When Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was a young professor at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory he had to teach his students music theory, which at the time he knew nothing about, having written orchestrations based on intuition. But he managed to pull it off by staying a few weeks ahead of the students. I’m sure plenty of other teachers have had to do something similar in other subjects, and I suspect how successful they are depends a great deal on the subject and on the teacher’s background. A history teacher tasked to teach an unfamiliar bit of history is in a different position from a history teacher asked to teach advanced calculus.
What about teaching languages? I know of cases in which language teachers have had to teach an unfamiliar language and managed to do it, but what about a teacher who has never taught a foreign language? Is that possible? The question is about to be put to the test in some Australian elementary schools.
This is interesting news in itself, but if it proves successful, the same approach and some of the materials might be adaptable for local groups, college Esperanto clubs, and other places where experienced Esperanto teachers — or even fluent speakers — are unavailable.
Australian educators often refer to foreign languages as LOTE: Languages Other Than English. LOTE programs in Australian schools have not historically been very successful (something true of many other countries as well). In 1996 the Australian Languages and Literacy Council reported that “the key finding of the council’s investigation is that our education systems are consistently failing to deliver any worthwhile proficiency in languages.” Primary schools in particular have been dependent on specialist teachers, who are in short supply.
Penelope “Penny” Vos has experimented for some years with teaching Esperanto to her students and has seen a degree of success even when the time devoted is as little as 40–60 minutes per week. Under better circumstances, primary school students might spend 100–200 minutes a week over three years studying a foreign language, a total of about 200–400 hours. It’s been estimated that an English-speaking adult can learn French or German in about 700 hours, with Japanese taking several times as long, while a comparable level of competence in Esperanto could require around 100 hours. Even granted that children and adults learn at different rates, Esperanto would seem to be a better fit with the instructional time available.
There remains the problem of finding teachers. Qualified, professional Esperanto teachers are in even shorter supply than teachers of many other languages. On the other hand, there is no shortage of primary school teachers in Australia.
According to Alan J. Bishop, a now-retired professor of education at Monash University near Melbourne, “the EKPAROLI project which we undertook at Monash University in 1994–6 showed that not only was it possible for non-specialist elementary teachers to teach Esperanto, but that their students quickly learnt the basic elements of the language. Moreover it was striking how much better their attitudes were to learning a language compared to those students who had been struggling with other languages. The secondary schools to which they went were greatly impressed with their positive attitudes.”
(Coincidentally, Monash is the only Australian university I’ve ever visited, back in 1986. My favorite thing about it was an on-campus eatery called “Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the University,” which will amuse you if you’re familiar with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)
Several years ago Vos, with the help of a number of colleagues, set out to produce a set of training materials for use by teachers who could not yet speak Esperanto themselves. A kit called Talking to the Whole Wide World is now available that includes colorful instructional materials including jokes, games, and songs, a PowerPoint presentation for parents, an audio CD to teach pronunciation, and access to other materials including the video course Mazi en Gondolando. Besides Esperanto itself, the course encourages children to learn about other cultures by helping connect Australian classrooms with students in other countries. The course is being promoted by the Asia Literacy Teachers Association, among others.
“In the first year,” Vos says of the learn-as-you-teach approach, “the class gets to share the learning adventure with the teacher, and see that everyone needs to practice, look things up, make mistakes … this is important learning. After the first year, the teacher is probably in the more usual position of being ahead of the class and is increasingly well equipped to provide ‘language immersion’ experiences for the class.” (That’s a good point: The teacher is only a beginner once.)
In addition, teachers will soon be able to take a two-week intensive course at the University of the Sunshine Coast in southeastern Queensland. As Vos describes it in a presentation you can view online, teachers who take the course “will experience the lessons and learning activities of Talking to the Whole Wide World, which you will then be able to teach and lead so that your students need never leave your care monolingual. The set of LOTE methodology skills that you will learn has been positively reviewed by such highly-respected experts on language education as Professors Michael Clyne and Joseph Lo Bianco. They include intercultural exploration, linguistic explanation, use of songs, stories, poems, jokes, Internet resources, Skype, email, competitions, videos, an extensive range of learning games, and consolidation exercises. It is a serious course, in that it seriously results in language mastery, but it is designed to engage and I bet that you’ll enjoy both the learning and the teaching.”
You can read more about the project at http://mondeto.com.