Diary of a language learner Part 2 – Get into pairs

I had my second German lesson on Wednesday.

It started promisingly. Dora the teacher put us into pairs and asked us to talk about what we did at the weekend. I was sitting next to Kirsten, the Brazilian I mentioned last week, whose parents are German-speakers but who never learned German as a child.

‘Was hast du am Wochenende gemacht?’ I asked her.

Kirsten wasn’t completely up for the challenge and stumbled over her answers.

Ich bin mit mein Mann…’ she started.

‘Ich WAR mit meinEM Mann,’ I corrected her, a little too quickly.

Her eyes popped out on stalks. ‘You were with your man?’ she asked, in surprise.

‘No, I was correcting you. You said ‘ich bin’ and we’re talking about the past.’

‘Oh right,’ she said, sleepily. She looked around hopefully to see if anyone might want to change partners.

Und was hast du gemacht?’ I asked.

Wir essen … um …’ (We eat….)

Wir haben gegessen…’ (Note to self – stop correcting so quickly).

Ja.. wir haben gegessen … um…

Now, those of you who know a little German will know that in a situation like this, you have to put the object between the auxiliary and the past participle. But one thing I’m very clear about in my own mind is that I don’t believe in using the language of grammar explanation when helping people correct themselves.

So to help Kirsten work out what to do, I said:

‘Wir haben – doof, doof, doof, – gegessen.’

Why I chose doof, doof, doof to indicate where the object should be I will never know. I have never done it in an ELT classroom as far as I can remember. Kirsten looked at me as if to say: ‘OK, you’re mad, can I go and sit somewhere else now?’

Wir haben – zum Beispiel – Pizza gegessen,” I said.

‘Zum Beispiel Pizza?’ asked Kirsten. I laughed quite loudly – Zum Beispiel means ‘for example’.

At this point, the normally mild-mannered Dora yelled ‘STOPPPPPPPPPPPPPP!!!’

Kirsten and I hadn’t got very far, but I would be able to cobble something together during feedback.

But there wasn’t any feedback. And that was a feature of the entire lesson. Get into pairs, talk, Dora yells STOPPPPP and we move on to something else. Poor Kirsten was stuck with me all lesson – but we were never asked to report back on what we’d been talking about.

After the first pairwork activity, Dora asked us to look at a photo of a tropical palm-fringed beach on the IWB.

Haben Sie einen Urlaub in einem deutschsprachigen Land verbracht?

Heute, das Thema ist Urlauben,’ she said. Today’s topic is holidays. ‘Wo ist das?’

There was silence in the room. I decided to liven things up.

‘Brighton?’ I suggested, wittily. There was a desultory chuckle from somewhere in the room.

Dora smiled winningly. “Brighton – ich glaube nicht.’

No one else offered a suggestion, so I suggested Hawaii. Dora agreed that it could be Hawaii.

‘Und haben Sie alles einen Urlaub in einem deutschsprachigen Land verbracht?’ Have you all had a holiday in a German-speaking country? Another sudden change of tack.

There were some affirmative murmurs, and she put us in pairs again.

‘Also, hast du einen Urlaub in einem deutschsprachigen Land verbracht?’ I asked.

Kirsten looked at me defensively. Now I know from last week that she’s better than this, but she was clearly having a bad day, so we chatted in English to sort things out.

‘Have you ever had a holiday in a German-speaking country?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I have an uncle in Cologne.’

‘Have you been there?’


Und was hast du gemacht?’

‘Wir essen…. um… wir haben zum Beispiel Pizza gegessen.’

We both laughed at this. Kirsten then apologised for not being on the ball and thanked me for my help.

And you know what? I really enjoyed helping her.

The rest of the class was all book and/or grammar. And it was a bit dull and controlled. Once again I’m going to give Dora the benefit of the doubt and say that maybe she’s waiting until she knows us a little better before she takes the brakes off. But I’m not holding my breath.

I’ll report back after next Wednesday’s lesson. And I’ll sit next to someone else, because I think you know quite enough about Kirsten now.

The names have been changed.


