Since each of us comes to the process of learning a foreign language in a different way, often with conflicting priorities and needs, it is virtually impossible to claim that one “perfect” learning method even exists.
If the DialoguE approach, though it is of relatively recent origin, has seen major success, it is because it has striven from the beginning to be as natural as possible. In reading this article, however, it may become clear that the method, while not attempting to base itself on current pedagogical ideas, nevertheless mirrors and indeed refines a good deal of current thinking on language learning. If the method has not fallen prey to the excesses that plague most of today’s methodologies, it is probably because it has always kept to a highly pragmatic framework.
People who want, whatever their level, to improve their performance in a foreign language, need, it is plain, to attain rapid, long-lasting and tangible results. This focus is what allows the DialoguE approach, for example 45 one hour sessions, to be so effective for a beginner. Advanced students make equivalent progress activating abilities in the a foreign language that match their command of their native languages. The DialoguE approach allows students at any level to make spectacular progress over a minimum span of time.
Why Is The Method So Effective?
As we’ve already indicated, the DialoguE approach recreates a natural learning environment. It gives students a way to learn a foreign language that, if not identical, closely mirrors the way they learned their native languages. Does not each student wish to be able to think in the target language? Without this key skill, expressing ones thoughts becomes little more than an unnatural struggle. Freed from the need to translate, students can concentrate on expressing their ideas and communicating or negotiating with maximum effectiveness. The quicker students plunge into an environment similar to that in which they learned their native languages, the sooner they can attain this objective. Students discover the new language, then make it their own, all through a process that recreates the natural environment of language learning.
The Natural Learning Environment
Every discovery process can rapidly dissipate unless it motivates. The process does not really stick unless a certain number of preconditions coincide. What does this offer the student?
1. A Vital and Non-Artificial Process
• A Totally Language-Speaking Environment
A natural language learning process can only take place in a milieu in which everyone speaks to the student in the target language. Students spend the
entire day, from breakfast through to the evening, with their teachers.
• A Non-Academic Environment
Students must truly feel they are not “back in school.” The rooms, rather than being classrooms, become meeting rooms, communication rooms, living rooms. Students do not suffer through a rigid evaluation test, rather the teachers, more as guides, take personal interest in the students and in so doing use their skills to assess the students’ level, their needs, their optimal path to language mastery. During instruction, the student is not “interrogated” by the instructor, but rather taken through a series of natural review dialogues with the teacher. These dialogues let students find their place in the process. Rather than submit to evaluation, they go through an evolution. At the completion of the training, students themselves assess their progress in terms of a grid of 8 indicators: written comprehension, oral comprehension, pronunciation, ease of oral expression, grammar, general vocabulary, professional vocabulary, and achievement of goals.
The use of the terms “guides” and “trainer” instead of teacher are not gratuitous. At DialoguE, we do not conduct lessons or provide courses, we activate communication sessions. We do not give students school exercises, run language laboratories, or promulgate a reference manual, rather we bring in a slice of real life, all in the target language.
• Real Life Language
Each DialoguE session focuses on real life materials (television shows, articles, songs, professional documents, or sometimes the text used by the teacher in an academic class) in a manner allowing the learner himself to express what he wants to say. Furthermore, every explanation (tricky grammatical items, explanation of vocabulary) put forth by the instructor is inspired by the learner’s real life needs and the context of the lesson at hand.
2. An enriching discovery process centered around individual needs
Encountering a language is only motivating if the encounter treats the real-life needs of the student. The major goal is to learn the language as it is used in real life and to bring it into realistic use as quickly as possible. The DialoguE instructor takes pains to bring up sentences that are most relevant, “word acts” that are most useful, and vocabulary that the learner will most frequently repeat (on an oral or written basis).
If the student moves toward different objectives, the instructor makes adjustments, fine-tuning the sessions to keep the student highly involved. The process is truly personalized; sessions are constructed with maximal student involvement.
3. A Harmonious and Non-Frustrating Process
Another facets of instruction involved adaptation to the cognitive style of the learner. One could say, as per Reinert (1), that a person’s cognitive style is the way he or she is “programmed to learn in the most effective possible way.” Everyone has a personal
way of learning. This teaching strategy is based on the social style of the person, the way he or she lives in society. If this fundamental student need is not respected and nurtured, the learning process becomes frustrating. In an encounter with a foreign language and an attempt to communicate in it, students search confusedly to fulfill their need for self validation, or belonging, or knowledge, or security.
