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The Fallacy of English Courses in the Age of Digital Marketing

I spend a lot of time on social media. I try to keep up with the news from the groups and personalities I follow and post a lot about my personal and professional life. In the last few days, thanks to Facebook’s algorithms, I’ve been seeing a lot of ads for English courses – and other languages ​​- on my feed. I confess it’s my fault, after all, I decided to click on a video because of my innate curiosity.

I sort of knew what kind of content the video would show. I knew that the person in the video would make wild promises about how to learn English faster than any course out there. The secret was a method developed by this extraordinary and illuminated human being, who discovered something that conventional English courses don’t want to tell you. That’s how these ads normally go.

The last two I watched went something like this:

The first showed a woman in her late 30s who had acted in a couple of soap operas as an extra. She started the video by asking if we really thought that actors and actresses who needed to speak English in a soap opera or movie subjected themselves to those “boring and traditional English courses filled with grammar”. Then she said that experts had discovered a technique for learning English through Portuguese and that you don’t need a book, grammar, or to take notes!
The second was with a bald man in an office full of books and a MacBook on his desk. He would say a sentence in English at first and then tell in Portuguese how he became fluent in just a few months. He says in the video that the problem is that traditional English courses don’t use the “correct method”. He even says that adults need to “learn as children do”.

These two examples are pretty representative of what we see on social media. We can also find Americans saying that the English taught in traditional courses is not the English spoken on a daily basis by native speakers and that their exclusive course, with native teachers, will teach you “real English”. There are people saying that their digital platform is based on quick memorization tools studied by neuroscience and that you can learn in 1/5 or even 1/10 of the time you’d take in a “normal course”. Not long ago, the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation invited to the debate on the National Bilingual Certification Program a man who had invented a “table” of phoneme equivalence in English that, in his words, was a revolutionary method of learning.

Lately, these things and others have been pissing me off more than usual. I will list a few points here:

1. Most of these English gurus have no training in the field. Almost none of them studied anything remotely connected to language teaching such as Modern Languages, TESOL, Linguistics, English Pedagogy.

2. These people swear that their method is innovative and that no expert in language teaching, second language acquisition, linguistics or bilingual education had the intellectual capacity to conceive something so incredible.

3. According to them, large institutions that measure the level of proficiency in English, such as the traditional University of Cambridge, or the University of Michigan in the USA, ETS with TOEFL, the British Council with IELTS, among others, have not been able to develop effective methods even when collecting data from millions of people for decades about their use of English.

4. For the gurus, we, English teaching professionals, together with schools, are part of a large conspiracy to trick our students into staying in our courses for years while we use ineffective methods. After all, we want to get rich at the expense of the poor bastards who could learn much faster.

5. The methods proposed by them are full of secrets, they are not published in journals about teaching, education, methodology, second language acquisition and the like. They do not require effort, books and are almost always against teaching grammar, which is considered boring and unnecessary.

I look at this scenario with sadness, worry, and a sense of ridicule for the profession that made me who I am today. The world of digital marketing and easy-to-use formulas has allowed unqualified people to launch their products and services without any quality criteria and without the support of the scientific literature or at least well-documented successful stories/outcomes through experience. You just need to record some high-impact video, boost it on social media, say that you know something that no one wants to tell who’s watching, that many people have done it and it works, that you will offer a free week to anyone who wants to try it, that the price is much lower than the conventional and that the results are fast. Done! Now you can earn hundreds of thousands – or even millions – in a short time.

The truth is, anything worth doing right takes time and effort. But we were tricked – and we still believe in this BS – into thinking that the quick and easy things are better. After all, who has the time to invest in something that takes years? The problem is that these magical solutions do not exist, the people who propagate them are either charlatans or ignorant idealists who are deeply mistaken. I suppose all of this can be considered the flat earth movement of language teaching.

This is my assessment of this scenario. I have been teaching English since 2005 and am a guest lecturer of the postgraduate course of Plurilingualism and Global Education at PUCPR. I hold an MSc in Psychology of Education at the University of Bristol and studied how the brain and the mind learn. One of the classes I took at UoB was on second language acquisition and the relationship between language and cognition. I am also a member of the Mind, Brain, and Education special interest group of the largest committee in Latin America for teaching English to speakers of other languages, BRAZ-TESOL. And I’m not saying this to brag or anything. Nor do I consider myself a great reference in learning and teaching English. There are authors with published books and papers on how we learn a language. Those are the experts.

