Language Learning that Sticks

by Tim Hunsberger
Tim Hunsberger is the former director of English Language Institute/Mongolia. He and his wife live in Ulaanbaatar. This information was presented at the Mongolia National TEFL conference in Ulaanbaatar, May 4-7, 2007 that was sponsored by the Ministry of education, culture & science, Embassy of the United States of America, ELTAM, NETTA, and MUST.

    Do you ever wonder why language sometimes sticks so easily and other times it seems just about impossible to remember a word or a grammar point?  Sometimes it seems so effortless and then other times the word that you “learned” is completely forgotten after a single minute.
    When I first came to Mongolia 10 years ago, someone told me that if you use a word 10 times it will be yours.  After trying that, I learned that sometimes it works, but often it doesn’t. 
    About eight years ago, I learned something that has stuck with me ever since.  It was the word элчин сайдын яам (embassy).  That is a strange word to learn easily, but let me tell you how it happened.
    I needed to get to the American embassy to pick up a friend’s passport.  I had about 20 minutes before the embassy was going to close and I had to get the passport that day because my friend needed it to fly to Beijing on the next day.  The only problem was that it was too far to walk to the American embassy, and I didn’t know the word in Mongolian to tell a taxi driver.  I was in trouble. I was so fortunate to suddenly see another American and I asked what the word for embassy was.  She told me, and I had to remember it because I didn’t have a pen to write it down on paper and time was running out.  The pressure was high, and I repeated the word to myself a few times while I waited for a taxi.  I saw a taxi coming and quickly flagged it down.  When I got in to the taxi, the driver asked me where I wanted to go and I told him “Америкийн элчин сайдын яам” and the driver took me there with no confusion.  Ever since that day, “embassy” has been a word I’ve known.
    What made that word stick after using it only once while other words that I try to memorize, put into made up sentences, or write out are forgotten so easily?  I think there are three things that make language learning stick and all three of these were there on that day eight years ago.
    Before I tell you the three things that I think make language learning stick, I want to tell you what I usually see in English classes. 
    There are the classrooms where the teacher talks about English in Mongolian with an occasional English word added.  Students write lots of things about English in their notebooks (in Mongolian), but they don’t ever speak.  What if someone wanted to learn how to be a cook but they only could talk about cooking because they had never actually worked with food in a kitchen?  That’s so foolish.  That’s the same as someone who has studied English but can only talk about English, not in English.  At the end of the year, the students have fat notebooks in their hands, but no English in their heads.  There are also the classrooms where students memorize prepared speeches in English.  Memorization is important, but you can’t go far if the only English that you can use is memorized sentences.  Before I came to Mongolia, I bought a tape of “Spoken Mongolian”.  I listened to numbers and simple greetings, and tried to memorize the sounds I was hearing on the tape.  It didn’t work because I didn’t really understand the meaning of the noises I was trying to say.  Sometimes teachers have students reading and reciting prepared conversations.  This is good for pronunciation practice, but this isn’t enough to get students to communicate in English.  There are also teachers that speak in English to students one at a time.  This is great for the one student, but the other 30 students are either talking or thinking about something else in Mongolian. 
    Each of these methods are sometimes important in the classroom.  You need notebooks, you need to give explanations about English, your students need to practice prepared conversations and memorize some sentences, and you need to speak with your students in English one at a time.  All of these are important, but they aren’t enough to make language really stick.
    In order for language to stick, it has to be a) real b) important and c) successful.  That day eight years ago was all three of those things.  It was real communication because the taxi driver truly didn’t know where I wanted to go.  The thought that was in my head wasn’t in his head until, through my mouth and through his ears, it got into his head.  It was important communication because if it didn’t work, I was never going to get to the embassy.  I really cared about making the communication happen.  Finally, it was successful.  I experienced the joy of seeing the American embassy at the end of the taxi ride and getting what I needed, so I knew that the words that I said were exactly the ones that worked.
    How much of classroom learning is real, important and successful?  Probably not very much.  Students memorize and can sing the Beatles song “Yesterday” and have notebooks full of grammar, but that isn’t the same as having English in their heads.  They need lessons with real, important, and successful communication.
    How can real, important, and successful communication happen in the classroom?  How can you do this with older students?  Younger students are often so excited to learn some English, but what about teenagers?  They usually aren’t interested in learning like we want them to be, so how can you teach language in a way that is important to your teenage students?
    A lot of what is in language learning textbooks is so boring.  Things like reading about a family in Brazil and then the students are supposed to talk about it.  I don’t think anyone in Mongolian reads those kinds of things and then has great ideas that they want to share.  What if the article wasn’t about a family that they didn’t care about, but was about something or someone that they loved?  Do you remember the brave young Mongolians who rescued the Koreans from the burning building in the spring?  I remember the day after that happened, because so many Mongolians were so happy to talk about how brave those four men were.  I’d bet you could easily get your students to talk about that for a long time.
    If I were using this in my classroom, I would dedicate 10 minutes each day for a week.  First, read the article in Mongolian.  The students need to understand the ideas clearly in their heads.  Do not ask the students to translate the article into English.  That will just be more writing in the notebook and there is probably too much of that already!  Ask what English words they need to know.  Please, don’t be afraid to admit if you don’t know, but find out what the words are and tell them the next day.  The next day, I would have the students get in small groups of three or four and explain the article to each other in simple English.  Each student will say things differently because there is not only one correct way to talk about something as amazing as this!  This should not be a memorized speech.  The next day I would ask them to explain what amazes them about this.  (It is amazing to me that these men risked their lives to save the Koreans, and that even if they didn’t die, they could have lost their good jobs in Korea because they didn’t have permission to work.  It could have cost them greatly to help.)  Next, ask some thought questions.  Maybe these would be questions like “What do you think the men were thinking before, during and after?” or “What made the men so brave?” or “Would you be brave if you were in that situation? How can you be sure?”  Next, have the students think up two more thought questions to ask each other.  I am sure that you will see the students excited to talk about the bravery of these Mongolian men.  The communication will be a real exchange of ideas because it is important, and you will certainly see that the communication is successful as you look at their faces. 
    Students certainly do need to write things about grammar in their notebooks, memorize songs, and practice 2 part dialogues, but they also need real, important, and successful communication in the classroom for the language to stick.  If in each lesson you could give your students 10 minutes of a “sticky” lesson, it would be like a giving them an English language vitamin each day.  Day by day they will grow in their ability, and that is a great joy for any teacher to see.