Diary of a language learner – Part One

After decades pontificating to other teachers about how to teach languages, I am back in the classroom learning one.

I’m taking German classes for a very specific reason. My Spanish nephew is marrying his German fiancée in Bamberg in July, and I would like to make a speech in Spanish and German at the wedding. I can handle the Spanish, but I need to brush up on the German I studied a century or so ago at Salford Grammar School with the wonderful trombone-playing Mr Simpson. I was good at German, but I always came second behind Meir Possenheimer who … well, I guess it’s clear from his name why he was numero uno … um…nummer eins!

I’ve changed ‘saxophone-playing’ to ‘trombone-playing’ after Meir Possenheimer himself corrected me.  🙂

I was later able to put some practical flesh on the academic German I learnt at school when I toured Germany, Austria and Switzerland with the English Teaching Theatre, back in the 1970s and 80s.

So, I can hear you say, Ken’s studying a language – big deal! Hundreds of thousands of people are starting 2012 with new language courses all over the world. Many millions more are required to study languages at state schools. What’s so special about YOUR situation?

Well, as someone who writes language teaching materials for a living, I have a professional interest in the materials that are being used, the way teachers interpret them and how students react to the learning experience.

I’m not going to name the institution where I’m studying and I’m going to give fictitious names to the teacher and any students I might mention.

I want to first of all commend the institution I’ve enrolled with. It’s one of the very few in London that offers courses in a whole range of languages. I was delighted to note that the people in front of me in the queue for registration were there to study Mandarin Chinese, Arabic and Modern Greek  – that’s the name of the course, I presume they must also have a Classical Greek option – how fantastic is THAT??

I had registered for the course online and the registration process was clear and easy to follow. I was told that the course would cover the contents of a book called Willkommen, and we would be starting at Unit 12.

So, the first thing I did was go out and buy the book.

Willkommen - almost all that stands between me and abject failure as a Hochzeitredener (?) this year...

The first thing to say about Willkommen is that it comes in a huge and rather unnecessary plastic box, about the size of a small piece of hand luggage. Once I’d taken the book, a couple of CDs and a little Helper book out, the box was redundant, and heading for a landfill somewhere. Or maybe I can work out how to turn it into a lunchbox for one of my grandchildren.

Anyway, I hope the next generation of language materials will avoid such unnecessary waste.

The second thing I discovered was that unit 12 is almost at the end of the book! In other words, the first 120 pages or so of the book would be no use to me on the course. My ancestral Scottish genes initially took great offence at this, thinking I’d been conned into buying a book that I didn’t really need.

When I calmed down, I realised that it would be in my best interests to study the book from the beginning before starting the course, to see what level I was supposed to be at – and this proved to be invaluable.

So – I take back my initial reaction, and am glad I bought the book (although I still think the packaging is a disgrace).

The book is good and has several features you don’t find in international ELT materials.

First of all, there are translations of words and phrases. Yes – translations! Something you don’t find in international ELT books. Why not? Because publishers have managed to persuade the world that EVERY WORD on the page of an English language coursebook HAS to be in English.

This is entirely because it makes it easier for them to produce a one-size-fits-all book. If it’s going to be used in lots of different countries, then you can’t have the learners’ L1 on the page.

For me, the translations in Willkommen are a blessing. As the book progresses, the reading texts and dialogues of course become more complex, and each one introduces 5-10 items of new vocabulary. The new items appear in a box in the corner of the page, with their English translations. I find this really helpful.

There are also pages and pages of language information, where grammar and vocabulary issues are explained in English. Also very helpful. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to read a grammar explanation of a language IN that language, which is what happens in most English course books and supplementary material.

There are also some cultural background notes in English, some of which I knew – for example that Germans like going for a Kur (cure) and to do that, they head off to places whose names begin with Bad, the most famous of which is Baden-Baden – and some which I didn’t know – for example, that there are more public holidays in German Länder (states) where there is a large Catholic population, because more religious days in those Länder are actual holidays.

Although there are German-speaking enclaves in, for example, some Latin American countries, the language is spoken mainly in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, so the background information about those countries is useful.

