In praise of old-fashioned language classes

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Posted: 
October 21, 2019
Written by: Caroline Gadenne

As a teacher of French as a foreign language in a setting that is as conventional as it gets (classroom, blackboard, white-painted walls, desks in rows …), I sometimes ask my teenage students whether they would prefer to be taught by an online teacher or an in-class one.

Knowing that my students have grown up in the digital age, surrounded by screens of all sizes and capabilities, I expect this kind of an answer: “Online teachers, online courses, lessons on smartphones, computer-based tests, that’s the school of today and of the future. Madame Gadenne, your blackboards and teaching tools (translation: my grammar books and other reference works!) are outdated, obsolete and archaic!”

However, the answer I get is quite different: “Yes, Madame Gadenne, the virtual and digital worlds are an everyday part of our personal and academic lives, but we’d never give up traditional classes like the one you teach us.”

If I probe a little deeper, I discover that they have many reasons for wanting to maintain the conventional way of teaching a language.

First of all, human contact is a key factor in learning a language successfully. In fact, even though artificial intelligence is booming in the field of education, students value being able to ask questions of a real, flesh-and-blood person, someone who can provide a personalized, appropriate answer that meets their needs. In addition, face-to-face interactions are emotionally and culturally rich: the body language of a Francophone teacher will vary depending on where the teacher is from. The tone of the answer, the words used and the facial expressions will have a major impact on the learner. Why do we remember certain teachers more than others? Because they made an impression on us! Sometimes, it may have been their positive and encouraging comments; other times, their sterner and more authoritarian words, but words that had a positive influence on our future all the same.

After human contact, the main reason given by many of my students is the conventional classroom setting. Because they’re bombarded with stimuli all day long (and even at night, judging by the alarming polls on lack of sleep), students are happy to enter a room where there are few distractions, where the pings and other digital noises that constantly assault our ears are silenced, a room that is conducive to learning and concentration. “Concentrate,” now there’s a word that comes up a lot in studies on the behaviour of young (and not so young) learners. Did you know that our attention span has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds 20 years later? In comparison, the attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds!!!

Finally, my students tell me that they enjoy learning in a classroom because we talk about the cultures of all the French-speaking countries that make up the Francophonie. The French that is spoken in 106 countries and territories offers an infinite wealth of linguistic nuances and regionalisms that the teacher can discuss at any time in class. Online classes don’t offer the same diversity or provide an opportunity for learners to broaden their horizons through exposure to the cultures of the teacher and their classmates.

In conclusion, at a time when digital technology seems to dominate every aspect of our lives, the fact remains that French learners want to keep their teachers in the classroom, their books on their desks and their phones tucked away in their schoolbags, while they concentrate on grammar, vocabulary and the linguistic nuances of the French language.

Translated by: Josephine Versace, Language Portal of Canada

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The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

About the author

Caroline Gadenne

Originally from France, where she studied foreign languages, Caroline is a French language and grammar enthusiast. She teaches French as a second language, and administers and corrects French language exams. Caroline works full time as a federal public servant in Vancouver.

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