Three Weeks To Learn A Language…And Then Teach It

If you think a four-week intensive TEFL course is a weak foundation on which to base further teaching, have a look at this idea: from the Guardian Education section, “Members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) condemned suggestions that staff would be given three weeks to learn a language before teaching it in primary classrooms.” [In the UK, where there is a government plan for “every seven-year-old to learn a language.”]

My first impression is, quite predictably, that the idea that someone can learn a language in three weeks and then teach it is ridiculous, and that this belief underlies a serious lack of understanding of what learning and speaking a language is all about. Do people really believe three weeks is time enough to learn anything substantial of a language? If people don’t question this – and I have no doubt that there are people…English speakers… who think it is perfectly reasonable – how can they have any understanding of what immigrants or other language learners go through? People in the US complain bitterly that immigrants just don’t learn English – and if you buy the three-week theory, why wouldn’t they if you can do it in three weeks?! I think the possibility of supporting attitudes like this is one of the most dangerous aspects of this policy.

All that said, it makes sense to take into account the context. Have the teachers already studied the language they are to teach? How much will they be teaching and what will they be teaching? Some proposals, in the US at least, suggest elementary school kids would study a language for an hour a week. While certainly more than three weeks training of teachers would be ideal…if this is the case then perhaps it is a practical if imperfect solution, as neither fully qualified language teachers nor the budget for their salaries materialize out of thin air.

An elementary school class could spend a month (of one hour a week) learning numbers; I don’t think a native speaker or expert non-native speaker of the target language is imperative in this. Immersion programs have their benefits, but most mainstream schools in English-speaking countries are a ways off from this.

Most educators would also agree that methods are important – while it’s a bit silly to imagine someone with three weeks experience learning a language teaching it, I think many of us can agree that expert knowledge is not the first component of a good teacher.

I do still forsee a danger – that schools will come to see this three week training as “enough” – and it’s certainly not. Progress needs to continue, no doubt, but this is perhaps a classic dilemma: start with what you can or don’t start at all.