Most of my students are adults. Almost all of them wish to learn a new language. I either teach them at work, at home or online. I could come up with lots of categories, but the most general way to divide my students into two groups are:

– the ones who like to do exercises in a course book

– the students who want to learn to speak as fluently as possible and are practically allergic to course books

Let me tell you plain and simple what my experience is.

If were my students’ employer I would NEVER send a student from the first category to a business meeting to represent the company.

Why?

The fonder students are of grammar and exercise books the less likely it becomes they will ever be fluent in that language. Even if they acquire a lot of knowledge they will be too afraid to make a mistake to actually communicate.

Using a language is not about never making a mistake. It’s about being understood, it’s about being able to negotiate, to get your message across, to show who you are, to get things done.

Filling in exercises in a book has very little to do with real life. NOBODY talks like the dialogues you usually see in a course book.

Language is about creativity. It’s fluid, it’s constantly changing. When it stops changing the language dies.

You can’t learn how to be fluent in a language from a course book. So many people have language lessons in highschool for years and years and they graduate and still aren’t fluent.

At university I learned Russian from getting drunk with Russians, I learned Slovene from writing letters to my professor. I started doing that with a dictionary before I knew any Slovene. Those letters were full of mistakes, but he corrected them and I learned.

I have never in my life opened a Slovak exercise book. I get paid decent money to interpret Slovak to English/Dutch/German/French and vice versa. I have never paid for Slovak lessons. I did not take Czech (which is very similar to Slovak) or Slovak at university.

I learned Slovak from reading novels in Slovak and watching series with Slovak dubbing. My wife doesn’t speak Slovak to me, she loves English. I learned Slovak from talking to other people. At first I made mistakes in absolutely every sentence. I did not feel any block or shame. This isn’t because am some language genius. It’s just how the human brain learns a new language: through immersion and doing, doing, doing, experimenting, having fun, playing with it. I was taught French the classic way and when I speak French I do feel shame when I make a mistake. The classic highschool way of teaching a language sucks. Learning a language by filling in exercises is like learning how to drive a car by reading a book on cars. No matter how well you do on the theoretic exam you will not learn how to drive a car if you never just jump behind the wheel of one and just go.

It’s quite sad to see students plow through exercise books knowing that in the end they will freeze when they are thrown into an every day situation where they will have to use the language.

A course book gives a false sense of security. It does not prepare for the mostly unpredictable ways in which you have to use languages. It also teaches you an unnatural way of communicating, because no exercise book is a good reflection of how people really talk.

I always refer to the teaching scenes in the movie Good morning Vietnam to see funny examples of what am trying to say.

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