Foreign language courses – what to expect from your classes

1. Language learning activities

The teacher will ask you at times to take part in role plays, dialogues, and similar activities so that you have practice in communicating in the language. Practising ‘real life situations’ in class is one way of making the language as real as possible. It is also important in such situations to vary who you talk to in the class. This way, you have experience with a variety of different people with different speaking abilities … and you get to know everybody!

2. Correcting mistakes

Many learners are reluctant to speak for fear of making mistakes.  It is far better to speak a lot, mistakes and all, than to utter the odd, grammatically correct sentence – in other words, develop a ‘have-a-go’ attitude and try not to get embarrassed about making mistakes – it’s part of the process!

You want your teacher to make sure that your production (spoken or written) is correct, and so correction is important. However, in speaking activities, it is not possible for the teacher to address every single mistake made by every single student, and so therefore he/she will probably choose to correct mainly the most serious mistakes (those that hinder communication) – sometimes straight away, and sometimes soon after.

If your teacher has not corrected you, ask him or her to do so.  They might not be able to do so there and then, but it is important for you to make sure that what you have written or said is right.

3. Homework

The homework is a very important part of your language learning experience, as it enables you to review and practise what you’re learning, helping to keep it fresh from lesson to lesson.  Different teachers give different types of homework – sometimes written homework that you do at home to cover aspects that would otherwise take out valuable communication practice time in class, or sometimes to expand on what you have done in class. By and large, the homework covers the ‘individual learning’ aspects of the course, and you should do as much as you can every week – and even be proactive in doing extra work.

4. The pace of the class

The pace depends on the balance of two things – firstly, the presentation of new material, and secondly, the time spent practising and perfecting this.  The teacher will spend the time they believe is necessary on each new piece of language – but – it is important to remember that it is not necessary to be absolutely perfect in one area before moving on to another.

On the other hand, going at a good, fast rate does not necessarily mean that the learning is efficient.  You risk not having enough time to internalise the lesson, which means you will forget a lot.

The aim is to become competent in communication without slowing down the process by focusing on minute detail, nor by going too fast and therefore not being able to remember anything.

5. The balance of activities

There needs to be a good balance between teacher input and student practice.  Some sessions require more teacher input, others opportunities for greater practice.  We ask the teachers to consider the balance between listening, speaking, reading, writing and grammar skills – BUT to concentrate more on listening/speaking skills during class time and leave more complicated grammar exercises, reading and writing for homework.

6. The use of English in the classroom

Sometimes it can be difficult to convince new students of the need to resist speaking English in class, and to accept the fact that the teacher will mainly – or only – speak in the language you are learning.

There are some important points to keep in mind here:

• With practice, your ears will become attuned to hearing the language (and without practice, they won’t).

• Do not expect to understand everything, but it is important to develop the skills of understanding the gist of a conversation.

• It is very important to develop some self-discipline – if English is allowed, you, the student, will use it as soon as you experience a problem.  By contrast, if you forbid English, you will learn how to communicate to the maximum with the language you do have – and will learn more language while doing so. You will end up speaking a lot more of the language quicker, and will be surprised at how well you get on!

• Of course, if you are a beginner, you won’t have much to play with.  Even so, make sure that you accept that the teacher is going to speak in the language, and that you are expected to do so as well.

• Make sure you learn survival phrases in the language such as : ‘How do you say that in X’, ‘What does this mean?’, ‘Please speak more slowly’, ‘I didn’t understand’, ‘Sorry I’m late’. Never say them in English!

• And – last but not least – if you are lost – tell the teacher.  Sometimes the teacher will just have to take time out to explain in English.

7. Coursebooks and other materials

You receive a textbook with your course, and the teacher supplements this with other worksheets, or brings in real-life materials (you also can bring in things of interest to the class).  Though few off-the-shelf textbooks are ideally suited to 20 to 30 hour courses, it remains useful to have a key coursebook as the backbone for the course.

But – remember – the classes should be driven by the needs of the students, not the course book, which can be used as a flexible resource.  After all, it can become boring and predictable working your way through a book, even though some people find this comforting.

8. Learning and teaching styles : Feeling Comfortable Versus Feeling Challenged

There are quite a few different theories on the best way to teach and learn a language, and different people do it in different ways. More often than not they do not have any particular theory in mind.  Different learning styles depend on your personality and how you have learnt – or mis-learnt – languages in the past – or even if you have learnt another language before. What you do in class may or may not fit in with your expectations.

It is good to have your learning preferences challenged and to get used to different approaches to the learning process, but it is also fair to expect a certain amount of adaptation to you.

Cactus offers a range of part-time language courses in locations around the UK, the US and Canada.

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