How long have you been trying to learn to speak fluent English? How many courses have you taken hoping to be able to speak English at the end? How many did you finish and think “I still can’t speak English”. 34 experts on the teaching of English as a second language (ESL) were asked one very good question, probably THE question “What does it take to speak fluent English?”. The answers they gave contained some slight variation but there was a clear and unmistakable message for English learners everywhere.
The really useful bit of what the author, Jason R Levine, did by asking the question was to remove the possibility of ‘group think’. It was like a blind vote or a private survey and no one could influence anyone else with their response. He asked everyone privately (including our own Free Range English founder, Jason West) and got private replies. He then published the results without consultation or amendment. So you can trust the answer, which can be expressed like this,
“Work with some content that is interesting, relevant to your communicative needs, is largely understandable and prepares you for and supports real focused speaking practice in a fun and sociable way. Then listen and repeat.”
If you have done any of our Free Range English lessons in London you will recognise that way of studying. It is what we have done at English Out There and now Free Range English, since 2001, and thousands of English learners have discovered how a little bravery and hard work can get them through the language barrier and turn them into a comfortable and confident English speaker quickly and inexpensively.
But, and this is a very big but…there is an enormous elephant in the room. And that is the room itself, yes, the classroom! By agreeing that preparing for and then taking part in focused speaking practice with fluent English speakers these experts (most of their careers having bloomed and prospered within the four walls of the classroom) are admitting that the classroom is not the best place to learn to speak English.
Three of the experts have blogged about Jason Levine’s article. One was our Jason, the other two brave souls didn’t ignore the overarching outcome of the exercise and admitted that the results prescribed real focused speaking practice outside of the classroom with fluent English speakers. Which is close to ELT heresy. Why? Because the global ESL industry (publishing, teacher training, study abroad, ESOL, language education in general in state schools and colleges) is based upon delivering lessons inside the four walls of the classroom and practising language with a qualified teacher. But it doesn’t work, if you want to speak English and not just write it. In fact, learning to write English for years before learning to speak it can make it more difficult to learn to speak it!
To illustrate just how problematic the outcome of this survey is for the global ELT industry the other two experts who wrote about it both made difficult and somewhat apologetic defences of the status quo towards the end of their posts. Here’s Jennifer Lebedev of English with Jennifer (sponsored by Pearson),
“This is my final defense of formal instruction. The ESL classroom isn’t an alternative to real-world practice and communication. It should be seen as a bridge. The wonderful thing about that bridge is that it doesn’t have be burned at any point. “
Well, English Out There and Free Range English “burned” it.
Here’s Rob Howard of Online Language Centre,
“First and foremost, find a professional course or a professional teacher that can help you with the basics, your doubts and your mistakes. The old adage “you get what you pay for” applies here.”
It’s a sad fact of life that most language learners still think they need a teacher in the traditional sense in order to learn to speak. They don’t. They just need the right guidance. For most language learners trying to speak the current cycle is – study by reading and writing – try to speak – fail – ask teacher – get told to study harder – try to speak – fail – ask teacher – get told to study harder – fail…and so on. And in that process, a global multi-billion dollar process, are a few people and organisations making a lot of money out of the continual failure of the people they are claiming to help.
Let’s see if any of the other 34 experts (around 700 years of ELT experience collectively!) publish their thoughts about this article that Jason R Levine wrote about how to become a fluent English speaker and which, in our opinion, exposes the hypocrisy of the global English language teaching industry.