50 thoughts on “Diary of a language learner Part 2 – Get into pairs

  1. I’ve thought about starting to learn another language for a while now, to learn more about that language (I’m not sure which one yet. Perhaps Spanish or Polish.) But I haven’t done much about it. However, reading these posts makes me want to sign up for a class just for the experience. I might be more inclined to do something about that 🙂

    Another very enjoyable post – I laughed out loud in several places! And a really interesting one too. Thanks!

    1. Do it, Carol, I really recommend learning a language. it’s an experience i wouldn’t have missed for the world. I have a lot of doubts about the method, but I can handle that. I realise that I’m a bit out of my comfort zone in the classroom – but then so are probably half the people in the class.

      I’m really enjoying it. 😛

      1. I have learned other languages in the past, but, apart from learning at school, it was while living in a country where that language was spoken. I’ve thought about doing it again now that I know a bit more about language teaching and learning but have always been a bit concerned that I wouldn’t like the methods. But that doesn’t seem to be hindering your enjoyment so, I will do it! Soon 😉

      2. Most learners of English aren’t doing their learning in a country where the language is spoken. So, as a teacher in an English-speaking environment, it’s very instructive to see what the difference is – you turn up a week later not having had any authentic chance to practise in between.

        Materials writers should take note of this and build in more revision and recycling with materials that are designed to be used in a non-English speaking environment.

      3. Good point! And, working in an English-speaking environment, I’ve learned not to assume that learners living here necessarily get much exposure to English between classes.

  2. I am here laughing, Ken! Teachers, when they go back to the classroom are always very critical about the methods…I don’t know why, but English classes seem to be much more advanced in terms of engagement and motivation than in other languages…I still remember my French and Italian classes. Couldn’t have been more dull. Only my peers to make the classes exciting and the fun of learning something new. Hope to see you soon in my hometown!

    1. Hi Carla,

      we English teachers do think that we’ve reached some level of sophistication that’s lacking in the teaching of other languages. In spite of my current situation, I think it may be a rather dangerous presumption. Dede is learning Mandarin at the same time as me, and she comes out of her class having been given a really challenging workout by her teacher, Ting (her real name, she deserves all the good publicity she can get!) 😛

      1. Generalizations are always dangerous, for sure. However, I can’t help remembering my foreign language classes and the reports from some family members who have done it lately…Most still in the 70s, unfortunately. However, I’m glad to hear that Dede’s teacher is here to contradict all the common sense. 🙂

      2. we English teachers do think that we’ve reached some level of sophistication that’s lacking in the teaching of other languages.

        It’s funny you should say that! When I started learning French, the communicative approach in ELT was in full swing (in Mexico, anyway) and my teacher made a point to show us how our French book was very Grammar oriented. Sure, there were listenings and readings and what not, but the bulk of the work we did was in Grammar. Ana Luisa (her real name) said that French pedagogues were light years ahead of everyone else and they had already realized that for any instruction to have a lasting effect, Grammar needed to be featured very prominently. I was already an English teacher by then, albeit not a very experienced one so I didn’t know what to make of it all.

        I have to admit she did have a point. I stopped studying French for ten years, but when I did go back to the classroom a few years ago I was happily surprised that most of my French was still there. That didn’t happen with my German, which I studied in a very communicative – no translation whatsoever way – when I was a teenager, and was completely gone when I tried to study it again with the lovely @olgaput last year.


      3. Hello Gloria :hum, attitude towards grammar very much depends upon culture. In France we are obsessed with it, and as a French teacher I used to be too… until I started to teach in the UK, where I met excellent students and teachers who didn’t have a clue about grammar. This made me think and I completely changed my attitude towards it : it’s only a tool to help you get to the language. If it does help you (because, like me, your whole education is based on it), use it, if it doesn’t and makes it all more complicated for you, by all means, forget about it, and focus on language, and the message you want to express.

      4. Gloria makers some very interesting comments:

        “Ana Luisa (her real name) said that French pedagogues were light years ahead of everyone else and they had already realized that for any instruction to have a lasting effect, Grammar needed to be featured very prominently.

