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Learning How to Talk by Talking


for the Nakamura University Bulletin

During eight years of college teaching in Japan, I have seen thousands of different English language textbooks. This is no exaggeration — the market for such books is enormous. One major bookseller advertises having 18,000 different English-language textbooks in stock. Unfortunately, many of these books are not effective. I have inspected hundreds of them, and have tried many in my classes. I found that the main weakness of these “conversation textbooks” is simple: students never learn how to talk on their own. Once a student has finished studying the examples in the book, he seems like a man with two broken legs who has lost his crutches — helpless.

For this reason, I kept searching for ways to help my students learn how to learn language more naturally. I wanted to find some system that would encourage college students to talk on their own, giving them just enough information to get started, but not so much that they become passive. About four years ago, I discovered the TALK Learning System, developed here in Japan by a very small Kyoto-based company.

At first I was intrigued, but was not completely satisfied. I just couldn’t quite understand how to use the TALK Learning System — an unusual and novel system consisting of A4-sized cards organized as “tools” in a ring binder. However, with each passing year, I saw that TALK had been improved. Eventually, the author included a very clear and complete explanation of the system — in English for teachers, and in Japanese for students. At that time, I thought I might finally try TALK.

With this in mind, I went to meet the author at a major academic conference. I was impressed by his commitment to education, and by his willingness to answer questions about his methodology. The author also listened to my own ideas, and has in fact consulted with many other college teachers. Many ideas arising from these conversations have become part of the TALK system. As a result, professors at some of Japan’s most prestigious universities now use TALK. The system has earned warm praise from both Japanese and non-Japanese professors.

Two years ago I started using this system in my classes, and have been gratified by the results. Students who want to converse in English are making good progress — and having a good time, too. There are many reasons that the TALK Learning System is becoming so popular, and I highlight some of these below. Each section focuses on a particular “learning how to learn” skill promoted by the TALK Learning System.

Learning to Make Mistakes Without Embarrassment

No one can learn a language without making mistakes. Even as children learning our own native language, we make mistakes. Everyone understands that this is a normal part of learning. Sadly, later on, schools sometimes teach students to be ashamed of making mistakes when learning new things. I myself sometimes feel reluctant to speak in Japanese, knowing that I make many mistakes when I try.

However, anyone who wants to learn to converse in another language must unlearn this attitude. The TALK Learning System helps to break down the feelings of embarrassment, shyness, and shame. TALK actually encourage students to make mistakes. Getting corrections from other students or from the professor turns mistakes into leaning opportunities. Students also learn that talking — even in “broken English” — is always preferable to silence. No one can learn how to talk except by talking!

Learning to be “Learners” with Help from a “Facilitator”

TALK quickly creates a new atmosphere in the classroom. From the very beginning, passive “students” become active “learners,” and the “teacher” leaves the lectern to become a roving “facilitator,” a person who is available to make learning easier and more efficient. In the TALK classroom, learners are in charge, and are responsible for their own success. Meanwhile, the facilitator encourages these learners to be “playfully serious.” This means that they have fun while working hard.

From the beginning, TALK promotes this new way of thinking by setting up the classroom in a new way: with desks arranged in circles, in groups of two or four. No longer do “students” sit in rows and columns, rigidly looking toward the front of the classroom. Now “learners” face each other, in comfortable groups scattered around the room. The facilitator moves from group to group, offering help as learners need it.

Learning to Ask Questions

Now that the “sensei” has become someone whose job is to help learners, asking questions becomes very important. Encouraging my learners to ask questions is one of the most challenging tasks I face. Years of strict classroom discipline and preparation for the college entrance examination have created young people who are often silent students instead of active, questioning learners.

It takes at least one semester just to convince most learners that they must ask questions when they don’t understand something, or when they don’t know how to say something. When they finally do learn to do ask questions, they begin to improve quickly. The reason is simple: they learn what they need to know, when they need to know it.

