LIVING THE LANGUAGE - EXPLORING THE STRENGHTS OF FOREIGN LANGUAGE LEARNING IN LARGE GROUPS THROUGH THE CREATION OF AN ENVIRONMENT WHICH FOSTERS COMMUNICATION, CREATIVITY, INTERACTION AND IMMERSION
Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade (SERBIA)
While there is much debate on the effectiveness of the current methods in language learning in formal education, one of the key issues that is most often taken as an axiom is that the larger the number of students in a language learning group, the less attention and opportunity to express themselves each student receives, and thus the less he or she learns.
The approach I have originally planned in my research was to find a way of solving the issue of the loss of efficiency in foreign language learning in large groups, by devising a learning method which will abate or completely negate the number-of-students issue. After two weeks of work in an experimental language learning workshop, the goal has been transformed into a more positively-defined one – devising a method that uses the high number of students in a group as resource. The 3-month long workshop has 35 participants, 18-28 years old, and two teachers. Although the participants have finished primary and secondary school, and thus have 8-10 years of formal English study, they are all unsatisfied with their current level of English. Our goals for the participants are: to improve their English proficiency as much as possible, to reduce or completely eliminate their anxiety when using English and to equip them with techniques for language learning which they will apply after the end of the workshop. The workshop is based on three segments: task-oriented activities, simulations of real-life situations and various role-play exercises. Props are used to enhance the experience (e.g. shopping is done with real every-day objects and fake money). There are no workbooks, gradual lesson-based learning or grammar study. English is seen as both a tool and a goal of learning. Every activity is designed so that everyone is constantly participating and contributing to the group. The teachers thus have more a role of task-setters and ‘guides’, rather than lecture-givers.
For further separation from the mother tongue and exploration of the potential of a group for language learning, the participants have all chosen English names which they will use not only in the workshop, but on their new Facebook accounts and for all contact among themselves outside of class (e.g. in extracurricular activities such as sports, picnics etc.) In this way we are creating an English environment and community in which the participants can immerse and express themselves in English.
The first biweekly anonymous evaluation has shown that all of the participants are extremely satisfied with the new English learning methods and have significantly reduced their anxiety when using English. Their motivation for and enjoyment of learning languages have increased considerably.
Even though this is our first experimental English language workshop of this size (The first one, with 10 participants, was held in December 2008), we have already caught a glimpse of the vast potential of these methods. In a comfortable mistakes-are-normal environment, the participants are constantly exploring and expressing their individuality and creativity, and using the capacity of the whole group to exchange ideas, knowledge and experiences, all in English. While several issues concerning the implementation of this method in a broader context can rightly be raised, the possibilities for its application in formal education are numerous, and the effects it has had on all the participants so far are inspiring, undeniable and demand further study.