Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Guest Blogger Christopher Carr of The Inductive on Teaching a Foreign Language

Brilliant! Have a guest blogger post on my page and my output goes up with barely a diaper-change worth of effort. Why didn’t I think of this before?
Okay, actually I didn't think of it; this was Christopher's brainchild. The guy's got ideas coming out of his pores – check out his blog, The Inductive, and you’ll see what I mean. He is nothing if not proficient...and well-read...and insightful...
This doesn't necessarily mean I agree with him.
I can't stand teaching kids. This is has nothing to do with their ability to learn so much as it does my inability to maintain any sort of control over them without looking like the Shinto equivalent of the anti-Christ. Trust me, boss, you might want to just cancel class today...
The silver lining here is that, as Chris and I teach out of the same place, there is no discussion necessary when a kids class and an adults class happen to overlap. He reaches for the playing cards and I get the coffee ready.
In all seriousness, I feel fortunate to have crossed paths with Christopher. I first read his following post a few days ago, and since then I've found opportunity to try to teach my own son the concept of self-control, with amazing results. In vying for attention at home, he is beginning to see alternatives to stepping on his little brother's fingers.

Okay, on to Christopher Carr and today's topic: Teaching a Foreign Language
(For those of you accustomed to reading my normal posts, I apologize for the big words.)

As a teacher of English as a foreign language, I prefer teaching kids to teaching adults. There are several reasons for this. The first is that our civilization has wildly misunderstood the nature of language learning, and teaching kids doesn't require any unschooling. Adults don't learn second languages easily. There is usually a lot of unfounded, reductionist neurotechnobabble behind this assertion, but in practice it's because adults are often unwilling to look foolish. Adults learn facts about languages instead of languages. Kids on the other hand are seldom embarrased when they make mistakes. The trial-and-error style of learning required to learn a new language comes naturally to them. If adults are to succeed at language learning, they must either be shameless sociopaths or fluent in the metacognition behind language learning. (Check out this article in The New Yorker.) Apropos, language learning is something that suits the learning style of just jumping right in preferred by kids over the taxonomic style of learning preferred by besuited economic automata.

The second reason I prefer teaching kids to adults is related to the first: kids don't ask stupid questions. (It's often said that there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers, but, if your question produces a stupid answer, is it wise to ask it in the first place?) Usually kids don't need to be discouraged from asking questions uniquely tailored to their particular abilities, the answers to which confer vital subjective knowledge. Kids are usually far more perceptive of inference and intuitive knowledge than adults. There are some kids that struggle with language learning, and in my experience it seems they often have a lot of heavy-handed adults in their lives.

"Japan" could change its name to "heavy-handed adult place" and not miss a beat. I can't tell you how many times I hear the words "dame!" and "abunai!" from adults lazy and lethargic from chain-smoking shouting at their kids from across the play area. In short, the Culture of No makes everyone stupider (taxonomic knowledge is excluded) as a function of age. I had an elderly student tell me last week that she had no idea how to have fun. She then asked stupid vocabulary and grammar questions for twenty minutes; I answered all with variations of "whatever". This is typical of most adult ESL classes.

The third reason I prefer teaching kids is that the one problem associated with teaching kids is entirely solvable: kids are crazy and out-of-control ids. In that respect, it's helpful to think of them like convicts. I had a friend go to jail a few years ago, and he told me that his first day, he sought out the biggest, meanest-looking guy in the place and sucker-punched him right in his big fat stupid meathead face while he was eating lunch. My friend got pummeled before the guards came to his assistance, but what he also got was respect from enterprising, social-climbing bitches, snitches, and perverts. Not only did the other prisoners not try to make my friend take their pockets, but they actually aspired to get in his good graces by bestowing upon him solemn offerings of toilet wine and hair dolls.

Likewise with kids, on my first day I pick up and punt whoever is the reigning shitbrat, and his betas make me their leader. No, that was a joke. What I do do though essentially relies on the same principle: if there is a kid who's fond of jamma-ing the heiwa, I usually make him submit by shunning him, kicking him out of the classroom, or subjecting him to repeated public ridicule. Once the alpha submits, so do the rest. All I have to do is outcrazy the craziest kid and the hearts and minds of the students are mine to direct towards whatever evil purpose I may in my darkest of dark hearts imagine, like learning English.