I don’t think such information is relevant or useful in English teaching materials, because English isn’t the property of any one group of speakers. Indeed, as people in the ELT business know well, English is used as a means of communication between non-native speakers communicating with other non-native speakers much more than between non-native speakers communicating with people who speak English as a first language.

Willkommen is a well-presented and manageable book. It needs a bit of a re-vamp, if only because there’s a lot of stuff about pen friends and nothing at all about email or other cyber-stuff, but all in all, I’m happy that my return to formalised language learning will be with the help of this book.

So what about the class itself? A word or two first about my classmates.

I was delighted to see such a variety of people of all ages in the class. About half of them had been in the class during the autumn term and were clearly pleased to see each other and the teacher after the end of year break.

The youngest students are in their twenties, and the oldest are two women who I reckon are in their seventies. They are neighbours in South London who also happen to have German-speaking ancestors. There’s a smattering of other nationalities, including a Brazilian woman whose parents speak German, and a Spanish woman whose work takes her to Germany a lot. When the teacher asked the Brazilian woman if her parents had spoken German with her as she was growing up, she replied: “They spoke German to each other only when they didn’t want me to understand.”

Like the Brazilian, most people’s reasons for being there are because of some family or relationship connection. There’s a South African woman whose father was born in Austria and who has an Austrian boyfriend. My first thought was – why isn’t HE teaching her German? There was also a young City type who said rather glumly – “Meine Freudin ist Deutsche, ich MUSS Deutsch lernen.” I could see from his face that he found speaking to her in German a bit of an ordeal.

My announcement that I was planning to make a wedding speech – a Hochzeitrede – seemed to cause interest amongst some people and a rather stony-faced suspicion among others.

I can already see who I’m going to get on with in this group. 🙂

And what about the teacher? Well, Dora (not her real name) was very welcoming and conducted the initial arrangements very well – all in English, though. I’m going to have another lesson before I comment on her teaching style.

I hope you don’t mind waiting to find out what I think.


My wife Dede was resuming her Chinese classes on the same night, although in a different branch of the institute. As we walked through Covent Garden on the way to our classes, we bumped into Brita Haycraft, who with her husband John founded International House.

Brita was on her way home from giving a pronunciation class at International House. I thought this was very serendipitous – she and John trained Dede and me more than forty years ago, when IH was still in Shaftesbury Avenue and really she has hardly changed in that time.

IH is celebrating fifty years of teacher training this year, and Brita was there at the beginning. I hope reading her name and remembering John will jolt a few memories amongst any IH-trained teachers who are reading this.

We took Brita for a cup of coffee at Patisserie Valerie on Long Acre and we talked about the old days. I almost missed my class because of all the reminiscing.

But I went and … well, more about that next time.


43 thoughts on “Diary of a language learner – Part One

  1. I couldn’t help but think this would be a great start to a novel (maybe that is because I’m now reading a book that takes place in a classroom- thanks to your last blog post). I love when your blog posts are stories, Ken. You choose the best details to share. I can’t wait to find out more about your teacher, your fellow students, and the wedding! (Maybe the wedding gift will go in the box?)

    1. What a brilliant idea, Tara! As you can see, the cover of the book (and the box) is a piece of chocolate that says ‘I love you’ – appropriate or WHAT?? 😛

  2. Can’t wait for the next episode, Ken! I actually took a course in Modern Greek at the same centre many many years ago when I thought that Greece would be my launchpad into EFL teaching (in fact I overshot and ended up in Egypt, where the Greek might have been more useful 50 years earlier, or indeed 2000 years earlier).

    The way you describe the mix of students and their divers needs suggests that things haven’t changed a lot. We were fairly evenly divided between love-related and tourism-related reasons. I was the only one planning to actually live there. The textbook was published in Greece in the 1960s and available at only one shop in Charing Cross Rd: needless to say it wasn’t packaged in a plastic box. The teacher was charming and once had us all round to tea in her flat near the Barbican, I seem to recall. The whole experience was rather Barbara Pym-ish.

    When I got back from Egypt I signed up for a class in Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics. I have to confess I don’t remember a lot about that, except there wasn’t a lot conversation!

