Many of us, foreign English speakers, began our English studies at school, so it would be only logical if the vast majority of use spoke impeccable English. Seven years long English studies will supposedly make you into a near-native English speaker, and we shouldn’t expect anything less from our educational system, isn’t it right?
When an average student is required to speak English in an informal situation, however, the cold reality hits home – most of foreigners having gone through the standard educational system are very poor English speakers
I went through the whole spectrum of emotions starting from shock and ending with despair when I realized that my real-life English was useless back in the days when I just moved to an English speaking country. Throughout the following years up to present days I’ve improved greatly and at the same time I’ve also figured out why my school English studies didn’t contribute into my English fluency at all!
What you’ll read below might shock you and you’ll realize that you’ve probably never looked at this subject from this perspective before. Sometimes a cold shower is necessary, though, so that you can start thinking outside the box and draw the right conclusions about your previous and existing English studying efforts.
Whether you’re in Malaysia, Argentina or Canada and thousand miles separate you from other English students of different race, nationality and language, you’re most likely sitting in a classroom with 10 – 30 other students and staring at your English teacher…
1. Current English Education Has Changed Little Since… 18th Century?!?
Yes, you read it right – foundations of the current English educational system were laid back in 1700’s when students were required to drill Latin grammar and focus on translation and grammar rules entirely!
This grammar translation method of learning a second language has, of course, lost its extreme form and nowadays English teachers do incorporate listening, speaking and role plays in the English lessons. However, the very essence of English language teaching remains the same.
Students are instructed in English grammar, and regularly given new English words to memorize. After relentless English studies you’re expected to master the language by understanding how English grammar works and by being able to use vocabulary that’s acquired throughout years long memorization drills.
In theory it sounds quite reasonable, but let’s not forget that three hundred years ago our world was so much different place!
Academic education was looked at with awe simply because not everyone could afford it. Academic scholars employed study methods inherited from medieval monks when the word ‘to study’ was normally associated with spending your days quietly in a room with plenty of books for a company.
If not for the monks, who preserved knowledge during endless wars waged by monarchs, much of our written heritage would be lost, no doubt about that!
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But as not really talkative bunch of fellas as they were, they left a legacy of a language learning method that isn’t effective if you want to communicate with real people in real life! Hundreds of years ago studying was irrevocably linked with books and reading exclusively. And what’s very important to notice – this notion has been passed on through generations and even these days being a well educated person is mostly associated with doing all the same stuff – reading and writing.
While in many exact sciences you indeed can reap rewards by focusing on crunching numbers in your copybook, it just doesn’t work with languages! I think you can’t even look at English as a subject on its own – it’s not the end itself, it’s just a means to an end! The only natural way to use the English language is to use it as means of communication, but if you go the path created by scholars you’re trying to earn a badge for learning the English language in the olden way.
If you haven’t spent many a year sitting hunched over manuscripts and books, you just can’t be any good at English – that would be the maxim of the old, grey-haired professors – and this assumption is still pretty much alive!
2. You Learn All ABOUT English at School, in Real Life You Need THE English!
Since the moment you open your first English textbook, your exciting journey into the vast depths of English begins… Hold on, hold on! Did I say exciting? Sorry, it was just a slip of the tongue because English is exciting if you USE it as means of communication, but I’m not sure about English textbooks…
For the most part they’re not so interesting at all because they focus on telling you everything about how the language is built. English syntax, grammar and vocabulary is scrutinized in the very detail and throughout your grades you’ll be required to learn more and more advanced English grammar rules, sentence structures, writing techniques and styles and so on and on.
To me it sounds like dissecting human vocal cords if you want to become a singer!
The academic mentality still prevails in traditional language learning and the meticulous attention to detail comes with it. Historically the first sciences where math related and the same approach is used with language learning. Sorry, I should have said – studying.
This very word phrase – ‘to study English’ seems to imply that the student is looking at the English language as an object to be dissected, researched, and put in a numerical context
After all, once the inherited human curiosity has led to all those incredible technological breakthroughs, surely the science can’t be wrong and we have to put all school subjects into the same basket?
Sadly all we can do is look at English language studies sitting next to chemistry and algebra in the school curriculum. Hundreds of years of educational system’s accumulated collective wisdom is paramount and no-one can even suggest that English learning paradigm needs to change by 360 degrees.
After all – what would hundreds of thousands of English teachers do with their impeccable grammar knowledge? Whom will they pass on knowledge about grammar tenses, modal verbs and conditional sentences?
If everyone will start LEARNING and USING the English language, who will be left to STUDY it?
3. Beginners, Intermediate, Advanced – English Grammar is Very Difficult and it Takes Long Years to Master it… That’s a MYTH, My Friend!
By now you probably have a feeling that I’m an English Grammar hater and I’m completely against looking at the English language from a formal, academic standpoint.
Well, you’re not entirely right because I think that while the main focus in English learning needs to be put on acquiring natural speech patters through speech, it’s still useful to know how the language is built. And occasionally doing grammar tests can give your English skills an edge, at least you can learn about differences between formal and conversational English that way.
There is a widespread myth, however, that English Grammar ISN’T easy, and that your study process needs to be split up into levels of difficulty – Basic, Beginners, Intermediate and Advanced. Why am I saying – myth?