        I was already an English teacher by then, albeit not a very experienced one so I didn’t know what to make of it all.

        I have to admit she did have a point. I stopped studying French for ten years, but when I did go back to the classroom a few years ago I was happily surprised that most of my French was still there

        That didn’t happen with my German, which I studied in a very communicative – no translation whatsoever way – when I was a teenager, and was completely gone when I tried to study it again with the lovely @olgaput last year.”

        I find myself so totally disagreeing with those points of views so that I pause and ask everyone: “If we go beyond the anecdotal (personally, I have only my own anecdotal “evidence” in this matter) are their any convincing studies that support my own view that grammar can harm and Gloria’s conviction that it needs to be featured very prominently?


      5. Hm…. interesting point you make, Gloria, about the French being there and the German not. But you don’t mention English – and having met you, I know that your English is what I call GANEST – Good as Native English Speaker Teacher. How did that happen? I think your answer might be more to do with your own motivation.

  3. Actually I think that what you’re doing (i.e: learning a foreign language and reflecting on your own learning process and strategies) is the best personal development any teacher can do.

    1. I completely agree, Alice – and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t get myself back into a classroom sooner.

    2. I’ll third that too. I think empathy is one of the key characteristics of a good language teacher. Much more difficult to empathise with your learners if you’ve never been in their position.

  4. Hi, Ken, l’m laughing, too!

    Absolutely loved the zum Beispiel and love the way your account brings memories flooding back! Seems like Scott & I might have had the same teacher of Greek. I think when we all come across one another again, there might be a lot of discussion about language classes.

    As Carla mentioned, English classes would seem to be one step ahead as far as engagement is concerned. Having attended classes in French, German, Italian & Spanish, have many stories to share but not online!

    Will, but can’t wait for Episode 3
    deine Freundin, Julie

    1. You mean the Greek teacher who invited people back to her flat? I wonder if ‘Dora’ will do that. I sooo want these classes to get more active because she really is a lovely person and has a beautiful voice. We’ll see…

    1. HI Evandro,

      I told her at the beginning that I wrote materials for English learners, but the part of my intro that she seems to have remembered is that I want to make a wedding speech in German.

  5. Hello, Ken

    this series of posts is seriously enjoyable and I’m laughing together with the rest. I used to learn German at university and the teacher was one of the few who influenced my own style of teaching greatly. And she is very beautiful, which is always such a pleasure 🙂
    I do believe it’s rather stressful for a teacher to be back into the classroom and be a learner in all senses! Personally, I’ve taken up French, but only online so far..what if I get disappointed in a real classroom?..chances are I won’t, of course 🙂
    I’m sure a lot of readers of your blog will consider taking some language course.
    Looking forward to post-Lesson 3 post! 🙂

    1. Hi Anna!

      I really have to be careful to get the balance of these Language Learner blogs right. I’m actually enjoying the experience a lot – and really would recommend getting back in a classroom – several people have already commented on the value of that to a language teacher.

      But at the same time, I think I will start tearing my hair out if we don’t do something that involves a bit of creativity or imagination on the part of the students soon. As you can tell from the exchanges in the blog – this is not a beginners’ class and we are all adults with some motivation to learn.

      Give us a bit of freedom! 😛

      1. Instead of complaining, offer some ideas (tactfully) and start curbing the activity a little : for instance, you complain you didn’t get feed back : why didn’t you offer to role play your conversation in front of the class (you could have totally made up what you did at the week-end and wait for reactions… just a thought).

    2. Alice,

      I really take your point about trying to solve the problem of what is missing by taking the law into my own hands, as it were. But I don’t want ‘Dora’ to feel that I’m encroaching on her space – and I already think some of the others think I’m a bit of a know-all (because I know what a modal verb is!)

      I think it would be better to share a few thoughts 1-2-1 with her and I tried to talk to her at the end of the class, but she had another class that started almost immediately in the same room, and the next set of students were coming into the room. I didn’t think it was appropriate to say anything.

