Guest Post: Math in German, History in French

21 May

In his latest guest post on this blog, Dave Cosby thinks about variety being the spice of life and wonders whether taking a CLIL approach to language teaching might not be more motivating for all concerned.  After all, what’s the worst that can happen when you learn

Math in German, History in French

A dozen or so years ago my brother lived and worked Barcelona as a teacher. It was at an international school and they catered for the children of globe-trotting business people, diplomats and the like from all the corners of Europe. My brother is annoyingly polyglotal, and can rattle away in Castillian Spanish, Catalan, French and Italian, as well as his native English. He says he muddles by in German but to my untutored ear he sounds like Angela Merkel herself (well, she does have a fairly deep voice and my brother’s is high-pitched so they meet somewhere in the middle). The school had an interesting policy whereby language learning was simply a by-product of the students’ regular schooling in other subjects. So history this term would be taught in Italian, next term in French; Maths this term in English, the next in German. My brother said it used to tie his head in knots and was exhausting for him, let alone the students, and the amount of preparation time for classes drove him to distraction. That said… it worked.

A cross-curricular approach to English teaching is currently en vogue, and such an approach is something I think I approve of. Students get that they have to learn this infernal language of ours, but where’s the motivation beyond, say, intermediate level. After all with the basic tenses stashed away and a half decent vocabulary they can muddle by in most situations. I find that some often don’t see the need to go beyond this, to climb off that intermediate plateau as the learning curve again starts to steepen as phrasal verbs and idiomatic language really come into play, and the list of words the student needs to acquire stretches seemingly infinitesimally into the distance. The sheer vastness of the English language can be a demotivator all by itself. But by learning something else, by learning another topic, and using English simply as the medium picking up words as you go and when and as you need them just as native speakers do, the need and use of the extra effort is clear.

An IELTS student of mine paid me a compliment the other day, or perhaps paid a compliment to the authors of those exams in Cambridge perhaps. We were reading an exercise about the invention of the long-case pendulum carriage clock, a subject incidentally that bored me rigid. She, however, said that she enjoyed my classes not simply for their own sake but because she had the opportunity to learn about subjects she might otherwise never encounter. I paraphrase of course. Had she used similar phrasing to mine she might as well sit the exam tomorrow, get a ‘9’ and sack me as her teacher, services no longer required. And it also goes to show you never can quite predict what subjects students might find interesting. The exams always seems to talk about such ‘safe’ subjects and I suppose it must be tricky to find texts which can go all around the world and not offend the sensibilities of one group or another and so must therefore be quite innocuous but still need to retain a modicum of interest. I imagine the authors of airline magazines have a similar dilemma.

To broaden my students’ vocabulary as much as possible I use as wide a variety of articles on different subjects as I can but unlike the exam boards or airlines I can add a bit of spice by picking subjects about which people are bound to disagree. I tend to avoid religion and football teams as class discussions can get just a little too heated; students in classes with just one L1 tend to switch over to it when they really get emotional, all the better to make their point clear, just as my Italian wife switches to her local dialect when I forget to take the rubbish downstairs, or leave my leave a beer glass on the floor or… oh, you get the idea. At this juncture I need to reign the class back in as the point of the exercise has been defeated, but a bit of practice is all that’s needed by the teacher to get the balance right. You often find that the class itself is in complete agreement; in such cases you need to play devil’s advocate. They will enjoy ganging up on you to knock down your arguments.

I am sure that you will have your favourite source for articles. I get mine online, all the better to cut and paste them, and use the Economist magazine a lot as I teacher higher levels. For leading language and real tabloid zing though I don’t think the Daily Mail can be beaten. There are always stories about neighbours warring over this slight or that insult or with boundary disputes or planning concerns. It’s fantastically parochial and good grist to the mill.

By mixing up the topics you discuss, read about and write essays and articles on you’ll find yourself less bored too. The exercise books we all use as teachers are really handy, and can act as a great spine to a course, but rely on them alone and both you and your students will be bored stiff in no time, you especially so, as you will have read the same text umpteen times before. A nice by-product of all this reading is a pretty good general knowledge, always handy in a pub-quiz.

Don’t forget to chase down tricky grammar when you come across it, and rather than preteach those troublesome words it might be better to see if students can divine meaning from context, though of course do concept check. Gist reading is one of those skills where there’s no such thing as too much practice. It’s also really useful to ensure that students keep a record of the useful vocab that has come up, along with a translation in L1. I know, I know, this is all stuff any half decent teacher does in their sleep, but it’s always worth bearing in mind so please forgive my reminder.

Incidentally, it’s often quite revealing to have a look at students’ translations. You’ve just given them five of six English synonyms, with different implications and grades of meaning and you lean over and read what they have translated each to, only to find that they have used the same word each time. Such are the pitfalls of translation, and its problems regarding the strength and depth of the English tongue. Now, as I have the afternoon free, I am off to learn about car maintenance… in  Portuguese.

Dave Cosby is a teacher of more years experience than he cares to remember and has worked in a variety of countries around the world, in a variety of roles from teacher to Director of Studies to language school chain troubleshooter.  Currently he’s based in Coimbra, Portugal.  You can find more posts by Dave in the Guest Posts section.
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