My First Lesson

On Saturday morning I had my first Malay lesson. I turned up sleep-deprived, hungry and underprepared – I’d managed to learn to count to three in the taxi there, increasing my vocabulary by about 10% – but one of the advantages of learning Malay in Malaysia is that you can have your lessons outside in the sunshine, by the pool. Thanks to Gloria, my classmate, and our (native speaker) teacher Leo, it didn’t take me long to get going.

Instead of a tedious blow-by-blow account here, I’ve distilled the 90 minutes into a few key revelations. And while 90 minutes would normally constitute a shaky basis for empirical observation, I got plenty of opportunity to determine the following:

#1 It would have been a joyless slog without my L1
If new knowledge is scaffolded upon previous knowledge, beginners have nothing to build on besides their L1. Banning students’ mother tongue, or even limiting it, in the classroom therefore becomes detrimental to learning, at least until they have a foundation in the L2 to get them started. I asked Leo several questions within the first half hour, and all I had to work with was my English. Gloria, with an extra few lessons already under her belt, was also in a position to explain a few things to me, and she could only do that in English.

#2 Beginners need some orientation
Before we started Leo set out some of his beliefs about language learning, with a view to explaining the reasons behind his (communicative) methodology. He also explained certain aspects of pronunciation and gave a short background to the language, with a few nuggets of contrastive analysis thrown in. All of this was in English, my L1. When I took Norwegian lessons as a beginner, I completed a 10-week course before we got a new teacher, who began by doing the same thing: introducing the language in the students’ L1. On both occasions it was both motivating and tremendously helpful to have that background knowledge of the target language, even if it was just a brief lecture. It’s just common sense to inform beginners of the nature of the task that faces them, and I think I trusted both teachers more as a result of that initial introduction in my mother tongue.

#3 Even the most well-intentioned students have other commitments
Leo had told me what to revise before the lesson, and was diligent enough to ask me at the start of the class how much I had managed to get through. Unfortunately the answer was “nothing”; I’d had the books, and the CDs, (and the blog!) but not the time. Time management forms part of students’ learning strategies (of which more in future posts), but in my case the competing pressures of teaching, materials writing, studying and keeping myself fed, clothed and sane meant that language learning got relegated to the bottom of my list of priorities. Sometimes that’s just the way it goes.

#4 Previous language learning experience plays a huge role
Gloria, my classmate, is Spanish and speaks English as well as I do. I speak Spanish rather less well, but I have experience of attempting to learn Norwegian, Slovak and Japanese. Leo, too, is bilingual in Malay and English and speaks reasonable Spanish. As our lesson progressed it became clearer that these prior language learning experiences were being used quite naturally but very explicitly to facilitate the acquisition of our newest L2:

“It sounds like a Spanish ‘o’.”
“It’s a glottal stop, like the English ‘t’.”
“If I think about it in Spanish it makes sense.”
“It’s not aspirated, so you can say it the Spanish way but not the English way.”

All of which suggests that language teachers need to have a much greater awareness of their students’ existing language capabilities beyond just the target language. Here in Malaysia it’s not uncommon to find that students can speak 3 or 4 languages to some extent, and my European summer school students in the UK spoke as many as 5 proficiently. All that language knowledge can be put to good use when there is a new one that needs to be acquired.

So, in sum:

  • L1 use is an essential part of acquisition for adult beginners.
  • An introduction to the target language in the students’ L1 orientates them and builds trust.
  • Allowances must be made for students’ lives outside class.
  • Prior language learning experiences can, and should, be used to scaffold acquisition.

Oh, and I did also learn a bit of Malay, which was nice.

5 thoughts on “My First Lesson

  1. Thanks Kate; I neglected to mention the awkward situation it places most native speaker teachers in – it seems pretty clear that all else being equal, for a beginner, a teacher that speaks your L1 is far superior to one that doesn’t!

  2. Hi Damien, you’re right; we were lucky in that Leo happened to speak Spanish, and we had two shared languages to draw from, which is obviously not possible in most classes. But I do think that teachers need some familiarity with a number of languages, and need to be able to exploit the languages their students speak, even if they aren’t fluent themselves.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. Hey matt, it’s nice to know that you’re interested in learning Malay. As you know that me myself a native speaker, you are welcome to ask me anything about it. Cos I also teach Malay to a few of my foreign acquaintances(a British, a German, and a Libyan, so far). I’ll write you an email soon, perhaps we could start from there. Have a great day ahead.

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