Some people speak a handful of languages while most say with a sigh, “I just don’t have the knack for it.” We figure the multilingual were either born speaking various languages or are extremely clever, but rarely do we immediately assume they’ve had great teachers. The predominance of successful language learners who say they are self-taught only confirms our suspicions that the good schools, great teachers and grand methods just aren’t out there.
It’s not feasible to survey the millions and zillions of language learning institutions to make sure, but I will be the first to suspect that students who emerge fluent are far fewer than the number of those who enroll. Though millions of dollars are spent for teaching services, the onus is usually laid on the student. “You aren’t disciplined enough. You aren’t studying enough. You just don’t have the knack.” Even in a consumer driven market, it’s hard to return with, “Your methods don’t work. I want my money back.”
In Japan, there was actually a school called, “Mickey Mouse Language School.” I wanted my money back because the quality of the teachers lived up to the name, but I needed a visa and being enrolled in a school was the way to get one. I was also intent on learning Japanese so I persevered by filling an entire notebook with sentence examples. When I showed the teacher, she looked extremely uncomfortable if not bewildered. She was either offended that I didn’t offer cash on the spot for the extra work or was confused because she had never imagined a student doing something like this. I think I was the Mickey in this case.
I paid good money too for Thai lessons, but ended up blacklisting teachers one-by-one until I figured it’d be better to just pack up and chat in Thai on a beach somewhere. I would have to ask teachers to drill me and then ask them to drill me in random order. One teacher talked about her sick cat for half an hour while priding herself on her advanced techniques as a teacher. I tried to be polite, but I ended up blacklisted as “severe”.
I do have a few good examples. I met a Lao-American who had studied Lao at the university level and I hired her for help immediately. In just a few weeks, she could sort out the long and the short vowels for me, clean up some muddled consonants and help make some sense of the tones. She could diagnose, prescribe and cure and I could see the difference right away. Lao people who were saying, “huh?” all the time were actually starting to understand me.
Another memorable teacher was through a private language exchange in Kunming. We consented to be severe with each other and would speed drill each other with long phrases, English for him, Mandarin for me. He had specific goals for learning English and I hope he reached them. For me, I found I could enjoy a recent trip in Taiwan despite the fact that our language exchange happened more than 15 years ago. Something worked and I didn’t forget.
There’s got to be sites out there that collect the miserable stories of people trying to learn a second language while losing good money over it. Or better yet, somebody please set up a site that collects all the success stories; all the good schools, the great teachers and methods that work.