Language Education vs. Language Training

A friendly school teacher once asked me how long I had been a "language educator." My answer, which came out rather spontaneously, was "I'm not a language educator, I'm a language trainer."

She looked puzzled and changed the subject. I thought some more about what I had said and have decided to finally write it down to be sure that I wasn't simply "popping off" again, which I sometimes enjoy doing for recreation and to create friendly arguments.

I recently looked up these two words in a dictionary and noticed that among the first definitions of "education" was "to inform and enlighten the understanding of." I checked out "training" and found "to teach to perform certain actions," also "to subject to proper regimen and exercise for the purpose of some special exertion or feat" and "to entice." What I thought of at that point was that a lot of ESL and other language instructors all over the world were doing too much educating and not enough training. You can spend years "informing and enlightening the understanding of English," for example and that doesn't necessarily mean that one's students can function and communicate in the English language. However a "relentless" trainer who subjects the students to "proper regimen and exercise" and teaches the students to "perform certain actions," tends to get the most results. Really. Also, one of the best favors that a teacher can do for his students is to entice them to continue to acquire more of their target language so that their functionality will pay off in real-life terms.

An analogy I have sometimes used is, if my objective is to have my offspring ride a bicycle, do I have to send him to Old Tech University to study "bicycle engineering?" Would he be able to ride a bicycle after four years of exposure to gear ratio theory, two-wheel gravity defiance theory, the history of bicycle construction, brake and chain design, etc? Or should I put my kid on a bike with training wheels, tell him where he should and shouldn't go, and remove the training wheels a few days later? The latter seems to work well if the objective is function and look at the money I've saved. Formal education has gotten really expensive.

I have "inherited" ESL students from countries, where they have been in English classes for five or six years, and in some cases have vocabularies exceeding those of some native speakers of English. Some also have classically good information on English grammar and could pass a test on that subject with minimum effort. Many of these students can also translate accurately passages written in English to their native languages.

I'm NOT saying that a good vocabulary and some information on how structures work in English is useless. Not by a long shot. However, given a choice, it's function two to one! Plus, it should come FIRST. It's quicker that way.

The problem is that many of these same students do not know what to say or how to say it, when they need directions to the restroom, want to buy something in a mall, or need a good meal or a place to stay. Almost invariably, the story is the same. These students were most often taught English, using their native languages as the medium of instruction. This was easier for both the teacher and the students. In many cases the teachers themselves also couldn't really speak or understand spoken English. The direct culprit is often a ministry or department of education, where test results are more important than tangible accomplishment in a subject.

Worldwide, most language tests are based on translation methodology with priority given to the written language and grammatical information about the language, which is also provided in the native language. The reality is that the persons who most need to learn these skills to translate are professional translators!

On top of that, good competent translators should be fully bilingual and bicultural before they begin translation training. ¿Egg before chicken, eh? The wonderful news is that function doesn't interfere with knowledge. As a matter of fact it accelerates it. Language production and understanding is a gift that the vast majority of humans seem to have. My wife and I have a family member who is retarded. She spent fifteen years in an institution for the retarded. Levels of retardation there ran the full gamut. However, the vast majority of persons in that institution could communicate verbally and relatively correctly.The interesting thing is that perhaps one third of the residents were fully bilingual in English and Spanish and were capable of complete code switching, going instantly from one language to another depending on my input. One of the residents seemed to be equally fluent in Magyar, which was his native language, German, which was his second language and English, which was his third language. He did not have the intellectual capacity to fend for himself in the real world, but he was able to communicate in these three linguistic dimensions. Ergo, functionality in two or three languages is NOT a question of "intellect." It seems to be a natural gift that is a result of communicative need. I'm functional in several languages and always manage to get in a good laugh when people tell me that I'm "smart." I remember the institution and the many limits the residents had. I'm NOT claiming that their conversations were particularly interesting or enlightening. That's where education comes in, and not everybody is educable.

Quite a few of the residents also had speech problems, possibly as a result of brain damage. If I'm functional in several languages, it's because I've lived in several countries, where my survival depended on knowing a language other than my own. Motivation really helps although not everybody is motivated. It's so much easier for some persons to find an interpreter.

CONCLUSION: We all need to take a look at what we are really doing with our ESL students. Are we feeding them too much information and not enough performance? Is this because that's how our French teachers taught us French? Are we REALLY functional in French? Don't we want to do better for OUR students?

©2003 Ted Klein