On my new i-Pad, I am reading a history of World War I in the Middle East by Scott Anderson titled Lawrence in Arabia to distinguish it from the film Lawrence of Arabia. I am on page 1403 and at the bottom of the page I see the number 3709. So obviously, this description of what Lawrence and others did in the Middle East during World War I is going to be more nuanced than the film. Scott describes personalities, events, places, with telling details and without any jargon. It is hard to stop moving my finger to flip to the next pages. I am reading it because a friend recommended it and I found the film about Lawrence captivating. But the more I read, the more I see that Scott develops themes that I have advocated for many years. You could say that I am projecting–I read into what he writes. But you could also say that in fact his themes are central to all areas of our life.

One theme that Scott pursues is that the British underestimated the ability of those they were fighting in the Middle East. They felt that the Turks were inferior just as some teachers feel that students from different backgrounds who are from poor families who are not educated are not capable. But the underestimation of the abilities of others caused thousands of deaths of British soldiers. In fact, the Turkish army was very skilled. Even when the British lost battles they failed to change their opinion of the ability of their foes. We tend to underestimate the abilities of our students for many reasons but one is that they do not give us the answers we expect, failing to realize that our questions might be unclear, our students do not know why we are asking them the questions–like “What is your name?” when they see us holding an attendance sheet with their name on it.

Another theme is the inability of the British generals to question their tactics. They had been taught to charge the enemy and they did so over an dover not only on the Western Front in France but in Turkey at Gallipoli. Thousands were killed in these charges by machine guns mounted on grounds above the fields where the troops charged. Rather than pausing to reconsider the practice, the generals repeated the practice over and  over and over.

In our teaching, with somewhat less tragic results, I think we are like the British generals. Rather than asking how what we are doing might not be having the effects we want and how some things we think might not be very good practices might in fact be positive–like allowing students to use bilingual dictionaries–we continue to pursue practices others have used before us or ones advocated at the schools where we teach.

So again, I urge each of you to ask how what you are doing you think is effective might not be and how what you think is not effective might be effective. In japan teachers are told to focus on speaking and ignore writing. But when teachers ask students to write a question they ask and a response, the teachers see how many students did not understand the question when they see what they wrote. They can then edit the written questions and the students say the question correctly. They of course also say their responses correctly after the teacher edits them. So to speak correctly, writing is crucial.

Here are some student renditions of what a teacher had said:

99. Twose key words other understand.

97. Key words very easy understand.

95. Two have very easy key word.

Very few can figure out what the teacher had said. In fact the teacher had said “These two key words are easy to understand.” She also said “These three words are difficult to understand.” depending on the reading passage. But the point is that if the teacher had not asked the students to listen to a recording and write what they heard she would not have known what they understood. She started each class with this pattern and on the 10th day she asked the students to transcribe what she had been saying. The students could listen as many times as they wanted. They were in control of the pause and rewind and play buttons. But none of them in fact understood what she had said just as the British generals had not understood that their tactics failed.

In our field there is as far as I know only one history of language teaching written by Anthony Howett. His book is as engaging as Scott Anderson and echoes the themes of Scott’s book. Anthony shows that many language teaching methods were developed by people who learned languages in a particular way on their own. Berlitz, for example, learned by listening to dialogs. Others learned by reading the Bible. But allbelieved that the way they learned was the way that everyone learned.

I advocate a very wide range of activities for learning language, or anything else, because we are all different. We have some common ways we learn–we predict, we mimic, we search for meaning, we connect images with language, we find seeing printed versions of what we hear helpful–but we use all of these ways of learning in different proportions depending on our learning experiences. So when Berlitz or any other person says this is the way we all learn, Professor Howett suggests indirectly in his history of language teaching that this is just as narrow minded as the British generals in World War I.

I have been a bit negative about memorizing dialogs as a central way to learn languages. One of the readers of my blog who consistently raises questions has sent me a message saying that he has learned languages by memorizing dialogs and that the US Foreign Service relies on this method alone.

In NY last month, I smelled gas in our apartment. I asked the super to come to our apartment. He said he would use soap bubbles to check to see if their was a leak. In the event, there was no leak in the main pipes. He said that the gas regulator in the stove probably was the source of the leak and that I had to call a repair man from the company that manufactured the stove. He came and said “I will check with soap bubbles.” He did and found that in fact it was the regulator in the stove where the gas leak was.  I have never heard any of these expressions or sentences in any books in 50 years. So there has to be other ways we learn languages other than memorizing dialogs. The dialogs I had in NY in our apartment as I just wrote I have never seen in any textbooks nor have I ever had before the leak! So there have to be many ways we learn languages just as there are many ways to wage battle–not just to charge forward over and over and be killed by machine guns.


And enjoy your explorations.