I started learning English when I was 4. My mom, who has never succeeded in learning it (although she was quite good at Spanish), thought that English language was the future and so I ended up in a kindergarten where we had English classes. I remember learning animals, numbers and colours. Unsurprisingly, the elementary school where I went had English from grade 1. Of course, we were taught using the grammar-translation method, although we had some speaking as well. I even remember giving presentations in grade 7 (it was a different school though). Whenever we would have a family trip abroad, I would be the voice of our family.
My first encounter with CLT happened when I was 13. It was a summer language school in Switzerland and my very first experience of going to such a school. I think I was way more excited about socialising than language learning. Our teacher, Ms Cartier, was a fan of project-based learning as I understand now, but back then I simply didn’t understand that whole project-based-learning thing. I felt utterly puzzled, I couldn’t understand why we were doing what we were doing and how it could help me become better at English. In other words, my affective filter was way too high to leave any chance for me to enjoy the learning process. So I ended up learning social skills and some Russian slang (yes, there was a whole bunch of Russian students, including me) and hardly any English. Now I say to myself: ‘Make sure your students understand why they’re doing this particular task’.
A year later, when I went to a summer school in England, I kind of already knew what to expect and enjoyed the lessons and creative atmosphere that is impossible in a grammar-translation, ‘chalk & talk’ classroom.
When I was 14, I tried home-stay learning. In the next 4 years, I stayed in various houses in the UK and even in Wales for 2-3 weeks.
And then I decided to get my degree in Britain. I signed up for an intensive IELTS preparation course and discovered that my English was not as good as I thought it was. I also kind of hit the infamous Intermediate plateau (even though my level back then was estimated as Upper-Intermediate). I realised that the time has come for me to take my learning into my own hands. I started reading blogs and short articles in English but the main source was TV-series.
It wasn’t easy to get new episodes in English for Russians back then. No one heard of online streaming services like Netflix or HBO. You had to know places. And then you’d have to get English subtitles separately. Sometimes, they wouldn’t be synchronised with the video, so I had to learn how to synchronise them. Otherwise, I’d try different versions until I’d find one that was perfectly synched.
I learnt a lot from watching TV-series. Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars were a great source of teenage American English, Supernatural taught me some swearwords and slang, Game of Thrones presented me to a higher-level English filled with long and tricky-to-pronounce words, and Bunheads showed me how you can play with words (‘I-am-ready-to-drive-through-the-country-just-to-kill-you potential’ was my ultimate favourite).
Edinburgh was nice, apart from the fact that I couldn’t understand a single word the locals were saying. I did know that English is not the same everywhere in the UK (thanks to those 3 weeks in Wales), but somehow I thought I’d be OK. I wasn’t. In the first two weeks in Edinburgh, I learnt that ‘aye’ means ‘yes’, realised that RP was useless there and got into tiny trouble with the police (but that’s a different story). It took me 3 years to finally start understanding the proper Scottish used by people in the streets (as opposed to the so-called ‘posh’ Scottish which the lecturers spoke). What helped the most was volunteering with Age Scotland, a charity organisation that helps elderly people all over the country. My task was to call those people on the list who were still waiting to be matched with a permanent buddy and check on them. Our conversations would last from a mere minute to one hour, and it improved my listening skills tremendously.
Learning a language is a life-long task unless you have a certain goal that lets you stop at some point (like it was for me with Japanese). 24 years later, being an EFL teacher, I am still learning and I will never stop. Languages are way too dynamic and broad and diverse to be something one can fully master. There are so many Russian words I don’t know, especially slang words young people are using nowadays. The Russian language I speak is different from the Russian language my mom speaks. We all speak our own unique language. So which language should we teach then? And does it make sense at all to build borders around the language, classify it, vivisect it, make it fit our understanding of what it should be? Standards are useful because we all need something to rely on, but should they be followed vigorously? The longer I teach the more I think about this and the more questions I have. I know that I know nothing.