LOOK RIGHT, KEEP LEFT – How to Learn a New Language

What is the least amount of information a learner needs in order to start authentically mastering a new skill? The answer is patterns. Teach learners the underlying patterns that are always true so they can real-world-practice their way to proficiency. It’s the patterns of any new behavior: driving a car, learning a language, playing an instrument… that make the biggest difference for learners not details. Unfortunately, teachers teach details because we don’t know the patterns.

I came to Lydbury English Centre in beautiful Shropshire England as a student for two weeks to learn Rita Baker’s patterns for teaching and learning English she calls the Global Approach. Teaching me her whole program took less than an hour! I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands in foreign country.

The Global Approach to Grammar Tenses

1) English Tense Forms:

Essentially we spent two minutes on her Blueprint for all tense forms. (see illustration)

Onto the Blueprint she added models to create the 1st Adaptation which took another two minutes. In the next two minutes she added the past tenseto generate the 2nd Adaptationand that was it for all 588 possible tense forms in English. No exceptions.

Pattern teaching is exciting stuff.

When to Use Each Tense:

Rita added when to use each tense in the master sheet she calls The Tenses Map(I called it All and Everything) which took a further six minutes to grasp. We were done. We grossly overestimated how much time it would take for her to teach me her incredibly simple system for all English verb tenses and when to use them.

Did it work this way for me because I’m an ESL teacher? Apparently not. She has been teaching English right for a long time and has thousands of testimonials like this:

Rita, your genius is that on a two day course you can illustrate the workings of the whole of the English Language. B.W. Senior Management Consultant, Black Forest, Germany

Rita Baker and I spent a few hours video-taping me engaging with the Global Approach process then the purpose for my being in England was complete. Oh what to do with ten days to fill in merry old England?

The student rooms at the Lydbury English Centre include a large comfortable bed, wardrobe, desk, sofa, TV, internet, 3-piece private bath, kitchenette and A CAR.

There were several castles I wanted to see, book stores in Hay-On-Wye to explore, I have a friend in Wales… The world was my oyster, all I had to do was learn how to drive on the left side of the road. For many North Americans this is so intimidating we won’t do it. The thought of pulling onto a street into what we understand as oncoming traffic is overwhelming. The consequences of making a mistake are not worth the risk. For me, what I lack in diplomacy I make up for in nerve. I tried driving in England.

Rita, the consummate pattern-thinker pared down all the information I needed to drive a car effectively in England to its simplest form and told me, “LOOK RIGHT, KEEP LEFT.” And handed me the keys.

Really? That’s it? You aren’t going to hold my hand and retrain me in a remote parking lot somewhere? Nope. “You have a valid driver’s licence and know how to drive a standard (manual) transmission, look right, keep left is all you need to remember. Now get out there.” As an afterthought she added, “In the unlikely event you encounter trouble resist your instinct to steer to the right. It will only make things worse. If at all possible overcome that impulse and go left. Have a nice time.”

She had more faith in me than I had in myself. I entered Bassaleg, Wales as a destination in the GPS, took a deep breath, gripped the steering wheel so tightly my knuckles turned white and pulled out of the driveway. I looked right and made a weird, wide right turn into the far lane to go right. Keep left, keep left I told myself over and over again. It suddenly occurred to me this must be what it’s like for my students learning English. There is a lot the same about driving a left-hand drive (North American) and a right-hand drive (British) car. There is a lot the same about English and any other language.

The basics of driving any car are the same: gas, brake, steer left and steer right.

The clutch, brake and gas pedals are in the same place.

I didn’t have to relearn that.

The H pattern on the gear-stick is the same…

The number system is the same. It doesn’t matter what the units are, the number on my speedometer can’t exceed the number posted on the side of the road.

There were a few tiny differences I had to identify and practice, the most critical of these were LOOK RIGHT, KEEP LEFT. Thank you Rita. The simplicity of her approach helped me get past my crippling fear.

Did I make mistakes? Hell yes! I couldn’t find my seatbelt – it was over my right shoulder not my left. I couldn’t find the emergency brake – it was at my left hand not my right. Every time I tried to use my indicator I turned my windshield wipers on instead. When locals saw me looping around and around the traffic circles that clear, sunny day with my windshield wipers on they wisely gave me a wide berth. Stone cottages, emerald green hillsides dotted with white fluffy sheep… as my terror slowly subsided, the joy I felt driving myself around the spectacular English countryside was immeasurable.

None of my natural learning mistakes were fatal and I could figure out the solutions to my little problems on my own. Rita was very, very smart not to clutter my brain with trivialities. If I didn’t remember the pattern LOOK RIGHT, KEEP LEFT the consequences could have been disastrous. Her goal was to empower me to get out there as effectively as possible. She does the same thing when she teaches English. Rita Baker is an incredible teacher.

When I first learned to drive my father took me out to a big field, showed me left, right, gas, brake then let me go to it. Left, right, gas, brake for Reading and Writing English are The Blueprint, 1st Adaptation, 2nd Adaptation and Tense Map. It’s all there. Get copies, get out of the classroom and start driving. You are going to make mistakes and you are not going to kill anyone.

Are we in the business of paralyzing our students with the trivia we believe aboutEnglish or empowering learners to GET OUT THERE as quickly as possible and learn by doing? Fluency is in doing not studying.

My forte is teaching English Speaking using information students already have. I teach the simple patterns of talking that are always true. You could call it the Global Approach model for Listening and Speaking. Car driving analogy alert! I’ll belabor the driving/speaking analogy a little more next time when I show you LOOK RIGHT, KEEP LEFT for conversation.

Yours in ESL,

Judy Thompson


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