      1. Yes, 1 to 1 seems nice, but could be intimidating too… As a student, I already (tactfully) tried to change the course of things in the classroom, particularly to make the tasks more creative, lively and engaging, and as a teacher, I really like this kind of initiative (but if it happens, I take it as an indirect message for me too, which is fine and unthreatening). What I mean to say is that the teacher alone doesn’t make the class. When we are in a class, as students or teachers, we *all* make the class, and I feel it’s completely legitimate to act accordingly.

  6. Ken, I loved this. But….Aaaaaaaah.

    First I recall Mat, an American professor of Art History, that I met many years ago in Boppard, Germany, in a Goethe Institute institution trying to learn German.
    Mat was obsessed with grammar. ” Ich moechte…God damn it! Is beer die, der or das?”
    “It hardly matters”, Mat, I said. “Just say “Bier” and they will know what you mean. The young female teacher was not amused. Later the wholke class went out with her to a restaurant. Amir, let’S call him, no longer able to control himself: “Renate. Ich liebe dir.” (” I love you”, with “you” in the wrong case.”Dich” she commented.

    (Mounts hobby horse). “Grammar” – one expert differentiates 11 separate meanings – is not the language. Language learners need to learn the language not its grammar. Linguists and linguistically- minded folk can get great intellectual pleasure from studying grammar, the attempts to nail down and describe languages and their systems. But “grammar” is a poor, misleading way of indicating how to learn and use a language.


    1. I love the idea of the teacher correcting a declaration of love. 😛

      Completely agree about grammar, Dennis – you’re pushing against an open door!

  7. Hi Ken!
    When you wrote that Kirsten looked around hoping that someone might want to change partners, I just knew that by the end of the class, you two would be laughing together. I cannot imagine anyone sitting next to you and being bored.
    By the way, when do you plan on telling Dora that you’re a teacher and a writer?
    Patiently waiting for your next post!

    1. As I just said in my reply to Alice, I did try to say a few words to her at the end of the class. She actually wrote in her pre-course notes that she would value feedback about her teaching style. As I’ve said more than once, she is a lovely bright serene person with a really nice voice – perfect teacher material. 😛

  8. Dear Ken,
    You´ve made me laugh out loud!!

    I´ve just started my German classes with a very young native speaker. My classroom peers are my 5 and 9 year old daughters. Last year both of them took private classes at home. This year I decided to join them.

    I am totally out of my comfort zone and learning together with my daughters really enriches this whole experience.

    Once we finally meet f2f at IATEFL you´ll be talking to me in German about what you´ve done during your weekend and I´ll be naming all the animals in German 🙂

    Looking forward to reading your next post.
    Warm regards

    1. You can name all the animals, Jen, and I can list a more adult lexical set – single, married, widowed, grandfather, grandchildren 😛

  9. Thanks, Ken. Extremely entertaining as ever. Maybe I missed something here? Just ONE class a week?! Must admit, I don’t like the sound of Dora too much (as my teacher, I mean), but maybe she’s deliberately breaking all the rules? i.e. All the experts say you should correct mistakes, so let’s see what happens if I don’t bother. Must admit I’m more and more tempted to try the same tactic.

    1. One 90-minute lesson a week, indeed – I think all the language classes at this particular institute are just one session a week.

  10. When I read this diary entry, I remembered the English lessons I experienced in in my school days before university…You can observe this situation in the classrooms in Turkey…I am very sad because of this :(((

  11. Splendid to see your language learning lessons have taken this multi-reflective blog format! Greatly enjoyed reading of your classroom exploits, and these comments and your responses, Ken. I tried learning Japanese both here in Japan and in Vancouver from Japanese teachers and found things less than smoothly progressive in most cases. Not just from their approach; i never warmed up to learning 2000 kanji… Regarding branka’s question (“when do you plan on telling Dora that you’re a teacher and a writer?), i suggest giving her your blog URL on the 2nd last class! Cheers,

    1. Talking of kanji – Dede is learning Mandarin with an excellent teacher, well trained in communicative methods. The classes are both challenging and enjoyable. Then Dede comes home and tries to learn to read and write more characters and becomes instantly frustrated and de-motivated.

      Some languages are just easier to learn than others!

