I attended the first lesson for the CELTA course at International House London yesterday. I had been curious about how much I, already an instructor at Anadolu University School of Foreign languages, could benefit by the program, yet all my suspicion dispersed in an hour.
Chia Suan Chong, the tutor, came into the classroom, and to my surprise, began to speak Chinese. I must say I thought for a while that I might be in the wrong room. I looked around to make sure that I was not the only one confused, and I felt a relief when I saw everybody else with a bewildered expression on their faces. The tutor was really speaking Chinese. She was even trying to communicate with us adamantly.
Before I could overcome the shock, Chia was trying to get me to speak one specific sentence in Chinese. I understood what she was asking me to do with the help of her body language. She was saying one particular thing over and over and signaling me to do the same. It took me about two extra minutes to comprehend the message, but I finally did.
All those in the room also grew aware of the message, and everybody began to respond in Chinese! In the moments that followed, Ms. Chong presented 8 more items of lexis in Chinese without ever using English. At he same time, she was giving us pronunciation drills, and she never moved on to the next item unless she was satisfied with our performance.
When the lexis-related phase was over, the challenge for us was to learn and practice a dialogue in a café in Chinese. To my astonishment, every one of us was able to do that as was required by the tutor. We had to work in pairs, play games, and go through drilling to succeed really intensively, but the outcome was surprisingly good. By the end of the lesson, I even sounded Chinese to myself!
The point in this anecdote is not that my fellow CELTA trainees and I can now order drinks in a café in China; it is way beyond that. The fact that Chia never ever spoke even a word of English while teaching us Chinese is what really matters. It shows that language teachers first need to be certain of what they want their students to achieve and how they could do it the best way.
The way is clearly not the easy one because it requires a lot of preparation and perseverance. Learners can always ask for clarification in their language, and they may even insist on that; however, good teachers should never give up, and they should maintain the belief that they can teach anyone anything.
I understand once more that there would really be no need to assist learners in their mother tongues as long as the right techniques were applied. The true value of learning a foreign language lies in the ability to communicate in any given context, so learners should never be deprived of their chance to use it in the classroom. Doing it the other way around might provide to learners a temporary relief, but that is the easy way for teachers, and there is no doubt in my mind that they and their students will suffer from it in the long term.
Finally, I would like to say that the main challenge for any teacher is to learn how to facilitate students’ learning. It is not impossible because I now see that even Chinese can be taught to zero beginners in an all-interactive and communicative way using only the target language. All that is necessary for any language teacher to keep in mind is that teachers are the hosts of a dinner party, and that they need to act accordingly to allow learners to feel most welcome.