Teaching English as a second language can sometimes be a challenge, especially in areas where multilingualism is not common. Having studied English for more than 10 years in a province striving to preserve its cultural heritage (especially on the language front), I have had the occasion to witness several methods and approaches, some better than others. Here is a student's take on the good and the bad ways to teach English to foreign students.
Aspect #1: Speaking English in the classroom
To make sure that your students are providing their best efforts at all times, forbidding the use of their mother tongue may be your priority. Having to speak exclusively in English will encourage them to develop a basic vocabulary and set of idioms that will be useful for any common conversation and improve their pronunciation. However, do not be too hasty in enforcing this rule. Students who have not learned the basics of the language yet will struggle so much when trying to express themselves that they might lose their motivation. A good landmark would be to wait until they know most conjugations, irregular verbs and a good amount of school-related and everyday life vocabulary. Do not hesitate to help them out if you see that they can't find a particular word or expression, as it is part of the learning experience and they need your support. Don't overreact if they have to compensate with a few foreign words to get their thoughts across.
Aspect #2: Knowing your own language
This may seem obvious, but one of the biggest challenges for anyone learning a new language is to understand the structure behind it. This is of the utmost importance when your students' mother tongue is drastically different in its logics than English. For instance, how would you explain the fine differences between simple past, past perfect and past progressive to individuals who only know one way to describe events in the past? You have to make sure that your pupils not only know how to conjugate verb tenses, but also why they should choose one in particular. Actually, this goes for everything in your curriculum, from verb tenses to syntax, pronouns and punctuation. After all, you do not want your students to mechanically recite studied sentences without understanding their true meaning; you want them to think and live in English. Never overestimate their knowledge of grammar and how their own language works!
Aspect #3: Learning activities
Theory is fine, and necessary of course, but let's face it: memorizing rules and conjugations is mostly useful for the day before an exam. For your students to truly assimilate the language, you need to get them interested in it. Copying conjugation charts does not appeal to them in any way, just as you would probably not enjoy reciting your town's complete phone book. You have to teach them that English is not only a set of rules, but also a new way to think. To achieve this, you can choose among a wide array of activities. Here are some of those that worked best for me.
- Songs. Singing Barney's theme song will probably not be considered very hip by high school students or professional by older individuals, so choose carefully. Still, analyzing, translating and interpreting a song in one's learning language can be an excellent and interesting way to see how the language is used in a number of topics while creating images and associations in the mind of the listener. Associating phrases to rhythms and short stories is easier than remembering how a particular idiom was used in the middle of a 400-page book. It also gives you the opportunity to explore various writing styles and accents in a short time. If you are having difficulties finding a style that pleases everyone, remember that you do not necessarily have to listen to the songs: the lyrics by themselves are interesting material that may appeal to them more than standard poetry.
- TV and movies. It has been said time and time again, and it is quite true: hearing the language you are learning on a regular basis and seeing it used in context is the best way to get used to its mindset. It also works wonders for developing one's vocabulary and pronunciation. An additional tip you may want to explore is to have your students summarize the shows or movies they watch. In addition to helping improve your pupils' writing skills, it will ensure that they have really watched and understood the subject of their assignment!
- Literature. This one is rather simple: inviting your students to read magazines, essays, short stories or novels and creating their own compositions and stories will stimulate their imagination and provide excellent material for you to evaluate their understanding and use of the language. You should use judgement in the selection of the works you have them read: are they complex for them? Too easy? Are they interesting to them or are they just "famed classics"?
- Games. For younger audiences, games and cooperative activities are an excellent way to stimulate them while making sure that they are focused on the subject at hand. But keep in mind that if you have a more mature classroom, you must ask yourself this question before planning an activity of the "fun" category: are they really going to enjoy it? Teenagers especially do not like to be treated as kids and may feel annoyed or even insulted by childish activities, creating a negative mood (but they will love you if you come up with interesting challenges and, maybe, rewards).
Again, this is only a student's take on what second language teaching should be like, but after all, I would think that a student who became a translator would know a bit on this topic. As a last word of advice, I would like to point out that although professionalism and discipline are required in a learning environment, the teacher's personality and attitude toward their students play a very important role in their willingness to learn and their motivation. Being true to yourself while preserving balance and order in the classroom is the best advice I can give as far as that goes.