The arguments for task-based learning

Jonathan Gill, University of Central Lancashire


In thisessay for Outreach, Jonathan Gillshares anecdotes from his experiences of learning German and Japanese as foreign languages. He hasreceived instruction from Japanese, German, French, Polish, and English nationals, but argues that interacting with native-speaking people outside the classroom is what changed him from being an “Englishman trying to speak German”into an ”Englishman who confidently spoke German.”  He contrasts the conventional language teachingmethodshe was exposed to at the University of Central Lancashirewith the task-based language learningmethod he tried on his own while studying abroad. This method gave him the click he needed to reach fluency.

The arguments for task-based learning

Jonathan Gill

University of Central Lancashire

When learning languages and living in the target language country,a learner can experience what I call a click. This click is when everything comes together:the grammar starts to make sense, we begin to accept the major difference of the language to that of our mother tongue,and the mind begins to be able to process the language in a much less confusing way. This is arguably the first step to fluency. For some people this click comes withina month, for others it could take much longer.

I began learning the German language at high school in 2002. For five years I usedtextbooks and repetitive learning methods. There were 25 students in the class. The teacher would ask each student the same question. Inthe very beginning it would be something like,“What is your name?” or “How old are you?” If you had been listening,by the 25th person the question and its answer would be firmly set into your memory. Wealsoplayedlanguage based games. By late 2007 we were composing 1,500 word reports in German.Weeven took atrip to Germany to practise what we had learned. When I entereduniversity myknowledge of theGermanlanguage grew even further, andI perfected my German grammar. However, after all those years there was still something missing. The textbooks and the teachingmethods that helpedme tobecome almost fluenthad made me an Englishman trying to speak German,not an Englishman who confidently spoke German.

Thisconfidence levelchanged when I went to live in Germany in 2011. I found a job as a gardener for a park in the countryside. Living in a village with a population of 400people,I met only one speaker of English. My colleagues spoke no English.During my time there the onlylanguage learningbook I ever used was a dictionary. The job immersed me into a purely task-based learning environment. At home,I would look up words I didn’t understand from the day or if there was something to do the next day that I was unsure of,I would look up thelexis. Language was learnt through context andthetasks someone would ask me to do.By the end of my stay,the everyday language had clicked and I had confidently reached my final destination of fluencyin German.

Before coming to Japan,I learnt Japanese through repetitive structures and independent composition. I would be given a sentence and then told to compose a series of other sentences using the same grammar. The teacher would ask everyone in the class the same question. At the University of Central Lancashire wewould also be given sentences in English to translate.

I remember the shock of being able to understand very littleon the first day I arrived in Kagoshima. Five months later,my Japaneselistening and speaking skillshadimproved by 100 percent, confirming my belief that the best way to learn a language is through living in the country in which it is spoken.Youcan learn somethingin classand then walk right outside the door and use it. Fluency is quickly acquired through constant conversation.The way IlearnedJapanesecompletely changed. I am now learning in a traditional Japanese way,in terms of education, at the International University of Kagoshima. It is understandable that English can’t be used in the class.Each day,I use a different textbook needed for a different skill and when it’s finished I go buy the next one.The heart of my learning is a Japanese course for non-native speakers in which I study with people from China, Canada, Latvia, and England. The same method doesnot suit everyone. Personally, I prefer repetitive learning becausethat’s how I’ve been nurtured throughout my education.

The task-based learningmethodis the learning of a language through carrying out tasks in everyday life situations. For example, when going to a supermarket to buy fruitin a foreign language, beforehandwe should learn the necessary vocabulary for the fruit wewant to buy,to ask the shopkeeper where it is in the shop, and for how much it costs.Once we leave the classroom, we might be surprised by the need for additional language. When at the till,you couldbe asked if you have a point card or whether you would like a bag and a receipt. All of thisadditional experiencehelps to improve your understanding ofthe way languageis processed in the mind. Through situation and context,you will subconsciously improve your language and understanding. The next day you may go back to the shop to buy vegetables and each time you go,the situation and language becomes clearer and clearer. Another good example of task-based learning is when we visit foreign countries for a holiday and we don’t speak the language. If you spend around 2 weeks there,through experiences,you shouldat least be able to say thank you. This is why many British people can ask for a coffee or a beer in Spanish,but when it comes to saying anything else they have no idea. Task-based learning can also be described as learning by doing.

So the argument is: has my Japanese improved rapidlybecause ofwhat I’ve studied in class,or is it due to my experiences in everyday life such as talking with friends and tasks such as going to the supermarket to buy fruit?

The traditional Japanese way of teaching English is through textbooks and materials. Is this effective? I often find that many Japanese young people are good at writing English and when spoken to,they understand theEnglish that they have learnt either at university or from theirhighschool days. However, when it comes to a conversation,they lack the skill because they haven’t been taught that way. Often they will be told to tick the right box in the textbook or insert the right word into the text andthen move onto the next thing. No real task is involved.The work is corrected or praised and then they move onto the next grammar point and the previous is often forgotten. Japanese speakers of Englishwho have reached fluencyhave told methatthey have spent time abroad in an English speaking country. Arguably,while they were abroad, they either learnt through a western system of teaching or they learnt through tasks using the language they acquired during their school days – task-based learning.

There is evidence to suggest that task-based learning is making its way into Japanese schools. I volunteered to helpteachan English class in aprimary schoolin Kagoshima. One class particularly stands out in my mind. The students, who were all complete beginners, were studyinghow to givedirectionsin English. They were given thenecessaryvocabulary.They studied in pairs for around half an hour using a book. We then all stood up and put large cards on the tables with words like hospital, post office and supermarket. The class then worked in pairs,one student would say “take me to the supermarket” and then their partner would direct them with words like “go straight.” Through the task,the students learnt words like post office and hospital as well as fordirections.I found thistask to be highly effective for the students.A task to dowith university level studentsmight beto write a mock letter to a hotelmanager. The teacher plays the role of the hotel manager andanswers the letter.The students are then given the task to reply once again.

The teaching methods used in classes in the UK and Japanhave helpmeto learn German and Japanesegrammar but the real way language became set into my memory wasthrough carrying out tasks and simply talking to people outside the classroomin Germany and Japan. Immersion in thetargetlanguage isthe bestway to learn it,but giving students tasks to carry out in and outsideof the classroom is thenecessary key. I think task-based learning is a more effective way than purely using books.When learning languages,you have to be taught how to be an independent learner because one day it willnecessarilyhappen. Youwill be using the language and trying to improve on your own. In essence, tohelp students togain confidence in speaking, Japanese teachers of English couldoptto include atask-based learning environment inside their classrooms and encourage students to study abroad.