Thanks to Persona instruction (2), the DialoguE teacher can recognize and strategically respond to these individual, and varying personal styles. The instructor DialoguE respects the student’s pace of learning and his or her way of structuring the world, all with an essential knowledge of what motivates, or frustrates, the student as a unique individual.
4. A Guided Experience
To discover a new world is in some ways always a solo process. The question is, what will the process cost, how much energy will it require? Even the most experienced explorers can benefit from guides who let them maximize their time expenditure by steering them away from errors. The DialoguE approach instills in each “explorer” a sense that the foreign language is a journey that ought to be entered into with confidence.
• A Confident Climate
From the first conversational exchanges, DialoguE learners gain that which they often lack the most: confidence in themselves. Their initial fear of speaking and expressing themselves evaporates rapidly, thanks to the confident climate instilled by teachers trained in Persona communication and the DialoguE method.
• Socratic Maieutics
To accelerate the discovery process, the DialoguE trainer — the name of the method is directly borrowed from Plato’s dialogues — turns to Socratic maieutics, in other words, the art of bringing forth ideas. The trainer is there to bring the learner’s ideas into the world. He takes the learner’s position by constantly posing questions. As Louis Not said (3), “the Socratic method seems to function less as a means of transmission and more as a process of discovery. There is not anything more to learn, simply to retain that which one knows implicitly, which the questions try to make explicit. Adapting to each situation, the DialoguE trainer looks at the wider context and develops questions that let the learner reach a state where he or she grasps the content. The guide chooses the most natural real-life path to the material.
In order to deepen the level of discovery, the DialoguE trainer encourages distributed and structural linguistic skills. In only posing the questions that follow natural means of communication, the instructor does not only use the syntagmatic route (Who? What? Where? How? Why?), but also the holistic route (synonyms, antonyms, paraphrases). In this way, two simple propositions are merged into one sentence. Two statements finish by forming, for example, a principal proposition plus one subordinated by cause, by
consequence, etc.). The trainer’s goal is to coax out, at the learner’s level of communication, the panoply of tools he or she already uses to express ideas and feelings.
The order of the questions has a specific purpose. It contributes to the progressive construction of thoughts in keeping with the student’s responses. The instructor analyzes each response and chooses the next question as a function of that response. The questioning structures, little by little, in a harmonious manner, the student’s thinking process.
As did Socrates, the best response is suggested. The learner may be able to respond directly to the information given in question or may be able to relate instead to the sense (synonyms, antonyms and paraphrases), or by a sketch, a gesture, a bit of mimicry, an example of behavior , etc.
Despite all efforts by the trainer, sometimes the response is not in line with what the trainer expects.
• Error Management
The DialoguE method is founded on the principle of retroaction or feedback, the cybernetic system promulgated by M.A. Crowder (4) in his efforts to replace a human master with a machine that simulates interpersonal relations. When errors occur in the course of discovery, it indicates that the learner’s information is imperfect; rather than sanction this, one must discover where the difficulty lies. Thanks to the derivative structure that the DialoguE trainer employs, the difficulties are surmounted and the learner produces an adequate response. Instead of one-way training, into the trap of which most methods based on questioning run the risk of falling, the DialoguE process proposes an interactive means of discovery. The learner’s response determines the element he or she is given immediately afterwards. If the discovery is immediate, the learner can immediately reach the stage in which he or she grasps the point permanently. If an error arises, that error allows the instructor to find which aspects of mental functioning provokes it and to formulate an appropriate remedy, at all levels personalized.
• Verifiable, Immediate, Tangible Progress
Thanks to this highly motivating system, learners know exactly what kind of progress they are making. They realize they can finally express their thoughts in real time as they could not have done previously, with any finesse. They also realize that the fog that seemed to becloud their comprehension has lifted completely and that to correct is to understand. But the correction is only eased after having assimilated and determined structure and vocabulary, after having made the language ones own.
Owning the Language
Discovery, however motivated, is not in itself enough to capture the language. One of the major obstacles to communication is the fact that learners have frequent occasion to refer to the native language. They translate more than they communicate in the language they are trying to learn. What they need to acquire from the beginning is a form of automatic action and response identical to the method they use to speak their native language. Insofar as they do not go into AUTOMATIC MODE, learners concentrate too much on FORM and are, fatally, too little receptive to SUBSTANCE; this inefficient means of communication takes its toll in energy and concentration. Students also run the risk of making errors stick; every pedagogue knows how difficult it is to root out bad habits (fossilization of errors).
