Skills Acquisition

Know or Use

Cramming more information into someone’s head does not help them communicate with another human beings later on down the track. Adults usually have a huge passive wealth of knowledge not just about L2 (the second language, in this case English), but also about L1 (one’s primary language). So, what is the purpose of cramming?

Traditional classes revolve around the teacher dispensing perfectly prepared and organised information regarding L2, and they do so according to pre-set schedules and a curriculum. Testing ensures equitable evaluation of each student’s ability to, in effect, rote-memorise and regurgitate lesson content on cue.

The accuracy of the above definition of teaching-testing can be confirmed by asking anyone what they remember of the class 30 mins after it has finished, or of the relevant test the next day. And then the following week, if you wish to drive home the point. Short-term memory has no business in language acquisition.

A second way to verify the worthlessness of teacher-centred outcomes is to simply observe what a student can do both before and after any period of learning, such as asking and answering simple questions. Where there has been no change in functional skills, the learning environment can be safely deemed worthless.

Perhaps some believe it is foolish to put the cart before the horse, and have students begin with doing, and then develop their cognitive L2 understanding along the way, but this is exactly what adult learning, coaching, skills development and student-centred approaches all indicate as the most effective and efficient way to acquire new skills.

The Measure of a Skill

The word ‘skill’ means the ability to do something, to perform a task, to effect a result through effort. Using a calculator is a skill but one needs the knowledge of algorithms and equations to make any significant use of a calculator’s full functions.

Knowledge is fairly easy to evaluate and compare; skills not so. Skills require that the evaluator knows what specifically needs to be evaluated and how to elicit those skills from the evaluatee; the evaluatee needs to be aware what skills they need to focus on and how they can be developed and improved.

Perhaps one of the most effective ways to evaluate anyone’s ability is for the instructor to first ask, ‘Can they do x?’ In person, my first interaction with anyone is always my chance to list all errors, confirm habitual learning patterns, establish rapport and trust, and present learning options.

For example, ‘Hi, why are you studying English/What do you need it for/Where are you being transferred/How will you use English there/What did you have for lunch?’ And instantly, I know if they can apply their skills and knowledge to past, present and future grammar and nuance. 

‘I need to go conference in there.’ What basic errors do you see here? It’s quite plain: modals, future tenses, noun sets, prepositions. The use of the language is also quite basic, and this person needs to develop their communication skills with a lot more embellishment if they hope to establish functional relationships.

Role Play

There are two types of role play: effective, and ineffective. The first is authentic and develops from the real roles in which classroom participants – both instructor/s and client/s – engage; the second is contrived and attempts to provide a pseudo-experience based on a derivative dialogue.

Where the teacher hands out a prepared conversation on a piece of paper or as part of a text, complete with foreign names and equally foreign circumstances, and orders the students to repeat until fluent, speaking fluency may improve as may pronunciation. However, this is not communicating.

I’ve noticed that such content is usually forgotten by the time that piece of paper is placed back upon the desk or the textbook closed. What can the students do now that they couldn’t do before that activity? Fall asleep faster? As casual and callous as that may be, it is the response I have seen by direct observation. Most adults I have taught over the past 18yrs despise role-play practice and I believe the reason being it is non-relevant.

Adults require connections being made to develop skills. 

Fake or disconnected content is unsuitable for L2 acquisition according to not just me but decades of adult learning studies, simply because there is no connection for the students. I’ve had vaguely more success altering provided content with names and real experiences but these activities have had no discernible impact on what the student is able to do after that activity.

Role-plays which I’ve noticed have had a difference are those that I have established with the student based on experienced content and stated goals.

With lower level learners, I prompt them to write a conversation in L1 which they often engage in, then we begin translating to L2. Their writing immediately shows me a list of errors, habitual usage patterns, cultural awareness, and also their current experiences from which they will continue to draw as they develop.

Authenticity in learning is naturally the first step for adults who wish to develop their own skills, and not rely on dictionaries, textbooks, translation software and translators, or instructors, so as to communicate autonomously in the future.

Who Are You?

Bringing all these points together – knowing/using, evaluation, and roles – the most significant resource in the room that most people and companies miss is the instructor or teacher. The people who are placed in a room in business attire and told to proceed through the textbook with a student or students is already playing a role.

The difference between the instructor and student is that the instructor is socially in control of the learning context and has the responsibility to be aware of their role as seen from the student’s perspective. 

Most native English language instructors I’ve watched either take a role of ‘superior holder of information’ or they go into chat-mode and spend lesson time talking incessantly about their private lives. Most Japanese students sit and listen, partly out of consideration and not interrupting, but mostly out of self-recrimination for not being able to understand the flood of language coming at them.

The roles acted out in the language learning environment naturally, or usually unconsciously, result in actual behaviour by clients toward foreigners after they leave the classroom. The common role of the instructor inadvertently reinforces passivity of the students.

The L2-native provides the model by which the L2-learner imprints their communication style.

Personal Interactions

This naturally leads to some, if not many, Japanese students giving orders in the workplace, being unresponsive at inopportune times, and having a very low comprehension level. Worst of all are the absent interactive skills.

The authority-driven teacher-centred traditional or standard approach to L2 acquisition is a failure of epic proportions. 

With no awareness of nuance and communication is broken and awkward. With no understanding of how L1 and L2 are both similar and different, communication is inaccurate and warped. With no opportunity to fail, learn and try, there is no significant development in competency.

By treating clients with respect, encouraging them to try, indirectly teaching them the value of failure, and helping people understand not just linguistic differences but cultural differences, I have a long track record of helping people become more confident, more effective communicators. 

And these roles I play of instructor, coach, mentor and assistant are how I hope my students interact with others in the future.