Learning in Pairs and Small Groups

As we have seen above, the TALK classroom sets up small circles of learners. The emphasis is always on pair work and small-group cooperation. This is the best way to encourage natural conversation. In large classes, pair work is the only way that learners will have a chance to communicate: in a classroom with 60 learners, the facilitator has less than 90 seconds to spend with each individual.

The TALK Learning System can work in large classes, but I have found that it works best with between 10 and 20 learners. This class size allows much more time for the learners to ask me questions — and makes the process far more efficient and much more fun.

Learning How to Use Unique TALK Tools

A unique feature of the TALK system is the removable, one-page “tools.” There is no need for learners to sit hunched over a bound textbook. One tool — a single A-4 sized card — is all that is necessary. Learners can easily sit upright, facing each other, and making eye contact — a natural posture for real conversation.

TALK tools feature simple cartoon-style drawings that correspond with written sections entitled “setting,” “dialog,” and “narrative.”

Learners have to look carefully at the drawings, and think intelligently to understand the relationship between the words and the pictures. Talking together, they “negotiate” their understanding of the pictures word by word, sentence by sentence. Such “negotiation of meaning” is the fundamental process of any real improvement in speaking skill.

Many learners enjoy using colored pencils to complete the drawings. This simple activity is both fun and useful, adding a new subject — colors — to the topic. Thus, the simple sentence “This is Sean’s mother” becomes more complex: “This is Sean’s mother. She has green and blue hair.” We can see from this one amusing example that TALK often encourages learners to use their imaginations and to develop a sense of humor about their language learning.

Learning How to Learn from Popular Musical Lyrics

One special TALK tool is the “Lyric Card,” which teaches learners to listen to and understand a song by a popular singer, such as Whitney Houston (“Saving All My Love for You.”) The “Lyric Card” teaches learners how to use their own favorite songs to improve listening, comprehension, and speaking skills — while having fun and enjoying music.

I usually spend one class teaching my learners how to use the Study Tips to proceed through the Lyric Card learning process, step-by-step. We listen together without reading the lyrics, and then listen again. Then we listen while reading an “information gap” exercise. This is nothing more than a copy of the lyrics with certain key words left out. Then we listen and try to fill in the missing words.

Finally, we play the music again, and learners sing along. Lastly, we spend time trying to be sure that we understand the meaning of the lyrics. By the time we finish with the Lyric Card, learners have practiced all of the “four skills”: Listening, Speaking (or Singing), Reading, and Writing.

Learning How to Enjoy Learning Outside the Classroom

TALK includes many pocket-sized cards designed to encourage self-study. Learners always carry these cards and can use them anytime and anywhere. These small cards are perfect for starting simple conversations with other TALK learners, or for “solo study” while riding on the bus or train. There are enough cards to provide for many hours of enjoyable self study.

To emphasize the importance of outside study, I always tell — and show — learners that their class time with me represents less than one percent of the time they are awake during the year. On a bar graph, this is an impressive statistic: we can see that the tiny block of in-class time is clearly insufficient. Those who really want to become fluent in English can see that much more time is necessary.

One fun way to increase learning time is to watch and listen to bilingual videos. I teach all my learners how to use this excellent technique, and encourage them to buy at least one popular bilingual video. The method is simple: learners first watch the video five or six times, while listening only to the Japanese soundtrack. The goal is to understand the dialog completely, gradually memorizing parts of the video. They then watch the video again — five or six times — while listening only to the English soundtrack.

The results can be astonishing — learners often find that they can immediately grasp at least the main ideas in the English dialog. Listening again and again, the learner then can gradually come to understand the dialog more completely, asking the facilitator questions during class time when necessary.

I also teach my learners about closed-caption decoders. These are inexpensive (¥10,000) electronic devices that put English sub-titles on the TV screen. Closed-caption videos and decoders were first developed for people who can’t hear well or at all. But the market is much larger now, because language learners quickly realized that having a closed-caption decoder is like having a full-time language teacher attached to the television! These devices are widely available in bookstores and in ordinary electronic shops.

