I’m going to type every word I know. Rectangle. America. Megaphone. Monday.
Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation Season 3, episode 5
There are various ways you could set about learning a language, some of them better than others. A friend of mine in Rome, an American who was studying German so that he could go to Berlin to study Russian, began by picking up an old German novel at a flea-market and a pocket German-Italian dictionary, and making lists of words. When I asked him what utility he thought he would derive from the words he was listing (Rectangle; Megaphone) he just shrugged: languages are big, he said; just have to pick a corner and go.
This is a nice way to think about it. Unsystematically. Unfortunately, it does not work for everyone. I had a student many years ago in Italy who took a great interest in the English language. It was a hobby for him. He had a colossal lexicon of arcane terms. But he did not know how to pronounce half of them, or use any of them. He had no grammar, no structure, no paradigms, and no experience. And yet he kept on storing away the words. While it is possible he eventually reached some sort of critical mass and went thermonuclear with the English, it is also unlikely.
We all go wrong somewhere, and most of us continue to go wrong in the same ways. Our habits are often more important to us than our ultimate progress. Someone said that doing the same thing in the same way and expecting different results was the definition of madness, the sign of a malfunctioning programme where input and outputs do not correspond but we keep bashing in the inputs nonetheless. And this, I suppose, is where a teacher is supposed to come in. We are there gently to steer our charges away from the precipices, get them thinking about their practice and so on.
Only in more than twenty-years' teaching I do not think I have ever fundamentally changed a single student’s approach to language learning. Tips and tweaks are one thing: revolutions in style are quite another. Quite apart from anything else, teachers also have their idées fixes. If they are lucky, their idées fixes will correspond to those of their students, and everyone will rub along very nicely; if they do not, everyone is in for a bumpy ride.
And perhaps it does not really matter. We cannot fix our students. We can only accompany them on their various mad journeys for a while. All rising to a great place, said Francis Bacon, is by a winding stair. In the end, my American friend was not proposing a method so much as accepting a truth: it mattered little how he did it, so long as he did it.