    1. Is the institute that I’m talking about so obvious? It isn’t International House, of course…

      I like ‘love-related or tourism-related reasons’. Wouldn’t it be great if they sent round a list to tick – WORK LOVE TOURISM COMBINATION OTHER 😛

  3. Liked your blog post, waiting for the sequel 🙂
    It seems that you’re going to have fun studying German, and, what’s most important, you’re highly motivated for that. Good luck Ken!

    1. I’m definitely highly motivated – the big question mark – can i adapt to her teaching style.

      Even I don’t know the answer to this …

  4. Ken,

    I’m so glad you decided to take up the challenge and write about your latest learning experience – it’s bound to keep us smiling (& reflecting) through 2012 Episode 1 certainly did!

    You might wish to watch some episodes of ‘Mind your Language’

    Eagerly awaiting your next post – just think many moons ago I might have been sitting on your chair- yes, I attended Modern Greek classes at the very same institute!

    Be a conscientious student, can’t wait to see the video of the speech at the wedding


  5. First of all, thanks to Julie – I’d totally forgotten about “Mind your language”; sigh, took me back a few years!
    I absolutely loved reading your ‘story’ – not only is it fantastic to know that a language teacher is able to place himself back in the learning seat (I believe this makes for a better teacher!) but in your case it means the telling of the tale is so much more interesting. You have the benefit of having now recently been on both ‘sides’ of the classroom and can provide us, your readers, with the information we don’t always get from our students (positive/critical/informative….). I sincerely hope you’ll have time to post regularly on your learning process including the final ‘assessment’ (speech – a very realistic ‘task’!) as well as the teaching style and the book.
    What I’m particularly curious to know: is the teacher aware of what you do when you’re not taking German classes and if she doesn’t yet know, when she finds out (presumably there will come a moment when everyone describes who they are and what they do – especially in light of having a new boy in the class) does she in any way adapt her teaching style….?

    1. I told the teacher that I write books for English learners, but she was more interested in the fact that I want to make a speech at a wedding 😛

  6. Ken, really interesting observations written in an engaging way. Have you ever considered a writing career? 🙂 I am really looking forward to reading further adventures of Ken in German Class.

  7. Dear Ken, I can´t wait for the next episode; really fun indeed. It´s a huge responsability to your teacher to have you in her class! With respect to the book, it reminds me of the way I explain grammar to my English students -in Spanish- our mother tongue. Speaking of cultural matters, for example, young learners don’t understand when they are asked to write a card because in our country (Argentina) we are not used to writing cards when we travel; English books are full of card writing!
    I hope you enjoy your learning and get ready for the wedding speech (another cultural stuff; I know these custom because of anglosaxon films).Read you soon.Patricia

    1. Hi Patricia,

      you make an interesting point about the unexpected cultural aspects of language teaching materials in books – like card-writing in your case. I remember when we were writing a book for Egypt, and the focus group asked why there were so many radio interviews in the listening – apparently no one is ever interviewed on the radio in Egypt, so students were completely puzzled by these texts!

  8. Wonderful entry as always, Ken. Thank you. I think everybody posting here agrees that you are a “natural” storyteller.

    So many things we can relate to and could comment on… I was interested to read about Brita and to see she is *still* teaching pronunciation! It makes *me* feel old because I’m *still* teaching English!… I could ask you a little about the Spanish connection in your family (your nephew)… But, no, let’s talk about IH…

    -Celebrating their 50th year this year, did you say? What a coincidence. So am I!

    -I sing their praises at every staff meeting (I left IH many years ago) and generally upset my colleagues by telling them how wonderful our competitors are… or used to be, as I have no idea if they are still as organised today as they were back in 1984-1988?

    -And I still remember all my trainers – Annie, Allyson, Jill… – real names. All women of course. I seem to have spent my entire career being bossed about by ladies.

    I’d better not go on. Looking forward to your next instalment.

    1. Hi Mike,

      glad to hear that you have good memories of your IH connections, as do Dede and I. Just to be clear, IH is celebrating 50 years of teacher training this year – the organisation is much older than that. John and Brita started a school in Cordoba in the 1950s, and opened the London school in, I think, 1961.

