The teaching of foreign languages

During high school, I studied two very different foreign languages (French and Japanese) and in more recent times, I've been lucky enough to be in the right place and time to make some basic steps in another two very different languages: Czech and Chinese. But rather than compare the languages themselves, I'd like to reflect on how they get taught through looking at how the respective textbooks approach the problem.

The aim of learning French was quite simple: to make it possible for you to go there and speak the language as a tourist in order to achieve simple things - ask where something is, what the time is, how much, etc. Japanese was not taught in this manner but I no longer have those textbooks to examine how it was done (unfortunately the end of highschool was celebrated by some amount of book burning, much to my shame.)

When I look at the textbooks I have today for Czech and Chinese, there is similar disparity, to the point where the Czech textbooks look like they've been written for people who will need to use the language vs the Chinese textbooks that look like they're written for business people. How stark the difference is can be see in the first lesson: in the Chinese textbook, it talks about company names and what country the company comes from vs the Czech textbook is greetings, including how are you. The difference in themes continues into both books - beer/coffee appears in lesson 1 for Czech but lesson 4 for Chinese.

Does the differing approach make much difference? Yes - in a very short span of time (1 lesson), it is possible to learn enough Czech to go to a cafe/restaurant and ask for food/drink. It takes considerably more lessons with the Chinese textbook. And in reflection, the difference feels much like it did when learning French and Japanese. Why does this difference exist? I can't say. Perhaps it is cultural, I can't say, as I don't know enough about the Chinese culture to know the significance of what is taught early on. There are no such problems with Czech - in a country that has some quite excellent beers, learning the Czech word for beer is very important, probably like wine for French.

In closing, I'll mention one other prominent difference between the two textbooks: use of the language you're learning. In the Czech textbook, there's an table at the front that tells you what various words mean in English. In every chapter, those words are used in place of the English words for "Read", "Write", "Listen", etc. The Czech textbook forces you to learn Czech in order to use it and uses it throughout. The Chinese textbook makes no such attempt as even at the end of the book, the word "Sentences" is still there in English at the beginning of the chapter. While I don't recall the approach Japanese textbooks took, from memory the French ones did approach things from the same angle as the Czech one does. One is given to wonder if there is some deeper cultural difference in the way people view Asian languages should be taught vs European languages.

Addendum

I suppose I should add a note here about which method I prefer. Without a doubt, the European approach for teaching language is vastly superior to that I've experienced for Asian languages. Granted there is a new form of writing to learn with Asian languages that can be a steep learning curve, and with Chinese, tones, but then there is verb tenses with the Romantic/Latin/Slavic languages and then the modal twist as well (of which Czech is the worst with 7 cases.)

Comments:

The Czech book sounds brilliant - kind of like A Clockwork Orange, where by the end you've learnt dozens of new words simply because they've been dropped into the prose. Who's the publisher?

Posted by Sir Garence on January 08, 2008 at 08:37 AM PST #

When I learned Spanish in highschool it was taught the way you learned Asian languages - in an all but useless fashion. The difference was that we spent several chapters on the structure of the grammer before we ever got to any useful vocabulary - it was towards the end of my Spanish 1 book/class that I was finally able to utter a semi-useful sentence.

Posted by Phil on January 09, 2008 at 03:57 PM PST #

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