Communicating Based on Automatic Response is Fun.
In order to communicate without too much FATIGUE, without translating, and in a manner that is ENJOYABLE, students must reach the stage in which they PROCEDURALIZE the structures of the foreign language. It is estimated, in general, that 3000 repetitions are necessary to acquire what Jean-Paul Narcy (5) calls “routine.”
It is important not to confuse automatization with learning by heart. The automization treated here is one of operating capacity. Just like data processing. Richards (6) reminds us; an explanation of the difference between controlled language and spontaneous language was proposed by McLaughlen, Rossman and McLeod (1983) that was inspired by a database model. According to this theory, learning every complex task and every form of behavior requires an integration of a certain number of sub-capacities. “In order for it to be possible to accomplish tasks and deal with recurrent situations with maximum effectiveness, a great many of these underlying capacities become routine or automatic and are accomplished without conscious awareness. This is what is called the “automatic treatment.” In the case of a particular task inherent in foreign language learning, sub-capacities that have not been brought into the realm of the automatic inhibit the ability to accomplish the task. It is incumbent then to instill in the learner not the memorization of a system (knowledge, grammatical rules, etc.), but a memory capacity that retrieves automatically, when required, the form that fits the meaning that one needs to convey in any given situation.
Skinner Through Socratic Eyes
To accomplish 3000 repetitions to generate a sub-capacity is unrealistic. But we are influenced by Skinner’s coactive method, which is especially associated with the phenomena of reinforcement (repetition of the act), motivation (immediate reward), and exclusion of error (no punishment), with a good dose of Socrates and his method of using dialogues, in order to arrive at a remarkable result. It inculcates, thanks to natural questioning, useful structures and vocabulary, pronunciation, and acceptable intonation into memory over a relatively short period of instruction. The learner, in responding to questions that all revolve around an abiding theme, learns to juggle the structures and vocabulary (synonyms, antonyms, etc.) without resort to the trap of translation. The students correct, within the context of the communication, their errors of internal structure. They train their sub-capacities of comprehension, decoding
questions, listening to authentic models, and identifying messages (from the global down to the particular).
To allow the student to automatize the sub-capacities, the DialoguE trainer helps the student learn to conserve the most important keys of the session. Every DialoguE session ends by recording key sentences, those that turned out to be most important in that particular lesson. The pause left after each sentence allows the learner to repeat and hence accelerate the process of making it all automatic. At the next session, student and trainer systematically review these sentences, in the Socratic manner, with the goal of cementing the process of automatization and reinforcing the material as it seems necessary to do so. Living through each session in a milieu where the target language is spoken, learners also have the opportunity to apply what they have learned. After the training, they spend 15 minutes a day on sentences which have been created specifically for their communications needs in order to achieve automatic sub-capacities and reach an ability to speak with greater spontaneity.
By Way Of Conclusion
As Jean-Claude Narcy (5) reminds us, the student has four key thresholds to cross. They are, in chronological order, the psychological threshold (confidence in oneself), the listening threshold (understanding the message), the cultural threshold (interest in the “foreign” culture), and the linguistic threshold (think directly in the target language).
DialoguE’s way of promoting achievement, then of breaking rapidly through these four major barriers, has communication as its prime principle. Remember, however, that the DialoguE approach strives to be as natural as possible, in keeping always with the notion that it is always easier to prevent than to cure, to educate than to reeducate, and that it keeps, from the beginning, to the four key aspects. Learners get through the linguistic barrier only because of the preparation given them, from the first moments, by the trainers.
From the first session, the DialoguE trainer helps the learner attain his own true communications independence, a gift of linguistic ability that serves the student well in most real life situations. Also from the first session the instructor guides the student toward correct speaking, to think directly in the target language, and to use it as his own.
(1) E. HATCH, Psycholinguistics, Rowley, Newbury House, 1983.
(2) Documentation Persona (DialoguE, 55, Route du Tonnelet, B 4900 Spa)
(3) L. NOT, Les Pédagogies de la Connaissance, Les Sciences de l'Homme, Privat, 1988.
(4) J. BUREAU, Dictionnaire de l'Informatique, Larousse, Paris, 1972.
(5) J-P. NARCY, Apprendre une Langue Etrangère, Les Editions d'Organisation, Paris 1990.
(6) J.C. RICHARDS, The Context of Language Teaching, Cambridge, CUP, 1985.