In my last blog I responded to a frequent question I am asked about the value of memorizing dialogs. I said that we cannot master a language with this activity alone. I also said that what we memorize is stored in a different part of our brain than what we learn in other ways. I did not say “never memorize anything” but rather what we memorize is not likely to lead to fluency and mastery of the other skills.

One reader took issue with my statements saying that the State Department uses the memorization exclusively for Foreign Service Officers and pointed to the success of Rosetta Stone in helping people master language. To claim that memorizing dialogs from this company leads to language learning one would have to check a number of things. First, we would need to know how many bought the product and how many stuck with it for various lengths of time. Millions around the world join sports clubs with great determination but the number who exercise frequently is very much smaller than those who pay for membership, to cite one other area where much money is spent but much less is gained. We would also have to measure the proficiency of those who spent various numbers of hours memorizing and then how frequently they used what they memorized.

I always welcome questions about any claims I make and in workshops and classes I always state more than one that no one should believe anything I say, or anything anyone else says. Rather I want people to try an activity I suggest that is different in a small way from one they use and compare the results.

I referred the teachers at the Illinois TESOL Affiliate I spoke at at the end of last month to a series of activities that use the idea of dialogs but more beyond mere memorization. The activities integrate lexical and grammatical meanings–the bricks and mortar o the language–just as memorization can, but they also require thinking, emotions and movement. Language is not just our vocal cords. If a person says a dialog without moving any part of his body–gesturing, changing facial expressions–that person is not using language but reciting. When we gesture as we talk to another person using our cell phone we are not gesturing to help the other person understand but to express meanings. I have described these alternatives activities in an article called “Nveer. . . .” which you can access by going to the NYSTESOL website, clicking on publications and then NYSTESOL Journal, Vol. 1, Invited  Articles.

I recently used these activities with some students who were being captured on video. I was having the students do them in a lounge which I had checked out till 12:30 am but we ran overtime. The manager of the lounge asked us whether I wanted him to keep the closed sign on the door. I said “Open up!”  As more than 50 students rushed into the lounge to have lunch, laughing loudly, chatting and dropping their back packs on chairs and tables as they sat to start to eat, not one student doing the activities I describe showed any distraction from the noise and movement of the 50 or so students who entered the area we were using. Not one eyelash was batted, not one slight turn of any student’s head to notice the change in the room.

Seeing how students act, react and do in short video clips provides evidence of the consequences of various activities more powerfully than any tests, useful as these can be to diagnose some language deficiencies. I have other clips showing students repeating lines from a dialog and in most cases the line that was said by either a live teacher or on a recording is rendered quite differently by the students. What we hear even in our own language and what another person says is very frequently differently.

Don’t believe me! Try to options, record and analyze in detail.

All the best.

John

PS I just got an mail from a teacher who has been trying alternatives and recording saying “Doing my own analysis has not only increased my confidence but made me a fearless teacher! I love the use of fearless. That is what Breaking Rules, Longman  (1987) was all about.