      1. Yes, I’d love to learn Mandarin one day. Our school offers Mandarin too – though there is surprisingly little demand. I asked our teacher if I’d be able to teach myself Mandarin (as I can’t attend her classes), and she said it was *essential* to have a teacher correcting your pronunciation, especially at the beginning. So I’ve not tried, Anyway, fascinating language! No tenses or verb declinations, apparently?? Exactly the opposite to Basque, in other words, which I struggle with, and which has about 50 ways to say “this” and 100 to say “that”. I kid not.

  12. I’ve hijacked a computer to comment on this post, since the Gremlins remain well and truly inside my computer, it’s the weirdest thing ever. Anyway….
    It takes me back to my most recent language learning experience in 2009. I went on the government sponsored “Study China” trip. A month in Jinan, China studying Mandarin. Every experience you have had so far I can identify with. I actually noticed that in contrast to being “behind the times” methodologically, the Chinese as a Second Language graduate teachers were as communicative as can be . Grammar and translation definitely took a back seat to speaking and listening. It was like I was observing a CELTA trainee, only in Mandarin. Very impressive and organised of the Chinese. English beware! 🙂

    There are plenty more experiences to be had though, I found being in the classroom again entailed equal doses of fun and frustration. (Frustration at other students when they won’t shut up was my main gripe!) and loads of fun to be had playing with the language. We had great fun trying to explain a neologism we made up in Mandarin to the teacher, I’ve never seen anyone look so bemused….and the looks she gave us when we murdered those tones! Great fun! 🙂

    I definitely want to do it again this year if possible. Maybe resurrecting my Modern Greek in September? Look out for the blog! 🙂

    1. Blimey – ‘a neologism we made up’ – that’s a bit cheeky! Was it some kind of compound noun or something??

      1. Haha…..it’s a long story, and it sounds so bad when I explain in writing…one day I’ll tell you in person! Basically though it was just a new common noun we devised (me and my co-conspirator Sarah – a lovely girl even though she did actually fall asleep in class once…..or twice). I’m not sure what was more incomprehensible to our teacher, the concept behind the noun or the fact that we had the audacity/creativity to “improvise” a new written Chinese character for it, along with tones and pinyin. Just a bit of harmless (if somewhat childish) fun – but there is something about (re)assuming the student role which brings out my inner child. Couldn’t fault my Chinese teacher though, never seen so much enthusiasm and patience in such a small package (she was tiny), although I think it took her a good few lessons before she really came out of her shell, so maybe Dora will in a week or two. Looking forward to the next lesson…….I mean blog post! 🙂

  13. Thats the sort of experience that reminds us how important it is to report things after a pairwork! Thanks. As a teacher, I’ll think of it even when I’m in a hurry.

  14. Hello again,

    kind of makes me think…why are there more English language teachers discussing methodology and approach to language learning than any other language teacher?

    Anyway, I wanted to ask: Does she, at least, monitor/support during pairwork? How do other sts feel about talking in pairs?

    “Materials writers should take note of this and build in more revision and recycling with materials that are designed to be used in a non-English speaking environment.” What you said means you’ll be using this experience to design materials in the future so being a learner will be “an extra string to your bow”! (I had to google that, but I used it in a sentence, so there! 😀 )

    Love this series of posts.

    1. Hi Dina ….. sorry to be a little late replying – was on my way to Brazil and am now settled into my hotel in Rio. It’s raining outside, so I’m not going anywhere. 😛

      Someone here in Rio today said almost the same thing about teachers of other languages – and i do worry about making generalisations about this, but there does seem to be evidence that, when it comes to the teaching of other languages, the methodology seems – how can we say? – a little less advanced.

      But to balance that, I have the evidence of Dede’s Chinese teacher, well versed in communicative methods, who enthusiastically gets the whole class to produce Chinese of good quality every week. The fact that most of this production is spoken says a bit about the challenge of learning to write Chinese characters.

      But I would really love to hear stories from colleagues who are doing great work teaching languages other than English. And not just those of you who teach English AND another language, and transfer your methodological skills from one to the other.

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