothing to taste. The teacher's drone is the predominant sound.

Likewise, there is little to no social context for the learning that takes place. Contrived pairwork does not a social network make!!

We're tied to a dead educational model. An utter failure.

Radical re-thinking is called for.