Wednesday 16 January 2013

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate are “the dreadful words” inscribed at the gates of Hell, in Dante Alighieri’s ‘Inferno’ of his Divina Commedia.

Teacher trainer Leni Dam doesn’t use these exact words, when discussing learners’ prospects at the gates of language classrooms, but her message is as grim:

You are now entering a foreign language classroom.
Forget that you are normal.”

Image: William Blake (1757-1827), Dante’s Inferno – Wikimedia Commons

To start off with, “foreign language” is a learner-unfriendly term, as I’ve noted before. In addition, Leni Dam believes, like I do, that the traditional tormenting techniques which are in widespread use in language classrooms are all but conducive to eliciting proficient language from learners.

This is because such techniques treat learners like hapless morons. Language syllabuses attempt to persuade thinking and speaking adults and older children that using, for example, the relative positions of pictorial representations of dogs and tables, or of actual classroom pens and pencil holders, is relevant for their everyday uses of the prepositions under and in, respectively. Or that recasting in the past tense sentences like She is my friend or I eat oranges satisfies the learners’ communicative and vocabulary needs out there in the wide, wild world where their new language is used.

Traditional fire-and-brimstone language teaching philosophies of this kind range all the way from the object, through the method, to the purposes of teaching. What is taught is not language, but linguistics; how languages are taught feeds you first what matters least; and why all of this should be taught draws on emulation of impossible and/or irrelevant standards of language proficiency. Such philosophies share a commitment to stifling learner autonomy, whose fostering is, in stark contrast, a core tenet of Leni Dam’s teaching philosophy. No wonder that such teaching results in the pathetic outcomes of “late” language learning, with which we’ve become familiar. You cannot do what you are not taught to do, which is to engage with your new language as a thinking and speaking individual. The learner is nowhere in sight, except to be chastised for the capital sin of having been born too long ago.

To my mind, there is only one way we can claim that learners’ ages are relevant to their language learning, under these teaching conditions: learners’ mental ages are certainly above the performance levels which are expected from syllabus contents, methods and purposes. I do understand why the too-old-to-learn-languages myth took shape and bulk. Since we cannot isolate age as a testable variable in any fair experiment that might (dis)prove its “effects” on language learning, age remains a conveniently murky scapegoat, one which is in addition easy to sell in its crudest form: were all getting older, not younger, so there’s not much you can do about ageing. It is also far easier to blame the learners’ age than to have traditional language teaching patriarchs, matriarchs and associated money-making corporate tribes listen to reason.

The age myth spawns sub-myths, as mature mythologies will: if you believe in language dunces, you’ll believe in language geniuses, too. These beliefs are textbook examples of bad science: you disregard all those “old” learners who do acquire proficiency in their new languages, to go on blaming mysterious degeneration for bad outcomes, and invoking mysterious giftedness for good outcomes. Stefka H. Marinova-Todd, D. Bradford Marshall and Catherine E. Snow, in an article titled ‘Three misconceptions about age and L2 learning’, address precisely this issue, in a review of the (lack of) evidence for claims which correlate language learning proficiency with learners’ ages, let alone attribute the former to the latter.

I can understand, as said, the genesis and propagation of the age myth, but I have no sympathy. In the language teaching marketplace, it seems that customers are never right. Instead of serving learners’ needs, whether learners wish to learn languages or the ways of teaching them, what we’re telling them is to abandon all hope of ever using or teaching their new languages like normal human beings. In the pithy words of one of my students, a qualified English language teacher: “Teachers and syllabus writers know what they want students to learn, but they never learn what the students want to learn from them.” (Thank you for your insight, Sopha!)

Other mythical beings and practices abound, where the use of more than one language is in question. The next couple of posts discuss these matters, starting with a guest contribution from a speech-language expert, whose wisdom I’ve had the privilege of featuring at this blog before.

Marinova-Todd, S., Marshall, D., & Snow, C. (2000). Three Misconceptions about Age and L2 Learning TESOL Quarterly, 34 (1) DOI: 10.2307/3588095

© MCF 2013

Next post: =Guest post= Language dominance: A one-way street with oncoming traffic, by Brian A. Goldstein. Saturday 26th January 2013.


  1. I have giggled through this post Madalena! Brilliant!!!

  2. Hello, “Mother” (sorry, I couldn’t find your name on your site). I also believe that seeing the laughable side of things is a good way of getting us started to *think* about them. Thank you for your comment!


  3. Quite. Language "teaching" is mostly a job creation scheme to waste other people's time. If all your students learn how to learn in a few months, how will you sell them hundreds of hours of dispiriting instruction in 'level 4 intermediate grammar' and other such horrors?
    This is even before considering the subversive effect on language prisons that effective language teaching would have.
    There are powerful social forces that do not want language teaching to succeed, because it would undermine language's exclusionary functions.
    I'd recommend a perusal of Illich's Deschooling Society for anyone interested in language education.

  4. A waste of precious time indeed, Douglas! I like your imagery: “language prisons”, “dispiriting instruction”. I’ve experienced this both as a language learner and a language teacher. It ain’t funny, if you’ll excuse my Standard English.

    Thank you for reminding me of Illich’s book, it’s been a long time since I thought about it. And thank you for your comment! Come back any time?



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