A decoder is simple to use. When learners can’t understand a section of English, they can push a button on the remote control and see the words on the screen. The selection of closed-caption videos is quite large, and includes many popular movies. For all these reasons, I strongly recommend these wonderful, inexpensive tools to all my learners. Indeed, for universities to sell these devices directly to learners, at a major discount, would be a great idea.

In summary, studying bilingual videos, with or without a closed- caption decoder, is a simple, inexpensive, effective and enjoyable learning method. Importantly, this kind of video study promotes the “Lifetime Learning” concept that Nakamura University emphasizes.

Learning to Use Appropriate Japanese Language Support

From the first day, learners introduce themselves to the TALK Learning System by reading step-by-step explanations and study tips written in Japanese. The tips help learners to understand both in-class activities and outside, self-study activities. For example, the tips thoroughly explain how to use the pocket-sized cards mentioned above.

An excellent feature of the TALK system is a Japanese-language video introduction. Learners in my class watch this video on the first day. At first, there was only an English-language
video introduction, but other college professors and I requested a Japanese version. The author of TALK listened to our advice, and produced a very professional Japanese-language video. Such improvement is characteristic of TALK’s author.

The key word in using Japanese-language support is “appropriate.” Once learners understand the principles of TALK, and understand the step-by-step procedures for using a TALK Tool, the lesson should proceed using mostly English. With the TALK Learning System, Japanese language never becomes a “crutch” for learners — instead, it is a helping hand to get them walking on their own two feet.

Learning that “English” is “Worldish”

The author of TALK, Johann Junge, is a citizen of Germany. He is NOT a native speaker of English, and did not study formally in school. Professor. Junge tells me that he really taught himself English, using the same techniques that the TALK Learning System incorporates. Moreover, Professor Junge uses the TALK system himself, in college classrooms in Kyoto. He has even prepared a German-language edition of TALK, proving to himself that the system works for any language. His goal has always been clear: to get all of the TALK learners talking, all of the time. Perhaps these are the reasons that TALK works so well.

When I introduce TALK, I tell learners about Professor Junge’s background, which perfectly reflects the reality of English as an international language. At least one billion people in the world speak English. Some researchers claim that the number of English speakers in China alone exceeds the total population of the United States!

That is the reason that I created the word “Worldish” as an easy way to describe this remarkable situation. These days, I often use quotation marks when I write the word “English.” My purpose in doing so is to suggest that the original meaning of “English” — “the

language of England” — does not reflect today’s reality. Living in Japan and meeting men and women from all over the world, I have been astonished by the excellent “English” skills of these non-native speakers. The men and women whom I’ve met personally grew up in Africa, Argentina, Brazil, China, Germany, Holland, Korea, the Philippines, Russia, Sweden, Taiwan, and Thailand, to mention only a few. In short, they have come to Japan from all over the world. In our meetings together, each of these individuals has used fluent “English,” to speak to me — and to one another. Generally there has been no problem in communication between us. The evidence is clear: “English” has become “Worldish.”

Interestingly, I recently met a woman from Argentina who lives in Japan. One of her children attends Asahi Youchien with one of my own. This woman speaks Japanese well, but never learned “English” growing up in a Spanish-speaking country. Now she finds herself studying English in Japan so that she can speak to the many other international people she knows here! Her case shows well that “English” really is “Worldish.” Understanding this is very important for learners in Japanese colleges and universities. Sadly, an excessive emphasis on American culture in textbooks sometimes obscures this reality.

I believe that it’s a mistake to associate English too strongly with America — or with any other single country. Understanding the reality of English as an international language helps Japanese learners to internalize “Worldish” as their own language. This way of thinking can promote much better communication between men, women, and children from all around the world. Therefore, I am happy that the TALK Learning System helps my learners to learn how to talk in “Worldish” — by talking.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • johannjunge January 28, 2015, 10:16 AM

    Pretty interting!

  • johannjunge January 28, 2015, 10:16 AM

    I want to read more!

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