Lessons Learned, Lessons Taught Part 1

Good news! I finally will no longer sound schizophrenic by calling myself “we.” Starting today there will be a real live other person involved – at least temporarily. My good friend Mark has kindly offered to write a guest post. Besides generally being a good guy, he has taught ESL for many years, was the director the Intensive English Language Institute at Divine Word College, and for you erudite academics out there, holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics.

Soon I will get back to making the singular role of blogging sound like a 24-hour party by calling myself “we” again. In the meantime, enjoy his take on language learning part 1 of 2.


 Lessons Learned, Lessons Taught

by Mark Garton

So why do I teach the way I do? It’s going to take some time to explain.

First a little background: My adventures in language learning and, eventually, teaching, all started for me when I was in third grade at West Elementary in Knoxville, Iowa. My teacher had just married a Mexican, and she came in one day with little Berlitz phrasebooks for her students. We learned a few numbers and other simple words, and I remember taking the book home, riding my bike up a hill overlooking the highway, sitting under a tree and reading it.


I must have been a bit of an unusual child. My teacher’s husband came to school one day, and we got to practice what we’d learned. I suppose this was my first exposure to language learning. If you’re from rural Iowa, you don’t get much of that.

Little phrasebooks were common in the early 1970s if you wanted to learn enough to get by in a foreign land, and they’re still used to some extent. They can be informative if you don’t expect too much, and you can learn a few words too.   (They can also be entertaining. Saturday Night Live knew this and made fun of them forty years ago; their first ever sketch had John Belushi as a newly-arrived immigrant repeating phrases like “I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines.”)   These phrasebooks were more for survival purposes, and they were fine, but I wanted more. I wanted to talk to somebody.

High school wasn’t so great for language learning. I took two years of French, and we had early technology designed for the purpose. Listen and repeat. So I did. I learned how “Guy and Michel sont sur la plage” and I was able to conjugate everything, even if it was mass production work. (Take a piece of paper and write the numbers one through six in a column to match the six questions in the exercise, then write Je after each number in the column, then write suis after Je six times, …) For some reason I still remember the dialogs like “There’s a documentary at eight o’clock mother. Good. In that case, we’ll dine soon.” Language learning wasn’t very successful for me, but at least it was funny!

Eventually I made it to Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State). I met a Korean fellow at a soccer game who became my friend, my eventual roommate, and I suppose my first ESL student. I really don’t know how Young got into the college; there must not have been much of an English requirement there in the early 1980s. Sure enough, when I moved in with him, he usually had his phrasebook close by, and I have to say it was better than SNL’s sketch. (What do you say in a barbershop? “Don’t shave too close. I have sensitive skin.”) Despite the hilarity though, I noticed that in an odd way, the phrasebook had helped him get a conversation started, even if it was only the first line. I started wondering about how to really learn a language. How could I talk to somebody?

Then I started studying Spanish, and after we got past the audiolingual-style lessons and the endless conjugations – somehow made much easier because I’d already “studied” French in high school – I got to start talking to a tutor. Sheila was her name, and she was a native English speaker with a Spanish-speaking boyfriend. She went over the dialogs from the lessons, but she didn’t always follow the book; we’d get the first line or two done according to the formula, and then she’d ask follow-up questions, and it felt different. She explained in English one day when I was floundering that Spanish was “like a different part of your brain,” and she indicated a spot to the back right of her head. “It’s like it’s here,” she said as she pointed to the spot. And that’s exactly what it really felt like! I was expanding my brain. As an unusual twenty-year-old, I liked that idea. And it seemed like I needed conversation.


I took all the language classes I could in college, including German and French to go with the Spanish. The German was “intensive.” Once again, the part I remember is the dialogs, and my personal favorite is from the textbook Deutsch Aktuell 1 (Kraft, p. 69), which I still have. This is much better than Guy and Michel on the beach. Here’s the scene: There are these three teenagers named Gisela, Christine, and Karin, and these hipsters are deciding what to do in the downtown, and Christine has the ultimate suggestion: “Sehen wir uns doch den Elvis Presley Film an!” (There’s no translation necessary. You can catch their drift.) Karin has the perfect response: “Das is eine gute Idee,” and she adds that the movie begins at 6:00, which is much better than 7:30, when that other movie starts. (Do these kids have to be in bed by 8:00 or something?) Two thoughts came to my mind as I went through these lessons: 1) The people who write this stuff are way older than I am, and 2) The Spanish classes sure work better than this. So, long story short, my brain just wasn’t filling up properly in German class. We had a little reading book, but we almost never used it. Luckily, no one was applying for a scholarship to study for a year in Costa Rica, so I applied, got the scholarship, and finally got the conversation I wanted. Then I was hooked. I was a language learner.

And a language teacher, as it turned out. After I graduated I worked in San Diego County for three years, and then I went “back East” as they say out there, to Indiana University, where I studied pragmatics and second language acquisition in graduate school. By 2000 I’d finished an M.A. and a Ph.D., had another language-learning experience in Hungary, and learned a lot more about language acquisition and teaching. I was paying for my coursework by teaching, and I tried to be as good as Sheila had been years before. I wasn’t. I was awful, but it paid the bills. And I was given books to use in my classes, and the books had the English equivalent of the cool teenagers in their dialogs. By then I think they were going to either soccer or basketball games, but I really don’t remember. The dialogs afforded me the opportunity to “present” vocabulary, and maybe it was okay because the lower-level students really needed some words to use, but I doubted that one presentation of each word in a unit did much good. The vocabulary needed a lot of reinforcement. Like, maybe, conversation. Or even something like the little reading book that the German teacher hadn’t used very much.


Kraft, Wolfgang S. Deutsch Aktuell 1. St. Paul, MN: EMC Corporation, 1979.

Saturday Night Live: The Complete First Season. Universal City, CA: NBC Studios, Inc. 2006. Episode 1 (October 11, 1975).


To be continued next Tuesday.

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