Recently a foreigner living in Prague hired me to teach him Czech. I had been recommended by a friend, who is also a teacher and could not fit in another client. My potential client and I exchanged emails and met over coffee to talk about his needs.
Because Czech is a nightmare quite a difficult language to learn, we, Czech teachers, usually use coursebooks to teach it. There are quite a few good Czech for Foreigners books nowadays and it is felt that using a coursebook provides structure to the course and gradually helps develop the student’s knowledge of grammar. In Czech, grammar is important. It is paramount. It is the salt of the language. Using a coursebook is safer, for the teacher, and for the student. A CB makes sure nothing is omitted and all grammar is studied in reasonable steps.
Nevertheless, I don’t usually use coursebooks when I teach English. Most of my clients aren’t interested; I am not interested, and if I’m required to use one, I usually work around it somehow. So I often find myself in a schizophrenic situation in which I like to use coursebooks to teach one language, and despise them to teach another.
So there I was, sitting in a café, listening to my potential client. He said he’d already learnt some basics of Czech in a course. He told me what he wanted and needed: to talk about the weather; to go shopping and read food labels; to go to an arts shop and ask for paper of certain thickness – and understand the response of the shop staff. He wanted to be able to read the news and talk about arts and other things with friends. And suddenly I realized I had the client I’d been waiting for. A client who knew what he wanted. His needs were so clear that I forgot about teaching grammar for a moment and seriously started thinking if it could be done.
Can Czech, whose grammar is just an ordeal for every student including Czech school kids, indeed be taught without a grammar syllabus? Can we sideline grammar and focus on what the learner needs? Will the language be learnt in its complexity? Will the course not revert to a memorisation of lexical chunks?
These were, and still are, my concerns. In spite of them, I decided to give it a go. I sought the support of my friends on Twitter. I read and reread books on TBLT. I thought about it for a week, day and night. Finally, I worked out a way to start. I don’t have the whole journey planned, but who are we to plan our journeys? I have six months before my student and I will sit down and evaluate.