      And we have Spanish nephews because Dede’s brother also worked for International House, in Cordoba in fact, the original school, and married una cordobesa.

      1. Thanks, Ken, and for the clarification about IH. I’m pleased to report, therefore, that I’m not nearly as old as I thought I was! John, bless him, passed away many years ago, I believe?

  9. Can’t wait to see what you think of the teacher. I really enjoyed the way you evaluated the textbook from a classroom learner’s perspective. I recently signed up for a Japanese class (starting tomorrow!) As you did, I wanted to check out the book before the lesson. I compared it with books that I have bought for self-studying. I couldn’t believe how different they were. Is it possible to have a textbook for a classroom that works as well for self-studying? I guess a lot depends on how the teacher uses the book in class. But that aside, how might the criteria be different for a self-taught versus a classroom learner?
    Your diary will be such a powerful tool for teacher. Looking forward to your next lesson!

    1. Hi Connie,

      interesting point about class v self-study materials. I think it helps me that I spend such a lot of time working with materials and evaluating other people’s work. One thing I really like about Willkommen is the fact that there are lots of conversation models followed by gap versions, so I’ve been reading them out aloud wherever I can (thankfully not on the bus or train yet). 😛

      And, as I said above, the language information in English has been invaluable.

  10. I really enjoyed reading your post, Ken. I did my RSA Prep Cert (as the CELTA was called then) at ih Piccadilly, back in the summer of ’89. Very happy memories. Unfortunately, I never got to meet the Haycrafts, but your mention of Brita’s pronunciation lesson took me back to the show-stopping, jaw-dropping demo lesson given by a very young Adrian Underhill, in which he showed how one might introduce the IPA chart to learners. Wow, could he impart enthusiasm!

    1. Thanks, Penny – and young Adrian Underhill still has the same impish enthusiasm – it must be something they put in the water in Hastings…

  11. I think my reply is a bit overlong but I could relate to your post in more ways than one.

    First of all, as a language learner years ago, I also found L1 translations and grammar instructions helpful for self-study/revision. The higher the level, the more I needed the Greek word in order to understand finer shades of meaning between synonyms, for example. When I became an EFL teacher I, too, was convinced L1 was more of a hindrance than a help so I very meticulously refrained from using it in class.

    I became a language learner again about two years ago (I took up Italian) and to my surprise…I found myself making associations with both the Greek AND the English language. Vocabulary, tenses, idioms…I had to think of the equivalent in Greek and English in order to fully grasp linguistic and cultural differences.

    Another thing, is the fact that you are already focusing on the teacher’s teaching style. On my first year as an EFL teacher (fresh out of my Cert. TEFL course) I decided to complete my studies in French and joined a prestigious school here in Athens. I couldn’t help but make comparisons between what that teacher did and what I had been instructed to do in my classes.

    At some point I stopped focusing on the lesson itself and started taking notes on what I would have done differently (i.e. ask concept questions, organise the whiteboard more effectively, reduce TTT…). I still have that page on the back of my French notebook! As a learner of Italian I experienced the same. (Why did we translate the text and then answer comprehension questions? Why did the teacher use a deductive approach with lots of metalanguage?)

    In short, I don’t think I enjoyed the learning process as much as I did when I was a youngER language learner, but maybe I was able to better guide myself through the learning process.

    I hope your interest in materials and methodology will not stand in the way of your enjoying this class. Can’t wait to read more!

    All the best,

    Dina 🙂

    1. Thanks for these thoughts, Dina …

      you’ve brought up the extra consideration of the teacher using L1 in the classroom – a much more contentious thing than my desire to see translations of words on the page! 😛 The first thought is for the legions of native speaker teachers in Greece who don’t speak Greek – or at least not well enough to make a useful offering in class. I still think it’s more of a hindrance if they try to use L1. But you brilliant non-native speaker teachers – it’s a useful extra string to your bow!

      That string idiom just doesn’t look right – do we really say that?

  12. Two comments, if I may: (1) John Peter Sloan has become a big hit in Italy, where they generally believe they have trouble learning other languages, with his approach that blends humor with explanations in Italian, as necessary; (2) I just finished the IH CELTA course at the Milan, Italy, downtown branch, and it was wonderful! Marvelous teachers! May I mention their names? Siabhra Woods and Christina Cattaneo, thank you!