But let’s try to simplify things here through analogies. Many of the miracle methods offered out there focus on quickly learning words (vocabulary) with the use of memorization apps. They do exist – but are not as phenomenal as these gurus tell us in their videos. The question is: is learning a bunch of words without context the same thing as becoming fluent in English? Think about the following. You want to become an excellent driver. Someone comes along and promises you a course in which you can learn in just a few days the names of all the parts of the car. Does that make you a good driver?

There is a big difference between knowing the meaning and pronunciation of a word and being able to use it effectively in a sentence, in a paragraph, and naturally in a conversation. These things involve different types of memory actually. The memory we use for storing concepts and definitions is called declarative memory, which is more developed in adults. The memory we use to build habits and procedures is called procedural memory and that’s the one children rely most on to learn. In other words, can you say that it is adults should simply do what kids do to learn faster? Their learning processes are fundamentally different – despite similarities in some respects.

Another example. I gained about 10 kgs during the pandemic. I’ve never been one to work out so much and I don’t practice sports. All this time of social distancing and remote work has made me less active. Now I’m getting back to a healthier diet and exercise routine. But would it be smart for me to believe that I can lose those 10 kgs quickly and the other kilos I’d like to lose by simply adopting a revolutionary and easy method that doesn’t require a lot of effort and shows results in a short period of time? This is what quackery propagates. If I want to get results, I need to invest time, effort and work on several fronts. Change my diet, do more physical exercises, work with the psychological aspect of it, etc. Anyone who loses weight too fast either puts risks their health or gains it all – and sometimes more – just as fast.

Will I only learn from native teachers? If I want to eat an authentic Italian dish, do I need an Italian chef? Can I only learn yoga with teachers from India? If I want to become an engineer, should I only be bought by German professors? If you’re not a teacher, would you know how to teach your language to a foreigner? What method would you use? What would be the frequency of classes? What materials would you choose? What would your course curriculum look like? If you speak your mother tongue “perfectly” but don’t feel comfortable teaching it to someone, why the hell do you think someone is a better teacher than a qualified teacher simply because they were born in a specific country?

What about grammar? Almost everyone believes that grammar is unnecessary and more of an obstacle than a help. Grammar serves as support. It is what makes the language work and tells us how that language works. It’s like a car engine. Would you buy a car without an engine? I’ll admit, I tend to agree that we don’t need to learn the grammar explicitly, that is, all the details and labels that go with it. Just like we don’t need to learn all the parts of a car engine and how it works. But the adult brain loves to categorize and systematize things. And in this regard, learning grammar more explicitly can help a lot. And even if you believe you don’t need grammar, without it, the car won’t move.

What is the verdict then? Learning an additional language takes time and effort. A few years (best case scenario). If you want to reach the highest possible level of proficiency, it can take 5 years, a little more or a little less – it will depend on several variables. But it won’t happen in 3 or 6 months. It won’t take just 1 year either. Adjust your expectations. It is a long-term investment just like having a healthy lifestyle. I know that I will have to exercise frequently until my last days and that my diet will have to change permanently for me to reach my goals.

And the method? One of the big problems for many adults is that they judge the method as ineffective only a few weeks or months after starting the course. And many give up because of it. It’s as if I hired a personal trainer and two months after starting my classes, feeling like there were no visible results, I decided to give up. Then it might take me another 6 months – without exercise – until I hire a Muay Thai instructor. And then I give up again. If you take English classes like that, starting and dropping out, starting again and dropping out again, it’s going to take a lot longer.

My recommendation is that you find qualified teachers in serious schools or who work with private lessons and that you start and FINISH the course. It will take time, but at the end of the journey, you will have achieved the fluency you’ve been dreaming of.

There are simultaneous translation technologies and even brain stimulation that accelerates the long-term potentiation of neurons. Perhaps in the near future, language teaching will change radically. However, my bet is that for a long time, these schools that gurus call “ineffective and boring” will remain the best solution for learning English. I speak from experience. It was in these “boring schools” where I learned and where I taught for practically 15 years. I’ve had the opportunity to follow the journey of hundreds – probably even thousands – of students. They got there.

What about you? Will you continue to believe in charlatans? Trust us instead. Trust those who have studied and taught English. I promise you’ll get there too. It just won’t happen in 3 or 6 months. Just like I know it’s going to take some time to re-incorporate a healthier lifestyle into my routine. But the important thing is to start… and FINISH

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