When will I stop believing the descriptions on language immersion school websites? They all promise variations on communicative teaching, an approach that focuses on students’ needs and getting them to use the target language rather than endless grammar exercises.
The Educa website was particularly alluring, with additional promises of not teaching things you don’t need and a student rather than a teacher dominated classroom. This means students should be practicing language skills rather than listening to lengthy explanations from the instructor.
This was to be the language school of my dreams. Finally I would be taught in the way I believed language should be taught.
The first day of class started off promising. With 6 students in class, our first task in a low level class was to work in pairs, interview each other and then present our neighbor to the class. The teacher wrote the questions on the board. They were relatively easy question – What is your name, where are you from, are you a student or do you already work? etc.
Unfortunately this exercise was to be the exception rather than the rule. Most of the class was like so many classes before with long grammar explanations and out of context controlled exercises that had little to do with daily life. Worse yet, these explanations were in English. So the Russian immersion class ends up an English immersion class where the subject is Russian grammar. For a native English speaker, I was the only one in the class, this is less than interesting. At least the other students get to practice a second language. Their Russian may not improve much but I bet their English will.
Classes are grammar focused with an attempt to connect the grammar structure to real life, such as learning the preposition case to say in which city and country you live in. This style of grammar focused lessons, while common in immersion language schools, is not what the website advertised. They claim to be situation or context focused and that the skills taught will be those needed to complete a communication task.
Most language students don’t know the difference and would probably complain if there were taught using a truly communitive approach, complaining that they weren’t being taught enough. Students want more and more information and don’t see the value in practicing communication skills, i.e. role play activities, in class.
On the plus side there was more opportunity to actually speak in the target language than in some other programs I’ve participated in. The problem is these tended to be completely open ended activities where the vocabulary and grammar structures needed were way above our competency level, and hence the frequent need of English to clarify a point.
At the end of the week I talked to the teacher about the amount of English used in the classroom and the types of activities we were doing. She is all too eager to give me the kind of class I want, speaking more Russian than English and focusing on practicing language skills rather than giving more lengthy explanations, but I fear that the other students will not be happy with less information and more practice. Will see what the next week will bring.
In addition to the regular morning class of 4 lessons (each lesson is 45 minutes, so 3 hours plus a 15 minute break). I have 2 additional private lessons in the afternoon.
My thought was that in a private class I should be able to dictate what I want to practice and how. Unfortunately it is still a battle trying to get the teacher to speak only in Russian and stop explaining so much. So many teachers feel they need to teach, constantly feeding you more and more information. Instead, they need to step back and act more as a coach who facilitates the learning of practiced language skills similar to what a soccer coach or a piano teacher would do.
During the week we made progress. By the end of the week the lessons were in Russian with a bare minimum of English used. We are focusing on the tasks I want to learn how to do, such as reading a menu and ordering a meal in a restaurant, understanding prices when spoken and participating in simple conversations about family and work.
For links to all the posts in this series see the St Petersburg page.
For more posts on travel in Russia see the Russia page.