Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Friday, August 25, 2006

Real Life: The Ideal Textbook

by AJ

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Commercial textbooks suck.

I don't know what else to say about them. As a teacher, I find them random, overly complex, unnatural, and obtuse. As a student (Spanish), I find them confusing, boring, and useless.

Unfortunately, traditional language education is driven by the textbook industry. Most of the problems of traditional education can be traced back to the twin evils of textbooks and tests. Most language programs are textbook-centric. The book determines what will be taught and when it will be taught. Good teachers throw in some extra "communicative activities", but it is the textbook that determines the content of the course.

Despite the fact that these books suck, schools keep following them, teachers keep using them, and students keep buying them. Most students complain that their progress is slow. They complain that they can't actually use the language. Their teachers have the same complaint. Yet, they keep using the textbook. This is a classic case of "doing the same thing, but expecting a different result". In other words, this is insanity.

Is there another way? Of course there is. The best textbook is real life. Authentic materials are far superior to commercially prepared textbooks. Authentic materials are made for native speakers. They thus contain "real language"-- natural words, phrases, and vocabulary used by native speakers.

Its very easy to find authentic English materials, they are everywhere: Magazines, TV shows, movies, audiobooks, children's books, pre-teen adventure books, romance books, websites, blogs, etc...

But what about natural conversations? Students often tell me that they enjoy reading books and listening to audiobooks, but they don't get enough exposure to casual conversations. They point out, correctly, that audiobooks & podcasts use a more deliberate and formal style of English. They ask, "How can we improve our casual conversation skills? Shouldn't we study dialogues in textbooks?"

My answer is a resounding "NO!" I instead suggest that they carry a small tape recorder everywhere they go, and record conversations with waiters, English speaking friends, clerks, and even strangers. Stephen Krashen calls this practice "narrow listening". He suggests asking a native speaker to talk a few minutes about a subject of interest-- perhaps their family, job, or hobbies. You then listen to this recording many times to improve comprehension. This is an excellent idea.

But, to be honest, its still not ideal. If a student records a conversation with a friend, for example, most likely the friend will speak more slowly and simply than they normally do. They will probably choose simpler vocabulary words.

Thus, I've been thinking a lot about recording and transcribing natural, full speed conversations between native speakers only. For example, I might carry a digital voice recorder and record various conversations between me and my friends-- natural, unscripted, unplanned conversations.

The only problem with this plan is the transcription. Transcribing a conversation is very, very time consuming. It took me over an hour and a half to transcribe the short "Silent Period" conversation with Steve. Having text is important, as it makes the audio much more comprehensible. Unfortunately, I simply don't have time to transcribe conversations.

However, I may have stumbled upon a solution. I'm considering a program called iListen. Its voice recognition software for the Mac. Supposedly, its fairly good-- and would allow me to dictate a conversation and have it automatically transcribed as I speak. I doubt it could handle the original audio of a conversation, but I might be able to listen to the original with an earpiece, and then dictate to the computer.

If it worked, such a system would allow me to frequently podcast REAL conversations between native speakers AND provide text for each conversation.

The software is expensive, so it will be some time before I invest in it. But hopefully, in the future, I'll be able to create an audio/print "textbook" of real English conversations.

Hopefully this effort will inspire other teachers to use the same method-- and once and for all abandon commercial textbooks. Hopefully, communities of learners will create and share text/audio of conversations in their own native language with learners who want to learn their language.

In this way, the stranglehold of the commercial textbook industry could easily be broken. We could create our own textbooks, each and every one of us.

Real life, real materials, real conversations and real people are the only "textbooks" we need.

San Francisco, CA