  13. Thanks for this trip into the language classroom with you, Ken! Echoing the comments, I thoroughly enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to the next installment.

    Carol 🙂

    PS: I agree with Tara. This could be the start (or a chapter) of a book.

    1. Maybe a play – contrary to appearances, prose is not my favourite kind of writing, certainly not writing fictional stuff. But when I get round to it, I do have two or three ideas for comic plays. And it IS time someone produced something more realistic than Mind Your Language that Julie referred to earlier

  14. It feels funny, doesn’t it, being back in the classroom to learn a language after teaching for a while? As you may remember from our twitter exchange from a while back, I did try to go back to learn German last year and, sadly, I failed miserably. For me, I think, the problem was a bit that I didn’t know how to be a beginner anymore (having been studying French and English for longer than I can remember), and I found it very hard to be in a class where all three students were at completely different levels. I have to say, @olgaput did the very best she could given the circumstances and it was me who just couldn’t adapt.

    I am sure your experience will be a much more rewarding one, and I’m very much looking forward to reading the next installment

    – Gloria.

    1. Gloria,

      now we’re getting into some serious stuff about teachers being back in the classroom again. 😛

      Apart from the mixed level thing, what else do you mean by ‘I didn’t know how to be a beginner anymore’?

      1. I couldn’t handle ‘not knowing’ the vocabulary or not getting the grammar structures. I felt like I should know the material (even though I consciously knew I couldn’t possibly be at the same level than the people who had been taking the class for four months). I overcompensated by trying to make notes on the grammar notes and vocabulary boxes (which, unlike in Wilkommen, didn’t have a translation) but some of the words translated better (or made more sense to me, anyway) in Spanish, others in English and others even in French – turning my notebook and my head into a mini tower of Babel.

        In short, I think I did the sort of thing I tell my students not to do!

  15. Hello, Ken,
    You certainly do bring back memories.
    Actually Mr Simpson – that marvellous teacher – played the trombone as I recall. Unless he played the saxaphone as well. But never in class.

  16. Hello, Ken,
    You certainly do bring back memories. There again, at least you do have some hair – certainly rather more than I do! But basically, facially at least, you haven’t really changed all that much.
    As for AMK Simpson, he of the italic writing and probably the best teacher I have ever come across, I remember him well. Not only was he an excellent teacher, he was a lovely person, and I have only fond memories of him. Though his instrument was a trombone, not a saxaphone. One of my regrets is no longer having his “vocab” books and all the useful ditties he composed to remind us of various points of German grammar. Without them I struggle to this day (believe it or not) with noun genders.
    Be well, and kind regards,
    Meir Possenheimer

    1. Goodness! This is the first time a blog has brought a visitor from Salford Grammar School.

      How could I have written that Mr Simpson played the saxophone?? Of COURSE it was the trombone! And I even spelt your name wrong, too!

      Good to hear from you, Meir – hope you’re fit and well.

      1. Likewise, Ken. And I am really impressed by what you have achieved over the last half-century and can only wish you much more success in all your endeavours. Incidentally, it is amazing how much eagerness can be instilled into language learning – as in my own case – when the benefits are understanding the “secrets” discussed by parents in their own native language! Sadly, after going on to read Modern Languages at University I am no longer involved with them.

  17. Hi Ken,

    I very much enjoyed the first report on the start (or should I say re-start) of your German challenge.

    My interest was piqued by your overview of the textbook. I currently am learning Korean and have a fairly well updated book from 연세대 (Yeonsei Uni). It also translates new vocabulary as well as some English grammar explanations, which are truly useful.

    The only detraction is that there is no help when it comes to directions. It would be lovely for, perhaps the index, to have a list of common directions in both languages. Is that something that is considered when creating a language textbook?

    I look forward to hearing how the teacher’s style aides/detracts from the learning process.

    John Pfordresher

    PS, I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in your lecture on “helping students improvise” at the KOTESOL international conference this past weekend. It was fantastic and gave me quite a few ideas to try in my own classes. Thank you

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