Just look at the following sentence: “Hadn’t John been aware of the existence of martial arts classes in his home town, he wouldn’t have become an MMA champion”. Which English Grammar level does it correspond? Advanced, right? Just look at the Past Perfect form – “hadn’t been aware”, so this is a Conditional Sentence Type 3. You don’t learn these things in the first year at school, do you? Nope. So the English Grammar difficulty isn’t a myth as a much “easier” sentence clearly shows: “If John didn’t know about martial arts classes in his home town, he wouldn’t be an MMA champion”…
It still is a myth, my friend, still is, and here’s the reasoning behind this argument
English Grammar in a school curriculum is structured in an unnatural way. Those who’ve created textbooks for older students have followed the same principles as if they were pre-school children.
When a 10 or 13 year old embarks upon English studies, they’re being taught basic grammar structures as if they’re just starting to learn how to speak
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Common professors, if a child is 13, he can speak perfectly in his native language at least! Can’t he say the same “difficult” things in his native tongue? Sure he can! The only difference is that he can’t ANALYZE those grammar structures. As far as speech goes, however, an average human being is capable of saying most “advanced” things at that age
Don’t confuse “advanced” with the size of ones vocabulary, though. Of course, a child constantly acquires new vocabulary, but it has nothing or very little to do with the way he builds sentences when speaking. If one learns a language in a natural way, all grammar already comes with it and you don’t necessarily have to ANALYZE it to USE it
The very way how traditional English studies are conducted stipulates we separate Grammar into levels of difficulty.
If we look at English Grammar as something that naturally exists within the language regardless if we do or don’t analyze it, the artificially created borders dissipate.
There are of course, differences between how a 10 year old schoolboy and a 30 years old lawyer speak. These differences, however, consist almost exclusively of the DIFFERENT VOCABULARIES, not “different grammar”. The following two sentences: “I’m ready for school, Mum!” and “Dear colleagues, we’re ready to continue with court proceedings!” follow the same syntax, the only thing that is different is – vocabulary usage.
The bottom line here is – the English Grammar levels have been devised based on academic deliberations. To study the language you need to spend long years leaning all relevant terminology like ‘conditionals’, ‘modal verbs’, ‘auxiliary verbs’, ‘subjunctive’ and so on. To speak the language you don’t need to know terminology, you need to know how to USE it
4. English is taught the Same Way as Math or Physics Subjects…
Exact sciences are demand an absolute precision. When you’re crunching the numbers, there’s no deviation from formulas, and if you do make a tiny mistake, you end up with a totally wrong answer. Also, in subjects like Math, Physics and Chemistry there is a clear separation into levels of difficulty and without constant repetition and tests you’re unlikely to achieve any results.
If we look back in time, educational system was formed during the Industrial Revolution, and people started looking at world around them through prism of technical nature. Sciences driving the industry development formed the basis of school curriculums, so when language learning was introduced, it received the same technical treatment. It was analyzed, every bit of English syntax and grammar was given its proper place and quite naturally everyone assumed that language learning can be broken down to written, standardized tests.
In other words, people didn’t know any other way of how to teach a language, so they tried to treat is as an exact science. Once you are doing sums in Math lessons, you’ve gotta be doing something similar in English studies, right? So they came up with grammar drills, there you go!
English learning became number-bound, and if you were bad at Math, your English teachers most likely thought – “This guy is no good at learning. His just thick, he’s no good at grasping abstract concepts, so he won’t be able to speak a foreign language either…”
Dear teachers, how did this same guy, if I’m allowed to speak now, leaned to speak his native language then?!?
Silence in the classroom. Then the English teacher says: “Anyone can speak their native language; it has nothing to do with leaning a foreign language at school!”
Well, believe me or not, it has EVERYTHING to do with leaning English! If you take English language for what it is – a means of communication, not something you put under a microscope and take apart molecule by molecule, it becomes 100 easier for foreign students to use the language!
I think it would be very appropriate to compare English learning with music. Yes, music is another subject that can be viewed through mathematical prism, just look at how sounds behave if they’re drawn as notes on lines. There are many great thinkers who’ve concluded that anything can be actually expressed through numbers, and therefore rationalized and made understandable for a human brain.
You can perceive Beethoven’s symphonies as inconceivably long mathematic formulas, and you can also look at the English language through the same prism, if you want.
Luciano Pavarotti, however, one of the greatest opera singers of all times, couldn’t read music notes… Does that mean he wasn’t a good singer? He was a genius, but he didn’t look at music as a mathematic equation. He took it for what it is – an art, means of communication between people’s hearts and souls.
So the English language has to be taken for what it is – a language, means of communication between people, not a formula!
When you speak, you don’t crunch the numbers in your mind, you don’t subject your mind to strict rules and regulations. Pretty much like music the English language, and indeed ANY language you would speak, makes you IMPROVISE rather than re-produce standard content!
All right, these were the first 4 reasons about detrimental effect of academic English studies on your fluency. If you enjoyed reading this blog post, subscribe to my blog’s feed HERE – and wait for the next blog post where I’ll give you another 3 killer reasons!
P.S. Are you ready to get on the fast track to spoken English fluency? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!