Some years ago, we informed that in the face of globalization, all languages would sooner or later collapse into English. Thankfully, that idea seems to have had its day. A world of many languages seems here to stay.
Therefore, our need to educate the next generation in multiple languages has never been more urgent. The reason is not only brain development, or opening our children up to new ideas (good enough reasons on their own), but because the employees of the future globalized workplace are going to need to be able to operate on a global scale.
The challenges of language learning
For most people (including older children), second language acquisition is slow and challenging. Classrooms will have learners with different language knowledge, and the teacher is faced with the challenge of creating exercises that everyone will get value from. Traditional language learning (often referred to as Present, Practice, Produce, or ‘PPP’) has tended to be rather dry, and not attractive to the learner.
The paper plane approach to language learning
What I’m calling the paper plane approach is language learning by stealth through tasks (formally known as a Task-Based Approach, or TBL). Learners are given a problem, for example, ‘in small teams design a paper plane’. The plane that flies the longest, has the best decoration, is the most realistic, etcetera, wins. The catch is that all teamwork and discussion is carried out in the target language. You set learners up with some vocabulary, and from that point on, you become a facilitator, ensuring that the students don’t lapse into their home language.
No, I’m not trying to develop a generation of multilingual aircraft engineers, but you never know what will happen….
Other activity based lessons are just a matter of the teacher’s ingenuity – a fashion design class, a monopoly game, planning your next holiday, any craft-based activity. This approach can be tailored to different age groups and interests.
Pros and cons of the paper plan approach
Clearly, this is a problem-solving pedagogy. Students are motivated by the need to tackle a real-world issue or a funny situation. It works regardless of the language skills of the group. Learners can learn at their own pace within the activity. It is also, hopefully, fun! Indeed, I have seen it work well in a class of challenging students, such as older adolescent boys with a lot of energy to burn.
You need to think carefully about the physical space for this style of learning. Small classrooms with hard floors can get very noisy. Collaboration is rendered very difficult if you can’t hear your teammates.
Is it an expensive option? As with all learning, it will benefit from a lower teacher-student ratio.
Be careful of making every activity into a competition. Not all students like them, and they can become alienated by yet another competition. An alternative to a competition is a presentation or a report.
Paper planes and mainstream education
Unfortunately, Task-Based Learning is often a peripheral strategy for all the wrong reasons. It is very hard to assess, partly because it favors spoken communication over writing and reading. To some extent, then, it is a strategy for beginners and intermediate learners rather than advanced ones, who are also often very focused on passing language competency tests.
The learning may become (wonderfully) uncontrolled, as students stretch their wings in their own directions. While this will give you, the teacher, a wonderful sense of achievement, assessment tends to ‘flatten’ student achievement into recognized and standardized body of knowledge. Uncontrolled learning evades assessment, and student achievement is unrecognized.
We committed teachers often feel frustrated by the education system we find ourselves in – unfortunately embracing this approach will not solve that frustration!
Finally, many language schools don’t offer this level of freedom, and teachers must teach to a pre-determined curriculum.
Globalization and language learning
Now more than ever we need to dedicate more resources to second language learning. I don’t know whether it will ever happen, particularly in a climate driven by metrics. Perhaps parents will be prepared to spend more of their own money on private lessons. Teachers will need to educate the parents about TBL, and why it might be a better fit than traditional methods.
Article explaining the difference between traditional and Task Based learning: Frost, Richard (2008) ‘A task-based approach’ https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/a-task-based-approach