When you look in many foreign language textbooks, the first phrases are often, “Hello," "My name is," "I’m ________ years old," and "I’m from _________.” Now, why do students have trouble learning these phrases? Is it the teacher? Is it them? Is it the textbook? We’ll leave "Hello" because it’s fairly easy to demonstrate and incorporate into lessons. The others become problematic. The first reason is that they are abstract concepts. They may be key conversational phrases, but they are difficult to demonstrate word-for-word. They also contain fairly complex grammatical structures. Many of the textbooks teach “My name is,” and “What is your name,” but who actually says that? I’m pretty sure that I usually say “I’m……” and then wait for the other person to introduce him/herself. Or I might say “My name’s….” Students understand what "name" means, but how do you explain the " 's" ending? If you simply teach the phrase, students may memorize the collection of sounds without understanding how the phrase breaks down. Yet if you teach the separate words, you have to enter into a discussion of the verb “to be,” which may be too abstract of a concept.
The next problematic phrase: “I’m _____ years old.” Okay, we can just leave out the “years old” right away…how do you explain THAT?” “I’m _______” isn’t too hard, right? Say “I’m” while pointing to yourself and demonstrate the number by counting on your fingers. But then you've gotten into cases. In other languages, age is expressed by a different case than in English and sounds more like, “I have ______ years” or “to/by me are__________ years.”
“I’m from _____________” might be simple to point out using a map, but let’s face it, country names are hard to say and spell in your native language, let alone in a foreign tongue. You have to get your poor pupils to understand that they’re from Russia, not “Ross-i-ya.” And prepositions such as "from" and "to" may cause issues.
Having said this, however, I will still probably continue to teach these phrases, because they are important to conversation in English-speaking cultures. Although fluency may be a long time coming, it’s satisfying for both teachers and students to have a few phrases perfected. And for someone new to a foreign culture, having a few phrases may help them break the communication barrier and make some friends.
Although the default conversational phrases may be practical, I’m still not that satisfied with them linguistically. The best approach for learning to converse is clearly immersion, paired with grammatical instruction in an appropriate setting. One of the drawbacks to immersion is that the results are not immediately apparent, even less so than in other approaches in which the students are capable of memorizing long lists of vocabulary and rules but do not hone their deduction skills. The immersion approach therefore requires quite a bit of dedication and patience if results are to be seen. In one of the better curricula I’ve used, the students spend a lot of the first year simply listening and responding to verbal commands. They point to pictures, color, and gradually learn many everyday expressions. But they aren’t required to speak much or try to read words. They are simply absorbing information, and out of a natural desire to respond, begin to speak.
Much can be learned about language acquisition by watching young children. They listen, take everything in, and then begin to repeat it back. This is a wonderful way to learn a foreign language as well. I try not to force my beginner students to speak when they’re not ready. But I also do not encourage them to speak their native language. That way, when they wish to express themselves, they have to use English.
I have some questions about how to incorporate pronounciation into lessons. Correcting pronounciation may lead to self-consciousness. However, if you let it go, will it correct itself or will bad habits build up? For example, I notice that a lot of my students do not pay much attention to intonation, which can make a big difference later on in communication. They may pronounce individual words correctly, but apply the intonation of their native language to English. For a toddler learning a native language, it is nearly the opposite. A toddler mimics intonation, while uttering sounds almost unrecognisable. By piecing together the intonation and the one or two recognisable words, it is possible to understand them. I wonder if this would be practical for second language acquisition as well.
P.S. I just remembered another of the obvious, yet deadly beginner phrases: "How are you?" Try getting that one across without translation! I find it very hard for beginners to remember this phrase without a lot of conversation practice. They either look at you blankly or mix it up with "What's your name?" and "How old are you?"